About a century ago, an argument that had been brewing in academic circles spilled out into Christian churches. One group of scholars got together and decided that the Jesus of history was merely a wise and moral teacher. He went around doing a lot of good, but he never actually performed any miracles. I mean, miracles don’t really happen, do they? Of course not! They’re unscientific. So, let’s dispense with all the nonsense about virgin birth and walking on water and healing sick people and all that. Let’s especially do away with the silly notion of a bodily resurrection from the dead. Jesus was just a wise and moral teacher, and we would do well to learn from him. Let’s not say he was God in a body.
But the other side of the theological spectrum maintained their belief in Jesus as God — Jesus as eternally pre-existent second member of the Trinity — Jesus as sinless, supernatural, and divine. Jesus born of the Virgin Mary, conceived by the Holy Spirit, suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, buried, dead, raised again, ascended into heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father. Jesus the spotless Lamb of God sent to offer his life as a ransom for all.
One side said we should focus on Jesus’ moral teachings. The other side said we should focus on Jesus’ atoning actions.
This all may be boring to you, but there are some implications for us today. Stick with me.
The debate had some underpinnings that we can talk about, but the focus of the conversation shifted midway through the century away from the pressing question, “Who is Jesus?” towards an equally pressing question, “How do I get saved?”
Is there anything I can do to save myself? Is it all from God? Can I help? Do I contribute anything? Is it some kind of partnership where God does one part and I do the rest of it? Who initiates? Where is obedience in the mix? Do I have to obey, and, if so, how much, and which parts?
One camp said perhaps we shouldn’t take the Bible so literally when it talks about things like sin and miracles and people being completely unable to save themselves. They believed that the Bible is really trying to teach us how to be better people. So, we take the moral and ethical teachings to heart. We leave the rest behind, chalking it up to primitive people trying to understand the unknowable God of the universe.
The other side fought tooth-and-nail to hold onto a literal reading of the Bible. The miracles are recorded there because they literally happened. And sin is condemned because sin literally brings death to a person. And when the Bible says humans are completely unable to contribute one whit to their own salvation, it means that literally. Humans are utterly depraved and unable to do anything good or right or holy on their own.
Sadly, the theological conservatives thought it was so important to defend their doctrinal purity that they felt justified in ignoring social concerns. In fact, bringing up social concerns like feeding the hungry and caring for marginalized people came under some suspicion from some conservatives. They began to think that if you talked about human rights and human dignity, you were probably going to say that Jesus was just a wise and moral human teacher.
God only knows how many trees gave themselves for the sake of this argument — which continues to this day, by the way. But I think something has happened. While the church continues to argue over how people get saved and how to read the Bible, society has moved on to another question — a question they don’t even seem to know they’re asking:
What does it mean to be human?
Because here in America the church has had such a tremendous influence on culture, regular folks were keeping up with us in the previous two intramural arguments I mentioned. Regular folks were interested a hundred years ago. They wanted to know what they should do with Jesus. And many regular folks were interested 60 years ago when folks like Billy Graham started talking about how to be saved.
But more and more it seems like no one’s listening these days, and I think it’s because we don’t know what’s really keeping folks awake at night. It’s time for the church to turn its attention to the big question being asked over and over again by everyone from the #blacklivesmatter activists to Caitlyn Jenner to the Supreme Court to Planned Parenthood.
It’s everywhere you look. But no one knows it’s the question underneath the question on everyone’s mind: What does it mean to be human?
Is my gender part of my humanity? What about my sexual orientation? What about my race? What about the race with which I identify? At what point in time does a human become human? Is my online persona part of my humanity, and, if so, is that online persona subject to the same ethical standards I employ IRL? And what exactly does being human merit? Are there such things as universal human rights? If so, who decides who gets them? And when? And for how long?
What does it mean to be human?
Obviously, I can’t answer that question fully here. But I think this is the question we must begin to think through, and we must seek out the best possible answers from the fields of philosophy, psychology, medicine, and, yes, theology. Of course, if we involve theology, someone’s going to want to know what the Bible says about being human. Then we’re going to have to ask whether or not we’ve learned anything in the last 2,000 years about human nature that the original writers and readers of scripture didn’t know.
That’s a question most Christians don’t want to consider.
But we must.