Aquinas: Made In His Image

So we know in Genesis that God has the thing about making humans ‘in our image’. But does anything else get made in God’s image? At least a teeny tiny bit? In 1a.93.1, Aquinas asserts that yes, humans are made in God’s image, but no it’s not a perfect image, because that would suggest that humans are perfectly modeled on God and have all of the full divine power and so on. So humans contain an imperfect image of God. That solution opens up a further problem: if humans contain an imperfect image of God, what’s the difference between humans and any other created thing? If you think about a rock, that’s kinda made in God’s image, because God exists, and rocks exist, and the rock’s existence is modeled on God’s existence. Merely by existing, the rock is therefore imitating at least one characteristic of the divine. It’s imperfectly made in God’s image, just like humans. So do humans have anything special about them? Is there any part of God’s image that is only or specially placed in humans? Well, in 93.2, Aquinas investigates.

In case the whole existence parallel doesn’t quite convince you, Aquinas pulls out a few more arguments in support of the wider creation bearing God’s image. For instance, he argues that “things caused bear their causes’ approximate images,” quoting Dionysius. So a child is going to bear some resemblance to its parents, and a plant is going to bear some resemblance to the other plant that it was propagated from. You could probably also say that if you kick a ball, the speed and direction of that ball is going to bear some resemblance to the speed and direction of your foot at the time of contact. Cause and effect have an implicit relationship where the effect bears some mark or characteristic translated from the cause.

Logically, then, given that all of creation was created or caused by God, it’s all got to have some mark or characteristic translated from God. Existence is the easiest example, but there will be others in different scenarios. For instance, Aquinas talks about goodness: “the more perfect something is in goodness, the more it resembles God.” He goes on to argue that humans are only ‘good’, but the whole of creation altogether is called ‘very good’, so therefore the whole of creation is better than humans – that’s a dodgy argument, really. You could even just say that all created things are good in some non-zero degree, and therefore all created things bear God’s imperfect image in their relative goodnesses.

So it seems pretty hard to argue that creation bears absolutely none of God’s image – that humans are the only things in all creation made in God’s image. Aquinas’s job is really to demonstrate that humans have some special characteristic that elevates them above the rest of creation – that they are more made in God’s image, thus justifying the special mention in Genesis. Aquinas starts off citing Augustine, who says basically that: “Herein lies man’s eminence, that God made man after His image in so far as He gave him an intelligent mind, which is where he surpasses the animals.” Humans are more made in God’s image because we’re smarter than all the other stuff out there. Out of everything in creation, we’re the only ones who’re smart, and that smart-ness means we’re specially made in God’s image.

Aquinas opens his response by trying to limit the term ‘image’, but his arguments are confusing and not really to the point. He’s basically arguing that not every similarity constitutes an image, which is true in itself but not super relevant. So he says that if a person’s got worms, those worms aren’t in a human’s image just because they came forth from the human. That’s… I mean it’s technically true, right, we wouldn’t say that there’s a cause/effect translation from the human to the worm. At the same time, that’s really for biological reasons more than anything else. Aquinas wouldn’t have had a great understanding of worm biology – note that these guys thought that some insects were spontaneously generated from mud or shit or whatever – and that’s where his argument seems kinda weird. Of course worms aren’t in the image of humans, because they don’t stem from humans in any meaningful sense. They were probably laid as eggs in some food or something and then you ate it without cooking it properly because you’re dumb, and the eggs hatched and the worms grew inside you. Yes it’s wrong to claim ‘worms are made in our image because they come out of us’, but that’s because worms don’t magically spawn inside our bodies. Worms are actually made in the image of their worm-parents that spawned eggs in the food you ate. Man, this is a gross example.

Aquinas also uses a second example to argue that having a shared characteristic with something doesn’t imply a derived image. Again, that’s true, but it’s not really relevant. His example is a bit tortuous: “nor again can you say that if something is made white like something else it is thereby after its image, because whiteness is a concomitant shared in common by many different kinds of thing.” It’s a really roundabout way of saying that correlation doesn’t imply causation – similarity doesn’t imply derivation, right. That’s… true, again, but nobody is using similarity to imply derivation. I’m not sure what he’s trying to respond to, unless it’s some Platonic forms issue where all whiteness stems from the one true Form of White.

So Aquinas makes these weird arguments to show that we need a tighter definition of ‘image’, otherwise people will go round thinking that similarity implies derivation (which, again, nobody was thinking). We can basically scrap all of that section and move straight to the actual point. Aquinas says that created things can have three levels of likeness to God: “first and most generally in so far as they are; secondly in so far as they are alive; thirdly and lastly in so far as they have discernment and intelligence.” So all of creation is made in God’s image in the sense that it all exists, and God exists, so there’s like a derived characteristic. Second level, if you’re alive, that’s a second tier, and if you’re smart, that’s a third. All humans are universally considered smart enough to qualify for that third tier, by the way – it’s not like a ‘you have to be this smart to ride the made-in-God’s-image train’.

Ultimately Aquinas agrees with most of the initial arguments, but offers the qualification that we’re more made in God’s image because we’re the only things in creation that reach the third tier. Yes, he says, rocks are made in God’s image, because they exist, and God exists, and therefore rocks are partially made in God’s image. But humans are more closely made in God’s image, which is why in Genesis God goes out of His way to be like ‘let’s make humans in our image’. Easy.

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