Image/Identity: What do Christians believe about human life?

Image/Identity: What do Christians believe about human life?

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. . . .” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. – Genesis 1:26–27

What does it mean to be human?

That question has implications for seemingly every discipline, from theology to sociology, history, biology, psychology, and the like. It is this doctrine that answers questions regarding how mankind is different from God the Creator and his creation. It also reveals why we can believe in such things as compassion and equality—truths that an atheistic evolutionary worldview simply cannot permit.

By way of preface, it is important to note the historical development of the Western understanding of the human person, which is seen nearly entirely today in terms of an autonomous individual rather than as the member of a community. There was a day in which people did not think of themselves in primarily individual terms. Instead, what it meant to be a person was largely defined by one’s relationship to such communities as family, history, parents, ethnicity, nationality, city, religion, and trade. This was consistent with the fact that we know each person of the Trinity not by isolating them but rather by seeing them in relationship with one another at work in our world and for our salvation.

However, everything changed in the days of the church father Augustine. In writing his book Confessions, he set in motion a historical trajectory that has forever changed how we answer the question of what it means to be human. Augustine did not look outward to his social network but rather inward to his feelings, convictions, longings, and the like. This elevated the importance of the autonomous individual in understanding the essence of humanity.

Many years later, the Christian philosopher René Descartes built on Augustine’s concept of the person as an autonomous individual and defined the essence of what it means to be human in terms of the mind. He synthesized this with his statement, “I think, therefore I am.”

Building on Augustine and Descartes, arguably the greatest American theologian ever, Jonathan Edwards, taught that the autonomous reasoning individual can be saved and improved by God’s grace to God’s glory.

The influential non-Christian philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau then taught that the essence of what it means to be human is that the autonomous reasoning individual can be improved by self-acceptance and self-love; thus, we are to look in to self and not out to God for our identity and betterment. According to his teaching, we are not sinners who long for God’s acceptance, but rather good people who need to accept ourselves and love ourselves so that we can become better versions of ourselves.

Subsequently, the influential American psychologist William James said that the autonomous reasoning individual can be improved by self- acceptance and self-love aided by psychology. One’s hope was then to be found in a trained professional and not ultimately God and his grace. This ideology that human beings are essentially machines that can be worked on by psychology led to the trained professional as a functional savior who makes people’s lives better.

Finally, American psychologist Abraham Maslow said that the autonomous reasoning individual is improved by self-acceptance and self-love aided by psychology to self-actualization, which is the defining principle of what it means to be human.

Therefore, the nearly millennium-and-a-half transition from Augustine to the present day has resulted in the commonly held belief that God does not save us for his glory and to make us part of his people, the church, to grow in holiness. Rather, we essentially save ourselves through loving and accepting ourselves and heeding the counsel of psychology. The ultimate goal of this is not that we would glorify God, but rather that we would achieve our potential, experience our greatness, or, in theological terms, live for our own glory as worshipers of ourselves, being all we can be, experiencing all we can experience, and doing all we can do.

In light of this historical transition, the average person, including the average Christian, is far worldlier and less biblical in his understanding of who they are and why they exist than they are aware. They think in worldly categories rather than biblical categories because the culture in which we live is so fundamentally unbiblical in its thinking. Sociologist Christian Smith has said that the true religion of most people in the West today, regardless of what religion they profess to participate in, is moralistic therapeutic deism.1 By moralistic he means we are good individuals who can get better, not sinners who need actual salvation. By therapeutic he means that it is counseling and therapy, not God or the church, that enable our betterment. By deism he means that God is not really involved in our lives; we are essentially on our own with the occasional exceptions of God answering a prayer we send him or sending us a pithy insight to aid our betterment.

Thus, the historical reasons for the current poor, prevailing perspective on personhood are obvious, but we still need to understand what God teaches about who we are as human beings. This is incredibly important, as one rabbi has said: “We become what we think of ourselves. . . . What determines one’s being is the image one adopts.”2

Do you believe your view of yourself is based mainly upon the Bible or some other teaching?

1See Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 162ff., 166.
2Abraham J. Heschel, Who Is Man? (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1965), 7–8.