Science validates what many know by experience– the college years are a time of self-discovery and personal formation.1 While peers, families of origin, socio-economic levels, and general life experiences significantly shape human personality, one cannot dismiss the role educators play in students’ personal development. College professors and counselors often help students discern their identities through self-assessment tools. My own university utilizes the excellent PathwayU inventory, a scientifically validated instrument designed to help students discern careers that match their personality. Other institutions utilize the Myers-Briggs personality test or the popular MBTI assessment. All these instruments help students discern who they are and how they can find themselves in the world. However, as Christian colleges and universities, might we offer a perspective on personal formation that no scientific instrument could reveal? I would like to suggest that Christian campuses include redemptive history in their efforts to help students discover their personality.
Great efforts have been made by the likes of N. T. Wright, Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, and Albert M. Wolters to view Scripture holistically as one grand narrative broken into various stages or time periods (like acts in a play). Sometimes referred to as covenant theology, redemptive history is an approach to Scripture that sees God unfolding his plans and purposes in various stages throughout human history all culminating in the person and work of Christ. Important to this view is that we, right now, are still in God’s timeline of redemptive history. In particular, all those involved in collegiate life are on this spectrum of history and finding ourselves within it is critical to discovering who we are. While scholars describe these stages in various ways, for simplicity’s sake, we may define them as creation, fall, redemption, and glorification.
Redemptive history begins with God’s design in creation. Scripture speaks plainly that human beings are created by God in his divine image (Gen. 1:26-27; 9:6). This includes a person’s body as well as soul/spirit. As I argue elsewhere, it is within the human spirit that one’s personality is found.2 God has created human beings how he desires (personality and all), and such creation is very good (Gen. 1:31). God made introverts as well as extroverts, the talkative and the quiet, the funny and the serious, and more. These personality traits are in us by God’s design, and while society may value certain personality types more than others, in God’s eyes they all were created very good (Gen. 1:31).
Unfortunately, God’s design is corrupted by sin (Gen. 3) which marks the second stage of redemptive history (called here the fall). While human personality was designed very good, it (with the rest of creation) became tainted by sin. Thus, those created with introversion, for example, have their introversion tainted making it difficult to navigate around others or find close, meaningful relationships. It is not that introversion itself is a byproduct of the fall (for it was by God’s design). Rather, the true self inherited corruption leading to a distortion of the good introverted design. Similarly, the extrovert, affected by sin, can be viewed as domineering and exclusionary. The diligent and task oriented have been affected by sin, leading some to become workaholics. Those who are naturally friendly are so by design; however, sin can lead them to become people-pleasers, ready to do anything to be accepted. On the list goes. Fortunately, the second stage is followed by the third.
The third act of redemptive history is here called redemption. This refers to the work of Jesus to overcome the effects of sin and establish his kingdom on the earth. Through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, those who place faith in Christ await final salvation but experience here and now freedom from sin’s tyranny. Thus, salvation is more than just going to heaven when we die. It is a triumph over sin here and now. While human personality has been marred by sin, it is liberated in the glorified Christ. Those who are in Christ do not receive a new personality but a renewed personality. While this process of renewal (sanctification) is ongoing, the believer can experience here and now the personality God designed.
The final act in redemptive history is glorification. Here, creation will be renewed and sin no more. Contrary to modern notions where the earth will be annihilated at the return of Christ, Christian scholarship in recent years has (rightly in my opinion) viewed the eschaton as a time of renewal.3 This is not a return to the original design (which was corruptible) but a renewed design liberated once-for-all from sin’s vices as Christ returns in glory. Important at this juncture is that people do not receive a new personality but a renewed personality. The introvert will remain an introvert, the extrovert will remain an extrovert, the funny will remain funny, and the reflective will remain reflective all with one major difference – sin has no hold anymore.
Implications for Christian Campuses
The diversity within human individuality reflects the infinite creativity of the Triune God. It is worthy of exploration and development. University campuses attract people from across the world. There, students often experience people groups and identities previously unknown. During that time, students try to navigate their own pathways and discern who they are in the plethora of personalities. Christian educators and counselors can offer more than personality assessments. They can help students understand their personality within God’s plans in redemptive history.
Through redemptive history, Christian campuses can affirm that a student’s personality was divinely given. Personality tests can help reveal a student’s innate qualities, but they cannot show that such traits were divinely bestowed. As I argue that personalities are divinely given, I do not wish to deny the overwhelming body of evidence that suggests heredity and environment shape who we are. Rather, I argue that heredity and environment are not coincidental acts but the providential workings of God. God uses family, society, life experience, and more to shape providentially a person to be as he wants, leading to personalities as diverse as the families and experiences around them.4 After initial exploration of the students’ personality, we can affirm that their personality is a gift from God. While we often feel uncomfortable with who we are, we can take confidence that we are not who we are by accident. We are who God made us to be.
Even still, that design has experienced the damaging effects of sin. Thus, we cannot excuse our negative personality traits with flippant quips like, “That’s just how God made me.” God did make us; however, sin has marred that design (even in our personalities). Fortunately, Jesus has come to save through his death, burial, and resurrection. Those who belong to him by faith receive the Holy Spirit and live within a resurrected life. While they always possessed their original identities, the damaging effects of sin no longer reign. As campus leaders, we can point our students to Christ as the way to authentic selfhood. Through Christ, we can be who we were truly meant to be. We also can remind our students that, as we live between acts 3 and 4, we can have confidence that the renewal that began at conversion will be perfected (though organic and developing) in the last stage of redemptive history. In glory, we will be who we were truly meant to be, and that can only be through the person and work of Christ. This approach is something Christian campuses can uniquely offer and something no personality inventory can tell.
Finally, I would like to suggest cross-disciplinary teaching and personal advising as steps towards implementation. At my own university, I (in the Christian Studies department) am invited to lecture in our Psychology of Personality course on this topic. There, I share how our personalities are created, distorted, redeemed, and will some day be glorified. Students are invited to discover how their personalities reflect God’s good design as well as how sin has affected it. They are then invited to explore how Christ redeems their personalities from such sin. Additionally, freshmen orientation seminars, new-student orientations, and career counseling workshops are excellent opportunities for faculty and career counselors to review redemptive history broadly. When coupled with a time of personal mentorship (by fellow students, professors, or counselors), students can gain a better understanding of who they are, why they are who they are, whose they are, and how they can become fully who they are meant to be.
- Madelynn D. Shell, David Shears, and Zoe Millard, “Who Am I? Identity Development During the First Year of College” in Psy Chi Journal of Psychological Research, 25.2, 2020, 192-202.
- Daniel Kirkpatrick, “Toward a Constructed Theology of Personality: Human Personality Explored in Light of Redemption History” in The Evangelical Review of Theology & Politics, vol. 9, 2021, 55-69.
- N. T. Wright, “Farewell to the Rapture” in Bible Review 17.4 (2001), 8.
- Kirkpatrick, “Toward a Constructed Theology of Personality,” 60-61.
“In glory, we will be who we were truly meant to be, and that can only be through the person and work of Christ. This approach is something Christian campuses can uniquely offer and something no personality inventory can tell.”
As I can share from my own experience teaching on a Christian campus, this can be a process of self discovery not only for students who are believers but also for two other groups within a Christian campus community: unbelieving students whom the Lord brings into the community to begin that redemptive work, and faculty and staff who work with such students and come to a better understanding, sometimes a transformative one (in my case) of their role in God’s work of redemption.
Many thanks for your post, Gordon. You are certainly correct. Unbelieving students (and those who work with them) also come into a better understanding of who they are and whose they are through such a process, and for Christian campuses that process is not complete until we point them to Christ.
This quote from C.S. Lewis has been very meaningful to me as we discuss human personality:
“There are no real personalities anywhere else (apart from God). Until you have given up your self to Him you will not have a real self. Sameness is to be found most among the most ‘natural’ men, not among those who surrender to Christ. How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints.” ~ C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.
What a brilliant mind he had! Thank you for responding, Daniel. Your article also caused me to ponder what mission and vision any Christian university or college ought to have, particularly those with a proportion of unbelievers within their communities. Our university has a new vision, but one that I fear is off-focus.