Our triune God, in all his perfect self-awareness, revealed himself to his servant Moses as “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex. 3:14). This ontological statement has led Christian theologians throughout the history of the church to understand God as the one who is utterly other, pure act and pure being, perfectly simple, always immutable, necessarily transcendent.
But these are all statements of divine identity, and the questions of human identity are still unanswered. God’s self-awareness does not seem to guarantee our own, as we are left trying to identify ourselves. In our age of authenticity, we are consistently told “you are who you are,” though it is remains unclear what this means. Conversations about human identity continue across many spheres, whether theological or scientific or political. In all such conversations, Ryan Peterson, assistant professor of theology at Biola University, believes that, “For Christians, our identity-language needs to be disciplined by theological realities because we belong to God—God has made us who we are and has given us our deepest associations.”
Theological Anthropology and the Doctrine of Creation
That is why, in the fall of 2018, Peterson is eager to join other Christian scholars as a Resident Fellow at the Henry Center for this third year of the Creation Project. He is a firm believer the importance of the doctrine of creation within Christian theology, as he writes:
The doctrine of creation provides the context for successful Christian theology in a range of ways. When the biblical authors want to communicate the largest context in which we should understand God, ourselves, and the identity of Jesus Christ, we are continually brought back to creation.
More specifically, Peterson believes that the doctrine of creation is necessary for a right understanding of theological anthropology. One cannot hope to give a Christian answer to the questions of human identity apart from an informed doctrine of creation. As Peterson puts it, “The doctrine of creation is critical for understanding ourselves. It helps us explain why God made us the way he did, what our limitations are, why we need what we need, what sin is and why it is destructive, and what God is restoring in our redemption.”
Ryan Peterson is no stranger to this conversation, as much of his research has been focused on theological anthropology. He writes:
I became interested in theological anthropology specifically because many of the pressing questions in our day have to do with the human person. What is humanity’s purpose in the world? Why does human life take the form it does? Why is there death and destruction? What defines a life well-lived?
Such looming questions are necessarily theological ones, having to do with the relationship between the Creator and his creatures. However, these questions are not merely theological ones, as they also concern issues that are frequently takenI hope my project will shed light on the ways that psychology and the natural sciences can be utilized in theological anthropology and the ways that theological anthropology can offer guidance for Christian interpretation of such scientific research. up by modern science. Peterson is aware of this reality as he approaches his project, “Human Identity in Theological Anthropology.” He writes, “I hope my project will shed light on the ways that psychology and the natural sciences can be utilized in theological anthropology and the ways that theological anthropology can offer guidance for Christian interpretation of such scientific research.”
Theologians who are looking for Christian answers to the questions of human identity have much to learn from modern science, even as they offer their own contribution to the conversation that transcends disciplinary boundaries. That is why Peterson hopes to “offer a scientifically-informed theological account of human identity that can be used to navigate these issues wisely.”
Peterson has already practiced collaboration across disciplines, as he is currently co-authoring a book with an Old Testament scholar. He admits that such cross-disciplinary work presents certain challenges, as each discipline develops its own literature, style of argumentation, and criteria for excellence. However, he remains hopeful for such endeavors, because, “these particular disciplinary distinctions are artificial; Christian theologians have always been students of Scripture. Christian theology and Christian Old Testament scholarship should be complementary projects.” While it might be more obvious for a theologian to say this about Old Testament scholarship, perhaps the same could be said about shared work between theologians and scientists who are seeking answers to questions of human identity. In some ways, it seems that Peterson’s project this coming fall at the Henry Center will demonstrate the possibility of this collaborative work.
The imago Dei and Human Identity
Peterson’s previous research has specifically focused on the imago Dei as it relates to human identity. He claims, “My research led me to the conclusion that the imago Dei is humanity’s identity in creation.” Much of this research came to fruition in his book, The Imago Dei as Human Identity (Eisenbrauns, 2016). Since then, he has been turning his attention to the human side of identity-formation.The Resident Fellowship at the Henry Center provides a great opportunity for Peterson and his project, as he brings his expertise to bear on questions of human identity in this year which will focus on theological anthropology. In his current and coming research, he is asking, “How do we come to understand and embrace our creational identity? How does this process interface with the other features of personal identity-formation?”
It is answers to these and other questions that Ryan Peterson will be searching for during his participation in the Creation Project. A native of Chicago, he and his wife are excited to bring their children back to experience life here in the Midwest, though he admits they will happily return to California as soon as winter comes. The Resident Fellowship at the Henry Center provides a great opportunity for Peterson and his project, as he brings his expertise to bear on questions of human identity in this year which will focus on theological anthropology.
Peterson writes, “Humanity’s identity and telos are bound up with one another, as Jesus Christ establishes and fulfills human identity.” God’s self-identification in Exodus 3 does not end with a claim of transcendence. He further reveals to Moses that he is “The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob” (Ex. 3:15). The God who is utterly other is the same God who has narratively bound himself to his people, such that his story is forever united with theirs. This union has its ultimate expression in the incarnation of God in Christ, as the one in whose image we are all created comes to be found in the likeness of men. It is with this robust and Christological understanding of the imago Dei that Ryan Peterson will come to the Henry Center to seek yet more answers.
2018–19 Henry Resident Fellows
2018–19 Henry Fellows Announced | Learn More
James Hoffmeier, “Why We Believe in Creation & Evolution: A Discussion between an Evolutionary Biologist & an Old Testament Scholar” | Learn More
Fred Sanders, “The Doctrine of Humanity in Systematic Perspective” | Learn More
Dru Johnson, “Man Made: If Biblical Texts Could Speak to Modern Origins Stories” | Learn More
Ryan Peterson, “Human Identity in Theological Anthropology”
Mary VandenBerg, “Retrieving a Substantialist Understanding of the Image of God” | Learn More
Ralph Stearley, “Assessing Evidences for Cognitive Capacities in Ancient Hominins, with Reference to their Perception of God” | Learn More
Joshua Farris, “The Soul of Science and Religion: Theological Anthropology, Substance Dualism, and Origins” | Learn More