Science in Christian Perspective



The Origin of Man
Regent College
Vancouver, British Columbia

This paper is reprinted by permission from I Believe in the Creator, by James M. Houston, published in 1980 by the Win. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI

From: JASA 34 December 1982): 1-5

It is widely assumed that man's origins determine his present significance. That is-why Roots has aroused such a phenomenal interest. Doesn't man's ancestry determine so much of his nature and his needs? Since Darwin's views assumed man's origin from the apes, it is thought that a sub-human past leads to a less than human present. Certainly some Christians take this stand.1 But the problem of origins is complicated, whether it is conceived empirically or theologically. The absolute origin of the universe is inconceivable, for we cannot conceive of the meaning and the process whereby God created space and time and all matter ex nihilo; we are not intended to by such a declaration! Creation therefore has to be a statement of faith, not an empirical deduction. We have a similar problem in relating to the origin of man.

We have some empirical evidence from the studies of fossil man that establish the presence of hominids one, two or even three million years old. Physical anthropology has sought to trace biological linkages in the skeletal forms of Ramapithecus, Paranthropus, Australopithecus, Homo habilis, Homo erectus and Homo (sapiens) neanderthalensis. Linkages remain uncertain scientifically.2 But this whole evolutionary approach is bedevilled, not only by fragmentary anatomical understanding, but by the reductionistic approach that assumes a skeleton is a person. The origin of dead bones is a poor guide to the character of a living person. True, the early Palaeolithic period reveals that man was a stone-using creature who hunted big game; the middle Palaeolithic period shows that Neanderthal man used axes, while the upper Palaeolithic period reveals that Homo sapiens had burial cults that reflected concern for the after-life.3 But the origins approach to man still leaves us with vast ignorance concerning the nature of man as man.4 This approach cannot help us explain why man, unlike all other animals, is one genus and one species, unique as no other creature is unique. 

The biblical account takes a relational approach to the creation of man and gives a theological definition of how man relates to his Maker. The Bible is not really concerned with man's physical origins, but with his character before God, which in turn defines his uniqueness before all other created things. It tells us man is made from dust, which our mortality clearly reveals; thus our burial services are observed with the words 'dust to dust'. To say man is derived from the hominids is not to say anything more radical than the biblical description of man's dusty origins. But what the Bible has to say of man's relationships is revolutionary in relating a true understanding of his nature and responsibility.

A person, however, has a specific history. He is born, lives and dies. To regard the story of Adam and Eve as a myth is to shatter both the consistency and meaning of man as the agent of the events of history. Man today is responsible for sin, although he is also caught up in the groundswell of past evil, as 'the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children'. We therefore hold two truths in tension. Sin is a given element in life. Yet it is my responsibility. Too often Christians have talked loosely of the 'Fall' as a chronology of man as he once was-perfect-and man as he is now depraved. The story of Adam and Eve is not a beautiful story of 'once upon a time'; it is about ourselves, how we are now. This present tense is given in Gen. 2:24 in the context of Adam and Eve. 'Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.' This is a present reality.

At the same time, the historicity of Adam and Eve and the Fall has to be taken seriously, otherwise we are not in tune with the biblical writers. Luke, in his genealogy of Jesus, records Adam as historical along with the rest of the biblical characters (Luke 3:23-38). Likewise, Paul tells the Athenians that God 'made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth' (Acts 17:26). He also declares that 'sin came into the world through one man' (Rom. 5:12). In this chapter, the apostle speaks of 'one man' eleven times, seven times referring to Adam, and four times to Jesus Christ. Paul clearly assumeG Adam was as historical as Jesus Christ, who was actually born in Bethlehem in the reign of Caesar Augustus (cp. also 1 Cor. 15:21-22). Just as evolution is an approach that involves man in 'processes' but gives him no uniqueness as historically eventful, so myth may convey meaning but without the framework of space and time. The Bible speaks of both realities, of man's individual uniqueness and his personal responsibility, as he is caught up in the events of history.

Man, as the Creature of God

The true humanity of man is dependent upon God, not man. In other words, man is most truly understood in terms of theology, not anthropology. The latter may deal with the evolutionary schema concerning man's physique, or with the diversity of his racial origins, languages and customs. But the Bible alone confronts us with the direct issue: What is man? Four times this is asked (Job 7:17; Ps. 8:4; 144:3; Heb. 2:6). In Psalm 8 in particular this is set forth in the context of the joyful recognition of Yahweh's universal sovereignty:

Man as man is conceivable only within the context of the sovereign will and grace of the Creator. Man as man does not depend upon anything inherent in man, argues the Psalmist. For what is man compared with the majesty of the heavens-why should God pay any regard to man? Yet before man's head swells up too quickly over his status in creation, the Psalmist adds that God's glory above the heavens is chanted by babes, who cannot articulate any form of speech!

This is to say that God does not need man's innate abilities to manifest His glory. His glory is His mercy, revealed in His unmerited favour towards His creature man, to whom He gives all the special status man has in creation. What gives glory to God is therefore not man's strength and natural abilities, but his weaknesses, like 'babes and sucklings' wholly dependent upon the Creator. It is in his creatureliness that man is man. As the Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev has said, 'God is more concerned about man's humanity than man is.'

It is a biblical principle that natural origins do not define our humanity in its spiritual dimensions. Within churches today, there are those who assume they are naturally Christians, naturally because they were christened at birth, enrolled in the church register and active in church affairs. The apostle Paul speaks against such an assumption when he says: 'For not all who are [genealogically] descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his descendants' (Rom. 9:6-7). Likewise John the Baptist says, 'Do not begin to say to yourselves, "We have Abraham for our father" [because they had been physically circumcised], for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham' (Luke 3:8). Can we therefore be 'naturally' human beings without the grace of God?

Left to ourselves, 'the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again' (Eccl. 3:19-20). 'Man cannot abide in his pomp, he is like the beasts that perish' (Ps. 49:12, 20). The biologist Dobzhansky has spoken graphically of the dust of our mortality:

The aggregate volume of all the genes in the sex cells which produce the contemporary world population (of 4 billion) probably do not exceed the volume of a vitamin capsule. How precarious that this tiny mass contains all the biological heredity of the living representations of our species and the material basis of its future.5

Beyound our dusty mortality, man has a somewhat precarious distinction from the animals. Significantly, he was created on the sixth day, when the animals also came into being. The well-known ethologist W. H. Thorpe has said:

Forty years or so ago, psychologists and moralists used to list a number of ways in which animals are clearly different from man. It was said animals cannot learn; animals cannot plan ahead; animals cannot conceptionalise; animals cannot use, much less make tools; it was said they have no language; they cannot count; they lack artistic sense; they lack all ethical sense.6

We know that all these assertions are either wrong or at least debatable. Most of these differences are differences of degree. They do not really define the uniqueness of man. So ethology has become a good stick with which to beat the natural pride of man. There is a sense in which the Bible ,out-Darwins' Darwin concerning the origin of man. Darwin said man came from the monkeys; the Bible says man comes from the dust. So it is not Nature that has determined man's natural evolution as a cultural being: it is God. God alone keeps man from relapsing into the state of animality. Man without God-as the Oriental despot Nebuchadnezzar discovered-finds his kingship relapsing into the state of a beast of the field.

If God created the whole universe by the Word of His power, it is appropriate that man's unique dignity in creation should be the address of God spoken in grace. This is the theme of Psalm 8. Man is simply the creature that Yahweh relates to graciously, in remembrance and care. Man has been made the partner of Yahweh's earthly reign, so that in his transcendence over the rest of creation man evidences the immanent rule of God. Without God, man quickly falls into animality, as George Orwell shows in Animal Farm.

There is the road to animality in naturalism. Wive la vie naturelle', we are exhorted, for this is the pulse beat of humanity. So, 'be natural'. 'Let the hot blood course through your veins.' This mystique of 'the natural' leads to paganism.

There is the road to animality in aestheticism or hedonism. Man in discovering a reality beyond himself, and his instincts, is tempted to assume that what pleases him and gives comfort to him should be his guiding principles. The sexual obsession of our age reflects this philosophy. What is more beastly than pornograp

The Bible is not really concerned with man's physical origins, but with his character before God, which in turn defines his uniqueness before all other created things.

There is the road to animality in materialism. Our economic philosophy of 'dog eat dog' and 'the survival of the fittest', in the jungle warfare of seeking fat and fast profits, does not engender an ethos of humane tolerance and love of neighbour. Materialism does not produce socialism, otherwise Marxism would not seek in vain for the creation of the 'New Man' to bring about the revolution necessary for Utopia. The tiger of human selfishness is only made more powerful in a materialistic society.

Thus it is our human experience now that man is not man 'naturally' by evolution.7 It is by election, by the free, sovereign grace of God, his Maker, that man is man.

Man, as the Image of God

Man as man implies sovereignty-sovereignty over his environment, over other creatures, over himself. Man's self-consciousness, his sense of uniqueness, his conservation of memory and culture, his tool-making ability, his capacity for thought and speech, the capacity he has to think abstractly and have self-knowledge-all evidence his sovereignty. He is unique also in his search for truth, in his ethical aspirations, and in his concern for moral values. That man can know God but can corrupt these God-like attributes must be recognised before man can be truly understood. Otherwise man is constantly deceived by his own powers, and disappointed by his own weaknesses.

As we have seen, Psalm 8 emphasises that human monarchy is grounded, not in human power, but in Yahweh's gracious sovereignty alone. God has caused man to have dominion, and God continues to crown man with the insignia of such an office.

Yet Thou has made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honour.
Thou hast given him dominion over the works of Thy hands;
Thou hast put all things under his feet. (Ps. 8:5-6)

James M. Houston is Chancellor of Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he previously served as Founder and Principal from 1970 to 1979. Dr. Houston is a geographer, holding the D. Phil. degreefrom Oxford University where he served on the faculty of Hertford College as Fellow from 1964 to 1970 and as Bursarfrom 1967 to 1970. He is the author of A Social Geography of Europe, The Western Mediterranean World, and numerous articles in geographicaljournals and encyclopaedias. He is editor of The World Landscape series, and of Crux, the theological periodical of Regent College. Dr. Houston and his wife Rita have four children and one grandchild. He is Elder of Granville Chapel in Vancouver, an independent Bible Church Fellowship.

There is the road to animality in naturalism, aestheticism, hedonism, or materialism.

No limits and no guidelines are set to man's rule, other than the implicit undertanding that the question 'What is Man is addressed to God and that it is God's sovereignty upon which man depends for his rule. In this spirit Solomon at the commencement of his rule could dedicate the temple saying: 'But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly? For all things come from Thee, and of Thine own have we given Thee . . . All this abundance that we have provided ... comes from Thy hand and is all Thine own' (I Chron. 29:14, 16). All a man can do and give, in his self-transcending powers, is only possible because of the sovereignty of God's grace.

In the Genesis passages dealing with the imago dei (Gen. 1:26-27; 5:1; 9:6), there is also an implicit polemic that, unlike the myths of the ancient Near East in which the king alone is the god's deputy, all mankind is granted the status of kingship. Man, who is but dust-non-being-is enthroned by God to have identity and rule.8 Indeed, under the theocracy all men are responsible as God's deputies.

The interpretation of Genesis 1:26-27 in terms of human dominion over creation has again been brought to attention by the environmental crisis. Some argue that this monarchical model of man is precisely what has bred human despotism over the earth, while others argue that it only reenhances the fullness of human responsibility.9 As D. Cairns notes in his study, throughout history church leaders have given diverse interpretations of the imago dei," especially when theologians have attempted to separate an understanding of 'image' and 'likeness'.

'Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" ' (Gen. 1:26). Is the 'image' the natural aptitude man has, despite the Fall, while the 'likeness' is what can only be supernaturally regained after the Fall? This medieval distinction was rejected by the reformers. Calvin believed the 'image' is still in all men who are sustained by the Word, recognising their being in the glory and goodness of God. Luther saw the 'image' as God's intention for man, restorable to believers, but attainable to man not by nature and reason, but only by faith.

The theologian E. Brunner has argued that a distinction should be made between 'image' as formal and as material.11 Formally, all men, in spite of the Fall, still have superiority in creation, though this is understood not only in terms of the concept of human dominion, but also in the sphere of human responsibility. Man is a being subject, and responsible in freedom, to God. Formally, sin does not infringe upon the image; materially, man has completely lost the image, for he is a sinner through and through. Karl Barth criticised Brunner's distinction between the formal and the material image, suggesting that man's capacity to relate to God in the formal image introduces the innate possibilities of natural theology without the gift of God's  grace.12 Brunner answered that without freedom and responsibility man cannot be activated by the exercise of faith that responds to the grace of God. Clearly, then, the 'image' does entail awareness of man's unique status of responsibility.

This aspect of the imago dei as human responsibility is reinforced by the context of the phrase in Genesis 1:26. Unlike the creation of other creaures of whom it is said, 'And God said, "Let there be". . and there was', the creation of man is introduced by the plurality of the majestic fullness and responsibility of God: 'Then God said, "Let us make man in our image ... .... This suggests a deliberate counselling of divine 'persons', and the responsibility involved. Clearly, then, this reflects upon the responsibility man experiences. In his exercise of freedom he responds to God and finds his unique status. Biblical man is essentially a commanded being, whose sense of obligation provides him with dignity and significance. Unlike Greek man, who is above all a rational being, biblical man is a being of whom demands are made. His central problem is not, 'What is being?', but rather: 'What is required of me?"13

There is a third aspect, however, implicit in the imago dei: man as a relational being.14 In Genesis 1:27 we read, 'So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them' (cp. Gen. 5:1). As Karl Barth emphasized, the 'image' is one of relationships: The relationship between male and female, e.g., points to the fact that man alone is not man. He is only a man when he is confronted with the 'Thou' before his 'P. This in turn is a reflection of the eternal relationship within the Trinity, of God's 'I' and 'Thou'.

The image is twofold: vertically, man has been created to relate to God in fellowship; horizontally, man has been created to share with man in friendship. That man and woman were created as complementary helpmeets reflects on man's inability to live alone. Man has been created for personal existence, towards God and fellow man, the former providing the resources to demonstrate this realistically and practically to the latter. As the spirit needs the body, so man needs his relationship with God as well as his relationship to man to exhibit his full nature. For man was created in love, to be a being of love. How different, then, is man's life from the instinctive and natural life of the animals.

Man, as a Cultural Being

Significantly, man is created as the finale of creation. All is completed, and God sees it is all good. The seventh day, therefore, speaks of a completed world in which man is placed to enjoy richly all that God has done. This is the beginning of man's existence: to 'enjoy God forever', as the Shorter Catechism expresses it.

From a human perspective, we might think of the cosmic forces God released at creation. We see the mighty Pacific Ocean caught up in its endless motion of winds and currents, or the solar wind relentlessly pouring forth its thermal heat, or the expansion of the universe itself racing outward from its initial explosion. Has the Creator Himself been caught up in these infinite dynamisms of power? Will He, like 'Organisation Man', for ever be on the treadmill of His own making? Clearly, the reality of the Sabbath rest denies this. In the sovereignty of His grace, He rests, and amazingly He purposes to rest in His fellowship with man.

It is as if all the bounded structures of the six days of creation, measured as they are by evening and morning, are focused upon and determined by the climax of this day of rest. It is 'a day' unlike all other days, for it has no bounds of evening and morning. It is limitless in its celebration of God's satisfaction with the goodness of creation, and above all with God's communion with man. It is as if the seventh day was designed for fellowship between God and man in the enjoyment of God's world. Man, like God, is a relational being, given the capacity to rest, to take time off ' to live reflectively, playfully, adoringly, in the praise and adoration of his Maker. This, then, is the dignity of man. He is the worshipper of God.

Within our culture we have become caught up in a neurotic work ethic instead of an authentic leisure-work ethic. To absolutise the work of our hands and minds is not only idolatrous, but it gives man the false identity of Homo faber, as if man without God could make anything at all.

'Be still, and know that I am God' (Ps. 46:10), declares the Lord. In the rhythm of the week the Sabbath provides the starting point at which we can set our priorities clearly. Our significance, our identity, can only be in God. We commence the workaday world on Monday morning, giving work its authentic significance as a human mandate under God. But if work is the parasitic activity from which I extract my significance, then as a 'workaholic' I am no different from the poor alcoholic who lives on the bottle instead of in authentic personal relations. Solzhenitsyn describes a middle-aged woman surgeon in Cancer Ward in terms of what she is, rather than who she is. Strip her of her profession as a surgeon, and then who is she? No one! The creation narrative in Genesis thus emphasises that man is not defined by what he gives to his culture, for he gives significance to his culture and his works by who he is.

Moreover, the Latin word cultura, from which we derive our world 'culture', implies cultivation, not creation. Human 'creativity' is an idolatrous idea that needs a proper understanding. 'The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it' (Gen. 2:15). A gardener is not a creator; he is a cultivator of the given realities of air, sunshine, rain, soil and plants. Likewise, man can be 'creative' only through the rearrangements he can make, whether it be with words as a writer, with musical notes as a musician, with paints and canvas as an artist, or with the laws of nature as a scientist. Man creates nothing. He simply re-arranges, re-fashions, re-designs the given realities of creation. Man merely has the ability to enjoy the fruits of God's creation, not to exercise god-like powers of creation by and for himself.

This creation ordinance teaches man that there are levels of knowledge, so that the I-it world of objective reality is not to be confused with the I-you realm of personal relationships.

Man was also given the cultural mandate to 'name' the animals. In Semitic thought, naming implied the ability to learn the inner secrets or essence of an object, just as man has such powers in science today. Man's power to so 'name' the animals was notably set in the context of his recognition of his own relational needs. He found no helpmeet in such knowledge. This creation ordinance teaches man that there are levels of knowledge, so that the I-it world of objective reality is not to be confused with the I-you realm of personal relationships. This is the confusion of spirit that Pirsig, Rayber and many other people today exhibit-seeing man as a thing: a sex object, a tool for production, an object of scientific investigation.


1Philip E. Hughes, Christianity and the Problems of Origins, Philadelphia, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co,, 1964, p. 37.

2Wilfrid le Gros Clark, Man-ape or Age man?~ New York, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1965.

3E. K. Victor Pearce, Who was Adam?, Exeter, Paternoster Press, 1969. He argues that Adam is the innovator of the New Stone Age, but this begs the question why Upper Palaeolithic man has this spiritual interest in the after-life, if he pre-dated Adam.

4The origins approach forces us to either scientific or philosophical approaches per se, for Scripture is silent about that approach. See D. Gareth Jones, 'Man in the context of evolutionary theory', in Carl F. H. Henry (edit.), Horizons ofScience, New York, Harper & Row, 1978, pp. 36-62.

5T. Dobzhansky, Mankind Evolving, New Haven, Yale University Press,

6W. H. Thorpe, AnimaiNature and Human Nature, New York, Doubleday, 1974, p. 271.

7No attempt is made in this work to deal with evolution as a scientific approach to biological knowledge. That is a scientific issue. What is attacked here is evolutionary humanism, a metaphysical faith that views man as only a natural product of materialistic processes.

8Walter Brueggemann, 'King in the Kingdom of Things', Christian Century, 10 Sept., 1%9, pp. 1156-1166.

9See James Barr, 'The Image of God in the book of Genesis-a study in terminology', Bulletin qf the John Rylands Library, 1968, pp. 11-21.

10David Cairns, The Image of God in Man, London, S.C.M., 1953.

11E. Brunner, Man in Revolt, trans. Olive Wyon, London, Lutterworth, 1947.

12Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, trans. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark, 1958, vol. Ill,i, pp. 181-206; Ill,ii, pp. 44-45.

13A. J. Heschel, Who is Man?, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1%5, p. 74.

14David J. Clines, 'The Image of God in Man', London, Tyndale Bulletin, vol. 19, 1%8.

A fourteen-lecture, videotaped course (1/2" VHS format), "Understanding Creation", taught by Dr. James Houston, is available from Regent College's Extension Department. Write Mr. Dal Schindell at the College, 2130 Wesbrook Mall, Vancouver, B. C., Canada V6T I W6.