Virtually every action of our lives is an attempt to answer the question, “Who am I?” You often hear people say things like “Know yourself,” “Be yourself,” or “Stay true to yourself.” These pithy sayings are, as Tim Keller has noted, “self-evident truths” in our society. Questioning them is tantamount to questioning the air we breathe. All of us, regardless of spiritual background, have been enculturated with a focus on the self, leading (unsurprisingly) to angst about ourselves.
“Identity” language is the heart language of our culture. If the church wants to be effective, we must become fluent in talking about identity and the gospel. That is why two new books, Known By God: A Biblical Theology of Personal Identity by Brian Rosner and Who God Says You Are: A Christian Understanding of Identity by Klyne Snodgrass, are so important.
Rosner, principal of Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia, attempts to evaluate personal identity through the paradigm of what it means to be known by God. Snodgrass, professor emeritus of New Testament at North Park Theological Seminary, takes a different approach, using the modern category of identity as the starting point for his discussion of what Scripture says on the subject. Both authors want to help the church understand the complexity of personal identity in modern terms through the lens of biblical truth.
Known by God
The opening words of John Calvin’s Institutes articulate well the conundrum of considering the self:
Nearly all wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves.
Can you think rightly about yourself without first thinking about God? Can you rightly think about God without first thinking about yourself? Rosner and Snodgrass, when taken together, represent both sides of the equation. For Rosner, the most significant question in understanding personal identity is not “Who am I?” but “Whose am I?” (137).
This one turn of phrase might be the most significant turn of thought we could ever make. But since many of us haven’t made that turn of thought, we inhabit constructed identities rather than received identities. And these constructed identities contribute to the “Elusive Self.” Rosner writes:
Living our lives in the separate compartments of home, work, and leisure can produce superficial relationships and problems for genuine self-knowledge. Multiple careers and marital breakdown can lead to confusion about some of the most basic answers to the questions of who you are, namely your occupation and marital status. (25)
Our culture responds to this dislocation by telling us look inside, rather than outside, to construct our identities (think Disney’s Moana). But as Keller has often pointed out, we need someone from the outside to name us and give us the sense of worth we inherently crave. Rosner draws out the significance of naming as a biblical-theological theme in Scripture, showing how something as simple as God recording names in “the book of life” has huge importance for one’s received identity:
In biblical thought, names matter, especially the names of people who are known by God. . . . Our names matter to God. And the fact that our names are in God’s book of life gives our otherwise fleeting lives a reassuring permanence. (103–04)
We all deeply want to matter and to last. Being known and named by God gives our identity lasting significance. This is the secret to a stable, lasting, and significant identity. The alternative is to be lost in obscurity forever.
Your Fractured Self
Snodgrass, picking up the other side of Calvin’s conundrum, opens by writing, “There is only one question: Who are you? Everything else in life flows from that one question” (1). This is a strong emphasis throughout, and from a certain vantage point, it’s true. One of the weaknesses of Rosner’s book is that at times it gets bogged down with exegesis explaining various aspects of who God is, making it difficult to see the direct implication for who we are. Snodgrass, however, organizes the bulk of his book around individual identity markers.
Snodgrass consistently acknowledges the “already but not yet” nature of the Bible’s teaching on Christian identity. Many sentiments like “You just need to find your identity in Christ” or “You are who God says you are,” while true, are often akin to Christian self-help, borrowing from the power of positive thinking. Simply saying “X is who I am” doesn’t make it operative. It may now be true positionally, but not yet practically.
Snodgrass balances well our identities’ fallen and fractured nature with their redeemed and transformed nature (22, 26, 46, 92, 119, 143, 172–73). He explains how “the destructive fragmentation and fracture we know in our relations and in ourselves are the direct result of sin. . . . The very part of us organizing, valuing, and interpreting life is already disoriented by sin” (26).
Gospel and Identity
Both books helpfully provide entry points to thinking about identity. The evangelical church may use the word “identity” in common parlance, but in most cases we have little grasp of the complexity of human identity. This has often led to a lack of empathy, or an unfettered openness, when it comes to issues like homosexuality or gender dysphoria. These books, then, do two things for us: (1) they orient us to the vocabulary and complexity of the self, so we are more compassionate, and (2) they help us see the fallout of the constructed self, so we understand the need for the received self that can only come from God.
One thing that both books could’ve discussed more deeply, and that needs to be teased out more in our pulpits, is the relationship between sin fracturing our identity and Christ restoring our identity. If I know God says I’m more than my fallen sexual proclivities, or body image, or disability (for instance), but I perceive that my life is incongruent with that received identity, then God’s vision for my life becomes another oppressive “law” to me—despite knowing that Jesus died to save me. We need to explain how the gospel makes us different, rather than merely stating that it makes us different.
As long as postmodernism reigns as the dominant philosophical framework in our pluralistic society, we will continue asking the question “Who am I?” I’m so thankful for the arrival of these thoroughly biblical, yet relatively accessible, treatments of identity. We’re going to need many more books, sermons, conversations, and conferences to continue this work if we are to see the gospel gain increasing traction in this brave new world.
Brian Rosner. Known by God: A Biblical Theology of Personal Identity. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017. 272 pp. $29.99.
Klyne Snodgrass. Who God Says You Are: A Christian Understanding of Identity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018. 240 pp. $24.