Needed: A Renewal of “Christian Humanism”

Confessions of a Christian Humanist and a Call for a Renewal of Christian Humanism

I confess it. I’m a Christian humanist.

Some years ago I saw an article in a fundamentalist denomination’s magazine entitled “Are You a Christian Humanist?” Having long considered myself one, and thinking most fundamentalist Christians probably aren’t, I began reading the article with interest. The author, a pastor, defined “Christian humanist” as a person who (among other things) watches TV more than reads the Bible.

Needless to say, I was disappointed. The phrase “Christian humanism” has a long and honorable pedigree. It was first attached (so far as I know) to the “philosophy of Christ” of Desiderius Erasmus during the Reformation. Later, in response to the rise of secular humanism especially in the 1930s “Christian humanism” was used to label the Christian alternative by, among others, Catholic thinker Jacques Maritain who wrote Integral Humanism in 1936. That book was a response to the 1933 “Humanist Manifesto.” (A version of Maritain’s thought about humanism was published in 1938 in the U.S. under the title True Humanism. According to its Preface it is based on a series of lectures; the preface doesn’t mention the 1936 book.)

Since Maritain’s exposition of Christian humanism, numerous Christian scholars have adopted the phrase and published books and articles on the subject. For evangelicals, one of the most prominent was J. I. Packer’s and Thomas Howard’s Christianity: The True Humanism (1985).

In its January, 1982 issue, Eternity magazine (of blessed memory, may it RIP), published “A Christian Humanist Manifesto” in direct response to the (secular) Humanist Manifesto II of 1973. But also in response to the fundamentalist and conservative evangelical attacks on “humanism” as essentially pernicious throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. (Many of you may not be old enough to remember that campaign to vilify all “humanism” as evil led by the likes of Tim LaHaye and others. According to them, “humanism” is to be found barely hidden in public school textbooks. For several years conservative evangelicals especially sought for and found “humanism” hanging on every doorknob including in Christian colleges. It was a major impetus for the then growing home schooling movement.)

Eternity’s prologue to its Christian Humanist Manifesto noted that secular humanism is a real danger to society and not “a fundamentalist fantasy” even though “some of the attack on secular humanism offered by Christians has been shallow and misinformed.” Its Manifesto was written by Eternity’s editors in consultation with a stellar list of evangelical leaders including Donald Bloesch, Bernard Ramm, Arthur Holmes, J. I. Packer, James Sire and Richard Bube.

The Christian Humanist Manifesto deserves much wider dissemination and discussion than it received. I think it is still a valuable resource for Christian unity amid diversity in a Western world increasingly dominated by secularism. Unfortunately, in my experience, most Christians still think of “humanism” as essentially bad; they equate it with secular humanism and atheism. Almost completely forgotten except among Christian scholars is that Christianity is the “true humanism” rooted in Scripture (e.g., Psalm 8) and especially in Scripture’s witness to the imago dei.

Eternity’s Christian Humanist Manifesto began with this statement: “In our time the word ‘humanism’ has been claimed by those who explain human existence without reference to God. We are unwilling to yield the term to those views that are least able of finding depth of meaning in the life of mankind. We regret that Christians have rarely offered a clear alternative to secular humanism, and we seek now to set forth the salient points of what for centuries has been called ‘Christian’ humanism. To this we stand committed.”

Following that are thirteen statements of the Christian life and worldview—“generic Christianity”—focused especially on human nature and existence in light of the revelation of God. Juxtaposed with the statements are pictures of leading secular humanists and quotations from them. (For example, the first one is of Carl Sagan with his statement that “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” I remember watching that on TV. Sagan was standing on a rock above the ocean. It was the opening statement of his TV show “Cosmos.” I almost fell off my chair when I heard it. Unfortunately, that TV series became required viewing for many public school students. Sagan, of course, was making a philosophical statement in the guise of a scientific one. But neither he nor most public school teachers explained that to viewers or students.)

The thirteen statements of Eternity’s Christian Humanist Manifesto are: The Starting Point (God), Who We Are (persons created in God’s own image), Value of Life, Why We Exist, The Human Task, Science and Art, Truth and Error, Evil, Providence, Human Restoration: Reconciled to God, The Kingdom of God Begun, World Crisis, and Pessimism, Optimism, Realism. Each statement consists of a few sentences.

The beauty of Eternity’s Christian Humanist Manifesto is that it transcends Christian divisions. Virtually any orthodox Christian (broadly and generously defined) can affirm it.

My concern is that during the last two decades, with the resurgence of fundamentalism in conservative evangelical neo-fundamentalism  (and especially various extreme versions of Calvinism included in that) Christian humanism has been relegated to a back seat (if not thrown out altogether).

Notice that I am NOT saying Calvinism is itself responsible for this situation, but in my humble opinion, for what it is worth, certain recent versions of Calvinism that place extreme emphasis on God’s glory and human depravity at the expense of any emphasis on human dignity and creativity may be partially to blame for the demise of Christian humanism among evangelical Christians.

There is a very worrisome trend in secular philosophy these days. Some philosophers are again, and in new ways, questioning the special dignity of human beings. That’s to be expected once belief in God is dismissed. Secular humanists, without foundation, at least believed in and emphasized human dignity and worth. Now a secular philosopher at a major American university (founded by Christians) argues with impunity that infants may morally be killed up to several weeks after birth if their quality of life is judged inadequate.

Today’s Young, Restless, Reformed Movement (YRRM) does not speak often or loudly enough about human goodness and dignity. It needs to be balanced by a renewed Christian humanism. Too much emphasis on human depravity is dangerous in a cultural context like ours. As Christians we need to avoid saying (as I have heard not only YRRM folks but other Christians as well) that humans are “pond scum” and “shit.” We need to be reminded, as the late Francis Schaeffer liked to say, that “God don’t make no junk.” How that is to be believed consistently with a high Calvinist emphasis on reprobation is unclear to me, but at least Schaeffer and other older Calvinists said it (in various ways). Most of the theological consultants of Eternity’s Christian Humanist Manifesto were Reformed.

This is, I confess, one of my main concerns with the current wave of what some are calling “neo-Calvinism” (which doesn’t seem all that “neo-“ to me because it harks back to Edwards if not to Calvin himself). It tends to revel in denigration of human beings EXCEPT insofar as they are “elect.” How does one reconcile that with Christian humanism (viz., that all human beings are created in God’s image and possess infinite value and worth)?

I will never forget one encounter in which a committed evangelical Calvinist Ph.D. (in psychology, author of several best-selling books at least in Christian bookstores) explained to me that the reprobate, the non-elect, are not human beings; they only appear to us to be human beings. (According to him, we are incapable of telling the difference with any certainty; only God knows.) Now, I realize that is NOT what most Calvinists believe. In fact, he might be the only one who believes it. However, it seems to me the only rational way to combine Christian humanism with Calvinist dualism. Dualistic Calvinism that includes belief in eternal reprobation of a definite number of human beings, especially combined with limited atonement, seems to me to open the door to considering some portion of humanity empty of real dignity and worth. Historically, of course, it played out that way in South Africa and North America.

What I would like to see happen is ALL Christians of every tribe and theological orientation re-affirm, with the editors of Eternity in 1982, Christianity as the true humanism with emphasis on the dignity of every human life as well as human beings’ universal unique worth.

Of course, I make no secret of the fact that, in my opinion, ONLY Arminianism is really consistent with that. (Here I use “Arminianism” broadly as including all Protestants who believe in the possibility of every human being’s salvation contingent on their own God-enabled decision.)

  • CarolJean
  • David Anfenson

    Sounds like a good idea to me. I wish that magazine was still around, it would provide a refreshing voice.

  • http://authenticmission.blogspot.co.uk/ Andrew Kenny

    I agree with you Roger: bring it on! I also believe that Jesus as the Son of God on earth was the most perfect human and the example for all of us to follow. The problem however is that certain Christians in their desire to be so sound biblically and superspiritual ( I’m thinking here of fundamentalist types), they think they are God’s policemen and act more like devils than the Master. In their desire to become so right they lose their humanity and exhibit less good human traits than many unbelievers.As Christians we should be be more loving,joyful , peaceful, patient, kind,gentle etc, not the picture of the self righteous, judgemental bigot that is often portrayed by ardent believers.

  • http://lifeandbuilding.com Kyle

    Have you ever read much of Hans Küng on this topic? This is basically his thesis in On Being a Christian. The first whole section of the book is on the challenge of modern humansims. The answer he gives to “why be a Christian?” is “to be truly human.” Would love to hear your views on him in the light of Christian humanism.

    • rogereolson

      While I disagree with Kung’s Christology (functional, not ontological), I have benefited much from reading his books. I agree that Christianity is the true humanism and that salvation does not make us other than human but truly humanizes us (in the image of the man Jesus Christ). I once drove Kung around for three days at a conference where he was the main speaker. I found him to be a great mind but not as humble as one might wish or expect.

      • http://lifeandbuilding.com Kyle

        Thanks for the reply. I’m wading through On Being a Christian currently (about half way through it). Lots of it I find fascinating. But I agree, there is straw and grain that need separating. Can you recommend any critical assemenst of his early work (besides his inter-religious dialogue or his global ethic or any of his thoroughly Catholic shenanigans)? I know Kärkkäinen has a short section on Küng in his Intro to Ecclisiology, but I am looking for something a little more general/holistic. Even if some don’t think he’s worth ‘reading’, I can’t see how anyone would think he’s not worth quoting.

        • rogereolson

          I wrote a chapter on Kueng in 20th Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age (co-authored with Stanley Grenz). I wrote it shortly after spending quite a bit of time with Kueng (I was his chauffeur at a conference and drove him around Houston for three days). I included quite a bit of critique in the chapter including some from the late Catherine Mowry LaCugna who wrote her dissertation (and a book published based on it) critical of Kueng’s theological method. I asked Kueng what he considered his “best book” and he unhesitatingly replied (the one I hoped he would say) The Incarnation of God. Unfortunately, I don’t see consistency between his Christology there and his low, non-incarnational Christology in On Being a Christian. Watch for my new, updated chapter on Kueng in my forthcoming (tentatively entitled) The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction (IVP).

          • http://lifeandbuilding.com Kyle

            Awesome. Thanks a lot.

  • J.E. Edwards

    Certainly if John Piper can lay claim to Christian Hedonism, Roger Olson can pipe up for Christian Humanism. I do like the heart of your post. I guess my question is, are we inherently valuable simply because we exist? Being created in the image of God is what causes us to value our lives and the lives of all men. Maybe that’s the thing about the term “humanism” that makes some Christians a little (or a lot) hesitant to use. If we are the ones assessing ourselves value, that seems to be a conflict of interest. I guess what I want to say is yes we have worth, but that isn’t why God chose to come into the world to bring salvation to men. He didn’t send Jesus because of OUR worth, but because of HIS grace. That is the very essence of grace. We weren’t worthy, deserving or loving (Rom. 5:6-10), yet He chose to ransom His son for men. Certainly angels would be more worthy than humanity ever could be, yet God chose to damn 1/3 of an entire race of angels with no possibility of forgiveness. Is that because we were of more worth? This is what God was saying to Israel in Deut. 7:7. What ultimately gives us worth is God’s grace.
    As far as understanding our worth, that only comes in seeing the holiness of God. Only in that do we actually know who we are. Isaiah 6 is a perfect example. Isaiah sees God for who He is, then he sees Isaiah for who Isaiah is. That is the Christian life. Drawing near to God automatically reveals to us who we are. That is the path of sanctification and transformation for the believer….God revealing who we are to us as we draw near to Him. Maybe that’s why I stop short so many times. I simply don’t want to see myself like that.

    • rogereolson

      That’s exactly where we disagree. Christian humanism is the belief that God saves because he loves us and he loves us because he chose to create us out of love in his own image and likeness. Christ’s death for all is the strongest evidence for Christian humanism. Unless one says, as some Calvinists do, that Christ died for God and not for us. I disagree. Christian humanism is the belief that even God finds us worth saving because he loves us and created us in his image and likeness. He doesn’t save us only for himself; he saves us for our sakes. While we were still sinners, Scripture says, God loved us. There needs to be a double focus here–on God’s glory and our inherent worth to God because he loves us (not just his own glory).

      • J.E. Edwards

        Why does the love of God need to be related to our worth? This would change the very nature of grace itself. Because God loves the world doesn’t necessarily imply our inherent worth. That’s the point of Rom. 5 isn’t it? This would change the way we are to love the world, too. We are told to love our enemies and pray for them. People that would seem unworthy to love and pray for (and we don’t like to love and pray for). That is grace.

        • rogereolson

          God doesn’t love us because of our inherent worth; we have inherent worth because God loves us. I thought that was clear. But for us to have inherent worth, God must love all of us–not just some select group (“the elect”). And it won’t work to say God loves all people in some ways but only some people in all ways IF that means he has predestined some to hell. If that’s the case, then it would have been better for them never to have been born and they are robbed of any real dignity or worth. (As Wesley said, “That is such a love as makes the blood run cold.”)

          • J.E. Edwards

            I guess I don’t think in those terms exactly. In the Scripture the term “elect” is only positive, and only used between/among believers. Many of the writers referred to believers as the “elect”. I’m sure you agree there. However, the term “non-elect” is never found in Scripture. I shudder when many “Calvinists” use that term and I become frustrated when non-Calvinists use it in a hateful and derogatory way to really drive home their points. Usually, the term “non-elect” is used by non-Calvinists to somehow insinuate or imply that God is rejecting many people that would otherwise come to Him. (I never use that term and wished others would join me.) Do we honestly believe that God will reject ANY that come to Him. Neither of us believe that. Not if we believe John 1:12-13. Here’s how C.H. Spurgeon dealt with this matter. I hope it helps.
            “But there are some who say, “It is hard for God to choose some and leave others.” Now, I will ask you one question. Is there any of you here this morning who wishes to be holy, who wishes to be regenerate, to leave off sin and walk in holiness? “Yes, there is,” says some one, “I do.” Then God has elected you. But another says, “No; I don’t want to be holy; I don’t want to give up my lusts and my vices.” Why should you grumble, then, that God has not elected you to it? For if you were elected you would not like it, according to your own confession. If God this morning had chosen you to holiness, you say you would not care for it. Do you not acknowledge that you prefer drunkenness to sobriety, dishonesty to honesty? You love this world’s pleasures better than religion; then why should you grumble that God has not chosen you to religion? If you love religion, he has chosen you to it. If you desire it, he has chosen you to it. If you do not, what right have you to say that God ought to have given you what you do not wish for? Supposing I had in my hand something which you do not value, and I said I shall give it to such-and-such a person, you would have no right to grumble that I did not give to you. You could not be so foolish as to grumble that the other has got what you do not care about. According to your own confession, many of you do not want religion, do not want a new heart and a right spirit, do not want the forgiveness of sins, do not want sanctification; you do not want to be elected to these things: then why should you grumble? You count these things but as husks, and why should you complain of God who has given them to those whom he has chosen? If you believe them to be good and desire them, they are there for thee. God gives liberally to all those who desire; and first of all, he makes them desire, otherwise they never would. If you love these things, he has elected you to them, and you may have them; but if you do not, who are you that you should find fault with God, when it is your own desperate will that keeps you from loving these things—your own simple self that makes you hate them?”
            http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0041.htm

          • rogereolson

            This is, of course, an Achille’s heel of high Calvinism and no amount of fancy dancing with words will get around it. If God COULD save all because salvation is absolutely unconditional (let’s not quibble about words there either because according to monergism God does all the saving and everything associated with it is a gift of God not dependent on free consent) but does not, then God has rejected some, the non-elect, the reprobate, whom he could save. That’s the stain on God’s character in high Calvinism.

      • Bev Mitchell

        Well said Roger! The great puzzle, for me and probably many, is how could anyone who reads the Bible miss what you say here in a few good words? Is there a good psychological analysis of this kind of blindness? Is it spiritual? Do we have a clue as to it’s source? It certainly is tenacious and has more lives than the proverbial cat. 

      • http://theoldadam.com/ Steve Martin

        I like it.

        Christ died for the ungodly.

        That’s me!

  • PSF

    Great post! A good book that I read tracking the history of Christian humanism is Klassen and Zimmerman’s “The Passionate Intellect.” It’s a book about worldview and education, but devotes its historical narrative to humanism – how it started, how it got derailed with secular humanism (and rejection of humanism by some postmodern philosophers), its recovery in thinkers like Levinas and Bonhoeffer, and its proposal of incarnational humanism is the ground of the unity of knowledge and for education from a Christian point of view.

    • rogereolson

      I know Jens Z. (as an acquaintance) and can recommend this book even though I haven’t yet read it.

  • John C. Gardner

    Can you point to good books on this topic for those of us who may be interested in it further?I agree that is has been a neglected topic with evangelical circles(including Wesleyan circles). Thank you for this post

    • rogereolson

      Unfortunately, there have been too few good books on the subject in recent years. I recommended Jacques Maritain’s books but also Packer’s and Howard’s. Since then I am not aware of any good books on Christian humanism from an evangelical perspective. There are some at amazon.com that contain the phrase Christian humanism in the title, but I don’t know whether they’re good or not.

  • http://www.christianhumanist.org Nate

    I promise you that there are still Christian humanists around. :)

  • Steve Rogers

    I totally agree with your central point here, Roger, especially as you pointed out in the 3rd to last paragraph how Calvinist dualism can lead to de-humanization. I struggle, however, with the term “Christian humanism.” Both words carry so much baggage in contemporary cultural understandings that it is almost impossible to communicate a clear message with their use.

    • rogereolson

      Like most labels it needs explaining. But I found it useful and somewhat funny when I told the president of a local Humanist Society chapter that I am a Christian humanist. He gave me the strangest look. That led into a fascinating conversation.

  • Holly

    Brilliant, and much appreciated, Roger.

  • CJ Dufty

    Thanks for this; Christian humanist is a description I’ve wanted to own myself for some time. This brought to mind a conversation with a friend of conservative Christian upbringing a few years back. He explained how troubled he had been reconciling his brother’s gay identity with the brother’s professed Christian faith but was helped by a colleague of the Reformed persuasion apparently conveying an Everyman’s version of Limited Atonement. The answer that was so enlightening? “Some people are just human garbage.” Knowing my friend himself had struggled with a slowly disabling illness since his youth and the inferiority and “why questions” around that, I tried to counter this with the strongest possible affirmation that “God don’t make no junk”.

    Have wanted to say for some time Roger, that I appreciate your courage and clarity and the alternative here for those in hot pursuit of an evangelical theological mind.

  • JamesT

    I have a question.
    If I torture someone to death, we say that that is inhuman. My question is, is ‘being human’ a continuum? If I live to be more Christlike, am I becoming more human. Was Jesus the epitome of being human? As my mind is transformed so that I have the mind of Christ, do I become the human God wants me to be?

    • rogereolson

      Yes, Jesus was the epitome of being human. I am a poor copy hoping to be improved by God’s grace. God’s grace makes me more human, not less.

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    Dr. Olson said, “Christian humanism is the belief that even God finds us worth saving because he loves us and created us in his image and likeness. He doesn’t save us only for himself; he saves us for our sakes. While we were still sinners, Scripture says, God loved us. There needs to be a double focus here–on God’s glory and our inherent worth to God because he loves us (not just his own glory).”

    Careful, Roger! That’s what I believe.

  • Steve Dal

    I think this whole story is an example of where your theology can lead you once you start out on a particular path. We had a ‘chaplain’ at our school (until he was dismissed) and among many silly statements he made was ‘God does not care for the non-elect’. He arrived at this point via the starting point which is an acceptance of an extreme Calvinist position on election etc. I agree entirely with you that what gives us our worth is that we are (all) made in the image of God. NOT that we are all reprobates who are worthy to be damned as the starting point. I think if you hold mankind to be inherently valuable because they are created in the image of God you will always be looking outward to love your neighbour as yourself. If you see us as reprobates and follow that all the way you end becoming insular and inward looking and creating more bizarre twist on scripture. Very unhealthy.

  • http://shalomistheword.blogspot.com Jason

    Very nice post. I agree with what you are saying, except your use of the term “neo-calvinism”. I know that with the Times and Newsweek articles of recent time, the new Calvinists of whom you speak have been identified as “neo-calvinists”, but I think we need to differentiate between “neo-calvinism” and “neo-puritanism”. True “neo-calvinists” are, I believe, the true heralds of Christian Humanism. Bob Robinson of Vangaurd Church wrote some very helpful blog posts showing the differences and how it is that real “neo-calvinists” are upholding the dignity of humanity and the goodness of Creation and God’s love for both. Neo-Calvinism is the heritage of Abraham Kuyper more than Jonathan Edwards. Here is a link to the first of Bob’s posts:
    http://vanguardchurch.blogspot.com/2009/04/which-is-new-calvinism-neo-puritanism.html
    Links to the series Neo-Puritanism and Neo-Calvinism are found below this first post. I would be interested in your reaction.

    • rogereolson

      Various people are using the term “neo-Calvinism” in different ways. That’s why I usually (as I remember to) put it in scare quotes–to indicate “so-called.”

  • J.E. Edwards

    @Roger,
    Your post “This is, of course, an Achille’s heel of high Calvinism and no amount of fancy dancing with words will get around it. If God COULD save all because salvation is absolutely unconditional (let’s not quibble about words there either because according to monergism God does all the saving and everything associated with it is a gift of God not dependent on free consent) but does not, then God has rejected some, the non-elect, the reprobate, whom he could save. That’s the stain on God’s character in high Calvinism.”
    This is where I become confused with your understanding of total depravity and causes me confusion in your understanding of grace. I thought the illustration Spurgeon laid out was spot on. God will not reject any that come to Him. Because He doesn’t save everyone isn’t on Him. Because we are running from God and that He choses to save ANY is an amazing thing. Which is why I’m confused with either your understanding of depravity or grace. From my perspective, the way you see depravity SAYS the same thing, but ultimately God enables the sinner to see his condition yet the sinner must choose to believe with depraved will? We simply will not. Your understanding of regeneration will not work here either, because that happens AFTER faith, right? To fight to the death for man’s FREE response to the gospel ultimately has to disconnect us from our depravity (even if it’s only a nanosecond). Unless the will is first regenerated, it will never come to believe the gospel.

    • rogereolson

      We’ve been over this time and time again. I have explained carefully and patiently the nature of prevenient grace as a partial regeneration of the will–sufficient to overcome the bondage of the will to sin and to make possible a decision for God and the gospel of Jesus Christ with repentance and faith. The issue is not (how often do I have to say it) “man’s FREE response to the gospel” EXCEPT as that is necessary to protect the character of God.

      • J.E. Edwards

        I forgot to ask this. In your theology, does this partial regeneration precede the faith of a person? It seems it must to be consistent. Otherwise you are in the same position as a Calvinist, aren’t you?

        • rogereolson

          Have you read either Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities or Against Calvinism? I explain Arminian soteriology in detail in both. I wrote them so that I could refer people who are really interested in my thoughts about these matters to them rather than engage in very protracted discussions such as this is turning out to be. And I think I’ve answered that and many other questions about Arminian soteriology here before–numerous times. My answer is yes, but please read the books because the answers to most, if not all, of your questions about Arminian soteriology are there.

          • http://lifeandbuilding.com Kyle

            Which of these (Myths and Realities, or Against) do you recommend to read first?

          • rogereolson

            Start with Myths and Realities and move to Against. One is mainly an exposition of Arminianism. The other is a (hopefully irenic) polemic against Calvinism. But there is significant overlap between them.

  • Phil

    I had never heard of the Manifesto and am thankful for its mention (and hyperlinking!) here. My experience with Christian humanism goes back to college. One of my professors, Al Rabil, had written a book, “Erasmus and the New Testament: The Mind of a Christian Humanist”, that I read cover to cover. Unfortunately I gave in to the anti humanist propaganda then current in evangelical/fundamentalist circles (these were still distinct at the time — it was 1977), and so wound up neglecting what could have been an early opportunity to mature both intellectually and spiritually. In recent years I’ve made a point of getting to know Erasmus, More and the other early Christian humanists better. There is a Christian Humanist podcast out there, http://www.christianhumanist.org/ (rss feed can be found at http://feeds.feedburner.com/TheChristianHumanistPodcast), I don’t always agree with everything they have to say but it’s great fun to listen to people talking about the humanities from a non-fundamentalist Christian perspective.

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  • Mark Turner

    The Cambridge Foundation in the UK have just published an article about Christianity as the true Humanism – check out http://www.jubilee-centre.org/document.php?id=442

    • rogereolson

      Excellent!


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