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The dominant question of all anthropology — who or what is man? who am I? — does not arise in the biblical narratives from comparing man with the animals or with the things of the world. Nor does it arise simply from being “before the face of God”, as Augustine and the Reformers affirmed. Rather it arises in the fact of a divine mission, charge and appointment which transcend the bounds of the humanly possible. Thus Moses (Ex. 3:11) asks in the fact of his call to lead the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt: ‘Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?’ Thus, too, Isaiah (Isa. 6:5) in the face of his call recognizes himself to be personally guilt-laden in the midst of a guilt-laden people: ‘Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.’ Thus Jeremiah in fact of his call recognizes what he is and what he was: ‘Ah, Lord God! behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child’ (Jer. 1:6).

Self-knowledge here comes about in face of the mission and call of God, which demand impossibilities of man. It is knowledge of self, knowledge of men and knowledge of guilt, knowledge of the impossibility of one’s own existence in the face of the possibilities demanded by the divine mission. Man attains to knowledge of himself by discovering the discrepancy between the divine mission and his own being, by learning what he is, and what he is to be, yet of himself cannot be.

Hence the answer received to man’s question about himself and his human nature runs: “I will be with thee.’ This does not tell man what he was and what he really is, but what he will be and can be in that history and that future to which the mission leads him. In his call man is given the prospect of a new ability to be.

What he is and what he can do, is a thing he will learn in hopeful trust in God’s being with him. Man learns his human nature not from himself, but from the future to which the mission leads him. What man is, is told him only by history, declared W. Dilthey. We can here accept this statement, if we add: the history to which the missionary hope leads him. The real mystery of his human nature is discovered by man in the history which discloses to him his future.

In this very history of missionary possibilities which are as yet unknown and as yet unlimited, it comes to light that man is not an ‘established being’, that he is open to the future, open for new, promised possibilities of being. The very call to the possibilities of the future which are yet obscure makes it clear that man is hidden from himself and will be revealed to himself in those prospects which are opened up to him by the horizons of mission. The mission and call do not reveal man simply to himself, with the result that he can then understand himself again for what he really is. They reveal and open up to him new possibilities, with the result that he can become what he is not yet and never yet was. This is why according to Old and New Testament usage men receive along with their call a new name, and with their new name a new nature and a new future.

–Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope

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