“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” —John 10:10

“Men have forgotten God,” the Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously observed. “That’s why all this has happened.” Solzhenitsyn was speaking of the devastation of the twentieth century, the world wars, the genocides, the development of military technologies capable of destroying life in novel and previously unimaginable ways. Without God, the human person becomes enslaved to worldly ideologies of materialism, consumerism, collectivism, and individualism. Men have forgotten God, and in so doing, they have also forgotten themselves.

For his part, Solzhenitsyn called for “a common front against atheism” from Christian churches. “Yet even for such a purpose the steps taken are much too slow.” Alas, we have not progressed far enough in this kind of ecumenical endeavor over the ensuing forty years. But it is now indisputable that we must recover a proper understanding of humanity, and this requires reckoning with God and his revelation concerning creation. We must hold to a correct view of the human person if we are to pursue true flourishing. For Christians, at least, this means recovering the fundamental truths about humanity and our relation to God as communicated in Scripture and church history. Only this kind of recovery can serve as a corrective to the atheistic ideologies that pervade our world today. “All attempts to find a way out of the plight of today’s world are fruitless,” warned Solzhenitsyn, “unless we redirect our consciousness, in repentance, to the Creator of all: without this, no exit will be illumined, and we shall seek it in vain.”

What Is Man?

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The Psalmist wonders of God: “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” (8:4). This question captures a central feature of the biblical witness. The Bible is in a fundamental sense a message from God to humanity, a revelation addressed to humanity revealing our beginning, our nature, and our purposes as God’s creatures. Just as Psalm 8 opens with a song of praise for God’s glory and transcendence—“O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”—the Bible begins with an account of God as the creator of everything: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1).

And as God creates the light, the sky, the land, the seas, the sun and the moon and the stars, the Psalmist looks in awe at these wondrous works of divine creation and marvels at the place of humanity in such a majestic order. God has made the human person “a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor” (Ps. 8:5). God, sings the Psalmist, has made the human person “ruler over the works of your hands” (Ps 8:6), indeed, all of those things enumerated in the creation account: birds and beasts and fish.

While there is a clear difference between God and humanity in these texts, there is also a close connection. God is the creator, the one worthy of praise and adoration. Humanity is created to praise and adore God and to exercise authority as his representative in creation. “The glory of God is a living man,” writes the church father Irenaeus, and one of the fundamental ways in which humanity glorifies God is as his earthly representative. The creation account introduces this idea in the revelation that “God created man in his own image” (Gen. 1:26).

The Image of God

The link between humanity created in the image of God and divine representation is apparent from the biblical text itself. Immediately following the narrative of God’s creation of humanity “in his own image,” the text relates God’s blessing: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen. 1:28).

The significance of this is even more stark when understood within the context of the Ancient Near East (ANE). The image-bearer of a ruler was someone who was entrusted with a physical symbol of that ruler, such as a seal or staff, and who acted as a representative of that ruler in places or circumstances where that ruler could not appear. This was common practice among the nations of the Ancient Near East, but some important differences appear in the Genesis creation account that demonstrate a meaningful transformation of this common cultural reality.

First, the Genesis account shows that the image-bearing quality of humanity concerns a transcendent divine ruler. While there was a connection between, and even conflation of, kingship and divinity in the ancient pagan world, the God of Genesis stands uniquely above and apart from creation when compared to pagan pantheons and their divinely appointed or sired representatives. Humans bear the divine image not of one who is unable to appear or is limited by physical or geographical factors, but of God Most High, the transcendent one, the maker and sustainer of all the heavens and the earth. God makes humanity in his image not to fill some lack or solve some inability on his part, but rather out of his overflowing and abundant grace. Pagan kings used image-bearers as a practical necessity to extend and enforce their rule; God gratuitously employs image-bearers as means for them to enjoy ever greater communion and harmony within the created order.

Additionally, the Genesis creation account differs from the broader image-bearing context of the ANE in that the image is not something that is temporarily held or given from outside the person. For humanity created in God’s image, image-bearing is intrinsic. It is an essential and definitive aspect of human nature as such, not something merely represented by an external symbol or device. The image-bearing dimensions of human nature persist and have significance even in the context of a fallen world (Gen. 9:6).

And while each human person is an image-bearer of God, the Genesis creation account makes clear that image-bearing is not merely an individual responsibility or reality. Humanity as a community bears the image of God; there are aspects of image-bearing that can only be accomplished in community. A human being cannot “be fruitful and increase in number” alone. No single person can “fill the earth and subdue it.” While each individual human being is created in the image of God and has the corresponding dignity and responsibility, there are broader dimensions of image-bearing that refer to communal realities.

The Human Family

The first human society that is described in Scripture, and the first that exists historically as well as logically, is the human family grounded in marriage. “Male and female he created them,” we read in Genesis 1:27, and in Genesis 2 we find that “it is not good for the man to be alone” (2:18). One reason that radical individual existence is “not good” is that it renders the blessing and task to “be fruitful and increase in number” impossible outside of ongoing miraculous divine works.

Human marriage is a complex and wonderful reality. One key aspect of marriage, however, is that with it a new family is formed, first consisting of the male-female couple and later—conditionally within the context of a fallen world—including children. While every particular marriage within a fallen world does not actualize procreation, God does promise to women that “you will give birth to children,” albeit within a new context of pain and suffering (Gen. 3:16). After the fall into sin, humanity still is promised that there will be the ongoing possibility of fulfilling the basic aspects of the created mandate to “fill the earth.” Just as not every person is called to marriage, not every marriage is fruitful in the same sense. But as a broader human community, the reality of historical development is only possible within the context of procreation and generational continuity. Not everyone must marry and have children, but at least some members of humanity must do so in order for humanity to continue to exist. This is particularly salient when we are faced with the prospect of death: in a fallen world, humanity is continually only one generation away from extinction.

The family, centered on the marriage and bodily union of male and female, is the basic social unit and the first community within which the human person is born and begins to develop. The act of procreation leads naturally to the responsibilities of nurture and formation, fitted to each new aspect and context of a growing and maturing human being. The child is born into different relationships with each parent and, as well, into new relationships with the extended family. As more children are born within a particular family, new relationships and dynamics are formed between younger and older siblings and between brothers and sisters of different temperaments and dispositions. The family is where the human person is first and most formatively socialized and acculturated into relations with other human beings.

Family and Society

The goal of procreation and the nurture of children is for them to grow and develop into mature adults, capable of forming their own households. Particular human families in this way come together to create extended families, a set of relations that extends out in some broader sense to encompass the entire human family, throughout history. Humanity in this way forms a kind of organic unity, and one can speak meaningfully about “the human family” or “humanity” as a whole. A group of family units, in turn, gives rise to greater and greater complexity and diversity in social life, leading to the formation of different relationships and institutions as social life develops.

Each person is born into unique historical circumstances, and he has a particular relationship with his forebears and ancestors, parents and siblings, cousins and extended family members. And no other person, even someone born to the same family, has that same set of relationships. Each individual born throughout human history therefore has a unique set of relationships, a unique matrix of mutuality, that in part defines his identity. From the perspective of divine providence, each person is blessed—and in some cases burdened—with a particular background, set of talents and dispositions, resources and relationships, that God uses to further his purposes in the world.

The family is the first and distinctively formative community, but as humanity has developed, greater and greater complexity and diversity have become manifest in social life. Not only families but villages, towns, cities, counties, regions, states, nations, and international communities have come to expression. Social life today consists of a wide and ever-increasing variety of relationships, defined by factors from kinship, sacrament, and covenant, to contract, affinity, and mutual interest.

The Reformation saw a significant development of Christian reflection on social life as the relatively static and defined hierarchies and roles of medieval feudal society transitioned to an increasingly complex and modern society. The reformer Martin Luther adapted a classic and Aristotelian perspective of social life into his understanding of the three estates, the basic institutions and communities that characterize human society: the family, the church, and the state. In addition to these, Luther affirmed a “common order of Christian love” that, in some sense, unites and binds together everyone regardless of their standing within a particular estate.

As the contexts for concrete vocations became more and more complex and diverse, greater discernment and prudence became necessary to determine what the best position in life was for each person. Luther’s contemporary Martin Bucer summarizes the situation as follows: “Children should be encouraged to enter the best profession, and the best profession is the one which brings most profit to neighbors.” With advances in technology, as well as diversification of cultural, political, and economic institutions, more and more opportunities for profitable service for others became realistic for more and more people.

All morally legitimate callings are understood to be equally righteous in some sense, coram Deo. And yet there are concrete differences with respect to scale and scope of authority and responsibility. With the dissolution of an understanding of society as a unified corpus Christianum, a reconception of the relationship between spiritual and earthly authorities, as well as of the interrelationship between various estates and callings, became necessary.

Ultimate and Penultimate

The fundamental challenge then, as it remains now, is to properly relate the various aspects of human nature, individually as well as corporately, to earthly as well as heavenly realities. “Everyone,” advises Luther, “should examine his gift.” Some people are called to serve primarily in the context of the church; others are gifted for political service. Some may be blessed by God to serve in the household; others may be tasked with profitable work in the commercial arena. “For just as we are unequal in our bodies, our talents, and our property,” advises Luther,” so we are unequal in spiritual gifts.” Each of us has a distinct and unique part to play in the flourishing of society in all its multifaceted dimensions. And each one of these callings has equal dignity before God, even if there are other ways in which they clearly do differ.

The key dynamic that must be rightly ordered, then, is that of the ultimate and the penultimate, the eternal and the temporal, the spiritual and the material. It is possible to be so enamored of the spiritual that one neglects to value rightly the material. This was a common error in the medieval church, one against which Luther struggled tenaciously. Callings within the ecclesial estate were considered to be of greater honor and significance than merely temporal duties having primarily to do with earthly affairs.

The contrary temptation is also a perennial threat. We can easily become so caught up in temporal concerns that we crowd out our due care for eternal matters. God creates the human person in his image, an image that involves not simply the invisible or spiritual aspects of our nature, but also our physical and incarnated dimensions.

The Lord’s Prayer provides a model for the proper understanding of this dynamic. The petition “give us this day our daily bread” appears early on in the prayer, and it demonstrates that it is appropriate to be concerned about the necessities of life. “Daily bread” has always been understood to refer to all of the requirements of bodily life, including not only food but also water, clothing, and shelter. The petition for these bodily realities attests to their importance for human flourishing.

At the same time, however, Jesus does not teach us to stop there, or that the order of things we petition God for indicates their ultimate value. “We pray for our daily bread before pardon and spiritual blessings,” writes the Puritan Richard Baxter, “not as if it were better, but that nature is supposed before grace, and we cannot be Christians if we are not men.” There is a sense in which basic physical survival is a prerequisite for anything else. “If nature be not supported,” Baxter observes, “men are not capable of other good.”

As Jesus teaches us the Lord’s Prayer in the Sermon on the Mount, he also explicates the proper relationship between material and spiritual goods elsewhere in his discourse. Jesus warns his hearers that one cannot be equally devoted to God and material goods: “No one can serve two masters. . . . You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt. 6:24). Indeed, teaches Jesus, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?” (Matt. 6:25). He goes on to properly relativize all of the earthly concerns that tend to dominate our attention and our efforts: “Your heavenly Father knows that you need them” (Matt. 6:32). And he concludes with the critical statement of the proper relationships between the ultimate and the penultimate: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:33).

“Material laws alone do not explain our life or give it direction,” Solzhenitsyn explains:   

The laws of physics and physiology will never reveal the indisputable manner in which the Creator constantly, day in and day out, participates in the life of each of us, unfailingly granting us the energy of existence; when this assistance leaves us, we die. And in the life of our entire planet, the Divine Spirit surely moves with no less force: this we must grasp in our dark and terrible hour.

It is not the case that daily bread is not important; it is just that such concerns must be properly related to the pursuit of higher goods. This does not devalue such earthly matters. Rather, it properly values them as appropriate and necessary, and indeed, divinely ordained means for the realization of spiritual goods. This is why the Sermon on the Mount opens with the statement: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:3). The poor in spirit are those who seek first the kingdom of heaven and God’s righteousness, and they are therefore the ones who flourish in the deepest and most important sense.

An authentic anthropology does justice to the complexity of the human person in all dimensions—bodily and spiritually, individually and communally, earthly and heavenly.


The Sociality of the Human Person

A right ordering of our bodily and spiritual needs is required for flourishing. And in the same way that this right ordering is necessary for us individually, our societies need to be rightly ordered to the fulfillment of both material and spiritual needs as well. This involves not only the orientation of a society’s institutions, laws, norms, and practices to God’s will, but also a proper relationship of human beings to one another within each society.

And just as each human person is fallen and in need of restoring grace, human society is marked by corruption and sinfulness. It is a mark of God’s preserving grace that he allows human community to continue even in the face of such sin. As Augustine writes: “There is nothing so social by nature as this race, no matter how discordant it has become through its fault.”

Properly accounting for both the individual dignity of the human person and the social nature of the person is essential for an authentic account of human flourishing. When rightly understood, these two features are not at odds, but rather, mutually fulfilling. One’s identity and dignity are only truly accounted for within the context of one’s organic relations and historical context. This does not reduce anyone to a mere cog in a greater machine; rather, it helps accentuate and define precisely the uniqueness and unrepeatable wonder of each individual human person who has ever existed.

The ideologies of modern society are all too often the consequence of a more or less deformed anthropology. The curses of consumerism, socialism, materialism, individualism, transhumanism, and naturalism are pathological corruptions of an authentic and true vision of the human person. Each of these phenomena, whether as existential realities or theoretical constructs, depends on a flawed, or at least incomplete, anthropology. And given the ontological reality of humanity created in the image of God, every anthropology also has a corresponding theology—whether explicit or merely implicit.

An authentic anthropology does justice to the complexity of the human person in all dimensions—bodily and spiritually, individually and communally, earthly and heavenly. There is a fundamental unity in all humanity, created in God’s image and called to glorify him. There is a diversity of concrete applications of this universal call: it takes different forms in the lives of different peoples distinguished by differing historical and contextual circumstances. An authentic integral and ecumenical anthropology rightly identifies and orders these dynamics of both unity and diversity. Such an anthropology is particularly essential to properly understand the social nature of the individual human person, as modern ideologies are essentially anthropological pathologies, expressing the extremes of either atomistic individualism or totalitarian collectivism. Both of these errors depend on fundamentally erroneous understandings of the human person.

An Integral, Ecumenical Anthropology

Benedict XVI powerfully summarizes the core of an integral anthropology for human flourishing: “The Christian vocation to development helps to promote the advancement of all men and of the whole man.” An integral anthropology is at once concerned with the entirety of the human person in unified integrity, body and soul. This integral anthropology is likewise concerned with the right relationship and ordering of the human person to “the advancement of all men.” There is an inherent dynamic between individuality and sociality that has to be appropriately accounted for to develop an authentic anthropology for development and flourishing. The inherent individual dignity and responsibility of the human person must be respected, even as they are understood to come to expression in social life and to take various social, institutional, and cultural forms.

“The glory of God is a living man,” writes Irenaeus. But he continues: “The life of man consists in beholding God.” This understanding of “beholding God” means not an otherworldly indifference to, or isolation from, earthly concerns. It is, rather, an understanding of divine transcendence that makes it possible to behold and worship God corporately, in ecclesial service, and in our work and our individual callings, rightly ordering and valuing these latter things in light of ultimate reality. Augustine likewise captures this insight in his observation that “man is happy not in the enjoyment of the body or in the enjoyment of the mind, but in the enjoyment of God, enjoying Him not as the mind does the body or itself, or as one friend enjoys another friend, but as the eye enjoys light.”

Human flourishing comes to its ultimate expression in the enjoyment of God, or in the words of the Westminster Larger Catechism, the human purpose “to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him for ever.” Human beings are, indeed, called to glorify and enjoy God in all our endeavors. As the Apostle Paul puts it, “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17). Human flourishing does not require escaping the cares and travails of this world, but rather, it imbues them with significance in the light of the Eternal One, in whom we live and move and have our being.

Image by savcoco and licensed via Adobe Stock.