What Christian Revelation Understands About Reality and Relationships (that secular culture does not), by Gary Deddo
It’s easy to under-appreciate what God has revealed to humanity—a revelation that began with Israel and came to fullness and consummation in the self-revelation and self-giving of God in Jesus Christ. That revelation, which is preserved for us in the Bible, is centered on the person and work of Jesus. It’s a revelation not merely about religion, morality, or even God and salvation, but about the very nature of reality itself—a reality grounded in God’s nature, purposes, mind, heart and relationship with creation, along with the nature of humanity and humanity’s relationship with God, one another, and all creation.
Like the letters of the alphabet, we tend to assume, even overlook the basics of what God has revealed. So it’s good to examine those basics in detail from time to time. To help us do so, I’ve compiled below a list of what I consider to be the foundational realities of God’s revelation. All have Jesus at the center, for he is the Logos (the “Word”), meaning rationality and intelligibility (John 1:1-5), the source of all “wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). Here is the list:
· There is a God.
· This God is knowable by human beings because this God is capable of revealing himself, of making himself known, to human beings in a definitive, actual and real way.
· This God is the creator of everything that is other than God.
· This God is good and all that this God does is good.
· This God interacts with the creation he has made.
· This God is the source of life and existence. Nothing would exist and nothing would have life if God did not give and sustain its life and existence.
· All things God created have been given a purpose, a meaning, and that purpose/meaning is good.
· Created things have natures, that is, a design, form or shape. Those natures cohere with the purpose assigned by God to those created things.
· God created a vast range of kinds of things with differing natures. The multiplicity and distinct differences of the nature of things are essential to the goodness of those things and to God’s purposes for them.
· The creation, with its multiplicity of kinds of things with their distinct natures, were created to interact with each other in harmonious and fruitful ways that maintain and lead to abundant life. Such harmonious relationships among the variety of created things with their respective natures, involve a kind of synergy that is productive.
· Created things are given appropriate creaturely freedom. The freedom of creaturely things is to express their nature fully so that it reaches their purpose for being created.
· Human beings are one of those “things” that God created for a good purpose. That God-given good purpose corresponds to the kind of nature with which human beings are created.
· The freedom of a human being is to live out its God-given purpose according to its God-given nature.
· Essential to the ultimate purpose and nature of a human being is to be in relationship with God. Without that relationship, human being would have no being and would not and could not realize its purpose.
· Human beings then are not autonomous beings—they have their being by being in relationship to God, first by virtue of being created and sustained in existence, and second as the redeemed creatures of God.
· God is Lord and Savior of all humanity.
· Human beings, created to live in a worship relationship with God, their Creator and Redeemer, are beings who are becoming—living towards their ultimate purpose in relationship to God. No human being is yet fully who God intends them to be.
· Human beings live in a dynamic history of relationship to God that has a destiny, a designated good and a glorious endpoint (telos). In and through that relationship, they become who God intends them to be in relationship, first to himself.
· That relationship with God is rightly characterized as one of love in fellowship (communion).
· But that love has a distinct form, shape and meaning. Its clearest, most concrete demonstration and definition is expressed in the person and actions of Jesus Christ. That relationship is most comprehensively understood as a relationship of worship.
· This worship relationship can be further characterized as a relationship of holy love. A Greek word used in the New Testament to refer to God’s kind of love as embodied in Jesus Christ is agape. That word is to be distinguished from other forms of love indicated by the Greek words eros and philia. In the Old Testament, agape is expressed by the words aheb and hesed, meaning covenant love. This covenant love was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
· God’s good, harmonious, fruitful and life-giving creation became fallen and corrupted from its earliest days. As a result, every relationship within all creation is now distorted, broken and diseased to some degree. All relationships, at every level, are in need of a repair, reconciliation and regeneration in their very natures that only God the Creator can provide.
· God pledged himself from the beginning to make all things right and to regenerate all creation, thereby restoring everything to right relationship and bringing about a renewed harmony and life-giving productiveness to it. God’s promise was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, our Reconciler and Redeemer.
· Evidences of Christ’s finished work can be found in this “present evil age” by the working of the Holy Spirit. Though that work is the first fruit, down payment, pledge, guarantee and seal of “the age to come,” the full and glorious effects of Christ’s work will not be consummated until he returns, bringing his kingdom in fullness and establishing a fully renewed heaven and earth in right relationship with God.
· Because creation is fallen, we cannot know with clarity or certainty who God is or what his ultimate purposes for his creation are by surveying creation.
· We humans, in all our capacities (including our moral judgments and reason) are fallen and thus naturally distrustful of God, further preventing us from truly and accurately knowing God and his will for us. Such knowledge comes to us only by the grace of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, the Living Word of God.
Because our increasingly secular world tends to ignore or even deny these foundational realities, it’s important that we, as followers of Jesus, examine their Christ-centered implications carefully. To that end I offer below thoughts about the foundational realities that are related to a Christian understanding of humanity (a theological anthropology). These thoughts move from reflecting on the nature of humanity in general to focus more particularly on God’s purposes for human sexuality (including gender distinctions) and the related topics of marriage and parenting.
Created for Worship and Holy Love
We begin by noting again that human beings were created for relationship with God and people, relationships that reflect a certain kind of love, namely agape love (God’s holy love). God gave humanity a nature that corresponds to that purpose. In accordance with that nature, God our Creator and Redeemer, out of his love and grace, commands human beings first to love him with all their hearts, minds, souls and strength, and then to love their neighbors. In that way, human beings live first in a worship relationship with God and second in a relationship with others that reflects, bears witness to and corresponds to their primary worship relationship to God. We can refer to these secondary relationships with humans as ones of witness, for they bear witness to (reflect) the primary worship relationship humans have with God as God, Lord and Savior.
Being in a right, loving (agape) relationship of worship with God involves all of who and what we are as humans: our heart, soul, mind and strength/body—the entirety of our being (nature). The entire biblical revelation, including its directives or commandments, indicates the same since they cover the whole range of human life and activity. Indeed, every aspect and dimension of human life is to be ordered first in relationship to God and then in relationship with other people and finally with all creation.
Note that the bodily aspect is specifically included as essential to our worship relationship with God. All human action involves a bodily aspect, and most biblical commandments refer to some sort of bodily action. The body was created good and has a moral and spiritual meaning and purpose—it can be used in a right and loving way or in a wrong or abusive way. The body is to be honored according to God’s good purposes in accord with the human nature that God has given it. This bodily aspect of relationship is particularly included in passages of Scripture that deal with human sexuality (more about that later).
Of crucial importance is the fact that human beings have not only an outer life but also an inner life. There is a dynamic relationship between the inward and the outward bodily aspect of human nature. We indicate the inward aspect by using concepts such as mind, will, spirit, soul (psyche), desires and affections. In God’s design and purpose, the inward aspects of a human life are to be coordinated with and harmonized with the outward aspects of the body and its speech and acts. But in this fallen world, this relationship between the internal and external dimensions of human life is also broken and distorted and in need of healing and restoration so that they are properly related and work together in a fruitful, life-giving way that enable us to participate in fulfilling God’s purpose for humanity.
Created for Loving Relationships
In his person, teaching and actions, Jesus reveals that there are three levels of relationship. Though comparable and interconnected, they are not in any sense identical:
1. The Trinitarian level. Jesus reveals that he has been loved by the Father (in the Spirit) from all eternity. These eternal relationships internal to the being of God are Trinitarian relationships of holy communion.
2. The Christological level. Jesus teaches and demonstrates in word and deed that as the Father has loved him, so he has loved us. This is the Christological relationship—God’s relationship with us through his Son. Jesus loves us with a love comparable to the love between the Trinitarian persons. Though Jesus’ love for us is not love between equals, it is no less loving for that. God’s love for us, in Christ, mirrors the intra-Trinitarian holy love that is its source.
3. The human (ethical) level. Jesus teaches that, in a way comparable to his love for us, we are to love each other (John 13:34). This kind of love is the essence of human relationship. This intra-human love is similar, though not identical to Jesus’ divine love for us (humans are not equal in ontological status with Jesus Christ).
All three levels of relationship can be called loving. By God’s design, all three are agape relationships. However, the particular forms of expression of that love are different at each level due to the different natures of those involved at each level. At each level, what is truly loving takes into full account the differences of nature of the beings in the relationships. Doing so makes these relationships dynamic, harmonious, and fruitful, leading to the abundant life God intends.
Without such differences the love expressed in those relationships would and could not demonstrate the fruitfulness, productivity, and life-giving dynamics that reflect the inner life of holy love in God the Trinity. Indeed, they could not fulfill their God-given purpose to glorify God by showing forth his kind of relational goodness. Consequently, they would not be able to provide a “place” where humans would experience that goodness through participation in the relationship.
Loving relationships require differences if there is to be, in and through those relationships, a truly loving, life-giving exchange. In the unity of the Trinity the difference is found in the distinct and non-interchangeable divine Persons. In Jesus there is the difference between his divine and human natures that are united in his one undivided Person. Concerning human beings, recall the apostle Paul’s description of the Body of Christ with its oneness in the Lord and yet difference of persons and gifts.
One Nature Expressed in Human Differences
Humans were created for relationship with God, though they have an infinitely different nature (being) than God. Humans also were created for relationship with other humans who share the same being (human nature). The New Testament refers to this nature/being as flesh (sarx in Greek). By God’s design, it is expressed by each human as a distinct person with a unique origin, a separate body (including the spaces and locations that go with that body), a distinct mind, human spirit (psyche), will and history. Thus humans share one humanity (nature) but as distinct (different) individuals.
These human differences contribute to, rather than take away from, our shared humanity when the human relationships we enter into are carried out in ways that reflect God’s agape (holy love), being moved and directed by a worship relationship with God. We find such relationships most clearly and fully revealed to us in the New Testament depiction of and directions given to the many-membered Body of Christ.
God’s Purpose for Gender Differences
One of the differences within humanity that contributes significantly to abundant life when ordered by God’s agape (holy love) is that of gender or sex. By God’s design, humanity is made up of both men and women (men or women). By God’s decree, this difference is good—it’s God’s gift to humanity and represents a God-given task for humanity. Gender distinction is built into what it means to be a human being.
As an essential part of human being, becoming and flourishing, gender distinction shares in the process of our maturing spiritually—our growing up into Christ, becoming fully who God intends us to be as his beloved creatures. Like every other aspect of human activity, gender distinction is an aspect of life that we are called to use for God’s purposes and according to God’s good design. Being gendered or sexual beings means we actively and deliberately participate in its transformation, its sanctification.
The goodness of gender distinction becomes apparent only when the relationships between men and women (whether married or unmarried) are governed by God’s agape (holy love) and thus ordered according to God’s purposes related to the nature God has given each of us. It is the nature of humanity to exist in the polarity of being differentiated by gender. But that nature needs to mature as directed by its proper use and transformation under Jesus Christ, the Lord and Savior of the sexuality of all human beings.
Given that human beings are beings who are becoming in right relationship with each other, the relationships between men and women, as men and women, are included in this becoming. The differentiation of humanity into the polarity of two distinct sexes or genders is for the good of humanity and essential to individuals in their becoming who they are in right relationship to each other as men and women (men or women) whether single or married, as parents and children and as neighbors one to another. This process involves all human beings.
God’s Purpose for Marriage
When a man and woman enter into a covenant relationship with each other and therefore into a special form of God’s agape (holy) kind of love, there is a unique, special purpose for that relationship which, more generically, we refer to as marriage. Among Christians, marriage is not fundamentally a legal relationship—ultimately and foundationally, its purpose is spiritual. That is, it finds its meaning and significance in relationship to God as a particular way to glorify and make known God’s own goodness and glory as extended to human beings.
Marriage is a gift given by God. Its special purpose is to reflect God’s covenant relationship with humanity, which in turn reflects the internal and eternal relationship of love among the members of the Trinity. Human marriage grounded in covenant love witnesses to the truth of the relationship of God through Jesus Christ to his bride, the church. Through it we are directed in a unique way to God’s covenant relationship with all humanity. Covenant marriage between a man and woman has a unique moral and spiritual meaning by which we can glorify the Triune God. The special form of agape (holy or covenant love) exhibited in marriage is to be life-long because it is to bear witness to God’s unbreakable covenant love and faithfulness to humanity.
God’s Purpose for Children and Parents
The special form of human love exhibited in the covenant of marriage is ordained by God to be the unique “place” where the productivity (fruitfulness) of love results in children who are uniquely related to their parents. Such children are historically, biologically, psychologically, sociologically and even spiritually united to their parents. Children, born of two parents of different sexes/genders united in covenant love, bear witness to the unique kind of relationship human beings have with God as God’s children. The parent-child relationship is irrevocable, permanent, and bears unique witness to our union with God in Christ. In our union with Jesus Christ, we are joined by the Spirit to Jesus’ humanity, which he shares with us in a union that is biological, historical, social, and spiritual. The parent-child relationship uniquely mirrors this union.
The parent-child relationship also uniquely bears witness to the deepest fruitfulness of the loving covenantal relationship between God and humanity—a relationship between two distinct and ontologically different beings. It bears witness to our being born from above—to the power of our becoming really and actually children of God who share in Jesus’ own sonship to the Father in the Spirit. As one of us, Jesus is our “kinsman redeemer” (goel in Hebrew). We are his brothers and sisters in flesh and blood. The parent-child relationship has a moral and spiritual meaning and significance by which we can glorify the Triune God.
Note: What is said here about parenting does not address, nor does it seek to cast negative light on, the topics of adoption or involuntary or voluntary childlessness. Those relationships have somewhat different significance and meaning, and exploring them is beyond the scope of this essay, which focuses on just a few of the implications extending from the most fundamental assumptions of biblical revelation.
It is important to remember that the universe is fallen—to one degree or another it is imperfect, incomplete and distorted. That means that every relationship, of every kind and at every level, needs repair, healing, restoration and even regeneration. The distortions, brokenness and corruptions that we experience in every relationship in this fallen world hinder our attempts to live out the purpose and to experience the full goodness of the God-given being (human nature) we have been given. The good news, however, is that the grace of God has broken in and we can live here and now in ways that demonstrate hope for the healing and restoration that serves as a sign or as a down-payment of God’s complete restoration that is coming with the new heaven and new earth.
As the people of God, we live knowing that all creation is fallen (and that includes all relationships). But we also live with hope, knowing of the in-breaking of God’s grace now and the promise that, ultimately, God will make all things right, including all relationships. These are some of the fundamental assumptions conveyed to us in the Bible concerning the reality in which we live and move and have our being—a being that, in Christ, by the Spirit, is in right relationship with God and with others.