The following post (sorry early morning Thursday guys, it is way too long – but it’s a complex issue) grew out of an early morning men’s Bible study yesterday.
The place you start has a lot to do with where you end up.
A foundational dividing point in Christian theology begins with our understanding of what it means to be human.
Genesis says that human beings were created in the image and likeness of God. (Genesis 1:26) In all my reading of the Bible, I have never found a place where this statement is rescinded. I have never come across any claim in Scripture that the image of God in which human beings were created has been wiped out.
If we believe that subsequent to the original act of creation, God’s image and likeness were completely eradicated from the human creation, a particular theology will unfold. If we believe that human beings maintain, but lose touch with that image and likeness of God, a different theology will follow.
I Corinthians 2:14 is frequently cited in support of the argument that the original image of God in which human beings were created was destroyed by the human choice for evil after creation:
Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them.
The King James Version of the Bible translates this verse to say:
But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God.
This appears to suggest that by “nature” human beings are created to “receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God. It seems to imply that human beings are “naturally” unable to be in relationship with God, ie. we are created “unspiritual,” and must subsequently become “spiritual.”
The Greek phrase translated as “natural man,” is psukikos anthropos. “Anthropos” means human. The key word here is psukikos. The word only appears six times in the New Testament. Four of the times “psukikos” appears are in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. The word occurs once in I Corinthians 2:14 and three times in chapter 15 where it is translated as “physical.” The expression psukikos anthropos refers to the physical body. In I Corinthians chapter 2 Paul is drawing a distinction between the person who lives purely in touch with their physical being without reference to any spiritual dimension and the person who while living in the body has opened to the reality of God’s Spirit (I Corinthians 2:12).
Paul is saying in I Corinthians 2:14 that opening to the Spirit of God is not a physical action; it is a spiritual choice we make when we choose to follow Jesus. We can depend exclusively upon our physical appetites and desires for guidance in life; this will lead to one set of consequences. Or, we can follow the leading of the Spirit; this will lead to a different outcome. Paul is speaking here about two different ways of living. He is not making an ontogical statement about the created nature of human beings. He is not saying that human beings were created unable to choose to embrace the direction guidance and wisdom of the Holy Spirit. He is saying that the choice to live exclusively according to the dictates of our physical nature brings certain consequences into our lives.
If I were looking in the Bible for an understanding of the fundamental nature of the human creation, I would be iniclined, rather than starting with Paul, to begin with Jesus.
In Luke 15 Jesus tells a series of parables about things that have become lost. A sheep has wandered away; a coin has gone astray; a son has become cut off from his father. The sheep did not cease to be a sheep when it was lost, nor did the coin stop being a coin,or the son cease to be his father’s off-spring.
When the lost son finally returns home, the father says to his older and equally lost brother, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” (Luke 15:31) Even though both sons were lost, they remained with the father and everything the father possessed was still possessed by his errant children. They may have lost sight of their true inheritance; they may have become disconnected from home. But they remained in the father’s heart and they continued to be the father’s children. They did not lose the father’s DNA simply because they had chosen to ignore his presence in their lives.
We may forget God. We may wander away from God. We may deny that we are created in the image and likeness of God. This does not change the reality of our created nature as children of God. At the point when the younger son is still lost, Jesus says, “he came to himself.” He woke up to his true nature and the first thing he did when he woke up was remember he is a son – “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough…” (Luke 15:17) His awareness of sonship enabled him to have the courage and the strength to return to the place where he belongs.
When Paul sought to see beyond impenetrable veil of physical death, he used the image of a seed (I Corinthians 15:35-41). A seed contains within it the DNA of the plant it will become. In order for the reality of its created nature to be released, the seed must fall into the ground, break open and release its true nature. The seed does not become something other than what it originally was in this process. It becomes the very thing it was designed to be. It fulfills its created nature.
Human beings are like seeds. We contain within us that radiant image and likeness of God in which we were created. The human journey is the journey of falling into the ground, letting go of the physical things to which our ego so passionately clings, and allowing God to be born in and through our actions and choices.
Addressing the non-Christian, non-Jewish Athenians outside the Areopagus, Paul said,
Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we too are his offspring.’(Acts 17:22-27)
Paul affirms the genuine nature of the Athenians’ religious impulse. He affirms that, even though they are neither Jews nor Christians, they have been worshipping the same God Paul worships. He states that God is not confined to any human construct and that everything in all of creation has been created by God. He states that it is because their nature is created by God that the Athenians are able to “search” and “grope” for God. He claims that all created beings continue to be sustained by the presence of God. Without the presence of God, there is no existence. “Being” would cease to exist in the absence of God.
I John declares that “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (I John 4:16) Wherever there is love, God is present.
When Jesus died on the cross the power of Love was uncovered and released in a dramatic and powerful way in the world. “The curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” (Matthew 27:51) Jesus’ death was the emobdiment in human history of Psalm 139 in which the Psalmist declares that there is nowhere we can go to remove ourselves from the presence of God. In his death Jesus demonstrated that there is no separation between God and God’s creation.
Like a seed Jesus died in order to release into the cosmos that eternal power of God that is the fundamental nature of all beings created in the image and likeness of God. Jesus’ death on a cross was the ultimate cosmic big bang resulting in the unleashing of the resurrected power of love unleashed on the whole of creation. This power is never missing from creation. There is nowhere we can go to remove ourselves from the fall out of Jesus’ action.
As Paul said in Romans 8:38,39
I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The challenge of the Christian life is to embrace the people we were created to be. We embrace our true nature by entering into the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We fulfill our true nature by following Jesus and dying to that self which is inclined to place at the centre of life that physical dimension of our nature that is doomed to die rather than living in the Spirit.
We are reborn, or born from above, by the Spirit of God whenever we embrace our true nature in Christ as children created in the image and likeness of God. The core of goodness that is our true nature cannot be eliminated. It can be forgotten, seriously covered over, and obscured. But the reality of God’s presence in all of creation cannot be destroyed.
Love is stronger than death. The beauty and goodness of all creation are more real than all the destruction and devastation we bring into the world when we follow self-will rather than the will of the one in whom we “live and move and have our being.” The Gospel calls us home to the people we were truly created to be. Jesus calls us to choose to enter into the flow of Love that is the power that sustains the universe. When we choose to die to that small self that we have manufactured in opposition to our true self in Christ, we are reborn as people of light. We are released to live the vision of God’s love for all the world.
When we follow the path set down by Jesus we discover the true dignity of our created nature. We discover, as the Psalmist said that, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you.” (Psalm 82:6; cf. John 10:34) Our humanity is never something to be denigrated or denied. Our true humanity is a precious gift to be embraced and lived fully in joyful submission to the goodness and beauty of God.
We are a gift. We are the luminous presence of God in the world. As we embrace the light that we are, we discover the fullness of that “abundant life” for which Jesus died and was raised to new life. We become the Good News that is the Gospel.