Being Human 4 (RJS)

Chapter 2 of Joel B. Green’s book Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible is entitled “What does it mean to be human?” In this chapter he addresses the title question from two directions, scientific and biblical. In the post last Tuesday I considered the scientific evidence for the connection of human life with the rest of animal life including a consideration of the material features that may, or may not, make us distinctly human. In this post I would like to put up for conversation some of the biblical perspective on human uniqueness.

Moving from science to the bible, Dr. Green starts by describing several problems or pitfalls in the consideration of a biblical view of the nature of humanity. He proceeds to consider a few passages of scripture and wraps up with an sketch of what he finds as the biblical basis for human distinctiveness.

The evidence for the nature of humanity found in the bible is implicit not explicit. We are not told “this is the nature of humanity” rather we have texts that assume a view, counter other views though to be errant, or project ideas about the nature of humanity into a discussion of the future new heavens and new earth.

There is a problem of method. There is no simple method, be it appeal to culture, word study, or appeal to the afterlife, which, when applied to the scripture, will permit easy discovery and understanding of the biblical view of the nature of humans.

Most importantly, there is an ever present danger of imposing our current ideas about the human person on the text rather than listening to what the text has to say.  This is really the big problem. The approach of substance dualism is something that Dr. Green claims we project into the text rather than extract from the text. Here he looks specifically at the healings by Jesus to provide an example. Physical blemish kept a person from access to God and the community of God’s people. Cleansing a leper restored him to God and to community (Mt 8:1-4). In another example healing is connected with the forgiveness of sin, in fact healing is tantamount to the forgiveness of sin (Mt 9:2-8). Humans are unified wholes.

Here we find no room for segregating the human person into discrete, constitutive “parts,” whether “bodily” or “spiritual” or “communal.” (p. 49)

Is the dualist view of human persons as body and soul something we read from the text or we read into the text?

Humans as individuals vs human in community. The problems that arise from imposing modern assumptions on the text go beyond dualism though. The notion of community and the importance of place in community was more significant in the ancient culture where the bible was shaped and written. We tend to define identity in terms of self-sufficiency, self-determination, self-autonomy, self-legislation, and the individual inner person – taking ideas from Charles Taylor Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. This modern view of human identity is in contrast with the view of human persons implicit in the biblical text.

The point is that constructions of personal identity that pervade the world of the interpreter are easily read back into the texts under scrutiny, and yet, in the case of the human self discerned by Taylor, can stand at odds with biblical anthropology at almost every turn. … These include such emphases as the construction of the self as deeply embedded in social relationships and thus the importance of dependence/interdependence for human identity; a premium on the integrity of the community and thus the contribution of individuals to that integrity; the assumption that a person is one’s behavior – that is, that one’s dispositions are on display in one’s practices; an emphasis on external authority – that is the call to holiness is a call to human vocation drawn from a vision of Yahweh’s “difference”; and the reality of dualism vis-a-vis good/evil, resident in and manifest both outside and inside a person. (p. 50)

So what is found in scripture? Dr. Green looks specifically at Genesis 1-2 and concludes that humans are fundamentally relational – with God, with each other, and with the world. To bear the divine image is to have a distinct role and vocation in creation. The vocation is part of the covenantal relationship with God.

What is this quality that distinguishes humanity? God’s words affirm the creation of the human family in its relation to himself, as his counterpart, so that the nature of humanity derives from the human family’s relatedness to God. The concept of the imago Dei, then, is fundamentally relational, or covenantal, and takes as its ground and focus the graciousness of God’s own covenantal relations with humanity and the rest of creation. The distinguishing mark of human existence when compared with other creatures is thus the whole of human existence (and not some part of the individual). (p. 63)

Turning to the Psalms and then New Testament Dr. Green finds the same theme of covenant, relationship, and vocation in community as the defining nature of the human person. After looking at the terms image and glory, especially in relationship to the place of Christ as the image of God, and a brief comment on the nature of salvation (more of that in a later chapter), he concludes that both science and scripture paint a view of human persons as characterized by embodiedness and relationality. But the bible gives us a more complete view in two ways:

First, In presenting the physical embeddedness of the human family, they [the biblical materials] highlight the vocation of humanity in relation to the created order – not only in relation to other humans, but also in relation to the cosmos. Second, the biblical materials urge the view that a biblical theology of humanity must have as its primary point of beginning and orientation the human in a partnering relationship with God. (p. 71)

The biblical view of human persons, according to Dr. Green, is centered on community and relationship, not on individuals. The question of body, soul, and personal identity from a modern perspective distorts our understanding of scripture, our appreciation for the story of Israel in the Old Testament (including the issues raised in the posts on God Behaving Badly), and our understanding of salvation in the New Testament.

What do you think? Is the nature of humanity in the Bible primarily relational, covenantal, and vocational?

Do we over value the nature of humanity as individual identity?

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  • In spite of the fact that I am no dualist, I do admit that scripture seems to offer enough “proof texts” (if you will) in support of, or at least that are consistent with dualism. To name a couple;

    1. Jesus’ crucifixion comment to the other executed person (today you will be with me in paradise)
    2. Jesus warning not to fear the one who can kill the body, but the one who can “destroy the soul”
    3. the ascension account – floating up into the sky indicates a not material kind of existence (a weaker proof text)
    4. the “animation” of the human body by god’s breath in genesis – indicates separate function between body and “life” (also weeker proof)

  • Rick

    “The biblical view of human persons, according to Dr. Green, is centered on community and relationship, not on individuals.”

    I think we need to be careful about being too “either/or” on that aspect, rather than seeing it as a “both/and”.

    Phil #1-

    I think your first two examples are good, especially the second one.

    However, do you not see the Ascension as a bodily ascenion?

  • Scot McKnight

    I like Joel’s “covenant, relation and vocation” as ways to see humans, but the self-consciousness and individualistic dimensions of the human condition aren’t sufficiently apparent in those terms. Yes, I do think Joel’s right about over valuing individualism, and Charles Taylor’s work is insurpassable for a sketch of modernity’s impact on how we view who we are, and so I wonder if Joel is embedding the individual in the covenant, relation and vocation terms.

  • Rick #3,

    Yes I think the “bodily” ascension is what makes the third verse a weaker proof than the first two. However, A bodily ascension has the very real problem of leaving us wondering exactly where that body went. After all, it suggests that heaven is a physical place, where things like 3-dimensional spatial phenomena known as “bodies” can exist. So at what point in space did Jesus body leave this universe, or enter this heaven location? The dualist solution might be to say that the physical matter of this body simply de-materialised, and Jesus’ “spirit” went back to the throne… either way, the whole scenario is just plain bizarre…

  • rjs


    Green deals extensively with the Genesis text – I think he has a good case here that it isn’t the core of what makes humanity special. Your second point – the warning by Jesus to beware the one who destroys both body and soul is a strong argument. I’ll have to go back to the book to see how Green deals with this one.


    I think Green has a strong case for his foundation in this chapter. Rick is right – it doesn’t have to be either/or, but in the both/and the importance of relationship, covenant, and vocation are big components while individual soul (whether separable or an outgrowth of the body) is a much less significant component.

  • Susan N.

    Rick @ #2 – I think both/and is right in reference to individuality vs. community and relationship. I see the trend in modern society toward individualism, and can understand how this is not a good thing for a body of believers. A sense of solidarity with humanity at large is an even greater tragedy of becoming too inward-focused, I would argue. I have a hard time, though, understanding how my faith and relationship with God is not something unique to me in many ways. It is personal and intimate. The fact that this is not the end but rather the means to live in the world and love others in the way Christ demonstrated and taught is the way I understand “both/and”. Pay it forward; be good news…

    I do think that having a strong sense of self in relation to God is a healthy counterbalance for community/group identification. What if your immediate “group” (neighborhood, region, nation) conflicts with one’s convictions about who God is and his expectations of us? Living within the reality of that tension is the challenge that I face (daily).

    In the Person of Christ, God Incarnate, we can see an example of a human being who is fully divine (perfect, whole, spiritually-speaking). In his humanness, did Jesus have limitations during His earthly life? He got tired (slept), hungry (ate), thirsty (drank), sad, angry…couldn’t be everywhere at once or meet and heal every person. He needed quiet time with the Father — my favorite, in order to be at His best, to be renewed. Yet, He wasn’t by any means detached from worldly concerns or “messy” relationships. He stood in the middle of it all in solidarity with humanity. This tells me something about being human…

  • Scot: I tend toward a linguistic emphasis on person and personal rather than individual and individualistic.

    Phil: I address the Matthean text you mention elsewhere, in “What about…? Three Exegetical Forays into the Body-Soul Discussion,” _Criswell Theological Review_ n.s. 7 (2010): 3-18.

  • Very interesting read and thanks for pointing to this source; I was not aware of it. Just started reading The Mind and the Machine: What It Means to Be Human and Why It Matters by Matthew Dickerson, which looks to be promising along the same lines, albeit from a philosophical angle primarily, yet immersed in a biblical worldview. Still, I appreciated John Cooper’s Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate, which defends a wholistic dualist perspective on humanity of which I’m convinced.

  • Add to phil_style’s list the whole heavenly scene in Revelation. If the resurrection of the body has not happened yet (in the scenes depicted), what, then, do we make of the sentient martyrs who surround the throne, etc.?

    I am, however, with those who suggest that “soul” is often not the best modern translation. Maybe “spirit” would be better, given that it was God’s breath that set apart humanity in Gen 1, at which point they became “a living soul.”

    All this to say it is possible to construe humans as unified wholes and yet see some kind of existence apart from the body (mainly because there a few portions of scripture that seem to demand it), albeit not ideal (what with the future bodily resurrection in view).

  • AHH

    To bear the divine image is to have a distinct role and vocation in creation. The vocation is part of the covenantal relationship with God.

    Yes! Not about qualities that we possess as individuals, but about the roles that God has graciously assigned us (collectively and individually; I think that can be both/and).
    If we see humanness (image of God) as primarily functional and relational, we don’t get into the dead ends like you do if you define humanness by some capacity or characteristic.

  • I’m intrigued that this conversation hasn’t yet contemplated the resurrected body of Jesus. There is a really interesting conversation around Jesus’ body post resurrection which I think can lead us into new territory.

    Traditionally, the continuation of Jesus’ bodily presence on earth has been seen to be through the embodiment of the Holy Spirit and therefore through the Body of Believers (Protestant emphasis), or through the bread and wine of the the eucharist (Catholic emphasis). Neither of those options have satisfied me because of the latent modernist dualism and body and spirit which seems to remain unintegrated. It can’t explain the transformative interaction between the person of Jesus – a body now spirit, and my own human person.

    So, I wonder what we might discover if we look at the process of embodiment of the spirit in a new way? How are human persons ‘attached’ to Jesus’ person, in the kind of way the apostle Paul talks about in Romans 6? I wonder what this will tell us about the nature of our bodies? Some of the pre-modern writers might be able to guide us through perhaps, like Gregory of Nyssa who sees the body as the servant of the soul. What if we deconstructed the modernist dualism in our reading of that explanation?
    Fascinating discussion. Thank-you.

  • John W Frye

    Qoheleth describes the aging process to the point of death and writes, “…and the dust returns to the ground it came from and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7). As observed above, we cannot escape the biblical dualism of dust and spirit/body and soul. This does not negate, however, Green’s very insightful take on “the image of God.” I think I am leaning toward human beings as wholistic dualism creatures.