Yesterday I looked at the worth of human life, especially as relative to that of animal life.
Today I want to refine the discussion about the value of human life, by making a fine terminological distinction. It’s become commonplace for theologians to speak of the “infinite value” of human life. Here are some examples from representatives of major traditions within Christianity. Rod Benson, director of the Centre for Christian Ethics at the Baptist-affiliated Morling College in Australia, contends that “every person is of infinite intrinsic value.”
Pope John Paul II often spoke in this way. In a letter about biomedical experimentation, the pope wrote of “the absolute respect due to human life and to the infinite value of the human person, that is not tied to one’s external features or on the ability to relate to other members of society.”
“The human person, created in the image of God and called to progress toward the divine likeness, is unique and of infinite value,” says Fr. John Breck, professor of biblical interpretation and ethics at the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris. I, too, have spoken in this way in the past, referring to “the infinite value of the human person created in God’s image.”
My criticism of all these uses, including mine, does not rise to the level of a substantive critique. Within the context of these statements, the meaning and intention of the use of the term infinite is clear and uncontroversial. My purpose here is to simply note the ambiguity in the term infinite and to suggest clarification and possible substitution of other terms that have overlapping meanings without the possible misconstrual.
There are at least two basic definitions for the word infinite: “Having no boundaries or limits” and “Immeasurably great or large.” There is some connection between the two meanings, clearly, but they are not identical. The former refers to the ontological status of the thing that is infinite, while the latter primarily refers to the ability to measure or gauge the thing said to be infinite. A thing can be practically immeasurable or unquantifiable without being limitless or boundless. I understand all of the above theological uses of the term infinite to be used in this latter sense.
But there is a theological use of the term with respect to human worth that does use the former sense, and this is with respect to the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. As Anselm asks regarding Christ’s death the Cur Deus Homo of his dialogue partner Boso:
Anselm: And do you not think that so great a good in itself so lovely, can avail to pay what is due for the sins of the whole world?
Boso: Yes! it has even infinite value.
Later Boso says to Anselm, “Moreover, you have clearly shown the life of this man to have been so excellent and so glorious as to make ample satisfaction for the sins of the whole world, and even infinitely more.”
Only Christ’s life and death, as the God-man, is infinite in the sense of being boundless and limitless. All created being is by definition finite, and therefore not infinite in the first sense. Human life is infinite in the sense of not being able to be quantified in the latter sense.
For this reason, I think it is more proper to speak of human life as of immeasurable, inestimable, or inscrutable worth and value, rather than simply as of infinite value. Where the term infinite is used in a synonymous sense with these other terms, it may be acceptable. But it is more desirable to avoid possible confusion with the infinite value of Christ and use other, less ambiguous terms, instead of or as clarifiers for the word infinite.