What is Man?

A study of the distinct function of God and man. The Creator God is independent, autonomous and self-generative. Man is a creature who is dependent, derivative and contingent. God acts in grace. Man receives in faith ­ the receptivity of God's activity.

©1998 by James A. Fowler. All rights reserved.

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 Man as God Intended Series

   The first man who ever lived, in conjunction with all mankind after him, must have pondered his own existence, asking the question, "What is man?" Every generation of mankind and every individual human being questions to some extent their meaning and purpose in the vast and perplexing context of the world around them. They ask questions like: "What am I?" "Who am I?" "Why am I? "How am I to function?" These are basic and fundamental questions which are not always easy to answer.

   In what is perhaps some of the earliest of Hebrew literature, we discover Job pondering just such a question. Not understanding the trials of life that he was suffering, Job asks of God, "What is man that Thou dost magnify him, and that Thou art concerned about him; that Thou dost examine him every morning, and try him every moment?" (Job 7:17,18). Job was questioning the meaning of man's existence within the context of God's ultimate purposes.

   The Psalmist asks a similar question concerning man's place in the created universe. "When I consider Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which Thou hast ordained; What is man, that Thou dost take thought of him? And the son of man, that Thou dost care for him? Yet Thou hast made him a little lower than God, and dost crown him with glory and majesty!" (Psalm 8:3-5). Again, when facing the hardships of conflicts and battles, the Psalmist, David, inquires, "O Lord, what is man, that Thou dost take knowledge of him? Or the son of man, that Thou dost think of him? Man is like a mere breath; His days are like a passing shadow." (Psalm 144:3,4).

   These are but cries for understanding of man's place and purpose within God's created order. They are legitimate questions which men should rightfully ponder in order to ascertain the purpose for which they were created.

   In considering an answer to the question, "What is man?", we want to avoid the two extremes: We do not want to posit to man more than he is, nor do we want to relegate man to less than he is.

   Man is not God. He does not become God, nor does he become "a god." The deification of humanity posits to mankind a potential that he does not possess, and can never live up to. On the other hand, man is more than a mere animal. Though he may share physiological and behavioral characteristics with some animals, such as feeding, bleeding and breeding, the human being is constitutionally more advanced than an animal, and has a destiny that is not available to the animal kingdom.

   To properly understand man's place and purpose, one must consider man in juxtaposition with God. The Creator, God, created the creature, man, to function in a particular relationship with Himself. If we can get a glimpse of how God functions, then perhaps we can begin to understand how man is intended to function.

   God is independent, autonomous and self-generative. There is no one outside of God who in any way influences His being or His action. God is never dependent or contingent on anything or anyone else, nor does He derive what He is or does from anything or anyone outside of Himself. He is His own center of reference. He is self-existent, uncreated and eternal.

  What God is, only God is! His attributes are exclusive to Himself and non-transferable. Only God is God! If we attempt to attribute to something or someone else, that which is exclusively an attribute of God, then we ever so subtlely and inadvertently ascribe deity to that object. There is only one God. God is exclusively God, both in His being and in His activity. He does what He does, because He is who He is! God's primary function is to act as the God that He is. He never acts "out of character," for His activity is always in accord with His character, who He is! God acts as the independent, autonomous and self-generative God that He is, consistently expressing every facet of His character. God's primary function is activity that independently, autonomously and self-generatively expresses His own character.

   How then does man function? There are some who would try to explain that man functions in the same way that we have just described God's function. The philosophical premise of humanism posits that man is his own center of reference. Humanism postulates that every human being is independent, autonomous and self-generative, with the inherent potentiality to be the cause of his own effects and the source of his own activity. Man is said to be "the master of his own fate." "He can chart his own course, run his own show, do his own thing, solve his own problems and control his own destiny." "If he can just perfect his intellect through advanced education and generate enough resources to effect his best efforts, man can improve himself and his environment to create a utopian 'heaven on earth'." "The potential of the independent human "self" is unlimited." "You can be anything you want to be." "You can achieve anything you set your mind to." These are the positivistic platitudes of humanistic thinking.

   This independent self-potential premise pervades the thinking of Western society today. Assuming the sovereign self-generative capability of man, we are told, "You can do it!" From the time of our childhood we are read such books as "The Little Train That Could," wherein the little train activates his best self-effort, saying "I think I can...I think I can...I think I can...and he did it!" This sets us up for the continued positing of ourselves via "positive thinking" and "possibility thinking" techniques. "Think yourself to the activating of your own success." "Will yourself to the top of the heap." And if perchance you do not make it, then seek out one of the self-help programs to better teach yourself how to achieve this success, or check yourself into a self-help clinic."

   The assumption that man is an independent and autonomous being, capable of generating his own activity, is a deification of humanity. It postulates that man is his own god, individually and collectively. Using the superior intellectual reasoning of the human mind and the sovereign will to determine his own destiny, man can allegedly fulfill higher and higher levels of self-realization and create a heavenly utopia on earth. Why has this not happened over several millennia of the history of mankind? Who is to say that one man's reasoning is superior to another man's reasoning? This leads only to rationalistic relativism.

   God alone is independent, autonomous and self-generating. As the divine Creator, He created man to be a creature who could only function by deriving all he is and does from spiritual resource. God did not create little "gods" and call them "human beings." The creature, man, was designed to function only by constant contingency upon the Creator, God. In a dependent relationship upon God, man can allow God to express His character in the behavior of the man in ways that no other part of the created order is capable of, for man is the epitome of God's created order.

   Man is dependent, contingent and derivative. He is not independent, autonomous and self-generating. If God's primary function is activity that independently and autonomously and self-generatively expresses His own character, then man's primary function is receptivity that dependently and contingently and derivatively allows God's activity to be expressed in the man.

   The analogies that the Bible uses to describe the function of man usually describe the receptivity of man's function. Man is a recipient. He is pictured as a receptacle.

   Writing to the Corinthians, Paul explains that Christians have the treasure of Christ Jesus "in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves" (II Cor. 4:7). The word for "vessels" usually referred to the old clay pots that were used as receptacles or containers of water, olive oil or wine. The container was not regarded as the object of value, but the value was in that which it contained. Paul indicates that Christian men and women are "vessels" which contain the ultimate "treasure" of the divine presence of Jesus Christ.

   Man is also described as a "house" (II Cor. 5:1). A house is a dwelling-place for a personal occupant. The personal God is meant to inhabit the house of mankind. As He abides in our abode (John 15:4), we have the personal resource to function according to His intent.

   Another analogy used to describe the receptivity of man is the image of a "temple." What is a temple? It is a structure that is meant to contain a god. Human beings are designed to receive and contain the presence of the living God within their spirit. Paul asks the Christians in Corinth, "Do you not know that you body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?" (I Cor. 6:19). The Living God intends to live and function within the temple of our body.

   Man is a receiver, a recipient. Receptivity is the basis for all of man's function. We are faith-beings, designed for receptivity of God's activity, availability to God's ability.

   In identifying man as a container or receptacle, it is important to note that man is obviously more than just an inanimate pot or pan, more than a non-living, impersonal clay jug. The Creator designed the creature, man, to be a personal choosing creature. In so doing, God self-limited his unlimited sovereign activity to correspond with the choices that man might make to depend upon Him and derive from Him in a personal faith-love relationship. Although only God has absolute free will to do anything He desires consistent with His character, and the power to accomplish such, He created man with freedom of choice, the volitional capability to choose and decide whether he would exercise such dependency and contingency upon his Maker. There was a freedom to accept or reject such a relationship of contingency upon the Creator. The rejection of such contingency upon God does not negate man's creaturely function of spiritual dependency and derivation however.

   Man was solicited and seduced to make a choice to reject dependency upon the God who made him. The source of this solicitation came from a spirit-creature who had become the antithesis and antagonist of God. Lucifer, the light-bearer, within the ranks of the angelic host, was himself a creature, created by God, who was dependent, contingent and derivative. Exercising his freedom of choice, he made an apparently unsolicited decision to oppose God and to seek to be as God. The causation and reasoning for such is unrevealed and unknown to us. In so doing he became the fixed adversary of God, the Evil One, Satan, the Devil. He is referred to as "the god of this world" (II Cor. 4:4), but this does not necessarily imply that he is independent, autonomous or self-generative. He is still derivative as he takes that which is of God and attempts to pervert it, distort it, misuse and abuse it. Thus he originates evil as the Evil One, and is the culpable cause of evil. The prime function of Satan is negativity. He takes that which is of God and attempts to negate the character and activity of God in the perversion, distortion and abortion of God's intent.

   It was Satan in the form of a serpent who solicited man in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:1-5). As "the father of lies" (John 8:44), the Devil suggested to original man that he could "be like God" (Gen. 3:5). "You do not need God to be a man." "You can be a man apart from God." It was a false solicitation to freedom apart from dependency and contingency. It was the humanistic lie that man could be a self-oriented independent self with unlimited human potential to actualize himself in independent, autonomous and self-generative function. Impossible, for in so doing he would cease to be the contingent, derivative and dependent human creature that God created.

   Why do evangelical Christians, even to this day, persist in declaring that when man rejected dependency upon God, he became independent? To assert such is to accept the lie of Satan. When original man listened to the solicitation of the Satanic tempter and disobeyed and sinned, the fall of man did not cause man to become independent, autonomous and self-generative. Man is still a dependent, contingent and derivative creature who became dependent upon Satan, "the spirit that works in the sons of disobedience" (Eph. 2:2). Fallen man is not able to self-generate anything. He cannot self-generate righteousness or unrighteousness, godliness or ungodliness, saintliness or sinfulness. "The one committing sin derives what he does from the devil" (I John 3:8). The fallen, natural man is contingent upon the "authority of Satan" (Acts 26:18), deriving what he does from "the prince of the power of the air" (Eph. 2:2), and deriving his identity as a "son of the devil" (I John 3:10) from the one on whom he is dependent. The natural man may think that he is independent and autonomous and free, but he is really a "slave to sin" (Rom. 6:6).

   Evangelical Christians must beware of inadvertently falling into the humanistic premise. Mankind never functions independently, autonomously or self-generatively. Man is a spiritually dependent creature. "Not one of us lives of himself" (Rom. 14:7). "Not that we are adequate to consider anything as coming from ourselves..." (II Cor. 3:5). We are contingent and dependent at every moment in time to derive our identity and our behavior from one spiritual source or the other, God or Satan. That is the way God created us as creatures.

   Even within the context of evangelical teaching on the Christian life some teachers indicate that the alternative to living "by the Spirit" is to revert to an alleged self-generated personal resource, which they often call "self." A popular form of this teaching indicates that either Christ is on the throne of one's life or else "self" or "ego" is on the throne of one's life. Ever so subtlely this teaching alleges that an independent self-resource takes effect whenever the Christian is not functioning under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Satan disguises his activity under this cloak of "self" in order to deceive and destroy us. If we think that our problem is "self" or some "dirty old man" in us, then we begin to masochistically beat on ourselves and attempt to "die to self" in order to be better Christians. Contrary to such teaching, we do not become better Christians by crucifying or suppressing this alleged self-resource. We are indeed to "deny ourselves" (Luke 9:23) by disallowing the self-oriented selfishness that Satan inspires, but we do so by deriving all from Christ in faith. By exercising faithful receptivity of His activity we depend on Him to be the dynamic of His own demands, and remain contingent upon Christ for the expression of His life in our behavior unto the glory of God.

   May we cease to even posit an independent personal resource of "self." It is the lie of humanism. We must reject en toto the idea that man can in any way be independent, autonomous or self-generative. In both his spiritual condition and his behavioral expression man is always a creature who is dependent, contingent and derivative. All that man is and does will be derived either from God or Satan.

   God's intent, of course, is that His Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, might dwell in the spirit of a man who receives such by faith. Having received the presence of Christ by faith, we are to live by continued receptivity of His activity (Col. 2:6). The Christian life is a process of deriving all from Christ ­ His righteousness, His holiness, His wisdom, His love, His life lived out through us. "We have this treasure (Christ) in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God, and not of ourselves" (II Cor. 4:7).

   What is man? Man is a creature created by the Creator to function only by dependency and contingency upon a spiritual source. By personal freedom of choice he decides to derive his identity and behavior either from God or Satan. His nature, his character and his destiny will be thus derived by receptivity to one or the other. He will either be destroyed by Satanic dysfunction or be saved by the restoration of God's function in the man by His Son, Jesus Christ.



 Man as God intended series