The Who Question


By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The who question is surprisingly important.

When René Descartes (1596 –1650) wrote—I think therefore I am—he neglected to talk about the preconditions for his statement, which must have annoyed his parents. Why did he have time to consider the question? Where did he get the words to express the thought? Why did anyone else pay attention? Who is this guy anyway? 

While we might neglect to consider who Descartes was, his role in modern philosophy is undeniably critical in the development of the modern era and, by inference, the postmodern era. The who question is all about identity, something we obsess about. 

For the Christian, the who question is doubly important. Probably the most inconvenient verse in the Bible is this: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27) We only participate in God’s eternal nature and reflect God’s image when we are joined with our spouses. Alone, we sin and perish. In ourselves, we are broken and quickly obsolete. What could be more inconvenient in this narcissistic age that we live in?

This inconvenient verse implies that we cannot answer the who question without considering the family. Because Descartes’ social position—who he was—is a precondition for all that followed, likewise Christian exploration of epistemology and ethics hangs on who God is and who we are together in his image. If Descartes had been an orphaned, penniless drunk in the sixteenth century and thought the same deep thoughts, the modern and postmodern eras may have been nipped in the bud.

Human Rights

For the Christian, the implication of being created in God’ image, setting aside our joint creation for a minute, imparts immense value to the lowest human being. 

Back in the Obama years, I used to ask my kids: How would your life change if the President of the United States set aside the affairs of state every Saturday morning just to play basketball with you? Would you tell your friends? How would they respond? How much more would your life change knowing that the creator of the universe, God makes himself available to you in prayer, anytime,  anywhere because he created and loves you?

This immense value of the human being arises precisely from God’s immense power. The observation that God created the heavens and the earth means that they belong to him by creative right. God’s social position is second to none. Because God values human beings, their life has intrinsic value—value that does not change with circumstances—and that value is enormous. The concept of human rights arises from the intrinsic value of being created in the image of God—a tiny fraction of infinity is still infinite.


Our joint creation with our spouses in the image of God is the root of gender equality. We cannot participate in God’s eternal nature without our spouses. The blessing that follows—“Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28)—is not a random act of kindness. It allows human beings to participate jointly in God’s eternal nature. This blessing is lost if we remain alone or pair up with anyone other than our spouse or try to compete with our spouses as if equality were equated with sameness.


Being created in the image of God implies that we want to be like God. What is God first act of creation after creating the heavens and the earth?  The Bible reads: “And God said, a Let there be light, and there was light.” (Gen 1:3) Then, God declares the light to be good.  Goodness and light are equated as God begins by creating a moral universe. Imitating God implies that we should want to be moral, just like God. 

Being created in the image of God accordingly implies a moral mandate even before human beings are created. The who question and the primacy of relationships dominates the discussion even before the advent of sin, the introduction of community, and the giving of the law, but morality itself requires thinking and volition—you have to want to be good. God does not discount feelings and relationships, but feelings and thinking are inseparable. 

Heart and Mind

Hebrew anthropology (the theory of human beings) refuses to separate feelings and thinking. Heart and mind are inseparable. Greek anthropology separates the two, vacillating between giving priority to one or the other. Because Greek anthropology dominates the modern era (think about the division of labor among professionals), it is hard for modern people to understand Biblical writing—when Jesus talks about the heart, he means the whole person, not just the organ pumping blood or mere feelings. 

Sin and the Sacred History

Sin is hardwired into the human psyche. Original sin arises whenever you have two babies sharing one toy. No one is innocent, which is why Christ was unique.

Moses anticipated the course of human development in Deuteronomy 30:1-3. You (plural) will sin; be enslaved; and cry out to the Lord. God will send you a deliverer and restore your fortunes (Brueggemann 2016, 59). This framework outlines biblical history and with it the rise and fall of nations. The implication for postmoderns is that cultural progress—however defined—is temporary.

The question posed by scripture when we witness sin and societal decay, are we in the community of faith going to pray for sinners like Abraham witnessing Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18) or run away from our prophet duty like the Prophet Jonah (Jon 1)? Like Abraham and Jonah, we have been told in the Book of Revelation (Rev 20) that destruction of sinners is coming. How will we respond?

Return to Christian Spirituality

Anthropology is an important component of Christian spirituality. A complete spirituality addresses each of the four questions typically posed in philosophy:

1.Metaphysics—who is God?

2.Anthropology—who are we?

3.Epistemology—how do we know?

4.Ethics—what do we do about it? (Kreeft 2007, 6)

My first two books—A Christian Guide to Spirituality and Life in Tension—address the metaphysical question. My third book—Called Along the Way—explores the anthropological question in the first person. My fourth book, Simple Faith, examined the epistemological question. My fifth book, Living in Christ, explored the ethics question. Here in Image and Illumination I return to Christian anthropology from a community perspective.

I thought that I was done with Christian spirituality as a writer, but anthropology is at the heart of many of today’s deepest divisions and I have been repeatedly nudged for the past two years to write about it. It affects the other three components of our spirituality—metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics—so profoundly that skipping over a formal treatment leaves the other components wounded. So here we sit wounded as individuals and as a church.

Again, I take up a subject, not out of expertise, but out of obligation. Each of us must answer the who question, whether thoughtfully or not so thoughtfully. Please accept my reflections on Christian anthropology with ample grace.

Soli Deo Gloria.


Brueggemann, Walter. 2016. Money and Possessions. Interpretation series. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Kreeft, Peter. 2007. The Philosophy of Jesus. South Bend, IN: Saint Augustine Press.

The Who Question

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Preface to a Life in Tension

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Christian Distinctives

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the most important roles that Christian leaders play is distinguishing orthodox Christian beliefs from beliefs from other religions. If our spirituality is practiced theology, then right action follows primarily from right beliefs.

Let me focus on two deviations from orthodox Christian belief. First, why do Christians believe in original sin? Second, why does Christ provide the exclusive path to God’s salvation?

Original Sin

Original sin describes the action of Adam and Eve in breaking God’s command not to eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17; 3:6). As a consequence of this first act of disobedience to God, God cast Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden. A holy God cannot tolerate the presence of unholy human beings.

Ever since, humanity has been tainted by this sin. Because of the doctrine of original sin, Christians are seldom surprised by sinful behavior and the existence of evil and considerable effort has been made over time to promote moral behavior, avoiding sin and embracing godliness.

Recently, some have questioned the doctrine of sin arguing that humanity is basically good and teaching morality is unnecessary because it only induces guilt among those taught.

An important implication of this new teaching is that basically good people have no need of salvation from sin or reconciliation with God. Thus, Jesus cannot have died for our sins, as the New Testament teaches (e.g. 1 Cor 15), and need not have been divine, because no divine intervention was necessary to reconcile us with God. Jesus may be a great teacher or prophet, but is not the son of God.

Thus, original sin, as taught in scripture, is a key to understanding our need for salvation and Christ’s work on the cross to bridge the gap between a holy God and unholy human beings. Unfortunately, those who believe we are basically good cannot be saved because they do not believe salvation is necessary.

The Exclusivity of Christ

Holiness is not the only gap that needs to be bridged between us and God. God creating the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1), which means that God created time and space—attributes of the created universe. Like carpenters must be separated from the book shelve that they built, God stands outside the universe that he created.

Standing apart from the universe is what theologians refer to as transcendence. God’s transcendence implies that we cannot approach God because we are locked inside time and space. Existentially we cannot reach out to God; he must reach out to us. As Christians, we believe that God reached out to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, who is both God and man—a necessary attribute to bridge the existential gap between us and God (Heb 7).

The creation account in Genesis thus eliminates the possibility that the pantheists are correct, that God is in every living and inanimate things, because God stands apart from his creation. Also eliminated is the Jainist notion of multiple paths up the mountain to God—God’s transcendence implies there are not paths up the mountain—God must come down. Christ is also not just another avatar (an incarnation of of Visnu bridging the gap between God and humanity) because his sacrifice on the cross bridged the gap between God and humanity for once and for all—there is no need for God to reach out a second time.

Moving On

Orthodox Christianity grew up in the polytheistic environment of the first century, distinguished itself from many other religions, and thrived to become the one and only truly world religion. Christian leaders today need to understand this history in order to witness in the postmodern world where communication and borders are relatively porous. Fear of other religions stems primarily from ignorance of the strengths of our own faith in Jesus Christ.

Christian Distinctives

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Value Of Life

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Augustine’s Confessions, Part 2—Sin

Augustine’s Confessions, Part 2—Sin

Foley, Michael P. [editor] 2006. Augustine Confessions (Orig Pub 397 AD). 2nd Edition. Translated by F. J. Sheed (1942). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. (Goto Part 1; Goto Part 3; Goto Part 4)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Augustine writes the Confessions in thirteen books where the first nine book talk about his life, book ten talks about his motivations for writing, and the final three chapters reflect on the book of Genesis. In part two of this review, I focus on Augustine’s view of sin.

Memoir and Augustine’s Focus on God

 Memoir is an autobiography with a theme. Augustine’s theme is his call to faith and he begins his memoir with a profession of faith:

“GREAT ART THOU, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Thy power, and of Thy wisdom there is no number. And man desires to praise Thee. He is but a tiny part of all that Though has created. He bears about him his mortality, the evidence of his sinfulness, and the evidence that Thou does resist the proud, yet this tiny part of all that Thou has created desires to praise Thee.” (3)

Augustine is writing in Latin, which is obvious from the translation because of the use of Thou, Thy, and Thee in the English translation, borrowing from the archaic English forms found in Elizabethan English. Sheed comments on the decision to use these forms in translation arguing that they add beauty, express intimacy, and reflect the liturgical character of the Confessions (xi-xii).

Augustine’s Style

Augustine’s theology appears in this introductory paragraph which starts with divine praise, intimacy, power, and immensity, relates death to sin, and references Jesus’ emphasis on humility (e.g. Matt 5:3). The first sentence is also an allusion to the psalms which in a modern translation reads: “For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods” (Ps 96:4 ESV)

Unlike a modern memoir, Augustine does not turn to his own life story until after laying out a significant treatise on his understanding of God. In his seventh section (about six pages later), he finally starts his own story:

“Thus, Lord, I do not remember living this age of my infancy; I must take the word of others about it and can only conjecture how I spent it—even if with a fair amount of certainty—from watching others now in the same stage.” (9)

In this context, we witness a very pious Augustine and get a sense of the liturgical character of this memoir.

Early Sin and Intercessory Prayer

Augustine is frequently associated with the doctrine of original sin, which is obvious when he writes:

“Thus the innocence of children is in the helplessness of their bodies rather than any quality in their minds, I have myself seen a small baby jealous; it was too young to speak, but it was livid with anger as it watched another infant at the breast.” (9)

We used to joke that original sin was two infants given one toy! Still, Augustine does not exempt himself from the influences of sin as he writes about his own infancy.

Augustine’s Youth

Augustine pictures later himself as an initially lazy student who received frequent beatings (10), but we are quickly introduced to a pious Monica, his mother, who seeing her son engaging in self-destructive and sinful behavior resorted to unceasing prayer:

“The mother of my flesh was in heavy anxiety, since with a heart chaste in Your faith she was ever in deep travail for my eternal salvation, and would have proceeded without delay to have me consecrated and wash clean by the Sacrament of salvation…” (12)

Still, it is paradoxical to observe one of the great philosophers of the church saying: “I disliked learning and hated to be forced to it.”(13)


At age sixteen, Augustine found himself beset with sin. A besetting sin is one that you are aware of and pray for relief from, but find yourself addicted to. For Augustine, lust for women posed a besetting sin, as he famously wrote: “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” (152)

Augustine writes that his pagan father, Patricius, and his Christian mother, Monica, reacted differently to his interest in women. Patricius looked forward to having grandchildren (irrespective of their manner of conception), while Monica wanted him to remain chaste until such time as he could establish his career (27-28).

Stolen Peers

In the midst of his discussion of lust, Augustine tells the story of how some of his friends lured him into steeling some peers, writing:

“The peers were beautiful but it was not peers that my empty soul desired. For I had any number of better peers of my own and plucked those only that I might steal.” (31)

The stolen peers became a symbol for his relationship with women and later taking of a mistress, who is never named but gives him a son (56). Fifteen years later he dismisses his mistress so that he might be formally married and finds himself so distressed in her absence while he waits for marriage that he takes another mistress. If this seems odd to modern ears, the editor notes:

“Marriage in the Roman Empire was viewed more as an institution of social promotion, political alliance, and financial stability than an act of love.” (327)


While this may be true, Augustine viewed his immorality as a besetting sin and clearly motivated his later guidance for monks to remain celibate. In some sense, his weakness came to our benefit as the church worked to cleanse itself of pagan attitudes about immorality, which still dog the church today.


Also see:

The Christian Memoir 

Karr Voices Memoir Clearly 

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