In order to serve God well, we not only have to know what he is but also what we are in relation to him. For the sake of time this evening, I will assume that we know something about God. But what do we know about ourselves? Are we like everything else in creation, or is there something unique about man? Why are we here? What is our purpose? What are we?
These and many other questions have occupied man’s mental energy since the dawn of time. Not basing his ideas on Scripture, man’s answers reveal a broad diversity of opinions that are always incompatible with the views of other men. But we can place them all under the broad umbrella of humanism, since they begin with man as the point of reference. Some exalt man’s ability to reason. Others delight in the fact that man is incapable of uncovering any meaning or purpose to his existence. Most take it for granted that man’s powers of observation are true and accurate. In any case, the one thought that prevails is that man is the measure of all things.
Whether we’re talking about the humanism of ancient China, the humanism of the Renaissance (at which time man and his achievements were depicted in art as bigger than life) or its modern form as represented in the Humanist Manifestoes of 1933 and 1973, makes no difference. Humanism is man’s belief that he is his own greatest potential.
Now, you might think that I am going to say that humanism is evil and ought to be avoided by those who take their Christian faith seriously.
Of course, if we limit our discussion to the forms of humanism that I’ve already mentioned, there can be no other conclusion. Each of them rejects the Bible’s view of God, man and the world, and offer a substitute religion in its place — a religion with man himself as god. This is Humanism with a capital “H.” It’s the kind of humanism that Paul condemned in the first chapter of Romans when he wrote that men changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator (v. 25).
But what I am actually going to say is quite different. Capital “H” Humanism expresses the depths of man’s depravity, but Biblical humanism is absolutely necessary if we would serve Jesus Christ faithfully. And I will add one thing more surprising thought to this: only Christians have the right to be called humanists in the true and proper sense of the word because only the Bible offers a true understanding of man’s origin, meaning and dignity.
Think about it this way. Those who call themselves humanists (in our day we sometimes call them “secular humanists”), in spite of their belief that man has risen above the animal kingdom, really reduce him to the level of animals. After all, man is only one small blip in the long history of evolution. Adolph Hitler to the contrary, modern man does not even come close to Nietsche’s “superman.” And nowhere is this more evident than in ethics. Jerry Rubin, the left-wing social activist of the 1970s, expressed it best: “If it feels good, do it.” That’s the way animals live. Animals have no conscience, no sense of consequences, no understanding of their role in God’s world. Naturally, this kind of ethic appeals to sinners, who already lust after the pleasures of the world. If television and movies are an indication of what’s really going on in our society today, then we have to conclude that our canine friends are more discriminate in mating than many people are. God’s law is out. Impulse is in.
The ultimate expression of secular humanism’s real hatred of man can be seen in the fact that man insists on applying the curse of God to himself. Rather than preserving human life, he wants to destroy it. By all means, let’s spare the life of a man who murders his family in cold blood or kidnaps and tortures children. The lives of those he hurt mean nothing at all. Nor do the hundreds of thousands of unborn children whose lives are sacrificed on the altar of mother’s convenience every year in this country. Hitler sanitized his killing operation in the 1940s. Today, Planned Parenthood and other anti-life operations do the same. Why? Because they want to hide the ugliness of death to make death more appealing. Humanists also support the right to die. There are numerous organizations in the United States that actively promote suicide, most of which participate in the World Federation of Right to Die Societies. Dr. Kevorkian and Derek Humphry are their heroes.
How can anyone in his right mind claim that such things encourage man to reach his fullest potential? Humanists want to save every rodent and owl on the planet. Killing animals for meat or fur is taboo. But the only human life they want to protect is that of murderers, rapists and child molesters. That’s right, secular humanism, contrary to all of its protests, is really antihuman!
Secular humanists, because of their epistemic pou sto, cannot admit this fatal flaw to their theory. Instead, they try to turn the tables on those who really do value human life. J.I. Packer explains how sin affects man’s thinking in this regard: “Sin perverts instincts not only in our bodies but also, more fundamentally, in our natures, leads us to turn our backs on God, go our own way, do our own thing, live for ourselves, realize Satan’s image in our life style instead of God’s, and then turn around and challenge Christian ideals as antihuman, bigoted and pathetic.”
The Bible, on the other hand, reveals man’s true dignity. It says that man is the image of his Creator. Animals do not bear God’s image. For that matter, nowhere does the Bible expressly say that angels do, although that seems to be the case. But man does. Of all the things that God made, only man is described as the image of God. God communicates with man through his Word. He allows man to communicate with him in prayer. He has even appointed man to act as his steward in managing the rest of creation. Moreover, the second table of the Law protects such things as man’s life, family, property and reputation. Plants and animals do not have such protections. And finally, God has chosen to redeem and restore a part of humanity in spite of the fact that we have sinned and fallen far short of our original glory. He sent his only begotten Son to be the Savior of his people. I challenge any one to name any other part of creation to whom God has shown so much kindness. The obvious answer is that there is none.
Whether we talk about man in his original condition or humanity as redeemed by the blood of Christ, man is unique and glorious.
What is Man?
Hamlet, the title character in Shakespeare’s play, spoke of man in exalted term. He exclaimed, “What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!” (Act II, Scene 2). Yet, for all of his eloquence, he was singularly unimpressed. Perhaps this was due to the fact that in his melancholy he both overstated man’s dignity and failed to recognize the effects of human sin.
In any case, Psalm 8 takes a different approach to the subject. It reads as if David stepped outside of his palace one evening and for the first time really noticed God’s handiwork. He stood in awe of the glory of God displayed in the heavens, and saw the moon and the stars as the work of God’s finger. He pondered the fact that these heavenly bodies manifested such glory only because God had ordained that it be so. This, in turn, made him contemplate his own significance. Compared to the great expanse above, he asked, What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? Man seems so puny and unimportant, why would God take any interest in us at all?
Have you ever wondered about this? When you’re in an airplane looking out the window, and cars, houses and factories start to look infinitesimally small, do you contemplate your meaning and purpose? Or when you visit Yosemite with its 4000-foot high granite walls, do you start to feel rather microscopic?
Well, there’s a sense in which you should, but it’s not because the moon or stars have greater value than you. It’s because the glory of God that’s revealed in all of these things, including you, is greater than you. And ultimately that’s what David wants you to see. On the other hand, the creation itself should not make you feel insignificant. Look at the Holy Spirit’s answer to David’s questions in verses 5 and following. Not even the Renaissance offered such an exalted view of humanity.
The answer comes in three parts.
First, God made man a little lower than the angels. This in itself is absolutely remarkable. In the Bible angels have a power and a glory that go far beyond anything that we know by experience. And, yet, God says that we are just a little lower than they.
But do you know what? That’s not literally what the Hebrew text of verse 5 says. The word translated angels is actually Elohim (אֱלֹהִים), a name of God that emphasizes his strength and power. In fact, the Revised Standard Version of the Bible even translates it this way: “Yet thou hast made him little less than God.” I suspect that the reason the KJV translates it as angels, which I prefer, is that both the Septuagint and Hebrews 2:7, which quotes the passage, translates it like this (ἀγγέλους). Either way the meaning is the same. This verse takes us back to the creation of man in Genesis 1 and reaffirms the unique dignity that God gave to man. Only man was made in the image and likeness of God. Only man was appointed by God to be his vicegerent in governing creation.
Second, verse 5 says that God also crowned man with glory and honor. It goes with saying, perhaps, that God’s concern for man’s welfare is always secondary to his pursuit of his own glory. He made the world and all that it contains for himself first. Proverbs 16:4 says, The LORD hath made all things for himself: yea, even the wicked for the day of evil. But this does not mean that God’s concern for man’s welfare is not genuine. To the contrary, just as God made man a little lower than the angels, so he has also chosen to exalt man with true glory and honor.
The ninth chapter of Genesis provides a good illustration of this. Immediately after the flood, the Lord gave Noah some instructions regarding human life. For example, verse 5 forbids murder. This was nothing new. The fact that Cain lied about the whereabouts of his brother Abel after he killed him shows that he knew that he had sinned. According to this verse, even animals that take the life of a man must be held accountable. But what is helpful here is the reason that God gave for protecting human life. Verse 6 says, Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man. The severity of God’s judgment against murderers is due to the fact that the victim bears God’s image. An assault on God’s image is, in a sense, an assault on God himself. But in this instance the victim is not the only one who was made in the image of God. So also is the one who administers God’s justice to the offender. His glory and honor is to serve in the place of God in matters of justice. That’s why God’s name, Elohim, is sometimes applied to civil authorities. One passage where this is done, for example, is Exodus 22:8, which says, If the thief be not found, then the master of the house shall be brought unto the judges, to see whether he have put his hand unto his neighbour’s goods. The word translated judges is Elohim.
And third, God placed the rest of creation under the government of man. Verses 6 through 8 mention domesticated animals, birds of the air and sea creatures.
On the other hand, man is not the only ruler in creation. In the angelic world, Michael serves as an archangel (Jude 9), i.e., a chief or ruling angel. The “a-r-c-h” we see in other words like monarchy (the rule of one), oligarchy (the rule of a few) and patriarchy (the rule of fathers). Daniel even calls Michael a prince of God (Dan. 10:13, 21; 12:1). Apparently, he exercises some form of authority over other angels. Among animals, certain ones dominate others. The lion, for example, is the king of the jungle. But there is still one very important difference between these other governments and man. Man’s dominion extends to every part of creation (cf. Heb. 2:8). Verse 6 says, Thou hast put all things under his feet. Man supervises the things God made and has the world at his disposal. There is in this, as is true in other areas, the implicit expectation that men will be good stewards of God’s gifts.
Man In Christ
Now, here’s the wrinkle. The question, What is man? appears two more times in Scripture. In neither instance is the answer as complimentary as it is in our text.
The first of these occurs in the seventh chapter of Job. Weighed down with the harshness of his misery, Job said, I loathe it [i.e., his life]; I would not live alway: let me alone; for my days are vanity. What is man, that thou shouldest magnify him? and that thou shouldest set thine heart upon him? (Job 7:16-17). Here Job felt as though God was hounding him, which must have seemed excessively cruel since he thought his life would soon be over anyway. In his frustration he exclaimed that his days had become meaningless vanity — the same word found thirty-eight times in the book of Ecclesiastes (הֶבֶל).
The other passage where we find the question, What is man? is Psalm 144. In the first four verses of this psalm, David recalls the many ways that God had blessed him as a warrior and king. Then he asks, What is man? As with Job, he concludes that his life is vanity, a mere breath of air, a shadow that will soon pass away. He then begs God, who had been his strength in the past, to deliver him from his present affliction.
So, what are we to do with this? When David inquired about the nature of man in Psalm 8, the answer spoke of man’s glory, honor and dominion. But when the same question appears elsewhere, it’s answer complains of the vanity and meaninglessness of our lives. How can this be?
The solution to this puzzle is Hebrews 2. After quoting our text the writer says, But now we see not yet all things put under him (v. 8). Man had not been able to exercise the creation mandate in its fullest sense, and he never could have done so if he were left to himself. Why? Because he did not remain in his original condition. The entrance of sin into the world marred the image of God in man and negatively affected all human relationships. Instead of submitting to God, man makes himself equal to or greater than God. This is the essence of humanism. Instead of acknowledging the worth and value of other men, man tries to exercise dominion over other men, as nowhere is this more evident that in the culture of death. And in relation to the world, man wants to the savior, preserving it from every threat (global cooling, global warming, renegade comets, hurricanes, etc.). As a result, the glorious picture given in Psalm 8 can only be partially true at best.
But this, thankfully, is not the end of the story. Hebrews continues: But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man (v. 9). In other words, there is one in whom Psalm 8 finds a perfect fulfillment. The Lord Jesus, who, being the second person of the Trinity, dwells in light unapproachable, made himself a little lower than the angels, was crowned with glory and honor, and overcame God’s curse for all who believe in him. In him we find perfect humanity and true humanism. He lifts us out of our sin and misery to share with him in his glorious reign. Paul wrote, And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together (Rom. 8:17). And again, But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) and hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: that in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:4–7).
I’ll let you make the decision for yourselves. Who really has the right to be called a humanist? Those who call themselves humanists but really hate mankind, or Christians, whose hope of perfect humanity is not in men but in the mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (I Tim. 2:5)?
Now, what does this mean for you? The obvious application is that you need to look to Jesus, who, by his Spirit, puts off the old man of your former way of life and puts on the new man, which is created after God in righteousness and true holiness (Eph. 4:22–24). Beyond that, it also highlights your role as a king in the kingdom of King Jesus. This means, first, as our catechism explains, that you must fight again sin in your own lives and oppose Satan’s kingdom with all your might (Heid. 32). And since sin manifests itself in every area of life, you must challenge sin wherever it reigns, so that righteous rule of Jesus Christ might be acknowledged everywhere.
Let us pray that the true humanism of the gospel would conquer the false and misnamed humanism of unbelief! Amen.