V. Lossky and St. Paul on the Theology of the Image

If man is logikos…if he is “in the image” of the Logos, everything which touches the destiny of man – grace, sin, redemption by the Word made man – must also be related to the theology of the image. And we may say the same of the Church, the sacraments, sanctification, and the end of all things. There is no branch of theological teaching which can be entirely isolated from the problem of the image without danger of severing it from the living stock of Christian tradition. We may say that for a theologian of the catholic tradition in the East and in the West, for one who is true to the mainline of patristic thought, the theme of the image (in its twofold acceptance – the image as the principle of god’s self-manifestation and the image as the foundation of a particular relationship of man to God) must belong to the essence of Christianity.

Through the Incarnation, which is the fundamental dogmatic fact of Christianity, “image” and “theology” are linked so closely together that the expression “theology of the image” might become almost a tautology – which it is, if one chooses to regard theology as a knowledge of God in His Logos, who is the consubstantial Image of the Father.

– Vladimir Lossky


St_Luke_writing_icon_250For those who have never been exposed to the “theology of the image” (particularly as it is found in Eastern Orthodox thought), Lossky’s comments may seem strange. However a very short collection of New Testament passages immediately elevate his thoughts to a place of serious consideration. These passages, like many others in the New Testament, are often overlooked or not given careful examination since they fail to fit into many of the interpretive schemes used by many non-Orthodox. A frequent question for me when I am reading St. Paul is, “Where did he get that?” Simple statements by the great Apostle often exhibit a deeply mature theology and reflection – one that cannot be accounted for simply by natural development over time. Most especially, his thought evidences a radically Christocentric reading of the Old Testament – one which echoes Christ’s own description, “these are they which testify of me” (John 5:39).

Image in St. Paul’s Letters

Four quotes:

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren (Romans 8:29).

Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven (1 Corinthians 15:49).

He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation (Colossians 1:15).

…[for we] have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator (Colossians 3:10).

First and foremost is St. Paul’s understanding that Christ is the “image of the invisible God.” Where does he get this? The most obvious candidate is a Christocentric reading of the opening chapter of Genesis. The Old Testament itself does not make much of the teaching in Genesis that “man is made in the image of God.” It does not carry through as an important theological theme (nor does the fall of Adam and Eve). But for St. Paul (and for the early Church), the opening chapters of Genesis take on a central importance for Christian thought. The entire creation narrative takes on new meaning when read as a reference to Christ.

We can hear this in the opening words of St. John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word…”  The echo of the opening words of Genesis are not accidental – it is a “re-writing” of Genesis – a “re-telling” of the creation story with the Logos of God at its center. Of this Logos John says:

And the Word [Logos] was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

The importance of this taking flesh is tied with the Logos role as image of God. “We beheld his glory,” John says. This is the image which we can see. We continues to carry the import of this forward:

No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.

For St. Paul, Adam’s creation in the “image and likeness” of God is fulfilled in Christ. “The first man [Adam] is of the earth (in Hebrew, “of the earth” would be Adamah). “The second man [Christ] is of heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:47 ). It is this re-reading of Genesis that allows St. Paul to say that “just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.” The Genesis story of Adam is a prefiguring of Christ – in St. Paul the final meaning of Genesis is to be found in its fulfillment in Christ. The Second Adam (one of Paul’s names for Christ) is the true image and likeness of the Father – an image and likeness never fulfilled by the First Adam. Salvation in Christ is a “new creation” for St. Paul – in it, those who are saved are re-created and “conformed to the image” of Christ. Salvation as “conformity to the image” is clearly an important understanding for St. Paul – but sadly neglected by many Christians.

In place of the theology of the image, a theology of sin-debt-payment-forgiveness has come to dominate the thought of many. The reading of the opening chapters of Genesis has become focused almost entirely on the fall and the guilt engendered by Adam for all mankind – the first chapter even more sadly relegated to debates about creation and evolution.

Indeed, the 5th chapter of Romans, in which St. Paul speaks of the sin of Adam, contrasted with the righteousness of Christ, can also be read through the “theology of the image” (which makes a very interesting way of approaching the question of justification). But it is not noticed by most that St. Paul’s treatment in the 5th chapter brings him to his summary of Baptismal experience (we should always remember that “chapters” and “verses” are a late medieval invention) in which the theology of the image dominates. There St. Paul will say, “For if we have been planted together in the likeness (homoioma) of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection.” Likeness, like image is drawn from Genesis 1:26. There is a new creation in Baptism and it is a creation “in the likeness of the resurrection.” Justification is renewal according to the true image of God.

Christ is the true image of the invisible God – the God/Man who makes visible and tangible to us the God Whom we could not otherwise know. He is the Second Adam, the true image to which we shall be conformed. Apart from Christ, man lives in the image of the man of earth, the First Adam, and fails to live according to the likeness of God. In Christ, God makes us to become what we were always intended to become – the image and likeness of God.

It is this “theology of the image” that lies behind the Orthodox veneration of icons – however foreign that veneration may seem to many other Christians. But it is no more foreign than the very theology of the image has become in the modern reading of Scripture. “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words,” is the definitive teaching of the 7th Ecumenical Council. They also point us towards rightly reading what Scripture does with those words.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





14 responses to “V. Lossky and St. Paul on the Theology of the Image”

  1. […] destiny as human beings, but also to understanding and living more fully our identity in Christ. Fr Stephen’s post is a wonderful summary of the theology of the image. Here are a couple of highlight […]

  2. TUCKER Avatar

    “In Christ, God makes us to become what we were always intended to become – the image and likeness of God.”

    What does “In Christ” mean and how do we get there?
    This seems to be the key theological divider.

  3. fatherstephen Avatar

    It is indeed a divider, theologically. The answer you’ll hear from me is that we best find it by a faithful life in the fullness of the Orthodox faith. I know of no other expression of Christianity that has a living continuity of practice as well as doctrine and sacrament. But I am an Orthodox priest. It is what I believe.

  4. hexaemeron Avatar

    Thank you, Father, for this clear path from Genesis to the Gospel revelation of Christ, so aptly gathered in Lossky’s writings on the icon.

    Do you know of any linguistic clues in Hebrew or Greek for use of the term “image” in the prohibition in the Mosaic Law for making images of the Invisible God, oft cited as an argument against Orthodox use of icons, which shed light on a possible distinction between “image” and “idol? Apparently not, I guess, or 9th and 10th century iconoclasm in the East would not have held such sway.
    Just wondering.

    Regardless, there currently seems to be a great hunger for the icon, even among Protestants of iconoclast upbringing, such that the old literalism and prejudices are enthusiastically overthrown. A friend who is active in prison ministry reports that inmates of various religious backgrounds respond instinctively to icons as a comfort, as being instructive, and as needing no apology.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think there is a deep instinct that icons are religious – that they have meaning that is more than sentimentality (I recall that thought in myself long before I understood them). It speaks to the longing St. Augustine described: “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee, O Lord.” I recall vividly the change that began to take place when I went from an undefined hunger to an experience that began to include understanding. I still read Ouspensky (doubtless the best, most comprehensive works on icons in English) with awe.

  6. Susan Cushman Avatar

    Great post. I’m an iconographer and a writer, so I read this with great interest. A couple of years ago I published an article in First Things called “Icons Will Save the World.” You can read it here: http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2007/12/icons-will-save-the-world.

  7. Victor Avatar


    The link doesn’t work as it’s missing the # at the end. I’ve been enjoying your article now that I’ve found it!


  8. Victor Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Thank you for this. It begs in my mind the question:
    What does an icon do that is different from a text or spoken word?

    It represents multiple elements simultaneously. This is different from reading and hearing which are both chronological activities. Musical harmonies are a little closer as they present multiple notes simultaneously, yet the harmonisations are in series over time whereas the full harmony of the icon is always present from the first glance. The extent to which we appreciate this fullness, the elements we attend to most intently, the thoughts that come to us while viewing the icon; these are also stretched out over time but their distension is internal and subjective, defined by our response to the image.

    I think this speaks to why we have canons governing the writing of icons. They are meant to not only instruct us by presenting the truths of theology to us. They are meant to shape how we see the created order, to become our very way of seeing. They are not so much a discursive argument as an instrument of vision. Like telescopes or microscopes, revealing things hidden to the naked eye. But these other instruments merely enhance physical vision whereas icons correspond to a natural faculty within the person (the heart) which is built to perceive the world timelessly (Eternity is set in our hearts Ecclesiastes 3:11). This means, I think, that image is a means of representing eternity that cannot be expressed in text or sound. Icons are images attuned to the natural functioning of this organ and have about them a living stillness, a visual hesychia….I feel this connects to the theology of image but in a way difficult to express in words…sorry to trail off here…

  9. hexaemeron Avatar

    The “Hidden and the Triumphant: the Underground Struggle to Save Russian Iconography”, just published by Paraclete Press with a forward by Frederica Mathewes-Green, is destined to enlighten readers on the clandestine movement of iconographers in Soviet Russia during the 1970’s and 80s, which contributed mightily to the abundant renewal of the Russian Orthodox Church currently enjoyed.

    I have not yet received my copy, but I understand the author, Irina Yazykova, has devoted a chapter to describing the efforts of her friend, the famous iconographer Xenia Pokrovskaya, who co-founded Izograph Society during one of most repressive eras for icon-painting, and formed a vast network of underground affiliate iconographers. Pokrovsky immigrated to the USA in 1991 as a political refuge after the brutal murder of her spiritual Father, Alexander Men.

    In 2005, I had the great pleasure to have Irina Yazykova, Ph.D. in Cultural Studies, art critic, and Chair of Christian Art Department, St. Andrew’s Biblical Theological Institute, as my guide through the monasteries and museums in and around Moscow, including Fr. Men’s memorial chapel near Moscow, where Fr. Zinon painted the iconostasis.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    I will stand in line to buy a copy.

  11. Damaris Avatar

    Victor: Very profound and thought-provoking post! I have taught a lot on poetry and often say that whereas in prose words are notes, in poetry they are chords. But you’re right that icons go one better, not just in harmonizing but in collapsing time. They may be the closest we will get to the timelessness of eternity while in this life.

  12. yeamlak fitur Avatar
    yeamlak fitur

    Icons have great place in Ethiopian Orthodox church. They hand carve on wood and paint on the wood. It is unbelievable work when you see they do not have much. Here is a monk at Lake Tana holding one.


  13. jeff crosby Avatar
    jeff crosby

    You changed the verse from 30 to 29
    It’s John 5:39

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