The study of human beings; in biblical understanding involves who humans are in light of God's revelation in holy Scripture. The biblical doctrine of anthropology is concerned with understanding human nature and existence. Traditionally called “the doctrine of man,” biblical anthropology studies the biblical portrait of human beings, male and female. Because the Bible provides such a rich account of God's dealings with human beings, it is not easy to discover a simplistic picture or a concise definition of humanity. Almost every passage of Scripture says something about humans in one way or another.
Old Testament The Old Testament accounts of history, the poetry of Wisdom Literature, and the pronouncements of the prophets work together to provide the Old Testament picture of humans.
Stated in its most pointed form, the anthropological question asks, “What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him?” (Psalms 8:4 RSV). The psalmist's intense wondering has no simple solution. Indeed, the biblical portrait of humans is complex and often paradoxical. On one hand, humans are depicted as the crowning center of God's creative activity, fearfully and wonderfully made (Genesis 1:26-31;
Psalms 8:6-8). On the other hand, humans are “like a breath,” physically frail, spiritually weak, and unable to stand before the holiness and righteousness of God (Psalms 90:5-6;
Psalms 146:3-4). In traditional theological studies, the doctrines of humanity and sin have often been examined as one. Indeed, they are different sides of the same coin. In affirming both sides of the paradox, the Bible suggests many meaningful theological truths about humans.
The scriptural picture of persons is constantly confirmed by human experience. The biblical awareness and understanding of humanity is both personal and profound because God knows human beings even better than they know themselves.
Psalms 139:1 is a poignant and frightening expression of this kind of knowledge. The conclusion of the psalmist in praise to God is “Thou knowest me right well” (Psalms 139:14 RSV). God's deep knowledge of humanity points out both humanity's significance and insignificance, worth and unworthiness, capabilities and inadequacies. Wherever humanity is found, the condition and situation of humanity is tempered by the intimate and passionate knowledge of God. Because of that knowledge, humans need never be alone. Because of that knowledge, humans are unable to hide from God (Psalms 139:7-12). Indeed, it is only God who knows humanity (Jeremiah 17:9-10).
God's profound knowledge of humanity is rooted in His initial act of creation. Simply stated, the Creator knows the created. Although the Genesis account of creation intentionally and purposefully tells much about God, the account also speaks volumes about humans.
Genesis 1-2, for example, boldly affirms God as Creator and Lord of all. At the same time, though, the passage declares just as boldly that God's creation is good, indeed humanity is very good (Genesis 1:31). The passage explicitly portrays humans as the highest of God's created beings, the center of God's marvelous creation (Genesis 1:26-30). Much more than a proclamation of honor or favored position, this pronouncement should be regarded as a serious statement of responsibility. (See
Luke 12:48.) Because of the high place that humans occupy in God's creation, much is both expected and required. Creation points to God's pre-eminence, but it also points to human responsibility to be faithful stewards of God-given abilities, talents, gifts, and both human and natural resources (Genesis 1:29-30; compare
Two anthropological truths become recurring themes throughout the biblical record. First, a human being is a totality of being, not a combination of various parts and impulses. According to the Old Testament understanding, a person is not a body which happens to possess a soul. Instead, a person is a living soul.
Genesis 2:7 relates God forming man “of dust from the ground” and breathing into his nostrils “the breath of life.” (See
Jeremiah 18:6.) The man became human when God breathed the breath of life. Because of God's activity, humanity became a special and unique part of creation. Because of God's breath of life, the man became “a living being” (Genesis 2:7). A person, thus, is a complete totality, made up of human flesh, spirit (best understood as “the life-force”), and nephesh (best understood as “the total self” but often translated as “soul”). Human flesh cannot exist alone. Neither can spirit or nephesh exist alone. Together, however, they comprise a complete person.
A second major anthropological truth originally proclaimed in the Genesis account of creation and echoed by later biblical writers affirms that a person is created in the image and likeness of God. The idea is explicitly stated in
Genesis 5:1-3; and
Genesis 9:1-7. The idea is more implicit, but still present in
Psalms 8:1. Specific New Testament references to the concept include
1 Corinthians 11:7;
Colossians 3:1; and
James 3:9. The created bears some kind of resemblance to the Creator. “Image” and “likeness” simply intensify the same truth. The two words do not signify different or unique aspects of the human person. In some passages, “image” is employed by itself to indicate the reflection of the Creator in a person (Genesis 1:27;
Genesis 9:6). In other instances, “likeness” conveys the basic idea (Genesis 5:1;
James 3:9). The central biblical truth is that the human creature uniquely reflects God in some way.
That a person is created “in the image and likeness” of God has been taken to mean a variety of things in the history of biblical interpretation. At one extreme, some interpreters have claimed that “image and likeness” refer to an actual, literal, even physical, resemblance. This kind of interpretation attempts to objectify the Old Testament language about God to the extreme. (For example, “the hand of God” would come to refer to an actual, physical hand.) This position falls into the dangerous error of attempting to understand God in human terms. The Bible teaches that God and humanity are profoundly and eternally separate and distinct. At the other extreme, some interpreters claim that “image and likeness” refer to specific human capabilities or attributes such as the capacity for reason or human self-understanding. This view asserts that these specific characteristics separate humans from the rest of creation. This interpretation contains some truth; the human ability to reason and human self-awareness are indeed unique in God's created order. At the same time, however, this view devalues the idea of humans being created in “the image and likeness” of God. Surely more is involved in this great theological truth an the ability to reason. To accept this interpretation fully is to suggest that persons with higher levels of intelligence or more astute powers of reason would be able to relate to God on a higher level. Scripture knows of no such distinction. All are created in God's image.
A better understanding of the image of God stresses the truth that all human beings are equally included. The image of God is expressed by two parallel ideas. First, the image of God refers to the human capability to respond to God and to enter into relationship with God. Second, the image of God refers to the human responsibility to respond to God and to enter into relationship with God. Obviously, this understanding of the image of God is unrelated to any kind of physical similarity. At the same time, it claims that the image and likeness include the total self, not only reasoning ability or traits of personality. Seeing the image of God in this light leads to the conclusion that people occupy a high place in God's creation. In fact, people are God's representative on earth, the possessor of God-given power and dominion over creation, and the only part of creation reflecting God in this way. Clearly, the possibility of responding to God is the highest of all gifts. As the psalmist affirms, humans have been crowned “with glory and honor” (Psalms 8:5). Every person is made in the image of God because every person possesses the capability and the responsibility of personal response to God.
New Testament The place of people in God's activity of creation is paralleled by their place in God's activity of redemption. The New Testament insists that people have failed to accept the responsibility given in
Genesis 1:29-30. It is equally insistent that God's high regard for humans has not diminished. New Testament writers stress human sin throughout (Romans 3:9-20;
Romans 6:23); still, the broader theme of God's love for all humanity is echoed at every turn.
John 3:16 speaks of an intense and passionate love of a mighty God for all creation. The New Testament teachings about humanity, God, and salvation are clear: despite humanity's unworthiness, God loves with an everlasting love. In fact, the worth or value claimed by Scripture for humans is because of God's initial act of creation or God's great sacrifice through Jesus Christ. Human worth and dignity, whatever that may entail, is unavoidably tied to God. As a result, a proper theological conclusion would be “God loves people; therefore a person has value and worth.” Human worth is based upon relationship with God.
The Old Testament truth that people exist as a totality remained firm in New Testament writings. In the New Testament scheme, four dimensions of life are designated in place of the Hebraic flesh, spirit, and nephesh. The body (Greek, soma) is simply the shape or form of a person (1 Peter 2:24; although
Romans 12:1 can best be translated “selves”). The soul (Greek, psuche, related to the Old Testament nephesh) points to the “total self.”
John 10:11 tells of Jesus “laying down his life for his sheep.” The Greek word normally translated “life” in
John 10:11 is psuche, the word for “soul.” Jesus sacrificed His total self or His whole being for His sheep. Life in the spiritual dimension is called spirit (Greek, pneuma). Like its Old Testament counterpart, the New Testament root meaning of spirit refers to “wind,” “breath,” or “force.” Spirit, therefore, is the energizing life-force, the innermost part of human beings (1 Corinthians 2:10-11). While spirit seems to be the dimension whereby humans can cooperate with and respond to God, flesh is that dimension that represents human finitude and weakness. Similar to its Old Testament counterpart, flesh (Greek, sarx) in the New Testament suggests physical failing and the inability to transcend the physical dimension. It would be unwise, however, to conclude that, in itself, flesh is evil. (See
John 1:14.) Jesus, the Word made flesh, was certainly not evil.
The New Testament illustrates four specific and distinct dimensions of human existence, but the writers of the New Testament affirm with the Old Testament writers that a human being is a totality, a complete whole. Quoting
Deuteronomy 6:4, Jesus taught that “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). The message is clear: true love of God is love with the total person—heart, soul, mind, and strength. In the same light, “no one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24). Because a human being is a complete whole, a divided allegiance is impossible. This biblical idea of humans carries with it profound ethical and social implications. To understand the truth that a person is a total being is to see that ministry must focus upon every dimension of existence. True ministry is, therefore, concerned with the spiritual, the social, the physical, and the psychological. It is clear from the biblical record that human beings are not only spiritual beings any more than they are only physical beings. The Bible affirms the various dimensions of human existence as it affirms that a person is a complete whole, not separate parts joined together.
While the Old Testament seems to affirm the survival of the image of God in people even after the Fall, it is also true that the original relationship between the Creator and the created has been altered. New Testament writers, in general, note the existence of the image even in “natural man” but, more significantly, see the proper restoration of the image of God in people through redemption in Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29;
1 Corinthians 11:7;
James 3:9). Proper relationship with God through Jesus Christ allows for the renewal of the true image of God. Unique to the New Testament view is the idea that ultimately the true image of God can be seen in Christ (John 12:45;
Hebrews 1:3). With this in mind, Paul developed the theologically potent distinction between “the first man Adam” and “the last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45-47).
The Biblical Witness Summarized Examining the biblical treatment of anthropology is challenging for two reasons: 1. Scripture presents no simple and uniform description of humans. 2. The biblical doctrine of humanity seems to relate to almost every other major biblical doctrine. To understand adequately the doctrine of humanity is to understand, at least in some measure, the doctrines of creation, the image of God, salvation, sin, death, eternal life, ethics, and many, many more. The doctrine of humanity relates closely to all of these doctrines. While this might seem to be discouraging and intimidating, it should help the serious Bible student to recognize the significance and importance of biblical anthropology. To comprehend the doctrine of humanity is to begin to grasp one's place in God's eternal plan.
The overall biblical treatment of human nature and existence is complex and diverse. Several key themes which are introduced in Old Testament writings and later enriched by the New Testament witness have been noted. These include the high place of people in God's good creation, the creation of people in the image of God, a person as a totality of being, and the inadequacy and failing of humans. Throughout the biblical record, additional insights into the nature of humans which help to develop these basic themes are offered. While the creation record of
Genesis 1-2 has traditionally been called the Age of Innocence, the biblical account of
Genesis 3:1—Revelation 19:1 has been called the Age of Responsibility. Entering the Age of Responsibility, humans have been increasingly characterized by a disposition to sin. This is something more than merely physical frailty. Humans as dust is a constant biblical theme. The psalmist stated clearly that God “remembers that we are dust” (Psalms 103:14 RSV). Jeremiah likened the situation to a potter working with clay (Jeremiah 18:6). Indeed, a person is helpless before God. Sin introduced a new dimension to the human situation. The obvious human weakness in the face of God's strength is compounded by human unrighteousness in the face of God's righteousness. No one is holy; no one may stand before God. Specifically in the biblical description of humanity's sinfulness is true character and nature of a holy and righteous God profoundly understood. Clearly, humans are weak and sinful (Psalms 1:1;
Romans 3:10,Romans 3:23). See
2 Samuel 24:10,2 Samuel 24:14.
From the standpoint of the complete biblical record, the doctrine of humanity includes at least two additional ideas. First, the doctrine of humanity is primarily based upon a concept of relationship. At its ultimate level, this relationship is portrayed as the encounter of a loving, seeking, powerful God with a weak, finite, sinful human being. Granting purpose and life to men and women, this relationship necessarily leads to relationships between human beings. The relationship of God and humanity in the Old Testament vision points directly to the relationships of human beings within Christ's church, a community of human beings called out to minister to all of God's creation.
A second idea is closely related to this. For the biblical writers, humans are at once individuals standing alone before God and members of a corporate community standing before God. The individual nature of humanity can be seen in God's call of Abraham, the psalmist's description of God's intimate knowledge, the ministry of Jesus with specific individuals in need, and Paul's understanding of humans as individual sinners. The corporate nature of humanity can be seen in the Old Testament concepts of family, tribe, nation, and kingdom, Jesus' calling out of a redemptive community of followers, and the establishment of the church as the corporate body of God's people on earth. In Pauline literature one finds two extreme emphases of individuality and corporateness: Paul's intense concern for the body of Christ and his intense displeasure with specific individuals who upset and stifle the ministry of the body. Indeed, both emphases are present throughout Scripture. On the one hand, people stand as individuals. God deals with a person individually, and individually a person must respond to God. On the other hand, people stand as part of a group. God deals with people corporately and corporately persons must respond to God. The individual nature of humanity relates to the way an individual responds to God. The corporate nature of humanity relates to the way human beings live with one another. Neither the ultimate relationship with God nor relationships with others can ever be ignored. Both are essential components of the biblical picture of humanity.
Theological Affirmations Despite the diversity and complexity of the biblical doctrine of humanity, several significant theological conclusions may be affirmed.
1. Human beings have worth. The biblical record explicitly and implicitly affirms the value and worth of humanity. This positive statement is grounded in God's creative activity, the ultimate plan of redemption that has been revealed in Jesus Christ, and the ongoing care that God provides for all creation. The worth of humanity is not based on anything inherent in people but is the result of God choosing to grant worth and dignity to people. As such, the value of humanity is a God-given value.
2. Human beings are frail and sinful. The Bible affirms both explicitly and implicitly the weaknesses and shortcomings of human beings. Manifest as both physical weakness and spiritual failing, this frailty is seen properly in contrast to the holiness and righteousness of God. The condition of humanity leads to the conclusion that all individuals are dependent upon God and that salvation truly is a matter of God's grace, not human effort or striving.
3. Human beings exist as individuals before God. God confronts, convicts, and calls out human beings as individuals. God's knowledge of people is intimate, personal, and profound. God's love is offered to human beings individually. The relationship between humanity and God is the most significant and vital part of human existence.
4. Human beings exist in community. God also confronts, convicts, and calls out communities of people. The relationship of an individual with God is necessarily tied to relationships with others. This profound theological truth leads to serious questions of group identity, corporate responsibility, and ethical consciousness. Related to this affirmation is the biblical truth that humans exist primarily for relationship. This seems to be a central focus of creation, salvation, and corporate Christian identity.
5. Human beings exist as complete, total beings. Although the biblical picture of humanity acknowledges several distinct dimensions of existence, the dimensions form one whole. In biblical terms, the physical dimension, the spiritual dimension, and the social dimension are absolutely and inseparably tied together. God created humans to be total persons. As a result, the church is called to minister and to proclaim the message of Jesus Christ to the total person. See Salvation; Sin; Ethics; Death; Eternal Life; Creation.