Chapter 5: We Believe in Man

Beliefs That Count
by Georgia Harkness

Chapter 5: We Believe in Man

We hold as central the dignity and sacredness of every human personality. Man is made in the spiritual image of God and partakes of His character and fellowship. He is greater than the world through which God produces and sustains His life. The Scriptures remind us that man is a sinner and has fallen short of the glory of God. He may, however, through grace, rise above his sin and the circumstances which surround him. His glory is in his humanity and not his race or color. Endowed with freedom of choice, he may descend to the lowest hell or rise to the highest heaven. In him as a person all the moral ends of the universe and all the movement of God’s eternal purpose find meaning and value.

What is Man ?

Within recent years the psalmist’s question,

"What is man that thou art mindful of him,

and the son of man that thou dost care for him?" (Psalms 8:4.)

has swung into a central place of interest in both theological and popular thinking. A generation ago the existence and nature of God and his relation, if any, to what seems to be a cruel and morally indifferent universe, occupied many minds. This interest has not ceased, as previous chapters have indicated. But the dominant questions today appear to be "Who am I? What am I? What am I here for? Where am I going?" Many differences of opinion -- important to the individual and crucial to society -- center in the answers to these questions.

Ever since the publication of Reinhold Niebuhr’s now classic two volumes of the Gifford Lectures, The Nature and Destiny of Man, (New York; Charles Scribner’s Sons, Volume I, 1941; Volume II, 1943.) this theme has been dominant in theological circles. Even if Niebuhr had not written these books, the subject was ripe for re-examination, for formerly prevalent optimistic views of man’s powers were waning both from the pressure of events and from the shift in theology from philosophical to biblical foundations. Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and the rediscovery of Søren Kierkegaard had great influence. Furthermore, European theology in general laid great stress on man’s sin and his inability to save himself even by his best and noblest works.

The differences between liberalism and the new orthodoxy center more in the doctrine of man than at any other point. The former stresses man’s dignity and greatness as the child of God made in the divine image while the latter stresses man’s perpetual sinfulness and weakness. There is not an absolute difference between the two, for both admit the truth in the other’s position. The emphasis in each is different, however. And, as we shall see in the next chapter, this makes a difference as to how we will regard a subject of major importance -- man’s salvation.

In popular circles the focus of questioning has shifted from God to man. This does not mean that man has recently become more important than God, for men always tend to put themselves in the center even when they claim to exalt God above all. Yet people seem to be less worried about God and more concerned about themselves than they were a generation ago. God may generally be taken for granted.

The matters of real concern are our inner tensions and, on the other side of the ledger, our sources of satisfaction. The demands constantly being made upon us in business and family life, the world scene, and the precarious state in which we all dwell compel thoughtful people to consider the nature and destiny of man. Although salvation -- if labeled in religious terminology --can hardly be called one of man’s dominant interests, modes of escape from ourselves and our boredom and insecurities are much desired and talked about by the general public. The vogue of psychiatry and of various "peace of mind" cults -- whether overtly religious or not -- give evidence that modern man is gravely concerned about himself.

What, then, does our Christian faith tell us not only about modern man but about man in every age?

Man in the Divine Image

We hold as central the dignity and sacredness of every human personality. Man is made in the spiritual image of God and partakes of His character and fellowship.

We referred in the previous chapter to the great beauty, dignity, and spiritual truths to be found in the first chapter of Genesis. One of its greatest verses is Genesis 1:27 which says, "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them."

Obviously this cannot mean that man looks like God in the sense that a child may have the color of eyes or the facial contour of a parent. It means something far deeper. It means that in our basic nature -- our essential nature, if one prefers that term -- God has made us as much like himself as a finite creature can be like the Infinite. God is all wise, wholly righteous, altogether loving, and supreme in creative power. Our wisdom, goodness, love, and creativity are limited. They are never infinite and are often very feeble, especially when we fail to make use of our God-given powers. Yet these are great gifts -- gifts of immeasurable importance in our estimate of the worth of human personality.

What it means to be made in the image of God may become clearer if we take a look at our most distinctive traits -- those that set us apart from the sub-human world and prompt us to speak of "the human soul" or "the human spirit."

There is, first, God’s great gift of freedom of choice and decision. This gift is never unlimited; it is often misused; yet it is always present to distinguish man from anything else in all creation. We are not mere biological organisms acting by instinct or reflexes; we are free within limits to direct our destinies by ideals and goals. From this power comes man’s capacity for goodness which, with the alternative possibility of evil, places on us a great responsibility. With it also comes our capacity for learning -- the possibility of acquiring the great heritage of the past, of seeking and discovering truth, and of using our powers for fresh forms of creativity. Immensely important though this privilege is, God has bestowed an even greater gift, the capacity for loving. On this is built all human fellowship. It is a capacity that is far more than biological instinct or animal gregariousness. Because we have it, we are bidden to love God supremely and our neighbors as ourselves.

Reference was made above to our creativity. Since we receive this gift from God, the Creator of all, he calls us to serve him and one another in fashioning more nearly to his purposes an unfinished world. And because of our evaluating powers, we can discern between the higher and the lower, set standards and goals to work toward, and by God’s help -- if we are faithful stewards of his gifts -- can succeed in some measure in making the world around us better. These are some of the things that give man a high dignity and which provide meaning to the thought of our being made in God’s image.

Because God has loved and trusted us enough to make us in his image, we ought never to think meanly or to speak disparingly of any human being, including ourselves. This does not mean that we ought to have no humility, for we have plenty of sins and weaknesses to keep us humble! Yet the major note in our doctrine of man may well be man’s essential greatness -- greatness not of our own achieving but as God’s gift. Taken seriously, this is a tremendous challenge both to live worthily and to treat all other persons with great dignity and respect.

Another idea in the thought of the divine image which we ought not to miss is suggested in the last words of the sentences quoted above. God made us in his own image for fellowship with himself. This is the highest tribute he could pay us. Certainly we need the lift and the deepening of spirit which come from fellowship with God. But may it not also be that God, the Infinite and the Eternal, needs our fellowship for the completion of his experience? If so, let us not grieve him by denying him this. We must examine the meaning of this idea in a later chapter on Christian experience.

Man as Nature and Spirit

He is greater than the world through which God produces and sustains his life. . . . Endowed with freedom of choice, he may descend to the lowest hell or rise to the highest heaven.

The Bible does not ordinarily split man’s personality into body and soul or make the three-pronged division of body, mind, and soul which we are inclined to make. Man (adham in the Hebrew, from whence comes "Adam" as generic man) is one person. He lives as a whole; he dies as a whole; he is resurrected as a whole. Yet this does not mean that the Bible simply identifies man with his body and its behavior, as the behavioristic or other naturalistic psychologists are inclined to do. Man is "like the beasts that perish" (Psalms 49:12, 20) in his mortality, but not in his honor. And where the biblical writers felt the need to distinguish between the body’s needs and impulses and those of the soul, they did not hesitate to do so. (Note, for example, Matthew 10:28, Luke 12:4; I Corinthians 6:13-20; 9:27.) Paul, who makes the contrast more often than does any other writer, is very clear that the body is good in itself -- so good that it is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Regardless of this fact, however, he realizes that it has impulses that must ever be kept in subordination to the soul.

The true relation of man to the physical world -- including that part of it which is his own body -- is that through nature "God produces and sustains his life." If we follow the example of Jesus, we shall find nothing small or insignificant in all God’s world. Yet man is God’s supreme creation, greater than anything else in all existence. To cite again the Genesis story, God has given man the right to "have dominion," that is, to exercise stewardship, over all that he has made (Genesis 1 :28-29). Taken seriously, this could transform our economic life and help the modern world recover the Protestant Reformation’s sense of the sacredness of the common life of daily labor. To cite from another angle, the late Archbishop William Temple’s phrase, this is a "sacramental universe" in which all nature speaks of God, its Creator. Furthermore, Temple concludes, Christianity is the most "materialistic" of all religions because, though it subordinates matter to spirit, it finds sacredness in everything God has made. (Nature, Man and God [New York: St. Martin’s Press, Inc.] pp. 473-495.)

We have noted that God has made man the steward of his world and has given him great responsibilities. God has also given man freedom of choice in which moral responsibility is centered. Because of this freedom he can worship and serve God and give himself in great devotion to what is involved in the Christian life. But because of the misuse of this freedom, every man sins. This is man’s perennial plight, and in the deeper issues of his being he cannot save himself. Having seen realistically that this is true, let us look further at what it means.

Man as Sinner

The Scriptures remind us that man is a sinner and has fallen short of the glory of God. He may, however, through grace, rise above his sin and the circumstances which surround him.

Indeed, the Scriptures remind us that man is a sinner! This fact is written on every page of the Bible, and the Bible’s great theme is God’s loving concern for his sinning people and his gracious forgiveness of those who in penitence will turn to him for newness of life.

But the Bible is not so explicit concerning what sin is. Sometimes it is conceived legalistically, as disobedience to the Ten Commandments or to some other code of law. The Pharisees of Jesus’ time had a very elaborate and definite set of rules listing things that could not be done without falling into sin. These restrictions were particularly rigid in regard to the Sabbath. Jesus felt obligated to rebuke such legalism. To him it was sinful to "tithe mint and dill and cummin," when neglecting "the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith." (Matthew 23:23.) He predicted condemnation for men who like to "go about in long robes, and to have salutations in the market places and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers." (Mark 12:38-40.)

Such legalistic views of righteousness, and correspondingly, of sin, have their counterparts today. But more common is the moralistic idea of sin. This idea pictures sin in terms of infractions of prevailing moral and social standards. In short, to sin is to do "what isn’t done," whether this means getting drunk, having an illegitimate baby, robbing a bank, or committing a murder. To object to such a standard is not to say that these things are right; clearly they are not. Yet human standards, which vary from age to age and from place to place, are not enough. To sin is something far more serious than to break either the written or unwritten laws of society, for all sin in its real meaning is sin against God.

The Bible declares again and again that the deeper meaning of sin is disobedience to God. Such disobedience may or may not lead us into courses of action that society condemns. The prophets have always proclaimed a higher morality than their surrounding cultures. This is why Jesus was crucified and why his followers have again and again been misunderstood and persecuted. Yet all of these have suffered victoriously because they knew that fidelity to God was all that really mattered.

Sin means disobedience, and guilt before God is the only ultimate form of guilt. But this does not mean that how we treat our brothers is irrevelant! It matters enormously, for according to Jesus the highest goodness consists in love to God which obligates us also to love our neighbor. And because Jesus has thus made love the supreme demand of the New Testament faith, lovelessness is the corresponding evil.

The forms in which we manifest our lack of love are manifold. Sometimes we express it in acute forms of hatred and in positive and terrible acts of injury. Again -- probably more often and certainly more insidiously -- it appears in callous indifference, coldness of heart, and moral dullness to the needs and feelings of others. Yet whatever the form, we sin whenever we fail to love. This is man’s perennial tendency, and it is so deep-seated that only God can purge and transform our living. About this we shall be doing some more thinking in the next chapter. But let us conclude this discussion with a further look at the difference the Christian understanding of man makes in our human, social situation.

Man and His World

His glory is in his humanity and not his race or color. . . . In him as a person all the moral ends of the universe and all the movement of God’s eternal purpose find meaning and value.

If what has been said thus far is true, all of us -- despite our sinfulness -- are infinitely precious and worthwhile to God. This is true regardless of our human estimates and our social situation. We may be white or colored; Caucasian, Semitic, or Mongolian; American, European, or Oriental; tall or short; rich or poor; educated or illiterate; male or female -- God loves and prizes us all. The only true and vital ground of democracy lies in this fact. It is only as this fact is more fully recognized and wrought into our living that we shall have any semblance of human justice in our society.

It should be apparent without any lengthy argument that race discrimination, any assumptions of class superiority, or cleavages based on a self-righteous pride of national origin must be utterly abhorrent to God. This is not to say that race or national differences are wrong in themselves. Just as there is no moral quality in the fact that persons are born male or female, so these other human differences are facts. What is terribly wrong is to make of them tools of dominance of one group over another and to erect walls of division among persons. Our common humanity ought to be the basis of equality and fellowship.

But can we agree on the last statement of the quoted paragraph regarding man -- the idea that "in him as a person all the moral ends of the universe and all the movement of God’s eternal purpose find meaning" ? This is a large statement, and some persons might find it presumptuous! Whether it is presumptuous depends wholly on the ground on which it is made. If man is simply trying to exalt himself and is seeking to claim for himself the central spotlight of the universe, then it is worse than presumptuous; it is blasphemous. But if the Christian in all humility subordinates himself to God and recognizes his sin and weakness and his complete dependence on God for his existence and his salvation, there is nothing wrong in thinking that man is the supreme object of God’s concern. Jesus apparently believed this, and so may we.

Jesus believed in man’s great value to God enough to live and to die for our redemption. To this great theme let us now turn.