Science in Christian Perspective



Marxism and Christianity: Their Images of Man

Department of Sociology 
University of Delaware 
Newark, Delaware 19711

From: JASA 32 (September 1980): 135-139.

Any social science must be predicated upon certain assumptions regarding human nature. These presuppositions will have a profound impact on the subsequent social philosophy which emerges from that science. Because of the recent upswing in the popularity of "radical" or "Marxist" sociology, we have found it necessary to once again reconsider the presuppositions of Marx regarding man's nature, and to counterpose them with the Christian view of the same. While Marxism and Christianity can be discussed within the same conceptual "molds", in fact, the two perspectives share little in common. The paper discusses the Marxist and Christian perspectives in terms of the vantage point from which they view human nature, and the implication this has for the subsequent image of man held by each.

"The history of modern culture is the story of a running debate between those who interpret man as reason and those who seek to explain him in terms of his relation to nature.1 Any sociology seeking to understand the meaning of history and social reality must have as its starting point some notion regarding the nature of man. (In this paper the terms "man" and "his" are used for semantic simplicity to refer to all of humankind and are without sexual significance.) More often than not, this notion is implicit, but it is still there, and the form of that sociology is largely dependent on the conception of man that it holds. By broadly delineating the Classical and Romantic notions regarding human nature as a vantage point from which to discuss Marx's image of man, we counter-pose the Christian conception of man, particularly as formulated by Reinhold Niebuhr, who has written one of the classic statements concerning this issue reflecting a Christian position.

The Classical View of Man

The early Greeks (particularly Aristotle and Plato) held a dualistic view of man. The two elements of this dualism were man's rational faculties and his physical being. What was unique about man for these thinkers was his rational element. Man's biological drives were recognized, but at the same level as that of the animals, and hence, it was his rational faculties, transcending these drives, which were unique to man. Somewhat paradoxically, man's mind-his essential nature-is identified with the divine. For the Classicists, man's individuality is identified with his physical body, which he seeks to transcend. The body is that which is essentially evil, and it is the mind, through reason, which is able to transcend the body. Thus, all that is reason is good.

The Classical position has many variations. However, its characteristic feature throughout is this mind-body dualism in which the mind, representing that which is essentially good, and the body, representing that which is essentially evil, are in conflict with each other.

The Romantic View of Man

The Enlightenment brought with it a reaction to classical thought. Man came to he defined differently by what
is now called Romanticism. The Romanticists rejected the idea that human reason was the ordering principle of life. Rather, nature itself is conceived to he harmonious, and anything that interferes with this harmony is suspect. The vitality of nature and natural impulses is cheered by the Romanticists, and man is most human as these vitalities are given free reign. Adam Smith represents this notion quite clearly when he argues for a "laissez-faire" market:

This division of labor, from which so many advantages are derived, is not originally the effect of any human wisdom, which foresees and intends that general opulence to which it gives occasion. It is the necessary... propensity in human nature. - . to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.2

For Smith, human nature is oriented toward a self-interest, which, if given free reign, leads to an harmonious division of labor. What is important here is that these are natural "impulses" (i.e., self interest) which must not be tampered with by reason (or, for Smith, by government).

A variant of this "naturalistic" conception of man is the "tabula rasa" man expounded by such Enlightenment thinkers as Rousseau. According to this view, nature is still the ordering principle of life, but the role of man is quite different from that of the naturalists. This view conceives of a totally passive individual, whose nature resembles a blank tablet at birth. His nature takes on form as, in the course of his development, his environment writes upon this blank tablet. Thus, from this perspective, man is totally the product of his environment.

Marx's Conception of Man

Much like the Romanticist view which must he understood as a reaction to the Classical notion, Marx's formulation of the nature of man can best be understood as a reaction to Hegel. For Hegel, as for the Classicists, reality has its essence in the realm of thought and reason. The world and history are to be understood in terms of reason.

The only thought that philosophy brings along is the very simple thought of reason, namely that reason rides the world and that things have happened reasonably (according to reason( in world history . . . (In) philosophy speculative knowledge proves that reason . . . is the substance as well as the infinite power, that it is the infinite stuff of all natural and spiritual life as well as the infinite turns, the activation of this being its content. It is the substance that through which and in which all actual reality has its being and existence.3

While 1-legel spends a great deal of time addressing the rational process of history, his position addresses itself to the level of human nature as well:

The will contains first the element of pure indeterminacy or the pure reflection of the ego in itself by which every kind of limitation. is dissolved, be such content given by nature, needs, passions, impulses or immediately present. This indeterminacy is the limitless infinity of absolute abstraction or generality, the pure thought of itself.4

Hegel does conceive of the will as being determined by impulses, etc., which are a function of the ego. However, the ego is not determined by these impulses, but rather, 

determines itself in so far as it is the relation of the negation to itself. Being this relationship to itself, the ego is indifferent toward this determinacy. knows it as its own and as ideal, as a mere potentiality by which it is not hound, but in which it is merely because it posits itself in this determinacy.5

Marx rejects any notion of the transcendence of reason over natural forces. In this regard Marx takes a position diametrically opposed to Hegel, which becomes quite clear as he discusses the essence of man. Marx points out that Hegel viewed the essence of man as "self-consciousness," and that which could be tangibly appreciated was nothing more than an expression of man's essence. Marx, however, flips this logic and argues that what is in fact real is the concrete individual, and that his self-consciousness is but a manifestation of this reality.6 In this regard, Marx is squarely in the camp of the Romanticists, and it is upon this basis that he develops his argument of the process of history.

the first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus, the first fact to he established is the physical organization of these individuals; and their consequent relation to the rest of nature.7

What is central to Marx is this notion of concrete individuals expressing themselves in relation to nature and each other. This concrete individual must be understood both as he stands outside of history and as he is modified by history. Natural man-i.e., man as he exists independently of history-are those elements of man which are shared with all other living creatures. For example, man feels hunger, cold, and thirst. Through these impulses man is able to realize his "natural" powers. Thus, man realizes the power of eating through hunger.8

However, the main thrust of Marx's writings are based upon his conception of what he terms man as "species being".

In creating an objective world by his practical activity, in working-tip inorganic nature, man proves himself a conscious species being, i.e., as a being that treats the species as its own essential being or that treats itself as a species being.9

Man as species being is a direct function of his ability to produce his own means of subsistence. Not only does man produce for his own immediate needs, however, but he produces for future needs as well as for the needs of others and their future needs. It is through this process of production, conditioned by physical organization, that man's life takes on expression. It is what makes him uniquely human. Thus, for Marx, it is the material forces governing and determining this production upon which the (species) nature of man depends.10

Man is not, however, simply a passive recipient of these material forces. Man is active in shaping the very forces which in turn shape him. It is in this process of dialectical intercourse with his environment that man's nature emerges and evolves.

Adam Schaff argues that Marx holds a conception of species man which is two-fold in nature." First, there is "true" man: that aspect of man which is both uniquely and universally man. This, as we have said, is productive man. Second, "real" man is man as he has been modified by his historical environment. It is in this sense that Schaff says of Marx's image:

Man is not born with any innate ideas about the world and certainly not with any inborn moral ideas - Men are born with certain possibilities of development and these depend on their historically formed psycho-social structure.12

It is this aspect of man which is central to Marx's understanding of alienated man.

These two aspects of man must be seen in a dialectical relationship. That is, man is actively involved in the creation of that history which in turn shapes and molds him. Man produces because he is man; this is a uniquely human characteristic. In so doing, he takes an active part in the creation of his world. However, his product, in turn, shapes and molds him, even to the point of shaping his very nature. From here, Marx discusses the way in which a capitalist system divorces man from his labor and the fruit of his labor. This results in a "real" man who is alienated, not only from his labor and product, but from himself as well, since it is as a productive being that man is uniquely man.

The impact of Romanticism on Marx's thought is quite clear, although not direct. While Marx recognizes biological impulse as the expression of man's natural power, this is not lauded nor attributed the prominence that it is with the Romantics; for Marx holds that this is a property characteristic of lower order animals as well. What Marx recognizes as the essential characteristic of man, rather, is his productive capacity. Since his productive capacity is contingent upon some form of social organization, human drives are interpreted, not primarily in terms of biological drives of individuals, but rather in terms of the drives of social classes.13  Likewise, what determines man as "real" man is not found at a biological level; rather, it is found in historically specific social organization.

The propulsive power (of history) lies in the dynamics of historical economic relations. Reduced to biological proportions, that would mean in the impulse of hunger. But significantly Marxism does not reduce the vitality of human history to such proportions. It is never simply the hunger impulse, but some organization of society, designed to satisfy it which determines human thought. 14

Marx's affinity to Romanticism lies in their mutual rejection of the notion of the transcendent "reason" in which reality is ultimately to be found. Marx makes his case quite poignantly when he writes, "Philosophy is to the investigation of the real world what masturbation is to sexual love.15 In reacting to Hegel in this way, Marx is also joining the Romantic thinkers in reacting against the glorification of reason.

Also, if we view material and social drives as compatible with natural drives (they are compatible in the sense that they both react to Classicism), we find Marx expressing both the vital and the tahola rasa conception of human nature in his dialectical image of man. These two conceptions are roughly expressed in Schaff's "true" and "real" man respectively. "True" man is productive man, and as such, active man. He is active in shaping his environment, both materially and socially. However, this activity is never raw or pore, but is molded and determined by the very material and social elements it is acting upon. This is "real" man, and to the extent that man is shaped by these elements, Marx's notion of man resembles the tabola rasa image.

Christianity takes as its point of departure not reason, as do the Classicists, nor the concrete individual, as do the Romanticists, but rather Creator God who is both transcendent over and imminent in history.

To equate the two is, of course, a distortion; for the tahula rasa notion of man conceives of a passive individual, which most be qualitatively distinguished from the dialectical notion held by Marx. Nevertheless, it should be quite clear that Marx is heavily indebted to Romanticism as he formulates his image of man. A recognition of this is crucial to an understanding of the logic behind Marx's subsequent writings, particularly his critique of capitalist society and the alternative with which he seeks to replace it. For without accepting this image of man, 'these subsequent arguiments do not ring with the same conviction of validity.

The Christian Conception of Man

Christianity takes as its point of departure not reason, as do the Classicists, nor the concrete individual, as do the Romanticists, but rather Creator God who is both transcendent over and imminent in history. According to the Christian world view, God has revealed Himself through creation, through Scripture, and ultimately in the person of Jesus Christ. The God of the Christian faith, as revealed in these three forms is not simply a "mind" who in some way "reasoned" form into the previous void; nor did He create man as two separate entities, soul and body. The Bible knows nothing of this sort of dualistic man, and hence, knows nothing of a mind or soul which is good and a body which is evil.

However, neither is man defined in terms of his affinity to nature, or, in Marx's case, his affinity to material and social forces. Rather, man is defined in terms of his relationship to God. This is most clear in the Genesis 1 account of creation: man is creature-God is creator.

It is a mistake to equate evilness with creatureliness. Once again, referring to Genesis 1, we read that man is created in the image of God, and that God looked upon His creation and saw that it was good. Man, as the image of God, has a special place in God's creation. Just what the implications are for man as the image of God is unclear; however, at least, it means that man is created with a moral capacity, a capacity for standing outside himself, for viewing himself as an object, and to recognize his creatureliness. Paradoxically, however, it is this very capacity which allows man to rebel against his creatureliness and his relationship to God. It is this capacity which finds expression in the Fall, and consequently man finds himself in a predicament in which he is incapable of recognizing and experiencing his creatureliness, but rather sets himself at the throne of his world. Niebuhr makes this ease quite clearly:

The high estimate, of human stature implied in the concept of "image of God" stands in paradoxical juxtaposition to the low estimate of human virtue in Christian thought. Man is a sinner. His sin is defined as rebellion against God. The Christian estimate of human evil is so serious precisely because it places evil at the very center of human personality, in the will. This evil cannot he regarded complacently as the inevitable consequence of his finiteness or the fruit of his involvement in the contingencies and necessities of nature. Sin is occasioned precisely by the fact that Joan refuses to admit his 'creatureliness' and to acknowledge himself as merely a member of the total unity of life, lie pretends to he more than he is.16

Niebuhr continues:

Human self-consciousness is a high tower looking upon a large and inclusive world It vainly imagines that it is the large world which it beholds and not a narrow tower insecurely erected amidst the shifting sands of the world.17

Since man's moral character is grounded in his relationship to God, his rebellion against his creatureliness leaves him a moral cripple, and with a perverted view of reality. If man is to recognize, and in a positive sense, to realize his creatureliness, God's initiative is required. There are many biblical accounts of this action, culminating in the Christ-his birth, life, death, and resurrection.

For the Christian, then, man is judged by God rather than by some aspect of himself. Thus, the first man was not good just because he was man, or because be was yet untainted by reason; he was good because God saw that he was good. Likewise, man's sinfulness does not lie in his natural impulses or his rational faculties, but in the fact that he has rebelled against his relationship to God. His sinfulness lies at the very core of his being. It is his alienation from God which is the source of his malady.

Since man's sin steins from his rebellion, and since, in this rebellion, man sets himself as his own ultimate, it is necessary that God break into man's world and "renew his mind". (This is a paraphrase of the apostle Paul. If we are to view it in context with other statements Paul has made concerning this process, we must interpret this as the renewing of one's total being, i.e., the mind is not viewed here as one aspect of a dualist nature.) This process is also referred to as the "rebirth", and while at the very center of the Christian faith, it is sufficient here to note that it is a process initiated and completed by God, and that it must occur at an individual level. This is not to say that it does not have social implications; however, the rebirth process can occur only as God breaks into the lives of individuals.

The fact that man is viewed as a sinner is not to say that he is viewed as having no worth. Man is of infinite worth. however, his worth is not the result of any human virtue. Rather, man's worth stems from the fact that he is God's creation, and that he is loved by God.

The rebirth in no way implies becoming morally' superior. The predicament of sin still plagues the individual. The apostle Paul most aptly depicts this problem when he speaks of his "old man" and his "new man" constantly waging war with each other. What is implied rather, is that man is confronted with his sin and made to recognize his rebellion and self-idolatry. At the same time he is reoriented in such a way that he affirms his creatureliness and God's sovereignty. But again, this does not reflect his own virttie; it is rather expressive of the creative act of God.

A Comparison of Marxist and Christian Conceptions

Christianity and Marxism share one thing in common with regard to their views of human nature: they both reject the classical conception of a mind-body dualism in which the mind is exalted as the essence of man. Beyond this, however, there is little that can be said regarding their commonality. There are, however, significant points at which they differ.

They have different vantage points from which they view man. For Marx, man is the ultimate onto himself, and his humanness is expressed in his ability' to produce. We have previously quoted Marx as saying that "(the) first premise of all human history is... the existence of human individuals . and their organization. Marx goes on to say,

They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organization.18

It is, of course, reasonable to assert that the first premise of human history is the existence of human individuals. However, this assertion entails a presupposition concerning the vantage point from which man is viewed. Insofar as his humanity is derived from his own capacities (i.e., his ability to produce) man is defined in terms of himself, which is to say that man is ultimate unto himself.

Christianity, on the other hand, views man from the vantage point of a God Who exists independently of man.

The second important characteristic of the Christian view of man is that he is understood primarily from the standpoint of God. lie is made in the 'image of God."19

These presuppositions have profound implications for the way in which man is conceived. Because man is defined by his productive capacity, historical man (or "real" man) is determined by his relationship to the mode of production. In capitalist societies, not all men are related to the mode of production in the satne way. Marx argues that there are essentially two ways in which men can relate to the productive process. Either they own the means of production or they do not. This relationship forms the basis for the two great classes in capitalist society, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat respectively. The bourgeoisie is seen as that class which exploits the proletariat. It is quite evident that this is a propensity which has been woven into the very fabric of bourgeois nature, for it is to the proletariat that Marx looks to bring about a recontructed society. The proletariat, on the other hand, is an alienated class. By virtue of the fact that it is alienated from the mode of production, it is alienated from its "true" nature. As he extends his argument, Marx pits man against man in the form of class conflict.

The biblical conception of man is one that begins with the presupposition of man's creatureliness and finiteness in relation to an infinite Creator God. Man's sinfulness, however, is not a function of his creatureliness; it is rather a function of his denial of his creatureliness, resulting in his self-conception as the ultimate. Ironically, what is affirmed by Marx to he the first premise of humanity is regarded by Christianity to be the Fall of man, and the source of his sinfulness. Because of its affirmation of man the ultimate and its focus upon the production process as the source of the historical nature of man, Marxism fails to realize that the propensity toward self-interest is a spiritual predicament in which all of humanity finds itself, regardless of the economic and social mileau in which it is located.

This fact (self interest) which in Christian theology is regarded as the element of inevitable dishonesty in original sin, becomes in Marxism a tool of (class conflict. It is used to transvalue the values of the dominant class and destroy their prestige. Marxism thus tentatively discovers and finally dissipates a valuable insight into human nature. It dissipates the insight because it fails to recognize that there is an ideological element in all human rational processes which reveals itself not only in the spirituality of the dominant bourgeois class, and not only in the rationalization of economic interest, hot which expresses itself in all classes and uses every circumstance, geographic, economic, and political, as an occasion for man's assertion of universal significance for his particular values. This defect in human life is too constitutional to be eliminated by a reorganization of society; a tact which constitutes the basic refutation of the utopian dreams of Marxium.20

Brown makes this same point with somewhat less effort:

Selfishness and the tendency to exploit others are not confined to an> one segment of mankind. Eliminating a class will not eliminate injustice, because men in general, not a particular class of men, are responsible for injustice.21

Because the bourgeois class is caricatured as the source of exploitation, and because it is driven by an economic self-interest, Marx is forced to look to the proletariat as the savior of humanity. Yet this becomes problematical, for the proletariat is asked to bring about a social order which is contrary to its own nature. By virtue of the fact that man's nature is determined by his relationship to the mode of production and that the proletariat is alienated from this process, the proletariat is also alienated from itself. It is to this vexing problem that Alfred Meyer directs his attention when he asks, "how can the industrial working class, being so thoroughly alienated from its own human nature have it within itself to achieve its own emancipation?22 This question also has implications for the freedom claimed by Christianity. Man is a sinner, alienated from himself and God. What is the source of his freedom? Christianity rejects any notion of man being able to free himself. lie cannot free himself for by nature he rebels against his relationship to God, which is the essence of his freedom. Indeed, man does not free himself, but is freed by the initative of God. Man's predicament is constitutional in nature, and his sinfulness is expressed in every dimension of his life. Only through the activity of an infinite, yet imminent God, is man (more properly, "are men") made free.

Many conceptual associations can he made between Marxism and Christianity. For example, both have some concept of the fall of man; both have a two-fold image of man (not a Classical dualist image); both focus upon the predicament of alienated man; and both propose an answer to this predicament. We have shown, however, that the way in which these conceptualizations take expression in reality, finds Marxism and Christianity sharing little in common.

Christianity and Marxism share one thing in common with regard to their views of human nature: they both reject the classical conception of a mind-body dualism in which the mind is exalted as the essence of man.


It is a difficult task to determine the compatibility of two perspectives such as Marxism and Christianity, for one is operating at an economic and political plane, and the other at a theological plane. However any social science must affirm, either explicitly or implicitly, some notion regarding human nature. Marx recognizes this and deals with it quite explicitly. It is at this level that the issue most he joined. This is a crucial issue, for it should be evident that the image of man one holds has certain implications for the extension of his thought. I am struck by the fact that it is often the case that those who seek to wed Marxism and Christianity fail to deal with this important issue. It is toward this end that we most first begin.



1Niebnhr, Reinhold, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. l Human Nature New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1943 p. 33.
2Smith, Adam, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations Chicago: Henry Regenery Co., 1953. p. 23.
3Hegel, Georg, The Philosophy of History 1822 in Friedrch, (art J. ed., The Philosophy of Hegel New York: Random House, Inc., 1954 p. 4.
4Hegel,Georg, The Philosophy of Right and Law (1821 in Friedrich, op. cit. p. 230.
5Hegel (1821) op. cit. p. 231.
6Marx, Karl, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (1844), in Trmeker,.Rohert C., The Marx-Eng1es Reader New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1972.
7Marx Karl, The German Ideology (1846), In Tucker, op. cit., p. 113.
8Ollman,Bertell, Altercation. Mars's Conception of Man in Capitalist Society, Cambridge, England: The Cambridge University Press, 1976 p. 78.
9Marx, (1844) op. cit. p. 62.
10Marx (1816) op. cit. p. 115.
11 Schaff, Aclam, Marxism and the Human Individual, New York: The McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1970.
12Ibid. p. 66.
13 Niehur op. cit.
14Niebur, op. cit. p. 45.
15Marx (1846) Taken from Schaff, op. cit. p. 77. 
16Niebur, op. cit p. 16.
17Ibid., p. 17.
18Marx (1846) op. cit. p. 114.
19Niebur, op. cit. p. 13.
20Ibid. p. 35.
21 Brown, Harold O.J., Christianity and the Class Struggle Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Books, 1971 p. 28.
22Meyer, Alfred C., Marxism: The Unity of Theory and Practice Ann Arbor. Mich., The University of Michigan Press, 1963 p. 84.