Theology 101

A “Hi-Def” View of Human Flourishing in the Bible

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Call me crazy, but I’m not a big fan of super high-definition TVs, especially for films. They lose their fantasy-like quality. But generally, providing more definition to things is helpful, especially for words and ideas that are casually batted around in society, like “flourishing.”

In the past five years or so, the word “flourishing” has become extremely popular, and frankly, over-used. It can mean different things to different people. Few, however, have explored what the Bible has to say about the idea.

In his IFWE article, “A Biblical Theology of Human Flourishing,” theologian Jonathan Pennington provides a “hi-def” picture of what biblical flourishing looks like and explains that it’s actually a core theme in the Bible.

His paper has become one of our favorite research articles here at IFWE. Why? Because if working toward biblical flourishing is part of our calling as believers, then we have to know what the end goal looks like. For our benefit, Pennington has dug deeply into scripture and unearthed a richer, fuller understanding of the idea. While IFWE frequently quotes from his paper on this blog, I am drawing attention to it today to encourage you, if you have not already done so, to read the whole thing.

Pennington describes three “clusters” of ideas surrounding biblical flourishing, as expressed in the Old Testament (in Hebrew) and the New Testament (in Greek):

  1. The first idea is expressed as shālôm/eirēnē/peace. He describes the idea of shalom as “wholeness that results in well-being.” Eirēnē is its companion word in Greek.
  2. The second idea is ʾashrê /makarios/blessedness/happiness. He explains one way this is shown in scripture is by “casting a vision for a way of being in the world that will result in true human flourishing.”
  3. The third idea discussed is tāmîm/teleios/wholeness. Pennington explains that there is some overlap of this idea with shalom, yet he calls it “the means by which and that state wherein a human can experience God-directed and God-blessed flourishing, through wholeness.”

The more Pennington points out the idea of human flourishing throughout scripture, the more you will see how fundamental it is to God’s work in this world.

He explains that human flourishing is integral to God’s work of redemption:

What is unique and what is revelational and authoritative for the Christian is that Holy Scripture understands human flourishing to be a function of God’s redemptive work in the world, the very core of his relation toward his creatures…

and to the establishment of his kingdom:

From beginning to end of Holy Scripture, God is a king who is establishing his perfect heavenly reign on the earth through his chosen people, now those who are in Christ. His kingdom is a time and place of righteousness, that is, the time and place where the world is set to right, both individually and corporately.

Everything about who God is, his work, and his kingdom are centered around the idea of flourishing:

…at its core and in its very essence, God’s saving work, his redemptive activity, his goal for humanity and all creation is precisely this: that we flourish fully even as he himself flourishes perfectly, completely, and with overflowing abundance.

Pennington wraps up his paper with some practical implications for believers, both for their own spiritual lives and also for how they think about society:

  1. If God cares about human flourishing, so must we. And if human flourishing is more expansive than we originally thought, then we must adapt our understanding to the Bible’s definition. He writes:

God is not unconcerned about our well-being and happiness; peace, happiness, blessedness, health, joy, and abundance of life are the consistent message of Scripture and the goal of God’s work. We should cease thinking of spirituality and godliness as something that has nothing to do with human well-being and flourishing, including in a physical, economic, psychological, and relational sense…Seeking social justice, racial equality, economic flourishing, and peace (“Makarios are the peacemakers,” Matthew 5:9) is not an optional part of the Church’s mission nor a minor alleyway. These are practices that testify to the reality of God’s coming reign and are in alignment with what God himself is doing.

  1. How we think about and advance human flourishing must always be centered on the purposes of the Triune God:

Our theological reflections and their practical outworking must be to bring true human flourishing to individuals and society as a whole. This must be motivated, informed, and colored by the reality of God’s coming kingdom, centered on Jesus the Son, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Without this anchoring, the pursuit of human flourishing is not biblical.

  1. There will be differences in how believers understand and flesh out biblical flourishing, yet we all must be about the work of advancing it.

How precisely to go about promoting this human flourishing in society will always be a matter of debate among theologians, pastors, economists, psychologists, and politicians. But whether this is the mission of the Church should never be a question.

And I’ll add one more point:

  1. Perfect flourishing will never be fully achieved until Christ returns, but until then, we can provide people a glimpse of what it looks like.

Whether you’re new to IFWE or an old friend, join me in taking this hi-def dive into the understanding of “human flourishing” in scripture. Rather than the disappointment of seeing a film you love lose its fantasy-like quality, the richer understanding will paint in beautiful colors the heart of what our God cares so much about.

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