Athanasius on the Image of God

By Brian Burns

Every year since 1982, the English department at San Jose State University has sponsored the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. To win, an entrant must compose “the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels”.[1] The contest is named for the 19th century novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton whose novel Paul Clifford is the origin of the now tired opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night”.

While it may seem frivolous, the contest reminds us of something the Fathers of the church knew well: the beginning of the story matters.  Ancient Christian writers, orthodox and otherwise, loved and read Genesis—their reading of the beginning of the story of redemption shaped their understanding of the rest of it.

As an example of this, the post that follows will consider the way that Athanasius of Alexandria used Genesis 1:26-27, and the idea of the image of God found there and elsewhere, as a crucial part of his understanding of the story of salvation.[2]

Created in the Image—To Know and be Known

For Athanasius, to be created in God’s image was to be created with the ability understand the world in a way that no other creature could. Athanasius ties creation in the image of God to rationality, the ability to think and reason; he writes that “only man can reason about what lies outside himself, and think about absent things and choose better arguments”[3] However, Athanasius is ultimately less interested in people’s ability to know about creation than he is people’s ability to know their Creator.[4]

Consider, for example, this passage from On the Incarnation in which Athanasius writes of the human race “he gave it an added grace, not simply creating men like all irrational animals on the earth, but making them in his own image and giving them a share also in the power of his own Word so that having as it were shadows of the Word and being made rational, they might be able to remain in felicity and live the true life in paradise.”[5] This idea that God intends humans to know Him is not isolated to this passage. In section 2 of his book, Against the Pagans, Athanasius writes that God “has made mankind in his own image, giving him also a conception and knowledge of eternity, so that as long as he has kept this likeness he might never abandon his concept of God”.[6]

To understand the full import of humans abandoning their concept of God, we must consider Athanasius’ theology of sin in greater detail. The image of God is important here too, but in his treatment of sin, Athanasius follows a trail of image language that leads out of Genesis and into Romans.

An Image Marred—Athanasius on Sin

Athanasius’ theology of sin does not lend itself to summary. However, the importance of Romans 1 is clear. For example, only a few lines before the excerpt quoted above, Athanasius writes that people “fashioned for themselves the notion of idols, considering non-existent things as real”.[7] Athanasius goes on to explain that though God intended people to live with Him in paradise, always contemplating Him, humans failed to do this. Instead, Athanasius writes, they “became degraded in their thoughts and reasonings, and paid the honor due to God first to heaven and the sun and the moon and the stars”; eventually, Athanasius writes, people even worshipped “men and images of men” and even animals.[8]

In the phrase “images of men”, Athanasius uses a different word for image than appears in the Septuagint for Genesis 1:26-27. However, Paul uses the same word for image in Romans 1:23 as appears the Genesis text. In spite of the differences in wording, it seems clear that Athanasius makes use of Romans 1 to claim that to the extent that being created in God’s image means being able to know God, sin damages the image of God in humans.

However, all is not lost. In his description of salvation, Athanasius again follows a trail of image language. This time, he turns to Colossians 1.

An Image Restored—Athanasius on Salvation

Athanasius makes an important distinction between Christ the image of God and the humans He created “according to the image”.[9] In addition to revealing the Father in his incarnation, Christ restores the image in human beings which has been damaged by sin.[10] Regarding Christ’s restorative work, Athanasius writes, “No one could bring what was corrupted to incorruptibility, except the Saviour himself who also created the universe in the beginning from nothing; nor could any recreate man in the image, save the image of the Father”.[11]

For Athanasius, the whole economy of salvation—the entirety of the divine plan to rescue humans from sin and death—can be understood in terms of the image of God. His reading of Genesis 1, Romans 1, and Colossians 1, indelibly shaped his conception of God’s work in the world.



[2] The idea that the image of God is important to Athanasius is not original to me. Readers who are interested in a more thorough treatment of this idea are advised to consult Regis Bernard, L ‘Image de Dieu d’apres St. Athanase, (Paris: Aubier, 1956).

[3] Athanasius Contra Gentes 31, ed. and trans. Robert W. Thomson, Oxford Early Christian Texts (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971), 85.

[4] Peter Leithart’s work is helpful here. Readers are advised to note especially, Peter J. Leithart, Athanasius, Foundations of Theological Exegesis and Christian Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 97.


[5] Athanasius De Incarnatione 3, ed. and trans. Robert W. Thomson, Oxford Early Christian Texts (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971), 141.

[6] Athanasius Contra Gentes 2 (trans. Thomson, 7). In an important work about Athanasius’ thought, Khaled Anatolios discusses the relationship between God and creation in some detail and notes the importance in Athanasian thought of “remaining” in a right relationship to God. See especially, Khaled Anatolios, Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought (New York: Routledge, 2002), 35ff.

[7] Athanasius Contra Gentes 2 (trans. Thomson, 6).

[8] Athanasius, Contra Gentes 8 (trans. Thomson, 23-24).

[9] On the significance of this distinction, see Anatolios, Athanasius: The Coherence of his Thought, 58.

[10] On Christ as a revealer of the Father, see Athanasius De Incarn.43 (trans. Thomson, 243).

[11]Athanasius De Incarn. 20 (trans. Thomson 183).