A Theology of Human Rights
in an Orthodox Perspective
Orthodox Christianity does not have a good reputation on human rights, and indeed Orthodox theologians are deeply divided on human rights, with both strong supporters (such as Stanley Harakas and Archbishop Anastasios Yannoulatos) and strong opponents (Christos Yannaras and Vigen Guroian). Countries of Orthodox tradition such as Russia and Romania have supported violations of human rights, especially against religious and ethnic minorities. Yet Orthodox supporters of human rights argue strongly that modern notions of human rights are consistent with Orthodox tradition, especially patristic anthropology and modern Orthodox theology of the human person, even though modern human rights conventions reflect humanistic philosophies which lack a divine or spiritual referent. However, human rights conventions are often invoked to support practices which many Orthodox find ethically repugnant, such as abortion, same-sex relations and marriage, and medical assistance for end of life.
A theology of human rights, consistent with scripture and with patristic and modern Orthodox thinking on human existence, outlined here, aims at overcoming Orthodox hesitations concerning human rights. This theology is grounded on five principles.
First, patristic anthropology and modern Orthodox thinking on human existence begins with the Genesis account of human creation, especially the verse: “God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’” (Gn 1:26). The ancient Fathers were deeply concerned about the meaning of the divine image, and whether “image” and “likeness” are synonyms. They were not unanimous about the divine image in humans, and they advanced several human traits as manifesting the divine image, especially rationality, free will, dominion over the rest of creation, and creativity. Each of these traits contains some truth, but none, singly or altogether, exhausts what it means to be human.
Modern Orthodox thinking on human personhood stresses that humans are created in the image of the Holy Trinity. Just as the Persons of the Trinity are distinct divine Persons, so too are humans distinct, unique, and irreplaceable persons. And just as the divine Persons exist in full and equal relationships of love with each other (perichoresis), so are humans called to be in full and equal relationships of love with each other. Humans thus have a “personal mode of existence” (Christos Yannaras): each human is unique, irreplaceable and of infinite value.
Some ancient Fathers considered that the terms “image” and “likeness” in Genesis mean the same. Others affirmed that the image are those indelible human characteristics which are aspects of common human nature, while likeness represents the full achievement of human personhood by the perfection of human relationships with God and with fellow humans manifested in love (John of Damascus, II:12).
Christ is the perfect image of God the Father, and by his Incarnation, he is also the perfect human, who divinizes human nature by uniting it with his divine nature. Humans are called to be Christ-images, acquiring the divine likeness with divine assistance, a program of human life called salvation or, in Eastern Christianity, theosis (deification or divinization). The divine likeness is thus not inherent to human existence, but rather the programme or goal of human life.
Orthodoxy affirms that human wickedness and evil can tarnish the divine image and render it almost invisible, but cannot erase it entirely: every human being is and remains an image of God, whatever the person’s social, ethnic, racial, religious, and even moral situation may be.
It follows that human rights must be based on the divine image in humans, inherent to all humans and inalienable, and not on the notion of “likeness,” which represents certain moral and spiritual characteristics which not everyone possesses.
Secondly, from the divine image flows the principle of the ontological equality of all humans. In patristic times, a critical question was the relationship between men and women. The ancient Fathers affirmed the ontological equality of men and women: both are created in the divine image and partake of the same human nature. But the ancient Fathers were not always consistent with this theology; they generally accepted that women had an inferior status in ancient societies. Modern Orthodox thinking extends the principle of ontological equality beyond sexual differentiation, to affirm the essential equality of all humans, regardless of gender, race, nation, age, social status, physical and mental capacity. This provides a philosophical underpinning of the theology of the divine image.
Thirdly, just as the Trinity exists as one inseparable community of Divine Persons, so are humans called to be a community of persons. In modern Orthodox thinking on the church, this is reflected in the sense of the church as koinonia and as sobornost, communion and community. The universal church, the Body of Christ to which all of humanity is called, is the fulfillment of human community, rather than the family, the neighbourhood, the ethnic nation, a particular religious or ideological community, or the state. These human communities may be useful in the achievement of human flourishing, but are not ends in themselves. Many violations of human rights occur because intermediate communities such as an ethnic group, a religion, or adherents of a secular or even religiously-based ideology (such as “Russian world—Russkii mir”), are taken to be an absolute norm, overriding the universality of the human condition and the universality of the church.
Fourthly, humans are to be in communion with one another and with God in love, just as “God is Love” (1 Jn 4:8), and as Jesus commanded: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. As I have loved you, you also should love one another” (Jn 13:34). Love is the positive and spiritual bond uniting God to humanity, humans to God and humans to each other. God’s love for his creation, in particular humans, is unconditional, not tied to the expectation of something in return, even love. An important aspect of love is respect of or acceptance for and indeed appreciation for the singularity or “otherness” of the other, recognizing that each is a child of God and worthy of love, distinguishing between what may be evil in the other’s behaviour, and the existence of the other as a manifestation of the divine image. This high calling is what both the Old Testament and the New Testament refer to as the human vocation: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2); “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). Christ’s commandment of love is a very high standard indeed, extending even to enemies: “I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44).
Finally, none of the qualities of human existence as an image of God identified over the centuries, either individually or even together, exhausts what it means to be human, nor does the absence or diminution of any quality annihilate a person’s humanity. Just as mystery enshrouds divine existence, so too does mystery characterize human existence: it is not possible to seize or understand a person fully. St Paul writes: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12). Similarly, human rights serve to delineate certain features of human existence, but they do not exhaust what it means to be human; there will always be an aspect of mystery to human existence.
Two recent Orthodox documents pertaining to human rights can be examined in the light of these five principles underpinning a theology of human rights.
In 2008, the Russian Orthodox Church approved the document “Basic Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom and Human Rights.” Although it purports to endorse human rights, subsumed under the notion of “human dignity,” the document advances two major qualifications to universal human rights.
First, “one’s homeland,” together with the local community and the family, are considered of higher value than individual human rights: “Human rights should not contradict love for one’s homeland and neighbours. One’s human rights cannot be set against the values and interests of one’s homeland, community and family” (§III.4). Collective and historical rights are thus superior to individual rights. In terms of the five principles of an Orthodox theology of human rights, this is contrary to ontological equality, the universality of the human community, and the commandment of love. It opens the door to discrimination and persecution of minorities based on ethnic, racial, religious, and other characteristics.
The second qualification is that rights are contingent on the moral status of the individual. Human dignity “has first of all a moral meaning”: “The implementation of human rights should not come into conflict with God-established moral norms and traditional morality based on them” (§III.5). This qualification opens the door to denying rights to certain categories of persons — for example the LGBTQ+ community, and unmarried heterosexual couples — who do not satisfy the church-determined criterion of morality.
The Russian Orthodox Church places its approach to human rights under its broad slogan of “traditional values,” which again are used to trump assertions of inherent human rights. Basing human rights on merit is contrary to patristic thinking on the difference between divine image, inherent in human nature, and divine likeness, which does have moral and spiritual content. The divine image is and cannot be lost, whereas the divine likeness is acquired by collaboration with God. The Russian document hinges on a conception of human rights as likeness rather than as image, facilitating restrictions on rights. Human rights must be based on the patristic notion of the divine image, not the divine likeness, the goal of human existence, which is not an inherent property of human nature.
In February 2020, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America published the document “For the Life of the World: Towards a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church,” prepared by a panel of Orthodox theologians. The document was not formally issued as an official teaching of the Ecumenical Patriarchate or the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, but was endorsed for publication by both. It stands as a counterpoint to the Russian document on Human Dignity, Freedom and Human Rights.
In sharp contrast with the Russian document, “For the Life of the World” contains a sweeping endorsement of human rights, enumerating a broad range of human rights (§63), like those of international human rights conventions. It grounds its justification for the commendation of modern human rights on the biblical and patristic notion of the divine image and likeness: “God created humankind after his own image and likeness, and has endowed every man, woman, and child with the full spiritual dignity of persons fashioned in conformity with the divine personhood of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (§62).
The document nonetheless recognizes limits of human rights in an Orthodox perspective: “The language of human rights may not say all that can and should be said about the profound dignity and glory of creatures fashioned after the image and likeness of God” (§61). This can be understood to refer both to the absence of a divine referent and to a lack of recognition of the apophatic nature of human existence in human rights instruments.
Despite its wide scope, “For the Life of the World” does not yet elaborate a full theology to underpin modern conceptions of human rights. The failure to distinguish between “divine image” and “divine likeness” is a weakness which could pave the way for qualifications of human rights such as those in the Russian document.
From an Orthodox perspective, human rights documents are incomplete and imperfect because they lack a divine referent or justification, they are often imbued with Enlightenment concern for the individual in isolation, and they do not regard society as “an organic social whole made up of people who are complete personalities and whose relationships are based on love — not merely a form of coexistence shared by isolated individuals” (Archbishop Anastasios Yannoulatos, 22). While often general and ambiguous, declarations of human rights nonetheless express a high moral standard for humanity, even if inadequate in themselves to prevent abuses of human rights.
Human rights must be grounded clearly on the divine image, in the sense of inalienable qualities that every human person possesses from the simple fact of being human. To ground a theology of human rights on the broader notion of “image and likeness” is inadequate, since it could open the door to an emphasis on “likeness” — the acquisition of moral and spiritual characteristics — thus permitting qualifications on human rights. This is precisely the approach taken by the Russian document, with its major qualifications on the notion of universal human rights.
Despite reticence in some Orthodox quarters about human rights, a robust theology of human rights is consistent with scripture and patristic and modern Orthodox thinking on human existence. This theology needs to be reflected in official church documents touching on human rights. This has not been done in an entirely coherent fashion; neither of the two major recent Orthodox documents on human rights is fully satisfactory in this regard. The Russian document introduces two major qualifications to the notion of inherent and inalienable human rights attributable solely to human existence, and the Greek Orthodox document fails to provide adequate theological grounding for a broad endorsement of human rights. Clearly, the Orthodox Church still has considerable work to do to arrive at a satisfactory theology of human rights. The theological principles articulated in this paper identify some key principles to underpin such a theology. ♦
Paul Ladouceur is an Orthodox theologian and author in Quebec, Canada. He teaches at the Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College (University of Toronto) and at the Faculté de théologie et sciences religieuses, Université Laval (Québec). Find his academia.edu page here.
Ladouceur, Paul. “A Theology of Human Rights in an Orthodox Perspective.” Canopy Forum, July 11, 2022. https://canopyforum.org/2022/07/11/a-theology-of-human-rights-in-an-orthodox-perspective/