“What is Man?” and Apologetics (Pascal)

As I’ve mentioned a few times here before, Douglas Groothuis’ Christian Apologetics is one of my favorite books on this topic.  I don’t agree with every part of it, but every part of it is insightful and worth reading.  One part that sticks out is the chapter called “Deposed Royalty.”  This chapter is a discussion of Blaise Pascal’s defense of the Christian faith from an anthropological angle.  In other words, one way Pascal aimed to prove the truth of the Christian faith is by arguing that Christianity has the best and most satisfying answer for the fact that man is both wretched and great at the same time.  No other religion can explain this fact nearly as well as Christianity.  Here’s Pascal:

“Man’s greatness and wretchedness are so evident that the true religion must necessarily teach us that there is in man some great principle of greatness and some great principle of wretchedness.””Man’s greatness comes from knowing he is wretched: a tree does not know it is wretched.  Thus it is wretched to know that one is wretched, but there is a greatness in knowing one is wretched.”

Pascal is saying that humans have a sort of “dual nature.”  Here’s how Pascal said it (from God’s perspective):

“…You are no longer in the state in which I made you.  I created man holy, innocent, perfect, I filled him with light and understanding, I showed him my glory and my wondrous works.  Man’s eye then beheld the majesty of God.  He was not then in the darkness that now blinds his sight, nor subject to death and the miseries that afflict him.””But he could not bear such great glory without falling to presumption.  He wanted to make himself his own center and do without my help.  He withdrew himself from my rule, setting himself up as my equal in his desire to find happiness in himself, and I abandoned him to himself.  The creatures who were subject to him I incited to revolt and made his enemies,  so that today man has become like beasts, and is so far apart from me that barely a glimmering idea of his author alone remains of all his dead or flickering knowledge.”

Pascal, of course, says more about this.  But the gist of his apologetic argument is that the philosophers never did reconcile the fact that man is both wretched and great at the same time.  The Christian faith alone gives the best and most plausible reason for why humans are like they are.  Created upright and in God’s image, we fell into sin, and now we are both wretched (sinful) and great (still have a faint reflection of God’s image).  Pascal also noted that humans are redeemable by grace.  Douglas Groothuis summarizes the argument with a Creation-Fall-Incarnation logic:

Humans are 1) wretched because fallen, 2) great because of their unfallen origin and the vestiges of it, and 3) redeemable through the incarnation.

Finally, here’s Pascal’s challenge after talking about the need to answer the “what is man” question:

“Let us examine all the religions of the world on that point and let us see whether any but the Christian religion meets it.”

Pascal’s argument is very much worth considering.  Groothuis did a good job in summarizing it.  If you’re interested, pick up Christian Apologetics and see the chapter called “Deposed Royalty.”  And while you’re at it, check out the other chapters as well!

Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove: IVP, 2011).

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

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