A Biblical Model of Personhood

At the heart of a biblical notion of personhood is the belief that humans beings are the imago dei, the image of God (Gen 1:26-27, James 3:9). Christians have differed over where to locate this imaging of God in humans. It has been placed in the will, consciousness, reason, intuition, imagination, embodiment, an openness to future, and in a composite unity of these.  It is this last option that I am most convinced by (Rom 12:1-2, I Cor 15:45). Our full humanity is what, in differing ways, images God. The biblical conception of the heart is useful here (Prov 4:23, 27:9, Deut 6:5, Rom 2:29, II Cor 3:3, Rom 1:32, II Cor 9:7, Heb 4:12). The "heart" (whether the Hebrew Leb or the Greek kardia) implies the full person of a human being—the intellect, emotion, volition, even body. As Karl Barth affirmed: "[T]he heart is not merely a but the reality of man, both wholly of soul and wholly of body" (436). As such, to know with our heart is to employ our whole person. Being the image of God implies the following:

  1. Dignity, glory, and honor are essential aspects of our personhood. We are each valuable. (Psalm 8)
  2. Human beings have a specific telos, purpose and end--"to glorify God and enjoy him forever," as the Westminister Confession says. The human self cannot be conceived without an awareness of a dependence upon and ultimate union with God
  3. Likewise, we have an intermediate goal and purpose in this world--the furthering of God's shalom--his reign of perfect peace and justice over all humanity.
  4. Humans are relational beings created for mutuality and joint service (Gen 1:28, Gen 2). One can see this pattern of relationality beginning in the very nature of God, ala' the Trinity. It can also be seen in the biblical practice of covenant, as well as in the community of Israel and the Church. We are individuals, but never conceived of as existing alone or for ourselves alone.
  5. Humans are created for diversity (Gen 1, Rev 7). God is a lover of difference, complexity, and mutuality. We are not to be the same either as individuals or as cultures.
  6. On the Earth, human beings have stewardship, a limited authority given by God, what Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen calls an "accountable dominion." As such, it is characterized by agape love and service. Interestingly, the Hebrew words for "to till" (amhad) and "to serve" (ebed) are closely related.
  7. Human beings have free will, an openness to the future, with significant real moral choices to make.
  8. Humans have certain God-given rights, even if we are also capable of voluntarily giving those rights up. By "rights," I do not mean a selfish insistence upon getting one's own way, rather a recognition of how God has designed humans to interact. For example, the 10 Commandments, the wisdom tradition of scripture, the prophetic witness, the two Great Commandments (Mt 22:34-40, Gal 5:14, James 2:8), and the Sermon on the Mount, all suggest aspects of how humans should treat and expect to be treated.
  9. We are embodied beings with a focus on the particular and  the local (Gen 2:6-7, Rom 12:1-2, Mk 12:30).
  10. We are also fallen beings with a capacity for self-interest and self-deception. We cannot ignore the impact of sin on our total person, both within ourselves and within the larger social system where we reside..
  11. Likewise, we are called to renewal in Christ. By him do we fully image God again (Col 1:15, 3:10). Our personhood is developed and renewed by the work of the Holy Spirit upon us.
  12. The fullest expression of our personhood will be revealed in the eschaton, the final eternal state of things.  We look toward that full sanctity and glory that is promised us (I Cor 15:50-57, I Jn 3:2-3).

A biblical model of personhood will find certain aspects of the traditional, modernist, and postmodern models (following MacIntyre's formulation) congenial, while being deeply suspicious of others. In many ways, the biblical view has the most in common with the traditional, though the biblical view (especially, the New Testament) would affirm the personhood of all humans. The biblical model rejects the radical self-serving and autonomy of the modernist notion, as well as its stress on personal fulfillment, liberation, and subjectivism.  Yet the Bible would agree with the stress on individual value and basic human rights. Likewise, the biblical view recognizes the importance of local truth and identity, yet would ultimately contextualize these within those universals found in God. A biblical model would see a reality for the individual who is created for and within community. Such an understanding of personhood offers us a vision of human dignity, community, freedom, responsible stewardship, human rights, and redemptive renewal, as well as a warning against human self-deception, corruption, dehumanization, and claims of autonomy.

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding