The Image of God: Christ in Colossians 1:15
ὅς ἐστιν εἰκὼν τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ἀοράτου, πρωτότοκος πάσης κτίσεως
What does the clause ὅς ἐστιν εἰκὼν τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ἀοράτου mean (Colossians 1:15)? When the Apostle Paul speaks of Christ as the "image of the invisible God," what does he have in mind? Is the clause proof for the full deity of Jesus Christ? Admittedly, exegetes part ways in their understanding of εἰκὼν and its semantic relationship to the Son of God. Some commentators see in this Greek word, unequivocal proof that God's Son is ontologically equal to his Father. For example, Ralph Earle insists that εἰκὼν means a "likeness"--it is not, however, an accidental similarity (per accidens), but a derived similitude that apparently occurs by means of divine generation. Earle also quotes Thayer's Lexicon which avers that Christ is the εἰκὼν of the invisible God: "on account of his divine nature and absolute moral excellence" (Earle 349). Biblically, this word is likewise implemented to describe the Roman emperor's image on a silver coin, and the relation of humanity to God (Matthew 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:7ff). Nevertheless, numerous scholars continue to view εἰκὼν as a delineation of Christ's pantocratic nature, thereby making the Son of God ontologically equal to his Father. By ontological equality, they mean that the Son of God is equal to his Father with respect to being or ontos, but the Son is not hypostatically identical to his Father. Ronald cox explains: "The uses of image (eikon) in the New Testament and contemporaneous literature evoke more than a visible depiction, suggesting something substantive, like a divine stamp which impresses God's influence. It is a hefty metaphysical term that tells us the Son mediates God's presence." ("Why it all Matters: Appreciating the Universal Scope of Colossians 1.15-20," Leaven: Vol. 21: Iss. 3, Article 5.)
B. P. Lightfoot writes that εἰκὼν involves two prominent notions: (a) it connotes an archetype of some copy; (b) the word implies the divine epiphaneia of the incarnate or preincarnate Son (Earle 349). Charles J. Ellicott buttresses Lightfoot's comments by adding: "Christian antiquity has ever regarded the expression 'image of God' as denoting the eternal Son's perfect equality with the Father in respect of His substance, nature, and eternity" (ibid.) The view of Trinitarians accordingly can be summed up in the following words: "Thus EIKWN does not imply a weakening or a feeble copy of something. It implies the illumination of its inner core and essence" (Kleinknecht qtd. in Earle 349). Trinitarian scholars generally believe the word εἰκὼν provides evidence that Christ is one in nature with the Father and the Holy Spirit: this Greek word allegedly strengthens the doctrine that God's Son is homoousios to patri although Lightfoot acknowledges that εἰκὼν in and of itself "does not necessarily imply perfect representation" (145).
How should we view the arguments made by Earle, Ellicott, and Lightfoot (et al.)? Is Christ equal to Almighty God or not? Is Colossians 1:15 strong proof of his divinity? Upon closer examination of εἰκὼν, we must question the confidence with which Trinitarians speak vis-a'-vis the language "image of the invisible God" when it's applied to the preeminent Son of Jehovah. After reviewing the lexical evidence for εἰκὼν, it can be said that there seems to be no adequate proof for this frequently asserted claim. If we examine the word in se, it is difficult to ascertain a meaning that definitively substantiates Trinitarianism simpliciter. According to BAGD [now BDAG], εἰκὼν primarily denotes "image, likeness" (222); humanity (andros) is said to be the εἰκὼν καὶ δόξα θεοῦ (1 Corinthians 11:7). Paul also (in eschatological terms) contends that Christians will one day bear φορέσομεν καὶ τὴν εἰκόνα τοῦ ἐπουρανίου (1 Corinthians 15:49). When citing this passage from Corinthians, BAGD/BDAG states that "the image corresponds with the original" (222). However, although being used to denote "image" or "likeness," εἰκὼν also carries the sense of "form, appearance."
Hierocles reports that Pythagoras--in the estimation of his disciples--had Θείαν εἰκόνα (the appearance of a God). Romans 1:23 likewise wields εἰκὼν in a similar manner despite referencing other things. In Romans 8:29, Paul tells the holy ones of Rome that God purposes to shape them in the εἰκὼν of His beloved Son: συμμόρφους τῆς εἰκόνος τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ. But not only are Christians to enjoy heavenly existence in the Son's likeness, anointed Christians correspondingly are being progressively changed into the εἰκὼν of the Father (2 Corinthians 3:18).
At the culmination of this age, these followers of Christ will see God and be made like unto Him (1 John 3:1-2). This crowning moment signals that the "divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4) will be appropriated by spirit-begotten children of God in order that men and women might become like the Father (Clement of Alexandria). With these uses of εἰκὼν in mind, it is difficult to see how the term when applied to Jesus Christ, can denote that the Son of God is homoousios to patri. Yet there is one more area that needs to be investigated.
Philo of Alexandria is known for using "image" in his writings. Martin Hengel discusses this philosopher in the book, The Son of God: The Origin of Christology and the History of Jewish-Hellenistic Religion. According to Philo, the Platonic realm of transcendent Forms (Ideas) is God's "eldest and firstborn son." That realm is synonymous with the divine Logos (God's reason that exists immanently within the cosmos). For Philo, the Logos is the "mediator between the eternal Godhead and the created, visible world." At the same time, the Logos is also "God's image" (εἰκὼν): Philo is never quite clear about what he perceives the Logos to be. In varying delineations, he calls the εἰκὼν of God, the sinless mediator, the spiritual primal man, the spokesman, the archangel, and the second god (deuteros theos). This deuteros theos is neither created nor uncreated--yet Philo does not necessarily equate the εἰκὼν of God with God (52). This claim is substantiated by referencing Somn. I, 157, 228-230.
In this portion of his famous work, the Alexandrian refers to the εἰκὼν of God as both kurios and archangel. This point is significant because it is here that he distinguishes the Logos from the Father who brings forth the Logos. The Father is ho theos, but the εἰκὼν can only be considered theos (without the article). This indicates that Philo viewed the Logos as mediator of creation and a secondary god, inferior to the Father of Israel (Isaiah 64:8). This philosophical detour alerts us to the fact that εἰκὼν when used by Philo may not mean that Logos qua εἰκὼν is to be equated fully with its prototype. The sun's reflection in the water is not the same as the actual sun: it does not possess the same nature that the sun does, being only a reflection of the thing itself. Similarly, Jesus as the εἰκὼν of God, does not possess the substance of the Father, but is homoiousios with him. One day anointed Christians will enjoy this same privilege, to a lesser degree of course, when they experience life in the εἰκὼν of the Son--being made like unto his image and that of his Father's (Revelation 22:1-5).