Christianity and Humanism

What does it take to be human?

Christianity the True Humanism Does that sound like an odd question? One is human by birth, right? J. I. Packer and Thomas Howard seek to explain and answer that question in their book Christianity: The True Humanism.{1} This delightful and insightful book, first published in the mid-’80s, is now back in print. Since it provides valuable insight for apologetics—and is one of my favorites—I’d like to share a few of its insights.

To bring out a Christian view of what makes for a truly fulfilling human experience, the authors contrast it with that of secular humanism. Secular humanism is the belief that mankind can truly find itself apart from any reference to God. It seeks to elevate the human race through a confidence in our ability to understand and order our world guided by our own reason and standing on the findings and possibilities of science.

One note before continuing. Some have objected to connecting the word humanism with Christian. Doesn’t it suggest the exaltation of people? If you are familiar with either of the authors, you’ll know that isn’t their intent at all. As they say, “This book is an attempt to describe the sense in which the Christian religion both undergirds and nourishes all that seems to mark our true humanness.”{2}

Because Christianity: The True Humanism explores the meaning of Christianity for the human experience, it adds to our apologetic for the faith. The authors write: “The best defense of any position is a creative exposition of it, and certainly that is the best means of persuading others that it is true.”{3}


What Do We Need to be Human?

So, what do we need to live a full life? It might be hard to get started answering that, but once the answers start they come in a rush. A sense of identity is one thing we need. How about adequate food, companionship, peace, beauty, goodness, and love? Freedom, a recognition by others of one’s dignity, some measure of cultural awareness, and a worthy object of veneration also fill certain needs. Recreation, a sense of one’s own significance, and meaning in life are a few more.

Animals don’t seem to be concerned about most of these things. As the authors say, “Once you get a dog fed he can manage. Give a puffin or a gazelle freedom to range around and it will cope without raising any awkward questions about esteem and meaning.”{4}

Far from being a religion of escape which calls people away from the realities of life, as critics are wont to say, Christianity calls us to plunge in to the issues that matter most and see how the answer is found in Jesus Christ. The good things in life are pursued with God’s blessing. The difficult things are taken in and worked through, leaving the results to God. Here there is no need for submerging oneself in a bottle of alcohol to relieve the stress, no approval for running from the faults of a failing spouse into the arms of another, no settling for a grimy existence from which there is no escape but death.

What is the testimony of saints around us and those who’ve gone before us? “If what the saints tell us is true,” say the authors, “Christian vision illuminates the whole of our experience with incomparable splendor. Far from beckoning us away from raw human experience, this vision opens up to us its full richness, depth, and meaning.”{5} They tell us that to run into the arms of Christ is not to run away from one’s humanness, but to find out what it means to be fully human. Even our imaginations give testimony that there is more to life than drudgery; we might try to walk machine-like through life ignoring its difficulties, but our imaginations keep bringing us back. There is something bigger. “Our imaginations insist that if it all comes to nothing then existence itself is an exquisite cheat,”{6} for it keeps drawing us higher.

In this article we’ll consider four issues—freedom, dignity, culture, and the sacred—as we explore what it means to be fully human.


What does freedom mean to you? When you find yourself wishing to be free, what is it you want? Are you a harried supervisor facing demands from your superiors and lack of cooperation from your subordinates? Freedom to you might mean no demands from above and no obligations below. Are you a student? Freedom might mean no more course requirements, no more nights spent hunched over a desk while others are out having a good time.

My Webster’s dictionary gives as its first definition of freedom: “not under the control of some other person or some arbitrary power; able to act of think without compulsion or arbitrary restriction.”{7} To be free is thus to be able to do something without unreasonable restriction. Of course what will constitute the experience of freedom will vary from person to person according to our interests and desires. But are there any commonalities rooted in human nature which will inform everyone’s understanding of freedom?


A Christian View of Freedom

When we think about freedom we typically focus on our external circumstances which hinder us from doing what we want. If only our circumstances were different we could really be free. But if freedom lies primarily in being able to do as we please, very few of us will ever know it. So, freedom can be very elusive; it comes in fits and snatches, and too often our sights are set on things outside our reach anyway.

Given the contrast between the dimensions of our dreams and the restrictions we face, is it possible for anyone to truly be free? It is when we understand our true nature and what we were meant to be and do.

Let’s first distinguish between subjective freedom and objective freedom. Subjective freedom is that psychological sense of contentment and fulfillment which comes with doing the best we know and want to do. Objective freedom is that condition of being in a situation well-suited to our own makeup which provides for our doing the best thing. It lies, in other words, in being and doing what we were meant to be and do. Like the car engine that is free when the pistons can move up and down unhindered—and not flop wildly in all directions—we, too, are free when we operate according to our makeup and design.

Because we were created by God according to His plan, freedom results from aligning ourselves with God’s design. This requires understanding human nature generally so we can know those things which are best for all people, and understanding ourselves individually so we can know what we are best suited to be and do. This understanding of human nature and of ourselves is then subjected to the law of love in service to others. Because we are made like God, we are made to do for others; to sacrifice for the good of other people. It is God’s love which has set us free, and which enables us to let go of our own self-interests in order to reach out to others. This is true freedom in the objective sense. “When nothing and no one can stop you from loving, then you are free in the profoundest sense.”{8} But this means being free from any desires of our own which would hinder us from doing those things for others we should be doing.

This focus on love of others contrasts sharply with what we’re told in modern society, that freedom means focusing on ourselves. “It is the stark opposite of all egocentrism, self-interest, avarice, pride, and self-assertion—the very things, so we thought, that are necessary if we are ever to wrest any freedom from this struggling, overcrowded, and oppressive world of ours.”{9}

The key figure to observe, of course, is Jesus. We might consider Him bound by his poverty and by the rigors of His ministry. But remember that He freely accepted the Father’s call to sacrifice Himself for us. His very food was to do the will of the Father. Jesus was free because He fit perfectly in the Father’s plan, and there was nothing that could keep Him from accomplishing the Father’s wishes which were also His own desire.

In summary, the freedom people long for—of being rid of expectations and restrictions so one can do what one wants—turns out to be illusory. We are free when we rid ourselves of the things which prevent us from living in obedience to the God who has loved us and given Himself for us, for this is what we were designed to do.


The Imago Dei

One of the words seldom heard today to describe a person is dignified. What does that word bring to mind? Perhaps a stately looking gentleman, dressed formally and with impeccable manners . . . but looking all the world like he’d be more comfortable if he’d just relax!

Packer and Howard believe that dignity is an important component of a full humanity. Dignity is “the quality of being worthy of esteem or honor; worthiness.” It refers to a “proper pride and self-respect”{10} True dignity is not the stuffiness of some people who think they are not part of the riff-raff of society. When we react against such arrogance we need to realize that our reaction is not against dignity itself. For it is our innate sense of the dignity of all people, no matter what their place in society, that makes such airs objectionable.

Dignity is defined objectively by our nature, and is subjectively revealed in the way we act. What is that something about us that warrants our being treated with dignity and calls for us to act dignified (in the best sense)? That something is the imago Dei, the image of God, which is ours by virtue of creation. We have a relationship to the Creator shared by no other creature because we are like Him. This gives us a special standing in creation, on the one hand, but makes all people equal, on the other.

Secular humanism, by contrast, sees us as just another step on the evolutionary ladder. Our dignity is dependent upon our development (as the highest animal currently). Although at present we might demand greater honor than animals because we’re on the top, there is nothing in us by nature that makes us worthy of special honor. “By making dignity dependent upon development,” Packer and Howard say, “the humanist is opening the door to the idea that less favored, less well-developed human beings have less dignity than others and consequently less claim to be protected and kept from violation than others.”{11} Hence, abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia. One has to wonder, too, if there is a connection between we’ve been taught about our lack of natural worth by evolutionists and the lack of concern for behaving in a dignified manner in public life.

Furthermore, secular humanism treats people according to their usefulness, either actual or potential. “To be valued for oneself, as a person, is humanizing,” say the authors, “for it ennobles; but to be valued only as a hand, or a means, or a tool, of a cog in a wheel, or a convenience to someone else is dehumanizing—and it depresses. . . . Secular humanism, though claiming vast wisdom and life-enhancing skills, actually diminishes the individual, who is left in old age without dignity (because his or her social usefulness is finished) and without hope (because there is nothing now to look forward to).”{12}

Worship—Drawn Up to Full Height

If recognizing our dignity means understanding our highest self or nature, in what kind of situation or activity is our dignity most visible? Packer and Howard say it is in worshipping God that our dignity is most fully realized.

Why is that? There are a couple of reasons. First, we are made to worship, and dignity is found in doing what we are made to do. “The final dignity of a thing is its glory—that is, the realizing of its built-in potential for good. . . . The true glory of all objects appears when they do what they were made to do.”{13} Like a car engine made to operate a certain way, we were made to bring all of our life’s experience into the service of glorifying God.

Second, the object of one’s worship reflects back on the worshipper. Those who worship things lower than themselves end up demeaning themselves, being brought down to the level of their object of worship. But those who worship things higher are drawn up to reflect their object of worship. To worship God is to be drawn up to our full height, so to speak. We are ennobled by worshipping the most noble One.


Moral Life—Marking the Dignity of Others

Does all this mean non-Christians have no dignity or aren’t worthy of being treated in a dignified manner? Of course not. The authors summarize their idea this way: “To the Christian, every human being has intrinsic and inalienable dignity by virtue of being made in God’s image and realizes and exhibits the full potential of that dignity only in the worship and service of the Creator.”{14} Because of our inherent value as human beings, we all deserve to be treated in a certain way. Christians are to treat people according to their innate worth. We love people as Christ loves us. We also seek to guide them to the place of their highest fulfillment which is in Christ.

Thus, Christianity “reveals us to ourselves as the most precious and privileged of all God’s creatures.”{15} And therein lies our dignity.


What does it mean to be cultured? In one sense it has to do with the finer things in life. People visit the great museums and cathedrals and concert halls of this and other countries, take evening classes at the local college, learn foreign languages, take up painting and pottery making as hobbies. Even those who have little interest in the fine arts have an appreciation for skilled craftsmanship.

Being cultured also can mean being well-mannered, knowing what is considered appropriate and inappropriate in social interaction.

What is at the root of what it means to be cultured? Personal preference is part of it, if we’re thinking of the arts for example. But culture goes deeper than that to matters of taste. “Taste is a facet of wisdom,” say Packer and Howard; “it is the ability to distinguish what has value from what does not.” It has to do with appropriateness, with fitness and value.

But how do we measure appropriateness? Traditionally we have measured it by our view of the value of humankind. Does what comes off the artist’s easel in some manner elevate our humanness? Or at least does it not degrade humanity? Do we treat people in a way which shows respect for them, which is the essence of good manners? To be in good taste is to be characterized by being appropriate to the situation. With respect to culture, it is to be appropriate given our nature. On the other hand, to be in poor taste is to be “unworthy of our humanness.”{16} To appreciate the value in people and in their creative expression is to be cultured.

Should Christians be concerned about culture? While Christianity per se is indifferent to matters of culture (for the message is to all people of all cultures, and we should value the contributions of all cultures), Christians ourselves aren’t to be indifferent. In our daily lives we should be demonstrating habits and tastes informed by the Gospel, and these should mark whatever we put their hands to. We are to treat people with respect as having been made in God’s image. We also apply ourselves creatively in imitation of God, and our creativity should reflect God’s view of mankind and the world. Our creative activity in this world is what some refer to as the “cultural mandate.” “When man harnesses the powers and resources of the world around him to build a culture and so enrich community life, he is fulfilling this mandate,” say our authors.{17} In doing this we reflect the redemptive work God has been doing since Adam and Eve.

While, on the one hand, we should appreciate the cultural contributions of anyone which elevate mankind and more clearly reflect God’s attitude toward us and our world, on the other hand we are under no obligation to accept anything and everything in the name of “creativity.” We can’t applaud the blasphemous or immoral. And this is where Christianity stands against secular humanism. For the latter, in its demotion of man to the level of animal and its elevation of human liberty above all transcendent standards, must allow wide freedom in creativity, whether it be crucifixes in urine or erotic performance art. But in doing so it ultimately degrades us rather than exalts us. A sweeping look at the 20th century with its horrific assaults on humanity offers a clue as to the strength of moral standards devoid of God’s will.

A few important notes here. First, although the Bible doesn’t teach standards of beauty, “it charges us to use our creativity to devise a pattern of life that will fitly express the substance of our godliness, for this is what subduing the earth, tending God’s garden, and having dominion over the creatures means.”{18} Second, “the Gospel is the great leveler.”{19} There is no room for pride, for exalting one culture above others.

One final note. Even given all that has been said about the significance of culture and our contribution to it, it is important to note that the demonstration of God’s goodness to those around us through love and works of service is more important than “cultural correctness.” We cannot turn our nose up at those who prefer comic books to classics or rap to Bach. For to do so is to deny the foundations of all we have been talking about, the inherent value of the individual person.

The Sacred


Convention, Taboos, and the Divine

In his book The New Absolutes, William Watkins argues that people today aren’t truly relativists; they’ve merely swapped a new set of absolutes for the old.{20} It’s fairly common for conventions and taboos to change over time, rightly or wrongly. One important question we need to ask, according to Packer and Howard, is this: “Which way of doing things does a greater service to what is truly human in us?”{21}

Taboos have to do with bedrock issues of fitness and decency. Packer and Howard tell us that our many social codes of behavior are “a secular expression of our awareness of the sacred, the inviolable, the authoritative, the ‘numinous’ as it is nowadays called—in short, the divine.”{22}

Wait a minute. Isn’t it a bit of an exaggeration to talk about taboos and conventions in terms of the divine? No, say our authors, for what we are seeking in all this is what is ultimate and fixed. Wherever there are conventions or attitudes which have such binding authority over us that to disregard them is taboo, “there you have what we called the footprints of the gods—an intuition, however anonymous and unidentified, of the divine.”{23} As ideas and beliefs exert authority over our spirits, they become sacred.

We are a worshiping race. Because of our createdness we naturally find ourselves looking for the transcendent (although we typically look in the wrong places, and although secularists will deny they’re looking for anything higher than what we ourselves can produce). We naturally find ourselves giving obeisance to one thing or another, often without conscious thought. “You can no more have a tribe, community, or civilization without gods,” say our authors, “than you can have one without customs.”{24} It is the rare secularist who is never pushed to the point of offering up a prayer in hopes that there is Someone listening. An awareness of the reality of the sacred seems to be built in to us.

In our post-Christian world there are a number of substitute religions. Even secular movements like Marxism become religions of a sort with icons and symbols and sacred books. In shrinking the sacred down to our own proportions we lose what we sought, however, for as the theology becomes debased, so does the religion. And debased religion in turn debases its devotees. Note what Paul said about this in Romans chapter 1.


The Meaning of Sacredness

With respect to God, sacredness refers to His holiness and inviolability and to the value that inheres in all He has made. He is set apart from and above us. “He is not to be profaned, insulted, defied, or treated with irreverence in any way.”{25} God both cannot and ought not be challenged.

Furthermore, that which He has made is due a measure of honor, and those things which are set apart for special service are deserving of special honor. We wouldn’t think of tearing up the original copy of the Constitution of the United States or of splashing paint on the Mona Lisa. Likewise—but even more so—we shouldn’t think of abusing that which has come from the Maker’s hand or treating that which has been set apart for His use as cheap. Here’s an example of the latter: How many of us think of our church buildings and their furnishings as sacred in any sense? We no longer have the Temple; but are buildings erected expressly for the purpose of God’s service really just cinder blocks and wood?


Sin and the Sacred

If we aren’t to treat the objects of this world as less than they deserve, much less should we mistreat those who have been made in His image. To sin against others is to violate their sacredness and our own, for in doing so “we profane and defile the sacred reality of God’s image in us.”{26}

For the secularist, as we’ve said before, without God all things have functional value only. As things or people outlive their usefulness they are to be discarded. The unborn who are malformed are of no use; they can be discarded. So, for example, the aged, now costing society rather than contributing to it, are to be assisted in death. But not so for the Christian. In taking seriously the sacredness of God and of what He has made, we preserve ourselves and provide protection against those things and ideas that would lessen or destroy us.

Freedom, dignity, culture, and the sacred—four aspects of the human experience. When we look at the Christian worldview and at secularism, it is clear which provides the greater promise for mankind. It is Christianity, and not secularism, which provides for human life in its fullness.



1. J. I. Packer and Thomas Howard, Christianity: The True Humanism (Berkhamsted, Herts, England: Word Publishing, 1985).
2. Ibid., 38.
3. Ibid., 13.
4. Ibid., 37.
5. Ibid., 39.
6. Ibid., 44.
7. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th ed. (1999), s.v. “free.”
8. Packer and Howard, 60.
9. Ibid., 68.
10. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th ed. (1999), s.v. “dignity.”
11. Packer and Howard, 138-39.
12. Ibid., 160.
13. Ibid., 152.
14. Ibid., 155.
15. Ibid., 160.
16. Ibid., 167.
17. Ibid., 177.
18. Ibid., 178.
19. Ibid., 172.
20. William D. Watkins, The New Absolutes (Minneapolis, Minn.: Bethany House Publishers, 1996). An article I wrote on this book can be found at Probe’s Web site at This article was reprinted in Jerry Solomon, ed., Arts, Entertainment, and Christian Values: Probing the Headlines That Impact Your Family (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2000).
21. Packer and Howard., 187.
22. Ibid., 187-88.
23. Ibid., 189.
24. Ibid., 188.
25. Ibid., 195.
26. Ibid., 206.

© 2000 Probe Ministries International

Rick Wade served as a Probe research associate for 17 years. He holds a B.A. in communications (radio broadcasting) from Moody Bible Institute, an M.A. in Christian Thought (theology/philosophy of religion) from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a Master of Humanities (emphasis in philosophy) from the University of Dallas. Rick's interests focus on apologetics, Christianity and culture, and the changing currents in Western thought. Before joining Probe Ministries, Rick worked in the ship repair industry in Norfolk, VA. He can be reached at [email protected].

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