Christian Humanism’s Manifesto by Roger E. Olson


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A Christian Humanist Manifesto:   November 14, 2012 by Roger E. Olson

            Few words provoke such a negative reaction among conservative Christians as “humanism.” Few single words so well summarize secular culture and its anthropocentrism as “humanism.” In the popular imagination, anyway, “humanism” evokes the impression of what media talking heads call “the indomitable human spirit” and conservative Christians call “man-centeredness.” By itself, however, without adjectival qualifications, “humanism” simply means belief in the dignity, worth and cultural creativity of human beings. Add “Renaissance” to “humanism” and you get Michelangelo and Shakespeare. Add “secular” to “humanism” and you get Aldous Huxley and John Dewey. What do you get when you add “Christian” to “humanism” and is that even possible? Or is that an oxymoron?

I once received a fundamentalist denomination’s magazine in the mail and read its lead article entitled “Are You a Christian Humanist?” Having then recently become acquainted with Christian humanism as a life and world view I read the article with interest but growing disappointment and frustration. From it I learned that a “Christian humanist” is someone who spends more time watching television than reading the Bible.

I invited the president of the state’s Humanist Association chapter to speak to and interact with my Christian apologetics class. After his glowing recommendation of secular humanism I asked if he was aware of Christian humanism. He informed me he had never heard of it and it would be an oxymoron.

A theological friend, a passionate Calvinist, took me aside and asked me if I had ever considered the possibility that my Arminian belief in free will might be evidence of “latent humanism” in me. A conservative Calvinist blogger declared that Christian believers in free will are “flaunting humanism.”

Obviously “humanism” is an essentially contested concept; without clarification and even some definition, it can mean many different things. But whatever it might mean, to most conservative Christians it’s bad and to most secularists it’s good. And that’s because of its adoption by secular humanists in the 1930s and 1970s with the Humanist Manifestos I and II. And Christians let them have it. I mean that in both senses—we gave the concept and term over to the secularists and bashed them and it.

During the 1970s “secular humanism” was discovered by fundamentalists in virtually every corner of American society but especially in public schools; that was the beginning of the explosion of the Christian home schooling movement. Tim LaHaye of Left Behind fame made his reputation and, I assume, fortune before that by exposing secular humanism as the common coin of American culture. Christians were to abandon it and build their own, separate culture free of the curse of humanism. We dropped the “secular” and called it just “humanism,” forgetting that original humanism was Christian.

Jumping from the 1970s to the second decade of the twenty-first century: millions of young Christians are flocking to a new version of an old theology called Calvinism. They have been labeled “Young, Restless and Reformed.” In March, 2009, Time magazine included Calvinism among the top ten “new ideas” changing the world. The guru of this new wave of Calvinism is Minnesota Baptist pastor John Piper, a devotee of Puritan preacher, philosopher and theologian Jonathan Edwards. Not since Bill Gothard in the 1970s launched his Basic Youth Conflicts seminars has a single Christian writer and speakers captured the attention of so many conservative Christians.

Piper’s well-known and often quoted motto is “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” He calls it “Christian hedonism” and it implies a decidedly anti-humanistic message. Human beings are totally depraved, hell-bound, pond scum unless and until they are chosen by God to glorify him by being saved. But salvation, like everything else, is for God’s glory. God alone is glorious; humans are…well, whatever’s the opposite of glorious. Our purpose in life is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. All glory to God! None to humans.

But Piper’s not the only one spreading this seemingly anti-humanist message. And it’s not unique to Calvinism. In February, 2012, I attended a lecture by the man honored by Time as America’s “best theologian.” When asked to explain his thoughts about humanity the theologian said simply  “We’re shit.”

A friend who teaches New Testament at a well-known Christian university loves to tell classes and audiences that humans are “pond scum.”

A deep and pervasive anti-humanism has settled gradually into the bones of conservative Christianity.

I see three reasons for this condition. First, it’s an understandable reaction to the horrors of the twentieth century that was supposed to be “the Christian century” but turned out to be “the genocidal century” instead. Second, it’s an understandable reaction to the insipid optimism about human nature rampant in the popular media and still in some intellectual quarters. Third, it’s an understandable reaction to the waves of positive-thinking, self-esteem boosting popular spirituality promoted by the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Joel Osteen that have seeped into evangelical as well as mainstream culture and religion.

Perceptive young people, adherents of the Young, Restless, Reformed movement, are attracted to the stout theology of Jonathan Edwards promoted by Piper and others who swim against these streams. Again, all I can say is “understandable.” But I must add “an over reaction.”

I believe we need to recover a vision of Christianity as the true humanism and not give in to a gnostic-like abhorrence of humanity. I propose a new motto, not to contradict Piper’s Christian hedonist maxim, but to add to it as its good and necessary counter balance: “God is most satisfied with us when we are most glorified by him.”

We… “glorified?”  Doesn’t God get all the glory? Isn’t “it” all about him and not at all about us? My motto sounds almost heretical to ears conditioned by the God-centeredness of contemporary evangelical Christianity, especially that portion of it influenced by Piper and his surrogates.

However, I will argue that Christian humanism, properly qualified, is biblical and thoroughly traditional as well as a positive force for cultural engagement.

Those of you who have lived long enough will recognize that what I’m saying is not new, but then, there are no new ideas under the sun. What I’m calling for is a renewal, a renaissance of Christian humanism—especially among evangelical Christian young people who have not been exposed to it and who have been indoctrinated by their spiritual gurus to think being anti-human is to be more spiritual.

Excuse me while I talk about history for just a little bit. “Humanism” originally referred to the Renaissance cultural reaction to medieval denigrations of humanity and nature and to the Renaissance flowering of the arts. Throughout much of the Middle Ages it was popular in Christendom to view this life as nothing more than a prelude to the life to come. Life was considered little more than a probation; if you did well you would be rewarded in heaven but if you did poorly you would be punished in hell. Little value was placed on individuals and their cultural achievements. One evidence of that is the fact that we know little about the architects of the great Gothic cathedrals. And most art was iconic rather than realistic.

The Renaissance rediscovered ancient culture and began to place value on artistic prowess. Artists began to sign their work which became more realistic about nature and human subjects. “Humanism” was born in that cultural cradle and it meant a new emphasis on the individual and human cultural creativity. “Christian humanism” was associated especially with those Christians like Desiderius Erasmus who called for “ad fontes”—back to the sources of Christianity—the Greek New Testament and the church fathers. The emphasis of Christian humanism was on the image of God as the source and basis of human beings’ unique dignity and worth above nature. And this life began to be viewed not merely as a prelude or probation but as a gift to be enjoyed.

Erasmus stands out as the premier Christian humanist of the Renaissance and Reformation and it irked Martin Luther to no end. Luther opposed humanism; to him human beings are a disease on the skin of the earth—unless and until God’s “proper righteousness” begins to transform them through faith. Even then, however, he held out no hope of real progress either in individual holiness or civil righteousness. He expected the return of Christ at any moment and saw cultural engagement and creativity as a waste of time. Luther denied the image of God in sinners, saying it is but a broken relic of little or no use. To him the rebelling peasants were but mad dogs to be hunted down and slaughtered.

Erasmus, who laid the Reformation egg that Luther hatched, developed a “philosophy of Christ” to oppose both the medieval Catholic emphasis on scholastic philosophy and theology and the growing Protestant emphasis on total depravity. For him, Jesus’ humanity is the model of true humanity and all persons, due to the image of God in them, are capable of imitating Christ with the assistance of grace. Erasmus called for ends to war and nationalism and criticized both popes and rulers for ignoring the poor. He had an optimistic, but also realistic, vision of a utopia based on the gospel—something shared by Sir Thomas More of England.

Christian humanism was birthed in the Renaissance and Reformation even if its roots, as Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart has shown in Atheist Delusions, lie deep in the gospel and teachings of the church fathers. By and large, with some exceptions, Christian humanism was opposed by Protestants who opted for total depravity and appeal to common grace rather than the image of God to explain civic and cultural righteousness in society. Strains of it appeared here and there among Protestants, however, especially among the English where Wesley and the Quakers found a seed of goodness in every corner of creation including human beings.

To a very great extent the Puritans reacted against humanism including Christian humanism and chose instead to represent humanity as pond scum especially compared with the glory of God not shared with humans until the elect arrive in heaven. The Westminster divines gathered in 1648 wrote that the sole end or purpose of humanity is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” There is the seed of Piper’s motto “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”

I want to make absolutely clear that I agree that God’s glory and our satisfaction go together; to be sure, our purpose as human beings is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. And we are affected by original sin; apart from God’s grace we do find it easier to sin than to do good. And nothing we do is really very good compared with God’s goodness.

But that’s not enough. Saying only those things leaves us with a gnostic-like repugnance of humanity that contradicts Scripture and the best of Christian tradition. It can easily lead to Christian rejection of the arts, education and efforts at civic righteousness. I grew up with this attitude of absolute disengagement from “the world” of culture. The fundamentalist college I attended discouraged us from reading non-evangelical authors. All textbooks had to be by evangelical Christian authors. There was no seed of truth outside conservative Protestant faith. Non-Christians were hell-bound candidates for conversion and nothing more. One day the college’s president walked into the library, gathered up all the “secular records” including classical music and took them out to the dumpster. His explanation in chapel was that only sacred music was relevant to our curriculum.

Okay, so that’s extreme. You won’t find that happening among most conservative evangelical Christians. But it’s not uncommon to find something like that attitude toward culture among today’s conservative, especially Reformed, Christians. Why isn’t Mozart available in Christian music stores (besides the fact that music stores are disappearing)? Why is there such widespread disdain for philosophy and the arts among conservative Christians—including many young ones?

In my own Christian youth the reason was the Jesus Movement. We were anti-culture to the core. We read the Bible only and listened exclusively to Keith Green. All but “Jesus freaks” were totally depraved and corrupt and especially philosophers, artists and, yes, even theologians. Dare I say the same spirit is alive and well too often, too much, among today’s Young, Restless and Reformed Christians?

To be continued… (What is the antidote to this anti-humanistic perspective among Christians?)

Picking up where the previous post left off:

So what’s the alternative? What is “Christian humanism?” Let me begin with Scripture. Psalm 8—the biblical charter of Christian humanism. Speaking to God the Psalmist cries

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars that you have established;

what are human beings that you are mindful of them,

mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,

And crowned them with glory and honor.

You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;

you have put all things under their feet…

Pond scum? Shit? A disease on the face of the earth? Totally depraved? Having no purpose in life except to glorify God to the exclusion of any sheer “joy of life” in creativity? Not according to this Psalm.

Sure, we can’t ignore another Psalm—14:

The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind

to see if there are any who are wise,

who seek after God.

They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse;

there is no one who does good,

no, not one.

Throughout history Christian thinkers have tended to emphasize one biblical truth about humanity or the other. Either we are essentially good or essentially evil; either noble or corrupt. Finding the right balance has always been difficult and rare. The current trend is to demean humanity by proclaiming an inflated doctrine of total depravity. I attended a service of worship at a church pastored by one of the leading gurus of the young, restless, Reformed movement. His sermon that morning began by extolling the worth and value of human beings. He told his congregation (and those listening to his sermon by podcast) that when they walk in the mall, every person they see has infinite worth and dignity, value and meaning by virtue of being created in God’s own image and likeness. After building up human persons for at least five, maybe ten minutes, the pastor waited during a pregnant pause, letting that sink in, then said “But they’re all dead.”My point is not to contradict the Reformed pastor who has been such an inspiration to so many young people through his sermons and books; it is rather to say that he left unclear how we are to regard fellow human beings. And that is especially the case when we consider that he, like so many evangelicals today, believes and teaches that God only loves some of those walking dead people and intends to save only some of them unilaterally. In fact, Christ only died for some of them—and really not for any of them so much as for God. Christ, the pastor teaches, died only for the elect and even for them only secondarily. In God’s-God-centeredness, he says, he sent Christ to die to vindicate his own righteousness. God loves his own glory first and foremost and sinners (only some, mind you) only second.On the other hand, some Christian pastors and thinkers come down at the other extreme, proposing that God is love without power or glory. In process theology, God’s own chief end is humanity’s well-being. Instead of “Man proposes but God disposes,” it’s “God proposes but man disposes.” God is at the mercy of humanity to either enrich him by achieving his aims or to impoverish him by rejecting them.There we have two poles between which passionate Christians, many of them young and restless, dissatisfied with casual, non-thinking Christianity, divide. Many in the so-called “emerging church movement” gravitate toward the “kinder, gentler God” without glory or power and many in the Young, Restless, Reformed movement trend toward the God whose glory and power overwhelm human persons, turning them into instruments for his own glory. The first pole tends to elevate humans to godlike status, almost replacing God with humanity. The second pole tends to reduce humans to objects, instruments, pawns in God’s great game of self-glorification. The first pole takes Psalm 8 very seriously while ignoring Psalm 14; the second takes Psalm 14 ultimately seriously while ignoring Psalm 8.One person who got it pretty much right was the French Catholic Christian thinker, mathematician, philosopher, defender of the faith Blaise Pascal who, in his Pensees, or “Thoughts,” said that “Man is a king sitting on a crumbling throne holding a broken scepter.” In other words, human beings are damaged goods. “Man,” Pascal wrote, “is neither angel nor brute.” And “Man is a reed, but a thinking reed.” (A “reed” is fragile and insignificant, blown and even broken by the wind.) All that is to say that human beings are damaged goods.But my main message to you is that in spite of the damage, human beings are nevertheless good and valuable and capable of great things—including, by the grace of God, satisfying God.Some Christian thinkers will call my message humanistic. I accept that, so long as “Christian” qualifies “humanistic.” I believe at the heart of the biblical message is a very humanistic truth—that God’s human creatures exist for something more than God’s glory; we exist for God’s satisfaction and enjoyment. While it is true that our greatest satisfaction is found in glorifying God, it is also true that God’s greatest satisfaction is found in glorifying us.There are two very different perspectives on why God created the world and especially human beings, free creatures, created in his own image and likeness, in it. It’s helpful to get these two perspectives in focus by looking briefly at two theologians who stand at the source of modern evangelical Christianity—Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley—both born in 1703 and both highly regarded and often quoted by evangelical Christians. I think it safe to say they are the two godfathers of modern evangelical Christianity—at least in the English-speaking world.

Edwards’ greatest treatise was “On the End for Which God Created the World.” “End,” of course, means “purpose.” There the prince of Puritan preachers argued philosophically and theologically that God has one and only one supreme purpose in everything God does—to glorify himself. To put it bluntly, according to Edwards, God is the ultimate narcissist. But that’s okay for God because he’s God; it isn’t okay for us because we are finite and fallen creatures of God. We have no right or reason to be narcissistic given our wretchedness. Also, according to Edwards, creatures can offer nothing to God except glory and what glory we give God adds nothing to his bliss. Of course, this raises many questions and Edwards answers some of them. For example, if God created the world to glorify himself, does that imply he was not already fully glorified? In that case, doesn’t the world, even in its submissive glorifying of God add something to God’s life, at least enjoyment, that wasn’t already complete? Edwards’ answer is no. Then there is the issue of evil; does evil glorify God. There Edwards is bold; even sin and evil glorify God in his judging and conquering them.

Wesley did not write a treatise on the purpose for which God created the world, but we can quite easily detect what he thought about it. For Wesley, God created out of love. God loves the world and all creatures with the possible exception of Satan and his co-rebel angels. God especially loves all human beings in spite of their wretchedness because he created them in his own image and likeness and because his nature is to love. Creation, especially of noble humanity, was due to the overflowing love of the Trinity. Love does not imply need; true love, the best love, God-like love, creates value in the beloved. Like Pascal, Wesley was realistic about humanity, but he did not think we are totally depraved—at least not in the same sense as the Reformed tradition as represented by Edwards. He preferred to say we are deprived and that by our own decisions and actions, not due to any foreordaining plan of God. Is God glorious according to Wesley? Of course; God’s glory is his love and his love is his glory. “Glory” without love is morally empty. On the other hand, love without power is impotent and ineffectual.

Some in the Wesleyan tradition, notably adherents of process theology, have taken Wesley’s concept of God as unconditional love and goodness to an extreme and ended up denying God’s wrath against sin and even turned God into a kind of cosmic cheerleader and coach, emptying God of power and glory. Wesley did not go there—to that extreme.

In my estimation, Wesley, like Pascal before him, was right on target biblically, philosophically and theologically. Christian humanism can look to him, in his thoughts if not in his person, for a model. (Wesley as a person was not always particularly kind.)

Scripture tells us in 1 John 4:8 that “God is love.” Love is God’s essence; his very being. And God has invested in his human creatures capacity for that kind of love—love that creates value rather than seeks it. Scripture also tells us in 2 Peter 1:4 that God’s goal is to make us “partakers of the divine nature.” With Wesley, I interpret that to mean that God seeks to share his love with us in transforming ways. God’s grace seeks to glorify us. And God, being love, is most satisfied with us when we are being glorified by him, that is, by his grace.

There are two senses, then, in which human beings are glorious. First, in spite of our wretchedness due to sin, we are still and nevertheless God’s image and likeness. That image and likeness in us is damaged, broken, even shattered, but not destroyed by sin. James 3:9 warns against cursing fellow human beings because they are made in God’s own likeness. That isn’t specific to Christians; all people are made in God’s likeness and still possess special dignity and worth because of that status.The second sense in which human beings are glorious is God’s desire and intention and effort to transform them into even more than just creatures possessing his image and likeness. God wants to elevate them, us, to participation in his own being as love. The apostle Paul talked in 2 Corinthians 3:18 about we, God’s people, presumably Christians, being transformed from one degree of glory to another—a progressive process of taking in, by God’s grace and power, with our cooperation of faith, God’s own being—love.

These two biblical truths form part of the foundation of Christian humanism. But they are too often neglected by those who love to insult and demean humanity thinking thereby they are giving God more glory—as if glory were a zero-sum game, a finite pie, there’s only so much to go around.

Christian humanism is the belief, then, that human beings are of unique dignity and worth and capable of cultural creativity because of God’s love and grace. I want to add that Christian humanism includes belief that humans, because of God’s love and grace, are able to satisfy God’s own creation desire by allowing God to transform them into loving beings. “God is most satisfied with us when we are being most glorified by him.”

To be continued: Part 3 will complete the series.


A Christian Humanist Manifesto–Part 3 (Final)

November 16, 2012 by Roger E. Olson

Two questions will immediately arise, or at least arise upon close reflection, in the minds of thinking Christians. First, can creatures satisfy God? That is, can we, mere “worm”s that we are, add something to God’s own bliss and enjoyment of himself? Second, is “glorification,” something all Christians believe is at least an eschatological reality for sinners saved by God’s grace and mercy, at all possible in this life—before the resurrection and new heaven and new earth? Related to the second question is the question of original sin and depravity, the corruption of human nature by sin: can it be removed by the transforming power of God’s grace in this life prior to death so that a human person can, at least to some extent, satisfy God’s desire to glorify him or her?

Realizing this goes against the grain of much Christian tradition as well as much philosophical theism, I believe the answer to both (or all three) questions is yes. Philosophical theism, often together with a doctrine of God like Edwards’, has convinced many to think it is somehow inappropriate to think of God as capable of being moved by creatures, of being caused by creatures to have feelings or emotions, to experience joy or sorrow or anger on account of what mere creatures do or don’t do. We are told by much of Christian tradition that such thinking is anthropomorphic—depicting God as having human-like characteristics. But I suggest that is to make a mockery of much of the biblical narrative which does, indeed, portray God as personal and relational. To John Calvin and his followers, biblical depictions of God as human like, as having emotions, for example, is the result of divine accommodation. God, Calvin taught, talks baby-talk to us in revelation, in Scripture. But that is to posit a God above and behind the personal God of the Bible—Yahweh and Jesus Christ, God incarnate, as if God were really unlike any of that—unfeeling, unresponsive, impersonal.

To be sure, God is not a human being, but human beings are created in God’s image and likeness and God is personal. God did not become human in Jesus Christ because humanity is unlike himself but because humanity is like himself—except for sin. But sin is not an essential aspect of humanity; it is our humanity’s brokenness, its estrangement from itself as well as from God.

Scripture portrays God as being satisfied. God was satisfied with Jesus. “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased”—attributed to God in all three synoptic gospels. Hebrews 11 mentions Enoch, a patriarch whom God found “well-pleasing.” When I talk about “satisfying God” and God being “satisfied with us,” I’m referring to God’s pleasure, God’s enjoyment. I don’t consider it heretical to say that God craves our love and obedience and glorification by him.

Years ago I read an essay by Fuller Seminary professor James Daane, a Reformed theologian, that rocked my world. It was entitled “Can a Man Bless God?” Today, of course, he would entitle it “Can a Person Bless God?” (It’s included in a collection of essays under the volume title God and the Good edited by Clifton Orlebeke and Lewis Smedes [Eerdmans, 1975].) Like many seminary students, I was taught in my theology classes that God is immutable; nothing any creature can do can add anything to God. God is in every way always complete and unconditioned—incapable of being given anything he does not already possess in himself eternally. Traditional theologians like to pay God metaphysical compliments like that.

Against the stream of traditional Christian theism, and against the grain of his own Reformed tradition, Daane wrote that “[The] God of the Bible is not unresponsive to finite human condition. His freedom does not consist in being free from the touch of what is not God, nor is his immutability a change of relationship to the world that involves no change in God….” (p. 171) Daane asked why theologians came up with the idea of God as the “Unconditioned Absolute” and answered that they “lingered too long at the waterholes of Western rationalism.” (p. 172) He concluded that “In the biblical view God hears and responds to the cries of the needy, and is indeed so involved in conditional, contingent reality that he can be both sinned against and, no less, blessed by man in such a way that it makes a difference to God himself. But a God who is unconditional because he himself accounts for all conditions by virtue of his essence or decree is a God who cannot hear, let alone answer prayer.” (p. 173)

Daane was one of several Christian thinkers who together liberated me from thinking of God as absolute, unconditioned, incapable of being changed or affected by what creatures, by what I, do. In fact, I came to believe that paying too many metaphysical compliments to God can de-personalize God. That trend was, I believe, unwittingly set in motion by some of the church fathers as they adopted Greek philosophical modes of thinking about God, carried forward by Augustine under the spell of neo-Platonism, deepened by Thomas Aquinas who borrowed from Aristotle to describe God as actus purus—pure actuality without potentiality, and brought into evangelical thought by Reformed theologians like Jonathan Edwards and Charles Hodge.

Contrary to all of that, I believe, the God of the biblical story and of Jesus Christ is a passionate God who opens himself to risk, pain, sorrow, joy, satisfaction and richer experience in relation to the world he created out of love and for both his glory and that of his creation. One need only look to Jesus’ parables, especially that of the prodigal son and waiting father, to see that Jesus thought this way about God. The return of the prodigal son to his father’s home brought his father, clearly meant to represent God in the story, great joy and satisfaction.

The second question my thesis, my motto, raises is about the depth of human depravity. My critics, most of them from the Reformed branch of Protestantism, will say that I have not taken sufficiently into account the fallenness, the corruption of humanity. I disagree. Even they believe that God’s transforming grace makes it possible for regenerate persons to glorify God and be satisfied in him. Piper, for example, talks much about the Christian’s life as ideally one that, with the help of the Holy Spirit, can please God. He might even agree with me that, to some degree, a regenerate person’s life can be glorified by God and bring satisfaction to God. The difference between what he would say and what I am saying, however, is one of emphasis. I am arguing that God seeks not only his own glory but also ours. And that God’s inner satisfaction, the smile of God that he often talks about, can be brought about by us—as we cooperate with God’s grace to conform to the image of God and become what God designed us to be—partial partakers of the divine nature.

Let me dwell for a moment on that last statement.  Eastern Orthodox Christians have long emphasized salvation as theosis—“deification”—another scary concept to many Protestants and especially evangelicals. It sounds “new age-ish” or mystical in an occult sense. It sounds like something Shirley MacLaine would have claimed for herself as she stood on the shore of an ocean, spreading wide her arms and declaring “I am God!” That’s not what it means. The Eastern Orthodox idea of deification comes from 2 Peter 1:4 which says that God has given us “his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world.” (NRSV) In Eastern Orthodox theology, going back to the Greek church fathers, deification means being made partial partakers of the divine nature by grace. It’s a gift. Through faith and the sacraments and by the indwelling Holy Spirit believers in Jesus Christ are being united with him, something even John Calvin emphasized, and being transformed into Christlikeness. The perfect humanity of Jesus is being communicated to us so that our humanity is being changed, as Paul put it, “from one degree of glory to another.” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Deification has never meant becoming God as God is God. That won’t even happen in the resurrection when we see God “face to face” as Paul described it in 1 Corinthians 13:12. For Eastern Orthodox Christians, and John Wesley followed them in this, transformation in glorification is God’s impartation of his own immortal life now; Christ came to communicate his humanity in union with God to us now.

The incarnation lies at the very root of Christian humanism; Jesus’ humanity is displayed as true humanity—humanity in union with God. Humanity freed from corruption; pristine and more—transformed by the energies of God. The image and likeness of God being restored and made whole, liberated from bondage to sin and decay and corruption. This is what Greek church father Irenaeus meant by “The glory of God is man fully alive.” Humanity fully alive is seen in Jesus; through our union with him we can experience a partial restoration of our humanity, humanity healed and restored. That’s deification. Not that we become God or gods but that we become truly human through the gift of God’s grace imparting his own life to us. That’s the gospel: that we can be more than forgiven; we can be transformed, deified, humanized, made whole.

The original plan of God was for the church to be God’s new humanity in the world. Marxists have dreamed about a new humanity through revolution. Others have hoped for a new humanity to emerge through education and technology. Those dreams have failed; the majority of people in today’s world, living in the aftermath of the “genocidal century” that was supposed to have been the “Christian century,” have given up hope for a new humanity. The challenge facing Christians is to recover that hope through the church and show the world that humanity is not a disease on the face of the earth but the glory of God—when made fully alive through Jesus Christ.

That is what I mean by Christian humanism, my friends. Not taking fallen, weak, sinful humanity and exalting it to replace God. Not making idols out of ourselves as we are. Rather, Christian humanism is exalting the man Jesus, who was also God, as the model of true humanityand living out the promise that he came to give—that we all might also be like him in his humanity—satisfying God by being glorified by God through the Spirit of Jesus in the church.

My assertion is that when we allow God to do his work in us by renewing and restoring the divine image as it was in Jesus, God is being satisfied. We are blessing God, making God happy, if you will, making God sigh with deep satisfaction, making God dance, not by achieving something on our own or doing something apart from his will and power and without his gifts, but by cooperating with his grace, allowing it to transform us into his new humanity.

Now, before concluding, I want to make something else clear about Christian humanism. It’s not just we, God’s people, who possess God’s truth, beauty and goodness as if God and his gifts were our private possessions. To be sure, we know God more fully through Jesus Christ, but even he is not our private possession. We are simply ones who volunteer to be citizens of God’s new city, the new humanity God is growing through the incarnation and the giving of the Holy Spirit. We’re the vanguard, if you will, but not the owners of God’s kingdom. God’s grace and the Holy Spirit are at work in the world outside the church as well as in it and sometimes more obviously there. God is at work wherever truth, beauty and goodness are found. Especially evangelical Christians have a habit of building walls between ourselves and the world of culture; Christian humanism reminds us that God loves humanity and has never left himself without a witness among people. The image of God in humanity has never been obliterated and God’s common grace is everywhere at work even where God is denied.

The practical result of knowing this is a Christian love of learning resulting in a kind of “holy worldliness” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it. Bonhoeffer scholar John de Gruchy, in his excellent book Confessions of a Christian Humanist, rightly says that “Christian humanists cherish the love of learning both for the sake of the Church’s ministry in the world, and because of its importance for human well-being, for the simple reason that the two belong together.” (p. 180) Anti-intellectualism is a sin, even when engaged in for pious reasons, which is not to endorse everything humans think up. Sin is very real and the corruption it brings into everything of human existence, including the life of the mind, must not be minimized. However, it’s also possible to overstate it. Calvin said that the human mind is nothing but a factory of idols. The Calvinist doctrine of total depravity can sometimes discourage seeing all truth as God’s truth and result in turning a deaf ear and blind eyes to truth, beauty and goodness in the world. The church fathers before Augustine, Greek church fathers such as Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria, regarded Jesus Christ himself as the “seed” of truth, beauty and goodness in all endeavors for knowledge and wisdom. Jesus, in other words, they believed, is not our private possession but the cosmic Christ in whom all things hold together (Colossians 1:17).

To the Christian humanist, humanity is essentially good even if existentially estranged. And the cosmic Christ through the ever and always present Holy Spirit who created by hovering over the primordial waters, bringing order out of chaos, is mercifully and graciously at work in the world that God so loves. To the Christian humanist our task as Christians is not to escape humanity but together with God to redeem it and that involves uniting truth, beauty and goodness regardless of their sources into God-satisfying projects of promoting the well-being of God’s good creation.

God is most satisfied with us when we are being most glorified by him. Let us satisfy God, make God dance, by allowing his grace to transform us into the image of Jesus Christ, becoming partial partakers of the divine nature, for the sake of the well-being of God’s good creation loved by God.


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