On The Human Person In God's Image

Introduction by Wendy Boring

Bonaventure says: “I respond: We must observe the intelligence of the things said before, because the image speaks a clear similarity. It is moreover necessary that every creature is like God in some way; it is also necessary that for the completion of the universe some creature is distinctly like God: And therefore every creature has the measure of a trace, but some have the measure of an image, the one, clearly, which is openly similar. This, indeed, is a rational creation, like man; and therefore it must be conceded, that man is the image of god, because his likeness is visible.”

Original Latin

How much like God?

Western medieval thinkers drawing on the biblical account of Creation in Genesis (1: 26) believed all creatures must be somewhat like God. The question is: how much like God? And how can one assert that creatures are like God without blurring the distinction between divine and human essence?

Asserting that humans carry God's image requires careful negotiation of a potentially dangerous terrain.
A scholar must explain how a human being is an "image of God," without stumbling into any pitfalls along the way.

Bonaventure's Starting Point

The questions in the Commentary on the Sentences are like maps of difficult terrain that must be negotiated. Each map contains markings made by past travelers, the "authorities" on the landscape. The questions begin with arguments pro and con, which function to point out the major landmarks and indicate the trouble zones.

In Bonaventure's text, two pro arguments lifted directly from Scripture (Genesis 1:26, Ecc. 17:1) state explicitly that humans were created in the image of God. Additional arguments from reason and from authority suggest that:

  • humans are maximally apt to be united to God, thus maximally apt to be configured to him;
  • human beings most represent God in their 'most noble' act, their understanding.

Con arguments point out the potential pitfalls: where there is image, there is likeness and possible identity of essences, which cannot be true of creatures and God (2.2,4). Also, asserting that humans carry the image of God seems to suggest that humans represent the whole of God -- but nothing finite can represent the whole of God (2.5), because humans are infinitely distant from God (2.6).

Bonaventure Picks His Way Through

Bonaventure's response is typical of the way scholastics negotiated tricky terrain. He picks his way through and avoids pitfalls by carefully defining terms. There are different kinds of likeness:

  1. Complete agreement in nature (the way the members of the Trinity are alike). This cannot be true of humans and God.
  2. Participation in a universal nature (humans and donkeys participate in the nature of "animal"). Again, this is not possible for the human-God relationship because divine essence is eternal and simple, unlike human essence which is finite and composite.

But there are two ways that all creatures can be said to be like God:

  1. Proportionality (a sailor and a chariot driver are alike in relationship to what they rule).
  2. Agreement of order (the way an example is assimilated to the exemplar).

And thus: A way through!

What about humans in particular? Are they different than other creatures? Following in the footsteps of Augustine (On the Trinity I, XIV), Bonaventure argues that while all creatures carry the vestiges or traces of God, only humans carry the image of God, found in their rational nature.

The map now carries not only the markings of past travelers, but also Bonaventure's particular path: likeness is attained not by identity or sharing of essence, but by agreement in order and proportion.

Danger avoided.