For much of modern theology, the question, “What is man?” must precede the question, “Who is God?” The approach which begins with man (’from below’) can be set against the approach which begins with God (’from above’). Berkouwer’s doctrine of man has been commended as “a middle course between conflicting theologies … achieved by a strenuous independence of mind” (these words of A. Willingdale . from a review in The Evangelical quarterly, are cited on the front / inside dust cover of Berkouwer’s Man: The Image of God.
Berkouwer writes, “all sorts of theoretical knowledge does not answer the question, What is man?” (Man: The Image of God, p. 20).
He insists that “man’s nature … is not self-enclosed, and … can never be understood outside of its relation to God … The relation of man’s nature to God is not something which is added to an already complete, self-enclosed, isolated nature; it is essential and constitutive for man’s nature, and man cannot be understood apart from this relation” (pp. 22-23).
This is not an authoritarian imposition of theology upon anthropology. It is a consistent development of the faith in the living God which holds that since man has been created in the image of God, he cannot be understood properly apart from God.
It is worthy of note that D. Lyon, in his book, Christians and Sociology, describes Berkouwer’s book, Man: The Image of God as “full of insight relevant to the sociologist” (in the list of books suggested by Lyon for “Further Reading”).
Berkouwer emphasizes that the divine revelation in creation and reconciliation does not stand over against man as a purely heteronomous factor.
Insisting that God’s sovereignty, rightly understood, forms the true foundation for human freedom, he writes, “The divine act. That possibility is not absorbed or destroyed by divine superiority, but created, called forth by it” (Divine Election, p. 46).
He describes the divine superiority as “the personal superiority of love and grace which in man’s experience is making room for him to act by not destroying his freedom” (Divine Election, p. 49).
In his book, Man: The Image of God, he discusses “Human Freedom”, emphasizing that man finds his true freedom in and through real submission to the divine sovereignty (Chapter Nine, pp. 310-348).
He stresses that any other conception of human freedom leads to man’s sovereignty and the reduction of God to an idea. He points out that the freedom of autonomous man “is not honored with this name in the New Testament, but is rather rejected and unmasked” (p. 325).
He insists that the New Testament presents freedom as “freedom in and through Christ”, pointing out that such freedom is “no … abstract concept of freedom but … freedom … in a completely relational sense” (p. 321).
Berkouwer emphasizes that man’s relation to God is inescapable so that, even in his guilt, the life of man is affected by divine grace.
A proper understanding of the relation between total corruption and common grace helps to overcome the heteronomy - autonomy dilemma.
He insists that there is “not … some last reserve in man, some untouched and untouchable ‘part’ of man which has escaped the power of sin and corruption”, emphasizing that “man through sin became wholly corrupt in his disobedience and enmity … but he still remained man” (Man: The Image of God, p. 127).
Insisting that we are not concerned here with “a simple ‘part corrupt, part not’, a simple quantitative reduction” (p. 128), he maintains that “man (does) not have the power to begin by himself any change in spiritual things” (pp. 131-132, brackets mine, emphasis original).
He holds that, even in his fallenness, man’s humanness is preserved and that fallen man cannot escape from his relation to God into an area beyond humanness and responsibility (as is implied in expressions such as demonization and dehumanization) (pp. 134-135).
He describes fallen man’s relation to God thus: “Man stands and remains standing in his human responsibility and in his human guilt over against God” (p. 135).
Discussing the significance of the Flood in Genesis, he emphasizes that “‘The continuance of life’ has its ground not in the relative nature of man’s sin but rather in the divine ‘nevertheless’, in the grace … of God” (p. 141).. He writes, “Thus (there is) total corruption, but a limited curse; but the limit of the wrath of God is never derived from a limited corruption … it is the light which shines in man’s total corruption as the light of mercy” (p. 142).
Berkouwer holds that, while the question of man must always be related to the question of God, it is by no means swallowed up by the question of God. This understanding of theological anthropology promises to overcome the heteronomy - autonomy dilemma in philosophy, the ‘from above - from below’ dilemma in theology.
His understanding of the divine - human relation is set over against erroneous uses of the concept of relation, which threaten to produce polarization.
Observing that ” … the concept of relation has often been interpreted in ways which are erroneous. It can be interpreted to mean that man exists only in relation to God, and God only in relation to man”, he insists that “such misuses of the concept may not deter us from giving due weight … to the Biblical concept of relation to God”. He emphasizes that we are not asked to choose “relation over reality”. He holds that “such a dilemma … is not at all in line with the Biblical outlook, which does not sacrifice reality to relation, but shows us reality existing as reality, full created reality, only in this relation to God” (Man: The Image of God, p. 35).
Berkouwer claims that, in theological anthropology, we are dealing “not … with an abstract idea of man, but … actual man” (Man: The Image of God, emphasis original). He challenges all forms of idealistic anthropology to engage in self-criticism: “any search for a hidden center in man’s nature which turns from the actual man to look for the ‘real’ man must face the question whether this shift is justified” (p. 18). This challenge is directed to both humanism and existentialism. His basic challenge to both views centres on the question of evil. He insists that “we cannot escape considering evil” (p. 13, emphasis original). Commenting on the words of Jeremiah 17:9 - “The heart is deceitful above all things … “, he notes both the uniqueness (”above all things”) and the universality of man’s evil (p. 13). he then poses the question “whether such an ‘abysmal’ view of man … is not an extreme exaggeration … but rather a genuine description of the real man … ” (p. 13, emphasis original).
Berkouwer notes the complexity of contemporary humanism’s treatment of man: “On the one hand, it is frequently critical of exaggerated optimism about man, and, on the other hand, it remains unwilling to give up the humanistic transition from the ‘actual’ man to the ‘real’ man” (Man: The Image of God, p. 14). He points out that “contemporary humanism … does not want to be identified with the earlier, naively optimistic faith in man ‘yet’ in the last analysis humanism’s outlook as regards the ‘real’ man still remains” (p. 15).
In his discussion of existentialism, Berkouwer contends that despite “the existentialist stress on evil in man” (Man: The Image of God, p. 24), there remains a trace of idealism in “the existentialist emphasis on human freedom” (p. 24). He maintains that “the problem of the search for the hidden center, the search for the ‘real’ man, again becomes acute” (p. 24). Berkouwer’s criticism of existentialism is that it “does not continue its concentration on man’s misery, but points to his (self-produced) salvation” (p. 25). Berkouwer holds that such an anthropology can be described as “a new form of humanism” (p. 28). Berkouwer holds that “The antithesis to a Biblical view of man lies in idealistic anthropology - even if it incorporates within itself a certain amount of realism and unmasking of man’s evil” (p. 25). His fundamental criticism of both humanism and existentialism concerns their anthropocentricism: “the essential religious aspect of man’s being is lost in a horizontal type of analysis … the way to self - knowledge is impossible to traverse with this kind of horizontal analysis, since the decisive dimension of man’s nature, his relation to God, remains outside the analysis” (p. 29, emphasis original).It is not being suggested here that all existentialist thinkers should be grouped together indiscriminately. There is a difference between religious and atheistic existentialism. There are differences within both religious existentialism and atheistic existentialism. One only has to mention the names - Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Camus, Sartre and Buber - to highlight the different types of existentialism.In highlighting Berkouwer’s criticism of existentialism (chiefly directed against the philosophies of Sartre and Heidegger, pp. 28-29), we should not overlook the fact that Berkouwer himself stresses the “existential character” of the question of man (p. 18). when we seek to understand ‘man’, we are seeking to understand “ourselves” . We are involved within the entirety of our own existence (p. 18).Berkouwer’s theological anthropology presents a demanding challenge to atheistic philosophy. It suggests that there are weighty reasons for questioning the adequacy of the atheistic anthropology. it suggests that the atheistic philosophy has difficulty in remaining within the framework of a horizontal analysis without implying questions which go beyond the scope of its own analysis.
Berkouwer’s theological anthropology questions the adequacy of the atheistic exclusion of the religious dimension from the analysis of human life. It questions the adequacy of the atheistic analysis of such questions as the origin and destiny of human life. It questions the adequacy of the atheistic treatment of questions relating to the meaning of human life.
Here, we may note the thought - provoking words of R. Brow who maintains that we can choose to give meaning to our own existence - “egotheism”: “I believe in myself, only giver of meaning” or we can find the meaning of our life in God our Creator (Religion: Origin and Ideas, p. 77).