By Olivier Schopfer (*)
Free photo available - see below.
The study on the understanding of human nature marks one of the most significant steps forward in the work of Faith and Order, whose plenary commission is meeting from 28 July to 6 August in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The study aims “To identify what the churches can say together about the nature of human nature: what it means to be human, made in the image of God”. The question is important and is closely linked to how we make ethical choices and deal with particular events and circumstances of life.
Since its creation, the Faith and Order commission of the World Council of Churches (WCC) has sought to help convergence between churches. The document “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry” published in 1982 played a major role in this. It encouraged churches to undertake their own ecumenical reflection on these issues.
Fairly quickly it became clear that there were several clearly defined issues that would benefit from in-depth study of a similar kind. Work was begun on several studies and the current state of play is being examined by the Faith and Order plenary commission. The study on “understanding human nature” will certainly be of great importance not only for the churches but also for the general public. The final text is expected to be published in time for the WCC Assembly in Porto Alegre in 2006. However, on 3 August a draft report was presented to the plenary commission by the US minister William Tabbernee, one of the members of the editorial group. The document received a warm welcome.
The provisional title of the study, "Ecumenical Perspectives on Theological Anthropology", might seem rather technical. But its content is down-to-earth and examines several examples of borderline situations where the way in which our understanding of “human nature” is called into question. The first part of the study is devoted to these examples, which are grouped into three categories:
- the brokenness and divisions that tear apart our world;
The study outlines several case studies that allow reflection about the extent to which the existence of violence, poverty or HIV/Aids seriously challenge the traditional understanding of what it means to be created in the image of God;
- new technologies
Current and future developments in biomedical, genetic, and artificial-intelligence research will also have an impact on how Christians understand what it is to be human. William Tabbernee took pleasure in repeating one question from a recent meeting - "Would you be ready to baptise a robot if it behaved like a human being?". Even if this was meant as a joke and is not yet a real issue, it nevertheless forces us to have a better definition of our understanding of what it means to be human from a faith perspective;
- human disability
The idea of “disability” is linked to a “norm of perfection” which needs to be challenged. Our understanding of “humanity as made in the image of God” needs to allow space for the questions posed by disability.
"Each of the places where working sessions of the study were undertaken," noted William Tabbernee, "were chosen carefully so that members of the study could experience, at first-hand, some of the situations where the challenges to human nature and dignity have their most visible expression." These places were Brighton, USA (2000), Belfast (2001), Jerusalem (2002), El Paso, USA (2003) and Montevideo, Uruguay (2004).
The Bible and human nature
The second part of the study is devoted to examining the principal biblical themes linked to the "human nature": humanity created in the image of God; the place of humanity within creation as a whole; sin and the image of God; and the new creation in Christ. Numerous quotations are used throughout this section, in particular from the early Church fathers. It is neither exhaustive nor over-academic. In fact it is written in language that is accessible to non-theologians. As in the BEM (Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry) study, this section of the study highlights points of convergence between the various Christian families.
The third part is devoted to ecumenical perspectives on the issues. As William Tabbernee noted, "The section summarizes our findings that, on the whole, there is a great deal of common understanding among the churches about Christian Theological Anthropology and that, even where differences in understanding terminology persist, such differences need not and should not prevent the churches from facing together any remaining challenges - even such potentially difficult challenges such as those related to stem cell research, cloning, gender and sexuality, ethnicity and national identity, racism, or ecology."
Do not avoid difficult issues
During discussion of the study several people expressed the hope that especially on these difficult issues the text would dare to go further, even at the risk of indicating areas of disagreement. Thus the Lutheran pastor Anne-Louise Eriksson said that "a theology of avoidance … should be avoided!". The Roman Catholic archbishop John Onaiyekan, Nigeria, made a similar suggestion. He suggested taking into account the dimension of time, which means that perspectives on questions of anthropology change. "Some of the things that we condemned in the past are now taken for granted". He also suggested that the study could give more space to the question of "natural law", and that it could include a section on the role of Mary as a model of purity, even if Christians had different understandings of the figure of Mary.
Nevertheless, despite a wide convergence on the basic principles of Christian anthropology, Churches continue to have different options when it comes to putting them into practice. They remain tempted to spend a lot of time on some issues and to ignore others. That is why the study encourages “churches to work together on the spiritual, ethical and material challenges facing humanity today”.
The study finishes with ten common affirmations (see sidebar), followed by a call to the churches. These require further work and will be made public at the time of the WCC assembly in 2006.
As a result of our study process, we offer to the Faith and Order Commission and to the
churches ten affirmations on Christian Theological Anthropology which we believe all the
churches can affirm as reflecting the understanding and will of the ecumenical community and which can (and, in our view, do) form the basis for the churches’ further common reflection and action in relation to the challenges facing us today:
• In Christian understanding, what it means to be human cannot be defined without
reference to both the “image of God” in all of humanity and the paradigmatic
expression of true humanity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
• Recognising the image of God in each human person and in the whole of humanity
emphasizes the essentially relational character of human nature and affirms both
human dignity, potentiality, and creativity and human creatureliness, finitude, and
• Acknowledging the paradigmatic expression of humanity in the person of Jesus of
Nazareth, whom Christians confess to be fully human as well as fully divine, is the
paradigmatic expression of humanity, emphasizes that true humanity is most clearly
seen in the embodiment of self-emptying (kenotic) love. Human beings are created to
love and to be loved selflessly.
• The image of God is an irrevocable characteristic of true human nature, but is
inevitably affected by individual and corporate sin.
• Sin is a reality which cannot be ignored nor minimized as it results in the alienation of
humanity from relationship with God and in the brokenness of the world, its
communities, and the individuals which make up those communities.
• Sin, however, does not have ultimate dominion over humanity and cannot, ultimately
pervert, distort, or destroy what it means to be human.
• Jesus of Nazareth, the only human being truly to have lived without sin, through his
life, death, and resurrection restores essential humanity, empowers life, and brings
hope for the end of inhumanity, injustice, and suffering.
• The Church, as the Body of Christ, is called to be the sign and foretaste of our unity with God and with each other.
• Human beings are created to be in relationship not only with God and each other but
with the whole of creation. This involves co-operative responsibility for, and
partnership with, the created order in the equitable use of physical resources, the
natural environment, and other living creatures.
• Humanity will find its ultimate fulfillment, together with the whole created order, when
God brings all things to perfection in Christ.
* Olivier Schopfer is a Swiss Reformed minister. He works as the web-editor of the World Council of Churches in the public information team.
Rev. William Tabbernee’s presentation is available at:
A free photo is available at:
Kuala Lumpur features: Although written according to the usual journalistic standards of accuracy and balance, since this article is intended for the general public it should not be read as a formal academic or theological text, nor should it be considered an official statement of the Faith and Order commission.
Opinions expressed in WCC Features do not necessarily reflect WCC policy. This material may be reprinted freely, providing credit is given to the author.