Toward Unlocking Irenaeus’ imago Dei Theology

Irenaeus’ imago Dei theology has baffled scholars for over a century. Much of the confusion lies in Irenaeus apparently contradictory remarks on God’s image and likeness. For example, in one place Irenaeus seems to say that the image and likeness were lost in the fall, and in another that they were never fully possessed at all. Moreover, Irenaeus seems to identify the image of God as the human flesh in some passages and as Christ in others, and the “likeness” of God Irenaeus associates with an even greater number of concepts. Many have found a solution in Jacques Fantino’s suggestion that Irenaeus’ original Greek text, of which only fragments are now extant, distinguished between God’s ὁμοίωσις (referring to a process of growth and sanctification through the work of the Spirit) and ὁμοιότης (referring to attributes like human freedom and intelligence), both of which are rendered in the extant Latin text by a single term, similitudo. Yet, despite the prominence of this hypothesis in subsequent scholarship, it remains speculative and, as some scholars have pointed out, fails to account for the way similitudo renders ὁμοίωσις and ὁμοιότης in Irenaeus’ Greek fragments.

This paper offers a new solution to Irenaeus’ imago Dei theology. It argues that prior difficulties in understanding Irenaeus’ imago Dei theology are the result of attempting to fit Irenaeus’ reading of Genesis 1:26-27 into subsequent systematic categories, which often understand “image,” “likeness,” or both to refer to static qualities such as rationality, the capacity for relationship, or dominion. Irenaeus, I maintain, taking his cue from Paul (Rom. 8:29, 2 Cor. 4:4, Col. 1:15), always thinks of the “image” and “likeness” of God as Christ (see his Demonstration 22). He interprets Genesis 1:26, “Let us make man in accordance with (κατ᾽) our image and in accordance with (καθ’) our likeness,” as teaching that God made human beings after the model or archetype of the incarnate Son, whose incarnation God foreknew. Thus, Irenaeus says clearly that the Son is the image of God, and moreover, in the vast majority of cases speaks not of possessing or being God’s image or likeness, but of humans as being made according to God’s image and likeness. Realizing this clears up much of the difficulty with Irenaeus’ multivalent use of Gen. 1:26-27. Since a copy can be more or less like its archetype and can correspond to its archetype in a variety of ways, Irenaeus can apply imago Dei language to a variety of human attributes which resemble God’s attributes, and, moreover, can speak of humans as according to God’s image, Christ, in some ways (i.e., the bodily form) while having lost likeness to God in other respects (i.e., having surrendered immortality for mortality). As a result, Irenaeus’ theology is not only more coherent, but is also more compelling and potentially useful for modern theological anthropologies.

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