To Err Is Human?

      In the aftermath of the errors of our failures, serious or otherwise, there seems to be a common sentiment we tend to give that exposes some of the reasons behind our capital mistakes. Why didn’t I do that? Why did I give in to temptation? Why did I say that? Who hasn’t asked themselves these kinds of questions? Often, people do things that are harmful to others and to themselves. Likewise, people often believe that to be human is to suffer the fate of failure and error. Some of the best of us fail, clergy and laypersons alike. Something that seems to unite us is our belief in the truth of the expression ‘to err is human’; one of many ways we express how imperfect and flawed we are by nature. Of course, the Apostle Paul says something remarkably similar in his letter to the Romans: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23, NRSV).  

      The way I see it there are two main kinds of errors. The less significant failures and errors that happen are what I would call ‘descriptive’ errors. Even the most virtuous people can error in some way, i.e. missing a pop-fly or typing the wrong letter on a keyboard. But, this doesn’t necessarily reflect one’s magnanimity or holiness - I’m not too concerned with this kind. Neither of those instances, or the countless others, are not really morally wrong or depriving. Here, I’m more concerned about what I would call ‘moral’ failures and errors. That is, those which are sinful and which will likely damage or harm our relationships; it’s these kinds which matter the most. Christian ethicists, and philosophers at large, would consider these failures and errors vices - that which is opposite of a virtue and which seriously deprives character formation of the person according to their moral objective and purpose. Another way of putting a vice is, perhaps simply, something that morally keeps you from being who you are meant to be.

      Going back to the expression, I’m curious if the sentiment reflects the best way to think about our moral mistakes as Christians? I’m convinced that we should look more closely at the question: ‘What does it mean to be human?’ in order to carefully consider if the meaning of humanity addresses our moral mistakes. If humans are somehow determined to fail or ‘err’, then the consequence of such a statement might prove dangerous to our theology. If we flippantly throw around the phrase in the aftermath of all failure and error, then there wouldn’t be any critical reflection and consideration concerning our moral errors. This would negatively and critically affect our relationship with God and others, and thus, there would be no genuine growth and moral dimension in our spiritual formation and holiness.

      As a passionate theologian, I can’t help but to address the important question - what might we say about Christ in light of this common expression? If we want to properly address the former question, then the latter question should be our follow up. We must understand humanity with respect to God, not vice versa. The Word assumed full humanity, but certainly we wouldn’t assert that Christ was by nature meant to err morally. Hypothetically speaking, he could have made some ‘descriptive’ mistakes, but again that’s not relevant. I’m asserting that Christ actually taught us how to be fully human, which suggests that we are not fully human and Christ is our example to follow; this is the groundwork for understanding our ‘moral’ errors. Granted, this doesn’t sound extraordinary at first, but let’s explore some basics of Christology, the theological study of the Person of Christ. The Word of God became flesh and we confess that the flesh He assumed was truly and fully human, “who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15, NRSV). Sin is nothing less than a moral reality and it therefore inherently concerns the ethical. In the beginning of the Chalcedonian definition of C.E. 451, the first thing the church understood about the Person of Christ was that he is “the same perfect in Godhead, the same perfect in [humanity].”[1] What does this suggest about how we should understand humanity/human nature?

      First, and primarily, insofar as Jesus was truly human he was human in the way a human ‘ought-to-be’ or meant to be. Otherwise, wouldn’t he have erred in the ‘moral’ sense according to the expression? He would have fallen into temptation while setting no holy example for the human race. He would have been the humanity characterized by his Israelite forebears, who without entrusting themselves to the grace and love of Adonai YHWH they could not be the people who they were created to be. The original purpose of humanity for the Israelites was to dwell with their God, in the land that the Lord provided for them. They were supposed to be holy as God is holy. When we chose fallenness, corruption, unrighteous, and death in our genesis, we became less than the humanity that God envisioned and desired. God created us in God’s image (Gen. 2:4, NRSV) and we were supposed to live into that image, to reflect God’s glory. A mirror is only as good as the amount of light that it is able to reflect. For centuries theologians have used the language of the ‘broken’, ‘cracked’, or ‘fractured’ imago Dei (the image of God) to help understand ourselves in relation to God. Along the same lines, it’s only through Christ, and the Person and power of the Spirit, that the image can be restored and renewed.

      What I’m ultimately trying to assert is that Christ gives us all that is needed for humanity to go from beings ‘as-they-are’ to human beings ‘as-they-ought-to-be’. Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. Morally and theologically speaking, it’s not that ‘to err is human’, but that ‘to err is inhuman’ according to our Christian formation and purpose. That is to say, the misnomer of being called ‘human beings’ is that that we are not already the people God has called us to be, but it is that we are called to be genuinely formed into the humanity that God desires us to be which is revealed in Jesus Christ, the Son. Human nature as-it-is is deprived of the adequate and necessary grace which both renews it and restores it toward its ultimate fulfillment.This essay isn’t about expecting Christians to be flawless, but it does expect Christians to be fully devoted, trusting, and obedient to our God. Christ was tempted, but He didn’t give in; He did not err. He died on the cross, truly losing his life, but he didn’t fail; he was truly raised in victory. Jesus Christ was the glory of God because He was a human person fully alive.  In the early church, Saint Athanasius of Alexandria wrote a significant treatise called On the Incarnation of the Word in which he explains that the Son was sent by the Father to renew the distorted image of his daughters and sons – to fashion from the ruins of their distorted image a renewed one, engraved on the human being.[2] What this means is that at the very core of who we were in the beginning was sketched the chaste and uncorrupted image of our heavenly Father; that is how we were originally created as humans. Our humanity must reflect the “true Light from true Light” in order to glorify God. Another way theologians put this is worship. The Nazarene theologian Dr. Brent Peterson, for example, says that “people are created to worship as God’s invitation to become fully human…” and our response glorifies God because it is “the fulfillment of being created in the image of God.”

      In short, serious error is bound to happen, but it is not determinative of our formation toward sinning less and less as we grow in grace. For in becoming like God through Christ’s holiness, we also become human beings fully alive according to our engraven image and purpose. Holiness encompasses the union between the divine and the human as it is with our Lord. If we want to be humans fully alive we must participate in and embody the work that Christ has done for us and on our behalf as a part of God’s creation.

[1] "Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical notes. Volume II. The History of Creeds." Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Accessed June 14, 2017. Inclusive language and brackets mine; the Gr. anthropos refers to ‘humanity’ as a whole. It’s also important to note that the use of “perfect” is meant as “full” or “fullness.” denoting Christ as wholly and equally both human and divine.

[2] Joseph W. Norris, review of Athanasius, Saint, Patriarch of Alexandria. On the Incarnation of the Word. New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011.


Joey Norris | Joseph W. Norris is currently pursuing an M.A. in Theological Studies at Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO. Nampa, ID is his home and graduated from Northwest Nazarene University in 2014.