At the intersection of Christian psychology and theology, much has been made in recent decades of our identity in Christ. I am assured that grasping the fact that I am “chosen, holy, and loved by God” (Colossians 3:12) is indispensable to a true view of myself as a Christian. Appropriating my identity in Christ forms the crucial foundation for healthy relationships with others, as well.
Recent cultural analysis of the ancient Mediterranean world might encourage us to wonder, however, just how much persons in the New Testament world wrestled with internalized guilt, and with the concerns about self-worth that characterize people in the developed world today. Is our conviction that a Christian must psychologically appropriate his personal identity in Christ truly as central to biblical theology as it seems from our perspective?
Perhaps it is. Scholars continue to debate the validity of a culturally anomalous “introspective conscience of the West” (to adopt a phrase from the title of Krister Stendahl’s seminal article), and our Christian psychologists may very well be on to something here.
One thing, however, has become quite clear to me as a social historian of Mediterranean antiquity.
When ancient persons reflected on personal identity, they were much more likely to think in terms of the status and honor of their family of origin—their primary reference group—than to become preoccupied with self-feelings as individuals, whether positive or negative.
This is what we see in the pages of ancient literature, at any rate, and it becomes readily apparent in the way that individuals are introduced in the Bible, for example, “Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur” (Exodus 31:2), or “Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh” (Numbers 36:1). When was the last time you met someone new and said, “Hi, I’m [your name here], son of [your father’s name here], son of [your grandfather’s name here]”? And then there are all those (“yawn”) genealogies in the Bible.
What is this all about? Why the almost obsessive preoccupation with ancestry and family history in the Bible? The answer is really quite simple.
A person’s identity in the Mediterranean world (= his honor in the broader civic or village community) was directly and inseparably related to his patriline, that is, to who his daddy was.
It is no accident, in this regard, that virtually all the honor inscriptions from the Roman world begin by listing the name of the honorand’s father (e.g., “Gaius, son of Marcus, son of Gaius”)—so utterly determinative was one’s patriline for social status and, by extension, for one’s personal identity and sense of self.
The power of ancestry either to reinforce or potentially to undermine a person’s honor is colorfully illustrated in a verbal exchange that occurred at a critical juncture in Roman history. After the Battle of Philippi in 43 B.C., the Roman world was split into East and West, ruled, respectively, by Mark Antony (of Antony and Cleopatra fame) and Octavian (later the emperor Augustus). Neither general was satisfied with his half of the pie, so a war of words began, which would later issue in an actual battle that Octavian won, at Actium in 30 B.C. At the height of the rhetoric, as slander and accusations flew back and forth, Antony started a rumor that Octavian’s great-grandfather was “a freedman and a rope-maker from the country about Thurii.”
So what? What could the status of Octavian’s great-grandfather possibly have to do with Roman geo-political realities unfolding more than half-a-century later? Well, a whole lot from the perspective of ancient social sensibilities. For if Antony could make the slander stick and convince the public that Octavian had, in fact, descended from a freed slave (even three generations removed!), Antony would thereby (a) indelibly taint Octavian’s patriline, (b) undermine his adversary’s honor, and (c) place Octavian’s personal identity and sense of self in serious jeopardy.
Now let’s import this cultural background into our understanding of the doctrine of adoption and reflect for a moment upon the honor and status we possess as Christians. Is it any wonder, given this background, that Paul gets so excited about the fact that we are children of God? I mean, think about it: who’s your Daddy?
In 4 A.D., Augustus adopted Tiberius into the Julio-Claudian family. In a single moment Tiberius gained imperial status and went on to become Rome’s second emperor. When you became a follower of Jesus (insert date here!), something much more profound happened. The God of the universe himself (no mere earthly potentate) adopted you into his family. In a single moment you gained royal honor and status, the likes of which you can only dream of this side of eternity, but the reality of which is absolutely settled in the heavenlies right now, while you’re reading this post!
So, when you begin to have feelings of self-doubt or low self-worth, remember who your Daddy is. Everything you are rests securely on everything He is. And He is the same yesterday, today, and forever.