The Doctrine of Man

by Cornelius Van Til

The whole question with which we deal in Apologetics is one of the relation between God and man. Hence, next to the doctrine of God the doctrine of man is of fundamental importance.

A. The Image of God in Man

Man is created in God's image. He is therefore like God in everything in which a creature can be like God. He is like God in that he too is a personality. This is what we mean when we speak of the image of God in the wider or more general sense. Then when we wish to emphasize the fact that man resembles God especially in the splendour of his moral attributes we say that when man was created he had true knowledge, true righteousness and true holiness. This doctrine is based upon the fact that in the New Testament we are told that Christ came to restore us to true knowledge, righteousness and holiness (Col 3:10; Eph 4:24). We call this the image of God in the narrower sense. These two cannot be completely separated from one another. It would really be impossible to think of man having been created only with the image of God in the wider sense; every act of man would from the very first have to be a moral act, an act of choice for or against God. Hence man would even in every act of knowledge manifest true righteousness and true holiness.

Then after emphasizing that man was like God and in the nature of the case had to be like God we must stress the point that man must always be different from God. Man was created in God's image. We have seen that some of God's attributes are incommunicable. Man can never in any sense outgrow his creaturehood. This puts a definite connotation into the expression that man is like God. He is like God, to be sure, but always on a creaturely scale. He can never be like God in God's aseity, immutability, infinity and unity. For that reason the church has embedded into the heart of its confessions the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God. God's being and knowledge are absolutely comprehensive; such knowledge is too wonderful for man; he cannot attain unto it. Man was not created with comprehensive knowledge. Man was finite and his finitude was originally no burden to him. Neither could man ever expect to attain to comprehensive knowledge in the future. We cannot expect to have comprehensive knowledge even in heaven. It is true that much will be revealed to us that is now a mystery to us but in the nature of the case God cannot reveal to us that which as creatures we cannot comprehend; we should have to be God ourselves in order to understand God in the depth of his being. God must always remain mysterious to man.

The significance of this point will appear more fully when we contrast this conception of mystery with the non-Christian conception of mystery that is current today even in Christian circles. The difference between the Christian and the non-Christian conception of mystery may be expressed in a word by saying that we hold that there is mystery for man but not for God while the non-Christian holds that there is either no mystery for God or man or there is mystery for both God and man.

B. Man's Relation to the Universe

Next to noting that man was created in God's image we must now observe that man was organically related to the universe about him. That is, man was to be prophet, priest and king under God in this created world. The vicissitudes of the world would depend upon the deeds of man. As a prophet man was to interpret this world, as a priest he was to dedicate this world to God and as a king he was to rule over it for God. In opposition to this all non-Christian theories hold that the vicissitudes of man and the universe about him are only accidentally and incidentally related to one another.

C. The Fall of Man

The fall of man needs emphasis as much as his creation. As we believe that man was once upon a time created by God in the image of God, so we also believe that soon thereafter man through disobedience fell into sin. After we have discussed what we mean by God and what we mean by the creation of man in the image of God, we can readily see what the nature of sin must be. As a creature of God man had to live in accordance with the law of God, that is, in accordance with the ordinances that God had placed in his creation. This law was for the most part not verbally transmitted to man but was created in his being. Man would act in accord with his own true nature only if he would obey the law of God and, vice versa, if he would live in accord with his own nature, he would obey the law of God. True, God did communicate to man over and above what was embedded in his very nature the specific commandment not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. But this was only to force an immediate and final test as to whether man would really live in accordance with the law of God as everywhere revealed within and about him.

When man fell it was therefore his attempt to do without God in every respect. Man sought his ideals of truth, goodness and beauty somewhere beyond God, either directly within himself or in the universe about him. God had interpreted the universe for him, or we may say man had interpreted the universe under the direction of God, but now he sought to interpret the universe without reference to God; we mean of course without reference to the kind of God defined above.

The result for man was that he made for himself a false ideal of knowledge. Man made for himself the ideal of absolute comprehension in knowledge. This he could never have done if he had continued to recognize that he was a creature. It is totally inconsistent with the idea of creatureliness that man should strive for comprehensive knowledge; if it could be attained, it would wipe God out of existence; man would then be God. And, as we shall see later, because man sought for this unattainable ideal, he brought upon himself no end of woe.

In conjunction with man's false ideal of knowledge, we may mention here the fact that when man saw he could not attain his own false ideal of knowledge, he blamed this on his finite character. Man confused finitude with sin. Thus he commingled the metaphysical and the ethical aspects of reality. Not willing to take the blame for sin, man laid it to circumstances round about him or within him.


From: The Defense of the Faith, by Van Til, C. (1955). 

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