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The human icon: Gregory of Nazianzus on being an imago Dei

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 April 2019

Gabrielle Thomas*
Durham University, Abbey House, Palace Green, Durham DH1


Theologians have long recognised the significance of the imago Dei in Christian theological anthropology, yet the question of how to construe the imago is not straightforward. This essay offers a fresh reading of Gregory Nazianzen's vision of the imago Dei. Hitherto, historical theologians have attributed to Gregory an essentialist interpretation of the imago, in which it is identified only with the rational soul. I argue that Gregory depicts the imago Dei quite literally as a visible icon of God by weaving together christology, pneumatology and beliefs about images and idols. If interpreted properly, Gregory's vision contributes significantly to contemporary interpretations of the imago Dei, which aim to account for christology, pneumatology and the inclusion of each human person in the imago.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2019 

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1 Ep. 101.5 (Sources Chrétiennes (hereafter SC) 208, p. 50. In order to highlight the nuances in the texts, translations are my own, unless stated otherwise. I am grateful for the insightful feedback received from those attending the Research Seminars at the University of St Andrews and Durham University, at which I presented earlier versions of this paper.

2 Carm. 1.2.14 (PG 37: 757, l. 17). Throughout I use the phrases ‘imago Dei’ and ‘divine image’ synonymously.

3 McGrath, Alister E., Scientific Theology: Nature, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2002), pp. 198200Google Scholar. Following convention, I use ‘structural’ and ‘substantive’ synonymously.

4 Zizioulas, John D., Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1985), p. 15Google Scholar.

5 Middleton, J. Richard, ‘The Liberating Image? Interpreting the Imago Dei in Context’, Christian Scholars Review 24/1 (1994), p. 12Google Scholar.

6 For critiques of the relational, functional and substantive views respectively, see Harris, Harriet A., ‘Should we Say that Personhood is Relational?’, Scottish Journal of Theology 51/2 (1998), pp. 214–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Berkouwer, G. C., Man: The Image of God, Studies in Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1962), p. 71Google Scholar; McFadyen, Alistair I., The Call to Personhood: A Christian Theory of the Individual in Social Relationships (Cambridge: CUP, 1990), p. 31CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Reynolds, Thomas, Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008)Google Scholar.

8 Ruether, Rosemary Radford, ‘The Liberation of Christology’, in Loades, Ann (ed.), Feminist Theology: A Reader (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990), pp. 138–48Google Scholar.

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10 E.g. Kertsch, Manfred, Gregorio Nazianzeno: Sulla virtù, Carme giambico [I, 2, 10] (Pisa: Edizioni Ets, 1995), p. 195Google Scholar; Althaus, Heinz, Die Heilslehre des heiligen Gregor von Nazianz (Münster: Verlag Aschendorff, 1972), pp. 72–4Google Scholar; Fulford, Ben, Divine Eloquence and Human Transformation: Rethinking Scripture and History through Gregory of Nazianzus and Hans Frei (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2013), pp. 80–1CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Alfeyev, Hilarion, La chantre de la Luminère: Introduction à la spiritualité de saint Grégoire de Nazianze (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 2006)Google Scholar; Koonce, Kirsten, ‘Agalma and Eikon’, American Journal of Philology 109/1 (1988), pp. 108–10CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Barbel, Joseph, Gregor von Nazianz: Die fünf theologischen Reden (Düsseldorf: Patmos-Verlag, 1963), p. 284Google Scholar.

11 Richard, Anne, Cosmologie et théologie chez Grégoire de Nazianze (Paris: Institut d'Études Augustiniennes, 2003), p. 265Google Scholar; Knecht, Andreas, Gregor von Nazianz: Gegen die Putzsucht der Frauen. Verbesserter griechischer Text mit Übersetzung, motivgeschichtlichem Überblick und Kommentar (Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 1972)Google Scholar; Pelikan, Jaroslav, Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), p. 129Google Scholar.

12 Oration 14.2 (PG 35: 860B–861A); 22.14 (SC 270, pp. 248–9); 28.17 (SC 250, p. 134); 32.27 (SC 318, pp. 142–4); Carm. 1.2.1 (PG 37: 529, l. 97). Cf. Origen, Homilies on Genesis and Exodus 1.13, trans. Ronald Heine, The Fathers of the Church V 71 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1982), p. 63.

13 Oration 22.13 (SC 270, p. 248).

14 See e.g. Børtnes, Jostein, ‘Rhetoric and Mental Images in Gregory’, in Børtnes, Jostein and Hägg, Tomas (eds), Gregory of Nazianzus: Images and Reflections (Chicago: Museum Tusculanum, 2006), p. 56Google Scholar. The author comments on Gregory's approach to the divine image with respect to Origen's anthropology, but does not develop the full breadth of Gregory's thought on the divine image.

15 Molac, Philippe, Douleur et transfiguration: Une lecture du cheminement spirituel de saint Grégoire de Nazianze (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 2006)Google Scholar.

16 Carm. 1.2.34 (PG 37: 947, l. 20).

17 Since Gregory used Greek translations of the Hebrew texts, the citations here are from A New English Translation of the Septuagint, ed. Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright (Oxford: OUP, 2009).

18 Herring, Stephen L., Divine Substitution: Humanity as the Manifestation of Deity in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 Bahrani, Zainab, The Graven Image: Representation in Babylonia and Assyria (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), pp. 121–48Google Scholar.

20 Curtis, Edward M., ‘Image of God’, in Freeman, David N. (ed.), Anchor Bible Dictionary, H–J (New York: Doubleday, 1992), p. 389Google Scholar.

21 This relates to the New Testament claim that Christ is ‘the image of the invisible God’ (Col 1:15; cf. Heb 1:3), who manifests God's presence fully (cf. Col 2:9).

22 Platt, Verity J., Facing the Gods: Epiphany and Representation in Greco-Roman Art, Literature and Religion (Cambridge: CUP, 2011), p. 204Google Scholar.

23 Plato, Symposium 216b.

24 Faraone, Christopher A., Talismans and Trojan Horses: Guardians and Statues in Ancient Greek Myth and Ritual (Oxford: OUP, 1992)Google Scholar; Elsner, Jaś, ‘Iconoclasm as Discourse: From Antiquity to Byzantium’, Art Bulletin 94/3 (2012), p. 370CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 Fox, Robin Lane, Pagans and Christians (Harmondsworth: Viking, 1986), p. 133Google Scholar.

26 Along similar lines, an ambiguity in the Greek language means that ‘Artemis can imply either the goddess herself or an image of her’. Pausanias, Description of Greece 3.16.9; Dillon, Matthew and Garland, Lynda, Ancient Greece: Social and Historical Documents from Archaic Times to the Death of Alexander (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 240CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 McLeod, Frederick G., The Image of God in the Antiochene Tradition (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1999), p. 236Google Scholar.

28 Clement of Alexandria, Protreptikos, 1.5.4, 1.6.4.

29 Nasrallah, Laura, ‘The Earthen Human, the Breathing Statue: The Sculptor God, Greco-Roman Statuary, and Clement of Alexandria’, in Schmid, Konrad and Riedweg, Christopher (eds), Beyond Eden: The Biblical Story of Paradise [Genesis 2–3] and its Reception History (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008), p. 110Google Scholar.

30 Ibid.

31 Irenaeus of Lyon, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching 22.

32 Cartwright, Sophie, The Theological Anthropology of Eustathius of Antioch (Oxford: OUP, 2015), p. 161CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 Origen, Homilies on Jeremiah; Homily on 1 Kings 28, trans. John Clark Smith (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1998), p. 23.

34 Carm. 1.2.10 (PG 37: 793–807).

35 For further discussion on the identity of Polemon; see Børtnes, ‘Rhetoric and Mental Images in Gregory’, p. 39.

36 Oration 38 (SC 358, pp. 104–38).

37 Oration 39 (SC 358, pp. 150–97).

38 Oration 44 (PG 36: 608A–622A).

39 Oration 45 (PG 36: 623A–664C).

40 Oration 30.20 (SC 250, p. 268).

41 See e.g. Oration 38.13 (SC 358, p. 132).

42 οὐ πρὸς τὴν οὐσίαν φέροι ἄν ἡ εἰκὼν τὴν ὁμοιότητα, πρὸς δὲ τὴν ἐνέργειαν. Eunomius, Apology 24. Eunomius refused to acknowledge the likeness of the Logos to the Father and denounced the Spirit's deity.

43 Carm. 1.1.10 (PG 37: 469, ll. 56–60).

44 Carm. 1.1.8 (PG 37: 452, ll. 70–5).

45 Carm. 1.2.38 (PG 37:1325, l. 12–1326, l. 2).

46 Cortez, Marc, ‘Idols, Images and a Spirit-ed Anthropology’, in Habets, Myk (ed.), A Pneumatological Account of the Imago Dei (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016), pp. 267–82Google Scholar.

47 E.g. see Grenz, Stanley J., The Social God and the Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), pp. 225–8Google Scholar.

48 Diodore of Tarsus, Fragments on Genesis 1.26 (PG 33: 1564C–1565A); the translation is from Harrison, Nonna Verna, ‘Women, Humanity and the Image of God: Antiochene Interpretations’, Journal of Early Christian Studies 9/2 (2001), p. 209CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

49 Oration 8.10 (SC 405, p. 266).

50 Oration 37.6 (SC 318, p. 284). Further comment in McGuckin, John A., St Gregory of Nazianzus: An Intellectual Biography (New York: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2001), p. 334Google Scholar.

51 Carm. 1.2.3 (PG 37: 637, ll. 57–8).

52 Carm. 1.2.29 (PG 37: 884–908, ll. 46–8).

53 Oration 5.28 (SC 309, p. 348); 8.10 (SC 405, p. 266); 39.6 (SC 358, p. 160); 40.38 (SC 358, p. 284); Carm. 1.2.1 (PG 37: 532); 1.2.29 (PG 37, 883); 2.1.1 (PG 37: 979).

54 Carm. 1.2.27 (PG 37: 854, ll. 8–9).

55 Oration 43.52 (SC 384, p. 234).

56 Carm. 2.2.7 (PG 37: 1555, ll. 51–5).

57 See note 9 above, and Behr, John, The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2006)Google Scholar; Kelsey, David, Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009)Google Scholar.

58 Oration 14.1.4 (PG 35: 876, l. 9).

59 Carm. 1.2.14 (PG 37: 757, l. 17).