The Competing Grounds of Human Dignity

John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology: Volume 2: Virtue and Intellect (T&T Clark, 2015), 30ff.

A sketch of the history of how the notion of human dignity has been annexed to the larger project of free subjectivity cannot be attempted here; but the durability of that tradition (as well as its distance from the gospel) can readily be seen in an early and paradigmatic episode, Pico della Mirandola’s ‘Oration on the Dignity of Man,’ written in 1486 for a public disputation which was suppressed by Innocent VIII, and never published in his lifetime:

At last the best of artisans ordained that the creature to whom he had been able to give nothing proper to himself should have joint possession of whatever had been peculiar to each of the different kinds of being. He therefore took man as a creature of indeterminate nature and, assigning him a place in the middle of the world, addressed him thus:

‘Neither a fixed abode nor a form that is thine alone nor any function peculiar to thyself have we given thee, Adam, to the end that according to thy longing and according to thy judgement thou mayest have and possess what abode, what form, and what functions that thyself shalt desire. The nature of all other beings is limited and constrained within the bounds of laws prescribed by us. Thou, constrained by no limits, in accordance with thine own free will, in whose hand we have placed thee, shalt ordain for thyself the limits of thy nature. We have set thee at the world’s centre that thou mayest from thence more ably observe what is in the world. We have made thee neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that with freedom of choice and with honour, as though the maker and moulder of thyself, thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer. Thou shalt have the power to degenerate into the lower forms of life, which are brutish. Thou shalt have the power, out of thy soul’s judgement, to be reborn into the higher forms, which are divine.’

Notice, first, how radically Pico has reconceived the god who addresses himself to Adam. He is Pater architectus Deus, artifex, optimus opifex — the idiom is that of the producer of a free-standing reality which bears no continuing relation to its maker, and is neither moved nor governed by the maker’s presence and care: creation and providence are reduced to manufacture. Notice, further, how formless is the product of this god’s activity. Adam has ‘nothing proper to himself ’ and is ‘a creature of an indeterminate nature’; what gives shape to his being is not nature but ‘longing’ and ‘judgement’ — only from this do ‘abode,’ ‘form’ and ‘functions’ emerge. Adam is a being without law, that is, without quickening order or shape (for Pico, natural order is ‘limit’ and ‘constraint’). Instead, Adam is characterized by arbitria through which he gives himself shape as ‘the maker and moulder of thyself.’ And it is in all this — in Adam’s existence as ‘Proteus,’ as ‘our chameleon’ with a ‘self-transforming nature’ — that human dignity consists. But in this explication of dignity in terms of self-culture, there is little which from the gospel’s perspective can be considered a contribution to human flourishing, and much which serves to draw creatures from their well-being. What is required is a different account of the natures of God and God’s creatures, and a different teleology. These the gospel furnishes.

Human dignity is the dignity proper to creatures; creatures have their being within the situation and history for which they have been made by God and in which they are to discover and enact their lives. Dignity is not a correlate of human indeterminacy but precisely of our limitation, of the special, life-bestowing form with which we are blessed by God and to whose performance we are summoned.

What Christian theology has to say about human dignity is thus governed by a fundamental rule in theological anthropology: creaturely being is and is available to be known and lived out only within the grace of God’s relation to us. Like their freedom, the dignity of creatures is not a property or power anterior to the creature’s history with God; it is an element of that history, and in that history God is always antecedent. The epistemological corollary of this rule is that, because there is no standpoint which creatures may adopt outside their history with God, knowledge of human dignity does not arise within the self-enclosed circle of human reflection, but in the course of the attention to divine instruction.


I first encountered this quote in Webster’s third lecture in the 2009 Hayward Lecture Series (which I commend).

Lecture 1: God as Creator

Lecture 2: God and Creation

Lecture 3: God and His Creatures

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