Embracing Our Goodness, by Chad Thornhill
Of all the ways Smith makes his case for embracing a beautiful, good, and true story about a beautiful, good, and true God, his fifth chapter of The Magnificent Story may be the most thought-provoking. When articulating a doctrine of humanity in light of the gospel, the common Christian line of thinking likely begins with “we are sinners,” which then entails our need for forgiveness, and thus our need for the cross.
While Smith doesn’t dispute that there is theological validity to these elements of the story, he insists that they don’t tell the whole story, and thus they put our theological equilibrium off-kilter.
Smith begins with a powerful story of his friendship with Rich Mullins. As their friendship deepened, Smith shares how Mullins shared with him one night his painful story of “mental and physical abuse, of sin and wantonness. It was a story of reckless, selfish, sinful behavior” (72). Smith was surprised to learn that much of this painful story of sin had occurred after Mullins had become famous. This friendship was used to teach Smith that, in his words, “despite our sin, sin is not our identity.”
Here Smith returns to the shaming story which emphasizes the utter sinfulness and depravity of humanity, illustrated with Augustine’s assertion that even babies are utterly sinful and selfish. He asks of this narrative of human identity, is it beautiful, good, and true?
Smith contrasts the shaming story of “you are a depraved sinner” with the biblical narrative which starts with humans being made as divine image bearers and tasked with the creative enterprise of caring for God’s good world. The biblical story starts not with original sin, but with original goodness. Smith makes a semantic distinction here between image and likeness. The image of God in humans is never removed, meaning each person has inherit worth. The likeness of God (cf. Gen 1:26) can be tarnished and distorted. So sin, Smith argues, is not our fundamental identity, it is what distorts our divinely created identity and purpose.
Smith turns to the fathers as well, who he argues emphasized the imago dei in ways modern Christians often do not. Calling on Clement, the Gregories, and Chrysostom, he draws both on the emphasis on humans as image bearers and on their conception of humanity through the lens of Christology, or as it has been termed, theosis. So, for example, Athanasius affirmed, “God made Himself man, that man might become God.” What the fathers meant here was not that humans become a member of the Godhead, but rather that in Spirit-empowered growing conformity to Christ, believers share in the life of God, partaking, in a meaningful sense, in the nature of Christ by being conformed to his image. Union with and conformity to Christ is the pattern marked out for humans.
The consequences of a disoriented view of humanity can be devastating. It can lead to disregarding other humans (i.e., they are sinners needing judgment) rather than valuing them and treating them with kindness and respect (i.e., they are made in the image of God and have inherent value). Today, perhaps, this corrective is needed more than ever.
How does reorienting the biblical narrative of humanity around original goodness change how we interact with our neighbors? With our enemies?
Does understanding sin as a misdirection of trust, as idolatry, capture how it is portrayed in Scripture? What consequences for the Christian life might this entail?
Chad Thornhill, PhD
Chair of Theological Studies, Director of the MA in Christian Apologetics,
Associate Professor of Apologetics and Biblical Studies
School of Divinity, Liberty University