Unlike other anthropologies, Christian anthropology specifically states that humans are created in the image and likeness of God. In Genesis chapter one God specifically wills that humanity, male and female, are a special creation which are formed specifically in the image and likeness of God. How this is done is not explained in chapter one. In chapter two the narrative expands, saying that Adam was created from the dust of the earth and that God breathed into him his soul and then that Eve was created from Adam, yet nowhere in chapter two are these actions linked to being in the image and likeness of God.
Christian theology has been in a constant struggle to come to a clear understanding of these passages, for they raise various questions and problems. Interpretations have been various, each having their own strengths and weaknesses. From a Platonic understanding, some have located the image and likeness in the pure nous of a person, making the body simply a transitory vessel of no real importance. On the other hand, others have located the image and likeness in the whole of the person, body and soul. The former has the problem in the fact that the body is a part of the special creation of God, an integral part of what God declared to be the image and likeness. The latter has the problem of making the image and likeness of God bound to a particular form of matter, making God anthropomorphic.
These issues and problems were known to Irenaeus of Lyon, who was forced to explicate an orthodox teaching on the matter to combat the extreme theology of the Gnostics on this subject. The Gnostics, being thoroughly anti-anthropomorphite, stressed strongly that image and likeness of God in man was only in the absolutely pure nous which must ascend the physical and material world to ascend to God. For Irenaeus, the plain and clear meaning of Genesis chapter one is that the entirety of the creation of humanity, body and soul, are good, for they were both created by God who is good. Therefore, the body is not a prison of the nous created by an evil demiurge, but is a part of the intended image and likeness of the good Creator.
Irenaeus then overcomes the tendency of anthropromophitism in seeing the body as being in the image of God by saying that we are actually created in the image of the Son of God, who is the image of God the Father as stated by Paul in Second Corinthians 4:4 and Colossians 1:15. We are the image of the image. The scriptural basis for this belief can be found in Wisdom 2:23, which states that God created humanity “in the image of his own eternity” understanding “eternity” (which reads as “nature” in some ancient manuscripts) as the image of the Son. The image of Son is made manifest in the Incarnation, therefore Adam is created in the flesh as a typos of the image of the Incarnation. This then makes the archetypal form of humanity not Adam, but Christ in his Incarnation.
Another problem posed by the Gnostics is how a fallen and sinful creation can reflect the image and likeness of God. Humanity is, at most times, base and unrefined, completely unlike everything that God as a spiritual being is. Gnostic thought solved this problem by positing creation as the result of the demiurge, but Irenaeus points out that the existence of such a demiurge calls into question the omnipotence of God, showing God to be unable to prevent the action of the demiurge against the souls. While this is a valid critique, it does not solve the problem of how one deals with the sinfulness which is apparent in humanity.
To solve this Irenaeus explains the current situation of humanity to be within the foreknowledge of God, for the existence of the Son is predicated upon his role in the salvation of mankind. So while the fall of Adam and Eve has tarnished the image of God in humanity, it was necessary because Adam and Eve are created beings, subject to God, and they must grow, as children must grow, into God through the salvation of the Son. Since the Son is the image of the Father, in seeing the Son we see what it is to have a true image, and through imitation we acquire this for ourselves. For this acquisition it is necessary for us to have a body, even as we are imitating the one who became Incarnate.
This imitation is made possible only by the Holy Spirit. According to Irenaeus, the Logos and the Spirit were the two hands of God which created man. Irenaeus does make the distinction between the image and the likeness, the image being our physical form which is from Christ and the likeness being our spiritual faculty which is from the Spirit, but since these two are never separated this distinction can not be taken too far. For Irenaeus, the Spirit makes possible the salvation of flesh, conforming the body and soul into obedience to God and thus recreating the image of God in the body and the soul and leading both together to gain immortality.
Irenaeus is insistent upon the real and full resurrection of the body, for if the body is in the image and likeness of God there is no reason for it to be separated from the soul. Rather, in the resurrection of the body the body is free to take on the perfect image of Christ, the image of the risen and glorified man. In this way, human beings become the glory of God.
Irenaeus overcomes the objections the Gnostics have concerning the body being in the image of God, creatively bridging the gap between the material world and the spiritual world of God and the way human beings overcome this gap. Irenaeus’ insistence upon the body is still relevant today since most modern theologies, based as they are upon Thomism, seem to be desirous to place the image of God fully on the level of the faculty of reason with little place for the body in and of itself. For Irenaeus, the image of God in the human body gives the body an extreme dignity. This dignity of the body requires us to think seriously about what it means to deface the bodily human image.