Made in the Image and likeness of God. Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC

Genesis 1: 26 reads that, God said, Let us make man in our own image in the likeness of ourselves and let them be masters of the sea, the birds of heaven, the cattle all the wild beasts and all the  reptiles that crawl upon the earth.

God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.

The theology of the imago dei (image of God) has been very central to popular understanding of the first chapter of the book of Genesis.  But like everything else in the Bible it has a history, both when it was first written,  and as it was interpreted down through the ages.

Hebrew Scriptures

One of the main challenges which the author(s) of the book of Genesis had to face was the seduction of idolatry for many Israelites.  Much of the teaching in the Pentateuch, the Historical books and the Prophets dealt with the ever recurring temptation of idolatry, as the people of Israel partook in the nature religion of their  Canaanite neighbours.  There was a genuine fear that, if the author(s) recognized that some other creature reflected, or could be seen to be icons of God, then these realities could be set up as idol to be worshipped in their own right.

At the heart of Israel’s faith was the belief that, you shall have no gods except me.  You shall not make yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything in heaven or on earth beneath or in the waters under the earth. Ex. 20: 3-5. Within this historical and religious context only humans could be seen to be icons of God.

Early Christian Church

The interpretation of this text in the Christian era, especially by St. Augustine, was shaped by neo-Platonism.  In the century before Augustine, the philosopher Plotinus systematised and developed the insights of Plato. Plotinus and subsequently Augustine gave priority to the spiritual or non-bodily mode of being over what could be experienced through the senses.  In the Platonic tradition, bodily realities were known through one or other of the five senses.  Non-bodily reality was perceived, not through the senses, but through the mind which makes things intelligible.

Furthermore, unlike today when most people give priority to what can be known through the senses, the Platonists claimed that what we see through the eye of the mind had greater reality than what we understand through the senses.  Strolling down a country lane we might see a cow grazing in the field. While the cow is very visible, it can have a lot of imperfections and, in the normal course of events it faces sickness and death. Therefore it is not as real as what the human mind can know as the true reality of ‘cowness’, because this idea never changes. This understanding of the essence of cow, or horse or justice or virtue or anything else, with its non bodily dimension, has existed for all times in the mind of God, according to Augustine.  In the Platonic world view, real things while not touchable or sensible are considered to be more real than the tangible reality which we experience every day through our senses.  These are the eternal forms or essences of things which we find in this changing world. It is these eternal forms which give shape to the changing world and not, visa-versa. It is understandable then, that the goal of philosophy or the love of wisdom, is to come to know this ultimate, non-tangible reality more deeply.


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