July 9: Psalm 144

Chris Donato
"O LORD, what are human beings that you should notice them,

mere mortals that you should think about them?" (Ps. 144:3)

Christian Humanism gets a bad rap. But I think it may have to do with a fundamental misunderstanding of what it actually is--from both a theological and methodological perspective. Most of us realize that it has little to do with twenty-first century secular humanism, as it strives to affirm the dignity of humanity without any reference to God, an unthinkable prospect to the Christian humanist, since any talk about the dignity of humankind apart from the imago Dei is unintelligible.

In contrast, Christian Humanism argues that, precisely because Christ Jesus is Lord of both the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man, individuals and their culture have value (this is what it brings to the table theologically). Of course, this notion isn't foreign to Scripture or the early church (e.g., Justin Martyr's Apology), but it had become somewhat eclipsed during the medieval period. Not surprisingly, this particular anthropological perspective trickled down to educational methodology, Christian Humanism's other major contribution: devotion to studia humanitatis, or the liberal arts, including history, literary criticism, grammar, poetry, philology, and rhetoric, became a prominent feature of this movement. (It should be obvious by now that if not for the blossoming of Christian Humanism during the Renaissance, there would've been no Reformation, as there would've been no return to the sources of the original languages of Scripture, which, of course, produced a barrage against Catholic exegesis.)

It must be admitted that many Christian humanists tweaked their anthropology in the wrong direction. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of Man comes to mind, in which he stressed that men had the free will to travel up and down a moral scale. But this particular view isn't necessary to Christian Humanism, as many of the Reformers had, as a dear friend often puts it, a high regard for the doctrine of depravity. This isn't to suggest that theirs was all "worm theology," however. 

John Calvin stands out as one such Christian humanist. We think especially of his grammatical-historical, literary-critical exegesis, his devoted attention to the church fathers, his love of the classics (his first complete published work being a commentary on Seneca's De Clementia), his somewhat tension-riddled acceptance of a kind of "Christian philosophy," and the strongly ethical character of his teaching on the Christian life (see Bouwsma's John Calvin, pp. 113-127 for more on this). There may be something worth recapturing here, after all.

For starters, let us consider today the oft-quoted psalm, which bespeaks, at the very least, the dignity of humankind in the economy of God's creation:

"What are mere mortals that you should think about them,
human beings that you should care for them?
Yet you made them only a little lower than God
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You gave them charge of everything you made,

putting all things under their authority . . . ." (Ps. 8:4-6)

In his typically reasonable fashion, Calvin comments on this passage: "[God's] glory is beheld in a special manner, in the great favor which he bears to men, and in the goodness which he manifests towards them." He goes on to ground this exaltation of man in the fact that he was created in the image of God. But to persuade his reader not to get carried away, Calvin quickly advises him to note the psalmist's design here, "which is to enhance, by this comparison, the infinite goodness of God; for it is, indeed, a wonderful thing that the Creator of heaven, whose glory is so surpassingly great as to ravish us with the highest admiration, condescends so far as graciously to take upon him the care of the human race."

Calvin's final admonishment is as good as any: "Whoever, therefore, is not astonished and deeply affected at this miracle, is more than ungrateful and stupid."