Nature of Man

MAN, NATURE OF. The psalmist, in asking “What is man?” voiced a question as old as mankind. One facet of human uniqueness is man’s ability to transcend himself and to make himself his own object. The problem may be raised within many contexts, these being broadly divisible into two types, the theistic and the non-theistic.

Human nature is a complex phenomenon, so that definitions of it tend to lack comprehensiveness. While some appear more adequate than others, all tend to be partial. There is need for balance between discussion of the essential nature of man on the one hand, and his existential relationships on the other. Any discussion of human nature must take account of many thought-currents, including those flowing in the recent past.

It is proposed to approach the subject historically, beginning with views explicated in the OT and NT. Other views will be noted, particularly as they affect the course of the history of the doctrine since NT times. The interaction of Biblical and classical views form a proper part of this discussion, and afford a basis for an assessment of more recent and contemporary modes of interpretation of the subject.

It is of the nature of Christian theology to articulate a credible view of human nature. Clearly, one’s understanding of man is largely determinant for his general orientation, and as well, for man’s total religious commitment. While anthropology does not ultimately condition theology, it is questionable whether any adequate view of redemption is possible until there has been made a reasoned and credible understanding of man, its subject.

Old Testament.

The Genesis account of Creation presents man’s origination as involving two stages, apparently occurring in close sequence. His body was formed “of the dust of the ground,” and was then permeated with “breath of life,” so that the resultant man was “a living soul” (Gen 2:7). While the OT does not labor to articulate a detailed anthropology, it implies that the human body was tenanted by a vital principle which made it alive and responsive to the outside world. The first man was “diversified” by the creation of a female counterpart, Eve; and from this point man was bisexual, both with respect to personality and in the matter of reproduction.

With respect to physical heritage, the OT sees the human race as having sprung from a common origin, and as being the progeny of a single primal pair. The origins of the diverse races are shrouded in mystery, while the proliferation of human languages is described in one brief account, the incident of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9). Language considerations are seen as accounting, in part at least, for geographical dispersal.

There is indication in Genesis that profound changes took place, at certain stages, in the human biological structure. It is suggested that at the Fall, the human reproductive cycle was accelerated, and as well, that the process of childbirth became painful and even dangerous. It is also indicated that the human lifespan was markedly, and rather suddenly, shortened soon after the Deluge. This abbreviation came, by one apparent transitional stage, from about 900 years, to nearly its present length. During the transitional stage, following the diversification of language, longevity shrank from about 500 years to 200 years, after which the normal age-span lowered to about a cent., and then to the level of “threescore years and ten.” The factors entering into this are not given, but one is left with the impression that it resulted from direct providential action.

The account of the origins of man as given in the Book of Genesis is serious, orderly and straightforward in its appeal to human reason. Like the rest of the created universe, man is shown to have originated in a free act of God’s will. His appearance culminates an ascending series of divine acts; and in man’s creation, the originative activity of God came to rest. Man is portrayed as being linked, in the physical side of his being, with organic nature, while at the same time transcending nature in his spiritual endowment. With respect to this latter quality, he is portrayed as being made in the “image of God.” The imago dei will be described elsewhere in this work; for the present it must be said only that man’s organic frame received the נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים or “breath of lives,” and became נֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּֽה or “living soul” upon which the print of likeness to God is stamped.

In man, as originally formed, there existed a dignity, and as well a sovereignty over nature, which was analogous to God’s own dignity and sovereignty. Answerable to this, God placed the first human pair over nature, that they might discipline, order, and enjoy it. Implied in this is man’s original sinlessness, his possession of a primeval righteousness and a consequent unclouded relation to his Maker. Man is personal, self-conscious, rational, social, and above all, accountable in a moral sense to God.

Evil was no part of man’s original donation, but the Book of Genesis indicates that a primal disobedience, seemingly occurring early in man’s career, introduced a new and damaging element into man’s predicament, which affected both his existential being and his relation to his Maker. The details of the Fall are few, but basic are the following: the first pair was placed under one clear and simple prohibition; they were subject to the solicitation of a tempter; they heeded the voice of the Serpent; they disobeyed; and certain consequences followed.

The impact of the Fall upon human nature is sketched in bold strokes: the first pair came to possess new awarenesses (e.g., of being unclad and thus exposed); their relation to their Creator was disturbed; and interpersonal relationships (i.e., between Adam and his wife) were corrupted. The resultant changes within human nature are rather illustrated than spelled out in the OT. Between the human pair, now fallen, and God there arose alienation and tension. Man, aware of his guilty behavior, sought to conceal himself from the divine presence. God, in accordance with His original word, sent the first pair forth from their original environment and into a hostile nature.

Within man there appeared almost immediately character disturbances. Adam reproached his wife, in an attempted transfer of responsibility. Within the first growing primary group (the family) the malignancy with which mankind was henceforth to be afflicted began to appear. Murder invaded the sanctuary of the first family, revealing the emerging irresponsibility of Cain (Gen 4:9), and his consequent and growing alienation from self and kindred.

Outward from this familial pattern of tragedy there radiated social and cultural disorientation so that “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (6:5). Thus is portrayed the loss of the divine image which was sustained by man. His moral resemblance to God became largely destroyed, his Godconsciousness became clouded, and even his natural virtues became a mere shadow of those with which he was originally endowed.

There remained to man his personality (albeit in maimed and distorted form), his self-consciousness, and some measure of capacity to respond to the claims of the moral and spiritual realm. His propensities toward society and toward societal living are shown to be capable of gross distortion, as are also his capabilities for the erection of culture. A false sense of autonomy, and a narrowly-based pride of achievement, corroded and corrupted the human enterprise (Gen 4:23, 24).

Moral aberration, leading to spiritual and moral degradation, multiplied; sins of both flesh and spirit became the major expressions of fallen human nature. Parallel, however, was a line of spiritually-receptive persons who gave attention to God’s mandates and who preserved in obedience the element of faith, this latter often leading to the maintenance of family expiatory rites. The behavior of such seems to be related to the continuing striving of the Spirit of the Lord with men (Gen 6:3a).

From the foregoing it is clear that the OT views human nature in terms of the following:

a. Man was created morally undefiled, a special creation at God’s hand.

b. He was placed under a clearly-understood order of probation, with a specific prohibition at its heart.

c. Man’s initial disobedience brought swift consequences of a radically negative sort, both upon the first pair and upon their progeny.

d. Man’s original “image of God” became disfigured and distorted, while at the same time God left mankind capable of some measure of response and of hope.

e. Evil became a constant and malignant element in the whole of human experience.

f. Evil centered in an imbalance in the relation between God and man, so that man asserted a false claim of autonomy, and chronically pitted himself against the deliverances of conscience, of seer and prophet, and of the entire pattern of divine Revelation.

g. Evil brought social and interpersonal strife, disorganizing human relationships and corrupting all human institutions.

h. Overt evil-doing objectified a deep-seated disturbance within man, a disorientation which was hereditary in nature and malignant in its intricate pattern of manifestations.

It needs to be said, in summary, that the OT understanding of human nature finds a certain focal expression in the doctrine of the “evil impulse” or יֵצֶר הָרָע. This is rooted in the statements of Genesis 6:5 and 8:21 in which the yeṩer or imagination of the human heart was found to be “only evil continually” and “evil from his youth.” Even at an early period in Israel’s history, the teaching concerning the ingrained evil in human nature had taken root and was beginning to take shape.

This usage of the term yeṩer as “imagination” occurs in Deuteronomy 31:21; 1 Chronicles 28:9 and 29:18. The OT suggests with growing clarity that evil entrenches itself in the yeṩer and that there is a resultant pervading sinfulness which is universal among mankind. Psalm 51:5 indicates that this inclination to evil is inherent in man as a part of the nature which he inherits. This view was continued in the rabbinical lit., in which appears a parallel view of the יֵצֶר הַטּוֹב or “good inclination.” This latter became the possible basis for the later evangelical understanding of redemption as providing a counter movement in human experience.

New Testament.

The estimate of man in the NT, and more esp. in the teachings of our Lord, rests basically upon the Hebraic understanding of human nature and the OT interpretation of human racial history. The four gospels do not undertake to articulate a doctrine of man as such; they do portray the activities of our Lord as He met men and women in concrete and often crucial situations; and out of these situations emerged rather definite teachings with respect to the nature of man.

Men were regarded as sinners, and the lot of the human race was that which resulted from its sinfulness. Jesus addressed His disciples with the words, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts...” (Luke 11:13), thus suggesting man’s universal involvement in the sinful predicament. He recognized that sin’s defilement reached the springs of human action and operated outward from a hidden sanctuary (Matt 15:11; Mark 7:15) and suggested that “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man...” (Matt 15:19, 20a; cf. Mark 7:21-23).

These and similar passages indicate the emphasis of our Lord upon the solidarity of the human race in the predicament of sinfulness. While He made reference to the “sins of the flesh,” His emphasis was more frequently upon the “sins of the spirit,” such as covetousness, pride, and self-sufficiency. Such forms of evil were most frequently seen as barriers to entry into the kingdom, as witness for example the dealing with the rich ruler (Luke 18:18-24). Underlying these analytical statements of Jesus is the statement by John, to the effect that He needed no one to instruct Him concerning human nature, for He knew what was within man (John 2:25). This suggests a realistic view of human sinfulness upon the part of our Lord.

He saw all men as needing “healing” (i.e., salvation), and referred in irony to those who felt no such need. Even those who appear outwardly to be “righteous to men” were held to be inwardly “full of hypocrisy and iniquity” (Matt 23:28). Mankind was likewise indicted for “hardness of heart,” this being held to render necessary many of Jehovah’s earlier permissions of such evils as divorce—and even here the suggestion is that this was not part of man’s original order of conduct (i.e., before the Fall) but the result of the sin-order (Matt 19:8).

While our Lord gave full recognition to the evils and ills which are part of the experience of the race, He never regarded these as final, for He always viewed man from the standpoint of God’s redemptive power and will toward humanity. While He saw that recompense, in the form of suffering here and hereafter, came as a result of sin, He saw the sin-order as modified by the order of grace. With this in mind, He sought out sinners, without minimizing the gravity of the evil which was part of fallen man’s endowment. He recognized that man, in the deepest layers of his being, harbored a pernicious mood of revolt against his Creator.

The four gospels thus portray man—seen through the eyes of Jesus Christ—as having suffered an original catastrophe which cast its long and melancholy shadow across human experience and human history. The nature of man thus bore the disastrous effects of the Fall; but as a foil to this, it was made clear that mankind possessed a residual capacity for sonship with God through grace.

Similar estimates of man are discoverable in the apostolic preaching, particularly as recorded in the Book of Acts. Peter’s Pentecost sermon makes incidental mention of the wickedness which led to the crucifixion (Acts 2:23), while the conclusion of that address shows the hearers as convinced of their sins and openly penitent (2:37, 38). Human ignorance is seen as a cause of some human wrongdoing (3:17), an ignorance which is now no longer excusable (3:19; 17:30).

The Book of Acts presents, in contrast to the usual declarations of man’s evil nature, the newness of life which believers come to enjoy. Thus “the multitude of them that believed” were no longer hostile to one another (4:32) but manifested a new spirit of amity and of generosity. Hypocrisy was shown to be both immediately uncovered and summarily punished in the early Christian community, particularly in the account of Ananias and Sapphira (5:1-10).

Believers, now renewed in their inner natures, showed an uncommon boldness and a rare disregard for the opposition of the ungodly, extending to the most unusual capacity for the bearing of physical pain. The contrast between “man by nature” and “man by grace” recurs throughout the apostolic kerygma, both in the Book of Acts and in the writings of Paul, whose personal experience is adduced as a primary illustration (Acts 9:1, 2, cf. 9:27-29; 22:3-6, 19, 20; 26:9-11, cf. vv. 16-19).

The Book of Acts reiterates the negative judgment pronounced upon the natural human heart for its covetousness (5:2-4), for its wrong-headed desire for power (8:18-23), for its narrow prejudice (10:10-16, cf. 10:34), its willingness to exploit others (16:16-20), its tenacious adherence to evil doing (24:25-27), and its obduracy against truth (28:25-27). Thus the early apostolic preaching took for granted the OT and rabbinical view of human nature as subject to the “evil inclination” or יֵצֶר הָרָע, a negative propensity which is universal in its distribution within mankind.

The Pauline understanding of human nature finds its most systematic presentation in the Epistle to the Romans, although it is by no means absent from his other writings. It needs to be said that his major concern was not with the Christian estimation of man as such, but with the message of Christian redemption which was designed to meet man’s deepest needs. Salvation meant deliverance from the deep and entrenched forms of evil which oppress every man.

Man is seen by nature to be “carnal, sold under sin” (Rom 7:14), like a slave being bought by a cruel master and driven to a twisted course of action. This situation is declared to be universal (3:10-18), with every member of the race being involved in a situation in which the flesh was subject to sin. This does not mean that Paul subscribed to the Greco-Oriental view of the inherent evil of the human body, but that man is held to be under the sovereign sway of sin and death, with sin regarded as universal and death regarded as its inevitable penalty.

Paul’s use of the term σάρξ, G4922, will presumably be treated in detail elsewhere in this encyclopedia, but it needs to be said here that Paul regards sarx or “flesh” as the weak and corrupted instrument of sin as a controlling principle. It is of great significance at this point to note that when Paul lists the “works of the flesh” (Gal 5:19-21), only five of the seventeen forms of evil are direct expression of the physical appetites. Sin is entrenched in the flesh, and from this as a base of operations, wages war against the higher impulses of man.

Parallel to the prevailing temper of the Book of Acts, in which (as noted previously) there is a stress upon that which man may become by grace, Paul emphasizes that human nature can become the dwelling place of the Spirit of God (Rom 8:11), whose role in human life is that of deliverer “from this body of death” (Rom 7:24) and of imparter of the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22, 23).

It needs to be noted that the NT, esp. in the epistles, recognizes not only that man is a composite creature (i.e., composed of body and soul and/or spirit), but also that the whole man is to be the subject of redemption. 1 Corinthians 15:42-50 makes it clear that in the resurrection man will have a body which, while being the lineal descendant of and successor to his “natural” body, will nevertheless not consist of “flesh and blood.”

The Johannine understanding of human nature does not differ markedly from that of the Pauline epistles. 1 John 1:8 proclaims the universal sinfulness of mankind, and describes the natural man as being “in darkness” (2:9) and as being among “the children of the devil” (3:10). Reference is made to the primal murder (3:12) and the contrast between the works of the redeemed and the ways of the unregenerate. The Johannine picture of the generality of worldly men is not an optimistic one: “the whole world is in the power of the evil one” (5:19b) and its citizens are subject to deception on a grand scale (2 John 7).

The understanding of human nature in the Revelation of John follows the general lines laid down in the rest of the NT. The catalogues of the misdeeds of the unregenerate resemble those of the gospels and the Pauline epistles, while the possibilities for the redemption of human nature in Christ form part of the NT’s general message of hope for man in his fallen predicament.

The NT thus takes for granted, and builds upon, the major themes of Heb. religion, and in the light of revealed redemption, brings the portrait of man’s nature to a new fullness. There is given a realistic view of the negative results of sin in the nature of man, by which the original “image of God” in the human creature is distorted and disfigured. At the same time, man bears the marks of a high ancestry. While evil has touched adversely every aspect and quality of his nature, there remain elements upon which the Spirit of grace may lay hold.

It follows that though fallen, man is at the same time capable of bearing the restored image through grace. It is in redemption that his unfulfilled capacities begin to be realized, although he must live in relative incompleteness in this life. The NT suggests, further, that the spiritual part of man is imperishable, and survives death. While little is specifically stated concerning the intermediate state, the NT makes clear that the disembodied existence is a temporary one, and that all await the resurrection of the body, some to everlasting righteousness, and others to final spiritual loss.

Seen within the context of grace, the NT view of man is neither fully pessimistic nor largely optimistic, but rather melioristic. Man is not what he may become; he is dependent and unfulfilled, and no genuine realization of his potentialities is possible apart from the restoration of his fractured relationship with his Creator through Jesus Christ. Man normally exists in society, in human community. Within this context, he is loved by an everlasting Heart which seeks to draw him into a higher community, through the transformation of his nature by the agency of the divine Spirit, for whose indwelling he has a basic capacity which survived the Fall.

In the Incarnation, the eternal Logos appeared in human form to show what redeemed man might become. In One who was “very God and very man” man beholds the Image to which he is to be conformed through being transformed by Him who, for us men, shared our common life in the days of His flesh. In Him man can glimpse human nature as it ought to be, and as it will be when He brings many sons to glory.

The classical period.

The doctrine of man which prevailed in the Greco-Roman world impinged upon Christian thinking at several points: first, during the intertestamental period, as Jewish thinkers confronted Hellenism, esp. at Alexandria; second, during the early Christian centuries; and third, in the later medieval and early renaissance eras. Christian thinkers have from the time of the apostles been under necessity of understanding the major elements of the classical anthropology, particularly as this was articulated by Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics and the Epicureans.

The anthropology of the Greco-Roman world was itself complex, being composed of several strands and embodying conceptions which reached back to the times of Homer and Hesiod, for the thinkers of Greece’s Golden Age were indebted to those who preceded them. Classical thought in general regarded man as being distinguished from mere nature by his possession of a rational capacity. Even in Stoicism, in which the universe was invested with an immanent reason, there was still the lingering contention that reason in man must somehow transcend the seemingly non-rational parts of nature. Thus when Aristotle defines man as “a rational animal,” he speaks for the classical tradition as a whole. This marked a radical departure from, for example, the Ionian physicists or the atomists. Thus, classical anthropology possessed a deeply-rooted dualism (i.e., of reason: matter) which distinguished between “man as body” and “man as mind.”

Concerning man’s moral endowment, the classical world had no doctrine of “original sin” as such; Plato suggested (Laws, 792e) that man may possess a “fount of reason that is as yet uncurbed,” but it is still assumed that man, as a rational being, would ultimately perceive and seek “the Good” in both individual and social behavior. This was, of course, a corollary of the dictum of Socrates to the effect that “Virtue is knowledge, and can be taught.”

The further implication of classical thought for the understanding of human nature is that the rational creature which man is, imperfect yet capable of knowing and achieving the Good, must rely upon his own endowment(s) for the solution of his problems. There was little or no place within this system for a belief in any concept of moral and spiritual assistance from any Power outside and above man, for his relation to the gods was primarily one of etiquette.

In classical thought, and more especially in Plato, the ultimate aim and directing impulse in man is the imitation of the ideal. This finds its best expression in the operation of the human essence, which is his reason, and which Plato thought to be divine and immortal. It seems that Socrates may have been the mentor of his more famous pupil at this point; both shared a profound belief that the man with the enlightened reason would in the final analysis pursue “the Good.” It was, of course, the more practical Aristotle who asked, at a point crucial to the discussion, “But what of the passions?”

It needs to be said that classical anthropology, from Socrates onward, recognized that the soul or spiritual part of man was subject to a multitude of inward strains, since there existed a multiplicity of factors within the soul. To bring these into harmonious pattern, it was regarded as essential that these factors be brought into an ordered hierarchy or household, with each element functioning in its proper place. Like the well-ordered state, in which there is a proper division of labor according to the several abilities of the citizens, the healthy soul is the one in which each capacity is directed toward its proper end, so that none works in interference with any other.

The chief competitors for moral supremacy, in this view, are: reason and desire. The former speaks for the “good in man,” the latter contests “The Good” in the name of supposed lesser goods. Desire is clamorous, and has faculties of memory by which former situations can be recalled and be made a competitor for higher goods.

With respect to human freedom, classical anthropology regarded it to inhere in man’s status as a rational being—a being who can act in accordance with “The Good” as it is freely apprehended. Man can thus be enslaved only by the irrational. The free man thus achieves his freedom through the apprehension of the rational good.

Evil in man rests basically in ignorance, upon a lack of apprehension of the goals of his reason. This, in turn, is usually the product of the shortcomings of the social environment. Evil is not regarded in terms of the violation of any divinely constituted mandate, but of the irrational shortcomings or comings-short of the normally rational man. Concerning the ultimate origin of human evil, classical thought has no clearly articulated view. To Plato, it seems that the human “fall” consisted of a wrong choice upon the part of the soul in its ante-natal state, by which it is incarcerated, through human generation, in a body, in which it, in turn, becomes involved in complications of the most grave sort. In the earthly career, man is composite and becomes an arena for combat, the contestants being chiefly: reason, the irrational elements of the being, and the goading drives of the body.

Aristotle’s view of man had much in common with that of Socrates and Plato. He felt, with earlier classical thinkers, that reason was man’s highest faculty. He disagreed, esp., with Plato who held the view that reason was diffused in the “lower” faculties. He protested also the rigid compartmentalization of man into soul-and-body, feeling that these two elements were more closely interrelated. Aristotle made more of the power of both will and passions, and thus differentiated the moral qualities in man. His view of freedom was more analytical than that of his predecessors in that he distinguished more sharply between voluntary and non-voluntary acts, and in that he gave a diminished place to the reflective reason, in favor of a more organic view of man.

Concerning the final end of man, classical thought was ambiguous at the point of personal immortality. Earlier thinkers, esp. Socrates and Plato, had a relatively clear understanding at the point of the survival of the soul after the dissolution of the body, as expressed in Plato’s Myth of Er in Book X of The Republic. Aristotle was less clear in his beliefs at this point, while Stoic thought, understanding Reason as a spark of the all-pervading divine fire, held more or less clearly to the imperishability of human reason. Epicurus and his followers ignored or denied the doctrine of immortality, as a corollary of their materialism. Nowhere in classical anthropology does one find the human body to be the subject of immortality, nor is there any clear teaching at the point of qualitative differences between the destination of the good and the evil persons respectively, save possibly as such differences inhered in notions inherited from the pre-classical past.

The anthropology of the Greco-Roman period oscillated between acceptance of happiness as the highest goal for man on the one hand, and the concept of discipline on the other. This dialectic centered largely in the differences between the Epicureans and the Stoics. Epicurus himself believed that happiness or pleasure was the proper goal of human striving, but sought to distinguish between grades of pleasure, as producing varying degrees of happiness. His followers failed to perpetuate this discriminating attitude, and tended to move in the direction of straightforward hedonism in which sensory pleasure became the highest good.

Stoicism, on the other hand, pursued happiness in terms of discipline. The good life was the life lived in terms of reason; in consequence, the Stoics distrusted sensory pleasure as tending to obscure reason, and thus to undercut the deeper forms of happiness, notably tranquillity of soul. The Cynics adopted the coarser features of Stoicism, making asceticism and nature-harshness the highest goal.

In summary, the classical anthropology contained variety at a number of points. Chief among these were: the structure of man (whether dualistic as in the Platonic tradition, or monistic as in either the pantheistic-Stoic or the materialistic-Epicurean form); the precise role of Reason; the nature of freedom; and the role of immortality. It did, however, possess unifying elements, esp.: a general regard for man as a creature of reason; a belief in the general goodness of human life; a belief in man’s capabilities for “salvation”; the conviction that there was something “divine” in man; and the belief that man’s well-being was somehow bound up with inner harmony. It was this latter holistic tendency which related the classical ethic to the classical ideal of beauty which pervaded the esthetics of the classical and Hel. periods.

The patristic period.

It has been noted that the Christian view of man as developed in the NT is basically a continuation of that found in the Heb. religion. Modifications within it were of a secondary nature consisting largely of elaborations; but with the period of the Fathers, more influences from the classical and Hel. eras were felt within the Christian thought stream, and certain changes in the understanding of man, particularly of his psychology, began to be discernible.

The analytic trend of classical anthropology found expression within the systematic writings of Irenaeus, Tertullian, and esp. Origen. Irenaeus distinguished, for example, between the “higher” and “lower” elements in the soul, while Tertullian expressed belief in the essential corporeality of the soul (this prob. derived from Stoic dogma). This latter element found expression in the teaching of the Gregorys, while Origen propounded a view of the preexistence of the soul which has strong affinities with the view of Plato, a view which was later condemned.

Origen expressed a negative value judgment upon the human body reflective of the Platonic dualism. His view of the “image of God” is fairly typical of the ante-Nicene period; it inhered in the endowment for the ultimate perfect realization of the “divine likeness” and thus has affinities with the Aristotelian ideal of man.

With respect to the imago dei, Justin Martyr makes it to inhere in good part in man’s rational endowment, while Tertullian sees it in terms of man’s imperishability, and the Alexandrian writers locate it in both reason and immortality. This represents an attempt to be analytic at the point of teachings which Heb. thought tended to regard concretely and synthetically.

With respect to the doctrine of human sinfulness, patristic writers tended to polarize around two patterns, the Eastern, which regarded Adam’s fall as the first in a long line of sinful acts, which led to human frailty and ultimate mortality; and the Western, which regarded Adam’s fall as a corrupting influence which left man not only mortal, but also guilty and impotent with respect to good.

The post-Nicene Fathers developed, in the main, the two branches of this dichotomy. Roughly representative of the former view is that of the British monk Pelagius, who held that man in his present state possesses the capability of going either toward righteousness or toward evil. God’s grace meant, in this view, little more than a kind of superadded assistance to human capability. Augustine, on the other hand, formulated the view which is generally associated with his name, in which man was regarded as being, since Adam, incapable of choosing righteousness, being rather wholly corrupt.

With respect to human freedom, Pelagius maintained man’s freedom, in his present state, to elect either alternative in the conflict between good and evil. Augustine, on the other hand, held that man’s present freedom consisted only in the ability to express his corrupted nature. To the former view, man may either commit evil or abstain from it; to the latter, only commission is possible.

The Church of the patristic period struggled with the radically dualistic modes of thought with which its environment confronted it, notably the systems of the Gnostics and the Manichaeans. The Fathers resisted both of these, prob. chiefly because of the fact that the pairs of opposites tended to be rooted in nature, rather than spirit.

It may be said that in Augustine the anthropology of the Western Church found a synthesis which was dominant for several centuries of Christian history. Augustine looked deeply into human nature, and gave a formula for the understanding of the ills which he found there. He set safeguards around the will of man, particularly at the point of the indeterminism which had been overstressed by some of the Fathers. He emphasized the universality of sin, the racial nature of corruption, and the profundity of human need for divine grace. He saw that no element of human nature escaped the negative effects of the Fall, and thus made a permanent place in Christian anthropology for the need for inward grace.

Medieval and renaissance periods.

The Church of the medieval period was, in a large measure, concerned with practical matters such as the evangelization of the Germanic peoples, the relating of herself to the secular power, and the fusion of Latin and Teutonic cultures under her banner. There were, however, creative thinkers in the area of anthropology, insofar as this was requisite to the larger academic task of bringing the whole of knowledge into a synthetic unity.

Augustine patterned much of early medieval thought; the writings of Gregory the Great indicate a heavy dependence upon the Bishop of Hippo, although with modifications. These were largely in the direction of the substitution of weakness for inability, and (in some measure) the substitution of outer for inner grace. More place began to be made for human coöperation with grace, this a derivative of the thought of Pelagius.

Abelard, with his emphasis upon freedom and upon the distinction between motive and act, seemed to be likewise akin to Pelagius, while Anselm was, on the surface at least, nearer to Augustine. The latter diverged from Augustine’s view chiefly in his insistence that original sin was negative and privative, rather than aggressive and positive.

Thomas Aquinas marked a milestone in the medieval understanding of human nature. With him, there came a larger ascription of freedom to man, possibly as a corollary to the doctrines of penitence and of merit. Thomas understood the “image of God” to inhere in man’s natural inclination toward the good, and in the original gift of grace which began to be bestowed at creation. Such was the emphasis upon the quantity of ability native to fallen man that Aquinas’ position is frequently regarded to be Pelagian. While the practical drift of Scholasticism was in the direction of the glorification of the ascetic life, there was less emphasis upon concupiscence as the major expression of original sin than seems to have been placed by Augustine in his system. When this element did express itself it was regarded by Aquinas to be the consequence of the absence of original righteousness.

Man appears in Thomism thus to be innately evil, but with a capacity for some initiative toward God and against sin. He is likewise capable of receiving the operation of grace; and it was but a short step from this to the assertion of the capacity of coöperation, this giving rise to the medieval conception of merit.

The Pelagianizing tendencies, seen to have been present in Abelard, and to a lesser extent in Anselm and Bonaventura, expressed themselves more forcibly in John Duns Scotus. The latter, with his emphasis upon the will, regarded human nature as being sinful only insofar as the will allows man to overstep the bounds set by a harmonious constitution, and good insofar as the will works with the offered grace of God. The crucial issue seems to be whether grace is a gift of God, or whether it is acquired by meritorious conduct. The Council of Trent failed to resolve the differences between the Thomistic view on the one hand, and the Nominalistic views of Abelard and Duns Scotus on the other. It was proclaimed at Trent that original sin is removable only by Christ’s grace as applied by baptism, and that this removal is total. It goes without saying that this last requires a radical readjustment of the evaluation placed upon the so-called “sins of the flesh.”

The Renaissance represented, in part at least, a return to the Classics, first for their literary value, but shortly also for their contents. It is not surprising that Renaissance anthropology expressed many features which appeared in the Greco-Roman era. Science, which was one of the major outgrowths of the Renaissance, early came to stress the operation of unvarying law throughout the realm of nature. Its spirit was nominalistic and its thinkers were more hospitable to nature-oriented views of man than to the views which found expression in Scholastic realism. Throughout the Renaissance, the thought of Aristotle inspired the intellectual life of many of the theological schools of Europe. Perhaps the best exponent of the Renaissance doctrine of man was Giacomo Zabarella (1532-1589), who held that the soul of man was a function of the body, and that reason was the principle of natural life in the body. While man was finite, yet he was immortal in the sense that intellect does not perish.

Giovanni Pico, count of Mirandola (1463-1494) stressed the dignity of man, asserting that man’s true distinctiveness lay not in his origin as God’s creation, but in his ability to share in the properties of all other beings as a result of his capacity for freedom. Pietro Pomponazzi of Mantua (1462-1525) developed a doctrine of immortality which restated Aristotle’s view of the soul’s immateriality and its consequent immortality. It follows that the Renaissance viewed man in terms of classical antiquity, giving a restatement, in the light of the advance of knowledge of the time, of that which was thought in antiquity. The mood of the period was humanistic, stressing the dignity and the competence of man.

The Reformation.

The Reformation begun by Luther retained much of Catholicism’s formulations, but with specific emphases upon aspects of earlier views. Less attention was given to man’s origin than to his present salvation and future destiny. As a result of original sin, man was regarded to be under condemnation, being weak and unable to find his own way of deliverance from present guilt and future judgment. Man was held to be profoundly and directly dependent upon God. His future hope was by means of the act of faith, and man was regarded to be delivered thus from the uncertainties and weaknesses of human action.

John Calvin continued Luther’s stress upon “the will bound” and upon the purely divine origin of redemption. The malignancy of sin in human life was taken for granted, so that the Augustinian emphasis upon absolute original sin and the unconditional natural corruption of man’s powers was retained, and in some cases accentuated. The immortality of his soul was accepted as a matter of course. In general, also, classical views were implicitly rejected, particularly insofar as they stressed natural human dignity and human adequacy in the face of the human predicament of evil.

The Reformation in German-speaking Switzerland under the guidance of Ulrich Zwingli followed in general Lutheran lines. Zwingli’s classical orientation did lead him to express some views concerning man divergent from those of the great Saxon. Zwingli recognized the common human inheritance of a corrupted nature, regarding this as analogous to the state of slavery, into which one may be born without any personal culpability. He is one with Luther in rejecting the Pelagianizing tendencies of the medieval scholastics.

The emphasis upon human incompetence in the face of man’s sinful predicament which began with Luther and was continued in Calvin, with some further refinements, provoked a reaction both within Protestantism and in the Roman Catholic tradition. Within the latter came the Jansenist reaction, while within Protestantism came the Remonstrance to which is attached the name of Jacobus Arminius (although the respective positions were reversed).

The Remonstrance brought to the fore the question of human competence, so that the first of the Five Articles (Arminian) asserts that the divine purpose is to save those who believe on Jesus Christ “with the help of” grace. This led to the reply formulated by the Synod of Dort (1619) which reëmphasized the major positions of the Reformed tradition in its strict limitation of the contribution of man in his response to the call of grace. More specifically, Dort affirmed the doctrines of particular election, its unconditional quality, and the inalienability of Christ’s grace.

It may be properly said that this marks the close of specific formulation of Reformation teaching concerning the nature of man. Significant also is the fact that this occurred almost wholly within the specifically Reformation tradition, and largely severed from the influence of the Renaissance, which had pursued a course largely independent of the religious and spiritual revolution precipitated by Luther.

The modern period.

Modern science, which is one of the major aspects of the legacy of the Renaissance, brought massive forces to bear upon the more recent understanding of human nature. Parallel to theistic views of man’s being, there developed non-theistic modes of understanding which had for a common denominator, as Reinhold Niebuhr observes, “primarily faith in man.”

In the post-Reformation era, these newer views challenged earlier understandings of man, most or all of which, however, continued to command some adherence. Within the general orthodox tradition, certain modifications occurred, chiefly with respect to the dimensions of the retained image of God within a fallen race, and its corollary of the competence (or lack of it) upon the part of man to respond to grace. Semi-Pelagian (or more properly, semi-Augustinian) positions developed with the repeated recurrences of mass evangelism, with its appeal to the element of human decision.

The “liberal” theologies which emerged in opposition to historic orthodoxy elaborated a wide range of anthropologies, most of which were deeply influenced by Kant’s assertion of human autonomy, particularly in the ethical sphere. Historic understanding(s) of man were challenged as being pessimistic and as infringing upon human freedom. It came to be asserted that if man is to be “truly ethical” he must be autonomous in a sense incompatible with the teaching concerning original sin. The doctrines of the Fall, of sin, of grace and of salvation (applied) were held to be in need of reinterpretation in terms of a “new moral consciousness.”

In some strands, for example, that of Friedrich Schleiermacher, man’s sinfulness was seen in terms of finite defectiveness rather than as a distortion of the will inherited from our first parents. Ruled out are the motifs of man’s solidarity in evil, the imputation of sin, and man’s native inability. These denials rest upon a non-Christian metaphysic of evil, and ultimately upon a non-Biblical understanding of human origin.

The theological liberalism of the 19th and early 20th cent., with its refashioning of the Christian understanding of both sin and grace in relation to human nature was challenged by the Dialectical Theology, of which Karl Barth, H. Emil Brunner, and Reinhold Niebuhr are major exponents. These sought to establish, on grounds relatively independent of the Christian Scriptures, a form of “Christian realism” with respect to human nature. The Dialectical Theology tended to regard Adam, not as a historical person, but as a non-historical paradigm of the fate of Everyman. Likewise it saw man’s original endowment to consist in moral potentiality, rather than in created righteousness.

More recent theological liberalism, confronted by the historical crises which have shown the earlier optimistic and idealistic faith in man to be untenable, has sought to recover some form of realism with respect to man’s nature, and in case of some of its exponents, has accepted the discipline imposed upon it by some forms of existentialist philosophy. Such motifs as alienation, despair and meaninglessness have forced new explorations of the subject. It seems probable that the interpretations placed upon human nature by Schleiermacher, Ritschl, Harnack and Troeltsch have come to be regarded as products of an age which has passed.

The resurgence of Evangelicalism which paralleled in time the period of largest acceptance of the Dialectical Theology has brought a renewed concern for an articulation in terms of a Biblical faith of a view of human nature which would at one and the same time be in harmony with the whole scriptural portrayal of man’s nature and, as well, come to grips with the challenges presented by newer researches. These have come, in particular, from naturalism and much of current psychological studies.

It is in the light of the former of these, with its explanation of causality in terms of random selection during an almost infinite time scale, that evangelicals assert again the historic conviction that man is a special creation, composite in nature, and originally endowed with the qualities of pristine holiness, in which the imago dei centered and which was forfeited in a historical Fall.

With respect to contemporary psychologies, evangelicals have rejected, in the name of the Christian Revelation, the extremes of determinism (which robs man of his essentially moral and accountable nature) and of voluntarism which in some strands of Existentialism deprives man of any genuine “nature.” Against these forms of thought, it is asserted that man cannot be understood apart from a fearless application of the teachings of the Christian Scriptures. Evangelicals maintain that it is only in this light that man’s nature can be assessed with accuracy, so that the two elements of his “dark side” and of his high destiny are kept in balance.


J. Orr, God’s Image in Man (1905), 3-193; H. W. Robinson, The Christian Doctrine of Man (1911), 4-150; J. G. Machen, The Christian View of Man (1937), 129-294; R. Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, I (1941), 1-53; S. Doniger, ed. The Nature of Man (1962), 75-119; C. F. H. Henry, ed., Basic Christian Doctrines (1962), 89-95, 103-116; and Christian Faith and Modern Theology (1964), 147-189.