The Unknown Imago Dei: Constructing An Apophatic Anthropology From Nyssa and Augustine

Who am I?  Who are you?  What does it mean to be human?  Such existential questions are as old as history, with a variety of philosophers and theologians offering answers.  In Judaism and Christianity, the most theologically robust answer is that humanity is made in the “image of God” (Genesis 1:27).  However, Christian theologians debate exactly what the content of this imago dei exactly is and what it entails.  Several questions within these debates are worth highlighting: does humanity retain the imago dei after the Fall?1Martin Luther is in the minority within the history of Christianity when he asserts that, post-Fall, humanity does not retain the image of God (Martin Luther, Luther Still Speaking: The Creation; A Commentary on the First Five Chapters on the Book of Genesis [With the Text], trans. Henry Cole [Cambridge: 1858], 89).  Is humanity made in the image of the Christ (making humanity “the image of the Image [of God]”)2Panayiotis Nellas, Deification in Christ: Orthodox Perspectives On the Nature of the Human Person (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1987), 21-25. or in the image of the Trinity?  If the latter, does this mean there is a tripartite composition to humanity3Augustine, On the Trinity 12.7.12 (Augustine, On the Trinity: Books 8-15 [Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy], ed. Gareth B. Matthews and trans. Stephen McKenna [Cambridge, UK: Cambridge, 2002]). or does it mean that humanity is made for community4 John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 1997); Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998); Leonardo Boff, Holy Trinity, Perfect Community, trans. Phillip Berryman (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000). (or both)?  Some brief responses to these questions from St Gregory of Nyssa and St Augustine are noteworthy, which leads into an exploration of apophatic anthropology constructed from their observations.

The Contributions of St Gregory of Nyssa

Writing in the 2nd century, St Irenaeus posits that the imago dei is fundamental to the creation and identification of humanity, but he does not give any major exposition on this elusive doctrine.5Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.23.1-2, 4.20.1, 5.6.1.  This vacuum signals the theological lack within the early stages of theological anthropology concerning the imago dei in Christianity.  In the 4th century, St Gregory of Nyssa dedicates an entire discourse to the topic of humanity’s creation entitled On the Making of Man.  Although placing the image of God within the mind of humanity, Nyssa is quick to remark that this is not a mind-body dualism, since “the union of the mental with the bodily presents a connection unspeakable and inconceivable,” descriptively interdependent their functions.6Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man 15.3; cf. 12.3.  One clarification Nyssa brings to the table is the connection between the imago dei, goodness, virtue, and a will free from compulsion:

“[God] made human nature participant in all good; for if the Deity is the fullness of good, and this is His image, then the image finds its resemblance to the Archetype in being filled with all good.  Thus, there is in us the principle of all excellence, all virtue and wisdom, and every higher thing that we conceive: but pre-eminent among all is the fact that we are free from necessity, and not in bondage to any natural power, but have decision in our own power as we please; for virtue is a voluntary thing, subject to no dominion: that which is the result of compulsion and force cannot be virtue.”7Ibid. 16.10-11, emphasis mine; cf. Gregory of Nyssa, Great Catechism 2 and 5.

Nyssa points the imago dei as a reflection of the Divine goodness, the foundation for humanity’s potential to achieve excellence, yet this is only obtained through our own voluntary acts and not compulsion.8There are several ways to read this, though for the sake of brevity I will point out two: first, it may seem that Nyssa could in fact be arguing against some form of determinism and upholding a strong “free will” view, yet it must be remembered that Nyssa does acknowledge that “[God] saw beforehand by His all-seeing power the failure of [humanity’s] will to keep a direct course to what is good” (Ibid. 17.4). However, this reading fails to take into account Nyssa’s other statements regarding God’s providence within creation, namely “that in the Divine foreknowledge and power all humanity is included in the first creation; for it is fitting for God not to regard any of the things made by Him as indeterminate, but that each existing thing should have some limit and measure prescribed by the wisdom of its Maker” (Ibid. 16.16). This second reading thus follows this clarification that all of humanity’s participation and freedom from compulsion is within the realm of God’s foreknowledge and power.  Although humanity was affected by the Fall, Nyssa asserts that all of humanity still retains the image of God9 Ibid. 16.18, 18.6-9. despite sin tempting the passions of the flesh to cover the imago dei “like some ugly mask.”10Ibid., 18.6.  Thus, for Nyssa, the image of God points to humanity’s participation in goodness via acts free from compulsion in order to reflect the Divine in virtue.


Leaving behind his psychological readings of the tripartite structure of the human mind aside for right now, St Augustine also identifies the image of God as residing in the mind.11Augustine, On the Trinity 12.7.12.  Though often accused of holding to a mind-body dualism, it is perhaps better to say that Augustine prioritizes the mind, yet this prioritizing does not necessarily come at the expense of the body.12Mark Ellingsen is quick to note the diversity within Augustine’s anthropology, although Ellingsen jumps the gun in asserting that a body-soul dualism exists within Confessions and On the Trinity, although I do agree with Ellingsen that Augustine’s reference to the body as the garment of the soul in Augustine’s Exposition of the Book of the Psalms does run into some problematic territory.  However, in the City of God, as Ellingsen points out, there is a much more holistic depiction of humanity (Mark Ellingsen, The Richness of Augustine: His Contextual and Pastoral Theology [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005], 68).  See Stephen J. Duffy, “Anthropology,” Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, ed. Allan D. Fitzgerald, O.S.A. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 24-31.  In locating the imago dei in the mind, Augustine presents an argument that considers biological sex, something of a modulation of Nyssa’s own argument that the image of God precedes sex.13Nyssa, On the Making of Man 16.14, 17.4, 22.4.  Upon considering Galatians 3:28 (“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” [NRSV]), Augustine reflects in On the Trinity:

“Have the believing women, therefore, lost their bodily sex? Yet because they are renewed there to the image of God, where there is no sex, man is made there in the image of God, where there is no sex, namely, in the spirit of his mind… thus the image of God does not remain except in that part of the mind of man in which it clings to the contemplation and consideration of the eternal reasons, which, as is evident, not only men but also women possess… Therefore, in their minds a common nature is recognized; but in their bodies the division of this one mind itself is symbolized.”14Augustine, On the Trinity 12.7.12-12.8.13.

Augustine is cautious about locating the image of God within the body since such a move may lay the groundwork for others to associate sexed bodies with the Divine.  There are two plausible reasons for doing so: first, Augustine posits that the image of God is invisible, which properly reflects the invisible Trinity;15Ibid. 14.12.16, 15.3.5. second, Augustine views sexed bodies not as inherently sinful, but because sexed human bodies are inherently human.16Augustine, City of God 14.26.  “…Augustine does not suggest that sexual relations are of a different order from other human relations.  Rather, he is proposing that sexual relations are the same as, and perhaps even the paradigm of, all social relations in paradise.  Harmonious, properly ordered, and fundamentally passionless…” (Julie B. Miller, “To Remember Self, to Remember God: Augustine on Sexuality, Rationality, and the Trinity,” Feminist Interpretations of Augustine, ed. Judith Chelius Stark [University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University, 2007], 252).  However, the Incarnation complicates this claim…  In being careful with the imago dei and analogical language, Augustine understands that it is not merely a theological anthropology at stake when discussing the image of God, but also theology proper: what one posits about the nature of humanity – which is constituted by the Divine image – has implications for one’s doctrine of God.  Unfortunately, Augustine makes a fatal mistake when he claims that women, when functioning in the role of “helpmate,” are not made in the image of God in a way equal to males: “the woman together with her husband is the image of God, so that that whole substance is one image. But when she is assigned as a helpmate, a function that pertains to her alone, then she is not the image of God; as far as the man is concerned, he is by himself alone the image of God, just as fully and completely as when he and the woman are joined together into one.”17Augustine, On the Trinity 12.7.10, emphasis mine; cf. 12.7.11, 12.12.19. Augustine attempts to reconcile several Pauline texts regarding women181 Corinthians 11:5-8; 1 Timothy 2:15, 5:5. with Genesis, ultimately privileging males in his anthropological construction.

However, one can modify Augustine’s reading by reading Augustine against himself, as Judith Chelius Stark does in her feminist interpretation of Augustine’s understanding of the imago dei: “there are ways out of Augustine’s dilemma embedded in his own texts, even though he himself failed to make use of the solutions that were available to him in his own thinking.”19Judith Chelius Stark, “Augustine on Women: In God’s Image, but Less So,” Feminist Interpretations of Augustine, 217.  Recall that Augustine locates the image of God in the mind,20Augustine, On the Trinity 14.8.11. something shared by both sexes, yet the mind is “where there is no sex.”  By giving priority to the mind, Augustine (again, without falling into some strong metaphysical dualism21Duffy rightly asserts that “[a] metaphysical dualism was unacceptable to [Augustine], yet an existential dualism haunted him” (Duffy, “Anthropology,” 31).) distinguishes between one’s sex from one’s mind.  By taking this position with upmost serious and reading this distancing into other sections of his work, the arguments that pay attention to sexed bodies ought to be nullified, since it is not within sexed human bodies that the image of God is to be found, but in the human mind.  This is a better stepping stone to one of Augustine’s conclusions where he states:

“…no one can doubt that man [in the general sense] has been made to the image of Him who created him, not according to the body, nor according to any part of the mind, but according to the rational mind where the knowledge of God can reside.”22Ibid. 12.7.12, emphasis mine.

When Augustine asks, “Have the believing women, therefore, lost their bodily sex?” we can draw out his answer as “physically, ‘no,’ but spiritually, ‘yes,’” and this would also ring true for males, since there is nothing implicit or explicit within the male body as a sexed body that reflects the image of God.  Going back to an earlier point, theological anthropology directly draws upon one’s doctrine of God and since the Divine is invisible, then the image of God must be located in an aspect of human composition that is maintains distance from the sexed human body.  Therefore, the image of God resides in the mind of both females and males.23This Augustinian formulation has some interesting implications, namely that our minds are not “sexed.” However, this runs into some issues with different scientific studies regarding the differences between male and female brains. Two counterpoints: first, the mind is a much more abstract concept than the physical brain; second, there are more studies that complicate the portrait between “male” and “female” brains as something that can be easily distinguished, although such a discussion is outside the scope of our discussion.

Apophatic Anthropology in Nyssa and Augustine

There are two aspects worth exploring further: the relationship between the body and mind and the dependency of theological anthropology on theology proper.  For Nyssa, there is this “unspeakable and inconceivable” union between the body and mind, whereas Augustine posits it more as a distance.  Both distance sex from the imago dei: for Nyssa, the imago dei precedes sex; for Augustine, the imago dei resides in the mind where, according to him, there is no sex.  Both recognize the relationship between theological anthropology and their understanding of God: for Nyssa, goodness and the freedom to be virtuous mark humanity’s reflection of the Divine; for Augustine, the image signals humanity’s potentiality to be perfected “by the Christian faith and the doctrine of godliness… [so that] ‘we might be transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as through the Spirit of the Lord’” (2 Corinthians 3:18).24Augustine, On the Trinity 15.11.20.  However, for as much as Nyssa and Augustine can respond to the existential questions of humanity within a Christian context, there is still within both thinkers a large abyss when it comes to knowing the depths of humanity.  When an apophatic understanding of God enters the discourse of theological anthropology, one must begin to speak of an apophatic anthropology.  An extended reflection from Nyssa articulates this connection between apophatic theology and theological anthropology25Kallistos Ware, “The Soul in Greek Christianity,” From Soul to Self, ed. M. James C. Crabbe (New York, NY: Routledge, 1999), 49. Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge, 2010), 53-54.:

“‘Who has known the mind of the Lord?’” the apostle [Paul] asks; and I ask further, who has understood his own mind? Let those tell us who consider the nature of God to be within their comprehension, whether they understand themselves — if they know the nature of their own mind. It is manifold and much compounded. How then can that which is intelligible be composite? Or what is the mode of mixture of things that differ in kind? Or, it is simple, and incomposite. How then is it dispersed into the manifold divisions of the senses? How is there diversity in unity? How is unity maintained in diversity?  But I find the solution of these difficulties by recourse to the very utterance of God; for He says, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’  The image is properly an image so long as it fails in none of those attributes which we perceive in the archetype; but where it falls from its resemblance to the prototype it ceases in that respect to be an image; therefore, since one of the attributes we contemplate in the Divine nature is incomprehensibility of essence, it is clearly necessary that in this point the image should be able to show its imitation of the archetype.  For if, while the archetype transcends comprehension, the nature of the image was comprehended, the contrary character of the attributes we behold in them would prove the defect of the image; but since the nature of our mind, which is the likeness of the Creator evades our knowledge, it has an accurate resemblance to the superior nature, figuring by its own unknowableness the incomprehensible Nature.”26Nyssa, On the Making of Man 11.2-4, emphasis mine.

Nyssa offers a profound apophatic approach to theological anthropology grounded in both existential reflection and theology.  Nyssa rhetorically asks, “who has understood his own mind?”  The demand to “know thyself” (γνῶθι σεαυτόν) in antiquity is thus problematized.27Kallistos, “The Soul in Greek Christianity,” 49.  In Plato’s Philebus, Socrates refers to those who do not know themselves as having the “vice” of being “ridiculous.”28Plato, Philebus 48c-48d.  In the context of the humanity bearing the imago dei, Nyssa turns its logic on its head: how can we know ourselves when the image of God resembles the incomprehensible God?  It is thus ridiculous to claim that one can fully know oneself!  If one claims to exhaust and completely comprehend what constitutes the image of God, then they make three mistakes: (1) they falsely claim to have solved the mystery of humanity’s composition of unity maintained in diversity; (2) they misunderstand the nature of the image and the importance of maintaining a resemblance to the prototype in all of its attributes; (3) they fail to see a connection between the incomprehensibility of God and human nature.  There are aspects of humanity, then, that are unknowable to us.  In a very real sense “we are other to ourselves, we are our own otherness.”29William Desmond, Philosophy and Its Others: Ways of Being and Mind (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1990), 51.

Reflecting upon his own confessions in his aptly titled Confessions, Augustine struggles with knowing himself30Some of the following thoughts regarding Augustine and apophatic anthropology were inspired by and build upon James K.A. Smith, Speech and Theology: Language and the Logic of Incarnation (New York: Routledge, 2002).: “Let me confess too what I do not know of myself.  For what I know of myself I know because you grant me light, and what I do not know of myself, I do not know until such a time as my darkness becomes ‘like noonday’ before your face.”31Augustine, Confessions 10.7 in Augustine, Confessions (Oxford World Classics), trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford, UK: Oxford, 2008), 182-183.  For Augustine, it is in memory that “I meet myself and recall what I am, what I have done, and when and where and how I was affected when I did it.”32Ibid. 10.8.14.  However, it is not through simple recollection that one immediately encounters their Self.  Memory “is a vast and infinite profundity.”33Ibid. 10.8.15.  So vast and infinite is memory that Augustine marvels at its depths:

“Who has plumbed its bottom?  This power is that of my mind and is a natural endowment, but I myself cannot grasp the totality of what I am.  Is the mind, then, too restricted to compass itself so that we have to ask what is that element of itself which it fails to grasp?  Surely that cannot be external to itself; it must be within the mind.  How then can it fail to grasp it?  This question moves me to great astonishment.  Amazement grips me…”34Ibid.

Later, Augustine continues his existential reflections:

“Great is the power of memory, an awe-inspiriting mystery, my God, a power of profound and infinite multiplicity.  And this is mind, this is I myself.  What then am I, my God?  What is my nature?  It is characterized by diversity, by life of many forms, utterly immeasurable.  See the board plains and caves and caverns of my memory.  The varieties there cannot be counted, and are, beyond any reckoning, full of innumerable things… I never reach the end.  So great is the power of memory, so great is the force of life in a human being whose life is mortal.  What then ought I to do, my God?  You are my true life… I will pass beyond even that power of mind which is called memory, desiring to reach you by the way through which you can be reached, and to be bonded to you by the way in which it is possible to be bonded.”35Ibid. 10.17.26.

Reading Augustine’s observations of the imago dei in On the Trinity along with his self-reflection in the above passages from Confessions produces an anthropology not unlike Nyssa, though Augustine is much more existential in form.  Recall that Augustine locates the imago dei in the mind and, in the above passages, Augustine formulates that the power of memory is located (or “is”) mind, and “this is I myself.”  This resonates with the discussion of memory both within the human self and in God in On the Trinity.36Augustine, On the Trinity 15.7.11-13.  Memory is part of the “trinity of the mind”37Ibid. 15.3.5. which, along with understanding and will, makes up “one life.”38Ibid. 10.11.18.  The mind that “remembers itself, understands itself, and loves itself” comes close to depicting “an image of God.”39Ibid. 14.8.11.  However, “this trinity of the mind is not on that account the image of God because the mind remembers itself, understands itself, and loves itself, but because it can also remember, understand, and love [God] by whom it was made.”40Ibid. 14.12.15.  Since memory is prioritized to the point of becoming synonymous with “mind” and even the “I,” making the image of God strongly tied to this idea of remembrance and Augustine’s reflections in Confessions.

This point is made explicit in one of Augustine’s sermons explaining the Creed to catechumens around 425 CE, forming an explicit connection between the incomprehensibility of the mind and the image of God reminiscent of Nyssa: “[God] also made man to his own image and likeness in the mind; that, you see, is where the image of God is to be found.  That’s why the mind cannot be comprehended even by itself, where the image of God is to be found.”41Augustine, Sermon 398.2 in Augustine, Sermons III/10 (341-400) (The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century), trans. Edmund Hill, O.P. (Hyde Park, NY: New City, 1995), 446.  Whereas Nyssa explains the connection between the incomprehensibility of God with the incomprehensible imago dei, Augustine does not make such an articulation and one should not force Nyssa’s logic onto Augustine.  However, Augustine does cite the incomprehensibility of the imago dei as rooted in God, though the connection lacks an explicit explanation.


What is the point in constructing an apophatic anthropology?  First, it does justice to the depth and variety of both the human self and humanity at large, as well as the concept of having an existential crisis.  Narrow conceptions of the human person will always fail to capture the “vast and infinite profundity” within the human self.  The feeling that one’s self is an “other” is not a testament to something necessarily wrong, but a reflection of the larger mystery that is the human person.  This also creates further space for theological and postmodern conceptions of the self to dialogue.  Second, an apophatic anthropology removed from the sexed body may remove some male privileging within theological construction,42I am aware of the feminist and womanist criticisms that may arise here: one’s existential experience and therefore memory are inextricably tied to one’s sexed experience and the social contexts where one’s sexed body plays a major role (school, work, church, etc.). These criticisms are valid, yet the pros of an apophatic anthropology need to be considered. although the placing of the imago dei within the mind, particularly within Augustine’s framework, does raise other issues about the concept of the imago dei whenever the rational faculties are performing what some may deem an “atypical” level.43If one’s theological anthropology leads one to conclude that those in coma, those suffering from Alzheimer’s, or those who are not “neurotypical” do not carry the image of God, then there is a major ethical issue in how the doctrine is received.  Third, and perhaps most importantly, it takes serious the connection between theological anthropology and theology proper.  As Nyssa points out, if an image does not represent the attributes of the prototype in worthy manner, can it still be called a true image?  If God is incomprehensible and we are made in the image of God, then there must be an element of incomprehensibility within humanity.


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