This is an abridged, edited, and footnoted version of a 40-minute message I preached at Tbilisi International Christian Fellowship on September 12, 2021. Annotating a message like this allows me to share some of the deeper theological structure that wouldn’t be helpful to share with one’s congregation during a Sunday message. You can listen to the audio recording of the original message here.
Psalm 8 (NIV)
For the director of music. According to gittith. A psalm of David.
¹ Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory
in the heavens.
² Through the praise of children and infants
you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.
³ When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
⁴ what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
⁵ You have made them a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honor.
⁶ You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet:
⁷ all flocks and herds,
and the animals of the wild,
⁸ the birds in the sky,
and the fish in the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas.
⁹ Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
Psalm 8 is the first true praise psalm: an awestruck celebration of the majesty of God. It begins and ends with the exclamation, “LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”¹ Yet, surprisingly, the heart of this psalm is a celebration of the amazing dignity we have as human beings. That challenges a lot of assumptions that we have about worship, doesn’t it? Of course, worship involves exalting God for who he is in himself. But are we praising him for our own significance as human beings?
You might be worried that this kind of worship would threaten God’s glory. But it’s not a zero-sum game, as if there’s only so much glory to go around. His glory is not a scarce resource: it’s infinite. Our “crown of glory and honour” in no way diminishes God.² In fact, he bestows his own glory on us so that it radiates outwards to creation and ascends back up to him in worship and praise.
Psalm 8 reminds us that God loves human beings. This psalm could be described as the foundation of Christian humanism, a joyful celebration of the gift of personhood that God has given us. This psalm is filled with optimism at human potential under God’s grace.
Christian humanism, I say — not to be confused with secular humanism, which argues that God is dead and belief in him is no longer tenable in our modern age. In the Humanist Manifesto II, written in 1973, the writers argue, “Traditional theism, especially faith in the prayer-hearing God assumed to live and care for persons, to hear and understand their prayers and to be able to do something about them, this is an outmoded and unimproved faith. Reasonable minds look to other means for survival.”³ Human beings must grow up and step into the centre of reality once occupied by a God we can no longer believe in.
I’m not trying to baptise this secular humanism and claim it for Christ. I’m talking about a much older Christian humanism that goes back to the Renaissance, that goes back to the early church — back, in fact, to Scripture.⁴ Christian humanism teaches that human beings are an awesome expression of the creative power of God. Like David in Psalm 139, we look at ourselves and exclaim, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”⁵ We should thank God for the gift of our significance.
Of course, there are many reasons for believing that human beings are beneath God’s notice, never more than when we stare up at the night stars and are overwhelmed by the vastness of the universe. But David’s reaction to the grandeur of the cosmos is the opposite of what we’d expect. He looks up at the constellations and he is overwhelmed by humanity’s significance. “What is mankind that you are mindful of them,” he asks in verse 4, “human beings that you care for them?” “How amazing,” David thinks, “that out of all these marvels, it is us human beings that God cares about.” We matter to God!
God’s universe is anthropocentric. He has designed the cosmos to circle the human race.⁶ All the swirling marvels of God’s universe are the backdrop for the great drama of the creation and the fall and the salvation and the glorification of the divine image-bearers. Because we’re not just slime that crawled out of the primordial sea. We may come from the dust, but God has breathed his breath into our nostrils and set us on our feet.⁷
I’m afraid some Christians are so consumed with our sinfulness and depravity that they forget that we’re good beings created by a good God, the pinnacle of God’s creation. We’ve been created, male and female, in the image and likeness of God.⁸ Every human being is an icon of God on this earth, a living window onto the divine, representing the Creator wherever we go, bearing his presence and his rule to the rest of creation.
We are all kings and queens in God’s creation. And so Christians insist that every human being is a sacred image-bearer: men and women, the unborn and the elderly, those with Down syndrome, those with schizophrenia, Peruvians, Somalians, Ukrainians, Christians and Muslims, and Hindus and atheists, rich people and poor people, straight people, gay people, transgender people. Every human being without exception possesses human dignity.⁹ Human rights are given to us, not by the state or by social contract, but by our Creator.¹⁰ That means that mistreating people is a desecration of the divine image and an affront to God himself.
Human beings find their dignity and meaning as we orient ourselves around God, and only around God. Notice how the very structure of this Psalm speaks to that: humanity may be at the centre of this Psalm, but we’re bracketed in the first and last verses by the glory of our creator.¹¹ It’s as though we are only ourselves when we’re enclosed by the song of praise that arises to the Eternal One. Ellen Charry writes, “Human dignity enjoys its full stature within the grandeur of divine majesty.”¹² Worship defines us as human beings, and we are never so noble as when we are on our faces before our Creator.¹³ We are homo liturgicus: man the worshiper.¹⁴ That is where we find our joy, our meaning, and our destiny.
As royal priests our calling is to lead creation in cosmic worship.¹⁵ In verse six, David praises God for making human beings “rulers over the works of your hands. You’ve put everything under their feet.” Our calling as human beings is to exercise dominion.¹⁶ We’ve been given a mandate from God to care for and extend the garden, to conquer the chaos, to bring forth worship from the whole creation. God has blessed us to be a blessing to the rest of creation. Human beings have been given the crown and sceptre to bless the domesticated and the wild animals, the birds of the sky, the fish of the sea. His creation is not an unlimited cupboard of natural resources that we can exploit for our own benefit.¹⁷ We’re called to be gardeners, to tend and care for all of God’s creatures in which he delights, to exercise ecological stewardship, so we can offer the creation back to God for his worship.
Yet a shadow has fallen over us. We are far from God. We are confused about our purpose because our first parents rebelled against their Creator. Adam and Eve reached out to become like gods apart from God, and became alienated from him and their own selves. They were expelled from the garden where an angel now stands with flaming sword. And in the Fall, we were all severely broken and damaged as human beings.
The image is defaced — but not destroyed.¹⁸ We’re not worms.¹⁹ We’re in fact far worse than that. This is the full horror of human sin: we’ve plunged from our high position and we’ve desecrated ourselves. Satan promised us, “If you listen to me, you will be like God.”²⁰ That was a lie that made us lower than the animals. Because freedom from God (as if there is such a thing) always results in the cheapening of human beings.²¹ When human beings cut themselves off from communion with God, we’re severing something within ourselves. “Freedom from God” leaves us alone and afraid in an uncaring universe.
This is the tragedy of human existence. Blaise Pascal described us as a race of deposed kings. He argued that our very wretchedness is evidence of a dim memory of our original happiness; we have a deep unformed longing for a destiny greater than we’re experiencing.²² And yet we are so far from our throne.
The effects of the Fall are not limited to human beings. The whole creation suffers because of human sin. The whole creation groans, the poisoned rivers and polluted skies and dying animals, all cursed by human sin, greed, and selfishness. Romans 8 tells us the whole creation is groaning, subjected to futility, crying out for the sons of God to be revealed, because only in our redemption can the rest of the created order find its purpose.²³ As Charles Cranfield writes, “All the varied chorus of subhuman life created for God’s glory is cheated of its true fulfillment as long as man, the chief actor in the great drama of God’s praise fails to contribute his rational part.”²⁴ We have fallen and we’ve dragged down the rest of creation with us.
But God was not willing to abandon those who bore his image.²⁵ Far beyond the horizons of Psalm 8, God had in mind a glorification of humanity that Israel’s king could not have imagined. Marvellous as it is that we’re created in God’s image, that we reflect his glory, that we bear his presence, in the Incarnation, God has taken humanity to dizzying heights. Because in Jesus, God himself has become a human being. It’s the supreme demonstration of God’s fondness for the human race, the highest glory that human beings could imagine.
Jesus shows us what humanity was meant to be. He is the prototype of what God wants for human beings.²⁶ St. Athanasius described it like this: When the painting has been damaged and defaced, the only way to repair it is to have the subject come and sit again for a new painting. Jesus has arrived as the second Adam to sit as the model for a new portrait of humanity.²⁷ And we’re all destined to bear the image of the man from heaven.²⁸
Jesus fully entered into the human condition: he assumed fallen, desecrated, damaged humanity. He took the curse and bore the shame so that we might receive glory and honour. He went through the grave to absorb and destroy death. And now the risen, glorified, exalted Son of Man sits at the right hand of God. There is a human being reigning over the cosmos today! He wields in his hands an iron sceptre, and he is destroying all that resists God and damages his beloved creatures.
For better or for worse, creation’s fate is chained to our own. Now it’s suffering because of our sin. But the only hope for this world comes from the human race: from Jesus and his brothers and sisters. And when the sons of God are unveiled, creation can finally sing its true song.
We should all sit up a little straighter. We are God’s new humanity!²⁹ All of us are very much in process, of course, but by the Holy Spirit we’re being made more and more like the Christ we worship.³⁰ He has taken up the lost and forfeited destiny of humanity, and has blazed the way for us to experience our true purpose as image-bearers, as those who are destined to judge angels, to reign over the new creation, and to praise God forever.
Like every single human being, we must choose to listen to one of two voices. There is of course the whisper of the serpent, suggesting to us that we will be like God. But if we separate ourselves from God, who is the source of all life and joy and meaning, the end of that can only be cynicism and despair. But Jesus Christ is also standing in our midst, saying to each of us, “Find your true self in me! If you are willing to sacrifice your false self, the one you’ve constructed for yourself apart from God, you will find your true self in me. I and I alone can and will restore your purpose, will give you back your lost dignity. I came that you might have life, and have it to the full. Surrender yourself to me, and I will give you back a selfhood you cannot imagine.”³¹
God is the greatest humanist there is. God loves humanity. He loves you. And he wants you to find your meaning, your purpose, your destiny, your dignity, and your worth in Jesus, and in him alone, to the praise and glory of God.
- Ps 8:1,9 (NIV).
- Kathryn Tanner describes the relation between the gift-giving God and his creatures as “non-competitive”. Among other things, this means that “the glorification of God does not come at the expense of creatures.” Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity: A Brief Systematic Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), 2.
- American Humanist Association, Humanist Manifesto II (1973) https://americanhumanist.org/what-is-humanism/manifesto2/
- Angus Ritchie and Nick Spencer, The Case for Christian Humanism: Why Christians Should Believe in Humanism, and Humanists in Christianity (London: Theos, 2014), 15–17.
- Ps 139:14.
- Lynn White famously blamed Christian anthropocentrism for contempt for the environment. See “The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis”, Science 155 (1967), 1205. But as I will suggest, humans are exalted precisely in order to care for creation. This too is a non-competitive relation.
- Gen 2:7.
- Gen 1:27.
- Since every human being is from God and unto God, Robert Spaemann argued, “no one is allowed to decide whether or not another human being bears the fundamental features of personhood. Human rights depend on the fact that no one is authorized to define the circle of those who are entitled to them and those who aren’t.” “Human Nature” in Essays in Anthropology: Variations on a Theme, trans. Guido de Graaff and James Mumford (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2010), 22.
- “The ultimate source of human rights is not found in the mere will of human beings, in the reality of the State, in public powers, but in man himself and in God his Creator.” Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2004).
- “To focus on the boundaries of Psalm 8 without an awareness of the center is escapist; human beings do have a central role in the created order. The greater danger, however, is that we focus on the center without an awareness of the boundaries. To put human dominion at the center of things without the context of God’s sovereignty is positively dangerous.” J. C. McCann, Jr., A Theological Introduction to the Book of Psalms: The Psalms as Torah (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993), 59.
- Ellen Charry, Psalms 1–50, BTCB (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2015), 43.
- Irenaeus is often misquoted (including in the evangelical bestseller Wild at Heart) as having said, “the glory of God is a man fully alive,” as though he was affirming expressive individualism. What he actually wrote was: “For the glory of God is the living man, and the life of man is the vision of God.” St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies IV.20.7, in Irenaeus of Lyons, The Early Church Fathers, trans. Robert M. Grant (London: Routledge, 1996), 116.
- James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 39–73.
- John Zizioulas, “Man the Priest of Creation,” in Living Orthodoxy in the Modern World, ed. A. Walker and C. Carras (London: SPCK, 1996), 178–88.
- “Where the power to rule is, there is the image of God.” St. Basil the Great, On the Human Condition, PPS, trans. Nonna Verna Harrison (New York: St. Vladimir’s Press, 2005), 37.
- In the fallow laws of Ex 23:10–12 and Lev 25:4–7, God enjoined “restrained production and moderate consumption” because “the land is mine” (Lev 25:23). See Sandra L. Richter, Stewards of Eden: What Scripture Says About the Environment and Why It Matters (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020), 22–24.
- God’s sentence of capital punishment for murder in Genesis 9:6 is grounded in the divine image human beings are still assumed to bear.
- As Isaac Watts famously described himself in his 1707 hymn, “Alas! and did my Saviour bleed.” This is the fruit of earlier Puritan exhortations to cultivate self-loathing to prepare oneself for conversion. Such emphasis on human depravity can easily became unmoored from the doctrine of creation and the divine blessing of human existence. Of course, a sober doctrine of original sin is needed to temper the obsessive pursuit of self-esteem in Western culture. But “the popular idea that Christianity says ‘human nature’ is inherently bad is actually the opposite of what the earliest Christian theologians believed.” Verna E. F. Harrison, God’s Many-Splendored Image: Theological Anthropology for Christian Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 5.
- As he deceptively promised Eve in Genesis 3:5.
- Olivier Clément, On Human Being: A Spiritual Anthropology (New York: New City Press, 2000), 17.
- “Man’s greatness is so obvious that it is drawn from his very wretchedness… For who can be wretched at not being a king except a dethroned king?” Blaise Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings, Oxford World Classics, ed. Anthony Levi, trans. Honor Levi (Oxford: OUP, 1995), 37.
- Rom 8:19–21.
- Charles Cranfield. “Some Observations on Romans 8:19–21”, in Reconciliation and Hope: Essays on Atonement and Eschatology,ed. R. Banks (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 224–230.
- St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, PPS, trans. John Behr (New York: St. Vladimir’s Press, 2011), 55.
- Romans 8:29. The 14th-century Byzantine mystic and theologian St. Nicholas Cabasilas described Christ as the first real human being: “It was not the first Adam who was the model for the new, but the new Adam for the old… the Savior first and alone showed to us the true human being, who is perfect on account of both character and life and in all other respects.” The Life in Christ, 3rd ed, trans. Carmino J. Decatonzaro (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998), 190–91.
- Athanasius, Incarnation, 63–64.
- 1 Cor 15:49.
- Eph 2:15.
- 2 Cor 3:18.
- John 10:10.