Even less so could they boast any kind of reliable knowledge of the human being. “There are many facts,” Gregory observes, “about rest in sleep, about our imagination at work in dreams, about memory and recollection, about calculation, anger and desire—to be brief, about all that runs the affairs of this little world called Man.”1 In other words, get to know your own selves first before you foolishly barge into God’s mysteries!
Today, it seems, the situation is quite different. Our knowledge of ourselves—“this little world called Man”—is incomparably more incisive and sophisticated. Scientific disciplines, from chemistry, through a range of biomedical sciences, linguistics, psychology, cultural anthropology, all the way to philosophy of mind and the study of artificial intelligence (to name only a few), collectively offer us a host of insights into human being. Small surprise, we have taken our cue and have now begun to reach for the stars!
Yet, for all its advances, this explosion of anthropological knowledge has failed, as some have noted, to shed light on the most fundamental of questions: What does it actually mean to be human?2 We do face, to be sure, an information overload long beyond the mastery of even the most gifted Renaissance man. But it has scarcely provided us with insight into what we ourselves are precisely as human beings: as fragile as a reed, in the words of Pascal, and yet possessing an incomparable advantage over the whole mute cosmos, for when crushed, we at least know that we are dying.3 Has the kaleidoscopic variety of human phenomena under our fingertips brought us any closer to knowing what a human being actually is? Or has it only served to obscure, and distract us from, the question?
As early as the 16th century, Martin Luther worried that we no longer knew what we were. For to answer the question of our identity and significance, we would have to know where we come from (that is, our true origin, or efficient cause) and what we are for (that is, our destiny, or final cause).4 This disorientation has since become a signature characteristic of modernity. Modernity goes so far as making a virtue of it, seeing it as an opportunity to remake our own selves, humanity as such, and even our whole world. And it promises to bless those endeavors. Lack of confidence in our very selves, paradoxically accompanied by in-depth knowledge of various aspects of human existence, thus becomes transformed into delusional self-confidence. The story of modernity is, at many of its junctures, a tragic tale of this delusion.5
But things have not always been so uncertain and so up for grabs. We may not always have known about the intricacies of our cardiovascular system, the chemistry of the DNA or the subconscious; yet the big picture was available. Take Psalm 8, for example. The psalmist, too, is clearly struck by the insignificance of the human. Still, this insignificance is no pretext for a call to make something of ourselves. It is, instead, an opportunity to confess that our meaning, as human beings, comes from beyond ourselves. It comes from God, and it is related to God’s attentiveness:
“What is man that You should note him,and the human creature, that You should pay him heed,and You make him little less than the gods,with glory and grandeur You crown him”(vv. 5-6, trans. Robert Alter)
The meaning of being human, at least for the Bible and subsequent Christian tradition, is to be found in God’s creation, his sustaining mindfulness, his caring provision for us and his love that seeks us out and destines us for itself. In other words, to be human, as Martin Luther also noted, is to be justified: to allow another—God!—to establish our significance, to make sense of us and to ground our identity.6
In the Bible, God’s act of creation constitutes such foundational act of justification. Everything that God creates has its proper, intended place. But humans are justified in a unique way. First, the man and the woman are not only summoned into being like the rest of creation. Their existence is, rather, the fruit of divine consideration (“Let us make mankind…” Genesis 1:26) and intimate formation (Genesis 2:7). The dust of the ground is formed and given breath by God to become a living being. The man and the woman exist in a special relationship with God. Second, they receive a blessing to be fruitful. But unlike the other creatures, for them, as those enlivened by God, the blessing comes with a task: to cultivate the garden and to make their own the world around them. They are to be creators of sorts. Finally, and most importantly, they are to do so together, as male and female, created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).
The image of God has received various interpretations throughout the history of Christian theology, being associated most often with rationality as that which differentiates humans from animals. While there is some merit to this perspective, it owes more to the Greek philosopher Aristotle than it does to the Bible.7 For Aristotle, the human is a life-form with logos, often interpreted simply as a rational animal.
By contrast, in the biblical witness from Genesis all the way to the New Testament, the image of God, as a human distinctive, has more to do with how humans exist. They are to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28)—in a way that reflects God’s own being and work. Now, God brings everything into being solely on account of who he is, the triune God who is love (1 John 4:8). In creating, God graciously elects to be the God he is, not just for himself but for also for others, especially his human creatures. He brings creation into being, then creates the man and the woman, gives them a place of honor, bestows on them the gift of creation as a token of his abiding favor, and summons them to a purposeful living that reflects what he has done for them. In all this, he offers them, above all else, fellowship with himself.
Correspondingly, the man and the woman, followed by all the children of Adam, are to rest their being and find their identity in God’s many-splendored goodness. They are defined by their unique fellowship with God. Since humans are unable to create out of nothing, they are to use God’s gift of creation and, through it, to express their own self-giving on each other’s behalf. They thus also, as it were, justify the other by summoning this other out of social nonexistence into rich relational living. Humans do in a human way what God does in a divine way! Just so, they exist in the right relationship to God, exhibiting in their being his goodness and design, and in the right relationship to each other. They are as God meant them to be. In this complex way, they are justified as creatures in God’s very image—trusting God for who they are and living out that very identity in mutual affection and creation stewardship. Humans exist as believing, social and vocational beings.
However, as the entire arc of the biblical narrative underscores, humans can also exist differently, in contradiction to God’s intention. They can deny what God has made of them and lose themselves. While there are no unpine-y pine trees or unlion-y lions, there most certainly are inhuman human beings, those who dehumanize themselves and do so to others, though this should not be taken simply in a moralistic sense. The bottom line is that only humans can sin. And humans sin, fundamentally, when they do not take God’s goodness for what he discloses it to be, but give credence to a lie that God is not to be trusted. “Did God really say . . . ? And even if he did, did he mean it?” (Genesis 3:1-4). The serpent’s questions to Eve are at the root of all sin.
To exist in sin is not to be able to trust God with one’s very being or to live out of God’s justification. Both Luther and Calvin saw unbelief, in the specific form of refusal to take God for who he is—to take him at his Word, to be the root sin.8 What flows from it is the pressing and debilitating need to justify one’s own existence in all its glaring insignificance, to create and make something of oneself. This involves sinners in two paradoxes. First, they must act as simultaneously creator and material in relation to themselves, which is impossible.9 Second, for all their self-justification, sinners remain stubbornly oriented to justification by another. We all want what we make of ourselves to be recognized, admired and even envied by others. This entangles us in patterns of mistrust, competition, judgment, blame, etc., in relation to others, all of which pervert our original togetherness and become contexts for a host of greater and lesser sins against the neighbor and, as such, against God himself, making mockery of his abiding love and favor.
In sin, the rich togetherness for which we were created becomes absorbed into an excessive and inescapable preoccupation with the self. As Karl Barth observed, by wanting to be on our own what we can only be with God, we have actually become less.10 Our very lives have become stamped with death. When death finally does come, God, in effect, only ratifies what we have been doing to ourselves all along. In death, the last relationship, that of me to myself, is undercut. The judgment of death is: “As you want it so be it!”11
But—and this is the good news—even as he pronounces us guilty, God does not wish for his creation to destroy itself and for humanity to perish. God’s question to Adam in the garden, “Where are you?” comes to define the arc of the biblical story. It is God who first asks the question. And, importantly, it is God himself who answers it on our behalf. He answers it in Jesus Christ. The children of Adam are no longer where Adam was once justified, where human existence made sense and human life had a purpose. God himself, therefore, has become a human being, our brother and friend, to take up our cause.
Jesus Christ, to be sure, paid the price for our unfaithfulness. He was ultimately held guilty for our sin (2 Corinthians 5:21). On the cross, he bore in his body our own isolation and death. But our focus on the cross must not become so excessive that we should forget about Christ’s life and his resurrection, as if they were merely incidental. In Christ’s entire person and work—his life, death, resurrection and ascension—we discern again the image of God and the possibility of its renewal in ourselves.
First of all, Jesus is the human image of God, in that in him, God addresses us about himself in the language of our own flesh (Hebrews 1:3; Colossians 1:15). Over against satanic doubt, God shows himself to be a good God, a God who does not give up on us, undeterred by death itself, even though we have recklessly given up on him. More importantly for our consideration here, Jesus not only displays God’s faithfulness. He is also the human image of God. He is the second Adam (Romans 5, 1 Corinthians 15:45).
Jesus Christ lived a truly human life, the life that Adam and all Adam’s children ought to have lived. His earthly, human ministry was one of unshaken trust in the Father’s provision in face of temptation to doubt God, to justify himself and to take matters into his own hands. Jesus repeatedly entrusted himself to the Father’s care, beginning with the wilderness encounter with Satan, all the way through Gethsemane and Golgotha. By trusting the Father with his very self, Jesus was able to live a life free from self-preoccupation. He lived, therefore, as a man for others—even to the point of death. “Father, forgive them…,” he pleaded (Luke 23:34). In raising his Son from the dead, the Father vindicated the life of his Son as a truly human and godly life. In Jesus, humanity is again justified—it is how and where it should have been all along. With his life, he restores it to its God-accorded place.
But Jesus was raised not only because of his sinless life. The resurrection was no private event or reward. He was raised also for our justification (Romans 4:25). With his self-giving life, Jesus has opened up a life-space for us to come into, inviting us to find ourselves in him and to claim his faithful existence for ourselves, as if we had lived it all ourselves. What a gift!
With his self-giving life, Jesus has opened up a life-space for us to come into, inviting us to find ourselves in him and to claim his faithful existence for ourselves, as if we had lived it all ourselves.
As the risen and ascended Lord, Jesus Christ is now on the other side of death; but he is there as none other than the human he was. In him, the life of Adam, human life is brought to completion and finds its Sabbath: it is truly finished as a life reposing in God through and through (John 19:30; Luke 23:46). The triune God has brought forth a faithful covenant partner and a human person who, with his entire life, perfectly images him and gives expression to his divine goodness. But there is more. The same risen and ascended Jesus is also God’s very own living grace, now living for us. He is the human face of God turned toward us in abiding favor. In him, our own lives, too, can be made into a new creation. For if Christ is for us with the being of the triune God, do we need to justify ourselves any more? As St. Paul noted, “The just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17). They shall live as justified by God, who in Jesus Christ has already made more of us than we could ever make of ourselves. A place in Christ is our own completion and destiny; to claim it as our very own—to believe that the human in Christ is me—is what defines us as human beings. We are the body of Christ.
Piotr J. Małysz is associate professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School, where he teaches history and doctrine. He is the author of Trinity, Freedom and Love: An Engagement with the Theology of Eberhard Jüngel and co-editor of Luther Refracted: The Reformer’s Ecumenical Legacy.