BMCR 2021.09.21

The image of God in the theology of Gregory of Nazianzus

, The image of God in the theology of Gregory of Nazianzus. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. xiv, 196. ISBN 9781108482196. $99.99.


In Genesis 1:26-27 we read that the human person was made “in the image and likeness of God.” In order to define the human being as an image of God (εἰκὼν θεοῦ, in Septuagint and patristic Greek), theologians have tried to specify what element makes man resemble God: The human body? The soul? The combination of body and soul? The intellect and will? Rationality? Or the ability to know and to love? All or some of the above? Has the human resemblance to God been damaged or altered by the Fall? And if so, can it be restored, and how?

This book offers a thorough analysis of the image of God, as found in Genesis 1, in the theology of Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the great Christian theologians of the fourth century. Thomas finds that Gregory’s account, which is dispersed over a vast corpus of orations, poems, and letters, is complex and nuanced, resembling “a richly coloured tapestry into which he has woven myriad threads” (p. 3). She argues convincingly that the “image” in Gregory relates to the whole human person, not only the soul or the nous. Moreover, this human image is interpreted in the light of Christ, the identical Imageof God, which includes Christ’s flesh and is described as a unified, visible eikon, thus paving the way for a visible human image. What is also important in Gregory’s understanding of the human image is that, having been infused with the Spirit at Creation, the eikon is a “living being,” and thus different from static and lifeless idols.

Like idols, however, the human image is visible, a visible image of God, and should thus be worshipped. In his oration on baptism (Or. 40.10), Gregory says that baptized Christians should not be afraid to confront Satan and demand worship: “I, myself, am also an eikon of God … I am clothed in Christ; I have been remodeled Christ by baptism, you ought to worship me!” (p. 143). Such forceful and bold statements may owe something to Nazianzenos’ highly rhetorical and poetic language and imagery, which lends itself to extravagant and at times exaggerated expression. Thomas instead suggests (pp. 147-151) that Gregory could have been aware of a tradition where during a conversation between the archangel Michael and the devil, Michael calls all the angels to worship the image of God, but the devil refuses. This tradition survives in the pseudepigraphic Life of Adam and Eve, the Greek version of which is entitled the Apocalypse of Moses. Thomas’s suggestion is intriguing, but the idea that human beings, as the imago Dei, are to be “worshipped” is peculiar, and perhaps Gregory did not mean this expression (σύ με προσκύνησον) to be understood literally or he used it in the sense of “honour” and “veneration.” In addition, even if Gregory was aware of traditions behind the apocryphal Adam and Eve literature, how likely is it that he would construct a theology on the basis of them?

Chapter 1 argues that Gregory’s vision of the human eikon is based on Scripture, and especially on Genesis 1:26-27. In addition, Gregory follows Philo and Origen, among others, in interpreting Christ as the eikon of God. Philosophical ideas, especially Plato’s application of eikon and Graeco-Roman beliefs about images (statues or portraits) of gods and emperors, must have played some role in Gregory’s theory, although no direct link is established. Chapter 2 carefully studies Gregory’s orations and poems and analyses Gregory’s understanding of Christ as the identical eikon of God. Central to this argument is a passage from Gregory’s oration On the Theophany (or. 38.13), where Gregory refers to the Son as the “unchangeable image” (ἡ ἀπαράλλακτος εἰκών), an idea that also occurs in Gregory of Nyssa (Against Eunomius, 3.6.11). Chapter 3 deals with the creation of the human image of God and highlights the importance of the visibility and materiality of the eikon. Angels are “divine” but invisible, so they are not images of God. Women are, although when they use cosmetics they reduce the eikon of God to an idol. It is worth noting that Gregory has dedicated a 334-line poem in elegiac couplets to the topic (Against Women Wearing Ornaments), where ancient commonplaces about cosmetics are filtered through a Christian lens.[1] Chapter 4 focuses on the image of God and the devil: Gregory depicts the human eikon as unable to be a full image of God after the Fall. The eikon is vulnerable to the temptations of the devil, who envies it and seeks to destroy it. Chapter 5 turns to the healing, restoration, and theosis of the eikon. It is the work of the Holy Spirit, primarily through baptism, that restores the eikon and transforms it into a god, as God intended at Creation. Overall, Thomas argues that Gregory’s presentation of the human eikon would best be described as “divine, yet vulnerable.” The human image is deified through baptism by the Holy Spirit, but the image is also “vulnerable,” and this is understood by Thomas in both positive and negative terms: “positively vulnerable (or porous) to God, having been created with the purpose of becoming ‘divine’, but at the same time negatively vulnerable to ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil’” (p. 8).

This is a rich and stimulating study which makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the thought and theology of Gregory of Nazianzus. It offers a close analysis of Gregory’s writings and, by focusing on Gregory’s sensitive interpretation of Scripture, it demonstrates how Nazianzenos depicts both the nature and experience of the image of God throughout his corpus. Thomas should be especially commended for taking into serious account Gregory’s poems, a massive corpus that is still not easily accessible in reliable editions or translations, let alone in commentaries. Two points of detail are worth noting here: Carm. 1.1.8. 4-6, with Donald Sykes’s commentary, would have contributed to Thomas’s discussion of how Gregory understands eikon and how sin affects the human eikon.[2] At Carm. 1.2.2. 490-497 (pp. 89-90), the one who “committed a sin” is rather the Enochic interpretation and expansion of Genesis 6:1-4, which suggests that hundreds of angels (the “sons of God”) slept with the “daughters of men.”[3] But Thomas, who opens and closes her book with Gregory’s verses, is only to be praised for wrestling with this huge poetic corpus, which informs her insightful arguments. Her book successfully highlights for any future study that Gregory’s poems are no less significant than his famous orations for understanding his complex and intricate thought.


[1] A. Knecht, Gregor von Nazianz: Gegen die Putzsucht der Frauen, Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1972. Similar advice against cosmetics is given in the very first lines of an epistolary poem, in 111 hexameter lines, presented as a “wedding gift” to Olympias at the time of her marriage. Gregory’s epistolary poems are in some instances analogous to Horace’s epistles, offering specific advice to a particular individual, but intended to be useful to a broader audience. See C. Simelidis, “Epigrams and Verse Letters in Palladas and Gregory of Nazianzos,” in Epistolary Poetry in Byzantium and Beyond: An Anthology with Critical Essays, eds. K. Kubina and A. Riehle, London; New York: Routledge, 2021, 33-44, 108-119, 274-281.

[2] C. Moreschini and D. Sykes, Gregory of Nazianzus: Poemata Arcana, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997, 216-217.

[3] See C. Simelidis, “Angelic lust and mighty giants: Gregory of Nazianzus and Genesis 6.1-4,” in Genesis in Late Antique Poetry, eds. A. Faulkner, C. O’Hogan and J. Wickes, Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2021 (forthcoming).