The Wheaton Center for Faith and Disability’s Biblical Theology of Disability is foundationally rooted in Genesis to Revelation. Various Christian scholars and those whose lives are impacted by disability have given their valuable review and input. Below are nine pillars of disability theology to build on.
1. God’s Image Bearers: A Glorious Reflection
Genesis 1:26-27 tells us that all people are made in the image of God, as the pinnacle act of His creation. We image God as integrated persons of body and soul/spirit. We each bear God’s image individually. We also, however, image God collectively. As image bearers, our glorious task is to reflect God’s character into the world—through all our words and deeds—individually, as families, and as communities.
2. God’s Image Bearers: A Distorted Reflection
However, since humanity’s fall described in Genesis 3, our ability to reflect God accurately has been fractured. As human persons, we still image Him, yet the reflection is now cast in distorted ways. For we have all been alienated from God through rebellion—our hearts have become bent to our own will and our purpose distortedly focused on our own glory. At the same time, we experience differing elements of brokenness in every aspect of our personhood as a result of being born into—and living our lives in—a world impacted by the effects of the fall. We experience brokenness in our bodies, our minds, our intellect, our emotions, and our social relationships. Disability is simply a more noticeable form of the brokenness and difficulty that is common to the human condition. It is experienced both functionally (through bodies that do not work as we expect them to) and socially (through relationships that do not respect, support and affirm as we need them to).
3. God’s Promise to Remedy the Effects of the Fall
And yet, God never leaves us without hope. Even in the Garden, after the fall, God proclaimed that a woman would bear a Seed who would crush Satan’s head (Gen. 3:15), to overcome all alienation that separates us from God and each other—bringing restoration to the brokenness and difficulty experienced in this age.
Building on Genesis 3:15, Isaiah 53 predicted that when this Seed came he would have no beauty or majesty that we should desire him. He would be despised and rejected, a man of sorrows acquainted with the deepest grief. The One who would crush Satan’s head would himself be crushed in order to redeem us from our sin and to heal our brokenness. He would be pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.
4. God’s Remedy through the Messiah's Arrival
The Gospels tell of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension as the initial installment of God’s promise of full restoration in His future return. In the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, we see Jesus as the Messianic Seed who opened the door for complete salvation, including the “crippled, blind, and lame” (Luke 14:12-23). Moreover, all who invite in and embrace these individuals described as having various disabilities are promised a reward in the age to come (Luke 14:14).
5. God’s Goodness and Sovereignty in the Face of Disability
In John 9—the story of Jesus’ encounter with the man born blind—we see Jesus’ most clear example of how the functional and social aspects of disability are reversed by the coming of God’s Kingdom. First, he corrects the disciples’ misconceptions that the man born blind experienced this disability because of personal sin (which created heartbreaking social barriers for the man born blind). Instead, Jesus declares that “this happened that the works of God might be displayed in his life.” The man’s disability was made purposeful in the hands of a good, loving and sovereign heavenly Father—working in the context of a broken world. Secondly, Jesus restored the man’s vision—the function of his sight. This demonstration of God’s power was an initial installment toward the full restoration of the brokenness of the fall. We see Jesus holding in tension human brokenness and difficulty with divine value and purpose. We must do the same.
6. God’s Economy
In God’s economy, human value is not measured by what we can do or not do, but instead by Whose we are. When Moses hesitated to accept God’s commission to deliver his people by citing a self-perceived limitation or disability, God responds by saying, “Who made the human mouth? Who makes him mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now go! I will help you speak, and I will teach you what to say” (Exod. 4:10-12). God sees no barriers to using those with disabilities to accomplish His purposes. Again, the Apostle Paul declares that the seemingly weaker members of the believing community are indispensable and to be given double honor (1 Cor. 12:20-26). Furthermore, weakness is actually portrayed as a platform to perfect and display God’s power (2 Cor. 12:9). Those perceived as weak and less worthy of praise by human standards are not only suitable—but at times they are uniquely gifted—for displaying God’s glory and goodness.
7. God’s Law of Love
The Apostle Paul also declares in 1 Corinthians 13 that if we give lip service without love to others—including the marginalized—we are nothing but sounding gongs. Furthermore, if we donate goods to feed them without love, we gain nothing. Love equalizes human brokenness. And God is love.
Love makes demands on how we treat other people. As finite creatures, human beings are all limited in various ways. Additionally, none of us are autonomous and completely self-sufficient. Moreover, what constitutes a “disability” and who has one can vary from culture to culture. When measured against some level of minimal or average performance or standing, we must acknowledge the arbitrariness of such standards. Conceptually, disability is an equalizer by focusing love’s demands where they are needed most and reflect God’s character best.
It equalizes us pragmatically and experientially as well. It is not partial to any race/ethnicity, any religion, sex, age, or socio-economic class. If we have not yet been touched by a disability (whether physical, intellectual, developmental, or neuro-atypical)—or by mental illness—we or one of our loved ones are likely to be impacted eventually.
8. God’s People Respond
As God’s people, what is our role in addressing disability? The church is to manifest God’s love to a watching world (Eph. 3:10-11) as we live in counter-cultural ways that reflect the values of God's kingdom. With Jesus as our Head, we constitute His Body. We are called to preserve unity in diversity (including diverse abilities)—until we grow into the maturity and stature of Jesus (Eph. 4).
The unity of God’s people does not depend upon talent or intellect. It depends on our union with Jesus. This is a relational oneness in Messiah (who himself is one with the Father) and with one another (John 17). Furthermore, as God has placed each part in the body just as He wanted (1 Cor. 12:18), so each has a divine purpose and gift that serves the body (1 Pet. 4:10). Indeed, God has “put the body together, giving greater honor to the less honorable so that there would be no division in the body, but that the members would have the same concern for each other so that if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Cor. 12:24-26).
While suffering in this age is unavoidable, God desires for all people to belong and flourish in community. While God does not promise to remove all sources of suffering in this age, He does promise to be with us and never leave us in our suffering. Furthermore, God often pours out His blessings upon His children through the loving words and deeds of others. Therefore, people of all abilities need one another for the unity, diversity, and growth in the perfect love of God, all for the glory of God!
9. God’s Ultimate Restoration of All Things in the Age to Come
The Seed predicted in Genesis 3:15 came into the world the first time to crush the serpent’s head and bring salvation to all who put their faith in Him (Rom. 10:11-13). Jesus, this King of the Jews and Desire of All Nations (Haggai 2:7) will come again to subject the enemy to final judgment. Under Messiah’s reign there will be no more mourning, crying, or pain (Rev. 21:3-4). Together we look to His return. The Spirit and the Bride say, Come (Rev. 22:17)!
You can look forward to a series of upcoming blogs that will give emphasis to portions of our Biblical Theology of Disability text from a group of leading experts. Stay tuned!