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Man: The Supreme Paradox

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
April 20, 2024 12:01 am

Man: The Supreme Paradox

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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April 20, 2024 12:01 am

Many people today believe they have the right to define who they are. Yet our Creator alone enjoys this prerogative. Today, R.C. Sproul considers what it means to be human from God's perspective as revealed in His Word.

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R.C. Sproul (1939-2017) was known for his ability to winsomely and clearly communicate deep, practical truths from God's Word. He was founder of Ligonier Ministries, first minister of preaching and teaching at Saint Andrew's Chapel, first president of Reformation Bible College, and executive editor of Tabletalk magazine.

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Nathan W. Bingham is vice president of ministry engagement for Ligonier Ministries, executive producer and host of Renewing Your Mind, host of the Ask Ligonier podcast, and a graduate of Presbyterian Theological College in Melbourne, Australia. Nathan joined Ligonier in 2012 and lives in Central Florida with his wife and four children.

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No one can really understand who God is until we first have the time to be interdependent. of what it means to be human is one of the most hotly debated and contested questions of our era.

That was true when he recorded this series and has only continued to be debated and contested, and the truth of what it means to be human further and further distorted and perverted. That's why a series like this is so important, and you can request lifetime digital access to this series and study guide, plus we'll send you R.C. Sproul's book, The Hunger for Significance, when you make a donation of any amount at Here's Dr. Sproul to begin this series with a message titled, Man, the Supreme Paradox. When I was a boy, I remember one of my favorite radio programs began with this exciting lead-in. The announcer came on the air and said, look up in the air. It's a bird. It's a plane.

It's Superman. And of course, I think most of us remember that kind of episode from radio days, but as I've reflected on it now as an adult, I thought we must be rather simple if we can't discern the difference between a bird and an airplane and a human being. And as simple as that may seem to us, nevertheless, we are living in a time in history where the definition of what it means to be human is one of the most hotly debated and contested questions of our era. And so what we're going to be doing in this series is to focus our attention on the question, what does it mean to be human?

And in the generic sense, then what is man? I remember that in the Scriptures at one point the psalmist breaks out in a spirit of praise and doxology towards the majesty of God, obviously with the grandeur and holiness of God before his thinking when he said, oh Lord, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all of the earth. And then as the psalmist would spend time praising God, he would say that the glory of God, the majesty of God was manifest through the works of creation. The heavens declare the glory of God.

The firmament shows forth His handiwork. And as we look at that idea that all of creation reveals or manifests the majesty of God, then the psalmist raises the question, what is man that thou art mindful of Him, or the Son of Man that thou dost visit Him? Now in Ligonier, at our ministries, the most widely viewed video series that we've ever produced has been the one called the holiness of God. And obviously the proper study of theology is the character of God Himself. But it's been said by one of the greatest theologians in history that no one can really understand who God is until we first have some kind of understanding of who we are as human beings. And yet paradoxically and conversely, there's no way that we can really understand what it means to be human until we first understand the character of God.

So that the knowledge of God and the knowledge of man work together in a kind of reciprocity, that both they're mutually interdependent, aren't they? Where the Scriptures tell us that man is made in the image of God. Some way we are like God so that the more we understand who God is, the easier it is for us to understand who we are. And if we resemble God in any way, the more we understand what it means to be human, the more insight we can gain about the character of God. But in this day and age, the accent in an attempt to understand what it means to be human has not fallen on theology. For the most part, modern attempts to understand humanness have been made from a this-worldly perspective without reference to God. In fact, the most common definition for a human being or what it means to be human is to classify us as homo sapiens.

Now what does that mean? It takes what we're borrowing here from the Latin root sapientia, which is the Latin word for wisdom. And so when we define man as homo sapiens, we are saying that the thing that distinguishes man from all other creatures, from all other animals in the animal kingdom, has to do with our intelligence or with our wisdom. And in almost every era of Western civilization, the philosophers and the theologians have zeroed in on man's thinking capacity to point to the uniqueness of his identity. And so we have this idea that what it means to be a person, a human being, is to be homo sapiens, to be one with a capacity for wisdom. Now let me just say that I think we can be somewhat simplistic to say that human beings can think and animals have no cognition.

You know, the simple way of approaching the animal world is to say that animals react by instinct, and that word instinct has become sort of a magic word to cover response mechanisms that we don't fully understand because we can't get inside of the brain of a dog or a horse or a porpoise or a turtle and react to external stimuli the way they do. It sure seems like the dogs that I've had thought more deeply than some people that I have met, but certainly when we say that man's uniqueness is found in his mental capacity, we're talking here more of a difference in degree than necessarily in kind. When Pascal says that man is the highest creature in terms of the grandeur because of his ability to contemplate his own existence, he doesn't mean to suggest by that that animals in simple ways are totally unaware of their existence, but we can think of our future. We can think about the meaning of our very existence. In fact, the poet has said that the proper study of mankind is what?

Man. Now what I want us to see in the time that we have together is how we think about ourselves as creatures. How we answer the question, what is man, will have a profound impact on how we live. It's been said by one theologian that how human beings understand their own existence determines how they think, how they behave, and the type of culture that people produce.

That the culture that we're living in right now is a product of our own understanding of what it means to be human. Now, when Pascal says the highest grandeur of mankind is our ability to contemplate our own existence, he says at the same time that's the cause of our worst misery in that we can always speculate upon or project in our imaginations a better life than we presently enjoy and are even able to bring to pass. And so we become aware of our shortcomings. I wonder if ants and dogs and kangaroos suffer from guilt. I wonder if they go through processes of moral anguish, if they carry wounds and scars in their psyches because of moral failures in their lives. Whether or not elephants do that or dogs do, we know that that is basic to human beings because we know that not only is life not as good as we can possibly imagine it, but rather than drawing from away from the abstract and bringing it home, we know we are not as good as we could conceive ourselves to be.

And so that interjects a note of misery to us. Now, before I give us a little historical reconnaissance on various views of what it means to be human that have emerged in the history of Western thought, I'd like to just give a brief outline of what I would call the current crisis in anthropology. Quick little summary of history. In the early centuries of Greek philosophical inquiry, the overarching concern for the philosopher was in the dimension that we call metaphysics. Thales and Parmenides and Anaximander and Anaxagoras and people of that stripe before Socrates and Plato and Aristotle and so on, they were asking the big questions. What is the ultimate substance from which everything comes in the universe? What is the essence of things? What stands above and beyond the physical? And that we call in philosophy the quest for metaphysics, that which is above and beyond the visible world of physical appearances. And so the ancient philosophers were preoccupied with what we call metaphysics, but they wouldn't agree on what ultimate reality was. And Plato said it was one thing, and Aristotle said it was something else again, and they would argue back and forth and so on. And finally the question was, well, wait a minute, this man's learned and this man's learned. They're both very acute in their thinking, and yet they come to radically different conclusions about ultimate issues of metaphysics.

How's common? How do we explain that? So the next great emphasis in philosophy was in the dimension or the subdivision of this discipline that we call epistemology. How many of you do not know what epistemology is?

Let me put it up there on the board. Who does not know what the word epistemology is, and if you don't put your hand up I'm liable to call on you because I'll call on you to give a definition. Alright, fine, this is one of those technical terms that the philosophers use. Epistemology is simply the science of science.

I don't mean to stutter. What that means is that it is the specific discipline that undergirds all science. It asks this question, how do we know what we know? How do we learn? How can we know anything? Do we know principally through the activity of the mind, or is it through observation, seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and so on? So that the philosophers then said, okay, we're disagreeing over ultimate things.

Now let's focus our attention on, well, how do we know anything? And so philosophy went through a lengthy period of great debate studying epistemology. The next great moment in philosophy was the study of history.

I call that phase three, man and society in relationship to each other. Ladies and gentlemen, the 20th century has marked a dramatic shift in the whole history of theoretical thought. The overarching dominant concern of the intellectual in philosophical pursuit in the 20th century has been in the area of anthropology, asking the question, what is man? What does it mean to exist as a human being? You've heard of existentialism, for example, as a contemporary philosophical movement of great import.

We're very much concerned about self-esteem, self-identity, understanding who we are as creatures. As I said, there have been tremendous differences of opinions. In fact, my own professor when I was in graduate school made this observation and I'd like to read a quote from my professor G.C.

Berkhauer. He made this statement that man's reflection upon the nature of man has produced an astonishing variety of views. I mean, as we think about ourselves, contemplate our own humanity, we come to all kinds of wildly divergent viewpoints. Here are some of the ways in which we have tried to define man historically. First of all, we've tried to define man strictly in terms of biology or zoology. Do you remember when you were going to high school and you took a course in chemistry or in biology and your teacher said to you, now the total value of your person is $24.37. Now, I don't know what it is today. In fact, I think it was less than that when I was in school. I'm allowing for a certain measure of inflation, but it was some paltry sum, wasn't it, that says the total value of the zinc and the copper and the things that are found in your body, that's about what you're worth.

Now, I can buy and sell you for less than $50 on the precious commodities exchange there, according to that particular view. Or we've seen attempts to understand man as simply one specific variety of primate apes. Do you remember Desmond Morris' book that was a bestseller several years ago entitled The Naked Ape, in which he said there were some 89 or so specific kinds of primates on this planet. You know, there are chimpanzees and there are orangutans and there are gorillas and all these different kinds of baboons and rhesus monkeys. But there's one of these primate apes that is distinguished from all the rest, not so much by its intelligence, but by the fact that it is naked. It's not covered with this coat of hair like orangutans and gorillas and chimpanzees, and so this one that we call Homo sapiens is distinct by the fact that it has to go out and manufacture artificial clothes to cover its nakedness, because evidently this is the only one of these 80-some varieties of primates that has a problem with nakedness, has a problem with guilt.

Notice that we're the only animal in all of creation that has artificial garments, and the Scriptures tell us the reason for it is not to keep ourselves warm but to cover our shame. Plato was perplexed by the question of giving precise definition to a man. We see in the whole science of taxonomy, which is the science of classification, when I want to distinguish a bird from a fish and a fish from an antelope, I look at things that are different among them, but I also look at similarities. Look up in the air. It's a bird. No, no, it's not a bird. It's a plane. Now, for me to confuse a bird and a plane, they have to have something in common.

What do you suppose it is? They're flying through the air. Birds have wings and planes have wings. When planes start flapping their wings, they're not in the air very much longer. I mean, planes don't have feathers. Planes don't build nests. Planes don't kick their little planelets out of those nests.

Okay, planes don't lay eggs, but they have in common with birds that both of them fly through the air. And, of course, both of those have it in common with Superman, who also has that ability. So you see what we do when we classify? We see the similarities and the differences. And Plato was going crazy trying to pinpoint the actual distinctives that would separate or distinguish a human being from all other forms of life. And finally, he had it figured out, boiled it down in his taxonomy to call man a featherless biped.

That's a two-legged mammal without feathers. One of the students got a plucked chicken and wrote a sign across its chest, Plato's man threw it over the wall into the academy, and Plato had to start all over again looking for a definition of man. Karl Marx described man as homo faber, man the fabricator, man the maker. Marx wanted to understand the uniqueness of man, not in his chemistry, not in his anatomy, but in his work habits. He said man's whole life revolves around his work, his toil.

Out of the history of civilization, the history of warfare has to do with the conflict over economic forces clashing as a result of the yield of man's labor, of his product. Man's greatest alienation is his alienation from the fruit of his own labor, which is unnatural. And so, Marx's whole theory of economics was rooted and grounded in the fact that he saw man as a toolmaker.

When anthropologists and paleontologists go back into time and try to draw the line between one kind of primate and human beings, the presence of tools among the fossils becomes very important because man, homo faber, is one who begins to fashion tools and use those tools to increase his production. Homo volens, V-O-L-E-N-S, another way in which man has been defined, particularly in the later part of the 19th century with a school called voluntarism. Here, homo volens says what makes man unique is in his capacity to make choices. The real greatness of man is in his ability to choose. Nietzsche took this to one measure in where he said that the real man, the authentic man, again the ├╝bermensch, the superman that Nietzsche wanted, was a person who made his choices on his own. He was the supreme fellow who did his own thing. He did not live by the pressure of what Nietzsche called the herd morality, but he defined a master morality.

He affirmed his own personal existence. He decided to live his life on the basis of his own private choices because that's the essence of being human. Edmund Husserl spoke of man's intentionality, that is to choose with a purpose and view as being his basic uniqueness. Jean-Paul Sartre, in a more pessimistic vein, his conclusion, his concluding evaluation of what it means to be human was this. Sartre, you remember, said that man is a useless passion. But again, Sartre was focusing in on the dimension of choosing, making choices driven by passion that is ultimately meaningless. It's a useless, a futile passion.

Freud, of course, explored the sexual dimension of what it means to be human, where he saw the central drive that defines all our little social dances and all of the things that establish our values are based in some erotic dimension of what it means to be human. Finally, it's been said not only by religious people or theologians, but also by historians and philosophers that man is homo religiosus, incurably religious. Now, it's part of his identity.

It's part of his makeup. In fact, Calvin once made this observation that man is a fabricum idlerum, an idol factory, that he is so committed to religion that even if he's removing himself from the living God, he will replace his concept of God with a God made out of his own hands. And Luther, in similar fashion, made this comment that man, if he has no God, will make an idol because he has to have something. Now, all of these are facets of different ways of looking at man. I think the great error is to try to understand the sum of human activity by simply pointing to one of them, when all of these dimensions incorporate the full complexity of what it means to be human. But what we're going to be doing is to look at the theology of humanness in the lectures to come.

That was R. C. Sproul from his series, A Shattered Image, and you're listening to Renewing Your Mind, a daily outreach of Ligonier Ministries. So what does it mean to be human? Where is our identity to be found? These are just some of the questions that are most frequently being asked by young people today, and we're seeking to provide trusted answers to those questions through series like the one you heard today, as well as books, articles, and short-form video content, and our youth conferences, simply called Always Ready. And when you give a donation of any amount in support of these efforts and others, we'll send you R. C. Sproul's book, The Hunger for Significance, and we'll give you lifetime digital access to the complete series that you heard today and the accompanying study guide. Visit today as this offer ends at midnight. Thank you for your generosity. What does it mean that we are made in the image of God, and is that true for everyone or only for believers? Be sure to join us next Saturday here on Renewing Your Mind.
Whisper: medium.en / 2024-04-20 02:48:35 / 2024-04-20 02:57:09 / 9

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