What We Believe

Defining the Human: Personal Identity in Theological Perspective: A Review Article

A. Craig Troxel

Ordained Servant: April 2008

Defining Humanity

Also in this issue

Perfecting the Imperfectible

A Christian Anthropology for Contemporary Bioethics

Personal Identity in Theological Perspective, edited by Richard Lints, Michael S. Horton, and Mark R. Talbot. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006, 225 pages, $20.00, paper.

As the tide rises with increased interest in theology the waves inevitably wash ashore the residue of anthropology from the prevailing currents of thought. The doctrine of God and the doctrine of man rightly go hand in hand, and so renewed interest in the Creator naturally provokes reflection on his image-bearer.[1] We find ourselves at such a moment. Among the plethora of books and essays springing from various academic disciplines one collection of essays on theological anthropology may peak the curiosity of devoted readers of theology, and in particular, biblical anthropology. This collection of essays in Personal Identity in Theological Perspective grew out of a theological colloquium held in Colorado Springs in 2002, unapologetically composed of contributors writing within their confessional traditions.

The book begins, quite appropriately, with a chapter by Robert Louis Wilken on the church fathers ("Biblical Humanism: The Patristic Convictions"), and in particular Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa, the latter being "the first to deal systematically with the Christian doctrine of man in its fullness" (14). Wilken discusses how the fathers exposited the imago dei ("image of God") preeminently from Genesis 1:26 (which records the unique phenomena of God deliberating upon his creation of humankind). Gregory and Augustine clearly explain that although the image is tarnished and disfigured by the fall, it is not eradicated; an acute observation that anticipates the careful balance of Calvin, Bavinck, and others. Furthermore, the fathers saw the important implications of Christ's resurrection for an adequate anthropology (23), as well as maintaining man's psycho-somatic unity (27). Wilkens also seeks to exonerate the fathers' use of terms like "divinization" and "deification" to describe the Christian's fellowship with God. He contends that, "the line between creator and creature is never crossed" by the fathers (24).

William C. Weinrich looks at the Lutheran tradition in his contribution, "Homo theologicus: Aspects of a Lutheran Doctrine of Man." Luther's contention is that, whereas philosophy could only explain man in relation to this world, theology considers man "in relation to his efficient and final causes," God and eternal life (32). This assumption, which "is central to Luther's anthropology" (32), naturally leads to his well-known principle, that, if man's purpose and image pertain to that which transcends man's physical life and capacities, then with sin comes the loss of the image. Sin destroys and the Gospel restores what man is. Weinrich concludes with his discussion of Luther's idea that Christ became the "greatest sinner" so that those justified by faith might participate in the "happy exchange" and become "like God" (42).

Michael S. Horton ("Post-Reformation Reformed Anthropology") briefly but skillfully reviews the covenants of redemption, creation (works), and grace, demonstrating how covenant theology operates as the central construct or model for anthropology. Secondly, Horton relates how both Calvin and the succeeding Reformed Orthodox emphasized the worth of those passages that describe the believer's renovation in order to define the imago dei (e.g., Eph. 4:24, Col. 3:10). Horton rightly uses the well-known axiom that one way to discover a person's definition of the imago dei is to find out what they think is retained and what is lost of God's image after the fall. Here I think Horton understates the significant difference between Lutheran and Reformed theology. (Herman Bavinck is especially helpful at this point in his stressing the distinction and the inseparability of the imago dei in both the narrow and broad sense.[2])

Stanley J. Grenz ("The Social God and the Relational Self") argues that postmodernism represents the rebirth of the "self," which looks to relationships for its identity (77).[3] This assumption presents an opportune nexus with the imago dei, which corporately involves participation in the "new humanity" (84), and eschatologically means participation in the imago Christi, the true goal of the imago dei. One must applaud Grenz, who along with people like Donald Bloesch, have long bemoaned the overemphasis of evangelicalism on the individual. But one wonders if Grenz was moved more by postmodern, post conservative sociological convictions than by the mandates of Scripture, as our principium.

Nancy Murphy ("Nonreductive Physicalism") challenges anthropological dualism and trichotomism in favor of physicalism—"the view that humans are composed of only one ‘part,' a physical body" (95-96). In order to avoid the critique that physicalism is reductionistic and boils human behavior down to something determined by the laws of neurobiology, Murphy argues that the consciousness of our memories, the virtue of our character, and our relationships with others also compose our identity. Her discussion of free will exasperates for its evasion of all things theological as does the increasingly common habit of postmodern/post-liberal/evangelicals to posit false antitheses. This habit is exhibited by Murphy's contention that dualism places too much emphasis on "the soul and its final destiny," in opposition to "Jesus' concern with the kingdom of God" (97). On the other hand, "What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world (physical?) and forfeits his soul (psuche)?"

Stanton L. Jones and Mark A. Yarhouse ("Anthropology, Sexuality, and Sexual Ethics") maintain that the "true self is both discovered and formed" (126). As contemporary anthropologies emphasize the importance of inward discovery, the goal becomes the attainment of happiness and fulfillment. So, to deny one's sexuality "is akin to denial of ‘oneself'" (127). Christian anthropology does not look primarily to such subjectivity to define the self but to the objective meanings given by God's revelation and lived out in a community of faith through the transformative process of sanctification (formation). It is "obedience and disobedience that marks us and makes us" (128). They pursue this assumption with its implications for sexual ethics, and in particular homosexuality (reflecting some of their larger work on homosexuality and scientific research).

In his essay, "Personal Bodies," David Kelsey pursues the definition of personhood, which he contends is defined in contemporary culture by means of classification (to distinguish from non-personal beings), description (who is man metaphysically), and evaluation (to assess our status). Kelsey dedicates himself to addressing the question "What is a "person?" within the doctrine of creation, and not with the question "Who am I?" within the doctrine of eschatology or soteriology (153).

In "Learning from the Ruined Image," Mark R. Talbot contends that personhood is not just about how we are "hard-wired." It also includes the "software" we acquire along the way. For example, we measure our children's growth in part by how well they meet the expectations of society as they learn to discipline themselves (not giving into whatever impulse happens to be strongest at the time). This formation of our personhood also proceeds appropriately as we learn the narrative vocabulary of life. We are meant to "flourish in societies" as "verbivores," deriving our "taste for living" by being word-eaters. As Christians our understanding of this is shaped by the "final vocabulary" in Scripture.

In his second essay, "Image and Office," Michael Horton seeks an alternative paradigm to classical and modern anthropologies, one that is based on biblical categories. Horton believes that the proper question is not "What is man?" (ontology), but "Who am I?" (ethics). And its proper answer can only come by situating "the character of the imago dei in the context of covenant and eschatology" (179). That is to say, the image of God is best seen "as an office or embassy, a covenantal commission with an eschatological orientation" (184). The image is constituted by four characteristics: sonship/royal dominion, representation, glory, and prophetic witness (185), and it is "official rather than essential; ethical rather than ontological; eschatological rather than metaphysical" (195). Horton is careful to avoid the polar pitfalls of seeing self as the exclusively individualized-self or the communalized (social) self.

Richard Lints ("Imaging and Idolatry") affirms that theological anthropology has clearly swung from the individual to communitarian "notions of personhood" in concert with revived interest in Trinitarian theology (204-205), and in particular away from evangelicalism's over-emphasis on the "solitary minds" of modernity. "Essentialist" approaches (which define the essence of humankind via a set of attributes) and "functionalist" approaches (which define the image via humankind's spiritual responsibility or calling) do not sufficiently take into consideration that a person is not a person outside of relations. But Professor Lints raises the yellow flag about the "social self" in recent trends of thought in which the "subject-in-relation" is defined with little apparent regard for our ultimate purpose, to honor and delight in the living God (223). In particular, man as an image-bearer ought to reflect the relational identity or "divine community" of the Trinity in "worship, honor, completion and satisfaction." Idolatry, which is the subversion of this, remakes the idolater in its image through "perversion, corruption, consumption and possession" (209). Christ, "the very image/likeness of God," is the one who shapes and re-creates the believer in the inner man, (221).

Those that will find this book most helpful are probably only those who teach or read widely on the doctrine of man. Many of the pieces assume a finely-tuned competency of the field, and in some instances, acquaintance with philosophical and historical developments. The chapters by Grenz and Murphy will have little or no appeal to most readers of Ordained Servant, as their postmodern assumptions and flair will exasperate those of us of the confessional stripe. Wilken's and Weinrich's pieces are interesting historically as are Kelsey's and Talbot's for their philosophical bent, but again, they are probably too specialized for most OS readers. But those teaching a study or even a Sunday school on the doctrine of man would profit from even a cursory reading of this collection of essays.

Many of the contributors faithfully decry evangelicalism's iniquitous over-emphasis on individualism. But not all the authors seem equally concerned about over-emphasizing the other extreme, the socialized self.  It is possible in our zeal to correct individualism—as David Wells has noted—ultimately to end up with a Christian faith that is impersonal. This is especially the case with a theological anthropology that is not well-disciplined by an appropriate biblical telos. Is our "chief end" to glorify and enjoy God or is it to meld into a community of relationships? The emphasis on community in postmodern theology (as seen for example in the emerging church movement) owes much of its genesis not from a concern to reform according to Scripture, but to the conviction that our knowledge is a social construct, contextualized in community.[4] Here the chapters by Lints and Horton provide helpful balance. (Both Lints and Horton also richly mine the work of OPC minister and scholar Meredith Kline.) The chapter by Jones and Yarhouse merits special comment, as it represents in my mind, the outstanding contribution to the book. Readers will find a helpful aid for apologetics in the area of sexual ethics, as well as suggestions on how to think more clearly about the importance of the formation of the soul. Although I will not commit reviewers' delirium ("It's worth the price of the book!"), I can assure you that you will never approach pastoral counseling the same way again after reading this chapter.

As Professor Lints rightly observes in his introductory essay, the doctrine of the imago dei has been the controlling concept of anthropology while its controlling framework has been the fourfold state of man.[5] Rereading Thomas Boston's collection of sermons, Human nature in its Fourfold State provides a good review. For the image of God, you should still look at Francis Turretin, Charles Hodge, Kline's Images of the Spirit, and the appropriate chapters in Murray's Collected Writings (especially on Trichotomy). But Bavinck satisfies like no other in his Reformed Dogmatics. His historical erudition superbly informs the context into which he breathes biblical truth and insights. I would also suggest reading Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting by John Cooper (Eerdmans, 1989), which defends "holistic dualism," the majority view in the Reformed camp on the inner man. It provides a helpful corrective to Murphy's physicalism.

The tide of the world's reflections on anthropology may ebb and flow, but the Reformed faith is vast and deep as it ponders what the sovereign God has revealed about the one who is his image, and those who will be like him when he comes again.


[1] Several contributors make this observation, Lints (3), Wilken (28). And both Talbot (160) and Horton (45) cite Calvin's well-known introduction to his Institutes where he states that man's knowledge of himself and God compliment one another.

[2] Herman Bavinck, God and Creation, Volume Two, of Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, Baker, 2004), 530-562.

[3] Grenz crisply summarizes his incessant coddling of postmodernism throughout his essay when he states that, "postmodern sensitivities... stand at the apex of the intellectual trajectory from Montaigne to Foucault" (86).

[4] This concern finds its roots in the "New Communitarians" (Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael J. Sandel, Charles Taylor, Michael Walzer), and ultimately in the important work by Ferdinand Tönnies, Community and Society (1887).

[5] This observation confirms my recent experience in teaching a "Doctrine of Man" course to seminary students.

A. Craig Troxel, a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is pastor of Bethel Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Wheaton, Illinois, and serves on the Committee on Christian Education. Ordained Servant, April 2008.

Publication Information

Contact the Editor: Gregory Edward Reynolds

Editorial address: Dr. Gregory Edward Reynolds,
827 Chestnut St.
Manchester, NH 03104-2522
Telephone: 603-668-3069

Electronic mail: reynolds.1@opc.org

Submissions, Style Guide, and Citations


Editorial Policies

Copyright information

Ordained Servant: April 2008

Defining Humanity

Also in this issue

Perfecting the Imperfectible

A Christian Anthropology for Contemporary Bioethics

Download PDFDownload MobiDownload ePubArchive


+1 215 830 0900

Contact Form

Find a Church