In accord with the over-all future orientation of his theology, Wolfhart Pannenberg sees the dignity of the human race as being based on human destiny. It is less a matter of human status in the created world, than it is a matter of the destiny of the human race, which has been revealed in the Scriptures. I find this a very helpful perspective. He writes:
Only from the standpoint of the religiously and biblically grounded awareness of their destiny of fellowship with God, the author of the universe, can we say assuredly, however, that all creation culminates in humanity.
— Systematic Theology, Volume 2, Chapter 8, page 175.
This intellectual move saves the theologian from saying that the status of the human race in the created world is rooted in inherent abilities that set the human creation apart from the rest of the created world — especially the animal world.
Certainly, it has been often argued that the human race represents the culmination of the process of the development of life on earth. And, one could launch an argument from there that human worth is rooted in particular capabilities of the human race that distinguish us from the animal world.
But, this has always seemed to me to a mistaken approach — however traditional it may be. Aquinas goes to great length to distinguish humans from the animals. Nonetheless, I think the basis of human dignity does not lie there. And, the attempt to root the concept of human worth in human superiority to the animal creation tends to separate us from the animal kingdom — of which we are actually a part. In light of the fact that there is little genetic difference between humans and chimpanzees, and in light of the fact that Killer Whales have larger brains than humans do, the argument for inherent human superiority becomes harder and harder to advance.
I think we need to see ourselves as part of the created order. And I think we need to value the created order. It may be that this attempt to theoretically separate the human race from the rest of the created order has contributed to our lack of concern for the well-being of the planet. I know Dispensationalism often gets blamed — and I do that, too — but the problem goes deeper. If humanity’s special place in creation has to be defended on the basis of our distinction from creation — our superiority to the animals — then we come to feel ourselves as strangers in the world. We have a deep kinship with the world and with the animal kingdom — and it is nothing of which to be ashamed. This is our world. We are part of it. It is part of us.
So, it seems in every way preferable to say, as Pannenberg does, that the special place of humans in the scheme of created things is in “the religiously and biblically grounded awareness of their destiny of fellowship with God.”
But, he goes beyond this and appeals to the Incarnation of Christ as the basis for the special dignity and role of the human race.
Only in the light of the incarnation of the eternal Son as a man, however, can we say that the relation of creatures to the Creator finds its supreme and final realization in humanity. The relation of the Son to the Father cannot be transcended by any other form of relation to God. As the eternal God took form in a man, and through him made acceptance as children of God accessible to all other men and women, the relation of the creature to the Creator has found in principle the highest fulfillment we can possibly imagine.
— Systematic Theology, Volume 2, Chapter 8, page 175, 176.
It is in the Incarnation of Christ that the special role and place of the human race in the scheme of creation is grounded. Humans can claim a special place in creation only because we have been graced by God. We have a special place and a special destiny only because we belong to that race that God has visited and graced through Christ. If we look at it this way it is both exalting and humbling — at the same time. We can claim a special place in creation on the basis that we are destined to fellowship with God through Christ. Yes, in this sense we are lifted above the creation — not because of our inherent greatness — but because of the great thing that God has done for us in Christ. God has come among us.
Remember that great affirmation of Incarnation in the Gospel of John: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14 NRSV). It is never so much that the human race is great as that it is graced. We need not spend time defending the human race — rather, we continually seek to bring our lives into conformity with the great destiny to which we are called — to walk with God.
Pannenberg points out that that the idea that there is a special dignity to the human race based on the fact that humans are rational creatures, has a pre-Christian origin. And, he notes that the great Roman orator and philosopher Cicero appealed to the gift of human rationality in an attempt to establish this.
Yet, Cicero did not link this dignity, as modern usage does, to the idea of the inviolability of human life in each individual. This thought arose only with the idea that we are under a supreme authority that releases us from obligation to other powers, and especially from being controlled by other people or by society. Rightly, then, the Christian tradition sought the basis of personal dignity in our creation in the image of God. Our destiny of fellowship with God forms the indispensable premise of the function of human dignity as the content of a supreme legal principle and a basis for individual human rights, e.g., in modern declarations of such rights.
— Systematic Theology, Volume 2, Chapter 8, page 176, 177.
So, here, also is the basis of the concept of human rights. Here is what causes us to continue to affirm the rights and the dignity of every human being — and to work to see that such rights are ensured. It is not rooted in social standing. It is not rooted in inherent intelligence. It is not rooted in utility to society or to government — or the church, for that matter.
When we uphold the rights of human beings, when we affirm their inherent worth as human beings, we are affirming again the Incarnation — the special destiny of the human race to communion with God.