Personal Identity: Introduction

November 23, 2017

Personal Identity: Introduction

William L. Peirson

A beautiful aspect of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John’s summaries of the life of Jesus is the way their pages are filled with the stories of nobodies.

Leaving aside the differing dress codes of Jesus’ time and today, the Gospels feature many people we would not glance at twice if they passed us in the street: beggars, sick people, crushed people, anxious people, people concealing their dubious characters and purposefully avoiding public gaze.

Even Jesus’ personally selected and closest followers were not men of distinction. Yet Jesus’ recorded meetings with the insignificant make them appear enlarged as if through an enormous magnifying glass: they assume an identity and importance that even their closest family would never have anticipated.

A single meeting with Jesus transformed the diminutive scoundrel Zacchaeus into a man who became one of the most famous object lessons of history (Luke 19).

How big are the loving arms of God? Is there room for all to possess the same significance we see bestowed on such ordinary people in the gospels?

As Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and its rejection of its loving Saviour, Jesus pictures himself as a hen gathering its tiny and insignificant chicks under broad and gentle wings (Mt 23:37ff). God’s arms are very large indeed.

A few nights ago, I was watching Ross Kemp interview a Yazidi woman who had lost her husband by execution and almost all of her children by poisoning to ISIS.[1] Our world’s tragedy is overwhelming. In its midst, the Christian message affirms both that all will be held to account by God, and that he welcomes all who heed his loving and merciful appeal to turn back to him and trust him.

This edition of Case Quarterly is inspired by this beautiful good news and the expertly-crafted 2017 New College Lectures of Dr Brian Rosner, Principal of Ridley College in Melbourne.

The topic of this year’s Lectures touches all of our lives. Our personal identity—both imagined and real—impacts everything we do. Delicately and systematically, Dr Rosner breaks down this complex topic. The three presentations follow the ideas of constructing our own identity, possible social aspects of identity, and identity as ‘my story’. He evaluates the robustness of each of these approaches when we are confronted by suffering, self-obsession, weakness and hostility. Of central importance is the idea of being known by God himself.

Brian’s approach is immensely enjoyable, personal, clear and accessible, as is evident in our lead article, which presents some of the content from the NC Lectures. I also commend to you both his book and the recorded lectures.[2]

In our other in depth articles, Dr Megan Best and Associate Professor Alan Gijsbers use Christian understandings of human identity to critique contemporary thinking and its implications for clinical practice in the areas of assisted dying and substance abuse rehabilitation respectively.

Research student Matthew Bagg informs us from the frontiers of medical science on progress to detect human experience and identity at the physical interface. Dr Andrew Sloane’s column reminds us of God’s reassuring grip on our identity as the ravages of age assault our human faculties, and Rev. Andrew Schmidt exposes some of the potential dangers of working from the physical to the identity plane. 

Our other columnists widen the scope, reflecting on Christian belief as it transcends artificial and destructive approaches to identity; the connection of faith, character and work; the urgent need for churches to understand domestic violence; the relevance of historical Christian critique to current political movements; and the importance of decision-making founded in the truth and heart of God.

Personal identity is arguably our most vexed current societal issue. Portrayals of the future to which the human race is destined are a common theme of contemporary visual media. At the same time, the present generation is redefining identity in ways that were never imagined by our grandparents.

Prepare to be challenged by this edition of Case Quarterly. Be encouraged by the power of Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection as firm foundations for transformation and authenticity in a world deeply scarred by confusion and tragedy.



[1] ‘The fight against ISIS’ Broadcast on ABC2, 9:30pm, 16 Oct 2017.

[2] Brian’s frank and personal book Known by God: A Biblical Theology of Personal Identity (Zondervan, 2017) was launched prior to his first lecture. Dr Rosner’s lectures can be viewed on the New College website, He was also interviewed during the course of the lectures on ABC radio’s The Spirit of Things and HOPE FM.

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