The What-ness of Humanity

There was an oak tree in the front yard of my childhood home. It seemed inconceivably large, towering over our house. Its shadow swallowed every square inch of the place, along with the lawn and the driveway. In fall, the acorns dropped like snow and covered the grass like sand on the shore.

I remember watching the acorns fall, picking them up, planting them, and even throwing them at my siblings. But I don’t remember anyone sitting me down and teaching me what an acorn was or that it grows into an oak tree. Becoming a tree always seemed to be the acorn’s clear purpose, its obvious end.

My purpose as a human was much less obvious. But through reading the Scriptures alongside the Christian tradition, I found the answers to my anthropological questions: “What am I?” and “What am I becoming?”

Limited but Good

Like us, our first parents were created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26), which grants us the capacity to reason and love, to display goodness and kindness to one another, and to exercise authority over creation. These attributes derive from and were communicated to us by God, and they make us more like him than anything else in creation. But we still aren’t God. We’re not timeless, incorporeal, omniscient, and immutable spirits.

Our attributes make us more like God than anything else in creation. But we aren’t God. We’re not created to be timeless, incorporeal, omniscient, and immutable spirits.

Classical theologians describe God, due to his unchanging nature, as “Pure Act”: There’s no potentiality in God. God isn’t becoming. God simply is.

God’s creatures, on the other hand, aren’t like this, and it’s good we don’t possess his incommunicable attributes. We’re distinct from and less than God, but in his eternal goodness, God did make human nature good (Gen. 1:26–31). Humans are psychosomatic (soul-body) creatures who inhabit time and space. We sleep, laugh, and learn, with emotions and reason, fingers and toes. And we, unlike God, also become. Irenaeus of Lyons, one of the earliest church fathers, taught that Adam and Eve were innocent and childlike; they were good and without sin, but God still intended for them to grow—to become. Humanity has always had a telos. But because sin has impoverished our nature, we’ve become something we were never meant to be.

Fallen and Forgetful

The first sin was a rejection of the good limits given by God to his creatures, an attempt to become something we weren’t meant to be. Rather than reflecting God’s attributes by exercising dominion over creation, the first man and woman were deceived by the serpent into thinking they could be gods. As a result, they began to reflect the crafty snake’s beastly nature (Rom. 1:18–25). Sin caused them to forget both who they were and what they were to become. This amnesia, though not original for them, became original for us all.

It’s as if we’re born into a condition akin to the cursed King Nebuchadnezzar, who “was driven from among men and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers, and his nails were like birds’ claws” (Dan. 4:33).

Redeemed to Be More Fully Human

This dehumanization—leading to eternal destruction—is what we deserve. But God became our substitute, and a great exchange occurred. As Irenaeus phrased it, “He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God.” Once we have received this adoption by faith, becoming sons in the Son, we will never be “put up for adoption” again. We have been born again by the Holy Spirit. But we must grow in maturity.

We’re all either becoming more virtuous (from Latin, virtus, “human”) or more vicious (from Latin, vitium, “faulty/defective”). These virtues and vices are habitual qualities formed in us by our actions. Greed and envy slowly drag you toward beastliness; justice and temperance slowly restore you toward humanness. We’re all becoming more or less human. Sin, which produces vice, is not a part of human nature; it’s a deprivation of it.

Greed and envy drag you toward beastliness; justice and temperance slowly restore you toward humanness.

But God’s work in the gospel saves us and restores our whole nature, perfecting virtues like justice and temperance and uniting us in fellowship to the triune God. The grace of God in Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit exalts our humanity to its rightful state, and even beyond it.

Through knowing Jesus, we can know ourselves. Through following him, we can grow in virtue and become more fully human.

Why We Need Christian Anthropology

In fact, the Son of God is the definition of virtue, and having assumed a human nature, he’s the true telos of humanity—what every virtue points to and every vice deviates from. Through his “precious and very great promises,” we “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). However, this doesn’t mean we become something other than human. Rather, when we’re united to God through Jesus the God-man, we become who we were created to be. Our telos is fellowship with God, seeing him face-to-face, and becoming like him (1 John 3:2).

Sadly, our culture vehemently opposes this Christian understanding of human nature and destiny. Because of their materialist worldview, many people don’t believe there’s a real purpose to their existence, and yet (because of expressive individualism) they still go on journeys of “self-discovery,” hoping to “find themselves.” This perplexing phenomenon reveals something significant about human nature: we can reject God’s existence but we can’t stop wanting him. We were made in his image, and we’ll never find ourselves until we find ourselves in him.

Acorns were designed to become oak trees. They either reach their telos or die along the way. Likewise, we were designed for a purpose. We can reach our telos through the resurrected Christ—the what-ness of humanity perfected; the image of God restored; the beast tamed, transformed, and beautified—or we perish along the way.

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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