Christian humanism as foundation for the faith and work conversation, part II


“Crosswalk,” Ryoji Iwata, Unsplash free use

This article continues from part I

Humanism: a brief definition

So now we come to Christian humanism. What is it? And what has it had to teach us about the world and about humanity? As a preliminary definition, I offer the following:

Christian humanism is a longstanding philosophy of culture that has drawn from the doctrines of Creation and of the Incarnation for its understanding of the world, of human nature, and of our culture-creating work dedicated to serving our full flourishing as embodied, rational, social beings living in the world. And this Christian humanist philosophy has upheld the central value—often mistaken for the innovation of a secular Enlightenment—of universal human dignity and equality, with its eventual social outworkings in rule of law, democratic government, free trade, and the fostering of human work as the exercise of creativity and rationality to steward and improve the world’s resources. Arguably in the past two centuries the result of these and other outworkings of Christian humanist values has been tremendous growth in global economic prosperity, even as these values have become almost entirely separated from the Christian faith that originated them.

To get to a point-by-point summary of how Christian humanism can help us address the American Christian faith-work problematic, we need to sketch key moments of its development. And to ground this historical sketch, we begin with biblical and doctrinal sources:

Biblical/theological grounding

The anchor of Christian humanist theological anthropology—including our identity as “vocational beings”—is the biblical description of our creation by a God who himself works and who is supremely rational; a creation story that describes humanity as being made in the image of this working, rational God, and being mandated to follow him in his creative vocation, through the exercise of our reason in work—cultivating and keeping the garden, naming the animals, and generally drawing out the potentials of creation in service to human flourishing.

This insistence on the centrality of human flourishing in God’s plan is not uncontested today. Critics both within and outside the faith charge Christian thinkers who have stressed the high value and dignity of human beings and therefore the importance to God of full human flourishing with being “anthropocentrist”—that is, with making human beings the center of everything. But modern Christian humanists may reply, in essence, that if we credit the Scriptural stories of Genesis and of the Gospels, then we find that in first making us in his image and placing us in the garden of Eden with the express divine telos of union with him within his good creation, then in becoming one of us in the midst of that creation, and finally in drawing us toward a life with him in what will be the renewed creation symbolized as “the new Jerusalem,” God himself is shown to be anthropocentric.

“Theo-anthropocentrism” – Incarnation and theosis

As I’ve suggested, Christian humanism has grounded its understanding of humanity’s purpose and full flourishing not only in the doctrines of creation and new creation, but also in the Incarnation. From that foundation it draws an understanding that our human telos – if you like,our principal vocation or calling – is the attainment to the full human life by the grafting-in to the life of God through Christ. This does not mean we share in the substance of God’s divinity, but rather that we are brought into union with him as his beloved children, which was always his purpose for us. As Augustine said to his congregation, “the Son of God became the Son of Man, so as to make the sons of men into sons of God.” This is, in short, the ancient Christian understanding of salvation, still held actively in the Eastern Orthodox confession, and nowhere declared unorthodox – called “theosis” or “deification.” And this ancient view pushes back on the charge of anthropocentrism in very much the way we’ve already suggested.

Jens Zimmermann puts it like this: “Recognizing the central importance of deification or theosis for Christian anthropology allows us to correct the often exaggerated contrast between Christian theocentrism [and] pagan and later secular forms of anthropocentrism,” showing us “the divine focus on humanity established by God himself.”[1]

To build an argument that the current faith-work conversation, at least within American evangelicalism, needs to engage the long tradition of Christian humanism if it is to be of pastoral use, we need to look now at the theology of humanity and the theology of the world that Christian humanism developed through its several historical phases.

Classical antecedents

First, the Patristic phase of Christian humanism derived key themes from its classical Greek antecedents. It was the Greeks, for example, who first framed education as “the realization of one’s humanity” – that is, “deliberately moulding human character in accordance with an ideal” – that ideal being the “cultured individual.”[2] And by the time of Christ, it is important to note, that cultured individual was considered by Greco-Roman elites to be in pursuit of, and in relationship to, some sort of theistic reality.

Focal to this shift toward theism was the thought of Plato, and later of the Neo-Platonists. Those thinkers framed full humanity in terms of “conversion from the world of sensual self-deception to the world of true being, the absolute good beyond being—something Plato calls god.” And this religious framing continues in “such Roman ethical philosophers as Cicero (106-43 BC) and Seneca (4 BC – AD 65), who reshaped Greek humanistic education in service of Roman citizenship.” Cicero “coined the term ‘studia humanitatis’ for this educational ideal,” and thus tied humanistic education to social virtue – a connection it has retained ever since in the Christian West. Humanism was to be pursued in service not just to individual character, but also to the broadest possible human flourishing.[3]

Patristic humanism: Justin Martyr and the elevation of human reason

This was the fertile seedbed that such early Christian thinkers as the second-century apologist Justin Martyr encountered and absorbed – translating the philosophical theism of platonic-stoic thinkers into the terms of the personal theism of Christianity. This was no naïve adoption of Greco-Roman ways of seeing humanity. Those views were now “radically transformed through the biblical story of humanity’s Fall and redemption.”[4]

What was happening is what the late Yale missiologist Lamin Sanneh described as Christianity’s “translatability” – in every encounter with a culture, including the original Greco-Roman culture, Christianity has both revived and revised that culture.[5] In the case of early Christian humanism, while there was plenty to revise, what they revived (that is, adopted and expanded) was the Greek “aspiration to ennoble humanity,” which they recognized as consistent with the high anthropology of the Christian gospel. In agreement with Robert Louis Wilken, and against the long-lived caricature of 19th-century church historian Adolf Von Harnack, we may say that what was happening in early Christian humanism was not “the Hellenization of Christianity” but “the Christianization of Hellenism.”[6]

An important step in the development of patristic humanism was Justin Martyr’s formulation, drawing on the Hellenized Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, of a “doctrine of the Christian Logos.” This doctrine was an adaptation of Stoic and Platonic ideas of a universal reason that generated and ordered the universe. It was a way of talking about “God’s wisdom and operative power” in the universe – Christianized by identifying it with the incarnate Christ. The Logos was God’s “seed of reason,” which is fully incarnated only in Christ, but in which “every human being, Christian or not,” participates and reflects whenever they “utter truth.”[7]

Justin Martyr’s high valuation of reason would continue through Augustine, to the medieval scholastics and beyond. This understanding—which again was a Christianized Hellenistic one—would in turn underwrite the characteristic Christian humanist embrace of all knowledge, whatever its source; so that Augustine, for example, could criticize his fellow Roman Christians for proclaiming simplistic biblical-literalist understandings on matters of astronomy and other sciences, thereby both getting the science (which at that time was almost entirely classical Greek science) wrong and embarrassing the faith.[8]

Arguably, this patristic humanist receptivity to all knowledge sources eventually prepared 12th and 13th century Christian scholastics to accept the rediscovered dialectical and scientific writings of Aristotle –setting the stage for the Christian progenitors of the 16th and 17th century scientific revolution to advance their diverse fields of knowledge. I make this connection, and will return to it several times, because there are few sectors of human work today that are untouched by science, so it is important to observe modern science’s Christian humanist roots as we examine whether Christian humanism should underwrite our current faith-and-work conversations.

In the early years of the church, there was still much that separated classical Greek from Christian thought. A contingent, created universe was one – the Greeks had believed in an eternal universe. Another was obviously the Christian conception of a personal god. But by borrowing understandings from Greco-Roman wisdom, and giving them a new foundation in both the incarnation and the Genesis elevation of humanity as “made in God’s image,” the early Christians were able to carry an evolved and Christianized classical humanism well beyond the fall of the Roman Empire. This had the effect, as Zimmermann argues, of “revolutioniz[ing] humanity’s outlook by placing the ideas of freedom and hope at the heart of Western civilization.”[9] Zimmermann quotes Emil Brunner on just how revolutionary this early Christianized humanism was:

“‘The personal Gods of mythology are not absolute, and the Absolute of Greek philosophy is not personal. There is but one alternative to fatalism or determinism—the idea of God being almighty, sovereign, Lord, Whose freedom is above everything that exists,’” but, as Zimmermann concludes, “whose freedom is also . . . expressed in his affirmation of creation and love for humanity in the Incarnation.”[10]

So as I’ve already stated, and as Zimmermann confirms, the first step of Christian humanism – that is, its development by the church fathers, drew heavily on the incarnation. As taught by such early theologians as Athanasius, the incarnation was taken to be “an affirmation of creation and of God’s deep involvement with it,” without in any way compromising “the distinct difference between God and his creation.”[11]

Quite simply, patristic humanism derived a high view of humanity from a high view of Christ. “The eternal Word and Wisdom of God, through whom and for whom all things were made, became human, so that humanity could attain true humanity.” This is, as Zimmermann says, a “Christological anthropology.”[12] And it has remained foundational for Christian humanists up to today.

This article continues in part III.


[1] Jens Zimmermann, ed., “Introduction,” Re-Envisioning Christian Humanism (Oxford University Press, 2017), 5-6.

[2] Jens Zimmermann, Incarnational Humanism: A Philosophy of Culture for the Church in the World (Intervarsity Press, 2012), 54.

[3] Zimmermann, Incarnational Humanism, 54 – 55.

[4] Zimmermann, Incarnational Humanism, 57.

[5] Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (2nd ed.; Orbis Books, 2009).

[6] “The notion that the development of early Christian thought represented a Hellenization of Christianity has outlived its usefulness. The time has come to bid a fond farewell to the ideas of Adolf von Harnack, the nineteenth-century historian of dogma whose thinking has influenced the interpretation of early Christian thought for more than a century. It will become clear in the course of this book that a more apt expression would be the Christianization of Hellenism, though that phrase does not capture the originality of Christian thought nor the debt owed to Jewish ways of thinking and to the Jewish Bible. Neither does it acknowledge the good and right qualities of Hellenic thinking that Christians recognized as valuable, for example, moral life understood in terms of the virtues. At the same time, one observes serves again and again that Christian thinking, while working within patterns of thought and conceptions rooted in Greco-Roman Roman culture, transformed them . . . profoundly . . .” Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003),xvi. See also Wilken, “Cardinal Virtues and Some: The Christianization of Hellenism,” his “Faith & Reason lecture” to Christendom College: https://media.christendom.edu/2016/04/dr-robert-louis-wilken-cardinal-virtues-and-some-the-christianization-of-hellenism/, accessed 2/21/2022.

[7] Zimmermann, Incarnational Humanism, 62 – 63.

[8] Augustine, Literal Commentary on Genesis: “[E]ven a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds as certain from reason and experience. Now it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people reveal vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh that ignorance to scorn.” Quoted by David Lindberg in “Natural Adversaries,” Christian History, no. 76 (2002), www.christianitytoday.com/ch/2002/issue76/17.44.html.

[9] Zimmermann, Incarnational Humanism, 63 – 64.

[10] Zimmermann, Incarnational Humanism, 64, quoting Emil Brunner, Christianity and Civilization, vol. 2, Second Part: Specific Problems, Gifford Lectures (New York: Scribner’s, 1949), 23.

[11] Zimmermann, Incarnational Humanism, 61.

[12] Zimmermann, Incarnational Humanism, 64.

One response to “Christian humanism as foundation for the faith and work conversation, part II

  1. Pingback: Christian humanism as foundation for the faith and work conversation | Grateful to the dead

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