A few years ago, Wired magazine reported on what it called "a star-studded panel of scientists" at the World Science Festival in New York City. The scientists had gathered to discuss what it means, from a scientific perspective, to be human.
Marvin Minsky, artificial intelligence pioneer, said the one thing we can do that other species can't is remember; we have cultures, ways of transmitting information. Cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett said we are the first species that can reason with one another. Physicist Jim Gates said we are blessed with the ability to know our mother; that is, we are conscious of more than ourselves, and that just as a child sees a mother, the species sees mother universe. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio said that the critical factor was language. And on it went. Some were excited that science might be the key to unlock what it means to be human, while others doubted science's ability to do that.
The forum was typical of our age but unusual in the history of humankind. For most of history, philosophers and theologians, not scientists, have asked this question. But this question—What does it mean to be human?—does not puzzle only scientists and philosophers. It's one we all ask ourselves in one form or another.
Sometimes the question is couched in the language of the human potential movement: "How can I be all that I can be?" Sometimes it's a moral question: "How can I act like a decent human being in this situation?" Sometimes it centers on meaning: "What is life all about, and what is the place of a human being in it?" or, "Am I just a carbon-based biped, an evolutionary accident?" or, "What is the purpose of our short life on this planet?"
These are old questions. The psalmist, centuries before the coming of Christ, framed the question like this, asking God: "What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?" (8:4, NRSV). With the coming of Jesus Christ, we might say, God finally gave an answer.
The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth, fittingly called the "church father" of the 20th century, put it this way: "As the man Jesus is himself the revealing Word of God, he is the source of our knowledge of the nature of man as created by God."
The logic of this simple statement is compelling: If men and women can know who they are only on the basis of the Word of God, then it is only by looking at the One who indeed is himself the Word of God, Jesus Christ, that we can know our identity and nature. Barth put it succinctly: All study and knowledge of human beings is "grounded in the fact that one man among all others is the man Jesus."
In John 14:9, Jesus says, "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father." We would not be doing any violence to the scriptural teaching should we add a parallel thought: "Anyone who has seen Jesus has seen the true human being."
When God speaks to us about himself and about us, he doesn't just utter words or leave a message. He speaks by becoming one of us.
Therefore—and only therefore—we know who we are because we have been created in his image, in the image of the one who became one of us and into whose image we ought to be conformed until the day when we see him face to face.
Growing up in my homeland, Finland, my dad would tell me enthusiastically about new engines, for either cars or airplanes, when they were in planning and initial construction. To describe them, he often used the word prototype: the original blueprint or model after which the engines would be made in the production process. He said the closer to the prototype, the better the engines.
Jesus, the revelation of God, is the prototype. He is the only one among us who faithfully and perfectly represents what God, the Creator, wished for the human person, created in his image, to be.
God Became Matter
Unlike later creeds and theology, the New Testament does not speculate abstractly about the human nature of Jesus Christ. It speaks of Jesus' humanity in what theologians call "economic" terms—that is, in very concrete terms having to do with the actions of Christ.
Consider, for example, the Bible's astonishing claim that, as does every child, Jesus had to develop and grow (Luke 2:40). Even the more theological account of John's gospel speaks of Jesus as weary and thirsty (4:6-7). Jesus showed human emotions such as sorrow (11:35) and anguish (12:27). Jesus struggled with accepting God's will (Matt. 26:39; Heb. 5:7-9). Jesus underwent temptations (Matt. 4:1-11). While a host of other biblical testimonies could be added, we can summarize with the statement from Hebrews 4:15 that Jesus was tempted in every way as we are, yet never sinned.
The early Christian teacher Irenaeus helps us understand this dimension of Jesus' life with the concept of "recapitulation." Drawing on Ephesians 1:10, he wrote,
Wherefore also he passed through every stage of life, restoring to all communion with God …. This made it possible that God recapitulated in himself the ancient formation of man, that he might kill sin, deprive death of its power, and vivify man; and therefore his works are true.
Irenaeus said that as incarnated man, Jesus exposed himself to the kinds of experiences typical of men and women. He did this with a view to our salvation and that we might have hope in this world. In the life and experiences of Jesus Christ, the Man from Nazareth, we discern that being a real human means having a life shaped by dependence, service, and ultimate self-offering to the Father—and all this in the face of the temptations and trials of life.
To probe deeper, we need to examine the phrase "the Word became flesh" (John 1:14). In some sense, this suggests that "flesh"—that is, man as a bodily, concrete, historical being—comes into the fullness of being when the Word (the Logos) becomes flesh. Man is God's self-utterance: God speaks out of himself into the empty nothingness of the creature and thus creates man.
Think about the implications of this. Whatever else we are as frail, failing, and sinful persons, we are also the product of God's speaking; our dear Lord, who was before us (John 8:58), became one of us.
The idea of God assuming humanity is such a scandalous claim that even ancient Christian teachers struggled with it. The greatest teacher of medieval times, Thomas Aquinas, begins his discussion of the Incarnation in the Summa Theologiae by asking if it is a "fitting idea" for God to become human: "Since God from all eternity is the very essence of goodness, it was best for him to be as he had been from all eternity. But from all eternity he had been without flesh." To put it as a question: Why would God become flesh if he was already perfect goodness as spirit?
Aquinas listed other objections. For example, he highlighted the infinite difference between the divine and the human, including his observation that God, who fills the whole universe, can hardly be "contained" in a human life. In the end, however, on the basis of biblical teaching and the creeds, the Angelic Doctor happily concluded that indeed, it is most fitting for God to become human because God, the fountain of goodness and love, wished "to communicate itself in the highest manner to the creature" so that created nature could be joined to Creator.
Other early Christians struggled to believe that human life, as such, is "fitting." Some said it was sinful to have a physical body or an emotional nature, especially passionate expressions. Spirituality and "care of the soul" were said to be the "core" of human existence. But the Incarnation tells us otherwise. If it is fitting for almighty God, Creator of heaven and earth, to become a human person who undergoes growth and development from infancy to youth to adulthood, to share the ordinary life of a working family, the betrayal of friends, the opposition of other people, and finally the anguish and fear of death—well, it is then fitting for us humans.
In assuming human life, almighty God affirmed the goodness of everything human, including embodiment, physical nature, weakness, and frailty. Hence, rightly understood, the German Catholic theologian Karl Rahner's daring statement is correct: "The fundamental assertion of Christology is precisely that God became flesh, became matter." The Incarnation of the preexistent Logos is a most profound affirmation of the lasting value of men and women in all of their nature and existence.
Life Well Lived
There is a curious difference between the Gospels and later creedal traditions. Whereas the biblical authors were deeply interested in various aspects of the Savior's earthly life, in the creeds—as the Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann observes—between the statements "born of the virgin Mary" and "suffered under Pontius Pilate," there is only a comma!
Why is Jesus' earthly life and ministry so important? Because it was a life lived in the way human life is supposed to be lived. It was a life of service, reaching out to others, helping others, finding one's fulfillment in voluntary submission to the Father's will.
The intent of 19th-century liberals to reduce Jesus to an ethical teacher is no reason to downplay the importance of Jesus' life. For the Bible-believing, faithful disciple, Jesus' reaching out to sinners, to people outside the covenant, to women, despised as the "weaker sex," and to children, considered inferior to adults, sets the blueprint for a life of inclusion.
Jesus' teaching about the kingdom—the righteous rule of the Father—is not a call to abandon the duties related to family, "tribe," and work, but rather a healthy reminder to put things in eternal perspective. The Savior's preaching about casting off all our sorrows in the confidence of the Father's care, which encompasses things both great and small, helps orient our lives in the stress of contemporary society.
But there is more. In Ephesians 2:14-15, Paul expands the meaning of Jesus by talking about him as the New Adam. The passage speaks of Jesus' creation "in himself" of "one new humanity" out of Gentiles and Jews, the dividing line in that world between two kinds of people. This widening of Jesus' person beyond the contours of Jewish nationalistic faith is the key to the universal relevance of the gospel to all nations.
As human persons, we are part of something larger in the world. Current Western culture speaks in terms of isolated individualism, but the biblical message speaks for community and belonging. True, having been created in the image of God, each and every man and woman is a full image of God, and hence a person in the full sense of the word. But God's intention is not to create isolated individuals but rather communities in which each person can flourish. It is therefore significant that, as contemporary New Testament scholarship reminds us, the typical New Testament phrase "in Christ" is not only about my individual belonging to Christ but also about our belonging to Christ in the communion of believers of all ages.
Life without End
The Resurrection not only confirms the finished nature of the Atonement, it also seals the veracity of the earthly Jesus' claims to be a true man. A number of self-made messiahs appeared in the New Testament era; only one showed himself to be the true Messiah, the one sent by the Father. His identity was confirmed by God's raising him to new life.
The raising to new life of the crucified tells us it is possible for mortal human beings to enjoy life everlasting. As finite human beings, we are all subject to death and decay. The same is true of the earth we inhabit. Those who put their faith and hope in the eternal God can confidently rest in the assurance that beyond death there is life. As the first fruits, Christ has already been raised to life everlasting. The rest of the harvest follows him.
The coming-in-flesh of God, Jesus Christ, tells us we have hope in this life and the life to come. We can be assured that the One who has come to be one of us is not far from us either in life or in death. Martin Luther testified of Jesus Christ, the incarnate One, saying:
[God] himself must be present in every single creature in its innermost and outermost being, on all sides, through and through, below and above, before and behind, so that nothing can be more truly present and within all creatures than God himself with his power. For it is he who makes the skin, and it is he who makes the bones; it is he who makes the hair on the skin, and it is he who makes the marrow in the bones; it is he who makes every bit of the hair, it is he who makes every bit of the marrow. Indeed, he must make everything, both the parts and the whole.
Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen is professor of systematic theology at Fuller Theological Seminary and docent of ecumenics at the University of Helsinki, Finland. He has published 23 books (7 in his native Finnish). Most recently, he was a contributor to Justification: Five Views (InterVarsity, 2011).
Copyright © 2012 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous articles in the Global Gospel Project include:
Learning to Read the Gospel Again | How to address our anxiety about losing the next generation. (December 7, 2011)
Why We Need Jesus| Reason and morality cannot show us a good and gracious God. For that, we need the Incarnation. (December 2, 2011)
Making Disciples Today: Christianity Today's New Global Gospel Project | Introducing the magazine's new five-year teaching venture. (December 2, 2011)
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.