Sources of the Self: The Distinct Makings of the Christian Identity

Michael Allen
John Dyer Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando

“This is my Bible. I am what it says I am. I have what it says I have. I can do what it says I can do. Today I will be taught the word of God. I boldly confess my mind is alert, my heart is receptive; I’ll never be the same. In Jesus’ name.” These words speak a blunt and beautiful word, namely, that the Bible reveals who we are, what we have, and what we can do; that this revelation deserves alertness and receptivity; and that all these things change us in Jesus’s name. It’s best said – I have to say – with a big, implacable grin. That is right. This confession comes from the lips of Joel Osteen, which perhaps reveals that committed attentiveness to biblical teaching about the self is no straightforward and simple matter. Who does the Bible say I am? How does it do so? To what effect? These questions warrant our attention. Today I want to draw your attention to the sources of the self or, more specifically, the distinct makings of the Christian identity as we learn from Holy Scripture.

My analysis will proceed by attending to four aspects of Christian anthropology.[1] First, the created self will be considered, so that the original design for human nature might be appreciated as a fundamental and continuing baseline for human existence, a backdrop for human pain and lament, and a map for any human reorientation. Second, the crooked self will be described, so that we can discern the shape of sinful being and the ways in which sin disfigures the dignity of created human nature and depraves every nook and cranny of our being today. Third, the resurrected self will be brought forward for reflection, in order that the gift of new life in Jesus Christ and its consequences for human selfhood may be seen in their brilliance. Fourth, the transfigured self finally warrants attention, that the God of the gospel’s ultimate purposes in transforming, sanctifying, and eventually glorifying redeemed humanity will have their sway over the definition of human nature.

In so doing I am presenting what may appear to be a contemporary variant of an approach that goes back to Augustine himself and that has had a prestige throughout the tradition, namely, the fourfold state of humanity.[2] And yet this is not simply a narrative sketch of redemptive historical moments à la the fourfold state – creation, fall, redemption, final restoration – but a fourfold attentiveness to aspects of anthropological teaching that are pertinent here and now. Whereas the traditional fourfold nomenclature serves to describe epochal history in its movements, here aspects of present reality are explored in nonreductive ways that involve tending to varied, irreducible depictions of the human and Christian self. In each case I gesture to a range of scripturally pertinent passages but linger over one text at greater length.

The following exposition is admittedly schematic and should surely be expanded in a number of ways.[3] Nonetheless, the point in turning to four aspects of Christian teaching regarding the self is to prompt breadth and range in our self-perception. We are prone to meander toward myopia , taking up one aspect of biblical anthropology (whether its created integrity or its sinful depravity or perhaps its Christological redefinition) as if that sufficed. Just as some might complain of putting God in a box, so we can put the human self in a box by tidily and narrowly suggesting that some element of biblical teaching suffices to describe the whole terrain. In the face of such temptations, Oliver O’Donovan has suggested the metaphor of “wakefulness” to describe this recurring call to attentiveness that is given the church.[4]  Theology commits itself to that wakeful attentiveness to the breadth of God’s Word and its interconnections, cognizant that we are all prone to myopia of one sort or another. To be alert to the totality of biblical teaching about the self – not just the self in other eras yet to come or long past, but the self here and now – we must pay attention to these four aspects of Christian anthropology.

The First Aspect: The Created Self (Genesis 1)

Christian anthropology begins with creatureliness. We are created by the triune God, the maker of heaven and earth. He speaks, and humans exist. He declares them to be very good, and they persist. “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). A design for dependence shapes the very logic of creatureliness which Johann Georg Hamann expressed in this way: “Woe to us if we should be found to be our own creator, inventor, and author of our own future well-being. The first command in the Bible says: ‘Eat!’ and the final one says: ‘Come, all is ready.’”[5]

No text has so shaped Christian imagination regarding the created self as Genesis 1. The signal verses address the sixth day of creation: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them” (Gen. 1:26-28). Some have argued that image of God language has dominated anthropology more than is warranted; for instance, the late John Webster found this to be an instance of misproportioned theological discussion. They are right to observe that the Scriptures speak of the self and of human existence in many ways other than use of image language, but they overreact if they do not also acknowledge the canonical primacy of Genesis 1 as an entryway and, therefore, as a focal image for discerning humanity in a scriptural shape. Image language is not the whole, but it does persist rightly as a crucial reference point.

Committing to beginning with the image is not the same as grasping the meaning of that commitment, however, and four approaches have dominated Christian reflection through the centuries. First, classical Christians tended overwhelmingly to identify the image with that faculty that most closely resembles God and most notably differentiates humans from animals, speaking either of the intellect or of the soul. Like Aristotle, then, they speak of the image identifying human creatures as rational animals. Second, Luther and others have agreed that the image bespeaks closeness to God and differentiation from all other animals, but they viewed it as pertaining to moral agency and holy character. Here humans are moral animals. In the last century, two more views have largely routed the field of interpretation. The third view focuses upon the proximity of image language to the commission given (in verse 26 and again in verse 28: “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth”). Humans image God by ruling creatively on his behalf as a sort of ambassador; this third view treats human images of God as political or creative animals. Fourth, Karl Barth and then Karol Wojtyla found verse 27 to be most definitive: sexual differentiation and unity marks out the relational being that mirrors the inter-trinitarian life that God enjoys from all eternity. Sexual relations typify most powerfully what is true more broadly: humans are relational animals in this approach.

Each of these views can offer arguments, some strong. And each emphasis connects with something valid about human existence: humans are intellectual, moral, political, and relational, and each of these facets of human being and action are of theological significance. Yet none of that need imply that these as a whole or in part represent what the language of image is meant to connote. It may well be that these are valid doctrines drawn wrongly from this particular biblical imagery. They might be probed for their textual validity: for instance, does the proximity of image language and the commission or mandate necessarily mean they are equated? They might be probed for the way they seem to suggest that these emphases differentiate humans from other animals: are other animals really lacking each of these facets of life (say, relationality)? They must also be probed for the way in which each one parses humanity and fixes itself upon a sliver of the self as image of God, whereas Genesis 1 seems to speak of the whole human as God’s own image and likeness.

What might we conclude? Anna Williams says that “One of the definitive features of Christian anthropology is that it declines to define humanity in solely human terms.”[6] What does she mean? More importantly, what’s the significance of such a refusal to be so defined? If humans are first named as an image, then they are always and ever defined by reference to someone else. They are an echo, never existent and never understandable apart from their originary source. To be the image of God, first and foremost, ought to evoke a sense of dependence in human beings. The image is not the original; the image is a copy or likeness of that source (whether it is a priceless portrait being imaged on a cheap postcard or it is an eternally self-existent God being imaged by a created being like a man or woman). When we speak of image and likeness, then, we ought to begin with the distinction between God and human creatures, and we do well to focus on how we live rightly before God as those who are not themselves God.

Rowan Williams has argued that Augustine pointed in similar directions regarding human selfhood: “Growing into the image of God, then, is not a matter of perfecting our possession of certain qualities held in common with God … We come to ‘image’ God by grasping that our reality exists solely within his activity of imparting … The image of God in us might be said to entail a movement into our createdness, because that is a movement into God’s own life as turned ‘outwards.’”[7] Eric Johnson has spoken of “active receptivity” in this regard, and David Kelsey has lauded the call to “eccentric existence.”[8] Expressed variously, as images we live before God in a manner that reflects something of him via our dependence upon him.

The Second Aspect: The Crooked Self (Numbers 14)

We begin with the famous words of Virginia Woolf: “On or about December 1910 human character changed.” She referred to Roger Fry’s exhibition “Manet and the Post-Impressionists at the Grafton Galleries in London, a controversial exhibit that opened that November and represented a new world bereft of the old class system, the old economy, and the old sense of manners and customs. That exhibit represented something decisive to Woolf’s imagination (at least in a symbolic fashion). December 1910 aside, Christians do believe that particular dates do lead to changes in human character; thus, we speak of the state of humanity in Adam (e.g., Rom. 5:12-21). The fall into sin that is retold in Genesis 3:1-7 decisively alters the human condition.

How might this crooked self be understood? A range of texts present themselves as viable pathways: Genesis 3:16-19 presents the curse; Genesis 4-11 widen the cosmic range of sin’s consequence; Exodus 32:1-6 recounts the golden calf incident which will be employed later as a paradigm for Israel’s sin (e.g. Deut. 9:8-29); Psalm 14 laments the worldwide condition of depravity; Psalm 51 poignantly presents the Psalmist’s confession of his own sin and need for redemption; Romans 3:9-20 (and really 1:18-3:20 as a whole) condemns all, Gentiles and Jews alike, as unrighteous before God’s law.

The apostles repeatedly turn to the wilderness generation, however, in shaping the Christian imagination. 1 Corinthians 10:1-22 speaks of those who knew God’s liberating love but were eventually “overthrown in the wilderness” (10:5). Hebrews 3:7-19 builds on earlier teaching that Jesus excels Moses by reminding the Hebrew Christians of those who were “unable to enter his rest” (3:18). Christians are to be just and faithful pilgrims, and the wilderness generation serves as an emblem of sinfulness of which we ought to be wary.

Where do we learn about this wilderness generation’s sin? Every Pentateuchal book speaks of sin, from the golden calf in Exodus 32 to the Nadab and Abihu episode in Leviticus 10. The Book of Numbers, however, offers a lengthy, organized portrayal of human sin. Here the exodus generation dies, and their children are born for entrance into the promised land; Dennis Olson refers to its movement as the “death of the old and the birth of the new.” This transition does not merely happen, however, but is explained and necessitated by a sequence of failures on the part of Israelites.[9] David Stubbs has observed the way in which Numbers presents these ten failures by fixing on seven instances. Whereas seven days of creation bring order and blessing the world in Gen. 1:1-2:4, here seven episodes of sin instance devolution and the movement to disorder in the middle section of Numbers (from 10:11-25:18).[10] Further, the seven episodes of sin appear in the form of a chiasm: the first and seventh pertain to varied misfortunes (11:1-3 and 21:4-9), the second and sixth relate to the absence of food and water (11:4-34 and 20:2-13), the third and fifth address the leadership of Moses (and later Aaron)(11:35-12:16 and 16:1-17:11), and the fourth sits there alone at the center as a sin regarding the call to enter the promised land (13:1-14:45).[11]

Numbers 14 represents the very center of that wayward generation’s wandering from God. Stubbs observes: “This fourth rebellion is the crux of Israel’s rebellions in the wilderness. It forms the center of the sevenfold pattern of Israel’s unfaithfulness toward God in Numbers, it is the longest of the rebellions, and it is the most serious, both in terms of the offense against God and the punishment given in response to it.”[12]

God tells Moses that twelve spies ought to be sent into Canaan, the land which “I am giving to the people of Israel” (13:1). The spies were selected and commissioned, and they returned after forty days in that promised land (13:25). They returned to Moses, Aaron, and all the congregation with a report – two really. The majority report of ten spies affirmed the fruitfulness and appeal of the land but observed the size and fortifications of its occupants (13:27-29); when Caleb called the people to go and occupy the land, the majority report warned against such action: “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are” (13:31). The congregation cried out and wept and “grumbled against Moses and Aaron,” calling for a new leader and a return to Egypt (14:1).

Moses and Aaron fell at such words. At this point Joshua and Caleb presented the minority report from the spy expedition, affirming the goodness of the land, acknowledging the size of its occupants, and articulating reasons for hope: “If the Lord delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us” (14:8). Their reason for this hope is singularly theological: “the Lord is with us; do not fear them” (14:9). The people went to stone Joshua and Caleb, at which point God intervenes. God chastises the people and calls for their destruction (14:11-12). Moses intervenes with prayer, however, and calls for God’s forbearance (14:13-19). The Lord promises pardon and yet pledges that this generation will die in the wilderness and their children alone will be given the promised land (14:20-38). Moses gave this report to the congregation, who “mourned greatly” (14:39). They then insisted, even against Moses’s warning, to go up the next morning and attack the Amalekites and Canaanites. Though Moses told them that the Ark and he would not go with them, they went and were roundly defeated (14:45).

Chapter 14 seems to tell of two sins. The first sin appears in the people’s refusal to go up and take the land and further their insistence that they better appoint new leaders to guide their return to Egypt. Their justification is offered: “Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” (14:3-4) Their punishment will bring poetic justice in that only those “little ones” will eventually be brought into the land. And why are they judged? They sin by omission, refusing to obey God’s call. Caleb and Joshua identified the root issue in their failed warning: “Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not fear the people of the land” (14:9).

The second sin could not appear more different, as it marks a sin of commission. Having received news of God’s judgment and their fate, the people initially “mourned greatly’ (14:39). That initially promising move was following by their assertive action. They rise early, they go up to the heights, and they declare “Here we are. We will go up” (14:40). Even when Moses warns that “the Lord will not be with you” (14:43), “they presumed to go up” (14:44). Here they sin by commission, doing that which they have been warned not to do. And here the issue is identified as presumption or overconfidence, an arrogant swagger that leads them into a futile overexertion.

While there are two distinct sins that appear divergent, other texts look back and find a common root. Deuteronomy 1 recounts the episode (1:19-46) and fixes upon the issue of trust: “in spite of this word you did not believe the Lord your God” (1:32). Hebrews 3 employs this generation as a warning (3:7-19) and identifies the reason for their failure: “So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief” (3:19). Both texts point to belief or trust as the central issue. They do so because trust is written right into the assessment of Numbers 14 itself. When God gloriously intervenes, he says: “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?” (14:11) Though God’s mighty works have shown him to be trustworthy, they do not trust him. And this is not merely true of the first error but also definitive of the second sin, for their response reveals a misperception of God’s rebuke. They have received his judgment as though the problem was an underdeveloped sense of self-esteem. Whereas God’s convicting words pertain to how they despise and disbelieve him, they nowise evince any concern for or awareness of his importance to them. They do not imagine his presence to be definitive; they gauge their prospects solely on their own strength, whether it leads them to despairing hesitation or prompts them to presumptive overexertion.[13]

What have we gleaned about sin and crookedness? Dennis Olson says: “In the end, the issue is not competing estimates about the human strength of the Israelite army versus the Canaanites. The question is not who is taller or who has larger fortifications or who has more weapons. Ultimately, all such reliance on human power and estimates is irrelevant. The issue is trusting in the power of Israel’s God.”[14] Augustine of Hippo helps here to remind us of a truth that is easily missed: “All those who wander far away and set themselves up against you are imitating you, but in a perverse way; yet by this very mimicry they proclaim that you are the Creator of the whole of nature and that in consequence there is no place whatever where we can hide from your presence.”[15] Genesis referred to humans as the image of God after the fall (5:3; 9:6), but this continued reality does not mean that humans continue to be a good or valid image. By refusing to lean into God trustingly, humans image God poorly. “Whether in pride or despair, the old wilderness generation failed to learn the fundamental lesson of the first commandment—to fear, love, and trust God above anything else.”[16] With their self-enclosed estimation of future prospects, both small and great, they portray or reflect an image of God that is inept or disengaged. Hence the image of Augustine and later Luther that the self here is bent crooked and becomes curved in upon itself, incapable and frankly disinterested in looking outward for direction and sustenance.[17] Sin varies, as the distinct moments of Numbers 14 signal, but it always somehow mangles that way we are made for “active receptivity.”

The Third Aspect: The Resurrected Self (Galatians 2)

The story of humanity does not end with enmity. God intervenes. “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being with in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:1-5). Life and resurrection come from God’s generous, omnipotent hand. The Adamic self is followed by the Christian self.

A host of texts depict the Christian self, that is, the self that is united to Jesus Christ: Matthew 5:2-11 portrays the one whose character marks them out as a child of God (5:9), while John 15:1-11 speaks of the way in which fruitfulness, love, and joy are experienced only in abiding in Christ; Hebrews will reflect at length in chapters 5-10 on access, even boldness and confidence, that can be had in and through Jesus; and Paul repeatedly takes up the language of union with Christ in a variety of prepositional constructions.[18]

If we want to grasp the strange logic of the gospel, however, perhaps no text focuses attention upon the transformative impact of union with Christ and widens one’s grasp of its cosmic implications as Galatians 2:15-20. “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

The context must be observed. Paul has told of the Antioch Incident where the apostle Peter recoiled from table fellowship with Gentile believers when a party appeared from Jerusalem (2:12). His example was followed by “the rest of the Jews … even Barnabus” (2:13). Interestingly, Paul repeatedly terms this behavior “hypocrisy,” for it is a public relapse that veers from the normal practice of Peter, Barnabus, and the Jews who typically shared a table with these Gentiles (2x in 2:13). Paul will turn to more fundamental issues to address this cafeteria dispute, but it is in fact the cafeteria dispute that he addresses. The matter involves identity and belonging: are these Gentile converts one with the Jews like Peter? More fundamentally, though, it is a Christological question: is union with Jesus Christ enough to make a way to unite these diverse persons and to overturn those social and cultic divides?

Paul invokes language of justification, the declaration of justice before God, to address those matters of identity. But he also turns emphatically to Christology which is the root of justification anyways; solus Christus (“Christ alone”) is always the root of sola fide (“by faith alone”) in Protestant theology. And what does he say of Christ and his pertinence for human beings? 2:19-20 fix attention upon the transforming consequence of life in Christ in two ways: displacing our dying self, and resurrecting our Christian self. First, Paul employs repeated language of displacement: “through the law I died to the law” (2:19); “I have been crucified with Christ” (2:20); and, finally, “it is no longer I who live” (2:20). Law leads to death – we share accursed death with Christ (as his own death – not some metaphor or analogous experience – is our own), so that, in the end, the “I” who lives is no longer “I.” Second, Paul uses repetitive statements of agency and action: “so that I might live to God” (2:19); “it is … Christ who lives in me” (2:20); and “the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God” (2:20).[19] Jonathan Linebaugh emphasizes the relational character of displacement and reorientation, that is, of death and resurrection, by observing the movement from dative syntax to the employment of personal terms and prepositions: “According to Paul’s grammar, death and life are not abstract or absolute concepts, they are relative—or better: relational. In Galatians 2:19, life and death are first defined with the dative: death is death to the law and life is life to God. As the confession continues, prepositions color in these relations christologically: Christ died for me (hyper emou), which is itself the concrete gift (Gal 2:21) that grounds and includes my having been crucified with (syn) Christ and on the far side of which “Christ lives in me” (en emoi).”[20]

The setting shows the subversive impact of that union upon all other realities. How many other identity-defining matters could be added to the ones in play here? Leaving to the side more grotesque variants such as racism or sexism, more insidious demands can subtly seep into church potlucks. Use of the right Bible translation, keeping of the right liturgical calendar or sabbath-keeping regimen, “getting the gospel,” expressing some particular demeanor (whether of simple reverence or of celebratory jubilation) in worship, being appropriately gospel-centered, etc. Galatians will later speak of the relativizing impact of Christ Jesus: “in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:26-29).

The experiential distinctions between male and female and slave and free are significant. But that first distinction stands singularly at the head: “neither Jew nor Greek.” It not only leads the litany of 3:28 but also represents the key example in 2:11-21. What so significant? Misogyny or patriarchy shift male power in ways detrimental to women, and slave economies powerfully lead to the exploitation of the many by the few. But neither misogyny nor slavery are mandated by God. The Jew/Gentile distinction, however, was a divinely mandated distinction rooted in God’s electing call (Gen. 12:1) and God’s covenantal promise (Gen. 17:8; see the exposition in Gal. 4:21-31 of the Sarah and Hagar story in Genesis). God made a distinction, electing some and passing over others, thereby predestining some to life and consigning others to death. The reason the Jew-Gentile distinction lingers throughout so many New Testaments texts as a matter for judgment and prudence is that it is a social divide of divine origin. It is not happenstance or mere cultural preference. While it could be clouded by pride or sin, it is not itself birthed of or sustained by sinfulness.

And yet God relativizes or, better, fulfills it in Jesus Christ. The culinary regimen of Moses and the hygienic rituals of Abraham no longer mark out those in and out. Why? Because we share in Christ by faith, in his death we die and in his life we live. In his death all our identities – success and failure, spirituality and social markers – are crucified. In his life all our person – righteousness and blessing, belonging and purpose – is birthed anew. There is substitution here (see especially Gal. 3:10-12), but there is also incorporative union.

Many things might and should be said of resurrected life in Christ, but we have focused upon the fundamental way in which union with Christ reorients the human to life extrinsically. So is the Christian self the same self from creation? Is there continuity or utter disjunction? Linebaugh concludes: “No: death and life divide the no longer and now living I and the life of the latter is gifted, ex-centric, and in Christ. But also yes: though I no longer live, there is a me that is ever and always loved. To speak “the speech of the dead,” is seems, is to talk twice: life and death and death and life separate the self. And yet, in and across the passages of creation, sin, grace, and glory there is a me that was and is and will be loved. To combine the confession: I am—outside myself, by grace, and in Christ a me whom God did, does, and will ever love.”[21]

Augustine and Martin Luther employed the image of the human who had been curved in on itself in sin now being drawn outward again.[22] The self here has been not only directed to but connected with the death and life and, therefore, the blessing of Jesus.

The Fourth Aspect: The Transfigured Self (Song of Songs 4 and 7)

We might be inclined to think that closing with Christ concludes the sequence. In all sorts of ways, of course, it does, and yet other Scriptures will speak in ways that go beyond the displacing and reorienting language of Galatians 2. Jesus foretells of the commendation given the Lord’s own in the words of a parable: the master declaring “well done, good and faithful servant” eventually prompts his eschatological prophecy that the King will invite those “blessed of my Father” to “inherit the kingdom prepared for you” and will extol their generosity and self-forgetful care for the least among them (Mt. 25:23 and 31-40); not surprisingly in his sojourn on earth, Jesus himself would prize the generosity of the widow giving her mite (Mk. 12:21-24; Lk. 21:1-4) or the faith of the centurion (Lk. 7:9) or the confession of Peter (Mt. 16:17) or the single-mindedness of Mary (Lk.10:42). The particular character and specific actions of humans are cause for praise, from the lips of God on the throne and God incarnate in his earthly sojourn.

Delight and celebration in Song of Songs perhaps press this notion further than any other text. Before considering particular passages in the Song, its broader place in the canon deserves mention. The Song of Songs is titled in such a way to evoke the wonder that this is the greatest of all such songs (just as “holy of holies” is the holiest place, so “song of songs” means that this song is better still than the Psalms and all the rest of scriptural hymnody). Through the ages, Jews and Christians have been able to say that with a straight face only because they believed this tale of lover, her beloved, and their varied friends or townsfolk ultimately figures the love of the people of God and God himself or, more specifically, of the bride of Christ and Christ himself. Various other texts employ this marital and erotic imagery in negative ways (see Hosea) and positive evocations (see Eph. 5:32). The Song of Songs works with this marital and sexual figure at great length.

In that frame, then, it is not surprising that the lover speaks of her beloved and his beauty. At points it may seem foreign or lead the reader to blush, but it makes all the sense in the world that the figure of the church should praise her Lord and redeemer. But that’s not all that the Song includes. The Song also recounts twice the delight that the Christ figure takes in the bride (Song 4:1-16; 6:13-7:10). Again modern ears may be thrown by the comparisons (“your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes” [4:2] or “your belly is a heap of wheat, encircled with lilies”[7:2]), but many may be more startled at the very acclamation itself. It is one needful thing to say “I am my beloved’s and he is mine” (6:3; also 2:16), but a sufficient reading must also confess “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me” (7:10). He desires the bride, and he recounts with brilliant detail what draws him to her in her particularity and specificity. God does not merely graciously agree to tolerate humans but delights in their created forms.

That divine delight startles, so we need to be changed to receive it as wise and appropriate. In his treatise On Loving God, Bernard of Clairvaux spoke of the love of God as involving four stages or degrees of growth and maturation.[23] First, one loves oneself for one’s own sake. Second, one loves God for one’s own sake; here God is loved, but instrumentally or for the purpose of something – oneself – that one deems higher. With the third degree, Bernard speaks of the sweetness of salvation in that one can now love God for his own sake, not for his utility in scratching some other itch. God is here viewed as the prize and the treasured possession. And yet this is not where Bernard stops, but he goes on to speak of that final degree of the love of God wherein one loves oneself for God’s own sake. Here the fear of the Lord not only redirects our religious life or the way we view our relationship to God, but it comes to have primacy in all areas of life (most especially one’s self-image or self-perception). Whatever my own love of myself may be, it ought to always be for God’s sake or not at all.[24] But, viewed inversely, for God’s sake I’m meant to have an appreciative and thankful delight for who I have been made and re-made to be.

“Although, therefore, Christ offers us in the gospel a present fullness of spiritual benefits, the enjoyment thereof ever lies hidden under the guardianship of hope, until, having put off corruptible flesh, we be transfigured in the glory of him who goes before us.”[25] Those words come from John Calvin, not from a desert father. Note that the Genevan reformer turns to the language of transfiguration here, not that of transubstantiation, as he describes the fullness of blessing that is ours now. God’s presence yoked to the Christian self involves its radiant indwelling and transfiguring illumination, not its transfer to some other category of being. As with transfiguration, the substance of the human remains definitively human – the image of God, human nature, natural law, each of these tent-posts of definitive human shape remain intact. Unlike transubstantiation, the human form does not mask something miraculously other and divergent or heterogeneous in its character; while the soul is invisible, the sanctified soul does not morph into anything other than a human soul. As with transfiguration, the human bears witness to the presence of something greater than itself, the very indwelling of God’s own Holy Spirit conforming the human unto the creaturely image of God’s own Son. Unlike transubstantiation, “Christ in you, the hope of glory” does not entail mixture with the divine or ontological exchange of any sort. Personal union – the stuff of covenant and of communion – marks the sanctified life, and here we see that, adapting the words of the Psalmist, grace and nature meet, the indwelling of God and the definitive shape of human nature (first in Adam and then eventually in Jesus himself) kiss each other.[26]

Concluding Implications for Further Reflection

From where have we have come? To where might we be going? Each of these four aspects has bearing on the present experience of Christians today, a point with which we ought to conclude. Each plays a role in identifying who we are, albeit in distinct ways. We do well not to shoehorn identity language into only one of these, whether that’s toward creational or Christological aspects. To identify a self with its textured specificity will require all of these elements, if it is to be whole. That said, noting the importance of breadth is merely a prompt for further exploration about how to relate to each aspect. Other questions arise only when we appreciate the biblical and theological breadth by which the self is identified and described – when is one aspect pertinent? how do they relate? while it is helpful to identify all four aspects, in what ways do we relate to each of them? in what situations is someone out of tune or unaware of one or another aspect in particular? – and warrant our consideration. Christian reflection on the self needs to continue, as it has for centuries now. In conclusion, I suggest two implications.

First, we ought to be wary of supposed Augustinian anthropology gone reductive. There is a narrowed Augustinianism that views the human simply through the prism of sin and misses that other element: created goodness. Against the Pelagians, Augustine did confess that every nook and cranny of our selves has been depraved or disordered by sin and death. Sin cannot be confined, and its spread cannot be segmented and regimented.

Augustine also spoke of sin as a privation precisely because he wanted to avoid lapsing into Manichean dualism. He insisted that we remain creatures of the living God. Depravity and disorder do not unwind or reverse the results of God’s kind action, however much they turn it sideways. Some take this privative approach to sin to lack existential bite, but it is precisely the existence of the good disordered that actually makes sin so heinous (i.e. the abusive parent is so jarring because parents are such a good and, in this case, so mangled). We dare not reduce Augustinian anthropology to a misanthropic word. Augustine affirms the goodness of creation in the present tense alongside the extensiveness of sin, and our current reflections on the self must be alert to both duties.

Augustinian teaching on goodness without his anti-Pelagian reflection depravity leads to a vapid affirmation and an inability to challenge the status quo or appreciate our need for salvation. But Augustinian hamartiology without a corresponding appreciation of the beauty and regnant goodness of creation now actually undermines the shrill nature of sin and death and refuses to offer thanks and praise to God for his good gifts to which even our most sinful efforts cannot give defeat.

Second, we need be equally concerned about reductive views of Christology that treat the redemptive change wrought in Christ wholly through its justifying or substitutionary aspects. Indeed, there is a need for a wider grasp of new creation as well, wherein our identity is wholly caught up in union with Christ and our life, peace, and power are drawn entirely from his self, yes, but also where our created and natural specificity is transfigured to be worthy of praise (even from God’s own lips). We cannot confess any less than both the justifying words of Christological union from Galatians 2 as well as the divine delight in his bride as found in Song of Songs 4 and 7.

The church has a mission to offer care to souls, those already inside and those presently outside, by speaking words of life and comfort and peace in Christ alone. Systematic theology helps us to discern how we might do so without removing Christ from the wider scriptural context (taking creation and sin into account as well) or delimiting Christ by failing to see all that he is and does (attending not only to justification but also to that other gospel gift: transformation unto glory). Christ assumes our plight, walks our path, dies our cursed death, and rises for our glory and blessing. He is substitute and our most defining characteristic, so that we not only enjoy his riches but also bear his very name. And yet he also sings over us in the particularities that he, with his Father and Spirit, created and then recreated by his gracious power. We boast only in him, but he does take delight in regaling the glories of his work in us (not just that which binds us together as one, but also that which marks off our distinct and particular histories and intricacies).

Created giftedness is no antique epoch. Sinfulness is pervasive, to be sure, but not the sum total of our anthropology. Christological definition is in fact definitive, but it opens the way to divine delight in our created, transformed, and someday transfigured particularities. To sum up: We dare not homogenize humanity or reductively confess the gracious work of Christ. If we are going to diagnose and care well for souls, we need to know their various aspects. To appreciate how Christian identity is made, we need attentiveness to the distinct, biblical sources of the Christian self.

[1] Cf. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989). See also J. B. Schneewind, The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (Cambridge: Belknap, 2014).

[2] See, e.g., Augustine, Treatise on Rebuke and Grace; Bernard of Clairvaux, Grace and Free Choice; Peter Lombard, Sentences, II.distinction 25; Girolamo Zanchi, “Dei operibus Dei intra spatium sex dierum creatis, lib. III, cap. 3, in Omnia opera theologica, tom. Tertius, col. 704; Anthonius Thysius, “Disputation 17: On Free Choice,” in Synopsis Purioris Theologiae, (1625), volume 1: Disputations 1-23 (Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions 187; ed. Dolf te Velde; trans. Riemer A. Faber; Leiden: Brill, 2015), 429-430; Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, VIII.2.ix; Thomas Boston, Human Nature in Its Fourfold State (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1964). For contemporary analysis of its Augustinian form, see Han-Luen Kantzer-Komline, Augustine on the Will: A Theological Account (Oxford Studies in Historical Theology; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).

[3] David Kelsey has suggested a threefold way in which humanity is presented in Christian theology (via creation, reconciliation, and eschatology), though I believe that more can be said regarding their connections than he suggests; see Kelsey, Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology, vols. 1-2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009). Taylor describes three sources of emerging modern selfhood (inwardness, affirmation of ordinary life, and an expressivist notion of nature as a moral source) which impinge upon one another, to which a fourfold Christian reply ought to be offered.

[4] Oliver O’Donovan, Self, World, and Time: Ethics as Theology, volume 1: An Induction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 9. For earlier reflections on this “attentiveness,” see Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics (2nd edition; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 110.

[5] J. G. Hamann, Letter to F. H. Jacobi (Dec. 5, 1784), in Briefwechsel, vol. 5 (ed. A. Henkel; Wiesenbaden:Insel-Verlag, 1965), 275 lines 26-28.

[6] A. N. Williams, The Divine Sense: The Intellect in Patristic Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 6.

[7] Rowan Williams, “Sapientia: Wisdom and the Trinitarian Relations,” in On Augustine (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 175; see also: “We image the divine wisdom to the extent that our self-perception is a perception of our own absolute dependence on the self-giving of that wisdom: to the extent that we see when we look at ourselves is freely generative grace,” and “the image is a ‘movement into our createdness’” (181).

[8] Eric Johnson, God and Soul Care: The Therapeutic Resources of the Christian Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), 88-89. Some similar gestures are found in Kelsey, Eccentric Existence.

[9] Dennis T. Olson, The Death of the Old and the Birth of the New: The Framework of the Book of Numbers and the Pentateuch (Brown Judaic Studies 71; Chico, CA: Scholars, 1996).

[10] David Stubbs, Numbers (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible; Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2009), 22-23. Stubbs also observes that the first section of Numbers (1:1-10:10) twice employs the phrase “at the command of the Lord” seven times (in chs. 3-4 and again in ch. 9) thus “underscoring Israel’s obedience” and contrasting with the later rebellions (25).

[11] Stubbs, Numbers, 113.

[12] Stubbs, Numbers, 126.

[13] This self-definition also masks honesty about dependence on others or minimizes its value; see such an argument presented powerfully in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Reveries of the Solitary Walker (trans. Peter France; New York: Penguin, 2004), 104.

[14] Dennis T. Olson, Numbers (Interpretation; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996), 80 (also 86).

[15] Augustine, Confessions, Book 2, Section 14.

[16] Olson, Numbers, 89.

[17] See the analysis of Matt Jenson, The Gravity of Sin: Augustine, Luther and Barth on Homo Incurvatus in Se (London: T & T Clark, 2006); Kelsey, 1:432.

[18] The recent literature is voluminous. On the issues involved, I especially recommend Grant Macaskill, Union with Christ in the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[19] See Jonathan Linebaugh, “The Christo-Centrism of Faith in Christ: Martin Luther’s Reading of Galatians 2:16, 19-20,” New Testament Studies 59, no. 4 (2013), 535-544; as well as “‘The Speech of the Dead’: Identifying the No Longer and Now Living ‘I’ of Galatians 2.20,” New Testament Studies 66, no. 1 (2020), 87-105; and Michael Allen, “‘It Is No Longer I Who Live’: Christ’s Faith and Christian Faith,” Journal of Reformed Theology (2013): 3-26.

[20] Linebaugh, “The Speech of the Dead,” 95-95; see also Susan Eastman, Paul and the Person: Reframing Paul’s Anthropology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 160.

[21] Linebaugh, “The Speech of the Dead,” 105.

[22] On the relationship of the two figures, see especially Matt Jenson, The Gravity of Sin: Augustine, Luther, and Barth on Homo Incurvatus in Se (London: T & T Clark, 2006), 95-97; contra Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros (trans. Philip S. Watson; New York: Harper & Row, 1969), 48, 108, 210, 235-236, 253, and 264; Philip Cary, The Meaning of Protestant Theology: Luther, Augustine, and the Gospel that Gives Us Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019), passim.

[23] Bernard of Clairvaux, On Loving God (trans. Jean Leclerq and Henri Rochais; Cistercian Publications, 1973).

[24] Bernard here takes up a tradition from Peter Lombard (on signs and things) that goes all the way back to Augustine of Hippo, first in On Christian Teaching and then in City of God.

[25] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.ix.3 (1:426).

[26] These last sentences are taken from Michael Allen, “Grace and Nature,” in Sanctification (New Studies in Dogmatics; Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2017), 225.