Pillar Journal

Why Study Anthropology?

Anthropology benefits all Christians in ministry. The Word of God reveals much about human nature that guides us in how to relate to other people.

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?1We are indebted for several thoughts in this chapter to Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013), 424–35.

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.”2Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1958), 181.

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.”3Calvin, Institutes, 1.15.1.

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.

The doctrine of anthropology interfaces with every major teaching of the Christian faith. Right views of anthropology significantly strengthen our overall system of belief. Wrong views of anthropology unravel that system of belief and can undermine the very gospel of salvation.

Its Value to Other Academic Disciplines Anthropology touches on the earthliest of topics in theology, so it overlaps to some degree with academic disciplines outside of the field of theology, such as biology, psychology, and sociology. In medicine, scientists are increasingly recognizing the close relationship between a healthy mind and a healthy body—and good mental health arises from functioning according to our human nature as God created us to be.

Anthropology answers pressing questions about the roots of human malice and suffering, and enables us to form a practical worldview by which we can live wisely in this world. It guards us from treating people like mere animals or trash. Calvin quoted Bernard of Clairvaux (1090– 1153): “How can he upon whom God has set his heart be nothing?”4Quoted in Calvin, Institutes, 3.2.25. Yet anthropology also protects us from naively viewing human beings like angels on earth—despite how cute babies may be or how righteous we may seem in our own eyes. Calvin said, “We always seem to ourselves righteous and upright and wise and holy—this pride is innate in all of us—unless by clear proofs we stand convinced of our own unrighteousness. . . . We are not thus convinced if we look merely to ourselves and not also to the Lord, who is the sole standard by which this judgment must be measured.”5Calvin, Institutes, 1.1.2. A biblical view of man will make us not only better Christians, but also better parents and children, better friends, better neighbors, better citizens, and better employees and employers.

The doctrine of man touches a matter of vital concern for all people, because it is about each one of us. Millard Erickson writes, “The doctrine of humanity is one point where it is possible to get a toehold in the mind of the modern secular person.”6Erickson, Christian Theology, 427. Whether we are preaching or in a personal conversation with an unbeliever, anthropology provides ways to approach people through matters that they value highly, and then to lead them to God to find answers that an unbelieving worldview cannot provide.

Its Implications for Contemporary Existential Crises As the nations in Europe and North America reap the bitter fruit of rejecting theirChristian heritage, we see a disintegration of human culture all around us, whether we consider public morality, education, crime and safety, or media and the arts. This disintegration produces considerable anxiety and sometimes despair. Cultural forces erode our sense of personal identity and dissolve relationships into superficiality. Anthony Hoekema (1913– 1988) said, “The growing supremacy of technology; the growth of bureaucracy; the increase of mass-production methods; and the growing impact of mass media . . . tend to depersonalize humanity.”7Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 2.

Profound and searching questions disturb those not lulled to sleep by pleasure, leisure, and entertainment, such as:

  • Who am I? What are my roots? Do I belong to something bigger than myself?
  • Why is my life so painful and confusing?
  • What does it mean to be human? How are we different from animals?
  • How can I know what is right and wrong? Are all things merely relative?
  • Why are we in the mess that we are in?
  • Why is it that despite our remarkable technology and information systems, we cannot solve basic problems such as social justice and world peace?
  • Why do people who are not so different from us commit atrocities such as genocide, terrorism, human trafficking, and ethnic oppression?
  • Where is our world going? Do I have any cause for hope?

The Bible offers us a perspective on human life that answers such questions in a manner that is realistic (so that we can deal wisely with ourselves and other people), idealistic (so that we can aim for high and worthy goals), and optimistic (so that we can keep striving for what is good and right with a solid hope of making a difference).

Its Impact upon Practical Ministry Pastors need to understand and believe what the Bible teaches them about the people whom they serve. Shepherds must know their sheep (Prov. 27:23). While this requires personal relationships as pastors watch over the souls entrusted to them (Heb. 13:17), it also requires a deep knowledge of God’s Word, which is sufficient to equip God’s servants for their work (2 Tim. 3:17).

As Erickson points out, an imbalanced view of human nature can distort the way we do ministry.8Erickson, Christian Theology, 429. If we view people as mere minds, we will focus on intellectual ministry and expect teaching in itself to change them. If we believe that people are driven by emotions, then we will seek to motivate them by counseling them through past experiences and creating new emotional experiences. If we reduce people to their relationships, then our ministry might minimize doctrine and maximize fellowship. If we overspiritualize our understanding of people, we will treat physical problems as moral failures. We need a biblically balanced perspective on man in order to exercise a wise, balanced, holistic ministry.

Anthropology benefits all Christians in ministry. The Word of God reveals much about human nature that guides us in how to relate to other people. How can we serve people in Christ’s name if we do not know who they are or what their deepest needs and problems are? Let us never forget that when we serve mankind, we care for “the masterpiece of the lower creation,” as Thomas Boston (1676–1732) said.9Thomas Boston, An Illustration of the Doctrines of the Christian Religion, in The Complete Works of the Late Rev. Thomas Boston, Ettrick, ed. Samuel M’Millan (1853; repr., Stoke-on-Trent, England: Tentmaker, 2002), 1:177.

Excerpt by
Reformed Systematic Theology, Volume 2: Man and Christ
Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley