What Does It Mean to be a Human Person?
What is man?” (Psalm 8:4a, NIV).1 In other words, what does it mean to be a human being, a person? That question has been debated by human beings for thousands of years. Science has attempted to answer the question. For example, a biological description of a human being might be as follows: Group – vertebrates; class – mammalia; order – primates; genus – homo; species – sapiens; body structure – organs, tissues, cells and protoplasm; five organs – sense, tastes, touch, sound and smell. Similarly, a chemical description of a human being might be the following: A large quantity of carbon and water; various amounts of iron, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, sulfur, lime, nitrogen and mineral salts.
For John B Watson, the Father of Behavioristic Psychology, “Man is an animal different from other animals only in the types of behavior he displays.”2 In other words, a human being, at best, is a highly complex or highly developed animal. While, at a minimum, the biological, chemical and behavioral descriptions of a human being are true, the question remains: Is that all there is to a human being? Is he or she nothing more than biology and chemicals? Is the human person only a highly evolved animal?
Philosophy also has attempted to answer the question: “What is man?” For Socrates and Plato, a human being is human, precisely because he or she has a soul. For Aristotle, the essence of being human consists in being a thinking creature, a “rational animal.”
Introduction and Outline
The psalmist gives a different answer to the question: “What is man?” In Psalm 8, which is a hymn of praise to God the Creator, the poet celebrates the greatness or glory (Hebrew: kabod; Greek: doxa; Latin: dignus) of God and the dignity of the human person as the imago Dei, the “image of God” (cf. Genesis 1:26-27). The psalm may be outlined as follows: God’s Glory or Dignity, vv. 1-2; Human Glory or Dignity, vv. 3-8; and the Poetic Refrain: Restatement of God’s Glory or Dignity, v. 9.
God’s Glory or Dignity (vv. 1-2)
The psalmist or biblical poet says that the essence of a human being is truly understood, correctly apprehended, in the light of God the Creator. Theology, that is, a correct understanding of God, is, as it were, the “key” to anthropology, that is, “unlocking” the nature of the human person. Thus, Psalm 8 begins and ends by proclaiming God’s glory, that is, the excellency or majesty of his name. To those whose eyes are “open,” the reality of God’s existence, his presence, can be seen in all the earth. That is to say, when the human creature, a living organism made by God, looks at creation, he or she should somehow be “moved” to praise the Creator of the world.3 As St. Thomas Aquinas writes,
“[I]f someone entered a palace, which seemed to be well established, no one is so insane that even though he does not see by what fashion it was made he would still not perceive that it was made by somebody.
“We enter into the world, and we do not see when it was made; but from this very fact that it is well-ordered, we must perceive that it was made by somebody.”4
That “somebody” is “the Lord,” God.
There are three contrasts in Psalm 8. First, the poet contrasts the expansiveness of the heavens with a little child (verses 1b-2). Thus, in looking upward at the vast infinity of outer space, with its innumerable stars and galaxies, and looking downward at a child, the glory of God, with its awe-evoking wonder, is revealed to human beings.5
Human Glory or Dignity (vv. 3-8)
Second, the psalmist contrasts the expansiveness of the heavens with the littleness of humanity (verses 3-4). In verse 3, the “fingers” of God refer to his creativity. The poet, then, by observing God’s intricate, artistic design in nature, acknowledges that God the Creator is an “artist.” Nature, the cosmos itself, including the universe that surrounds the world, is a “work of art.”
In comparison to the vast size of the universe, a human being is a tiny speck, insignificantly and infinitesimally small (cf. Isaiah 40:22). As the scientist Blaise Pascal writes,
“I see the terrifying spaces of the universe hemming me in, and I find myself attached to one corner of this vast expanse…. I see only infinity on every side, hemming me in like an atom or like the shadow of a fleeting instant.”6
“For, after all, what is man in nature? A nothing compared to the infinite…. Let us then realize our limitations. We are something and we are not everything.”7
Like the psalmist of old, Pascal, in viewing the immensity of the universe and comparing it to himself, is filled with wonder. Similarly, the philosopher Immanuel Kant is filled with amazement, when he reflects,
“Two things fill the mind with ever renewed wonder and reverence, the more often and persistently thought is occupied with them: the star-lit heavens above me, and the moral law within me.”8
In the seemingly infinite scheme of created things, why does God care about a human being? Why is the Creator so interested in the human creature? The answer leads to the third contrast in Psalm 8, which is between humans and animals. Verses 5-8 are the poetic counterpart to the creation account in Genesis 1:26-28).9 The psalmist briefly explains the great glory or honor of being human, the reason a human being has a dignity or worth unlike that of any other creature on the “face” of the earth: “Thou hast made him a little lower than God, and dost crown him with glory and majesty!” (Psalm 8:5, NASB).10 Aquinas comments, “To be crowned belongs to kings, and God made man as if the king of lower things,”11 as in the living creatures of the creation account of Genesis.
There is a manuscript variation in Psalm 8:5. In the Hebrew manuscript, the word Elohim is translated “God;” thus, a human being is made “a little lower than God.” However, in the Septuagint, the Greek word angelous is translated “angels.” That is to say, a human being is “a little lower than the angels.”12 Regardless of which translation is accepted, the author’s point is to stress the lofty dignity of the human person. Therefore, a human being is not a little higher than the animals but a little lower than God or the angels.
Sacred Scripture says that the Lord is “the Rock, his works are perfect” (Deuteronomy 32:3, NIV). Every perfection in nature, then, reflects God’s infinite perfection as Creator. However, writes St. Thomas Aquinas, “‘Person’ signifies what is most perfect in all nature,”13 because the human person alone is made “in the image of God.” Therefore, as wonderful as the created world is, it is not the most wonderful aspect of creation. That is reserved for the human person alone. He or she, being made in God’s image, most resembles God, being his sacred “icon” or living work of religious art. Also, because God, in his very nature, is creative and he made the human person, human creativity is expressive of the image of God.
Poetic Refrain: Restatement of God’s Glory or Dignity (v. 9)
Shakespeare’s words express well the psalmist’s message on the dignity of the human person:
“What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving, how express and admirable in action, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a god!”14
What, then, is man? What, in other words, is the very essence of being human? That is to say, what does it mean to be a person? It means to be made in the image of God, making the human person a little lower than the angels. Because of that wonderful truth about being human, the psalmist ends with the same theme with which he begins, emphasizing the glory of God, the Greatest of all great beings, the One to whom all praise is due, saying, “Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth” (NIV).
- Both God and the human person possess glory or dignity. However, human dignity is not derived from itself, that is, merely by a human being derived from the earth, by being a creature. There is no dignity in dust (cf. Genesis 2:7). Rather, human dignity is derived from God. Because he is uncreated, eternal and infinite in being, he is “weighty” or impressive, important in himself, having innate glory or dignity. Because the human person is made in “the image of God,” a human’s being is impressed with God’s dignity or value. Therefore, human dignity is a finite reflection of God’s infinite dignity. Cf. R. C. Sproul, Basic Training: Plain Talk on the key Truths of the Faith (Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), p. 50.
- John B. Watson, Introduction to Behavorism, 3rd ed. (Chicago, IL.: University of Chicago Press, 1930), p. v.
- John T. Willis, Insights from the Psalms, Vol. 1 (Abilene, TX.: Biblical Research Press, 1974), pp. 44-47. Cf. Psalm 19:1-4; Romans 1:20-21.
- St. Thomas Aquinas. n.d. Commentary on the Psalms, Psalm 8. Translated by Gregory Sadler. DeSales University: The Thomas Aquinas Translation Project. [Web:] http://hosted.desales.edu/w4/philtheo/loughlin/ATP/Psalm_8.html [Date of access: 12 May 2019].
- In verse 2b, the “enemies” are difficult to identify, because the historical background of the psalm, by reading it, cannot be reconstructed.
- Blaise Pascal, Pénsées, rev. ed., trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books/ Penguin Putnam Inc., 1966, 1995), no. 427, p. 130.
- Ibid., no. 199, pp. 61, 62.
- Immanuel Kant, “Critique of Practical Reason and Other Writings,” in Moral Philosophy, trans. Louise White Beck (Chicago, IL.: University of Chicago Press, 1949), p. 258.
- There are, indeed, similarities between humans and animals. The reason is that humans are creatures just as much as animals and plants, because, ultimately, all life-forms on earth are created by God. However, in another sense, human beings are different from other creatures in kind, because only humans are made in “the image of God.” Being made in God’s image, they are persons, having free-will to make choices, including moral choices. Persons also choose to love, just as God does. Thus, humans are different from others creatures not only quantitatively, in degree, but also qualitatively, in kind. Therefore, human beings not only have a “downward” relationship to the world, especially the lower creatures or animals, but also an “upward” relationship to God.
- Cf. F. F. Bruce, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Hebrews, ed. F. F. Bruce (Grand Rapids, MI.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964, reprinted 1985), p. 34: “The psalmist is overcome with wonder as he thinks of the glory and honor that God has bestowed on mankind, in making them but little lower than Himself and giving them dominion over all the lesser creation.”
- St. Thomas Aquinas. n.d. Commentary on the Psalms, Psalm 8, op. cit.
- “Angels” is also a rendering of the Latin Vulgate, Aramaic Targum and the Syriac translations. Cf. Anthony L. Ash and Clyde M. Miller, “Psalms,” The Living Word Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 10, eds. John T. Willis and David G. Jones (Austin, TX.: Sweet Publishing Company, 1980), p. 54.
- St. Thomas Aquinas. 1947. Summa Theologica. I, Q. 29, Art. 3, Res. Translated from the Latin by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Benzinger Brothers, Inc. Dominican House of Studies. [Web:] https://dhspriory.org/thomas/english/summa/FP/FP029.html#FPQ29A3THEP1 [Date of access: 12 May 2019].
- Shakespeare, “Hamlet,” 2, 2, in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston, MA.: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974), p. 303.