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God’s Many-Splendored Image: Theological Anthropology for Christian Formation.

Nonna Verna Harrison
Published by Baker Academic in 2010

Many children grow up wondering what they will become in life. Nonna Harrison invites her readers into her own reflections on these early childhood questions. Frequently she was not satisfied with the types of answers she received regarding her probing quest to understand life’s nature and purpose and how an individual can become a better person and grow into wholeness. Ultimately, the two questions that have driven the development of this book are: 1) What is the nature of inner personal freedom? and 2) What makes a person unique? However, it is critical for readers to grasp from the initial page of this stimulating work the Eastern Orthodox theological context from which Harrison writes. Her intended audience is western Christians, but more specifically those in the Christian West who are not familiar with Orthodox theology. This becomes clear as she articulates her frustration with the “oversimplified negative vision of humanity [that] is taken for granted in popular culture” (3). This perspective makes sense only if the reader is cognizant of the stark contrast between the nature of sin taught by the Western and Eastern branches of Christianity. Very briefly, Western Christians tend to follow Augustine’s understanding of sin that is backward looking and takes place in the courtroom. According to this position we have inherited Adam’s guilt through the Fall and are guilty and stand condemned. Hence the legal language of justification and reconciliation that is common in many forms of Western theology. However, the Eastern view of sin is forward looking and places a person in the hospital. In this therapeutic view we inherit death through Adam and require the life-long recovery from our sickness due to sin. Since justification and the forensic nature of western theology are not integral to Orthodoxy theology it appears to have a more positive view towards humanity. It is unfortunate that Nonna Verna Harrison, who teaches Church History at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City and is also an Orthodox nun, does not provide this important theological building block to guide her readers in a broader understanding of this very significant distinction.1

Harrison is a proven scholar in patristic studies and seeks to address these themes of human nature and growth from within her own Orthodox tradition. She wisely and carefully illustrates and expands her ideas through judicious citations from the Cappadocian Fathers (Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Basil), Irenaeus, Origen, Clement of Alexander, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, and Maximus the Confessor. While there are also many vivid illustrations from the Desert Fathers, surprisingly, to the best of my reading I did not see any references to the Desert Mothers. Additionally there is sampling of Western writers including St. Francis, George MacDonald, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The structural foundation for this work is presented in the first two chapters. In chapter 1 Harrison examines the critical theme of freedom. How free are we as human beings? According to Gregory of Nyssa, freedom is essential for human beings to grow into greater wholeness (17). Western readers, unacquainted with the theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church, might be surprised by the importance of human responsibility in making good choices. Fortunately, the author acknowledges the difficulty of making good choices due to the complexity of our fallen world. Wisely Harrison draws upon the guidance of Abba Poeman of the desert tradition regarding how to handle sinful thoughts (20). While grace is recognized as essential (26-27) and no person is “expected to overcome evil thoughts by his own strength or willpower” (22), one can feel overwhelmed by the effort and responsibility dependent upon each person.

Chapter 2 explores the theme of uniqueness and the creative individuality of each person. Central to this chapter and ultimately this entire book is Genesis 1:26, “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image and likeness’” (NRSV). Harrison importantly reminds western readers that many, but not all Orthodox theologians make a distinction between God’s image and likeness. The divine image enables us to relate to God as well as other human beings. By virtue of possessing the divine image numerous benefits accrue to all humanity, most notable, our rational nature (36). Christ entered humanity so that he might restore creation into God’s image and likeness. Recapitulation is the technical name that Irenaeus gave to the dynamic process God employs to restore humanity in Christ (40-41, 43). Significantly, this declares that all persons, without exception, are people of great worth since they possess the divine image of Jesus Christ.

The remaining chapters illustrate various implications of our image and likeness of God. Some of the welcome strengths of this study are the very insightful explorations into virtue and humility (chapter 4). Harrison presents a perceptive treatment on the nature of virtues as well as the Orthodox understanding of passions that are seen as unruly or misdirected emotions that tempt a person to resist or flee from God. Equally valuable is her development of the nature of humility and guidance for how readers might grow more fully in it today. Further, the author’s handling of hierarchical relationships that was contrasted with royal dignity (chapter 5) is extremely compassionate and instructive. In place of the domination that tends to control abusively too much contemporary culture, Harrison presents an illuminating study of how both women and slaves reflect the divine image of God. Additionally, the coverage devoted to embodiment and the positive role of our bodies in our identity (chapter 6), as well as the importance of creation and the reminder of the human responsibility for restoring the created order (chapter 7), was thought provoking to see within the broader perspective of the divine image and its connection to all aspects of life. However, while I understand the larger perspective from which the author writes, I see the potential for confusion when Harrison asserts, “because we are made in God’s image, we humans are interconnected with every part of the universe, especially every part of the earth’s biosphere” (145). I would have appreciated a more nuanced articulation to clarify further and expand this thought of Orthodox theology.

The most perplexing section to digest was chapter 8 that explored the role of art and science in relation to the divine image. Harrison draws upon the life and research of Johannes Kepler and Albert Einstein. While Kepler was a Christian and often thought in theological terms, Einstein was a non-practicing Jew. Clearly, as Harrison has presented throughout this work, all people bear the divine image of God. However, more puzzling is the author’s apparent consistent efforts to connect Einstein and God’s image with a personal faith that appears non-existent in him. Einstein employed the language of “cosmic religious feeling” (154, 156-7) to describe his experience of God. More troubling, Harrison employs the deistic language of God as a clockmaker (158) in her efforts to baptize Einstein’s faith. While demonstrating a sense of wonder about God and an expressed desire to know God’s thoughts can be evidence of a spiritual quest or hunger in Einstein, it hardly reflects, to employ Harrison’s dichotomy, the divine likeness. One is left wondering if the author is seeking to create a case for universalism, which I doubt she is. Nonetheless the lack of precision and clarity does open the door rather widely for potential confusion and uncertainty.

But there is one larger concern that surfaced as I first began reading this book and unfortunately was never addressed. The sub-title suggests that this study will provide a ‘theological anthropology’ for Christian formation. As previously indicated, Harrison desires to introduce western Christians to her own Orthodox theological heritage. That is a very laudable goal that I strongly affirm. Yet the most significant gap that I found was a tendency to minimize and even ignore some of the key theological terms of Orthodoxy as they relate to this book’s topic. From my perspective, the three central Orthodox themes related to this topic of deification, theosis, and synergy are all marginalized in this work. Further, Harrison uses the language of sanctification (188), yet that is not a part of the Orthodox vocabulary. The author refrains from mentioning theosis until the second to the last page because “it can easily be misunderstood” (193). While that is clearly true, it does not help the reader to grasp the fullness of an Orthodox anthropology by ignoring one of the central theological principles of that anthropology. Beyond this single sentence there is no elaboration of the nature or significance of theosis for an Orthodox understanding of restoring the divine image and likeness. Further, while the term deification (136) and synergy (27, 71) were both used, they too could have benefited from a fuller description. Readers who are conversant with Orthodox theology may also be surprised to notice the minimal usage of 2 Peter 1:4 that has been a central biblical passage in the Orthodox teaching of sharing in God’s image and likeness. These theological gaps are unfortunate, because of Harrison’s great academic knowledge and ability to present complex thoughts cogently it would have been very advantageous for her to present these often confusing Orthodox terms for her readers in a manner that would have increased their understanding.

In the end there are some significant and welcome strengths in this book, and it will stimulate scholars from various disciplines including theology, Christian spirituality, soci-ology and anthropology. However, its overall value could have been increased by a more intentional appreciation and celebration of the primary theological principles of Orthodox anthropology.

Cite this article
Tom Schwanda, “God’s Many-Splendored Image: Theological Anthropology for Christian Formation”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 41:1 , 110-112


  1. For a succinct and helpful summary of the Orthodox understanding of sin as it relates to human nature see James R. Payton, Jr. Light from the Christian East: An Introduction to the Orthodox Tradition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007), esp. 102-119.

Tom Schwanda

Tom Schwanda, Christian Formation and Ministry, Wheaton College