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July 1973 · Vol. 2 No. 3 · pp. 71–78 

God and Man in Contemporary Thought

Victor Adrian

Today, two major subjects of Scripture—God and man—occupy the arena of theological and philosophical discussion. The discussion, directed largely to the question of the reality of the God of Jesus Christ and the search for human identity, challenges evangelicals to thorough action in the fields of theological understanding and teaching, in evangelism and in apologetics.


Theologians isolate one feature as distinguishing the contemporary crisis in Western civilization from all preceding ones—the chronic loss of the sense of God. 1 Engrossed in the conquest of the world around him man has turned the whole powers of his attention to relations between man and the world. While many today may not explicitly deny God’s existence they have become practical atheists, living without God. There has, however, also been an increasing emergence of philosophical atheism. Men have revolted against caricatures of God presented by a defective Christian witness as well as against the God of Jesus Christ.

Those who have regarded Western civilization as Christian speak of today’s unprecedented scale of unbelief. There is much talk of the post-Christian era and the feeling that the old faith is vanishing. 2 Karl Rahner, an outstanding Roman Catholic theologian, views the situation with alarm when he writes: “No question is more important and topical for the church today than the question of how to approach the problem of atheism spiritually and pastorally.” 3

At the root of the current rejection of God lies a Promethean rebellion against God. Man denies God in order to assert his own autonomy: “Modern atheism is the dethronement of God for the sake of the freedom of man.” 4 Having denied God man is now in search of himself.

The decline of a firm Christian theistic perspective of life has left man in an impersonal and meaningless world. The cry “what is man?” has become a cry of distress. The question is no longer academic or theoretical. It emerges out of a deep personal spiritual anxiety and a concern for human existence.

When the Psalmist (Psalm 8) originally raised the question—what is man, that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou visitest him?—it was placed in a meaningful context of God’s awesome creation, God’s compassion for man, and God’s gracious endowment of his creature with the creative gifts of rule and dominion. The contemporary man has forgotten that context which enabled the Old Testament believer to understand himself and his destiny. Having, in the words of Buber, experienced an “eclipse of God” he suffers confusion in his homing instinct. Man has lost his original identity and in his perplexity creates {72} new images of himself. Niebuhr introduces his study of man with a statement on the human dilemma;

Man has always been his own most vexing problem. How shall he think of himself? Every affirmation which he may make about his stature, virtue, or place in the cosmos becomes involved in contradictions when fully analyzed. 5

In his book, In the Twilight of Western Thought, Herman Dooyeweerd singles out two factors which have contributed to the present identity crisis in Western civilization. On the one hand, the increasing developments of technology and the over-organization of modern society have created a mass-man. Human personality has been suppressed and curbed; spiritual communion between people has diminished even within families and within the well-organized congregational life in large urban centres.

Secondly, man has become secularized; 6 he has learned to live without God. His world has become secular; it is viewed as an autonomous world independent of God. Placing confidence in the scientific method and in man’s ability ultimately to explain all facts of experience, nature has been reduced to natural causes. Biblical authority, with regard to the origin of the earth and the origin of man, has been rejected in favor of other hypotheses. Christian cosmology has faded away and a secularized cosmology has emerged.

Applying the scientific method to the social sciences, they too have been secularized. History, for example, is not seen as the arena of divine action—culminating in the incarnation, resurrection, and coming of Jesus Christ in his kingdom. Psychology, for example, explains man without reference to his creation in the image of God. We are faced with a scientism which regards history as a closed system permitting no transcendental reference, no activity of God in the empirical order. There exists a growing secularism—“a system of belief or an attitude which in principle denies the evidence or significance of realities other than those which can be measured by methods of the natural sciences.” 7

Sensitive to the human situation and deeply concerned to communicate the Gospel, Bonhoeffer gave his analysis of secular man in his Letter and Papers From Prison:

Man has learned to cope with all questions of importance without recourse to God as a working hypothesis. In questions concerning science, art, and even ethics, this has become an understood thing. . .But for the last hundred years or so it has been increasingly true of religious questions—also; it is becoming evident that everything gets along without “God” and just as well as before. 8

It is a world which Bonhoeffer calls “a world come of age,” in which man has rejected religion and become autonomous. Bonhoeffer welcomes such secularization because it has stripped Western man of a “religion” where God operated only in the periphery of life not at its centre. God was conceived largely in terms of a Deus ex machina who was called into the human situation when man had come to the end of his rope, or he was a metaphysical, abstract God somewhere “out there.” The crucial question for Bonhoeffer was how Christ could be preached so that he indeed became the Lord of life; “How do we speak of God without {73} religion, i.e., without the temporally influenced presuppositions of metaphysics, inwardness, and so on.” 9 From this discussion emerges the elusive concept of a “religionless Christianity” for contemporary man.

G. C. Berkouwer, in his excellent book, The Providence of God, considers biblical doctrine to be the scandalon of this secular age. The reality of God, his guidance and purposeful management of the world, has become man’s profoundest problem. The friendliness of God which man earlier perceived in human history and in nature is disputed. Secularization has created an estrangement from God, an estrangement from man, and an alienation from the world.

Berkouwer delineates three motifs which have played a major role in this process. 10 There is the scientific motif, already referred to earlier, which reduced nature to natural causes, placed great confidence in the scientific method and relegated God to irrelevance. There is the catastrophic motif. Man doubts the reality of a loving heavenly Father guiding the affairs of the world in the light of the sufferings of this age—the brutalities of war, the many famines, and rampant evil inflicting suffering on many innocent people. Reflecting on these cruel realities of life man suffers a crisis of faith. This motif pervades much of modern literature, as for example, The Plague by the Frenchman, Camus; The Blood of the Lamb by the American, DeVries; The Martyred by the Oriental, Kim. The world they see is a chaotic, disordered and absurd world.

There is also the projection motif. God is regarded as a creation, a projection of man’s fertile religious consciousness that does not conform to an objective reality. The projection motif came into prominence during the nineteenth century through Feuerbach in his Das Wesen des Christentums (1841). He regarded religion as “a dream of the human mind.” God, he contended, is created in the image of man; he is a mere anthropomorphism. Karl Marx used the theory of projection in his attack on the bourgeois ideology. Nietzsche regarded faith in God as the refuge of the weak and proclaimed the death of God (Thus Spoke Zarathustra). In his The Gay Science Christian concepts are not only regarded as having no accompanying experience or no existential reality, but also as being harmful, crippling the human race, binding and destroying man. Freud attempted to fix the theory of projection into man’s individual psyche (The Future of an Illusion).

The combined force of these motifs has created the twentieth century God-problem and the accompanying dilemma of man. How can man rediscover himself and extricate himself from his state of spiritual nihilism? Man today is presented several alternatives.


A. The Humanist Answer

Humanism proceeds from an assumption that man is on his own and this life is all and an assumption of responsibility for one’s own life and for the life of mankind—an appraisal and an undertaking, two personal decisions. 11

Humanists like to think of themselves as those who put humanity first and whose concern is with this life. 12 The concern for human welfare, human freedom and peace is laudable. Concern is expressed about the problems of world hunger, over-population, world health and education, {74} and other problems which oppress the world. Humanism urges men to live above their passions according to reason. While humanists are much more cautious today in making declarations about the improvability of man, they still commit themselves to a definite view of man’s moral progress and of man’s innate powers to change himself and society. Such a view is increasingly hard to substantiate in the light of a realistic appraisal of human history.

B. The Marxist Answer

The Marxist vision of man has captivated an astonishing number of men in the twentieth century, penetrating into the ranks of both the intelligentsia and the proletariat, creating a vigorous movement in many countries. Marxism is a form of humanism, with an authentic concern for man.

The Marxist regards the man of the past as oppressed, exploited, and a slave to others. He has been subjected to an alien religion and has been forced to work without sharing in the fruits of his labor. The Marxist vision of man sees future man as master of nature and of himself, reconciled to others, and free to serve and love. 13 Marxism places faith in the autonomous power of man and in his new emerging social order. The action of man rather than God is the creative force.

History is regarded as a meaningful progression, coherent and orderly, shaping human destiny in terms of the Marxist vision. Present suffering is seen as a necessary accompaniment of an imperfect society. However, once man has mastered nature through productive work he will achieve self-fulfilment and reconciliation with others. With a commitment to a materialistic philosophy of life, the Marxist regards the chief determinant in history, or the force which propels history onward, as the production of goods for man. The abundance of production will create the utopian society of the future—a material civilization shared by working man.

In the meantime man must postpone giving major attention to personal problems, to suffering, love and the problem of death. In a heroic commitment to the creation of a new social system Marxism neglects the personal problems of man today and manifests an inhumanity to man. In its pure futuristic perspective Marxism is unlike the Christian hope which offers to man today a salvation in Christ, the power of Christ’s resurrection in present life, the possibility of love within the body of Christ and to those outside, and a recognition of the significance of personal problems for man today. To neglect these questions of man’s present existence is a real denial of man’s humanity.

C. The Existentialist Answer

The existentialist view of man stands in sharp contrast both to Marxist thought and to humanistic rationalism. The existentialist entertains no comforting philosophy of history, no hope for the future, no optimism, and no security. Existentialism reacts both against reason and against the encroaching forces which deprive man of personal freedom.

The existentialist is concerned with the subjective aspect of man. Soren Kierkegaard, considered the father of religious existentialism, reacted against a propositional Christianity. Man is to be seen not as a spectator in life, but as one who risks total commitment. Christian faith is not to be understood as an acceptance of universal truths but as the personal {75} experience of commitment to Jesus the absolute paradox. Buber, following a similar tradition, reacts to an I-It relationship and insists on the I-thou relationship or encounter experience.

Atheistic existentialism, finding its roots in Nietzsche, has lapsed into a profound pessimism. Emptied of God, the universe is a place of terrifying loneliness. Franz Kafka, who has ably grasped the contemporary mood of man in The Trial, regards life as a dark labyrinth with no exit. Man feels surrounded by hostile forces which intimidate, bewilder and condemn without clarifying charges, and eventually destroy man. Man lives in the anxiety of a guilt complex.

In atheistic existentialism man replaced God. Man is placed into the awesome role of creating meaningful life, or making personal decisions without recourse to guiding principles or to eternal absolutes. Sartre defines such liberty in terms of “total responsibility in total solitude.” 14 Authentic existence can occur only in a recovery of man’s individuality, in finding a truly personal way of life, even if such way of life has no hope.

While the existentialist view of man attempts to face with some honesty the fear and anxieties of man and his search for individuality in our age, it has opened the way to extreme subjectivism. It has encouraged the cult of experience without moral guides, self-interest at the expense of community (Sartre, No Exit: “Hell is other people” ),and has popularized a most damaging assertion, that life has no meaning or purpose.


The Christian finds all preceding images of man wanting. The humanistic optimism about man has not stood the test of human experience and has failed to understand the limitations of human reason. The Marxist image has failed to do justice to human individual personality and tied man to a materialistic social order. The existentialist has probed deeper into man, recognizing his individuality, but has tied man’s self-knowledge to an I-thou relationship with his fellowman, ending in an extreme pessimism.

All these images have emerged within the temporal order and within man’s temporal experience. While they have probed man’s relationship to the temporal world and man’s relationship to man in order to arrive at self-knowledge, the crisis and the search for self-identity remains. It remains because knowledge about self is related to a deeper crisis—the lack of knowledge of God. Man’s present dilemma is created by a process of religious apostasy. Man did not create himself and therefore is unable to explain himself. The question, “who is man?” contains a mystery which only God can answer. Calvin expressed it well when he said:

It is certain that man never achieves a true knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself (Institutes of Christian Religion, I, 1,2).

If man is to be understood in the light of the divine perspective the following central assertions can be made:

  1. Man is God’s creature, created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26,27; 2:7). The statement would suggest that man is closely associated with God, for God participated intimately and intensively in his creation. That relationship is also expressed in man being made in the “image of God,” {76} suggesting that man cannot be understood apart from understanding his relationship to God. The biblical passages would therefore, underscore the Creator-creature relationship. Man belongs to God and is not made to operate autonomously. Other passages indicate that he was made to worship God (Romans 1); he was made to seek after God and find him (Acts 17); he was made to live in covenantal obedience to God to whom he was to give absolute loyalty and allegiance (our Lord’s summary of the Commandments). The Creator-creature relationship indicates that man is to live in constant dependence upon God who gave him life and who continues to give direction and purpose to his life. As a dependent creature man has received the task to subdue the earth and to have dominion over it. For that task God endowed man with creative power. This task man shares in community and seeks to exercise it in service both to God and man.
  2. Scripture also indicates that man is to be understood as a rebel who has fallen away from God. That fall has affected all his relationships and requires a radical restoration.
  3. That restoration of man can occur only through a participation in the redemptive powers of God in Christ through faith.
  4. The goal of restoration is glimpsed in the humanity of the incarnate Son—the second Adam—and the hope associated with his return.

The Christian understands himself, consequently, in relationship to the world (he has a task in it); he understands himself in relationship to man (he is to love others as himself; a love which is to be exercised as a “dominion haver” and in pursuance of the Divine commission). It is in seeking God first that all other relationships are to fall into the right perspective, giving meaning and purpose to life.


A. We must teach God’s self-revelation in the context of our day. If we are all subjected to the contemporary pressure of a secularized perspective of man, the world, and life, then our teaching must be directed to the reality of God as he can be known and experienced today. Theology and biblical knowledge must touch not only the mind but the heart and will. We must provide a setting where students are confronted with the presence of the living God and experience his reality and power. Personal communion, prayer, fellowship, obedience and commitment must permeate our teaching.

Our teaching must make clear that the actual knowledge of God cannot be comprehended in propositions and concepts. To know God means to enter into a living experiential relationship. A Christian cannot be a spectator in the realm of theology. There is no true knowledge of God without decision and commitment.

B. Man understands himself as he is directed under God in his relationship to the world in which he lives, and in his relationship to his fellowman. These relationships have been summed up in Scripture under the cultural mandate (subdue the earth and have dominion over it) and in terms of the Divine commission (go into all the world and preach the Good News).

In a secular world these two relationships have been violated. We have witnessed a ruthless, selfish exploitation of the resources which God has placed into the world. We have also witnessed ruthless, selfish exploitation of man including violence and destruction.{77}

In all of our schools there should be no confusion about the role and task of man in the world today. In every area of man’s endeavor the Lordship of Christ should be sought in terms of the assignment given to man. Our schools should prepare students for active involvement in the world in pursuance of the divine mandate. Evangelism and social responsibility are inseparable. A compassion for suffering man, twisted in his perspectives, living in alienation from God and from his fellowman, must permeate our total stance as evangelicals.

This would suggest to me that our schools must be practically oriented. The Gospel must be known; the Gospel must also be communicated. A study of the Gospel should be closely related to a study and training in the communication of the Gospel. I share in the concerns of Donald McGavran, professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, who writes;

The study of the Bible to understand its unique passion for the redemption of men in societies is an essential and largely neglected area of theology. In most western theologies, the Great Commission and with it the central core of revelation, appears as an addendum. 15

We as a faculty will need to grow in our understanding of the dimensions of the task facing evangelicals and Christians today; the need to clarify and explicate the Gospel in faithfulness to our Lord and the record of Scripture; the need to be filled with the compassion of our Lord for the plight of man; the need to find ways and means of communicating the Gospel to the deprived as well as to the affluent in our society; the need to give biblical perspectives to believers who want to be faithful to their calling as “laymen priests” in various activities in our society.

C. While strongly committed to the teaching of systematic theology, I believe that we should remove ourselves from an approach which is entirely too abstract and couched too much in hellenistic thought form.

Scriptures indicate that God revealed himself in concrete historical situations. In the Old Testament God came to Abraham in a particular geographical location and gave him a specific command. His message came to Isaiah at a particular time in Israel’s history and to Ezekiel at another time in Israel’s history. The New Testament reveals Jesus Christ through a description of his acts and deeds and through a record of his words in particular settings, relationships, and problems of men. God’s message to us comes through the letters of Paul spoken to numerous practical issues in the New Testament churches. If God has revealed himself in practical situations of life through acts and deeds and seldom abstractly, should not our teaching take this into account?

If we seek to strain from the whole of the Scripture too abstract a notion of God, we contribute to the present loss of a sense of divine reality and presence. If we can enter deeply into the present gropings of man in our day with his God-problem, his man-problem, and his moral problem, and then seek parallel concrete situations in the abundant records of Scripture into which God came with his reality and presence and power, theology becomes a living discipline. Nothing should be more practical to young men and women than an understanding of God and an understanding of man. God becomes real as one commits himself to him and to the task he delineated for us.

The God-problem with the accompanying man-problem is not a strange one. Believers have also wrestled with it. In the midst of such {78} wrestling we can with Asaph (Psalm 73) be brought from the brink of disaster into the presence of God to feel his hand holding our hand and to confess him in personal knowledge and love; “Whom have I in heaven but thee? and having thee, I desire nothing else on earth. Though heart and body fail, yet God is my possession forever.”


  1. R. W. Gleason, The Search for God (New York; Macmillan, 1966), p. 5.
  2. Sigmund, God on Trial, p. 1.
  3. Karl Rahner (ed.), The Pastoral Approach to Atheism (Paramus Panlist Newman, 1965), p. 1.
  4. Sigmund, op. cit., p. 400.
  5. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man (New York: Scribners, 1964), p. 1.
  6. Herman Dooyeweerd, In the Twilight of Western Thought (Nutley: Craig, 1966), p. 175.
  7. Leslie Newbigin, Honest Religion for Secular Man (Philadelphia; West-minster, 1966), p. 8.
  8. D. Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers From Prison (Collins: Fontana), p. 107.
  9. Ibid., p. 92.
  10. G. C. Berkouwer, The Providence of God (Grand Rapids; Eerdmans 1952), p. 19.
  11. H. J. Blackham, Humanism, p. 13.
  12. T. M. Kitwood, What is Human? (London; Inter Varsity Press, 1970), p. 29.
  13. Roger Mehl, Images of Man (Richmond; John Knox Press, 1965), p. 9.
  14. T. M. Kitwood, op. cit., p. 82.
  15. Donald McGavran, Theological News, April, 1972.
The Rev. Adrian was Professor of Systematic Theology at Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba. He is presently on the faculty of the Ontario Bible College, Toronto, Ontario.

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