We constantly speak about man in theology. But is it legitimate in the first place? Theology, as you know perfectly well, consists of two Greek words that mean “God” and “word.” It is the word about God. This is the shortest and the truest definition of theology. Only R.C. Sproul’s definition can compete with it in sharpness: “Theology is the study of God.”
Theology is about God and emphatically not about man. Theology is not even about any abstract God but about the concrete God revealed in the history of Israel and in the person of Jesus Christ. The focus and intention of the Bible and, consequently, of theology is very narrow and highly specific. So “how dare you” speak about man? Do we have an explanation and justification for the intrusion of anthropology into theology, for the intrusion of the word about man into the word about God?
We can legitimately speak about man in theology for two reasons: first, God created man in His image; second, God Himself became man.
These two facts immediately bring man into the circle of our thinking and talking about God. It turns out that, in fact, we can’t speak about “God revealed in the history of redemption” without speaking about man in the same breath. So, formally, theological anthropology is justified by the very nature of theology itself.
But the reverse is true too. Man cannot be understood apart from his relation to God, or better, God’s relation to him. The very first definition of a human being is that it is a being in a special relationship to God. This is what defines man in his most basic core. Counterintuitively and paradoxically, it is neither outer form (a particular physical body) nor inner experience (thoughts and feelings) but an external link to God—an external attitude of God—that makes this being a human being.
The center of gravity of the human person is, as David Kelsey put it, eccentric—that is, it is situated outside the person. And this center is God in His creative and redemptive acts directed toward man. As the author of Hebrews formulated it so well, “For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham” (Heb. 2:16). Human beings are higher than angels (and, it follows, higher than any other being in the world) because God saves human beings and does not save angels. God does for man what He does not do for angels, cats, trees, and stars.
What is man? Man is that being which God created in His image. What is man? Man is that being whose nature God chose from the whole universe to take upon Himself at the proper time.
It is true even for atheists. Existence of man without God is an illusion. No such man actually exists. We cannot define a human being and then, perhaps, add to the definition relation to God or leave the definition unmarred by God and still have a human being. God is not an expensive but unessential extra for man in the way that a climate control system is an add-on for a car. Even entirely secular people are created in God’s image, and it is true even for them that God became one of them. That is what defines atheists and makes them human. All people are in relation to God—positive or negative. As the saying goes: If there is no God, in whom, then, do atheists not believe?
Intrusion of the word about man into the word about God is not only possible and legitimate but, as it turned out, also fruitful. We at once learn that to be human is to be in relation to God—even if this relation is frantically denied from the human side.
I am pretty sure that imago Dei and incarnation are where we should start in current debates about human nature. How many genders are there? Is it OK to be gay? Are men and women fully mutually replaceable? For me as a theologian, such questions are secondary. I do not care about trying to find a place for God in the life of the modern or postmodern man. It is clear to me that the ball is on the human side: How can man find his place in God’s history?
It has been said that the Enlightenment was not so much about reason as about will. And reason was a cover for desire and was used as an instrument to free the will from any external authority and boundaries. By now this Enlightenment project has fully succeeded: man freed himself so much that he lost himself. There are no contours to his being. He is shapeless like amoebae. He lost humanizing boundaries both in his body and in his mind (and will).
What theological anthropology does is bring the boundaries back: to be human is to be in relation to God. The special attitude of God—realized in imago Dei and incarnation—makes humans human. To be human is to be limited by God. Humanity is what God, revealed in redemptive history, thinks and makes humanity to be. Man is not shapeless anymore. He is limited, defined, and outlined by God and God’s attitude toward him.
This starting point—if it is not ruined by moralistic and religious propaganda—potentially is able to undermine the worldview of human absoluteness, shapelessness, and deliberate self-destruction.