Eastern Greek Anthropology
Human beings are dignified creatures created by God. This very positive view of humanity was the position of all early Christian authorities and remained the conviction of the unified Church for nearly five centuries. The doctrine included the following points from Genesis 1:26:
- God created humankind intentionally. Humans are not an accident of evolution.
- God created humans in his image and likeness.
This means that humanity is theomorphic, having the form, image, or likeness of God. This is a very optimistic and positive view of anthropology.
Some of the Greek Fathers made a distinction between image (Heb. צֶ֫לֶם – tselem; Grk. εικονα –eikona) and likeness (Heb. דְּמוּת – demuth; Grk. ομοιωσιν – homoiosin) in Gen 1:26. They argued that image and likeness were not synonymous or rhetorical equivalents. They pointed out that in Hebrew, image (tselem) always indicates a “physical” or structural image of some kind. This distinguishes it from likeness (demuth), which usually refers to some kind of “functional” image, to be like, or resemble. I bring this up to point out that later Western Latin theologians would attempt to refute the distinction between image and likeness, calling it a simple example of rhetorical Hebrew parallelism or hendiadys.
To illustrate the Eastern Greek understanding, I quote St. Basil the Great (c. 330-c. 379), who said this about God’s image and likeness:
“Let us make the human being [he quotes God] according to our image and according to our likeness”. [Then he continues] By our creation, we have the first, and by our free choice we build the second. In our initial structure co-originates and exists our coming into being according to the image of God. By free choice, we are conformed to that which is according to the likeness of God.
Note also in this quote, Basil also alludes to two other very important early doctrines; “free choice” (free will) and “conformed… to the likeness” (synergy). We will encounter both of these doctrines further on.
This made human beings inherently valuable and dignified. This was the theological position of the early Church Fathers such as Sts. Basil and Ephraim in the East and St. Ambrose in the West.
For many Fathers, the metaphor of the Tree of Life served as a symbol and expression of humankind’s communion with God, participating in the very life of God in paradise.
But humankind was expelled from paradise when it freely chose to live without God, when it chose death over life in God. This is the “Fall”, the primordial sin.
So, expelled from paradise and stripped of his dignity, humankind suffered what St. Athanasius (c. 298— 373) described as an anthropological catastrophe. It disrupted and disfigured the intention of God for the human race. Athanasius wrote, “Because death and corruption were gaining ever firmer hold on them, the human race was in the process of destruction.” He termed this the “De-humanization of man”. Humanity suffered and waited for God to act.
God did respond and he responded positively through the Incarnation of his Son, the Logos, the Christ, to defeat sin and clearly teach humanity the path of salvation, to a restoration of a life in God. John the theologian describes it in John 1:14, “the Logos became flesh and tabernacles among us”. Through Christ man is re-created. In a famous passage from his book, “On the Incarnation”, Athanasius echoes the words of St. Irenaeus and other Fathers before (and after) him:
“God became man that man might become god.”
In other words, the early church Fathers declared that the deification of humanity was possible. This is a very, very positive affirmation of the dignity, value, and potential of every human being.
The Fathers of the Eastern Greek Church described salvation in many different ways. There was more than just one image of salvation, but one of the most common, compelling, and powerful was that of the forementioned deification (Grk, theosis), or union with God.
The role of baptism was vitally important to the early church in the process of salvation of man through deification. It was not just for the forgiveness of sins that baptism imparted, but also for the impartation of deification and the experience of paradise, bringing a person into the light of God himself. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 313-386) explains:
Great indeed is the baptism which is offered you. It is a ransom to captives, the remission of offenses, the death of sin, the regeneration of the soul, the garment of light, the holy seal indissoluable, the chariot to heaven, the luxury of paradise, a procuring of the kingdom, and the gift of adoption.
St, Cyril also talks about the rite of chrismation, the impartation of the gift of the Holy Spirit. That distinct rite always followed baptism immediately. Effectively there was no separation of the two rites in terms of time. This is a further indication that baptism is not just for the remission of sins but also a gift of life in the kingdom of heaven; the opportunity for deification.
Again, we are presented with a very positive view of the human person.
There is another doctrine critical to an understanding of salvation as the deification of humanity: the understanding of the essence and energies of God. Appropriated from Aristotelian metaphysics by the early Greek Fathers, this doctrine states that God in his essence is simply unknowable to humanity, so great and so far beyond human comprehension that he will never be knowable. However, God, through his actions and activity in creation, shares his energies with human beings made in his image and likeness to know him and participate in his life.
Basil tells us:
While we affirm that we know our God in his energies, we scarcely promise that he may be approached in his very essence. For although his energies descend to us, his essence remains inaccessible.
As a result of this doctrine of divine essence and energies the Greek Fathers described how humans could experience the immanent presence and life of an otherwise transcendent and unknowable God: deification.
Yet again, a very positive, optimistic view of humanity.
There are two more doctrines which complete the Eastern Greek understanding of anthropology; Free will and Synergy. Humans possess free will (not to be confused with autonomy) and can exercise it in a way as synergy, or cooperation, with the energies God. So, human beings are assigned a great dignity as they participate with God in their own salvation, even if in an asymmetrical way (God initiates everything!). Part of this synergy requires a deep desire on the part of the believer for a purification (katharsis) that leads to an experience of God (theoria), and ultimately union with God (theosis).
St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-c.395), brother of St. Basil, sums it up beautifully:
The Lord does not say that it is blessed to know something theoretically about God, but to possess God in oneself.
This demonstrates that the Greek East maintained a very positive view of the inherent dignity and value of humanity, a very optimistic anthropology.
Again, I must emphasize that this positive, optimistic anthropology was the prevailing position of the united universal Christian Church for the first 400 years of its existence. In fact, it remains the doctrine of the Eastern Orthodox Church to this day, including all five of the original Patriarchates of the united Church, with the notable exception of Rome.
We will deal with the anthropology of the Latin West, next.