Christianity has resources of skepticism that would make Nietzsche and Foucault blush. Read a few pages of Augustine or C. S. Lewis, and squirm as they surgically strip away the layers of self-justification and self-deceit and self-righteousness that you didn’t know you had wrapped on. They are true masters of suspicion.
At the same time, Christianity proposes that human beings are made in the image of God and proclaims, in Athanasius’ classic formula, that God became man so that man might become God. Pascal didn’t get it quite right: We don’t stand between angel and beast. We are sometimes bestial creatures who are destined to be raised above angels.
Holding this sort of optimism together with this depth of pessimism is a trick to say the least, and modern theology has usually bumbled it. The reason goes back to the way the early chapters of the Bible are read.
John Paul II’s theology of the body clarifies the significance of our reading of Genesis 1–3. When Jesus is asked about divorce, he doesn’t engage in pharisaical casuistry but instead points back to “the beginning,” thereby making a distinction between “historical man” and “theological man.” Historical humanity is the humanity enslaved by sin, turned here and there by mixed motives, the humanity of domination and control, of objectification and shame. But the Bible begins with an account of a different form of human life, which John Paul labels the “theological,” according to which humanity is made in the image of God to be God’s covenant partner.
The Fall erects a boundary line between the two conditions, but the key point in John Paul’s analysis is that it is possible “in some sense [to] go beyond the boundary.” Jesus assumes that he and the Pharisees know something of what humanity was before hardness of heart made divorce necessary.
And this theological form of humanity is still normative. Christians can’t stop at the boundary. We can’t concede that there is only “historical man” in all his evil and shame and abuse. We can’t really understand the career of historical man, John Paul says, without knowing that it is a deviation from the original state of man. If Christians are masters of suspicion, we cannot only be masters of suspicion.
Few questions are more central to our current confusions about human sexuality than the distinction between historical and theological humanity. Defenders of same-sex marriage pile up the evidence that homosexual practices were tolerated and even celebrated by historical man, and if we can’t get past the boundary, that’s all we have to go on. But John Paul’s point applies to every area of human existence. Unless we can penetrate the veil, we cannot really grasp our current condition and won’t have much hope for a future redemption. Historical humanity is a source of pessimism, but it will be a thoroughgoing despair unless we know that we didn’t start out this way. If the historical condition of humanity is just the way humans are, we can’t be delivered without ceasing to be human. That doesn’t sound like salvation. That sounds like genocide of the human species.
Liberal theology is incapable of holding Christian cynicism with Christian hope because it doesn’t recognize any real difference of historical and theological humanity. It doesn’t think we have any access to the condition of humanity at the beginning. All we have is a primitive etiology that has been disproven by sophisticates who can switch on electric lights.
Unfortunately, Evangelicals appear eager to replicate the liberal error. Today, many, perhaps most, Evangelicals still believe that Adam was an actual man, but there is a growing body of opinion asserting the contrary. Pete Enns acknowledges that in rejecting the historical reality of Adam he is disagreeing with the apostle Paul, but he argues that he retains those features of “Paul’s theology” that are “core elements of the gospel”—the universality of death and sin and Christ’s death and resurrection as “last Adam.”
If we leave Paul behind, though, how do we account for the contingency of sin and death—which, it seems, is a necessary premise if we are going to talk meaningfully about Christ’s victory over death and sin? Can we penetrate the boundary to gain any real knowledge of “theological” humanity? The Evangelical debate over the historical Adam might seem to be an effort to clear out a dusty, embarrassing relic of fundamentalism. Far more is at stake. What’s at stake is a basic premise of Christian anthropology and ethics.
John Paul II thought that the distinction between historical and theological humanity was one of the “core elements of the gospel,” insofar as it was a core element of Christian anthropology. Without it, we have neither an accurate understanding of the current human condition nor a realistic hope of redemption. We are left twisting in the wind, oscillating between untempered expectation for human perfection and untempered “realism” regarding humanity’s irredeemable immorality. Ask the next theological liberal you meet whether that’s a happy place to live.
Peter J. Leithart is on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and senior fellow of theology and literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.