Volume Thirty-Eight — Article 2 Volume 38 | Home

Man (Part 1)
CHAPTER 1 — Man As Related to God, Community and World
    What is man, that Thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that Thou visitest him? For Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of Thy hands; Thou has put all things under his feet: all sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field; the fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas. 0 Lord our Lord, how excellent is Thy name in all the earth! —Ps. 8:4-9.

In answering the question, "What is man?" does the Bible take an analytical approach by looking at man in himself and describing the composition of his parts? Or does the Bible take a relational approach by looking at man in the light of his vital relationships? This is the first and most basic area in the current debate on the doctrine of man.

The old approach was analytical. It looked at man in isolation as if the Bible intended to inform us on man's composition. It often attempted to break human nature into its component parts and systematically arrange such biblical terms as soul, mind, heart, conscience, spirit and body. Hodge reflects this approach when he introduces his presentation on the "Nature of Man":

      Man consists of two distinct principles, a body and a soul: the one material, the other immaterial. . . . So that in the constitution of man two distinct substances are included1.

This thought framework views man's uniqueness and value in terms of some special faculty or endowment of human nature. It contends that man is of infinite worth because he possesses an immortal soul. It posits human value in some ontological quality within man himself.

In different sections of the church many scholars are now expressing grave reservations about this approach to the doctrine of man. They say this approach is imposed on the Bible. They point out that the Bible does not look at man analytically or in isolation. That is distinctly Grecian. Berkouwer notes that the Bible does not present a systematic study on the parts of man.2 Wright also observes that man in the Bible is never an object of independent reflection.3

Berkouwer comments that "it is not possible to synthesize . . . [the biblical expressions mind, heart, spirit, soul, reins, conscience, body] into a systematic Biblical anthropology in which the structure and composition of man would be made clear." Then he adds, "It is obviously not the intention of the divine revelation to give us exact information about man in himself and thus to anticipate what later scientific research on man offers."4 It is now generally recognized that such biblical words as soul, mind, spirit do not always have a precise, uniform meaning throughout the Bible. They often overlap. Precise systematization can only produce an anthropological hodgepodge. In Scripture the part (bones, hair, blood, bowels) is often used as a figure of speech for the whole.

How then does the Bible answer the question, "What is man?" What does it mean to be human? The Bible always answers this vital question in a relational way.

    And God said, Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.—Gen. 1:26-29.

Here is no scientific or analytical description of human nature. Man cannot answer the question, "Who am I?" by looking at himself. He must look outside himself. Man is related to God, to the community and to the created order. This is what gives meaning and significance to life.

First, being truly human means being related to God. The Bible always depicts man as living in the presence of God. He is inescapably related to God. Whatever denies man's relationship to God dehumanizes him. Says Berkouwer:

Scripture is concerned with man in his relation to God, in which he can never be seen as man-in-himself, and surely not with man's "essence" described as self or person. . . .

We may say without much fear of contradiction that the most striking thing in the Biblical portrayal of man lies in this, that it never asks attention for man in himself, but demands our fullest attention for man in his relation to God. . . .

Scripture never sees man as a being enclosed in himself, an isolated "essence" which can be fathomed in terms of itself alone, but rather shows us man as a being who can never be thought of apart from his continual relationship with God.5

The ultimate value of man is not based on any quality within himself. It is based on the fact that he is related to God. Helmut Thielicke says it well:

[Man's] greatness rests solely on the fact that God in his incomprehensible goodness has bestowed his love upon him. God does not love us because we are so valuable; we are valuable because God loves us.6

Second, being truly human means being related to others. "The Lord God said, 'It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him'" (Gen. 2:18, RSV). Man is not truly man in himself. He needs woman to supplement and complete him. This principle is true in the broader man—community relationship. Man is a being of community. He needs his neighbor to serve and to love. Love is essential to human existence. As the poet W. H. Auden says, "We must love one another or die."7

Man's social life is not an appendix of human existence. It is human existence. Just as the Bible does not consider man in isolation from God, so it does not consider him in isolation from the community. Wright suggests that, in Hebrew psychology, "the greatest curse which can befall a man is that he be alone."8 Describing the misery of his people, Hosea compares them to "a wild ass wandering alone" (Hosea 8:9, RSV). Man is inextricably related to persons in the community. Anything which isolates a man from his "own flesh," even if it is religion, is dehumanizing.

An essential part of the work of redemption is to restore man to a proper relationship with others. The church is preeminently a fellowship, not an institution. Christians are not saved as separate islands. They are baptized by the Spirit into the redeemed community. The Corinthian enthusiasts prized the gifts of the Spirit as an individual experience. But Paul saw them as gifts to edify the community (1 Cor. 12-14).

Third, being truly human means being related to the created order. We have a fundamental affinity to the environment. We cannot live apart from the world of nature. From it we receive air, water, food and light. We are subject to the same laws of gravity, motion, molecular action, chemistry and genetics which govern the rest of the created order. Yet man is unique in the created order because God intended him to have dominion over it and to look after it as God's vicegerent. The environment is God's gift to be responsibly used and enjoyed in fellowship with Him. Anything which mars man's relationship to the natural order dehumanizes him. Cut off from God, he cannot live. Cut off from others, he cannot live. And cut off from his relatedness to the natural world, he cannot live.

To be human means having these three relationships. All are necessary to life. All define what it means to be human. We cannot tear off one of these basic relationships from man and say that what is left is truly human. Being human means existing In all three relationships at once. These relationships are not appendixes to human existence. They are human existence. Man is not a creature who happens to have these relationships. He is man only in these relationships.

The true doctrine of man is concerned with the preservation of these three relationships. Naturally, there is priority here. God is first, others are second, things are last. But we cannot ignore the human body and man's place in the material order in the interests of "religion." William Temple once remarked that Christianity is the most materialistic of all the great religions. It is a religion of reality. How man relates to the material order comes within the scope of the Christian doctrine of man.

Measuring Anthropology with the Plumbline of Justification by Faith

Luther continually said that the great doctrine of justification by faith must illuminate and test all other articles of the Christian faith. Whatever does not square with this central article is not to be tolerated.

We must therefore bring the truth of justification to bear on our doctrine of man. We need to consider what the gospel has to teach us about the nature of man. Too often we isolate justification by faith as if it were a different area of doctrine altogether. But it is a grievous mistake to discard justification by faith at the door of anthropology, for justification is the great light which illuminates this important subject.

The doctrine of justification before God by the imputed righteousness of Christ means that the believer is saved to life eternal by a righteousness completely outside his own experience. The believing sinner does not stand approved at the tribunal of God by anything he has or anything God has given him, such as repentance, faith, new birth or life of new obedience. He is declared righteous solely for the sake of the righteousness of another. By faith alone he is related—united—to Jesus Christ as the bride is united to the bridegroom. The ultimate significance is not who man is but to whom he is related. God never deals with an isolated believer as he is in himself. God sees him and deals with him in union with Jesus Christ. In himself the believer is poor, helpless and sinful. But in Christ he is rich, strong and righteous.

The imputed, outside-of-me righteousness of Christ has absolute value with God. It alone makes the believer precious in God's sight. God finds pleasure in us only through the merits of Christ.

This gospel truth illuminates man's creation and fall. When God made man, he was perfect and upright. He was endowed with excellent qualities and virtues. But although he had substantial reality, his gifts could have meaning only in the setting of his God-given relationships. With all his marvelous gifts, man would be nothing apart from his relationship to God. Genesis tells us that man was only dust. In the garden of Eden the tree of life taught Adam that he had no life in himself. Surely this was a sacrament of his vital relationship to the Creator.

But what did man do? He wanted meaning and significance in his own right. His excellent gifts, instead of leading him to acknowledge his dependence on God, were used to assert his independence. This is man's sin. He always wants meaning and significance in his own right. He even uses God's gifts against God for his own self-validation.

Sin is a denial of reality. If God is to restore the creature to a true sense of reality, He must teach him that the creature can never have meaning or significance apart from his relationship to the Creator. Even the gifts of God have no meaning or significance apart from the person of God Himself.

God teaches this essential truth to man by the gospel. The gospel is what God has done in history, a redemptive act objective to man. God's great saving act which reconciles the world to Himself is not something He has done in the sinner. It was done "without hand"—independent and outside the sinner. If he is to benefit from this saving act, he must go outside himself. In faith he must depend totally on what was done outside his experience, independent of himself.

Moreover, when God justifies the believing sinner, He does it by declaring him righteous, not by making him righteous. He does not make the sinner acceptable in His sight by pouring righteousness into his heart. He makes him acceptable. in His sight by imputing to him the holy obedience of Christ's life and death. The believer is accepted solely because Christ is accepted. He is declared righteous because Christ is righteous. Imputed righteousness means that when salvation is applied, the saving righteousness or merit is still outside and remains outside the believer. What was done in Christ outside the believer, and what is now interceded at God's right hand for the believer, has absolute value with God. This alone saves.

On account of Christ's outside-of-me righteousness—His doing and dying which He intercedes for me in heaven—God is able to bestow upon me precious gifts. There is the gift of a new birth in which a transformed life, renewed in God's image, springs forth. There is a new life of holiness or sanctification, manifested in love for God, respect for His commandments, and unselfish, cheerful service to my fellow men. There are the fruits of the Spirit— the imparted righteousness of God's character inwrought in the fabric of the human character. Indeed, all the gifts God imparts are comprehended in the gift of the Holy Spirit, given to all who receive Christ by faith. We will not restrict the Sovereign Spirit by saying that the charismata belong only to the apostolic age. He is rich in all the gifts for the prosecution of God's work on earth and for the edification of the church.

These gifts are necessary. No man will be saved unless He is born again, is sanctified and has the Holy Spirit. Yet none of these has any meaning or significance apart from the imputed righteousness of Jesus. They cannot stand in their own right. Separated from the gospel, they are nothing with God. Without the meritorious covering of Christ's imputed righteousness, they are worthless. In reality, of course, the true work of the Holy Spirit is never separated from the imputed righteousness of Christ. But unless there is a constant return to justification by Christ's imputed doing and dying, the gifts of God become like the manna given to Israel in the wilderness. When improperly used, it stank! So all God's gifts turn to corruption and stink if not preserved by imputed righteousness.

The more holy God's gifts are, the more putrid they become when perverted. Human sexuality and marriage are great gifts of God which illustrate this principle. New birth, sanctification and the so-called works and gifts of the Holy Spirit may become the very articles of antichrist to arouse God's anger. Why? Because they are put in the very room of the gospel! They are used to eclipse or displace Christ's imputed righteousness! "That glory cannot be taken away from Christ and transferred to either our renewal or our obedience without blasphemy."9

The worst sin is always the religious sin. People may shout, "New birth!" "Sanctification!" "The Spirit!" But beneath the religious garb may lurk the sin of all sins. As in the first sin, man wants to have significance before God in himself. He refuses to believe that his life has no meaning or value in itself. Only the Creator has that. But man covets God's glory. He uses God's gifts—new birth, sanctification and the Spirit's work in man—in his attempt at self-validation.

Whatever a person trusts in for his salvation, whatever he leans on for his supreme consolation and support, especially in the hour of death, is his God. The sin of man is to put the gift in the place of the Giver, to worship the creature more than the Creator (Rom. 1:25).

Luther said that whoever does not know justification by Christ's imputed righteousness is ignorant of God and is an idolater. This was a profound insight into the religious sin of man. The truth of justification unto life eternal by an outside-of-me righteousness means that I cannot find ultimate meaning and significance within myself—not even in my religious, born-again, sanctified, Spirit-filled self. The truth of justification teaches that these things have value and can truly exist only on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ.

Thus, the gospel teaches that man's real value, meaning and significance are relational— not ontological. In the light of justification by faith the old, analytical way of understanding human nature is wrong. The Bible is not burdened with a description of man in himself. It does not gratify our propensity to eat from the tree of knowledge. It leads only to the tree of life. Only as a person goes outside himself to God, to his neighbor and to the world can he answer the question, "What is man?"

The Bible's disinterest in what man is in himself gives an insight into the way it approaches everything. Faith is an example. In Romans 3 and 4 Paul mentions the words faith and believe nearly thirty times. But not once does he analyze, dissect and examine faith in itself. Faith is never "in itself." We must go outside faith to understand it. For Paul it is "faith in Jesus," "faith in His blood." Faith is defined by its object. More than that, faith receives value from its object, the imputed righteousness of Jesus. Therefore, faith in itself has no meaning, value or significance. As Calvin said, it is "an empty vessel." No creature—and faith is a creature, for it is created in the heart by God— has any meaning or significance in itself. A creature's meaning, value and significance are always defined by relationship.

The new birth is another example. It is remarkable how little attention the New Testament gives to new birth in itself. There is no analytical description of the new birth.. And the psychological phenomenon itself is not analyzed. Christians have written whole books on the new birth. Some have even become best sellers! But we should be more impressed by what the Bible does not say about the new-birth experience than by what it does say. Why? Because the born-again man is preoccupied with the doing and dying of Christ on his behalf (John 3:1-16). He is no longer preoccupied with himself. Faith and the new birth do not speak of themselves. They cry, "Christ!" "Grace!" "The righteousness of Jesus!"

The New Testament describes how the born-again man thinks and acts. He believes in Jesus (1 John 5:1). He loves God and keeps His commandments (1 John 5:1-2). As far as the Bible is concerned, man is not a subject of independent reflection. Neither is faith or the new birth. When we make them subjects of independent reflection, we exhibit the spirit of antichrist, which wants the creature to have significance in itself.

Religious experience is one more example of how the relational context determines the value and meaning of everything. We agree with Alan Richardson when he said, "Subjective experiences, religious feelings, and the like, occupy little place in the theology of the NT."10 We are that suggesting that faith is only an intellectual exercise. The early Christians were deeply moved by heart religion. But they did not leave any detailed description of their psychological and emotional state. At Pentecost Peter had no interest in describing what it felt like to receive the Holy Spirit. All had one burden—to declare "the wonderful works of God (the Christ event]" (Acts 2:11). The religion of both the Old and New Testament is a religion of recital.11 The entire Bible recites the saving acts of God in salvation history.

Many things can stimulate a good experience—listening to an orchestra, watching a football game, attending a Christian revival, fellowship in the Lion's Club or following an Indian guru and his meditation techniques. All such experiences stimulate our psycho-physical capacities. But the righteousness or unrighteousness of an experience is not determined by whether it feels "heavenly" (devilish things often feel "heavenly") but by what it is related to. If it is related to faith in the imputed righteousness of Christ, it can stand approved in the judgment of God. But if a person's experience is the byproduct of faith in Christ's imputed righteousness, he will extol that righteousness and not his experience anyway. No religious experience has any value, meaning or significance in itself. The creature's value is always relational.

In light of the gospel and justification by faith, we must say that scholars are right in returning to Hebraic or relational anthropology. The relational concept throws great light on the doctrine of man. It is revolutionary, but just what the church needs today. How much we have missed by not taking the Reformation principle of justification by faith and consistently applying it to all areas of Christian thought!



1 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., reprinted 1975), 2:42.
2 Berkouwer, p.199.
3 G. Ernest Wright, God Who Acts: Biblical Theology As Recital (London: SCM Press, 1952), p.89.
4 Berkouwer, Man, p.199.
5 Ibid., pp.59-60, 195, 243-4.
6 Helmut Thielicke, Nihusm: Its Origin and Nature — With a Christian Answer (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961), p.110.
7 Quoted In "Loneliness Can Kill You," Time, 5 Sept 1977, p.45.
8 G. Ernest Wright, The Challenge of Israel's Faith (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1944), p.75.
9 Martin Chemnitz, tr. Fred Kramer, Examination of the Council of Trent, Part 1 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1971), p.491.
10 Alan Richardson, An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1958), p.236.
11 Wright, God Who Acts, pp.12-13.