“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.
2. Natural theology
New Testament appropriation and redeployment of classical Greco-Roman thought on the virtues presupposes the existence and knowability of human nature. Contrary to the so-called “ethics of authenticity,” as well as other approaches that view personal identity as merely a social or historical construct, Holy Scripture teaches, and reason and experience confirm, that we have a nature (Rom 1:26; 2:14). Accordingly, human beings flourish when we live in accordance with our natures and human beings diminish themselves when we attempt to live against the grain of our natures.
In addition to being the kind of creatures that have a nature, we are also the kind of creatures that can know something about our natures. While this knowledge is seriously damaged by sin (Rom 1:18), it is not completely eradicated thanks to God’s common grace (Rom 1:32).
Natural theology refers to that field of discourse devoted, among other things, to the study of human nature, action, and ends, as these realities may be known by the light of nature. Though natural theology cannot function as the primary source and norm of theological anthropology, it is a useful handmaiden. For this reason, it is a resource that theological anthropology cannot afford to ignore.
3. Roman Catholic thought
Conservative Protestant churches today often suffer from want of sophisticated theological instruction about humanity. Roman Catholic churches are in a somewhat better position due, in large measure, to the attention Pope John Paul II devoted to theological anthropology.
Protestants have good biblical and theological reasons to be wary of specific features of Roman Catholic teaching on human beings, especially when it comes to the topics of Mariology, sin (e.g., the nature of concupiscence), and grace. That said, Protestants may find in certain Roman Catholic theologians and philosophers productive lines of thought on anthropology that can help us transcend some of the limitations inherent to both progressive and conservative evangelical thought on these topics. These Roman Catholic thinkers can also help us reconnect with the rich anthropological resources of our own historic Protestant tradition as well as the broader catholic tradition that belongs to all of us.
Mentioning a few examples might be helpful. Prudence Allen’s three-volume study, The Concept of Woman, with its categories of “fractional complementarianism” vs. “integral complementarianism,” is an insightful historical, philosophical, and theological treatment of gender and gender relations from which conservative Protestants could profit greatly. In addition to Allen’s study, Roman Catholic authors have produced excellent work on topics such as natural theology, marriage, and Christian virtue.
Rethinking theological anthropology
Retrieving traditional resources of Christian anthropology is a necessary condition for renewing theological anthropology today. Retrieval, however, is not an end in itself. Retrieval is a means to rethinking our place and purpose in God’s world beyond the limitations of contemporary voices.
Retrieval can help us recover at least four topics from the Christian tradition that have the capacity for expanding our horizons on what it means to be human and, within the context of those expanded horizons, for helping us address many of the challenges we face. Those topics include faculty psychology, the virtues, history, and humanity’s natural and supernatural ends.
1. Faculty psychology
Human beings are neither angels nor animals. We are embodied souls, endowed by God with reason, will, and physical appetites of various kinds (nutritive, sexual, etc.). Ordered by divine wisdom, our various faculties are the means whereby human beings move themselves, and are themselves moved, toward their God-given fulfillment. Disordered by sin, our faculties drive us, and are driven, against God and against human flourishing.
For a number of different reasons, we have lost the capacity for describing and directing ourselves as rational animals. This is due, in part, because we have lost the sophisticated array of categories used by the tradition to identify our various appetites (rational, animal, etc.), replacing those categories with the label “emotion,” a kind of categorical “junk drawer” that includes many different sorts of things that function in different sorts of ways.
This is also due to the fact that we have adopted competing conceptions of what makes and moves us as human beings. We no longer view ourselves as creatures made in God’s image, with capacities for reasoned judgment, temperance, and virtue, but as mere products of social and historical forces and/or the self’s self-constructed reality. The net result of these competing conceptions is either to diminish us or to deify us. Though widespread, these conceptions are illusory and therefore inhumane.
Renewing theological anthropology today will require us to rethink what it means to be a human being by recovering what it means to move ourselves as rational animals created in God’s image.
2. The virtues
Virtue is that mode of excellence that characterizes creatures endowed with reason, will, and physical appetite. Whereas sin viciously disorders human thought, will, and desire, God produces and cultivates virtuous habits in the objects of his saving and sanctifying grace, thereby renewing us in his image (Titus 2:11-14).
Recovering Christian teaching on virtue is especially needful today, not only because many Protestant moral theologians have lost touch with this tradition of moral instruction, but also because it holds so much promise for addressing the various forms of anthropological disorder (e.g., racism, sexual confusion, etc.) that afflict us today.
To cite one example, Christian teaching on the virtue of chastity (i.e., temperance of sexual desire) offers a scripturally grounded, pastorally wise middle position between reparative therapy on the one hand (which promises more than it can deliver when it comes to Christian sanctification) and a kind of baptized “born this way” approach to same-sex attraction on the other hand (which aims for less than should be expected when it comes to Christian sanctification). Indeed, Christian teaching on the virtue of chastity, both inside and outside the institution of marriage, offers a realistic, hopeful path for heirs of every form of sexual disorder introduced into the world under the thralldom of sin. Which means that the virtue of chastity offers something for all of us.
God is eternal. God created time; God is the goal of time; and God is present to all times as the timeless one, in whose eternal presence we live and move and have our being.
Human beings, however, are creatures of history, made in time and for time. For this reason, we cannot understand ourselves or make our way in the world apart from some understanding of our historical contexts.
Our historical contexts include what we might call our “immediate histories”: the more proximate histories of our families, neighborhoods, and societies, including both their tragedies and triumphs. Our historical contexts also include what we might call our “epochal histories”: the more fundamental history of humankind as created, fallen, in the process of being redeemed, and yet to be consummated.
Understanding our immediate histories is vital for theological anthropology, not only for mundane reasons, like being able to navigate the language and customs of our various cultures, but also for more substantial reasons, like being able to acknowledge and repent of the sinful habits and patterns that our various cultures transmit and cultivate.
Understanding our epochal histories is also essential for theological anthropology because our epochal histories provide the backdrop against which we can rightly measure our various whences and whithers, along with our successes and failures within history. Understanding ourselves as created helps us understand what constitutes the meaning and well-being of human persons. Understanding ourselves as fallen helps us understand how far we have moved from our original integrity and what are the deep causes of our present maladies. Understanding ourselves as redeemed helps us understand what, by God’s grace, may be hoped from human beings in this life, and also what, by God’s grace, must be endured with patience. Understanding ourselves as yet to be consummated, helps us to pursue virtue in the present and to endure suffering with patience as we look toward that which God has promised to make of us when Jesus Christ returns in glory (1 John 3:1-2).
When we see ourselves only through the lens of our immediate histories, we tend toward either abject despair or apocalyptic presumption in our understanding of human beings and the possibilities of human action. When we see ourselves through the lenses of both our immediate and epochal histories, however, the latter histories frame the way we process the former histories, thereby equipping us to engage human beings and the possibilities of human action with the kind of God-centered perspective that is afforded by faith, hope, and love.
4. Natural and supernatural ends
Human beings are rational animals designed for virtue who inhabit history and who are appointed for various natural and supernatural ends.
By God’s design, human beings have various natural ends which are fulfilled in the context of various domestic and civil vocations. These ends include but are not exhausted by the vocations of marriage, child rearing, friendship, and government along with the other callings we pursue in response to the cultural mandate given to human beings in the beginning and reconfirmed in the Noahic Covenant. Recent Reformed and evangelical thought, drawing especially on anthropological teaching in Genesis 1, tends to focus on these natural ends, rightly emphasizing their inherent goodness, but sometimes overemphasizing their lasting significance.
By God’s design, human beings also have a supernatural end. Created under God in his image, human beings are made for God, to dwell in his presence and to behold his glory. For all the blessings and joy that accompany engagement in our various natural ends, human fulfillment is not possible apart from the realization of our supernatural end in union and communion with the triune God. While God’s work of grace in the gospel restores us to a right relationship to our natural ends, more importantly, it enables and prepares us for our supernatural end in the vision of God.
Renewing theological anthropology today will require recovering classical Christian teaching on humanity’s supernatural end, not only in order to set our hopes aright regarding the future, but also in order to help us engage our callings in the present.
In his contribution to The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, Reinhard Hütter describes two approaches to the Christian life. One approach views God as standing behind the human being, with the world lying before him as his ultimate field of engagement. The other approach views the human being as standing before God, with the world coming to him as a gift from God’s fatherly hand in order that it, along with the human being, might ultimately be ordered to God.
In too many cases, contemporary Reformed and evangelical approaches to anthropology exhibit the former approach rather than the latter. Renewing theological anthropology will, above all, require recovering the latter approach, which locates human beings where they should be located: a little lower than the angels, over the animals, in Christ, in the presence of God, from whom and through whom and to whom are all things (Rom 11:36).
This, in the end, is the awe and wonder of what it means to be human. “What is man?” The psalmist asks. Following Scripture, the Westminster Shorter Catechism answers: man is the creature whose chief end it is “to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”