Augustine's Early Theology of Image

A Study in the Development of Pro-Nicene Theology

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Gerald P. Boersma
Oxford Studies in Historical Theology
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Pressr
    , January
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Gerald Boersma’s book Augustine’s Early Theology of Image consists of two parts. First, he explores how Augustine’s pro-Nicene predecessors articulated the notion of imago dei. A common thread connecting three fourth-century Western theologians, Hilary of Poitiers, Marius Victorinus, and Ambrose of Milan, is the use of “image” as a Christological term. All three theologians employ the concept of imago dei to affirm both the Son’s distinctness and equality to the Father. As image is necessarily a distinct entity from the archetype, so too, the Son is a distinct person (hypostasis) from the Father. Yet, as Victorinus emphasizes, God is simple (i.e., irreducible to a diversity of elements), and therefore the source and its image must share the same substance. This interpretation of “image” as equality is rooted in a contextual understanding of Colossians 1:15, which calls Jesus an image of the invisible God and the first-born of all creation. Rather than being a visible image of an invisible God (thus presupposing a kind of subordination), the Son is presented as an eternal image through whom all creation is brought into being. Victorinus notes that here potentiality and actuality are inextricably linked on account of divine simplicity. Thus, already in his preexistent state, the Son images the Father.

Having understood “image” as a term of equality, it is not difficult to understand why Augustine’s predecessors shy away from applying this term to human beings. Indeed, a sharp distinction is drawn between “image” and “likeness”: image denotes equality of substance (homoousious), while likeness presupposes degrees of proximity between different substances (homoiousious). Hence, the former is reserved for Christ, while the latter belongs to human beings. The very account of human creation in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26) is deployed to further a pro-Nicene argument for the Son’s equality. That Adam is created “in our image” is yet another proof that the Son is consubstantial with the Father. Thus, while the Son constitutes a perfect and equal image of the Father, human beings are made according to that common image (ad imaginem dei or secundum imaginem). Prior to Augustine, the strongest emphasis on human participation in the divine image is found in Ambrose of Milan. He too understands the concept of image as a Christological term, but doesn’t thereby exclude human beings from imago dei. Rather, Ambrose believes that the soul, by virtue of its incorporeal nature, participates in the image of God by sharing in the universal Logos, and transvaluation of material goods.

In the second part of his book, Boersma turns to Augustine’s early theology of image. Like Ambrose, Augustine refuses to limit imago dei to a solely Christological meaning, but his account of an anthropological image is built on the Plotinian notion that matter participates in the realm of immaterial forms. Insofar as everything that exists emanates from the One, it also images the One. Yet, because all emanation tends toward non-being, an image of the One always falls short of its archetype, to a lesser or greater degree. Thus, any given image is at once true and false: true in a sense of bearing resemblance to the archetype, false in a sense of failing to fully render the archetype. This participationist account of image does not necessitate equality of substance between image and archetype and, in fact, seems to preclude any equality of image to the archetype. For image, being derivative, is always inferior. This seems to be one of the points where Augustine’s Platonism comes in conflict with his Christian beliefs. Because Augustine unequivocally affirms consubstantial unity of Father and Son, he deems the Son to be an image of equal likeness, whereas human beings are images of unequal likeness. And it is precisely the incarnation that bridges the ontological gap between the eternal truth represented by the perfect image, and the truth-like existence of the human image. Because the image must imitate that which it images, the first Adam participates in the imago dei precisely through imitation of the second Adam—Christ. Through participation in Christ, the soul is enabled to return and reunite with the source of its being. Though the twofold movement of falling away and return is thoroughly Neoplatonic, Augustine not only understands the destination of return to be Trinitarian unity, but he is also skeptical about the soul’s ability to turn to God apart from the grace of incarnation. Like Ambrose, Augustine believes that the anthropological image of God resides in the incorporeal element (often specified as intellect) of human beings, while the body participates in that image by virtue of being an inextricable part of human nature through which the soul understands the world and finds its own expression. For Augustine, the union of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden represents that “harmonious unity” of body and soul. Though Boersma repeatedly claims that Augustine’s view does not evolve into a “thoroughgoing dualism,” the body is excluded from the imago dei proper. Such exclusion is undoubtedly worrisome, but it seems equally untenable that a corporeal body could image the incorporeal God without falling into anthropomorphism.

In the beginning of the book Boersma promised to elucidate how Augustine’s fusion of Nicene Christology and Plotinian philosophy overcomes the difficulties faced by his predecessors and incorporates human beings into the imago dei. Boersma carried out this task successfully. His expansion on and repetition of salient points contributes to the project’s lucidity, while the breadth of relevant passages adds to its persuasiveness. Though one might desire greater contextualization of discussed excerpts, Boersma’s engagement with the sources is appropriate for the project.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Margaryta Teslina is a Ph.D. candidate in New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
September 29, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gerald P. Boersma is Assistant Professor of Theology at St. Bonaventure University.


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