Mention "anthropology" and most people probably think about Indiana Jones raiding the lost ark or about dry studies of the development of cultures and societies. But anthropology in relation to theology covers an entirely different set of topics such as the origin and nature of human beings. Where did we come from? Are people basically good? Are we blank slates? Are we fallen and corrupted by sin? And, if so, how do we get out of our predicament?
The word anthropology is derived from anthropos and logos, with the former meaning human being and the latter referring to the study of this subject. A proper anthropology within the context of a proper theology will result in a proper understanding of our place in God's creation, as well as an understanding of how to resolve the human predicament.
Human Origins: Theism or Atheism?
But before we address the human predicament, some basic questions about anthropology in relation to theology must be addressed. Was God involved in the creation of human beings or not? Obviously, if God does not exist, as atheists claim, then human origins have nothing whatsoever to do with God, religion or spirituality of any kind. But if God does exist, then this fact allows for other possibilities. If we grant the position of Christian theism, then not only does God exist, but He is also personal, loving, transcendent, but also active in His Creation. In fact, His activity in His Creation resulted in Jesus Christ coming to earth for a very specific purpose.
In addition to God's role as Creator, biblically speaking we are also told that human beings are made in God's image (Genesis 1:27; 9:6; James 3:9). While theologians grapple with the finer points of this concept, in short it means that there is indeed something special about human beings. We are, in fact, unique and, by definition, separated from other creatures such as animals. We are able to think deeply and express magnificent creativity. Consequently, human beings write books, paint works of art, compose music, worship God via religious expression, and more.
Human Nature and the Image of God
But what about human nature? Biblically speaking, we are told that everything God created was "good," but a reading of Genesis 3 will inform us that the "good" in human beings became not so good as a result of human rebellion. Known as the Fall, this event resulted in a negative change for the human situation. No longer in harmony with our Creator, we are at odds with Him. While we still carry God's image in us, it is now marred or impaired. Sin is now the dominant inclination of every human being or, as some theologians describe it, our sin nature or depravity gets the best of us. This does not mean that everything we do is bad, evil or depraved, but that our inclinations - our behavior and choices - have a marked tendency away from God and His truth and toward ourselves. The only way to get ourselves out of this predicament is to accept God's plan of salvation through Christ.
What Are We?
Getting back to various views of human origins, remember that earlier we mentioned the option of atheism. This perspective views human beings as material beings. That is to say, everything about us is mechanical and material. In a world without God or the supernatural, we are reduced to being accidental machines. But theologically speaking, we are more than just a collection of physical parts brought together by chance. In fact, we are creatures made by God. In addition to this fact we are also made up of both material and immaterial aspects. Obviously we have physical bodies. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, God likes matter because, after all, He invented it. But God also made us with an immaterial aspect or soul. Our brain is indeed a physical organ, but what is mind? Knowing that we are material and immaterial beings helps us understand not only ourselves, but God's solution to our predicament. Not only are we dying physically, but spiritual death can only be turned to spiritual life via a solution that incorporates the spiritual (addressed in more detail in the next article in this series).
Good or Evil?
Given what we've looked at thus far about human origins and nature, we would have to conclude that human beings are not basically good. This fact contradicts the views of philosophies such as secular humanism. While we are still beings of intellect, emotion, will, morality, and more, after the Fall everything that we are or could be is now misaligned and in need of what the Bible terms redemption and restoration.
Unfortunately, the philosophies and ideologies of our world tend to fall into two opposite errors about human beings. Either, they say, we are basically good and have great positive potential, or we are basically bad and incapable of doing good. Of course, there are those who recognize both the potential for human greatness, as well as our potential for wretchedness. But what best explains this situation? One solution offered by Christian philosopher and man of science Blaise Pascal is that only Christianity explains our greatness and wretchedness. We are great or have the potential for greatness, such as doing good, because we are made in God's image. But we also are wretched or have the potential for wretchedness because we are Fallen. The best explanation of our condition, argued Pascal, is found in Christianity.
Rebels in God's Image
Our potential for choice resulted in the choice of sin. Freedom bestowed upon us also allowed for the freedom to actualize sin. In short, we made the potential and actual. Fortunately, God is not caught off guard by our behavior, but established a plan not only for each of us, but for the course of history. This plan grants us an opportunity to be redeemed, but this requires humility and repentance on our part.
Understanding anthropology in light of theology is critical. If we have a corrupt view of God and Christ, this will result in a corrupt view of ourselves that, in turn, will result in a corrupt view of the solution to our predicament. Human nature and the human predicament (fallen and in need of redemption) can only be solved by understanding ourselves, God, and Christ correctly. Far from being an obscure aspect of theology, anthropology is of great significance.
What are we? We are rebels made in God's image in need of redemption that only Christ has provided. Yes, we have the capacity for greatness, but also the capacity for wretchedness. The solution to the human puzzle is found not in secular humanism or other philosophies that remove God from the picture, but, rather, the solution is found in God's Word.
Human conscience points to a transcendent source for morality. These laws of right and wrong are written on our hearts (Romans 2:15) because God has placed them there. They are but one set of clues pointing to our Creator, underscoring our rebelliousness and need for help that is beyond us not within us. This help comes from God and His Son, Jesus Christ.