Authors Eric Parker Nota Bene Philosophy

Godly Reason: Albert the Great on the Image of God

Albert the Great (1193/1206 – 1280) is perhaps best known today as the celebrated forefather and instructor of Thomas Aquinas. His legacy, however, is much larger than that. One of the common Medieval myths surrounding Albert is that he possessed the mythical philosopher’s stone which enabled him to discover the ancient secrets of nature. In reality he possessed Aristotle and many other newly translated works that had been imported for the first time into Europe during and after the Crusades.

What is perhaps most significant about Albert’s legacy is that it produced (at least) two different major theological traditions. Many of those who followed him in the Dominican order saw him, rather than Thomas Aquinas, as the true teacher of their order. Theologians such as Robert Kilwardby, Dietrich of Freiberg, Berthold von Moosburg, Meister Eckhart, and Johannes Tauler, concluding that Thomas’s theology had replaced St. Augustine’s mystical piety with a speculative Aristotelian philosophy, attempted to chart out a more Albertist theology. According to Loris Sturlese, Albert’s concept of man as created in the image of God (imago Dei) carried over into the Renaissance and may have influenced Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. In his Metaphysics commentary, Albert borrows an argument from Hermes Trismegistus1regarding the imago Dei:

Hæc enim speculatio intellectus nostri non existit in eo quod est humanus, sed in eo quod ut divinum quoddam existit in nobis. Sicut enim subtiliter dicit Hermes Trismegistus in libro quem de Deo deorum ad Eusclepium collegam composuit, homo nexus est Dei & mundi, super mundum per duplicem indagationem existens, physicam scilicet, & doctrinalem: quare utraque virtute rationis humanæ perficitur, & hoc modo mundi gubernator congruè vocatur: subnexus est autem Deo, pulchritudines eius non immensas mundo, hoc est, continuo & tempore, accipiens per similitudinem divinam, quæ in eo est per lumen simplicis intellectus, quod a Deo deorum participat.2


When our intellect speculates [on Metaphysics] it does so not insofar as it is human but insofar as it is something divine within us. So Hermes Trismegistus cleverly writes in his book on the God of gods, which he composed for his friend Asclepius, that man is the connection between God and the world, being above the world by means of his double investigation, that is natural philosophy and speculative science. By means of both of these [sciences] the power of reason in man is perfected and in this way he is rightly called the ‘ruler of the world.’ Furthermore, man is bound to God, because he beholds an immeasurable beauty that is not in this world, that is, not in succession or temporal, which he receives by means of the divine likeness that is in him in the simple light of the intellect, which he shares with the God of gods.

Sturlese points out that Pico also refers to Hermes Trismegistus in his famous Oratio (now known as the Oration on the Dignity of Man), referred to by some as the “handbook” of Renaissance humanism, to make the same point as Albert, that is, that the imago Dei in man, if recovered properly from its corrupted state, enables him to examine and pass judgment on everything. Sturlese explains:

Drei Punkte dieser Lehre möchte  ich an dieser Stelle unterstreichen.

Erstens: Das »Götliche« is freilich eine theologishce Kategorie. Albert benutzt sie jedoch an dieser Stelle in einem strengen philosophischen Sinne. Die These, daß die Vernunft »etwas Göttliches« ist, befindet sich in den Werken des Aristoteles. Die Offernbarung bestätigt sie zwar, sie begründet sie aber nicht. Wir haben also mit einer philosophischen Aussage (einem Philosophem), und nicht mit einer theologischen Aussage (einem Theologumenon) zu tun.

Zweitens: Gewiß stand im Hintergrund der Überlegungen Alberts der biblishce Spruch über die Gottebenbildlichkeit des Menschen, doch lag der Schwerpunkt auf der Ähnlichkeit, und nicht auf der Unähnlichkeit. Der Mensch teilt das Licht der Vernunft, dieses Licht ist die Vernunft selbst, nicht eine unendliche ferne Widerspiegelung. Hiermit entfernte sich Albert vom überlieferten Verständnis der theologisch begründeten Gottebenbildlichkeit.

Einen letzten Punkt möchte ich erwähnen: Daß der Mensch durch die Vernunft nicht nur in Berührung mit dem Göttlichen ist, sondern auch Herrscher der Welt (gubernator mundi) sei. Hierbei zeigt sich am deutlichsten eine mögliche Kontinuität zwischen Albert und dem Denken der Renaissance.3


I would like to underline here three points regarding this doctrine:

First, that “divine” is actually a theological category. Yet, Albert uses it in this place in a strictly philosophical sense. The argument that reason is “something divine” comes form Aristotle’s works. He endorsed the idea to be sure, but he did not justify it. Therefore, we are concerned with a philosophical axiom (a philosopheme), and not with a theological axiom (a theologoumenon).

Second, Albert’s thoughts regarding the biblical message of the image of God in man certainty stand in the background, nevertheless, his focus lies on the likeness and not on the difference. Man shares the light of reason and reason itself is of this light, not an eternally distant reflection. With these words Albert distances himself from the traditional understanding that the image of God is founded on theological authority.

I would like to make one final point: Man is not only in contact with the divine through reason, but he is also the ruler of the world (gubernator mundi). In this way a possible connection between Albert and Renaissance thought very clearly appears.

So, for Albert as well as Pico, the imago Dei enables man to be the co-ruler of the world along with God, and, as Trismegistus testifies, this concept is rationally and philosophically demonstrable.4

  1. Hermes was the supposed Egyptian author of the Corpus Hermeticum, a manual of ancient priestly and philosophical practices whom Augustine thought foretold the coming of Christ.
  2. Metaphysics, I.1.1.
  3. Sturlese, Homo divinus: philosophische Projekte in Deutschland zwischen Meister Eckhart und Heinrich Seuse, (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2007), 39.
  4. The idea that man is the “governor of the world” or a “microcosm” because of his reasoning faculty is also prevalent in Protestant theology, at least since Calvin, who makes extensive use of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations in demonstrating the signs of divinity in man in his Institutes, I.5.5.

By Eric Parker

Eric Parker (PhD McGill University) is the editor of the Library of Early English Protestantism (LEEP) at the Davenant Institute. He lives in the deep South with his wife and two children, where he is currently preparing for ordination to the diaconate in the Reformed Episcopal Church.