Written by Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley |
Thursday, November 16, 2023
Anthropology, therefore, lays a foundation upon which we build our ethics. What is right or wrong in our treatment of others largely depends on who they are. Murder, adultery, theft, lying—these violations of the Ten Commandments are sins because of the nature of those against whom we commit them. The same is true of ethical questions regarding genetic engineering, cloning, abortion, euthanasia, racism, and economic oppression. The doctrine of anthropology interfaces with every major teaching of the Christian faith.
Theology is both an academic discipline and a spiritual discipline. For this reason, it demands much of us. It is worthwhile, therefore, to start our study of anthropology by asking why this labor deserves our time and trouble. Why should we study the doctrine of man?1
Its Importance in the Bible The Lord devotes much of the Bible to teaching us about who and what we are. Louis Berkhof (1873–1957) wrote “that man occupies a place of central importance in Scripture and that the knowledge of man in relation to God is essential to its proper understanding,” for “man is not only the crown of creation, but also the object of God’s special care.”2
Since it is good to study the works of God (Pss. 92:4–5; 111:2), much more we should consider the climax of God’s creative work, which is the creation of man (8:4), whom he has placed over all his other works (v. 6). Such a study enables us to adoringly exclaim, “O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!” (vv. 1, 9). Calvin said about the study of man, “Among all God’s works here is the noblest and most remarkable example of his justice, wisdom, and goodness.”3
God’s Word models for us a healthy attention to anthropology. Large tracts of the Scriptures consist of historical narratives and personal vignettes that expose us to the character of men and nations. Entire books, such as Ruth and Esther, describe no miracles and contain no prophetic revelations (though the secret providence of God looms in the background), but report only the faithful actions of godly people, whether peasant or queen. Proverbs focuses largely upon human life in God’s world, offering pithy sayings that illuminate human nature and identify different kinds of people. The Bible also contains major doctrinal statements about man, such as “And God said, Let us make man in our image” (Gen. 1:26) and “You . . . were dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1).
We need self-knowledge for our salvation. Consider the epistle to the Romans, perhaps the preeminent exposition of the gospel in the Holy Scriptures. It is full of teaching about the work of Jesus Christ, how God applies that work by the Spirit and faith, and what response we should offer in thankful love. However, most of the first three chapters of Romans consist of the dark truths about human sin and its consequences. Evidently, anthropology is a crucial part of the gospel. We should appreciate its place in the Bible and study it carefully.
Its Integral Relation to Other Doctrines Much of systematic theology consists of linking particular biblical truths so that we develop a biblical system of thought. Anthropology is part of this web of knowledge. It sheds light on the doctrine of God, for man was created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26). Understanding humanity helps us to understand the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, for God’s Son became “like unto his brethren” in all things human except sin (Heb. 2:17; 4:15). What God originally made us to be points ahead to what we will become if we are united to Christ, for the new creation will be like paradise—only better, because of the Lamb of God (Rev. 22:1–5).
Our origin as God’s creation reinforces our moral obligation to obey his commandments. Anthropology, therefore, lays a foundation upon which we build our ethics. What is right or wrong in our treatment of others largely depends on who they are. Murder, adultery, theft, lying—these violations of the Ten Commandments are sins because of the nature of those against whom we commit them. The same is true of ethical questions regarding genetic engineering, cloning, abortion, euthanasia, racism, and economic oppression.