Today’s Defining Question: What Is a Human?

Today’s Defining Question: What Is a Human?

What does it mean to be embodied? What do our bodies signify? What does our design say about our identity and purpose? The church that will be relevant in the days ahead will not make peace with reductionist visions of humanity that downplay the significance of the human body and eliminate a transcendent telos. As we recount the grand narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, we’ll give more attention to the implications of biblical teaching on creation and the fall. As we proclaim Christ crucified and raised for the forgiveness of sins, we’ll give more attention to the incarnation and the implications of our confessing “the resurrection of the body.”

In the early centuries of the church, the questions that vexed Christians and church leaders were Christological. How do we understand the divinity and humanity of Jesus of Nazareth? What does it mean to confess the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God? The crises of the church during that era centered on getting God right—what it means to receive God’s self-revelation as Father, Son, and Spirit.

In the late medieval era, Western church controversies shifted toward salvation, how a sinner is made right with God. What must one do to be saved? What is the relationship of faith and works? Other debates surfaced during this time over the nature and number of the sacraments; the relationship of scriptural authority to church tradition and papal authority; and the definitions of assurance, justification, and sanctification.

Today we’re facing a third major crisis. This time the focus is on anthropology, the nature and destiny of humankind. What’s a human being? What does it mean to be made in God’s image? To be created male and female? Do we receive our identity and purpose or do we create identity and meaning for ourselves?

Humanity in a ‘Create Yourself’ World

In the late modern world, it’s common to see humanity as something to be crafted, a project awaiting creation. Our creatureliness gets sidelined, replaced by a “you can be anything you want” approach to life, set against the narrative backdrop of resisting outward conformity to some other standard of life. You must define yourself, goes the idea, even when it’s in opposition to whatever the past, your family, your society, or (increasingly) your biology says you are.

Meanwhile, the acids of postmodernity have eaten away at the idea that humanity has an essence, that there might be a givenness to things. Also lost is the idea that humanity has a general telos—an inherent purpose or supreme goal to which we strive.

The spread of a technocratic understanding of the world whereby we make the world we want, rather than work with and cultivate the world as it is, puts us in situations previous generations would find incomprehensible: the logic of rectifying the “injustice” of biological men not being able to give birth, or removing healthy body parts in the name of health to accommodate someone’s self-perception as disabled or belonging to a different gender.

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