Chapter 2 of Joel B. Green’s book Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible is entitled “What does it mean to be human?” In this chapter he addresses the title question from two directions, scientific and biblical. In the post last Tuesday I considered the scientific evidence for the connection of human life with the rest of animal life including a consideration of the material features that may, or may not, make us distinctly human. In this post I would like to put up for conversation some of the biblical perspective on human uniqueness.
Moving from science to the bible, Dr. Green starts by describing several problems or pitfalls in the consideration of a biblical view of the nature of humanity. He proceeds to consider a few passages of scripture and wraps up with an sketch of what he finds as the biblical basis for human distinctiveness.
The evidence for the nature of humanity found in the bible is implicit not explicit. We are not told “this is the nature of humanity” rather we have texts that assume a view, counter other views though to be errant, or project ideas about the nature of humanity into a discussion of the future new heavens and new earth.
There is a problem of method. There is no simple method, be it appeal to culture, word study, or appeal to the afterlife, which, when applied to the scripture, will permit easy discovery and understanding of the biblical view of the nature of humans.
Most importantly, there is an ever present danger of imposing our current ideas about the human person on the text rather than listening to what the text has to say. This is really the big problem. The approach of substance dualism is something that Dr. Green claims we project into the text rather than extract from the text. Here he looks specifically at the healings by Jesus to provide an example. Physical blemish kept a person from access to God and the community of God’s people. Cleansing a leper restored him to God and to community (Mt 8:1-4). In another example healing is connected with the forgiveness of sin, in fact healing is tantamount to the forgiveness of sin (Mt 9:2-8). Humans are unified wholes.
Here we find no room for segregating the human person into discrete, constitutive “parts,” whether “bodily” or “spiritual” or “communal.” (p. 49)
Is the dualist view of human persons as body and soul something we read from the text or we read into the text?
Humans as individuals vs human in community. The problems that arise from imposing modern assumptions on the text go beyond dualism though. The notion of community and the importance of place in community was more significant in the ancient culture where the bible was shaped and written. We tend to define identity in terms of self-sufficiency, self-determination, self-autonomy, self-legislation, and the individual inner person – taking ideas from Charles Taylor Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. This modern view of human identity is in contrast with the view of human persons implicit in the biblical text.
The point is that constructions of personal identity that pervade the world of the interpreter are easily read back into the texts under scrutiny, and yet, in the case of the human self discerned by Taylor, can stand at odds with biblical anthropology at almost every turn. … These include such emphases as the construction of the self as deeply embedded in social relationships and thus the importance of dependence/interdependence for human identity; a premium on the integrity of the community and thus the contribution of individuals to that integrity; the assumption that a person is one’s behavior – that is, that one’s dispositions are on display in one’s practices; an emphasis on external authority – that is the call to holiness is a call to human vocation drawn from a vision of Yahweh’s “difference”; and the reality of dualism vis-a-vis good/evil, resident in and manifest both outside and inside a person. (p. 50)
So what is found in scripture? Dr. Green looks specifically at Genesis 1-2 and concludes that humans are fundamentally relational – with God, with each other, and with the world. To bear the divine image is to have a distinct role and vocation in creation. The vocation is part of the covenantal relationship with God.
What is this quality that distinguishes humanity? God’s words affirm the creation of the human family in its relation to himself, as his counterpart, so that the nature of humanity derives from the human family’s relatedness to God. The concept of the imago Dei, then, is fundamentally relational, or covenantal, and takes as its ground and focus the graciousness of God’s own covenantal relations with humanity and the rest of creation. The distinguishing mark of human existence when compared with other creatures is thus the whole of human existence (and not some part of the individual). (p. 63)
Turning to the Psalms and then New Testament Dr. Green finds the same theme of covenant, relationship, and vocation in community as the defining nature of the human person. After looking at the terms image and glory, especially in relationship to the place of Christ as the image of God, and a brief comment on the nature of salvation (more of that in a later chapter), he concludes that both science and scripture paint a view of human persons as characterized by embodiedness and relationality. But the bible gives us a more complete view in two ways:
First, In presenting the physical embeddedness of the human family, they [the biblical materials] highlight the vocation of humanity in relation to the created order – not only in relation to other humans, but also in relation to the cosmos. Second, the biblical materials urge the view that a biblical theology of humanity must have as its primary point of beginning and orientation the human in a partnering relationship with God. (p. 71)
The biblical view of human persons, according to Dr. Green, is centered on community and relationship, not on individuals. The question of body, soul, and personal identity from a modern perspective distorts our understanding of scripture, our appreciation for the story of Israel in the Old Testament (including the issues raised in the posts on God Behaving Badly), and our understanding of salvation in the New Testament.
What do you think? Is the nature of humanity in the Bible primarily relational, covenantal, and vocational?
Do we over value the nature of humanity as individual identity?
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