Image and Likeness and Profound Cognitive Disability Rethinking Patristic Categories

by Petre Maican

The distinction between image and likeness is one of the recurring themes in the patristic writings and one of the main building blocks of modern Orthodox theology. But is this distinction useful for answering the anthropological question from the perspective of disability? Is it useful to speak about image and likeness in the cases of persons with profound intellectual disabilities? I think not. Especially, when the main requirement for attaining likeness is ethical freedom.  As I will point out further, since the movement from image to likeness is dependent on the use of freedom, persons with profound cognitive disabilities are excluded from attaining the goal of their own existence, perfection in Christ.

It is part of Orthodox identity to remain faithful not only to Scripture or the ecumenical councils, but also to the Tradition of the Fathers. And there are good reasons for this. Without a strong common ground, the faith of the Church becomes the sum of all individual beliefs, with personal opinions and experiences receiving the status of dogmas. Unfortunately, however, the Fathers did not answer all the questions humanity might have throughout the ages. They could not have since they inhabited a different world. They did not have access to the same technology nor did they have the same concerns. Thus, they did not have a doctrine of the Church nor a very developed anthropology.

As his eminence Kallistos Ware saw, the previous century tried to solve the former issue and provide a robust ecclesiology, while this century will struggle to develop an Orthodox anthropology. The emergence of biotechnology, gender reassignment, artificial intelligence, and the increased interest in human rights or disability raise a multitude of questions regarding human nature. I have no doubt that some of these questions will find answers in the Fathers or that we will be able to infer their view from the clues scattered throughout their writings – just as it happened in the case of ecclesiology.  Yet, for other questions like disability I am not convinced that some patristic categories are as helpful as we might hope, particularly those of image and likeness.

The words image and likeness are applied for the first time to the human beings in Scripture in the book of Genesis. The first chapter recounting the creation of world states that God created the humankind in his image and after his likeness. Modern biblical scholars tend to see the two terms as synonyms aiming to highlight that there is a certain resemblance between human beings and God. Yet, for the Christian exegetes of the Patristic era who read the text in Greek, the two terms carried a subtle distinction between potential and fulfillment. As Father Andrew Louth explained, in the Greek language, the expression ‘in the image’ had the meaning ‘according to the image’, thus pointing to a prototype that served as a model. The word ‘likeness’ also hinted to a process. The most common interpretation the text elicited was that the human beings were created similar to God (image) and the goal of their entire existence was to cultivate this similarity as much as possible (likeness).

The content of human resemblance to God was never entirely clear. For some Fathers it was rationality, for others it was freedom, for others dominion over nature, or even all of these together. Contemporary theologians approached the topic either apophatically or relationally: the image of God in us is the inexhaustible mystery of being and/or the special relationship in which the humans are placed by God at creation.

Somehow surprisingly, what remained undisputed was that the only way to attain likeness was through the ethical use of freedom. Although it is uncertain what constitutes our similarity with God, we know that to attain it we have to pray, fast, help our neighbor, and attend the liturgy. The fulfillment of our lives is inextricably linked with freedom. As Lossky puts it “Freedom is, so to speak, the ‘formal’ image, the necessary condition for the attainment of perfect assimilation to God” (The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, 119-120).

The main issue with this view is that the interdependency between likeness and freedom excludes from fulfillment persons with profound cognitive disabilities. In his book, Receiving the Gift of Friendship, Hans Reinders presents the case of a microcephalic girl named Kelly who was unable to do anything else than breathe. “The first time, I visited the group home where she lives, I found a twelve-year-old redheaded girl who was sitting in a wheel chair, her big brown eyes” staring without seeing” as was my first reaction” (Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology, and Ethics, 1-2).

Applied to persons like Kelly, the image-likeness schema would not question her humanity, but her possibility of attaining similarity with God in Christ. Since the image of God in the human being resides in her special relationship with God and not in a single feature, Kelly’s humanity is left intact. Yet, if likeness could be attained solely through the use of freedom, then it is not clear how Kelly would attain it. Since she does not exhibit any sings of self-consciousness it is difficult to speak about her even praying. Thus, if the logic of the image likeness binomial is pushed to its conclusion, Kelly cannot fulfill the goal of her existence.

One way to solve this conundrum might be to say that Kelly attains perfection in her own way or as a gift from God. But for me, the ambiguity involved in this expression makes it less than satisfying. Does it mean that we assume Kelly possesses some degree of freedom or that there is another way to attain likeness that is not dependent on freedom? The latter option has been pursued in some Roman Catholic articles, which distinguished between natural and supernatural goods. Natural goods are those obtained through virtuous actions; while supernatural goods are infused by God directly upon human beings as a gift. However, Orthodox theology has rejected this distinction, stressing that there is a direct proportionality between human effort and God’s grace. The more one strives for likeness the more she receives from God. Likeness might be a gift, but it cannot be attained without cooperation.

These are difficult questions and, in my view, not at all marginal. The discussion about disability and quality of life will soon enough push us to explain why a person like Kelly should live and if her way of living is worth it. If she is only a human being that does not have the possibility to attain fulfillment even from a religious point of view, then what is the point of her existence. At the moment, it seems to me that Orthodox theology is in a weak position that the binomial image likeness only accentuates.

Whether the image likeness schema can be reinterpreted in an inclusive way or it will have to be discarded altogether, it remains the to be debated. But, I hope that I manged to raise the awareness that the Orthodox anthropological vision that is now under construction will have to take into account the whole spectrum of human existence. And those who might be tempted to say that persons like Kelly are exceptions, should remember that if Christ is the good shepherded who came to put his life for one lost sheep the Church cannot ignore those rejected by everybody else who are in her midst?


Petre Maican is one of the founding members of Saint John Chrysostom Research Institute in Aberdeen, United Kingdom. He holds a PhD in Systematic Theology from the University of Aberdeen. His current research focuses on theological anthropology, with special focus on disability in the Orthodox tradition.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.