Athenagoras of Athens and purposive imago dei

Athenagoras (ca. 133-190) was a Christian apologist who lived during the second half of the 2nd century of whom little is known for certain, besides that he was Athenian (though possibly not originally from Athens), a philosopher, and a convert to Christianity. There is some evidence that he was a Platonist before his conversion, but this is not certain.

The treatise on the Resurrection of the Body, the first complete exposition of the doctrine in Christian literature, was written later than the Apology, to which it may be considered as an appendix. Athenagoras brings to the defence of the doctrine the best that contemporary philosophy could adduce. After meeting the objections common to his time, he demonstrates the possibility of a resurrection in view either of the power of the Creator, or of the nature of our bodies. To exercise such powers is neither unworthy of God nor unjust to other creatures. He shows that the nature and end of man demand a perpetuation of the life of body and soul.

On this last point: Athenagoras gives a purposive reading of the creation of humans in his argument for the resurrection. 

Therefore, if man has been created neither without cause and in vain (for none of God’s works is in vain, so far at least as the purpose of their Maker is concerned), nor for the use of the Maker Himself, or of any of the works which have proceeded from Him, it is quite clear that although, according to the first and more general view of the subject, God made man for Himself, and in pursuance of the goodness and wisdom which are conspicuous throughout the creation, yet, according to the view which more nearly touches the beings created, He made him for the sake of the life of those created, which is not kindled for a little while and then extinguished. For to creeping things, I suppose, and birds, and fishes, or, to speak more generally, all irrational creatures, God has assigned such a life as that; but to those who bear upon them the image of the Creator Himself, and are endowed with understanding, and blessed with a rational judgment, the Creator has assigned perpetual duration, in order that, recognising their own Maker, and His power and skill, and obeying law and justice, they may pass their whole existence free from suffering, in the possession of those qualifies with which they have bravely borne their preceding life, although they lived in corruptible and earthly bodies. … But since this cause is seen to lie in perpetual existence, the being so created must be preserved for ever, doing and experiencing what is suitable to its nature, each of the two parts of which it consists contributing what belongs to it, so that the soul may exist and remain without change in the nature in which it was made, and discharge its appropriate functions … and the body be moved according to its nature towards its appropriate objects, and undergo the changes allotted to it, and, among the rest (relating to age, or appearance, or size), the resurrection.    

                                  — On the Resurrection of the Body (Ch. XII)

So, for Athenagoras, the nature of humankind is known in its purpose, a purpose implicit in our creation, which cannot be for God (God cannot need, for Athenagoras) or the rest of creation. Instead our purpose is found and understood only in light of transformed, resurrected existence, natural to how we are created.

In their essay “The Chief End of All Flesh”, Stanley Hauerwas and John Berkman work from a purposive reading of imago dei in their treatment of human relations to other animals. 

Christians must not understand “image of God” to be based on any metaphysical or morphological difference between humans and other animals but must reconceive “image of God” in terms of the particular purposes that God assigns to humans. Specifically, Christians need to discover what it means for a human to act as an image of God’s rule in the world. 

Perhaps Athenagoras would not agree with the argument Hauerwas and Berkman have to bring against anthropocentric readings of imago dei (given his characterizations of ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ creatures) but the end result of an attention to purpose in creation is similar and very appealing to me. The focus in the end is not on creation as an explication of our static existence and certain special qualities, but as a preparation for our true purpose, directed by the statements Christians make about our future hope. For Athenagoras this is resurrection as our true future and purpose; Hauerwas and Berkmann further draw out the eschatological hope of the peaceable kingdom:

As a result, Christian lives are to display this purposive understanding of the image of God. In Genesis 1, the image of God is part of the vision of a peaceable creation, both between human and animal and between animal and animal, a peace where it is not necessary to sacrifice one for the other. Similarly, for Christians to live as the image of Christ means to live according to the call of the kingdom of God. In Gethsemene—in taking up the way of the Cross—Christ shows us clearly that the way of the kingdom of God is not the way of violence. In reaching the ultimate end of all our strivings, in the peaceable kingdom of God, we shall finally live in true shalom with all creatures of God. 


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