The conflicting anthropologies of the twentieth-century world pose increasing problems not only for Christianity but also for other world religions—and, in fact, for all mankind. Contemporary man nowhere falls into greater frustration than in trying to define who or what he himself is. (See “Man” in Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary for a range of alternatives so ingenious that the reader must somewhere suspect he is in a hall of distorting mirrors.)

But despite this confusion, certain patterns of conviction are settling noticeably over the present generation, and their implications are significant for the future of belief.

To fail to consider alien anthropologies can be costly not only to theology and evangelism but also to political and military policy. American military strategists looked to an impressive “kill ratio” in Viet Nam to bring a decisive turn in the war, however callously the Communists viewed the value of individual lives. But Marxist anthropology is not the only one to be reckoned with in Southeast Asia. In Buddhism, the self has no permanent identity or survival but dies and is reborn in every moment; physical death, in theory, is a liberation and but a stage in an ongoing process. This conviction can shape its own heroic view of military risk.

The problem of an alien anthropology is becoming increasingly acute today for any and all supernatural religion. In some religious outlooks, God has been defined in a way that forfeits all relevance of the divine for human existence. It is much more likely in our time, however, that belief in God is considered either a major asset, or a colossal liability, or perhaps an indecisive unavoidability, which in turn becomes a philosophical jumping off point for argument for or against the supernatural.

All religions today face the hurdle of the believability of their anthropology—that is, of their view of man’s nature and destiny—not because of modern science (as it is usually put) but because of evolutionary naturalism. Parading under the banners of science, evolutionary naturalism projects human origins without recourse to the supernatural, postulates human reason as simply a reflex of sense experience, and depicts moral imperatives as a revisable culture-consensus. Not only Communist-world Marxists but also free-world naturalists and humanists openly label belief in the supernatural a barrier to human progress.

When evangelical Christianity proclaims “good news,” and does so in the theological context of Adam as the divinely created progenitor of the human race whose fall into sin involved the whole of humanity in a state and process of divine disobedience, the problem of the credibility of this anthropology among the children of scientific naturalism becomes acute. Obviously the “good news” of redemption depends upon a specific anthropological analysis. And to be effective, that analysis must sound credible; that is, the person to whom it is addressed must recognize himself as the one whose condition is mirrored in the analysis.

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Evangelical Christianity need not, must not, follow in the tracks of now discredited Protestant liberalism, which simply forfeited to scientism all unique Christian interest in nature and history, and then sought, inconsistently, to rescue somehow the uniqueness of Jesus’ example. Liberalism, in consequence, fathered a generation woefully ignorant of supernatural realities and preoccupied with this-worldly concerns (in York University, England, Augustine’s City of God is catalogued under “Town Planning”).

But simply to escalate the proclamation of the good news is not enough to make the underlying anthropology credible. Effective evangelical confrontation requires a patient, thorough, constructive anthropological analysis that faces naturalism with the right questions and exhibits a superior alternative.

Non-Christian systems argue that the Christian solution seems remote from the outpatient’s problem. This observation is not at all surprising; inherent in the Christian revelation is a dual understanding of the man outside Christ, seen under the illumination of the Gospel and seen also within his revolt. Every non-Christian system of philosophy or scheme of religion will inevitably elaborate a competitive anthropology. Even religious traditions with a lingering foot on biblical ground attempt to escape the net of Christian relevance by an anthropological appeal that neutralizes and relativizes Christian redemption. In his book on We Jews and Jesus (Oxford, 1965), Rabbi Samuel Sandmel argues that Jesus’ deliverance of man in no way approximates the Jewish understanding of man and sin. This argument would have surprised many first-century Jews, who quite understood the Old Testament assumptions about man in their commitment to Christ. Insofar as the modern understanding of man forfeits the biblical appraisal of the human plight, it elaborates an outlook whose chief distinctive—apart from the loss of a lively doctrine of sin—is its lack of unanimity.

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Wolfhart Pannenberg, in his emphasis on the universal significance of the bodily resurrection of Christ, is well aware that the believability and preachability of the Resurrection requires more than exhibiting a coherent theological system and exposition of the Scriptures; it calls also for a concern with philosophical anthropology. Pannenberg shows that Western man carries the secret hope of survival after death (the future obviously holds no hope if it merely moves one daily nearer the grave); but this hope is no longer credible on the now exploded idealistic basis of the quasi-divinity of man’s mind or spirit. Instead, the modern emphasis on the mind-body unity of the self is what creates fresh interest in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Because Pannenberg insists that God’s decisive revelation looks to the final consummation of all things, to a future involving all mankind, he, like Jürgen Moltmann, leaps over Adam and the problem of origins to concentrate on what lies ahead. It may well be, however, that First Corinthians 15 is not so easily detached from Genesis 1–3 and Romans 5.

A theology that moves effectively into the future dare no longer ignore the issue of alien anthropologies. But in contemplating how best to present salvation in Christ to the modern world, it had better look beyond as well as into twentieth-century theories of man. Current analyses of the human condition tend to discount the depth of man’s predicament. And any theology too largely in debt to them may soon need to liquidate its christological assets to rescue a speculative foreign investment.

The Fourth Gospel reminds us not only that Jesus Christ is the bearer of eternal life but also that “he knew what was in man” (John 2:25). There is a wealth of meaning there for those who want to offer modern man what is “in Christ.”


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