A Christian Humanist Manifesto–Part 3 (Final)

A Christian Humanist Manifesto–Part 3 (Final) November 16, 2012

Two questions will immediately arise, or at least arise upon close reflection, in the minds of thinking Christians. First, can creatures satisfy God? That is, can we, mere “worm”s that we are, add something to God’s own bliss and enjoyment of himself? Second, is “glorification,” something all Christians believe is at least an eschatological reality for sinners saved by God’s grace and mercy, at all possible in this life—before the resurrection and new heaven and new earth? Related to the second question is the question of original sin and depravity, the corruption of human nature by sin: can it be removed by the transforming power of God’s grace in this life prior to death so that a human person can, at least to some extent, satisfy God’s desire to glorify him or her?

Realizing this goes against the grain of much Christian tradition as well as much philosophical theism, I believe the answer to both (or all three) questions is yes. Philosophical theism, often together with a doctrine of God like Edwards’, has convinced many to think it is somehow inappropriate to think of God as capable of being moved by creatures, of being caused by creatures to have feelings or emotions, to experience joy or sorrow or anger on account of what mere creatures do or don’t do. We are told by much of Christian tradition that such thinking is anthropomorphic—depicting God as having human-like characteristics. But I suggest that is to make a mockery of much of the biblical narrative which does, indeed, portray God as personal and relational. To John Calvin and his followers, biblical depictions of God as human like, as having emotions, for example, is the result of divine accommodation. God, Calvin taught, talks baby-talk to us in revelation, in Scripture. But that is to posit a God above and behind the personal God of the Bible—Yahweh and Jesus Christ, God incarnate, as if God were really unlike any of that—unfeeling, unresponsive, impersonal.

To be sure, God is not a human being, but human beings are created in God’s image and likeness and God is personal. God did not become human in Jesus Christ because humanity is unlike himself but because humanity is like himself—except for sin. But sin is not an essential aspect of humanity; it is our humanity’s brokenness, its estrangement from itself as well as from God.

Scripture portrays God as being satisfied. God was satisfied with Jesus. “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased”—attributed to God in all three synoptic gospels. Hebrews 11 mentions Enoch, a patriarch whom God found “well-pleasing.” When I talk about “satisfying God” and God being “satisfied with us,” I’m referring to God’s pleasure, God’s enjoyment. I don’t consider it heretical to say that God craves our love and obedience and glorification by him.

Years ago I read an essay by Fuller Seminary professor James Daane, a Reformed theologian, that rocked my world. It was entitled “Can a Man Bless God?” Today, of course, he would entitle it “Can a Person Bless God?” (It’s included in a collection of essays under the volume title God and the Good edited by Clifton Orlebeke and Lewis Smedes [Eerdmans, 1975].) Like many seminary students, I was taught in my theology classes that God is immutable; nothing any creature can do can add anything to God. God is in every way always complete and unconditioned—incapable of being given anything he does not already possess in himself eternally. Traditional theologians like to pay God metaphysical compliments like that.

Against the stream of traditional Christian theism, and against the grain of his own Reformed tradition, Daane wrote that “[The] God of the Bible is not unresponsive to finite human condition. His freedom does not consist in being free from the touch of what is not God, nor is his immutability a change of relationship to the world that involves no change in God….” (p. 171) Daane asked why theologians came up with the idea of God as the “Unconditioned Absolute” and answered that they “lingered too long at the waterholes of Western rationalism.” (p. 172) He concluded that “In the biblical view God hears and responds to the cries of the needy, and is indeed so involved in conditional, contingent reality that he can be both sinned against and, no less, blessed by man in such a way that it makes a difference to God himself. But a God who is unconditional because he himself accounts for all conditions by virtue of his essence or decree is a God who cannot hear, let alone answer prayer.” (p. 173)

Daane was one of several Christian thinkers who together liberated me from thinking of God as absolute, unconditioned, incapable of being changed or affected by what creatures, by what I, do. In fact, I came to believe that paying too many metaphysical compliments to God can de-personalize God. That trend was, I believe, unwittingly set in motion by some of the church fathers as they adopted Greek philosophical modes of thinking about God, carried forward by Augustine under the spell of neo-Platonism, deepened by Thomas Aquinas who borrowed from Aristotle to describe God as actus purus—pure actuality without potentiality, and brought into evangelical thought by Reformed theologians like Jonathan Edwards and Charles Hodge.

Contrary to all of that, I believe, the God of the biblical story and of Jesus Christ is a passionate God who opens himself to risk, pain, sorrow, joy, satisfaction and richer experience in relation to the world he created out of love and for both his glory and that of his creation. One need only look to Jesus’ parables, especially that of the prodigal son and waiting father, to see that Jesus thought this way about God. The return of the prodigal son to his father’s home brought his father, clearly meant to represent God in the story, great joy and satisfaction.

The second question my thesis, my motto, raises is about the depth of human depravity. My critics, most of them from the Reformed branch of Protestantism, will say that I have not taken sufficiently into account the fallenness, the corruption of humanity. I disagree. Even they believe that God’s transforming grace makes it possible for regenerate persons to glorify God and be satisfied in him. Piper, for example, talks much about the Christian’s life as ideally one that, with the help of the Holy Spirit, can please God. He might even agree with me that, to some degree, a regenerate person’s life can be glorified by God and bring satisfaction to God. The difference between what he would say and what I am saying, however, is one of emphasis. I am arguing that God seeks not only his own glory but also ours. And that God’s inner satisfaction, the smile of God that he often talks about, can be brought about by us—as we cooperate with God’s grace to conform to the image of God and become what God designed us to be—partial partakers of the divine nature.

Let me dwell for a moment on that last statement.  Eastern Orthodox Christians have long emphasized salvation as theosis—“deification”—another scary concept to many Protestants and especially evangelicals. It sounds “new age-ish” or mystical in an occult sense. It sounds like something Shirley MacLaine would have claimed for herself as she stood on the shore of an ocean, spreading wide her arms and declaring “I am God!” That’s not what it means. The Eastern Orthodox idea of deification comes from 2 Peter 1:4 which says that God has given us “his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world.” (NRSV) In Eastern Orthodox theology, going back to the Greek church fathers, deification means being made partial partakers of the divine nature by grace. It’s a gift. Through faith and the sacraments and by the indwelling Holy Spirit believers in Jesus Christ are being united with him, something even John Calvin emphasized, and being transformed into Christlikeness. The perfect humanity of Jesus is being communicated to us so that our humanity is being changed, as Paul put it, “from one degree of glory to another.” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Deification has never meant becoming God as God is God. That won’t even happen in the resurrection when we see God “face to face” as Paul described it in 1 Corinthians 13:12. For Eastern Orthodox Christians, and John Wesley followed them in this, transformation in glorification is God’s impartation of his own immortal life now; Christ came to communicate his humanity in union with God to us now.

The incarnation lies at the very root of Christian humanism; Jesus’ humanity is displayed as true humanity—humanity in union with God. Humanity freed from corruption; pristine and more—transformed by the energies of God. The image and likeness of God being restored and made whole, liberated from bondage to sin and decay and corruption. This is what Greek church father Irenaeus meant by “The glory of God is man fully alive.” Humanity fully alive is seen in Jesus; through our union with him we can experience a partial restoration of our humanity, humanity healed and restored. That’s deification. Not that we become God or gods but that we become truly human through the gift of God’s grace imparting his own life to us. That’s the gospel: that we can be more than forgiven; we can be transformed, deified, humanized, made whole.

The original plan of God was for the church to be God’s new humanity in the world. Marxists have dreamed about a new humanity through revolution. Others have hoped for a new humanity to emerge through education and technology. Those dreams have failed; the majority of people in today’s world, living in the aftermath of the “genocidal century” that was supposed to have been the “Christian century,” have given up hope for a new humanity. The challenge facing Christians is to recover that hope through the church and show the world that humanity is not a disease on the face of the earth but the glory of God—when made fully alive through Jesus Christ.

That is what I mean by Christian humanism, my friends. Not taking fallen, weak, sinful humanity and exalting it to replace God. Not making idols out of ourselves as we are. Rather, Christian humanism is exalting the man Jesus, who was also God, as the model of true humanity and living out the promise that he came to give—that we all might also be like him in his humanity—satisfying God by being glorified by God through the Spirit of Jesus in the church.

My assertion is that when we allow God to do his work in us by renewing and restoring the divine image as it was in Jesus, God is being satisfied. We are blessing God, making God happy, if you will, making God sigh with deep satisfaction, making God dance, not by achieving something on our own or doing something apart from his will and power and without his gifts, but by cooperating with his grace, allowing it to transform us into his new humanity.

Now, before concluding, I want to make something else clear about Christian humanism. It’s not just we, God’s people, who possess God’s truth, beauty and goodness as if God and his gifts were our private possessions. To be sure, we know God more fully through Jesus Christ, but even he is not our private possession. We are simply ones who volunteer to be citizens of God’s new city, the new humanity God is growing through the incarnation and the giving of the Holy Spirit. We’re the vanguard, if you will, but not the owners of God’s kingdom. God’s grace and the Holy Spirit are at work in the world outside the church as well as in it and sometimes more obviously there. God is at work wherever truth, beauty and goodness are found. Especially evangelical Christians have a habit of building walls between ourselves and the world of culture; Christian humanism reminds us that God loves humanity and has never left himself without a witness among people. The image of God in humanity has never been obliterated and God’s common grace is everywhere at work even where God is denied.

The practical result of knowing this is a Christian love of learning resulting in a kind of “holy worldliness” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it. Bonhoeffer scholar John de Gruchy, in his excellent book Confessions of a Christian Humanist, rightly says that “Christian humanists cherish the love of learning both for the sake of the Church’s ministry in the world, and because of its importance for human well-being, for the simple reason that the two belong together.” (p. 180) Anti-intellectualism is a sin, even when engaged in for pious reasons, which is not to endorse everything humans think up. Sin is very real and the corruption it brings into everything of human existence, including the life of the mind, must not be minimized. However, it’s also possible to overstate it. Calvin said that the human mind is nothing but a factory of idols. The Calvinist doctrine of total depravity can sometimes discourage seeing all truth as God’s truth and result in turning a deaf ear and blind eyes to truth, beauty and goodness in the world. The church fathers before Augustine, Greek church fathers such as Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria, regarded Jesus Christ himself as the “seed” of truth, beauty and goodness in all endeavors for knowledge and wisdom. Jesus, in other words, they believed, is not our private possession but the cosmic Christ in whom all things hold together (Colossians 1:17).

To the Christian humanist, humanity is essentially good even if existentially estranged. And the cosmic Christ through the ever and always present Holy Spirit who created by hovering over the primordial waters, bringing order out of chaos, is mercifully and graciously at work in the world that God so loves. To the Christian humanist our task as Christians is not to escape humanity but together with God to redeem it and that involves uniting truth, beauty and goodness regardless of their sources into God-satisfying projects of promoting the well-being of God’s good creation.

God is most satisfied with us when we are being most glorified by him. Let us satisfy God, make God dance, by allowing his grace to transform us into the image of Jesus Christ, becoming partial partakers of the divine nature, for the sake of the well-being of God’s good creation loved by God.

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