In Christian theology, the knowledge of God is inseparable from the knowledge of ourselves. Calvin said of them, "as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other."1 At least as much as the questions of theology proper, the questions about humanity are universal, human questions: Who are we? Why are we here? Where did we come from? What is wrong with the world?
First, the question of human identity. First, and basically, what does human nature consist of? Are we ordered collections of atoms? Do we have a body and some kind of incorporeal soul responsible for consciousness? Is matter an illusion altogether? Any attempt to separate human nature into more than two parts seems to be needlessly speculative and difficult to support biblically. Monism (the view that there is only one basic human substance) runs aground on passages that speak of an intermediate state in which the soul/spirit is separated from the body (Luke 16:19-31, 23:43, 2 Cor 5:8); Mat 10:28 also seems to make a strong distinction between body and soul. This leaves some kind of dichotomism (people have bodies and souls/spirits), but a simply dualistic approach that locates the "self" or consciousness exclusively in the soul does not do justice to the biblical idea of body-soul unity and the promise that our final state will be as new bodies, not disembodied souls (2 Cor 5:2-4, see also 1 Cor 15). Though it is by no means explicitly spelled out in the Scriptures, it seems best to conclude that the normal state of the human is a body-soul unity, with both together constituting the "self", but which can be broken upon death, though this disembodied state is by no means ideal or permanent.2
Humans were made in the image and likeness of God. (Gen 1:26-28) Are the "image" and "likeness" are synonymous or different. The early church generally believed they were different: the image of God is something innate and essential to humanity that remains untouched by the Fall, while the likeness is something humanity has to grow into through Godward growth in holiness and Christian maturity. Origen wrote "that man received the dignity of God's image at his first creation; but that the perfection of his likeness has been reserved for the consummation."3 Irenaeus identified the image with reason and free will, and the likeness with growth into Spirit-endowed righteousness.4 This distinction is still a frequent teaching of the Orthodox Church today: "The image, for those who distinguish the two terms, denotes man's potentiality for life in God, the likeness his realization of that potentiality."5
In contrast, Luther taught that the image and likeness are synonymous, with Gen 1:26 an instance of Hebrew parallelism6, as did Calvin.7 On this he based the belief common in Lutheran and Reformed theology that the whole image of God has been damaged in humanity by sin; only a relic remains, and the whole person (even the will, mind, etc.) is in need of regeneration. I tend to agree with the traditional view that the image and likeness are distinct, reflecting the fact that due to sin we are lacking in some areas of God-resemblance (those pertaining to morality and knowledge of God) but not others (the innate faculties we have in common with God that make relationship with him possible, as Irenaeus states). Put another way, our creation in the image of God means that humans, of all the earthly creatures, are not only capable of a personal relationship with God, they cannot escape this relationship, whether positive or negative. The image of God is also the biblical basis for human rights and dignity which are in no way affected by sin; we see it used as the justification for prohibiting the shedding of human blood (Gen 9:6) and cursing others (Jam 3:9). Because of the image of God, there is something innately valuable about a human person. But the likeness of God is something we must grow to realize, which means developing this relationship, strengthening it with love, and being transformed by grace into the likeness of Jesus Christ. (Rom 8:29, 2 Cor 3:18, Eph 4:15)
Next is the question of human purpose: why are we here? Reflecting the previous point, I think God's desire for humans is to grow into his likeness. Christians seek to be imitators of Christ. Paul speaks of this goal in Eph 4:11-16, saying that God builds up the body of Christ (the Church) "until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ" (v. 13 RSV). "Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ" (v. 15). Jesus was the perfect example of a true human being, and we were made to become like him. On a broader level, we see the purpose of humanity in the initial statement of their creation: after making humans, God tells them to "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." (Gen 1:28) In a Christian context, this means our imitation of God (in his moral nature) applies to our relation to the rest of creation as well as to each other. We become most fully human when we live in union with God and fulfill his purposes for us.
Regarding the third question, the Bible gives an account of human origins depicting our instantaneous creation by God, along with the rest of the world. Genesis 1 and 2 appear to contain two different creation accounts side-by-side,8 the first emphasizing God's majestic sovereignty that creates the cosmos in a peaceful, orderly fashion, the other emphasizing his personal nature and creation of humans in particular. People have been making much of these accounts since before Christ, but our appreciating them today is complicated by their apparent contradictions with the scientific account of our origins. I do not consider biblical concordism a suitable option for reconciling the two accounts as it imposes our modern expectations on an ancient text, which tends to lead to ad hoc interpretations that often produce more questions than they answer, questions which the biblical authors almost certainly didn’t concern themselves with. To further explain why, let's look at some historical approaches to interpreting Genesis.
The traditional interpretation of Genesis 1 does view it as speaking historical truth: how God really created the heavens and the earth. However, to note only this is misleading. Early interpreters did not view the literal sense of Scripture (not just the "literal" interpretation, but the intended meaning of the author) as the only way to read it, or even the most important. Because the Scriptures were inspired by the Spirit of God, they had multiple layers of meaning, including dimensions the human author did not intend.9 The church fathers focused on the allegorical or spiritual meaning of the paradise narrative, mostly using Adam’s historicity to prove the universality of Christ’s salvation of all the sons of Adam.10 In The Literal Meaning of Genesis, St. Augustine cautions against interpreting the Bible to contradict facts that are common knowledge among nonbelievers, for fear of casting doubt not only on themselves, but on the Scriptures as well.11 In other words, if we consider ourselves defenders of "traditional Christian orthodoxy", we should not assume that a literal, historical interpretation is the only one possible, even for passages that appear to be historical. And we should be willing to rethink our interpretation of Scripture if it contradicts things that even unbelievers know to be simple fact. To adopt a nonliteral interpretation of Genesis 1 in response to scientific evidence is not to compromise on the integrity of God's word, but to accept our limitations as human interpreters.
It is often pointed out that Paul seems to believe in the historicity of Adam, and indeed claims that sin and death came from Adam's sin. (Rom 5:12-21; 1 Cor 15:21-22, 45-49) Doesn't this settle our interpretation of Genesis 2-3? Without a historical Adam, what did Christ die for? I will briefly respond with two points to consider. First, Paul was an ancient man, reading his Bible (Old Testament) with an ancient understanding of science and origins that was, in his time, entirely uncontroversial. Elsewhere in 1 Cor 15 he states (about the resurrection) that "What you sow does not come to life unless it dies." (v. 36) But today, we know that a seed that dies cannot germinate.12 Paul’s being wrong about botany does not falsify the resurrection any more than his being wrong about the historicity of Adam does. Also, Paul is not making his understanding of Christ dependent on his understanding of Adam, but the other way around. What Christ reveals about Adam is not his place as the historical originator of sin and death, but as a type of Christ, his archetypal sin serving as a typological prelude to Jesus' universal redemption. In a very real sense, Christ reveals to us the nature of the very problem he solves.13
One other argument is the question: if man was not created instantaneously but by evolution, when and how did the human soul (or the image of God) originate? Did God at some point in evolutionary history implant it in a sufficiently developed primate? I think this question again arises from concordism, the quest to align biblical history with scientific history. But as a scientific theory, evolution is not bound to answer theological questions like this any more than the Bible is bound to answer our scientific questions. Is the origin of souls really an essential dogma of the faith? (Keep in mind that Genesis 2 never specifically mentions any ensoulment of Adam; it must be inferred by assuming that it tells us the etiology of souls) We should not expect spiritual realities like these to be accountable to our modern, scientific inquiries; "spiritual realities are not open to this kind of precise analysis".14 I don't see any problem with considering the origin of souls a divine mystery, real but wholly outside the explanations of science.
Regardless of how God created us, our biblical status as beings created by a personal God (in his image, no less) has great significance. We are simultaneously connected to God and to the rest of creation. Like the animals, we are limited, part of the creation and dependent on him for our existence (see Psa 104, Mat 6:25-34). But at the same time, because of our creation in the image of God, we have a unique relationship with him among all the earthly creatures. As our creation mandate directs, we are made to be God's stewards and emissaries here on earth, taking an active role in the exercise of his rulership of creation. In light of Adam's role in naming the animals (in the ancient Near East the name of something was effectively its identity15), we are even made to be God's "assistant creators", continuing his creative work in his Name towards the redemption of all things. And of all the creatures besides the angels, we alone are capable of knowing God and loving him personally. Scientific or no, the Bible gives a much better account of human origins than the dominant stories of our culture.
By studying the original ancient Near Eastern context and genre of Genesis 1-3, we can better understand the intent of the creation account beyond simply telling ancient history. The contrasts between Genesis 1 and contemporary creation myths (like Enuma Elish) are glaring. Unlike Marduk, "God is portrayed as truly mighty in that he is solely and fully responsible for forming the cosmos"; there is no struggle involved in his doing so, and the elements of creation are depersonalized rather than enemies that God has to subdue.16 Since Enuma Elish predates the Genesis account, these contrasts are surely intentional. Genesis 1, besides an account of Israelite origins, is a polemic for worship of the true God. John H. Walton offers another interpretation, that it may also be a description of God establishing the cosmos as his temple and taking up residence in it to rule all things.17 Genesis 2 has typological parallels with Israel's exile, and since it was completed from an earlier written/oral tradition after the Babylonian exile18, it likely reflects a humble Israel's desire to remember her past sins and seek to serve her Creator humbly. These are just a few examples of the significance of the creation account beyond the literal.
No biblical discussion of humanity would be complete without turning to what is known as "the human condition". Christians and non-Christians alike know that our existence is not perfect. We are reminded of it every time we look to the news, and sometimes with problems that hit closer to home. The faithless believe the apparent indifference of the universe is exactly what it looks like; the faithful agonize over the question, why does a loving, all-powerful God allow suffering, evil, and death? This is the "problem of evil", a fundamental question of human existence. Our understanding of mankind is inextricably connected to it.
In light of my ahistorical interpretation of Genesis 1-3, I don't attribute the existence of evil and death to an original human sin that somehow corrupted our nature; the presence of "natural evil" before the existence of humans makes this conclusion untenable. This view also has theological problems: I see no way that Adam could possibly have ruined human nature in a way that takes God thousands of years to mend. If, as some suppose, this corruption was instead an act of divine judgment,19 then by implication we need salvation not from sin and death but from God himself. Additionally, if basic human nature really is corrupted by sin, then Jesus, by being sinless, was less than fully human. I consider these implications untenable.
I instead hold something like the eastern formulation which, instead of making Adam's act of "original sin" the source of our total depravity that is condemned with death, holds that mortal is our basic problem, and that sin springs from it.20 Sin is not something that Adam (much less God) somehow injected into basic human nature, but the result of slavery to the terror/power of death wielded by the devil.21 (See Hbr 2:14-15) As Paul wrote, "The sting of death is sin" (1 Cor 15:56). Yet at the same time our sin pulls us further from God, the giver of life, which accelerates the vicious cycle; "the wages of sin is death" (Rom 6:23) In Orthodox theology, sin, death, and the devil are all viewed together as a sort of unholy trinity, namely the one Jesus came to defeat.22 Human nature, created by God, remains essentially good, but is trapped by these forces and cannot escape corruption and destruction on its own. What we need is not legal pardon, but rescue and vivification; the arena of salvation is not a courtroom, but a hospital. This theology, with its focus on sin and death together as present realities which we understand and are delivered from through Christ, is much more amenable to a nonhistoric Adam.
Yet I, for one, can't simply ignore the question of the origin of death. If death was not only the condition into which the first humans were born but vital to the evolutionary mechanism that produced them, the question must be asked: did God create a world with death "built-in"? And if death is "the last enemy to be destroyed" (1 Cor 15:26), does this make God responsible for the very problem that Jesus solves? Only if we view salvation history as merely a timeline, a succession of events one after another. Some (particularly in eastern traditions) restructure even this timeline around the eternal reality of the Incarnation. One priest writes: "But does this mean that God created a world that has held death from the beginning? It would not be strange to say so, since Pascha [Easter] was before the beginning."23 The second-century church father Irenaeus even views our faithful journey through the presently corrupted world as an intentional part of God's process of soul-making, bringing us to full maturity in the knowledge of him as well as freedom from sin and death. Accompanying this is a concept of “perfection” that is not simply freedom from taint, but fully realized completion. "God, for his part, could have offered perfection to humanity at the beginning, but humanity was not capable of receiving it, being no more than an infant."24 Though unintuitive, I find this way of approaching the problem of evil compelling in that it does not clash with scientific discoveries but challenges us to take on God’s eternal perspective and put off the human one from which we pose our accusatory questions.
I believe that Christianity, more than simply being conversant with philosophers’ questions about humanity, holds the best answers to them. Who are we? God's beloved creatures, made in his image to shine in his likeness. (Phil 2:14-16) Why are we here? To be conformed to the image of God's Son (Rom 8:29) and, with the Son, to become participants in God's ongoing work of new creation/reconciliation of the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19). Where did we come from? The hand of God (Gen 1:26-28), working with the instruments of nature. What is wrong with the world? The oppression and corruption wrought by sin, death, and the devil (Rom 6:23, 1 Cor 15:56, Hbr 2:14-15), whose works have already been brought to nothing by the Lord Christ and in whose victory we participate by the shedding of his blood. (Col 2:9-15) Calvin was right: it is impossible to come to a full understanding of ourselves without also finding a full understanding of the gospel.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (trans. Henry Beveridge; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008), 1.1.1.
- Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 491–492.
- Origen, De principiis, III.vi.1 (22 October 2014).
- Erickson, Christian Theology, 462.
- Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), 66.
- Erickson, Christian Theology, 462.
- Calvin, Institutes, 1.15.3.
- Denis O. Lamoreux, Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008), 199.
- Michael Graves, The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 48–55.
- Peter C. Bouteneff, Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 173–180.
- Augustine, “The Literal Meaning of Genesis”, quoted in Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 2006), 83.
- Lamoreux, Evolutionary Creation, 137.
- Fr. Stephen Freeman, “Creation and Evolution,” Glory to God for All Things, 11 February 2014, (17 October 2014); see also Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2012), 131–135.
- Lamoreux, Evolutionary Creation, 289.
- Henri and H. A. Frankfort, “Introduction,” in The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man: An Essay on Speculative Thought in the Ancient Near East (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977), 13.
- Enns, The Evolution of Adam, 41.
- This is the overall argument of John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: 2006).
- Enns, The Evolution of Adam, 23–26.
- R.C. Sproul, “The Pelagian Controversy,” Ligonier Ministries, 1 August 2005, (22 October 2014).
- John Chrysostom, “Homily on Romans 5:12” in The Works of Saint John Chrysostom (ed. Philip Schaff, George Barker Stevens; Kindle edition: 2011).
- Richard Beck, The Slavery of Death (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 12–14.
- Beck, The Slavery of Death, 17.
- Freeman, “Creation and Evolution”.
- Irenaus, “adversus haereses,” in The Christian Theology Reader, 343.