The characteristics which unite all persons despite their many individual differences and constitute them as God's “image.” The pages of Scripture depict a great variety of human actions and attitudes, thoughts and feelings, sins an successes. Considered together this variety gives a biblical perspective on human nature.
Humanity as Created “God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (Genesis 1:27). Theologians have supposed that this “image” designates what is most essential to human nature. Many patristic, Catholic, and Protestant orthodox theologians have argued that the image was reason. Although Scripture depicts humans as thinking creatures, this definition was originally derived from Greek philosophy. More accurate is the suggestion that the image consists in humankind's lordship over and stewardship of creation, for this is the theme of the following verses (Genesis 1:28-31).
The best clue comes from frequent reference to Jesus as that image to which we are to be conformed (Romans 8:29;
1 Corinthians 15:49;
2 Corinthians 3:18;
2 Corinthians 4:4). The most basic characteristics of Jesus' life were His dependence upon and devotion to His Father and His loving servanthood toward His fellow humans. This suggests that the essence of being human consists in a three-fold relationship: towards God as Lord, towards other humans as fellow servants, and towards creation as entrusted to our care. The second feature is confirmed by
Genesis 1:27 which, as Karl Barth noticed, practically identifies being in God's image with being female and male. For in the interdependence between the sexes, the need, desire, and delight of humans for and in each other can be most vividly symbolized.
Theologians have often discussed whether individual humans are composed of just body and soul, or of body, soul, and spirit. Yet this question has been somewhat misguided. Scripture represents people not as individuals composed of parts, but as integrated, acting units intimately interrelated with others. The biblical term “body” often denotes not simply the individual's physical substance, but a channel through which, or a way in which, one gives oneself over to sin (Romans 6:12), to God (Romans 12:1;
1 Corinthians 6:13,1 Corinthians 6:17,1 Corinthians 6:19) or to other persons (1 Corinthians 6:15-16,1 Corinthians 6:18). Biblical words for “soul” often indicate the entire person, especially as longing or striving for life (1 Samuel 1:15;
Proverbs 13:19). Biblical words for “spirit” again often denote the entire person, but this time as especially open to God (Ezra 1:5;
Investigation of the Bible's specific terminology generally substantiates its understanding of the image of God. The significance of human life is found primarily in relationships with others and with God.
Humanity under Sin Theologians often seek to determine sin's essence through careful analysis of
Genesis 3:1. From this episode alone, sin can appear simply as the transgression of a divine command. However, the lengthy and varied narratives concerning Israel and Jesus yield fuller insight into sin. In the Old Testament, sin indeed involves breaking the commands of God's covenant. Yet this is rooted in turning away from the relationship which Yahweh initiated, and therefore from Yahweh Himself. Moreover, turning from Yahweh involves turning towards something else. This is usually the gods of the nations and the religious and social practices which they enforced. Therefore, just as humans are not isolated individuals, so sin is not simply individual transgression. Sin is participation in attitudes, social behaviors, and religious commitments opposed to God. Just as humanity's image is manifested most fully in Jesus, so sin was revealed most clearly in the opposition to Him. Jesus was opposed by the collective power of the Roman state, Israel's religious establishment, and the demonic forces behind them. Individuals were involved by supporting, or by refusing to oppose, these collective forces.
In brief, just as God designed humans, made in His image, for positive relationships with others and with creation, rooted in dependence upon Him; so human sin is participation in distorted social and ecological relationships, rooted in commitments to other values and powers. Individual responsibility is involved, but it takes the form of turning from God towards something else.
Humanity Participating in Salvation The fullness of human potential cannot be determined from Genesis, but only from texts, primarily in the New Testament, which describe humans as moving towards final glorification.
Theologians have debated whether the will, apart from God's irresistible grace, is wholly bound to evil, or whether it can make some small movement toward God on its own. Through its many stories of people turning from God, Scripture insists that strong divine influence is needed to counteract sin; but Scripture may not provide a precise answer to the other side of the issue—humanity's ability to turn to God. The Bible does tells us the essential nature of freedom. It is not merely liberty to choose or not choose among various possibilities. Instead, true human freedom is initiated and empowered by the divine Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:17;
Galatians 5:13,Galatians 5:16;
Romans 8:2). It is not simply liberty to follow our own inclinations. It is the capacity to transform our drives and habits through the Spirit who raised Jesus bodily (Romans 8:11). It is not simply liberty to attend to our interests. It is freedom to participate in and suffer with the Spirit's transforming work throughout all creation (Romans 8:22-23). It is not freedom from involvement, but freedom for loving relationships with other people, the whole creation, and God.
Just as sin involves participation in perverted social and religious relationships, so fulfillment of human potential involves participation in healthy ones. Since our “bodies” are channels which relate us to creation, to others, and to God, so participation in Christ's body is the primary means by which health is restored. The “body of Christ” is no pale metaphor for an ecclesiastical organization. It is a living organism where each member participates in the joys and sufferings of the others (Romans 12:4-8;
1 Corinthians 12:12-26;
Ephesians 4:4-16). The church is not merely an organization for occasional worship, entertainment, or service. It is the primary community through which God wills that the relationships which constitute His image should be healed and through which the fullness which He desires for all humankind should be most clearly displayed. See Image of God; Body; Soul; Spirit; Creation; Sin; Freedom; Spirit; Church; Body of Christ.