Renewing Theological Anthropology

“What is man?” the psalmist asks.

Though the Christian tradition does not present a unified voice on what it means to be human, it nevertheless contains a substantial body of theological reflection on anthropology that exhibits striking family resemblances across many centuries and many theological traditions. The church did not begin thinking about anthropology at the turn of the third millennium. Rather, ordered by the light of its teaching on the triune God, and in the context of its teaching about creation and sin, grace and glory, church and society, the Christian tradition has a wealth of resources to contribute to theological anthropology today.

 

“What is man?” (Ps 8:4). Theological anthropology (i.e., discourse about the nature, actions, and ends of human beings) is the discipline devoted to addressing the psalmist’s question within the context of the psalmist’s awe and wonder before the majesty of God.

Anthropology lies at the center of contemporary controversies both inside and outside the church. Differing judgments about what it means to be human inform different approaches to race and sexuality, religion and politics, animating discussions and debates in homes, schools, churches, and larger society.

Anthropology is a topic of ecclesiastical concern in my own denomination. Last summer at its General Assembly, the Presbyterian Church in America appointed a study committee to consider questions related to human sexuality, having only two years earlier received a report on women in ministry. Many of the public controversies among Southern Baptists regarding gender roles, sexual abuse, critical race theory, and even church-state relations also touch directly upon anthropological questions.

Anthropology is the subject of parachurch focus as well. Parachurch ministries devoted to anthropological concerns such as CBMW, Revoice, and The Witness exercise significant and sometimes controversial influence on evangelical thought and practice. And these influences cross-pollinate with the ecclesiastical discussions and debates noted above, especially among churches which, lacking formal institutional structures to address such matters, often rely on parachurch ministries to cultivate broader ecclesiastical consensus.

As is often the case with controversy, the heated nature of recent anthropological debates has largely failed to provide a hospitable context for producing theologically profound or spiritually instructive approaches to many of the issues at hand. Debate, especially in the social media age, has a tendency to coarsen thoughts and attitudes, leading to diminished perspectives that make us susceptible to factions and quarreling and impatient toward careful study and persuasion, effectively closing us off to the God-given resources that, under the Spirit’s guidance, make growth and maturity possible (Jas 1:19-21).

Furthermore, the populist nature of North American evangelicalism, together with its love of celebrity, has meant that recent anthropological debates at times have been dominated by those lacking in theological and pastoral training. Though such voices often contribute powerful testimonies of conversion and courage for which we should be grateful, their contributions sometimes lack the careful categories and distinctions necessary for addressing complex theological and pastoral issues, thus unwittingly contributing further confusion rather than clarity to the discussion (2 Pet 3:16).

The controversial setting and populist nature of recent discussion are not the only challenges facing theological anthropology today. From time to time, and for diverse reasons, participants in contemporary anthropological debates have observed that the church lacks a credal statement on anthropology. While this is certainly true, it is an observation of somewhat superficial relevance. The church indeed lacks an anthropological creed. But it does not lack anthropological resources.

This leads to one further challenge facing theological anthropology today. On both the left and the right of the evangelical spectrum, theological anthropology is under-resourced by classical Christian teaching on human nature, activities, and ends. Though the Christian tradition does not present a unified voice on what it means to be human, it nevertheless contains a substantial body of theological reflection on anthropology that exhibits striking family resemblances across many centuries and many theological traditions. The church did not begin thinking about anthropology at the turn of the third millennium. Rather, ordered by the light of its teaching on the triune God, and in the context of its teaching about creation and sin, grace and glory, church and society, the Christian tradition has a wealth of resources to contribute to theological anthropology today.

Many of us, however, have lost touch with this substantial body of Christian teaching. This is true not only of anthropological revisionists. It is also (far too often) true of would-be defenders of classical Christian teaching. This is not a happy situation. And it is but one further indication that evangelical Protestants are not in a good position to make progress in theological anthropology.

What is the way forward? When theological amnesia is the diagnosis, theological remembrance is the therapy. This is what “ressourcement” is all about: retrieving theological riches of the past for the sake of the church’s renewal in the present. Resourcing theological anthropology can contribute to rethinking theological anthropology beyond the stunted, sometimes inane proposals of the evangelical right and the evangelical left, thereby contributing to a much-needed renewal of theological anthropology today. More important than that, by contributing to the renewal of the Christian mind (Rom 12:2), resourcing and rethinking theological anthropology can contribute to the renewal of the creature made and remade in God’s image in the midst of a culture that threatens to degrade, diminish, and destroy it at every turn.

In what follows, I intend to outline, first, a number of resources that might contribute to the renewal of theological anthropology and, second, following from these resources, a number of topics that we must recover if we are to witness the renewal of theological anthropology today. My goal is not to address directly the variety of specific questions that theological anthropology faces. My goal instead is to identify the main elements, partly methodological, partly material, that are necessary for constructing a theological framework within which those specific questions can be addressed should we find ourselves ready and able to give them the patient and studious attention they deserve.

Resourcing Theological Anthropology

1. Biblical exegesis.

The primary source and norm for theological anthropology is Holy Scripture; exegesis is the means whereby we draw upon Holy Scripture’s resources. If this is the case, then in order to enrich contemporary theological anthropology, we must take a more expansive approach to scriptural teaching on human beings, human actions, and human ends. Specifically, the renewal of theological anthropology requires giving more expansive exegetical attention to specific texts and common themes of Holy Scripture.

Consider a few examples. While Genesis 1 plays a foundational role in many contemporary approaches to theological anthropology, Genesis 2 does not. Inattention to Genesis 2, in my judgment, is one of the most remarkable blind spots in recent Reformed and evangelical treatments of the human being. Incorporating Genesis 2’s teaching on the priestly calling of human beings, alongside Genesis 1’s teaching on their kingly calling, is one essential component to constructing a well-rounded theological anthropology.

Beyond Genesis 1 and 2, the Psalter has much to contribute to theological anthropology as well, not least in what it teaches us about human psychology, i.e., the structure, design, disorder, and end of our various faculties. The Psalter also has much to teach us about how, in weal and in woe, we may direct ourselves to God, our author and end, and, in doing so, discover what it means to flourish as human beings in his presence (Ps 1:3).

Turning to the New Testament, we encounter a number of texts devoted to the virtues, which are the primary mode of life in the Spirit (1 Cor 13:4-8; Gal 5:22-23). Whether it’s in Paul’s teaching about the nature and aims of moral reasoning in Romans 12:1-8 and Philippians 1:9-11 or in his teaching about godliness, righteousness, and temperance in Titus 2:11-14, the apostolic writings appropriate and redeploy a long tradition of Greco-Roman thought on moral excellence within a robust evangelical framework. Classical Christian anthropology knew these texts well and commented upon them at length. We would do well to recover scriptural teaching on the virtues in theological anthropology today.

Read More