This post was originally a paper I wrote for Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer’s class ST 5201 God of The Gospel. We had a 2,000 word limit- so chill. I hope you to enjoy! Leave me your thoughts in a comment.
What does it mean to be human?
Countless hours have been spent by a legion of individuals working in many disciplines to answer this apparently innocuous question. So then, who is man that we should be mindful of him? A clear consensus is yet to be found. One major reason for the variety of disparate answers is the problem of self-reference. When man begins with himself as a proximate starting point and ends with himself as the ultimate reference point, the result is- well, where we find ourselves today. When we check the news for the state of man’s condition, do we not find him to be plunging continually- like Nietzsche’s Madman feared- backward, sideward, forward in all directions?
Rowan Williams cautions us that, “… if there is one great intellectual challenge for our day, it is the pervasive sense that we are in danger of losing our sense of the human.” As we set out to answer this perennial question, our focus will be on a theological “who is man?” rather than a scientific “what is man?” We will avoid the danger of a positive feedback loop by self-consciously defining man in reference to God. From a Christian perspective, our definition will view man as a proximate starting point that ultimately presupposes God and his revelation. In concert with Christ’s three offices of prophet, king, and priest, I argue that man can be fruitfully defined as God’s image bearer as seen from three perspectives: re-interpreter, sub-creator, and emulative lover.
The doctrine of the Imago Dei is easy enough to proof text: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” The trouble comes when explaining what that means.
As we begin, it is important to note that self-reference is a tricky endeavor (as many abandoned philosophies can attest). Yet there are few things more self-referential than man’s study of himself. As Mortimer Adler notes, the study of man “… is the only study in which the knower and the known are one, in which the object of the science is the nature of the scientist.” As such, it is understandable why various men and women have arrived at a lopsided view of man.
Those who are more cerebrally inclined tend to emphasize the primacy of the intellect: “You are what you think.” Those who are more concerned with the human capacity for choice tend to emphasize the primacy of the will: “It’s what you do that defines you.” And those who are more feelings-oriented tend to emphasize the primacy of the emotions: “You are what you love.” Each of these dictums, while expressing some true aspect of humanity, all fall short of a full expression of what it means to be human. However, a triperspectival view can find an equal ultimacy between these three as perspectives on man, thus providing a richer understanding.
Triperspectivalism, as put forward by professor John Frame, is the theory that all of life can be seen through three perspectives: the normative, the situational, and the existential. Frame bases these three perspectives on what he sees as God’s three major “Lordship attributes”: God’s authority, God’s control, and God’s presence. Using Frame’s tool, we can avoid a reductionist view of man.
When we look at the three offices of Christ, as noted by John Calvin, the utility of Frame’s Triperspectival approach emerges. Calvin explains that, “…the office enjoined upon Christ by the Father consists of three parts. For he was given to be prophet, king, and priest.” Christ Jesus, as the perfect man, is our prophet who speaks God’s truth to us (the normative perspective). He is our king, who reigns in righteousness over us (the situational perspective). And he is our priest, who intercedes in love on our behalf, drawing us into God’s presence (the existential perspective).
Using Christ’s three offices as our guide, we can view man from three related perspectives: re-interpreter (prophet), sub-creator (king), and emulative lover (priest). As we look at each perspective, it is important to remember that it is not in the actualization of each perspective that a person is truly human- if that were so, we’d have no need for Christ. But as Adler notes, “Human nature is constituted by all the potentialities that are the species-specific properties common to all members of the human species.” So, rather than relying on perfect actualization, our definition finds man’s potentiality in these three perspectives to be necessary for defining him as God’s image bearer.
In focusing on man as re-interpreter, we see man as a rational animal. Philosopher Roger Scruton reminds us that, “We are animals certainly; but we are also incarnate persons, with cognitive capacities that are not shared by other animals and which endow us with an entirely distinctive emotional life- one dependent on the self-conscious thought processes that are unique to our kind.” It is this idea of an incarnate self-conscious person, or “psychosomatic unity”, that distinguishes us from the rest of the created order. Angels might be persons, but they are not incarnate animals. Other incarnate animals show signs of intelligence, but they are not self-conscious persons. Man, as personal, self-conscious, thinking animal, is unique.
As re-interpreter, man is created to think God’s thoughts after Him. He has been created to receive God’s revelation and reason his way around God’s universe, conforming all his thoughts to his Creator’s. God’s thoughts are original, archetypal, and analytic; man’s thoughts are created, ectypal, and synthetic. Thus man’s thoughts presuppose God’s thoughts, or as Cornelius Van Til put it, “For man self-consciousness presupposes God-consciousness.”
Although man must always tacitly presuppose God, since, as Bavinck notes, “Rationality in the world presupposes rationality in God”, it is through explicitly acknowledging God that man can truly know himself. As Calvin says, “…it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself.” It is by recognizing his position as re-interpreter, rather than originator, that man can interpret himself rightly. For the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, knowledge, and understanding.
But man wasn’t created to think for thinking’s sake. He was designed to think in order to represent God as an embodied sub-creator throughout His created reality. The term “sub-creator” originally comes from J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay, “On Fairy Stories.” Tolkien explains that when a fantasy story draws you into a state of literary belief, “What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator.’”  In explaining man’s love for creating fantasy stories, Tolkien says, “…we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.” Though Tolkien had fairy stories in mind, his notion of sub-creator has profound implications for understanding what it means to be human.
In the “Cultural Mandate” of Genesis 1:28, God commissioned Adam and Eve in their roles as sub-creators by saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on earth.” Here, man is given his purpose. He’s not an arbitrary cosmic accident. Man, as image bearer of God, is the peak of God’s creation. He’s been given authority to rule the created order as king under the King. As Francis Schaeffer remarks, “Dominion itself is an aspect of the image of God in the sense that man, being created in the image of God, stands between God and all which God chose to put under man. As that which was created, man is no higher than all that has been created, but as created in the image of God, he has the responsibility to consciously care for all that which God put in his care.” Thus, in understanding man, we must understand man’s calling as sub-creator.
Finally, we come to the third perspective on man: emulative lover. Man, being created in the image of God represents God by loving as God loves. In 1 John 4:7-8, John makes this point explicit when he writes, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” Man is to love his fellow man because of who he knows God to be. So, just as God made man to think His thoughts after Him, and to sub-create according to His will, He also made man to emulate His love.
James K.A. Smith, utilizing Augustine to emphasize this third perspective, writes:
“You are what you desire. This teleological aspect of the human person, coupled with the fundamental centrality of love, generates Augustine’s third insight: because we are made to love the One who made and loves us- “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19)-we will find “rest” when our loves are rightly ordered to this ultimate end. But Augustine also notes the alternative: since our hearts are made to find their end in God, we will experience a besetting anxiety and restlessness when we try to love substitutes. To be human is to have a heart. You can’t not love. So the question isn’t whether you will love something as ultimate; the question is what you will love al ultimate. And you are what you love.”
As Smith rightly recognizes, man was created in love, by a loving God, for love. In order for man to live up to his telos, he must love as God loves. Thus, an essential part of man’s identity is his role as emulative lover who loves what he ought to love.
The Bible provides us with these three perspectives by which we can understand who man is. Each facet, if taken in isolation and given primacy, will leave us with a warped view of man. But when given equal ultimacy, the perspectives yield a thick understanding of what it means for man to be an image bearer of God. Man’s reason is a gift from God in order for him to re-interpret reality according to God’s revelation. Man’s purpose in life is embedded in his drive to cultivate, procreate, and exert dominion over God’s created realm as a sub-creator. And man, as emulative lover is to love God with all of his being and love his fellow man as himself. As noted above, it is not in the perfect actualization of these roles that man finds his identity, but rather, it is in his God-given potentiality that man recognizes himself. In so far as individual men and women fall short of this calling, they need to look to the perfect God-Man, Jesus Christ, as their prophet, king, and priest, for grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Amen.
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 In this paper I’ll be using the traditional understanding of “man” to stand for “mankind” and I will be using it interchangeably with human.
 Friedrich Nietzsche, “Modern History Source Book: Nietzsche: Parable of the Madman”. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/nietzsche-madman.asp (accessed December 1, 2018).
 Rowan Williams, Being Human, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018) 25.
 Cf. Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life. (Random House Canada, 2018) 19-21.
 Genesis 1:27, ESV.
 Mortimer Adler, “Man” in The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon, volume II (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc.) 1.
 And Vern Poythress, though he prefers the name Multiperspectivalism.
 John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1987) 74.
 Institutes II. XV. 1.
 Mortimer Alder, Ten Philosophical Mistakes. (New York: Touchstone, 1985) 161.
 Roger Scruton, On Human Nature. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017) 29-30.
 Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans’s, 1986) 217.
 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004) 95-149.
 Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of The Faith. 4th edition. (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2004) 113.
 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004) 372.
 Institutes I.I.2.
 Proverbs 1:7, 9:10.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories” in Tree and Leaf. (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1988) 37.
 Ibid., 56.
 Francis A. Schaeffer, Genesis in Space and Time. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1972) 48.
 James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love. (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016) 10. Emphasis original.