Volume Thirty-Eight — Article 1 Volume 38 | Home

Man (Part 1)


We agree with Anthony Hoekema when he says, "It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the doctrine of man."1 Man's view of himself not only determines his theology. It determines his life as well.

"Man has always been his most vexing problem."2 "What is man?" is being asked today with new urgency. It is a question which troubles philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, scientists and artists. It is a problem with which philosopher-novelists, like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, are grappling. Marxism, the Black Panthers, the John Birch Society, the women's liberation movement, the counter culture and other movements of social revolution are all rooted in a particular understanding of man.

The church is being forced to reevaluate her doctrine of man. Says James N. Lapsley, "The want of a sound anthropology is one of the roots of the crisis in which the church finds itself today, if it is not indeed the main source of that crisis."3

The clergy's role in modern society is visibly shrinking. And the church herself may well have contributed to this. There was a time when the priest cared for the soul while the doctor cared for the body. This arrangement reflected the prevailing philosophy of dualism—the idea that man is composed of two distinct substances called soul and body. The secularization and specialized technology of a post-Christian society have now fragmented man even further. The "soul" has been invaded by an army of psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists and marriage counselors. The clergy has been left with a smaller and smaller piece of man to care for—if indeed any is left at all. Some wonder whether man even has a soul.

At times in history the church has displayed little interest in this world or man's well-being in it. Her mission seemed to be getting the soul out of the world into heaven. Attention focused on that jewel called "the human soul," while the body was regarded as a sack of dung. The social gospel of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was a predictable reaction to this "religious" view of man.

Have we Christians sometimes entertained a world-denying and man-hating view of life? Has our piety been so "spiritualized" that we have neglected the Old Testament wisdom which sees this earth as man's God-given domain which he is to use and rule responsibly?

Sections of the church are now trying to join the current worldwide interest in ecology and human health. But if this is a legitimate area of human concern, should not the church be the head and not the tail? Eternity recently published a special issue on health.4 And it is not the only evangelical publication to exhibit a new-found interest in this area— an interest generally reflecting an admission of past neglect of the subject. But all too often there is a failure to recognize that the roots of this neglect are found in a faulty or inadequate biblical anthropology. The very neglect of human health which Eternity tries to correct stems from a doctrine of man which Eternity does not try to correct. The issue lies much deeper than the Christian's eating habits. The basic issue is this: What does it mean to be truly human?

The doctrine of man is vital to theology. It affects the doctrines of God, Christ, salvation, church and last things. If we are out of focus on the doctrine of man, we are bound to be out of focus in other areas of biblical thought. Calvin said that our knowledge is mostly of two kinds—of God and of ourselves. These areas cannot be separated.

In the last fifty years there has been a shakeup in Christian anthropology. Some date its beginning with Pedersen's work, Israel: Its Life and Culture, published in 1926.5 Whether Pedersen triggered it or not, Pidoux calls it a revolution comparable to that of Copernicus in astronomy;6

This important shift in the doctrine of man is not limited to liberal theology. While liberal scholars are advocating a shift in our views on the nature of man, conservative Christian scholarship has been affected too. Newer perspectives on man are reflected in almost all modern standard reference dictionaries on biblical words and theology.

Is it time for us to discard some old wineskins of "orthodoxy" in Christian anthropology? Monism versus dualism, resurrection versus immortality, and the Hebrew versus the Greek view of man are questions being currently debated. Very much is at stake.



1 Anthony A. Hoekema, Syllabus on the Doctrine of Man (Course 421) (Grand Rapids: Calvin Theological Seminary, n.d.), p.1.
2 Attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr.
3 James N. Lapaley, Salvation and Health (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1912), p.9.
4 "Is There a Christian Way of Health? Soul and Body," Eternity 28, no.1 (Jan.1978).
5 J. Pedersen, Israel: Its Life and Culture (London: Oxford University Press, 1926); G. C. Berkouwer, Man: The Image of God (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962), p.200.
6 Berkouwer, Man, p.200.