Book Review: The Doctrine of Humanity by Charles Sherlock

The doctrine of humanity is a perhaps one of the most universally neglected fields of theology.  It seems that most Christian theologians have erred by spending either far too little or far too much time on this teaching.  Charles Sherlock offers a fresh reading of the topic wherein his readers can find what is first and foremost a biblical approach balanced carefully with historical theology and systematic theology.


Sherlock begins with the biblical notion of being made in the image of God.  The history of the doctrine merits a separate book, as it has been a perennial struggle for God’s people.  It has been my experience in the church that Christians throw around the term “image bearer” far too lightly, because either the speaker assumes he or she knows what it means or they assume that everyone knows what the term means.  Sherlock reminds us, “though it is clearly legitimate to describe human beings in image terms, attempts to define the image of God precisely are fraught with danger.  God cannot be defined, and any endeavor on our part to do so constitutes idolatry.”  He continues, “Perhaps the most basic problem with the idea of the image of God as a religious faculty in humans is the assumption that it is an individual, rather than a relational and personal, reality.”  The temptation for many theologians is to put themselves on the philosophical operating table and attempt to dissect themselves.  This is certainly an understandable impulse, but it is wrong nonetheless, given the fact that “being made in the image of God is not an aspect of or in each distinct person, but points to the personal relationships within which humanity lives.”  Sherlock continues, “The image of God can only be seen as we live it out.”

While the Bible never clearly defines what it means to be an image bearer of God, it does demonstrate it.  Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”  Sherlock concludes, “Christian perspectives on being human centre in Christ, on what we are made to be.  They have a future, expectant dimension, as well as a past and present sense of realism about morality and sin.”  Since Christ is the measure of image bearing, “our human plight is not only that we fall short of a standard given in the past, but that we fall short of what God is brining us to become.”

The book continues by exploring humanity in a communal and personal sense.  Sherlock insists that we need not choose between approaching humanity from either the personal or communal approach, as scripture provides support for both.  The communal approach entails everything from societal and economic structure to care of animals and nature.  The personal approach, on the other hand, deals with the dignity of each person, human freedom, and the particularities of gender that contribute to personhood.  

There is an important question in the doctrine of humanity regarding where man falls in the order of creation.  The Christian metaphysic has only two categories: the creator and the creation.  Sherlock explores the boundaries between humankind and “otherkind,” arguing that “land, people and all living things are thus bound together, especially under judgment.”  It seems there are risks with men making too much or too little of themselves.  Either error could result in the neglect of other creation.  If man believes he is far above the rest of creation, then he may feel no need to serve it; if he is too lowly, then he may not feel covenant responsibility to care for other creation.  If we take the scriptural doctrine of humanity seriously, we “are called to recognize our culpability, both personal and corporate, for misusing God’s creation, and our responsibility to live as creatures given dominion over it.”

Perhaps the most profound insight offered by Sherlock is his call to look to Christ as the example of what humanity is and ought to be.  This insight is profound, but it is painfully obvious.  It is amazing how much time one can spend reading scripture or theology and laboring over a doctrine of man without looking to Christ as the template.  Christ’s status as the prime example of humanity affects all of the issues addressed in the book, from care of creation to human freedom.  Sherlock writes, “Our status as human beings who have dominion must be interpreted in the light of the dominion which Christ exercises; displayed in compassionate, sacrificial, costly service for the sake of others.”  He later adds, “The shape of human freedom in Christian perspective thus centres on Christ, who both sets us free from sin and ushers us into a new hope of freedom.”

Sherlock rightly addresses the shape and role of human culture.  I’ve read too many systematic theologies that try to observe man from an “objective” or “neutral” perspective, which is of no help at all, since no man exists in a neutral reality.  There is no such thing as a human without culture, so it does not aid us to ignore it, and yet it is important to remember that “in the New Testament churches, no culture is identified as either wholly home for, or wholly inimical to, the gospel.”  While culture is a necessary component of a person, no particular culture holds all the monopoly on Christian humanity.  Furthermore, “The plurality of cultures thus offers the possibility of critical reflection and learning, and can be a sharpening agent in avoiding the idolatrous confusion of the particularities of a culture with universal loyalties.”  

The study of the person would be incomplete without dealing with the ever-troubling distinctions between body, heart, mind, soul, and spirit.  Sherlock is resolved to approach this issue from what scripture tells us rather than starting with philosophical categories and eisegeting the Bible.  Many theologians invest great time in mining the scriptures for ideas that they have imported from other sources.  As a result, some people’s theology can look like it is the result of the law of instrument: if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  Sherlock proposes that we understand man in the way the Bible presents him; “Christians thus preach a gospel of wholeness, but this wholeness will be fully seen only in the resurrection.”

Sherlock’s book is a relatively short overview of a massive subject.  Yet it is incredibly helpful and thus worthy of recommendation because of its ability to introduce the reader to a host of issues and equip them to think biblically, historically, and theologically about all the issues tied to the doctrine of humanity.  This book will aid readers in sifting out the philosophical presuppositions they carry about theology while challenging them to build their understanding on scripture.