I begin this post by calling attention again to a quote I posted on this blog from last week. It is from the second volume of Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology.
But, I need to give it a little context. Pannenberg is pointing out that the idea that humans have a special place in the world because of their rationality has pre-Christian origin. He mentions Cicero’s statement of this idea. He goes on to say:
Yet, Cicero did not link this dignity, as modern usage does, to the idea of the inviolability of human life in each individual. This thought arose only with the idea that we are under a supreme authority that releases us from obligation to other powers, and especially from being controlled by other people or by society. Rightly, then, the Christian tradition sought the basis of personal dignity in our creation in the image of God. Our destiny of fellowship with God forms the indispensable premise of the function of human dignity as the content of a supreme legal principle and a basis for individual human rights, e.g., in modern declarations of such rights.
— Systematic Theology, Volume 2, Chapter 8, page 176, 177.
Let’s stop and look at some of the details of this quote for a minute. The wording is important. What does he mean when he talks about “the inviolability of human life in each individual”? It is worth taking a moment to look up the meaning of the word “inviolability.” I like this from Dictionary.com:
- prohibiting violation; secure from destruction, violence, infringement, or desecration: an inviolable sanctuary; an inviolable promise.
- incapable of being violated; incorruptible; unassailable: inviolable secrecy.
Are we clear here? Pannenberg is saying that while Cicero (as an example of pre-Christian thought) did affirm a special place for humans in the scheme of creation, he did not tie this to the idea that the life of each individual person is valuable to the point that no person should be violated. And, he asserts, that this thought does arise in Christianity because “the idea that we are under a supreme authority that releases us from obligation to other powers, and especially from being controlled by other people or by society.”
This claim is worth some reflection. As the supreme authority over human life, God frees us, in principle, from the domination for all other authorities. It is not that these authorities are done away with — of course — but that their claims are relativised. There is an authority above all other authorities. They do not have the right to control us or to control our thinking because we ultimately belong to God — and our destiny is unity with God. “Our destiny of fellowship with God forms the indispensable premise of the function of human dignity as the content of a supreme legal principle and a basis for individual human rights….”
This makes God the great AntiTyrant. God is the supreme authority and ultimate Creator. Yet, God values human life and calls us into relationship. God values us as individuals and our destiny of union with God is not the loss of our individuality but the fulfillment of it. God is the only authority who can fully respect and value or individuality and personal worth. Union with God is not a crushing of the self, it is rather the true finding of our self in God. And, the language of Scripture (generally speaking) agrees with this view: sin and selfishness are seen as bringing people into bondage. Faith in Christ fees us from this bondage so that we may serve God in freedom and liberty. The bondage is broken.
The prophet Nathan comes to the king with a message (2 Samuel 12). The king is the highest earthly authority in the land. The King is the executive branch, the legislative branch and the judicial branch. He is the ultimate power in the land. Nathan tells King David a parable which makes the King angry. Then Nathan reveals that the parable is really about the King himself. When the King cries out for justice, Nathan turns to the King and says “You are the man!” And, what happens? By rights the prophet should be exiled or put to death for accusing the King. But, the King recognizes his guilt. He recognizes that the prophet was right. What happened here? Both King David and the prophet Nathan recognize the existence of a higher authority and a higher law. That’s what happened.
The recognition of a higher law relativizes the human law. The recognition of God’s authority puts all lower authorities in their proper place. God’s authority is different than human authority, because God values human flourishing — and his authority is exercised for the good of all.
I believe this concept of God — not as a tyrant but as an anti-tyrant — is essential to growth in the Christian faith. In order to grow in our faith we must know that God is trust-able. It is natural for the early stages of the Christian life to have a certain tentativeness to them. We come seeking forgiveness and new direction. As we deepen our confidence in the trustworthiness of God, our dedication to God’s purposes can grow.
There is, I believe a great wisdom in Wesley’s two-stage model for the Christian life. It respects the human realities of our walk of faith. A person’s early steps of faith are likely to be tentative. It is only as we learn that we can trust God — that God values us in our individuality — are we able to trust God further.
The consecration of ourselves to God, including our bodies as well as our spirits, and our possessions as well as our persons, all we are and all we have, all we can do and all we can suffer, should be made without any reserve. There are many professors of religion, who are willing to give up something to the Lord; and perhaps it can be said, that there are many who are willing to give up MUCH; but the consecration, of which we are speaking, requires us to be truly willing to give up ALL. And not only to be WILLING to give up all, but to do it.
I would argue that such a radical consecration of our whole life to God cannot properly be made without a deep confidence in God’s love and good will toward us. If God is a capricious tyrant, God simply cannot be trusted this way. Only if I know that God is promising me life and fulfillment can I make such a consecration — only then can I place the whole of my life in God’s care.