Why Study the Doctrine of Humanity?

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This post is by John Hammett (Professor of Systematic Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.), and is adapted from Hammett’s chapter in A Theology for the Church (Second Edition, Forthcoming).

To see the entire “Bearing God’s Image” series click here.

Most people at one time or another pause to consider the enigma of human nature. Humans are capable of great acts of love, can create majestic works of art, and can even enter into a relationship with an infinite God; yet they are equally capable of horrific evil and cruelty and share many features in common with other animals.

In the end, despite all their efforts to resist it, they die, and most are quickly forgotten. Scripture compares us to a mist “that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14).  No wonder the psalmist marvels in amazement that God is mindful of us (Ps. 8:3–4).

The English poet Alexander Pope, in his “Essay on Man,” saw our proper field of study as humans to be our own strange nature.

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is Man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
Being darkly wise and rudely great;
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast . . .
Sole judge of truth, in endless Error hurled:
The glory, jest and riddle of the world!

Yet despite this paradoxical nature of humans and their relative unimportance in comparison with the vastness of space and time and the glories of almighty God, this field of study is essential for Christians for at least four reasons.

First, humans are worthy of consideration because God is supremely worthy of attention, and God has chosen to involve himself with humans.

In fact, God has so thoroughly involved himself with humanity that John Calvin insisted that knowledge of God and knowledge of man must proceed hand in hand. The first sentence of Calvin’s classic work, Institutes of the Christian Religion, links the two: “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.”

Second, the study of humanity is a worthwhile pursuit because God has given revelation concerning humanity in Scripture.

Biblical teaching on humanity, like all biblical teaching, is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” and is part of that which equips us “for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). The proper response to God’s revelation is grateful study and faithful application.

Third, the study of humanity is especially important for those who seek to serve Christ because one way we express our love for Christ is in loving and serving others.

But how can we serve others in a manner acceptable to God if we do not understand what he intends for humans to be? The study of humanity is imperative for Christian ministers, for it is humans to whom we minister.

Fourth, we engage in the study of humanity as an act of discipleship. We have only one brief life of service on this earth to offer to God.

How can we offer it to God as an acceptable expression of our worship and devotion if we do not know what God desires a human life to be? Only he can pronounce the “well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:21) that we long to hear.

Fifth, the doctrine of humanity is connected to issues that are crucially important to human flourishing but not well understood in our contemporary context.

For example, the ideas of humans as specially created by God, having the distinctive characteristic of being made in God’s image, differentiated as created male and female, called to both work and rest, in need of community, damaged by the fall and in the process of being renewed—all these are matters of controversy and confusion in our culture.

Thus, God’s involvement with humanity, biblical teaching on humanity, the nature of Christian ministry, and the demands of Christian discipleship commend to us the study of the doctrine of humanity.

This blog series is based on the fall study of The Gospel Project for adults and students, focused on the doctrine of humanity, titled “Bearing God’s Image”.