The Doctrine of Humanity
The Christian doctrine of humanity sees the human person as made in God’s image, either a man or a woman by God’s making, fallen through Adam’s historical sin, formed for vocation unto God, and redeemable in and through the God-man, Jesus Christ.
This essay examines humanity through a theological survey of God’s intentions for the crown of his creation. We give special and deserved attention to the early chapters of Genesis, believing that these chapters reveal God’s creational design and establish God’s creational order. This essay treats Adam as a historical person who sinned against God in a real garden denouement. Despite this tragedy, we may know redemption in Christ the true human, and may thus both work and rest unto the glory of God, fulfilling God’s intentions in an escalated Christocentric form.
“Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.”
(Augustine, Confessions Book 1)
Christian theology voices in our time what Augustine wrote sixteen centuries ago: God made us for himself, and so the human person will know no peace until they repose in the divine. This is a remarkable starting point. In a world filled with people who stand on God’s cosmic stage but who have lost the divine script, Christian anthropology offers our fellow men and women the script back—with an escalated resolution in Christ that takes our breath away.
The Image of God
The Lord, as Augustine said, formed us for himself. The man and the woman are his in his “image” and his “likeness” (Gen 1:26–28, tselem and demuth). The fact that the man and woman are made in God’s image prepares them to fulfill the dominion mandate by filling the earth with children, ruling over the creation, and stewarding it to the glory of their maker. Adam in particular has a priestly role in Eden; as G. K. Beale has decisively shown, his commission to “watch and guard” the undisturbed (but not undisturbable) garden is priestly language (Gen 2:15). Adam is a priest to God in Eden, an early glimpse of the later truth that new covenant members are a kingdom of priests in Christ (1Pet 2:9).
Theologians differ over what precisely it means that humanity is imago dei, to use the Latin doctrinal term. Some like Barth argue for a relational view, rooting imaging in marriage and relationship; some like Luther contend for a righteousness view, construing the image as the gift of holiness; others like Calvin push for a substantive view, seeing the image as a particular trait or ability of the human person, with reason and knowledge of God being a commonly-held interpretation of the image’s “substance.”
Each view deserves careful consideration (and has elements of resonance with Scripture), but I argue for what is called the ontological view (meaning our being itself). Building off of Genesis 5, 9, and especially 1 Corinthians 11:7 (“man is the image and glory of God”), I believe that the image is not something we do but something we are. The image is not a trait; it is us. We are the only living being made in God’s image; thus, what separates us from the angels on the one hand and the animals on the other is, first and foremost, our definitive identity by the making of God.
Though we might identify various attributes of the human person as essential and even constituent to our being, the man and by extension are the image. In practical form, to see a human person, whether a baby in the womb through a monitor, a teenager with Down Syndrome at the park, or an elderly person lying in a nursing home bed, unable to care for themselves any longer, is to see an image-bearer, to catch a fading but real glimpse of the glory of the one who made us.
The Beauty of Manhood and Womanhood
Humanity is made in the image of God, formed by the Lord himself: “male and female he made them” (Gen 1:27). Here we learn a second glorious element of our humanity: God made us all with equal worth, but not with the same bodily identity. From the beginning, the Lord desired that there be unity in diversity in human terms. We sense just how strong this desire is for God’s choicest creation in Genesis 2. Much is occurring in this chapter: Adam is made by God’s own hand and breathed into by the Lord (Gen 2:7). He receives divine direction about the function of Eden, hearing from God that he may eat from any tree—we picture many trees bearing many kinds of fruit in Eden—but not from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:16–17). In Eden, unfettered by sin (and without a sin nature), Adam listens to God. He is free, but not free to do whatever he wishes. Yet there is one thing that troubles paradise: he is alone, and this is “not good” (2:18).
So the Lord undertakes a second aesthetic making and produces a masterpiece. The Lord makes Adam’s wife from Adam’s rib (2:21–22). The Lord then brings her to Adam so that he may name her, and he names her woman (ishah). Adam names her not so much technically as explosively. He rejoices when the woman is brought to him: “This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (2:23)! This marriage is not a creational anecdote; it is a human archetype. It is the very plan of God for human existence and by extension human flourishing. This design is altogether lovely: one man and one woman united in covenantal marriage; the man leaving his father and mother to “hold fast” to one wife (Gen 2:24); the spouses, post-fall, imaging the Christ-church paradigm through husbandly headship and wifely submission (Eph 5:22–33).
Following Genesis, the teaching of Scripture comes with one voice: we are made men and women by God for his glory. Our identity is not separate from our body; our body shapes our identity. With much overlapping instruction, manhood and womanhood matter tremendously for faithful Christian discipleship, and creation order grounds the need for manly leadership of the local church (1Tim 2:12). Important as marriage is in God’s old covenant and new covenant eras, and much as family relations matter in the church (elders are to be husbands of one wife and godly fathers, for example), we do not become a biblical man or woman on our wedding day. We are made a man or woman by God and—ideally—we grow in this calling as fathers and mothers disciple their sons and daughters in scripturally sound ways. Marriage and family-building is a deeply-doxological undertaking; it is also true that singleness devoted to God is no lesser call but allows for serious service to the Lord (1Cor 7).
The Fall of Man
From this happy start in Eden, things fall apart. A creeping thing enters the garden, and Adam fails to heed the charge given earlier to take dominion of all things including creeping things (see Gen 1:30). He does not “guard” Eden, and he stands passively by as the serpent—representing Satan—wraps his words around Eve, tempting her to sin against God (Gen 3:1–7). Satan encourages the woman to doubt God by softening God’s words, accusing God of harshness, and ultimately denying directly the truthfulness of divine revelation. “You will not surely die” represents the culmination of this wicked instance of false teaching, the first false teaching in the world God has made (3:4). Eve, then, allows the serpent’s revelation to cause her to desire the forbidden fruit; the fruit was always beautiful, but Eve is now seeing it in warped terms. She takes, eats, and Adam joins her in doing so (3:6). The human race, made for glory, made for communion with God, now is a fallen race.
The Lord is not asleep, however. Setting the biblical tone, the Lord comes in his own time and brings judgment against depravity. The creational capacities and vocations are now cursed: the woman will bear children in pain, even as the man will work the ground in pain (3:16–19). Yet in judgment there is a stirring note of salvation: the Lord promises a deliverer of God’s seed, one who crushes the serpent’s head, but has his heel bruised in doing so (3:15). A second redemptive note emerges out of the wreckage of sin: the man and the woman now see their bodies—their nakedness—in shame, shame produced by real judicial and spiritual guilt, but the Lord clothes them in animal skins (3:21).
This is the real historical grounding of the biblical doctrine of sin. Here is what theologians call “original sin,” and original sin is the ground of the true state labeled “total depravity.” In Adam, every human person fell; in our catastrophic undoing in Eden, we became comprehensively corrupted with sin. In our nature, no human person does good—not even one (Rom 3:10–18). The first couple’s sin is our sin, furthermore: we do not trust and obey God’s word, worshiping him through obedient following, but rather trust and obey ourselves, obediently worshipping Satan as we do so (John 8:44).
The Importance of Work, Vocation, and Rest
Genesis has still more to offer us theologically and anthropologically. The human race, we learn in this book, is made to work. We are the image of God, and God is the God who introduces himself to us in Genesis 1 by working. He creates all things and does so by the power of his speech. His working and acting nature is offset by the seventh day, a day of Sabbath rest (Gen 1:31). All that he has made is “very good,” and so the Lord enters into a rest of completion.
Work and rest are sometimes treated antiseptically by theologians. These are “practical” matters not worthy of deep doctrinal consideration, some seem to think. But this will not do. Work and rest are vital parts of divine activity and the creation order. Our God is a working and creating God. Out of the overflow of his magnificent freedom the Lord decides to put his glory on display in the cosmos. Here is a theocentric foundation for creativity, vocation (understanding work as a calling, not a job), and aesthetics. Creativity is not owned by anti-theistic technologists; it proceeds from the Almighty and displays something of his brilliance. Vocation is not the possession of the careerists, who drive themselves and their families into the ground because of self-motivated workaholism; it originates (in a form) in divine making. Aesthetics are not copyrighted by epicurean artists, who claim no standard of beauty for their craft; beauty is found in God himself, and God is the standard of beauty.
We will constrain our remarks here to vocation and rest. The man and the woman are made to take dominion of the earth, and the fulfillment of this awe-inspiring mandate comes through purposeful, meaningful investment. Later in the biblical story, skilled artisans and builders make major contributions to the temple (see, e.g., Exod 31). In the New Testament we learn that Christ is so big that every detail of life falls under his banner and is to be given to him as an act of worship. Eating and drinking give him glory through faithful Christian obedience; so too does all of life, the great and the small (1Cor 10:31). God is the God of the great, and God is the God of the tiny.
Unlike a naturalistic culture, Scripture does not ground vocation in earning power or political influence or celebrity fandom. Scripture exalts servanthood, and Jesus comes as a servant to God. Service to the Father is his “food” (John 4:34). This Christocentric truth helps us unpack the nature of work, and opens our eyes to see how anonymous daily labor that no one applauds or shares online may nonetheless have grand significance in God’s economy. The man who labors to excel in his job to provide for his family, the mother who gives her strength to pour into her children, the student who ignores campus hedonism to figure out a calling—these and many others honor God as they shape a vocation for the glory of God. But not only this: we glorify God by resting in him. Jesus is our Sabbath rest (Matt 11:28–30; Heb 3–4). We have full rest now in Christ—rest that spills out in all of life in physical, emotional, and psychological ways—even as we will have final rest in the new heavens and new earth.
The Re-enchantment of Humanity: Christ
Our material thus far has been straining almost unto breaking to get to the resolution of our humanity: Jesus Christ. There is no true doctrine of humanity without Jesus. More broadly, there is no ultimate knowledge of the human person in terms of our telos and purpose without Jesus. Humanity is the race made for God; humanity is the race fallen from God; humanity is the race made whole by God in Christ. In God’s plan, everything bends toward Christ.
Jesus comes as the fulfillment of all the promises of God (2Cor 1:20). He is the antitype; every promise is the type. This obtains across the board but has special reference for our purposes to our humanity and fallenness. Paul understands Christ as the second or last Adam. We have borne the image of the man of dust, he writes, and we have laid eschatological grasp on the image of the man of heaven (1Cor 15:49). Here the image of God comes back into play as well. Jesus is straightforwardly identified as the image (2Cor 4:4; Col 1:15). How do we make sense of this interplay given earlier texts? Our Adamic humanity means that we are fully an image-bearer, but our union with Christ means we are remade in the one who is truly the image of God. The cross and resurrection of Christ are so powerful, so saving, that they effectively lead a new exodus, and make what Paul calls “one new man”—a new human race—by Christ’s atoning blood (Eph 2:11–22).
Jesus is the greater Adam, the greater David, the greater Abraham (Matt 1:1). He is the obedient Son who lives in the power of the Spirit and who offers the Father the obedient worship that he deserves. Jesus shows us that it is not true humanity or true freedom to sin. Though Jesus’ disciples must battle sin until the end, we who are regenerated by divine grace are given a new nature, a new name, and are made a new creation in Christ through repentance and faith (Rom 6; 2Cor 5:17).
As Stephen Wellum has shown, the trajectory in biblical Christology begins with the divinity of Christ. This is in no way to underplay his humanity, of course (see Bruce Ware’s important work here, and also John Owen’s interesting take on pneumatological Christology). To do full justice to Jesus’s humanity, we must note that the Son of God exists eternally and then incarnates in obedience to the Father’s will (John 6:38). Remembering this truth will help greatly when thinking through questions of sin in light of the Son. Jesus was without sin (Heb 4:15). He was tempted in all things but—as the true human—did not have a sin nature as we do.
Some might wonder if this compromises the authenticity of his humanity, but we may respond by pointing out that it is not truly human to sin, but to obey God. Further, Adam did not have a sin nature either, and he was fully human. Jesus is not only like Adam, though; Jesus is the escalation and realization of Adam. Neither he nor Adam had a sin nature. Thus, Jesus did not experience what we call “internal temptation,” sin and fallen desire welling up within Jesus per James 1:13–15. As we have said, then, the stress in Scripture is on the righteousness, holiness, and impeccable perfection of Christ. This entails that Christians, a people transformed by faith in Christ, cannot embrace or affirm as any part of our identity many of the late forms of neo-paganism and naturalism now popular in the West: transgenderism, homosexuality, trans-speciesism, transhuman, posthumanism among them.
How we need the Son of God. We need him desperately, and we need him to understand humanity. We remember the lesson of the Word of God regarding the human race and trees, which play an outsized role in the economy of redemption. The first Adam was cursed by a tree, but the second Adam undoes the curse while hanging on a tree. The story of humanity and trees does not stop there: Jesus is even now leading us into the new Jerusalem, where we will be healed by the tree of life, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations (Rev 22:2).
This and no other is the re-enchantment of our humanity.
- Anselm, Cur Deus Homo
- Augustine, Confessions and Unfinished Work in Answer to Julian
- K. Beale, We Become What We Worship
- K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission
- A. Carson, “The God Who Is There,” TGC course
- Marc Cortez, ReSourcing Theological Anthropology: A Constructive Account of Humanity in the Light of Christ
- Kevin DeYoung, “The Glory of Plodding,” Ligonier article
- Ligon Duncan, “Created in God’s Image,” Ligonier message
- Tim Keller, “Redefining Work,” TGC message
- Tim Keller, “The Power of Deep Rest,” TGC article
- John Kilner, Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God
- Steve Lawson, “Against Our Own Sin,” Ligonier message
- John Owen, The Holy Spirit: His Gifts and Power
- John Piper, “God Created Man Male and Female,” Desiring God message
- David Schrock, “Finding Rest in the Merry-Thon,” TGC article
- Owen Strachan, “Fully Human and Truly Human,” TGC article
- Owen Strachan, Reenchanting Humanity: A Theology of Mankind
- TGC, “A Practical Theology of Work,” course
- Bruce Ware, The Man Christ Jesus
- Stephen Wellum, God the Son Incarnate
- Fred Zaspel, “Creation and History: Genesis 3,” Credo message
This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.