What Are We? Three Views on Human Nature

James N. Anderson
Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte

The following is adapted from the first of two lectures—the Fifth Annual B. B. Warfield Lectures—delivered in October 2016 at the invitation of Erskine Seminary and First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, SC.

One of my enduring childhood memories of Sunday evenings in the Anderson household is the sound of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 floating across the living room. This was not, as you might assume, because my parents were attempting to cultivate in their progeny a love of classical music, but because they were avid viewers of Antiques Roadshow. The show first aired in the United States in 1997, yet—like so many other great ideas—America stole it from Britain, where it has been broadcast regularly since 1979.

The basic idea behind Antiques Roadshow is that members of the public bring to a traveling roadshow what they believe to be antique items—cabinets, chairs, coins, vases, and so on—and have the items examined and appraised by experts who identify the items, give background information on their provenance, and place a value on them. In sum, the specialists scrutinize each item and give an estimate of how much it might fetch at auction.

Antiques Roadshow can be quite educational, but its popularity is undoubtedly due to its entertainment value, and that value peaks whenever there’s a large discrepancy between the owner’s expectation and the specialist’s evaluation. The woman who discovered a dusty old book in her attic is informed that it’s one of a handful of first-edition copies published in the 17th century and now worth several hundred thousand dollars. Meanwhile, the fellow who brought what he believed to be a rare Ming Dynasty vase, which he was planning on selling in order to fund a very comfortable retirement, is excruciatingly deflated when the expert points out three tiny but significant words etched under its rim: Made in Taiwan. And all of this is captured on camera for our viewing pleasure!

There is a central question that drives viewer interest in Antiques Roadshow, a question posed of every item discussed:

  • What is its value? (Put baldly: What is it worth?)

In order to answer that central question, however, two prior questions must be asked and answered:

  • What kind of thing is it? (The question of its nature.)
  • Where did it come from? (The question of its origins.)

One cannot determine the value or worth of an item without knowing something about its nature and its origins. And once those three questions have been answered, a fourth is raised:

  • How should I treat it? (What should I do with it?)

If it’s a first-edition copy of a rare 17th-century book, you should treat it very carefully! You should respect it. You should protect it. If on the other hand it’s a cheaply manufactured piece of pottery with nothing whatsoever to distinguish it, well, perhaps you could put it in the garage as a receptacle for all those random nuts and bolts you daren’t throw away.\

I. Anthropology and Worldviews

The topic of this lecture is anthropology: the study of mankind. But what, you might ask, does Antiques Roadshow have to do with anthropology? Just this: the four questions mentioned above can also be applied to us—to human beings.

  • What value or worth do we have?
  • What are we by nature?
  • Where did we come from?
  • How should we be treated?

Moreover, these four questions are logically connected in much the same way that they’re connected for antique items brought to the roadshow. We cannot know how to treat other human beings without knowing the value of human beings—the worth of a human life. We cannot understand the value of human beings without knowing something about our nature and our origins.

Consider for a moment some of the great cultural and moral debates of our day. Abortion. Euthanasia. Racial equality and civil rights. Sexual morality and sexual liberty. Religious freedom. Environmentalism and animal rights. Embryonic research. Genetic enhancement. Gender identity. All of these issues—and many others—turn on the issue of anthropology; that is to say, on the nature and origins of human beings.

Furthermore, there are multiple anthropologies competing within our culture today, which leads to polarized positions on these ethical debates. But anthropologies don’t come into existence ex nihilo. They aren’t self-sustaining and free-floating. Every anthropology is situated within, arises from, and finds its justification within a broader worldview—a wider perspective on ultimate reality, ultimate truth, ultimate meaning, and ultimate value.

In the remainder of this essay, then, I propose to consider three prominent worldviews and the competing views of human nature that they embody and entail. Why three? Here I wish to take a cue from philosopher Alvin Plantinga by suggesting that in the West today there are “three main competitors vying for spiritual supremacy: three fundamental perspectives or ways of thinking about what the world is like, what we ourselves are like, what is most important about the world, what our place in it is, and what we must do to live the good life.”[2] Plantinga labels these three perspectives “Christian theism,” “perennial naturalism,” and “creative anti-realism.” I propose to simplify matters by referring to them (in adjusted order) as Naturalism, Postmodernism, and Christian Theism. The main burden of the following discussion will be to argue that in the end only one of these worldviews—Christian Theism—can supply any firm basis for human dignity and human rights. But before launching into that discussion, I should say a brief word about worldviews in general.

Roughly stated, a worldview is an overall philosophical outlook on the world: an all-encompassing perspective on everything that exists and matters to us. A worldview reflects both descriptive and normative content: it concerns not only how things are, but also how things ought to be. We can talk about a worldview as the perspective of an individual person: his or her fundamental guiding beliefs, assumptions, ideas, and values. We can also talk about a worldview as a generalized type, as I will be doing here.

The content of a worldview can be carved up in different ways, but to keep matters relatively simple we will consider the three aforementioned worldviews under four headings:

  1. Its view of God
  2. Its view of ultimate reality
  3. Its view of truth and knowledge
  4. Its view of goodness and value

The first two of the four would fall under the traditional label of metaphysics, the third under epistemology, and the fourth under ethics or axiology. A worldview—or “world-and-life view” as some prefer to say—will include views on all four areas. Moreover, those positions will largely determine the anthropology embedded in that worldview.

II. Naturalism

Naturalism may be defined very simply as the thesis that only the natural universe exists. Naturally enough, this raises the question of what counts as ‘natural’—an issue that turns out to be vigorously debated even among professing Naturalists. A fairly standard definition would be as follows: something is natural if and only if it can be studied and explained, at least in principle, by the so-called natural or empirical sciences (i.e., physics, chemistry, and biology).

A common view among Naturalists is that all of the sciences can be reduced to physics: biology can be explained in terms of chemistry, which in turn can be explained in terms of physical entities and properties. On this view, Naturalism turns out to be some version of physicalism. As one Naturalist philosopher, Alex Rosenberg, succinctly put it: “The physical facts fix all the facts.”[3]

Within the Naturalist camp we may also distinguish between hard and soft Naturalists. Soft Naturalists allow for the reality of minds and mental entities (such as thoughts and ideas) provided that they are metaphysically grounded in physical entities (e.g., the mind is something non-physical that is somehow generated by a physical brain). Hard Naturalists, in contrast, will deny altogether the reality of minds and mental entities. On that view, strictly speaking, there are no such things as minds. (One has to wonder what’s going through their minds.)

Naturalism is closely associated with scientism, the notion that scientific knowledge is paradigmatic for human knowledge, and (in its more radical forms) that scientific knowledge is the only true knowledge.

Perhaps the most memorable summary of the Naturalist worldview can be credited to Carl Sagan: “The cosmos is all that was, or is, or ever will be.” While the number of card-carrying Naturalists may be relatively small, the basic worldview of Naturalism exerts a disproportionately strong influence on academic and culture today.

Let us consider Naturalism as a worldview, under the four headings previously stated.

Naturalism’s view of God

Simple—there is no God! God is a supernatural being and therefore God does not exist. Naturalism, by definition, rejects the idea of any transcendent supernatural cause, from which it follows that the universe is either eternal or came into existence spontaneously without any prior cause (both positions are defended by Naturalists today).

Naturalism’s view of ultimate reality

The ultimate reality is physical, material reality. Everything that exists ultimately has its basis in physical entities: matter and energy. As Rosenberg puts it, “The basic things everything is made up of are fermions and bosons. That’s it.”[4]

It follows that the universe is ultimately impersonal in nature; there is no moral agent or rational intellect behind the universe. Nature is ultimately non-moral, non-rational, and non-personal. It’s all just physical stuff. Consequently, there is no ultimate meaning or purpose in the universe. In the final analysis, nothing exists for a reason and nothing happens for a reason. It’s full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Naturalism’s view of truth and knowledge

Naturalists will typically affirm that there is such a thing as objective truth. Only science, however, can really deliver that truth. Objective truth means hard scientific facts—or what can be reduced to such facts. If your belief cannot be scientifically established, it isn’t knowledge. If your belief presupposes any non-natural entities, it isn’t true. It can’t be true. On this view, truth and knowledge range over natural entities alone, and they’re circumscribed by the methods of science.[5]

Naturalism’s view of goodness and value

Whatever goodness is, it has nothing whatsoever to do with God. Goodness isn’t defined by the nature, character, or will of God. If there is such a thing as goodness, it must be defined in wholly naturalistic terms. This puts Naturalists in something of a predicament, because it is widely recognized that science cannot deliver value judgments. Science tells you how things are, not how things ought to be. (The same applies generally to ordinary sense experience.)

Nevertheless, Naturalists have offered various theories of goodness and value, particular moral goodness and moral value. Here I will mention only two theories of moral goodness popular among Naturalists:

  1. Subjectivism: moral goodness is defined in terms of human preferences. On this view, something is good if I prefer or desire it. Thus, if I prefer company to solitude, then company is good. (There are, of course, collectivist versions of this theory, according to which something is good if we—whoever ‘we’ happens to be—prefer or desire it.)
  2. Utilitarianism: moral goodness is defined in terms of human pleasures. As the classical principle of utility has it, morality directs us to promote “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.”

 

With this bare-bones outline of the Naturalist worldview in place, let us turn our attention to anthropology. Recall the four questions delineated in the introduction:

  • What kind of beings are we? (The question of human nature.)
  • Where did we come from? (The question of human origins.)
  • What value or worth do we have?
  • How should we be treated?

Once we grasp the essentials of the Naturalist worldview, answers to these four questions follow relatively straightforwardly.

What kind of beings are we?

We are physical, material beings. There is no soul distinct from the body. When my body ceases to exist, I cease to exist.[6] We are, in essence, biological organisms: especially advanced, complex mammals.

Where did we come from?

Naturalism has its own creation myth, and it’s an evolutionary narrative. The story begins with cosmological evolution—the natural formation of a stable physical cosmos containing stars and planetary systems. The next chapter features chemical evolution—the chance formation of the first organic materials, and, eventually, the first living cells with reproductive powers. The door is thus opened to biological evolution: the progression from single-celled organisms to complex multi-celled life forms by primarily Darwinian processes. Finally, following the emergence of consciousness and intelligence, the story shifts to cultural evolution: the development of language, social practices, art, technology, and so forth.

For the Naturalist, all evolutionary processes are entirely natural and therefore undirected. As George Gaylord Simpson famously put it, “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.”[7]

What is our value? What are we worth?

Objectively speaking, we have no value, simply because there is no objective value on the Naturalist view. A human organism has no more intrinsic worth than any other arrangement of atoms. On the Naturalist view, no particular arrangement of atoms is objectively better or worse than any other arrangement. The universe just is what it is!

Consequently, the only way one can ascribe value to a human being is subjectively. You are valuable for me if you are valuable to me. Your worth is what you are worth to me. Value and worth will be entirely in the eye of the beholder.

How should we be treated?

For a strict, consistent Naturalist, this is a question without an answer. It’s a pseudo-question, because it’s not a question that has any objective scientific answer. From a thoroughgoing Naturalist perspective, the question “How should we treat a human being?” no more has a right or wrong answer than the question “How should we treat a pile of leaves?”

Nevertheless, Naturalists will inevitably run it through their various moral theories. Subjectivists would answer thus: we should treat people as we prefer or desire to treat them. (The immediate problem with this answer should be obvious to anyone with a high-school level knowledge of twentieth-century history.) Utilitarians, meanwhile, would answer thus: we should treat people so as to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number. On this view, we should note, any human may be treated as a means to an end, namely, the happiness of other humans. An individual human has merely instrumental value toward a collective end. On neither of these views—Subjectivism or Utilitarianism—are there any absolute duties or constraints on human actions.

III. Postmodernism

I should begin this section with an apologia for my use of the label ‘Postmodernism’. No doubt the terms ‘postmodern’ and ‘postmodernism’ have been used to describe a multitude of different movements and viewpoints. On some definitions, every single person in the West today is postmodern![8] Here I propose to use the term simply as a covering label for various philosophies that share some common themes. These themes arguably originated with Immanuel Kant, can be traced through Friedrich Nietzsche and the twentieth-century Existentialists (such as Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre) and find their most radical expression in the Deconstructionist movement and other anti-realist spin-offs. They are also found, however, in much cruder forms across the cultural landscape today.

The essence of Postmodernism, as I envisage it here, may be expressed in this proposition: there are no absolute norms and there is no objective reality. There are no absolute standards over us, to which we are all subject—and that includes moral standards. Moreover, there is no objective reality in the following sense: there is no reality that exists independently of us, that is to say, independently of our thoughts and our language. At any rate, there is no relevant and accessible reality that exists independently of us.

On the Postmodernist view, what is ‘real’ and what is ‘true’ are ultimately defined by us. This stance is sometimes called constructivism: ‘reality’ and ‘truth’ are constructed by us, in the way that we impose or project our thoughts, our ideas, our values, and our goals onto our experiences and thereby (in effect) create the world.

In terms of academic influence, Naturalism is most dominant in the sciences, whereas Postmodernism tends to hold sway in the humanities. Having previously considered Naturalism as a worldview, let us now do the same for Postmodernism.

Postmodernism’s view of God

There is no God in the classical sense. There is no transcendent personal Creator who exists objectively and absolutely. The only God or gods that could exist must be at root human projections rather than independent realities. Postmodernism may appear quite religiously liberal and pluralistic, but make no mistake, it has an absolutist and exclusivist core: it simply cannot tolerate an absolute God.

Postmodernism’s view of ultimate reality

There is no ultimate reality in any absolute or objective sense. There is no ultimate reality that simply is what it is, independently of us. There are only relative realities: relative to individuals or to cultures. In one sense, then, there is no ultimate reality for the Postmodernist. But in another sense, there are multiple ultimate realities: what’s ultimate is simply what’s ultimate for you, in terms of your construction of the world.

Postmodernism’s view of truth and knowledge

Truth is not something to be discovered so much as something to be created. (Note the contrast here with Naturalism, which typically holds to the objectivity of truth.) For the Postmodernist, truth is a social construction. It arises out of the choices and preferences of human societies. In short, something is true because we have decided that it is true, either individually or collectively. We have projected a particular interpretation onto our experiences.

As for knowledge, there is no such thing as knowledge in the classical sense (roughly, a well-grounded or well-justified belief that reflects an objective reality). Postmodernists typically view ‘knowledge’ along one of the following lines:

  • a myth—a throwback to a modernist pipe-dream;
  • a concealed attempt to exert power over some individual or group;
  • a matter of internal coherence within one’s own interpretation of the world.

Postmodernism’s view of goodness and value

There are no absolute norms; there are no objective criteria of goodness. Nothing is objectively good or bad (i.e., independently of us). Rather, if something is good, that is because we have decided that it is good. If something is valuable, that’s because it is valuable to us. Nothing has an intrinsic and objective value, simply in virtue of what it is.

With this (again bare-bones) outline of the Postmodernist worldview, let us now focus on the consequences for anthropology. The central tenet of a Postmodernist anthropology comes to this: human nature cannot be something that is defined independently of us—by the creative purposes of God, say, or by objective scientific facts. This entails that there is no objective, determinate answer to questions such as “What is a human being?” and “What does it mean to be human?” We ourselves are free to define what it means to be human, whether individually or collectively. Consequently, what we call “human nature”—if we can meaningfully speak of “human nature” at all—will be relative, fluid, and ultimately up for grabs.

In answer to our four questions, then:

What kind of beings are we?

Simple: we are whatever we define ourselves to be. As I’ve noted, that act of definition can operate individually or collectively, but a truly consistent Postmodernism (so I would argue) must say that it operates individually, at the level of the conscious subject.

Where did we come from?

Frankly, it doesn’t matter, except to say this: we do not find our origins in the creative act of an absolute personal God. Perhaps we evolved; perhaps we were seeded by aliens; perhaps something else altogether. It makes no difference in the end, because Postmodernism seeks to decouple human nature from any objective historical events.[9]

What is our value? What are we worth?

Our value is whatever value we ascribe to ourselves. On the Postmodernist view, humans have no intrinsic, objective, universal value. We have no value that is independent of our own preferences and judgments. If we value ourselves highly, then we are highly valuable; if we don’t value ourselves highly, then we aren’t highly valuable. Moreover, these valuations are subject to variation from person to person, from culture to culture.

How should we be treated?

This is a particularly tricky question for a Postmodernist, for there are no absolute norms that could supply an objective answer. The typical answer given, however, is that we should treat others with pluralistic tolerance and without judgment. Inclusivity is in! Exclusivity is out!

So much for the Postmodernist worldview and anthropology. Before turning to the third worldview—Christian Theism—I wish to make a few cursory observations about how Naturalism and Postmodernism differ with respect to their view of human nature, as well as what they have in common.

At first glance, Naturalism and Postmodernism appear to be polar opposites. Naturalism presents a depressingly low view of human beings: we are basically highly-evolved animals, which in turn are just complex arrangements of physical particles. (As Marvin Minsky, the MIT professor and pioneer of artificial intelligence put it, humans are essentially “meat machines.”) Postmodernism, on the other hand, ascribes to us virtually God-like power and authority. We are the creators of the world—indeed, the creators of ourselves! We are the ultimate authors of reality. The world is what it is, and has the meaning and value that it does, because of us—because of our thoughts, our words, our activities.

At a deeper level, however, these two worldviews must be regarded as close siblings; indeed, as non-identical twins conceived in the same womb. For these two worldviews are united in denying the existence of a transcendent personal Creator, and thus united in affirming human autonomy while rejecting any absolute reference point for truth, reason, meaning, purpose, and value. And for this very reason, neither of these secular worldviews can give an adequate account of the objective value of human beings and human life.

Naturalists can be (and have been) quite open about this. Postmodernists (as is their wont) tend to be more equivocal about it. Nevertheless, both worldviews are engaged in a kind of metaphysical alchemy: an attempt to derive meaning and value from ultimate meaninglessness and valuelessness.[10]

The dilemma for worldviews that reject a personal absolute God is precisely this: either they must make man nothing or they must make man everything. Man is either promoted to the level of deity or demoted to the level of dirt.

It seems appropriate at this point to remind ourselves of the words of Psalm 8:

O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens… When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings [Heb. elohim] and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands… O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Consider how the inspired Psalmist’s anthropological reflections begin and end with the glory of God—a thoroughly theocentric vision—while encompassing a view of man that is neither demoralizingly low nor blasphemously high.

IV. Christian Theism

For the purposes of this section I will define Christian Theism as the worldview presented in and presupposed by the Bible. Each of the points of the Christian worldview I lay out below is either explicitly stated, implied, or taken for granted by the biblical authors. The reason I identify the Christian worldview with the biblical worldview is straightforward: Christianity is defined by Christ, and Jesus himself affirmed that the Scriptures were the very word of God.[11] The Christian worldview is Christ’s worldview, and the worldview of Jesus was—and is—the biblical worldview.

Such preliminaries established, let us consider some of the defining tenets of Christian Theism under the four now-familiar headings.

Christian Theism’s view of God

Needless to say, the existence of God is the most foundational presupposition of the biblical worldview. There is but one God, and that one God has definite attributes. As the Westminster Larger Catechism summarizes the matter:

God is a Spirit, in and of himself infinite in being, glory, blessedness, and perfection; all-sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible, everywhere present, almighty, knowing all things, most wise, most holy, most just, most merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth.

Some distinctives of the Christian view of God need to be noted here, in contrast to other monotheistic religions. God is both personal and absolute. God is both transcendent and immanent. God is both One and Many (the doctrine of the Trinity).[12] Furthermore, from this understanding of the nature of God, it follows that God is the sovereign creator of everything that is not God.

Christian Theism’s view of ultimate reality

God, and God alone, is the ultimate reality. God alone is self-existent, self-sufficient, and absolute. God is the source and author of every other reality, the definer of every other reality. Everything other than God exists only because of God. Everything other than God—every created thing—is what it is only because of God’s sovereign decree. Nothing exists independently of God in the slightest respect. All this to say, Christian Theism posits a sharp Creator-creation distinction.

Christian Theism’s view of truth and knowledge

What is the Christian view of truth? We might be tempted to say (with considerable justification) that truth is simply correspondence with reality. I suggest however that we ought to say something deeper and more consistently theocentric. Truth doesn’t exist in the abstract, independently of God. Rather, truth is grounded in the mind of God. Truth, we might say, is ultimately identical with God’s thoughts.[13] For that very reason, truth exhibits both internal coherence (because of God’s essential unity) and external correspondence (because God defines reality).[14]

As for a Christian view of knowledge, surely the first point to affirm is that God is the ultimate knower. We can have knowledge because—and only because—God has made us derivative knowers and has provided us with divine revelation and cognitive faculties fitted to appropriate that divine revelation. In other words, Christian Theism affirms a revelational epistemology.

Christian Theism’s view of goodness and value

God is good, of course, but God is not merely good. God is ‘the Good’—that is to say, God is goodness as such. On the Christian Theist view, God himself is the absolute norm—the ultimate standard of truth, goodness, and beauty. Therefore, whatever has value, has value because (and only because) of its relationship to God. Something is valuable, objectively speaking, simply because God values it and delights in it.[15] Moral goodness is grounded in God’s character and God’s will. Right and wrong are defined by God’s law, which in turn is a revelation of his righteousness, holiness, and loving-kindness.

These, in briefest outline, are some of the defining points of the Christian Theist worldview. Let us now turn from theology (in the narrow sense) to anthropology. What is the Christian Theist view of human nature? Once again we will answer by way of four distinct questions.

What kind of beings are we?

From a biblical perspective, the first thing to say is that we are creatures. Second, and more specifically, we are creatures made in the image of God:

Then 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 birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)

The significance of this biblical affirmation cannot be underestimated, and it has the most profound implications for how we view ourselves and treat one another.

Third, we should note that we are gendered creatures. “In the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” The human race is structured around a basic gender binary: man and woman. Moreover, we dare not overlook the Hebrew parallelism in this verse: man and woman are equally created in the image of God.

Fourth, we are social creatures—designed by God for community:

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” (Genesis 2:18)

Thus we see the creation of the woman as a fitting companion for the man, and thereafter the institution of marriage and the family. (While I wouldn’t want to overstate or overextend the point, as some theologians may have done, there’s an important sense in which human community is a created reflection of the inner divine community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.)

Fifth, we are not merely physical creatures. We consist of both body and soul. The soul is an irreducible spiritual aspect of our being which can survive the death of the body and therefore does not merely ‘supervene’ upon the physical.[16]

Sixth, we are fallen creatures. Here I cannot improve upon the summary statements of the Westminster Shorter Catechism:

Q. 17. Into what estate did the fall bring mankind?
A. The fall brought mankind into an estate of sin and misery.
Q. 18. Wherein consists the sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell?
A. The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell consists in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called original sin; together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it.
Q. 19. What is the misery of that estate whereinto man fell?
A. All mankind by their fall lost communion with God, are under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all miseries in this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell forever.

In summary: we are creatures, made in God’s image, gendered, social, both physical and spiritual, and corrupted by sin in every part.

Where did we come from?

Christian Theism offers a very distinctive and significant story of origins. Human were created by God; more precisely, human were specially created by God. God did not create us indirectly via natural evolutionary processes. As the creation account in Genesis plainly affirms (and as scientific knowledge increasingly confirms) there is a clear ontological boundary between mankind and other animals, rather than an evolutionary continuum.

According to the biblical view, all humans are descended from one man (and one woman):

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place… (Acts 17:24-26)

The ethical implications of this biblical monogenesis can hardly be understated—to highlight but one example, consider the pressing issues of racial equality and reconciliation. (It also has equally important theological implications for the Christian doctrines of the fall, sin, and salvation.)

What value do we have?

We have enormous value, not merely as creatures but as creatures made in the image of God. We see this illustrated in Scripture in at least two ways. First, in the institution of capital punishment:

And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” (Gen. 9:5-6)

This point is underscored in the Mosaic Law by the different penalties assigned for human death and animal death. If an ox gores a man to death, the ox is put to death, but if a man kills his neighbor’s ox, the man isn’t put to death; rather, he has to make restitution to his neighbor.[17]

Secondly, we see the great value ascribed to mankind in the incarnation and the atonement. The value God places on human life is nowhere demonstrated more dramatically than in the fact that our Creator was willing to assume a human nature and make an atoning sacrifice to save human beings from an eternal hell and bring them into eternal fellowship with him. (To put the point rather pointedly: God did not take on a canine nature and make an atonement for dogs!)

How should we be treated?

It follows from the above that we ought to treat our fellow human beings with the greatest respect, dignity, and care. We should make every effort to protect and preserve human life, and to promote (as the current lingo has it) ‘human flourishing’.

Certainly we must treat our fellow humans as having immeasurably more value than animals (never mind plants). Yet at the same time, we must treat each other as fellow creatures, not as gods. We are created in the divine image, but we are not divine. We may be a little lower than the heavenly beings, but we are still lower.

Some readers might be asking at this point, “What is distinctively Christian about any of this? Shouldn’t we just call this ‘Theism’ or ‘the Theist worldview’? Don’t all monotheistic religions—at least the so-called Abrahamic ones—share the same basic anthropology?”

Those are understandable questions, but I want to challenge their premise by briefly noting some important differences between Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.[18]

Consider first the Islamic worldview. Unlike Christianity, Islam offers no doctrine of the imago Dei. The Qur’an nowhere echoes the affirmations of Genesis 1:26-27. In contrast, the Qur’an and subsequent Islamic tradition stress the absolute transcendence of God: Allah cannot be compared to anything in the creation.[19]

To be clear, my point is not that Islam reflects a low view of human beings. Consider, for example, the somewhat odd account in the Qur’an in which God, after creating Adam, commands the angels to bow down to him. When the angel Iblis (Satan) refuses to do so, God asks him why, and the reply comes forth, “Because I’m better than him: you created me out of fire and him out of dirt!”[20] Such protests notwithstanding, the idea that the angels should bow down to a human, rather than the reverse, hardly suggests a low view of mankind.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that Islam lacks a doctrine of the imago Dei and therefore humans simply cannot bear the kind of significance they enjoy in a biblical worldview. If there is any categorical distinction among creatures in the Qur’an, it isn’t between humans and animals but between believers and unbelievers.[21]

Unlike Islam, Judaism acknowledges the doctrine of the imago Dei, sharing with Christianity a commitment to the creation account in the Torah. What Judaism lacks, compared with Christianity, is a doctrine of redemption through divine incarnation and atonement. According to Christianity—and Christianity alone—the infinite God has united himself with a fully human nature, both body and soul!

Indeed, what we find in the New Testament is that the original theme of the image of God in man is transposed into a new key. The redeemed are not merely renewed to the image of God but conformed specifically to the image of Christ, the God-man. Christ is the archetypal human—the final Adam—the true Adam. And thus, through our union with Christ by faith, we are conformed to the divine image and brought into the divine life in a way that Adam never experienced.

St. Athanasius famously declared of Christ, “He became man that we might become God.”[22] Needless to say, there are orthodox and unorthodox ways to understand that statement! (Similar statements can be found among the early church fathers.) If we understand Athanasius’s aphorism along orthodox biblical lines, I believe we can understand why Christianity ascribes a dignity and value to human nature that Judaism simply cannot.

V. Conclusion

Our fundamental anthropology—our view of human nature and human origins—will inevitably have huge implications for how we view other people, how we value them, how we relate to them, and how we treat them, both individually and as a society. Moreover, our anthropology will in turn flow out of our broader worldview. The worldviews of Naturalism and Postmodernism hold considerable sway in our culture today, but they can offer no meaningful basis for human dignity, human rights, human equality, and human solidarity. They are sterile soils—nothing good can grow in them.

But to underscore once again the indispensability of a sound anthropology, consider this selection of recent news headlines:

“Woman Has Abortion Because She Couldn’t Fit Into Her Wedding Dress”
“First Child Dies by Euthanasia in Belgium”
“Transgender Man Gives Birth after Conceiving With Transgender Wife”
“First Baby Born Using ‘Three-Parent’ Technology”

Clearly there are deep divisions and highly-polarized debates in our culture today on the most basic matters of morality and public policy. I am convinced that there can be no resolution of these issues while people hold such radically divergent views of human nature, situated in such diametrically opposed worldviews.

What then can Christians do? Reams could be written in answer to that question; I will restrict myself to one concluding observation. Worldviews cannot be imposed from the outside. They have to be planted and grounded in the heart. In reality, these divisions and debates will never be resolved without real gospel transformation. So our first priority as Christians must be what it has always been: to proclaim the gospel and pray for revival.

  1. Alvin Plantinga, “On Christian Scholarship,” in The Challenge and Promise of a Catholic University, ed. Theodore M. Hesburgh (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), 267–95.
  2. Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011), 26, 162.
  3. Ibid., 21.
  4. Some Naturalists find a strict scientism too narrow, but they will still affirm empiricism: one can only know what is perceived through the senses. This allows for non-scientific knowledge; on this more permissive view, science is understood to be an extension of ordinary empirical knowledge.
  5. Richard Dawkins was once invited to express his view of what happens after we die. His answer: “We decompose.”
  6. George Gaylord Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution, rev. ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967), 345. One might quibble that cultural evolution is not undirected and purposeless, since it is driven by human minds, but cultural evolution presupposes the arrival of human beings on the scene. Recall that our focus here is on human origins according to Naturalism.
  7. As someone once quipped, trying to define ‘postmodernism’ is like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.
  8. I think this is a fair generalization, although there are exceptions. Richard Rorty, for example, attempted to justify his anti-realist epistemology on the basis of a naturalistic Darwinian account of human origins. Rorty’s worldview thus represents an intriguing case of a Naturalism-Postmodernism hybrid.
  9. One thinks here of Van Til’s vivid analogy of a man made of water trying to raise himself out of an infinite expanse of water by building a ladder of water. Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 3rd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1967), 102.
  10. John W. Wenham, “Christ’s View of Scripture,” in Inerrancy, ed. Norman L. Geisler (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1979), 3–36; Craig L. Blomberg, “Reflections on Jesus’ View of the Old Testament,” in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 669–701.
  11. For a detailed exposition of these distinctives and others, see John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002).
  12. For a philosophical defense of this view, see James N. Anderson and Greg Welty, “The Lord of Noncontradiction: An Argument for God from Logic,” Philosophia Christi 13, no. 2 (2011): 321–38; Greg Welty, “Theistic Conceptual Realism,” in Beyond the Control of God? Six Views on the Problem of God and Abstract Objects, ed. Paul M. Gould (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), 81–111.
  13. Cf. Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1969), 1–3.
  14. And God delights in himself more than anything else!
  15. John W. Cooper, Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989).
  16. Exodus 21:28-36.
  17. I refer here to Orthodox Judaism, by which I mean that traditional branch of historical Judaism which continues to affirm biblical monotheism and the authority of the Old Testament scriptures.
  18. Qur’an 30:27; 42:11; 112:4.
  19. Qur’an 7:11-13. One is tempted to think that Satan might have had a point here.
  20. See, e.g., Qur’an 98:6-7, where believers are referred to as “the best of creatures,” and unbelievers as “the worst of creatures.”
  21. On the Incarnation, 54.