The Development Of Christian Doctrine And Human Dignity

The Development Of Christian Doctrine And Human Dignity May 16, 2023

Andy Miah: The Meaning Of Human Dignity / flickr

The Christian faith proclaims that each and every human person is inherently dignified because they are made in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen. 1:26). While many believe this means that only humanity is made in the image and likeness of God, that is not what the text says. All it says is that humanity was made in God’s image. Just like saying every dog is a mammal does not mean every mammal is a dog, so that statement does not say the only ones who are made in the image and the likeness of God are humans. It is silent about that. There are good reasons to suggest everything in creation is made in God’s image, each in their own particular way. The point of the text is to show our inherent dignity and all the implications which flow from it. Sadly, because of sin, and the say sin influences and corrupts the world, we find ourselves in a situation where human dignity is not automatically affirmed. This is why we find so many people creating reasons to ignore or outright reject the dignity of others, either by treating them as sub-human, or by saying there is no reason to believe every human is worthy of being treated with dignity and respect. Sin corrupts our relationships with each other. It makes it hard for us to see the dignity of everyone, as it interferes with our perception of others. And the more we denigrate others, the more we engage sin, the more sin corrupts us and society at large, indeed, our sins end up coming together, forming structures of sin which then become used to reinforce the excuses we give to mistreat others:

This body of sin, then, is shown to be constructed out of the many members of the vices, and to it belongs whatever sin is committed by deed or word or thought. Its members are very correctly said to be upon the earth. For those who do not make use of them can truly profess: ‘Our way of life is in the heavens.’ The Apostle describes members of this body when he says in this place: ‘Put to death your members that are on earth – fornication, impurity, wantonness, evil desire and avarice, which is slavery to idols.’ [1]

The more we are accustomed to and accept the dictates given to us by the structures of sin, the more we find ourselves struggling to promote human dignity. Christianity initially fought against those structures but quickly came to accept, if not outright promote, many of them as Christians found themselves thinking such structures were normative and should be supported. This is why Christian history is often filled with those who spoke prophetically for the sake of human dignity finding themselves fighting a losing battle against those who sought to preserve and protect the structures of sin. Christianity lost sight of the revolutionary implications of its teachings, though those teachings remained, and could and would influence the development of Christian thought when they were later reconsidered and processed. This is why in modern times, we often see a return to principles which were long neglected, principles which were then developed further, and used to develop Christian moral teachings. Once human dignity was put into focus, it became obvious so many things which were accepted should be rejected as they denied human dignity.

A prime example of that is slavery. Slavery was an evil which humanity had for so long come to accept as normative that when people became Christians, they rarely considered its implications and how slavery violated Christ’s teachings on the dignity of humanity (and with it, the love we should show our neighbor). There were some, who, upon reflecting upon its nature, saw through the veil and saw its evil, but their voice was repressed. It is only for a little more than a hundred years that Christian doctrine has truly reflected upon the implications of human dignity and denounced the evil of slavery. In doing so, it recognized slavery was always an evil, and those who spoke out against it were right, even if, because this understanding was not fully developed until recently, some otherwise holy men and women accepted it and indeed, had slaves of their own. This shows us that even holy men and women could be and were stained not only with sin, but with great evil, though it can be argued, because they had not properly understood that evil, they supported it in ignorance, limiting their culpability. While their intention was not evil, nonetheless, they could be and should still be called out. And some, like St. Gregory of Nyssa, did just that. St. Gregory pointed out that humanity has been freed from the slavery of sin, and as such, all the implications of such slavery, which included the institution of slavery itself as such, should have been rejected. Indeed, he asked how Christians could go on from being freed from such slavery to owning slaves themselves:

But once you have freed yourself from servitude and bondage, you desire others to serve you. “I have obtained servants and maidens.” What value is this, I ask? What merit do you see in their nature? What small worth have  you bestowed upon them? What payment do you exchange for your nature which God has fashioned?  God said “Let us make man according to our image and likeness” [Gen 1.26]. Since we are made according to God’s likeness and are appointed to rule over the earth, tell me, who is the person who sells and buys? Only God can do this; however, it does not pertain to him at all “for the gifts of God are irrevocable” [Rom 11.29]. Because God called human nature to freedom which had become addicted to sin, he would not subject it to servitude again. If God did not subject freedom to slavery, who can deny his lordship? [2]

This point can be seen implied in one of Jesus’ parables. For in it, we are told of a man who had a large debt forgiven him who was unwilling to forgive the lesser debt others owed him. As he was set free from debt, so he should have set free those who owed him money. Jesus wanted us to understand that the freedom we have been given should be granted to others, and if we don’t do so, we risk losing it ourselves. Jesus taught us to love our neighbor. When we do so, we find ourselves transcending the structures of sin, for sin denies love and so the structures limit our love for others. Those whom such structures would make our enemy should be seen as our equal, to be loved by us even as they are loved by God, for they are one with us in our humanity:

Yet the filial devotion that comes from this love cannot be perfected without love of neighbor. By the term “neighbor” are to be understood not only those who are joined to us by friendship or kindship, but all people with whom we have a common nature, be they enemies or allies, free or slave. One creation fashioned us all, one Maker breather life into us all. We all enjoy the same sky and air, the same days and nights. Although some are good and others bad, some just and others unjust, God nevertheless shows generosity to all, kindness toward all – as the apostles Paul and Barnabas said to the Lycaonians concerning the providence of God: “During generations past he gave leave for all nations to embark upon their own ways. Yet he did not allow himself to be left without witness, doing good to them, giving rain and fruitful seasons from heaven, filling our hearts with food and with delight.” [3]

The structures of sill will not last. In the end, they will be dispelled by Christ, so that when we encounter Christ in the eschaton, in the eschatological judgment, all the social status we had thanks to them will be as nothing for that status itself is dependent, in some fashion or another upon the structures of sin which he overcame:

At that time there will be no distinction between the noble and ignoble, priest and layman, slave and master, maidservant and mistress, rich and poor, lender and the one who is overwhelmed by debt, buyer and seller. For everyone will stand on equal footing before the tribunal of Christ [cf. Rom 14:10], and there will be “no acceptance of persons with God” [Col 3:25]. [4]

Now, while it is true, we will not create utopia, we are nonetheless called to draw eschatological graces to the world, to transform the world the best we can with them, dispelling as many of the structures of sin we can. We might not make for a perfect world, but we should strive for it, making it better in the process. And that means we should change society instead of just accepting the evils found within it. We are not to fight against that transformation. Christian doctrine, as it develops, as it presents to us a better sense of our moral expectations, will help us know what we can and should transform. The elimination of slavery is an example of this. It came after Christians considered the implications of slavery and saw that their support for the institution ran against basic Christian morality. Theological development ensued. What was discovered in the process was always true, which is why, throughout history, there were some, like St. Gregory of Nyssa, who anticipated that development. This means that Christians, even saints, could be and did much wrong, but as they acted out of ignorance, not spite, their culpability did not prevent grace from sanctifying them. This should offer us hope. We remain far from perfect. We have yet to realize all the implications of Christ’s work in the world and what it should mean for society. We are likely ignorant of what we should be doing, of the evil behind many of the things which we support or promote. Our failure can be forgiven, just as the failures of the past can be forgiven, especially if we are open to the development which is necessary for the promotion of human dignity in the world. However, once we truly know and understand the structures of sin for what they are, and then continue to promote and defend them as good, we risk judgment, for the more we know, the more we shall be judged.  And if we think the solution is to ignore the problem, all we will do is engage willful ignorance, and the culpability associated with it.

[1] John Cassian, The Conferences. Trans. Boniface Ramsey, OP (New York: Newman Press, 1997), 435-6 [Twelfth  Conference; Chaeremon].

[2] St. Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on Ecclesiastes. Trans. Richard McCambly. Ed. John Litteral (Ashland, KY: Litteral’s Christian Library Publications, 2014), 41 [Homily 4].

[3] St Leo the Great, Sermons. Trans. Jane Patricia Freeland CSJB and Agnes Josephine Conway SSJ (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1996), 51 [Sermon 12].

[4] St. Jerome, Commentary on Isaiah in St Jerome: Commentary on Isaiah; Origen Homilies 1-9 on Isaiah. Trans. Thomas P. Scheck (New York: Paulist Press, 2015), 387.


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