Archive for October 6th, 2009

V. Lossky and St. Paul on the Theology of the Image

October 6, 2009

If man is logikos…if he is “in the image” of the Logos, everything which touches the destiny of man – grace, sin, redemption by the Word made man – must also be related to the theology of the image. And we may say the same of the Church, the sacraments, sanctification, and the end of all things. There is no branch of theological teaching which can be entirely isolated from the problem of the image without danger of severing it from the living stock of Christian tradition. We may say that for a theologian of the catholic tradition in the East and in the West, for one who is true to the mainline of patristic thought, the theme of the image (in its twofold acceptance – the image as the principle of god’s self-manifestation and the image as the foundation of a particular relationship of man to God) must belong to the essence of Christianity.

Through the Incarnation, which is the fundamental dogmatic fact of Christianity, “image” and “theology” are linked so closely together that the expression “theology of the image” might become almost a tautology – which it is, if one chooses to regard theology as a knowledge of God in His Logos, who is the consubstantial Image of the Father.

– Vladimir Lossky


St_Luke_writing_icon_250For those who have never been exposed to the “theology of the image” (particularly as it is found in Eastern Orthodox thought), Lossky’s comments may seem strange. However a very short collection of New Testament passages immediately elevate his thoughts to a place of serious consideration. These passages, like many others in the New Testament, are often overlooked or not given careful examination since they fail to fit into many of the interpretive schemes used by many non-Orthodox. A frequent question for me when I am reading St. Paul is, “Where did he get that?” Simple statements by the great Apostle often exhibit a deeply mature theology and reflection – one that cannot be accounted for simply by natural development over time. Most especially, his thought evidences a radically Christocentric reading of the Old Testament – one which echoes Christ’s own description, “these are they which testify of me” (John 5:30 ).

Image in St. Paul’s Letters

Four quotes:

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren (Romans 8:29).

Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven (1 Corinthians 15:49).

He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation (Colossians 1:15).

…[for we] have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator (Colossians 3:10).

First and foremost is St. Paul’s understanding that Christ is the “image of the invisible God.” Where does he get this? The most obvious candidate is a Christocentric reading of the opening chapter of Genesis. The Old Testament itself does not make much of the teaching in Genesis that “man is made in the image of God.” It does not carry through as an important theological theme (nor does the fall of Adam and Eve). But for St. Paul (and for the early Church), the opening chapters of Genesis take on a central importance for Christian thought. The entire creation narrative takes on new meaning when read as a reference to Christ.

We can hear this in the opening words of St. John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word…”  The echo of the opening words of Genesis are not accidental – it is a “re-writing” of Genesis – a “re-telling” of the creation story with the Logos of God at its center. Of this Logos John says:

And the Word [Logos] was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

The importance of this taking flesh is tied with the Logos role as image of God. “We beheld his glory,” John says. This is the image which we can see. We continues to carry the import of this forward:

No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.

For St. Paul, Adam’s creation in the “image and likeness” of God is fulfilled in Christ. “The first man [Adam] is of the earth (in Hebrew, “of the earth” would be Adamah). “The second man [Christ] is of heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:47 ). It is this re-reading of Genesis that allows St. Paul to say that “just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.” The Genesis story of Adam is a prefiguring of Christ – in St. Paul the final meaning of Genesis is to be found in its fulfillment in Christ. The Second Adam (one of Paul’s names for Christ) is the true image and likeness of the Father – an image and likeness never fulfilled by the First Adam. Salvation in Christ is a “new creation” for St. Paul – in it, those who are saved are re-created and “conformed to the image” of Christ. Salvation as “conformity to the image” is clearly an important understanding for St. Paul – but sadly neglected by many Christians.

In place of the theology of the image, a theology of sin-debt-payment-forgiveness has come to dominate the thought of many. The reading of the opening chapters of Genesis has become focused almost entirely on the fall and the guilt engendered by Adam for all mankind – the first chapter even more sadly relegated to debates about creation and evolution.

Indeed, the 5th chapter of Romans, in which St. Paul speaks of the sin of Adam, contrasted with the righteousness of Christ, can also be read through the “theology of the image” (which makes a very interesting way of approaching the question of justification). But it is not noticed by most that St. Paul’s treatment in the 5th chapter brings him to his summary of Baptismal experience (we should always remember that “chapters” and “verses” are a late medieval invention) in which the theology of the image dominates. There St. Paul will say, “For if we have been planted together in the likeness (homoioma) of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection.” Likeness, like image is drawn from Genesis 1:26. There is a new creation in Baptism and it is a creation “in the likeness of the resurrection.” Justification is renewal according to the true image of God.

Christ is the true image of the invisible God – the God/Man who makes visible and tangible to us the God Whom we could not otherwise know. He is the Second Adam, the true image to which we shall be conformed. Apart from Christ, man lives in the image of the man of earth, the First Adam, and fails to live according to the likeness of God. In Christ, God makes us to become what we were always intended to become – the image and likeness of God.

It is this “theology of the image” that lies behind the Orthodox veneration of icons – however foreign that veneration may seem to many other Christians. But it is no more foreign than the very theology of the image has become in the modern reading of Scripture. “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words,” is the definitive teaching of the 7th Ecumenical Council. They also point us towards rightly reading what Scripture does with those words.