A Christian Humanist Manifesto…Part 2

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.

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  • Tim Reisdorf

    I’ve read both Utopian and Anti-Utopian novels. I must say that the Anti-Utopian stories ring true with my experience of life and the Utopian stories ring false or hollow or unrealistically optimistic. Of course, these stories were written without God as one of the actors, so that absence must be taken into account. Skinner’s “Walden Two” describes this behaviorist’s heaven, but it seems to me to resemble a lower level of hell and a place I’d rather escape from. On the other hand, Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” more accurately portrays the human condition of good people getting smashed along with the good that they try to do by the bad people.

    “As dead flies give perfume a bad smell, so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.” Again, “wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.”

  • CarolJean

    ” 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.”

    When humans behave in a self-centered way, we do not extol them for this so why is it different if God is said to act in this manner? It doesn’t even correlate with Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. If we see in Jesus’ words and actions the heart of the Father which appears to be motivated by love, why then do some ascribe to the Father other motives?

  • CarolJean

    “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.”

    The process in which we are being changed to become like Christ. The more God glorifies us in this process, the more we become like Christ and the true, beloved children of God.

  • Bev Mitchell


    This is very helpful and will be a blessing for many I am sure. The gnostic trap that you allude to is very real in the hard position of Piper and many conservatives. Some would say that this gnostic monster is more dangerous than the Pelagianism threat that looms on the other extreme.

    To place so much emphasis on our depravity even elevates it (or the idea) to a kind of reverse pride or idolatry. Given the unfathomable, unreachable perfect love of God, we cannot be closer to him as a good but unrepentant sinner or further away as a depraved and unrepentant sinner.

    It is difficult to see how your position, properly understood, can lead us to wrongly think we can reach God, be justified, be saved or whatever on our own steam. From the other perspective, the dubious rejection of our God-made goodness in order to make clearer our total inability to come to God on our own for our salvation and completion has caused much trouble, pain and confusion. Far better to preach the humanly unreachable glory of God, and the path to that glory through Christ, than to overemphasize the nothingness that we are drawn to when we reject his Spirit.

  • Magnificent! I have been following your blog for sometime now, and this has to be your best piece–a work of beauty. If only all of our brothers and sisters in Christ–across all of Christendom–would fully embrace the picture you painted for us, here. God bless you.

  • M. 85

    Thanks Dr. Olson for two wonderful posts. I’ve always found it so bizarre when calvinists talk about God’s glory and they separate it from his love: The Bible clearly states that God’s glory is his GOODNESS!! (Exodus 33:18-19 “Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory”. And the LORD said ” i will cause all my GOODNESS to pass in front of you[…]”). I believe God is most glorified when we love and worship Him for who He truly is.
    I also find their belittling of human beings made in God’s image to be rather disgusting ( i’ve heard the rubbish that children and babies are “totally depraved” over and over, contrast that with Jesus’ treatment of children) as well as being thoroughly unbiblical. I believe all this grieves the Holy Spirit profoundly and you do well to stand up against it.

  • “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.”

    It’s easy to write off non-Christian humanity as “walking dead” if, in fact, we have concluded that God himself has written them off. But has he? It may be enlightening to consider how the great apostle Paul addressed the the PAGAN Athenians. While recognizing their idolatrous error, he never denigrated their inherent dignity and relationship to the true God, saying, “[God] is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring'” (Acts 17:28). He included them in two ways: (1) He acknowledges that they, too, are “in him” and, (2) He affirms their rightful and continued relationship in the family of God, quoting their own poet, ‘We ARE his offspring’ (Aratus: 3rd century B.C. Greek poet).

  • Matt Brady

    Thank you for the comparison between Edwards and Wesley. It seems that we as American Christians have been trying to figure out this issue for longer than I realized.