Exploring Personhood 2023

Human Formation: A Recap of the Exploring Personhood Conference

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In this year’s Exploring Personhood conference, a wide range of speakers discussed the topic of “Human Formation.” They had many points of agreement as well as some points of disagreement, but hearing all their views was stimulating and has encouraged me to think deeper about many aspects of formation. Two talks, in particular, have lingered in my mind in the weeks following the conference: Dr. Christian Miller’s talk on empirical evidence for spiritual formation, and Dr. Dru Johnson’s talk on the place of scripture in spiritual formation. Here, I would like to offer some reflections on these talks.

If the world constantly seeks to shape and form God’s people to its image, the Church must be intentional in fighting back.

Christian Miller: Empirical Evidence for Spiritual Formation?

Dr. Christian Miller is a philosopher at Wake Forest University specializing in empirical observation of virtue. In his talk, he presented the hypothesis that if what the Bible says about the Holy Spirit’s work in a Christian’s life is true, then on average Christians should have a more virtuous character than non-Christians. After discussing the possible problems with this hypothesis and concluding that it is sound, he then presented the relevant data to test the hypothesis. Studies have found that religious people give more to charitable causes, including secular organizations, than non-religious people. They are also statistically less likely to commit crimes, use drugs, and commit suicide. While this data appears promising for the hypothesis, Miller was quick to point out some necessary cautions in interpreting the data. Namely, the studies merely showed correlation, not all studies agreed with those cited, and all that can be measured is behavior which does not always correlate to character. Thus, he concluded that the evidence suggests that the hypothesis may be true, but more study is necessary to say anything definitive.

Miller’s talk effectively defended his hypothesis and laid the groundwork for further study. To come to any truly meaningful conclusions, studies would likely need to be conducted designed specifically for this purpose rather than relying on the research of others. The studies cited compared “religious” and “non-religious” people while Miller’s research is interested in comparing “regenerate” and “non-regenerate” people. However, such studies would present a rather difficult problem to solve which Miller alluded to in his cautions: we cannot empirically examine a person’s heart. One cannot know in a research setting if someone is regenerate, and one cannot know if someone’s good behavior is the result of virtue or ulterior motives. That being said, Miller’s talk also presents an implicit challenge to all Christians: if a study could be devised to control for these variables, would we skew the data toward or away from the hypothesis? If we are living our lives in step with the Holy Spirit as we ought, there should not be any true difficulty in proving Miller’s hypothesis.

Dru Johnson: Will We Ever Again Bother with Scripture?

Dr. Dru Johnson spoke about the negative ways current devotional practices form believers. In particular, reading Scripture passages only in small chunks isolates them from their immediate context and their place in the whole canon of Scripture. Such reading habits lead people to be biblically illiterate, which precludes them from what Johnson calls “biblical fluency.” This term means being able to not only identify the meaning of a passage in its context and its place in the flow of the canon but follow that flow into our modern context. In contrast to this fluency, many people have a “pidgin” understanding of scripture, meaning they know bits and pieces that they blend with their native culture to produce a shallow and often unbiblical understanding. They then use this pidgin understanding to make theological conclusions leading to a “creolized” theology. That is, rather than knowing God based on what He has said, they know a culturally conditioned version of God communicated in broken scriptural bits and pieces.

Johnson’s proposal is to stop approaching scripture as something to chop up and take in pieces as “God’s word for me today.” Instead, believers should treat it as a tradition and conversation that one enters into as a humble learner. When faced with a particular topic touching our lives today, believers should trace the relevant themes from Genesis to Revelation rather than looking for proof texts to read individually. This approach gives a true picture of what the Bible wants us to understand about reality and thus allows us to apply that knowledge to our modern context.

Johnson excellently identified the problem with where many people are today and describing where they ought to be. However, he gave no workable solution for moving people from point A to point B. Rather than being a criticism, I make this observation to say that scholars and pastors need to do much thinking on how to resolve the issues Johnson presented. One starting place could be to preach in a manner explicitly informed by Biblical theology. If preaching on Jesus’ commands concerning divorce in the Sermon on the Mount, give a brief overview of how Scripture starts in Genesis 2:24 and traces a symbolic marital picture through the Law, Prophets, Writings, Gospels, and Epistles and ends in Revelation 19-21 with a wedding. Then show how Jesus’ ethical commands are given in this context and discuss how this affects how we apply them today.


Overall, this conference brought much-needed attention to the issue of human formation. If the world constantly seeks to shape and form God’s people to its image, the Church must be intentional in fighting back. We must employ every legitimate tool at our disposal to bring our people to the life-changing knowledge God has given us in Scripture. Only then can they be transformed into the image of Christ to the Glory of God. Perhaps then, Miller’s hypothesis will be so apparent empirical data will be unnecessary.

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  • Exploring Personhood 2023
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Zach Davenport

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