Pillar Journal

What Is Theological Anthropology?

The theological discipline of anthropology seeks to address this question: What is man, especially in relation to God?

“What is man?” So asks more than one biblical writer. It is a question that has stirred the hearts of men, women, and children since the earliest days. Who am I? What are we, and why are we here? Human beings are unique among the creatures that walk upon this earth in their self-consciousness and reflection upon the meaning of their identity. The ancient philosophers considered it to be a maxim of wisdom, “Know thyself.”1This was one of the maxims inscribed at Delphi and often quoted by Greek philosophers. See Pausanias, Description of Greece, trans. W. H. S. Jones and H. A. Ormerod (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1918), 10.24.1, Perseus Digital Library,

There are many legitimate ways to study human life. For example, a medical doctor studies the anatomy of the human body in order to understand its functioning and remedy its illnesses. An athletic trainer might study the performance of people in a sport in order to help his clients play as well as possible. Likewise, we might study the behavior of groups of people in relationship to each other as an exercise in sociology and political science.

When the biblical writers ask, “What is man?” it is notable that they address the question to God. Job said in his pain, “What is man, that thou shouldest magnify him? And that thou shouldest set thine heart upon him?” (Job 7:17). David gazed up at the stars in wonder and exclaimed, “What is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him?” (Ps. 8:4; cf. 144:3). In the biblical perspective, the question of man’s identity cannot be separated from God and our relationship with him. John Calvin (1509–1564) said, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern.”2John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1.1.1.

The theological discipline of anthropology seeks to address this question: What is man, especially in relation to God? The term anthropology derives from a combination of the Greek word for “man” or “human being” (anthrōpos) and the term for “speech,” “thought,” or “word” (logos). Theology, in general, is the knowledge and wisdom derived from meditating upon and obeying the word of God.3For a study in what theology is and how it is rightly done, see RST, 1:39–173 (chaps. 1–9). Therefore, theological anthropology is the submissive study of God’s Word to learn about ourselves.

Excerpt by
Reformed Systematic Theology
Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley