Today at the seminary where I teach, Trinity in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, our monthly Dean’s Hour was on the theme of theological anthropology—a Christian understanding of human nature and persons. I was asked to be one of the speakers, and I chose to focus on St. Paul. Because so much of what we do here at SF is undergirded by the kinds of convictions I tried to articulate, I thought it might be good if I posted my remarks here. So, without further ado:
Our topic for today is theological anthropology—or, more specifically, a Christian view of human nature and human persons. It’s a broad topic, obviously, and I can’t even begin to scratch the surface of all the many facets of it. But it’s an urgent topic as any glance at the blogosphere or Facebook or your local high school or coffee shop bulletin board will indicate.
In a 2013 New Yorker essay, writer Margaret Talbot described her attendance at the True Colors Conference at the University of Connecticut, an annual event for gay and transgender youth:
At a workshop called “Binary Defiance,” … the facilitator wrote specialized gender labels on the blackboard so fast that I practically sprained my wrist writing them down: “non-binary, gender queer, bigender, trigender, agender, intergender, pangender, neutrois, 3rd gender, androgyne, two-spirit, self-coined, genderfluid.” These ever-narrower labels are meant to be liberating, offering people their own customized categories…
So much of the LGBTQ community, as Talbot was reminded at this conference, seems animated by the conviction that we must be true to who we know ourselves to be in the sanctity of our innermost selves. What should Christians make of this way of thinking?
Of course it’s not just gay or transgender questions that force us to grapple with our Christian theology of human nature and persons. We might also think of bioethical questions about treatments for infertility, dementia, and assisted dying—to pick only three further topics out of myriad possibilities. Truly, engaging the question of what it means to be human before God is required of us if we are going to be able to respond to a whole confusing menagerie of questions thrown up in contemporary Western cultures.
Due to the constraints of this venue, here’s how I propose to limit my focus this morning. I want to limit my attention to the letters of Paul and ask what Paul’s theological anthropology is, in broad brushstrokes. And at the end, I want to draw some conclusions on the basis of Paul for our theological thinking today.
In the first place, we learn from Paul that human persons have our being from God. That is to say, we are creatures; we are created by God. To the Corinthian believers, Paul stresses his adherence to the classic Jewish conviction that God is the one who gives life to every living thing: “there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist” (1 Corinthians 8:6). The whole world, both animate and inanimate, owes its existence to God’s power and gift. Not only does God initiate creation at some beginning point: this is Paul’s affirmation in Romans 1. But God also continuously holds creation in being. Far from winding it up like a watch and sitting back to observe it ticking, God is actively present to creation, closer to it and to us, as a part of it, than it is and than we are to ourselves (as St. Augustine recognized, following Paul, among other biblical witnesses).
Elsewhere Paul stresses that Christ is the agent through whom God created the world: “in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:16). And, Paul adds tellingly, “in him all things hold together” (1:17)—he is the innermost energy that ensures each facet of creation remains in existence at any given moment. Were he to cease holding all things together, all things would immediately cease to be.
But, second, we learn from Paul that human persons, who owe their existence to God’s creative gift, have also become enslaved to malevolent forces. Death, whom Paul pictures as a personified power, “exercise[s] dominion” over us, he tells the Romans (5:17). And sin, too, is a power that “exercise[s] dominion through death” (5:21). The result is that, although we remain God’s creatures, we are not presently whom God intended us to be. Paul frequently refers to us all as being captive to what he calls “the flesh”: our present bodily and spiritual existence is fundamentally skewed, oriented away from God. We are “fleshly” insofar as we are rebellious sufferers, prone to idolatry from within as well as catastrophe from without. Again, as Paul puts it in Romans, “[T]he mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (8:7-8).
Thankfully, this is not where Paul leaves us. Third and finally, we learn from Paul that human persons are those who humanity has come to be shared by the Son of God, the one who is equal to God the Father himself. As Paul puts it in his famous “hymn” in Philippians, “[T]hough [or ‘because’] he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (2:7-8). And because our human nature has been shared—or, in technical language, assumed—by the Son of God, and because Jesus, the Son, died and rose from the dead in that nature, we who trust in Christ have redemption.
Paul pictures this redemption of our ruined humanity in two apparently (but not really) contradictory ways. In the first place, he can picture us being raised with Christ as those who were formerly dead. “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-7). Our fleshly, fallen, sin-corrupted condition is remedied by our sharing in Jesus’ resurrection. We come back, as it were, to our true selves—we come back to the creatures God originally intended us to be—by being brought back to life after having languished in death.
But, equally, Paul can picture our redemption as death as well: “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:6). “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:19-20). If Paul can say that we have been raised from our horrible fall into sin and death, he can equally say that our old fallen selves have been crucified and killed (Galatians 5:24). And, consequently, he can also say that our daily Christian lives should be understood as an ongoing death to the “old self” that still perdures despite having been decisively drowned in our baptism: “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly” (Colossians 3:9). “You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24).
This “new self” Paul speaks of, with whom we are to be increasingly clothed, is none other than Christ himself. As the one who has shared our humanity, died, and triumphed over death in the resurrection, he now goes before as the template of an entirely renewed humanity, one that has passed through death and emerged into an eschatological, Spirit-animated way of life: “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died” (1 Corinthians 15:20); “he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything” (Colossians 1:18). As we “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” like a garment on a daily basis (Romans 13:14), we prepare ourselves for the final day of resurrection when “our lowly body [will] be [made] like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:21, ESV). Our destiny is “to be conformed to the image of [God’s] Son” (Romans 8:29). If we want to see what the fulfillment of our humanity looks like—if we want to catch a glimpse of how God intended human nature to be radiant and glorious—then we should look to the True Human Being, Christ Jesus, who has passed through death and been raised “never to die again” (Romans 6:9, NASB).
Well, what does all this heady Pauline theology mean for us and our contemporary dilemmas today? I want to draw out—briefly—three implications.
In the first place, Paul’s theology of our being God’s creatures means, at minimum, that human beings have dignity and significance. How could one read the Christ-hymn in Philippians—with its affirmation that Christ, the Son of God, was “born in human likeness” (2:7)—and think otherwise? Every last one of us, from the lowliest sinner to the holiest believer, is stamped with the imprint of the Creator’s design. As 1 Timothy 4:4 puts it, “[E]verything created by God is good.”
But second, if we take Paul’s diagnosis of the human condition seriously, then we must also conclude that everything about our current human condition is marred by our imprisonment under the reign of sin and death. We, all of us, rightly fall under the condemnation of Romans 3:10, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one.” And this, in turn, means that our current state is not a reliable indicator of who God originally intended us to be. We can’t simply look at who we currently are and conclude, “God made me this way.” That would leave completely out of account Paul’s dark portrait of our fallenness. If we try to “look inside” and “be true to ourselves” and “accept ourselves just as we are,” we will go astray, because our current selves—though we remain God’s good creatures—are ensnared and, indeed, dead in trespasses and sins. As Duke Divinity School’s Warren Smith, following Paul and the patristic tradition, has put it,
The orthodox Christian understanding is that given the corruption of sin we cannot properly know what God intended humanity to be simply by looking at who we are in the present. Rather the only way we know what humanity rightly should be is to begin our reasoning from human nature perfected in the New Adam and his revelation of the prototype of nature in the resurrection.
And this brings me to my third and final implication of Paul’s theological anthropology. If Christ, the firstborn from the dead, is the prototype of the new humanity—if he is the firstfruits of the resurrection, if he is the one who shows us what we too will one day become—then our daily task is one of saying “no” to everything in us, no matter how deeply inborn or hardwired it may seem or feel, that does not conform to what we know of Christ as he we learn of him through the teaching of the apostles and prophets. As the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus has put it, “In the Christian tradition, being true to yourself means being true to the self that you are called to be.” True humanity is found not by trying to mold myself into who I perceive myself to be; rather, true humanity is found as I daily die to my own way of being and conform myself, in the Spirit’s power, to the image of Christ who shows me what true humanity really is.
I don’t pretend that these conclusions make our contemporary ethical discernment easy, nor do I mean to endorse the way conclusions like these have been used to bludgeon sincere questioners into silence. Many questions remain, as our ongoing debates on campus indicate! But these Pauline conclusions are, I believe, at least part of the biblical framework within which our dialogue and discernment needs to take place.