The Human Being: A Theological Anthropology
May 11, 2015
Hans Schwarz, The Human Being: A Theological Anthropology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013. $24.99
After years of relative neglect, theological anthropology has been on the rise lately. In the last few years alone, we've seen books like Michael Welker's The Depth of the Human Person (Eerdmans, 2014), Christian Smith's What is a Person? (University of Chicago Press, 2010), Verna Harrison's God's Many Splendored Image (Baker Academic, 2010), and David Kelsey's monumental Eccentric Existence (Westminster John Knox, 2009). And that's just a sample. If you add specialized works on particular anthropological issues like the mind/body debate, free will, sexuality, vocation, and race, theological anthropology becomes one of the hottest topics on the market today. Hans Schwarz continues that trend with The Human Being: A Theological Anthropology, a useful book in many respects, though one with some notable drawbacks as well.
As Schwarz explains in the preface, The Human Being offers a dialog between three perspectives on the human person: "the biblical testimony, the historical unfolding by its major voices through the centuries, and the present affirmation of this tradition in view of rival options and of the factual evidence the various sciences have unearthed" (xii). And Schwarz draws on these perspectives to engage three main issues in anthropology: (1) the specialness of humans, (2) human freedom amidst sin and evil, and (3) humanity as a community of men and women with a particular vocation in the world. The book thus contains relatively little on important anthropological issues like race, culture, and ethics, but you can't cover everything in a single book.
The most notable strength of The Human Being is the way in which Schwarz summarizes impressive piles of data. Schwarz has clearly mastered a tremendous amount of complex information, yet he consistently presents it with an eye toward the non-specialist, offering readable summaries that retain the complexity of the subject matter. That is no small feat. Thus, for example, we receive nice summaries of evolutionary theory, the uniqueness of human persons from a biological perspective, existentialist and utopian perspectives on humanity, and the neurosciences on free will. Such summaries must of necessity be rather condensed, but Schwarz occasionally finds time for more extensive treatments (e.g. Augustine on sin and free will). And although Schwarz does not engage the history of theology to the same extent that he does the sciences, more on that in a moment, the chapter on sin and evil contains an extended (and useful) summary of sin and evil in the western theological tradition. In the end, then, The Human Being is worth having for its wealth of data alone.
However, the strength of The Human Being also constitutes one of its primary weaknesses. Although Schwarz excels at extended summary, we get relatively little integration or analysis of the material summarized. For example, at the end of that useful chapter on sin and evil in western theology, having just summarized no less than thirteen theological perspectives, the chapter ends with a two-page conclusion that offers almost no synthetic reflection. The same problem crops up in his discussion of philosophical and religious perspectives on human uniqueness. After an interesting summary of modern existentialism and secular humanism, Schwarz again offers no assistance in thinking through the data or integrating it into a broader theological understanding of the human person. As a result, The Human Being often comes across as a collection of individual summaries about important and interesting subjects. This does not detract from the usefulness of those individual summarizes, but it did leave me somewhat disappointed that The Human Being does not do more to help the reader analyze and critically appropriate that material.
A related issue comes from the fact that The Human Being does not seem to have a theological center. Schwarz engages each issue in relative autonomy from the others, not even trying to connect the various discussions to any overall vision of the human person. Most notably, Christology plays no meaningful role anywhere in the book. Despite the long-standing theological intuition that Jesus reveals something fundamentally important about what it means to be human, Jesus makes few appearances in the work and does not show up at all in the index. Even his discussion of the imago Dei contains only a single, brief reference to Jesus as the prototype. Other theological loci like pneumatology and ecclesiology feature somewhat more prominently--though the latter is oddly lacking despite the fact that the entire last third of the book operates under the heading "Humanity as a Community of Men and Women"--none of them serve to tie the various discussions together in any meaningful way.
A third concern is one that needs to be handled carefully. Since I've just said that the book's greatest strength lies in its wealth of information, it would be a bit unfair to criticize it for not addressing even more material. Nonetheless, given the book's stated intention to address the "major voices through the centuries" in biblical reflection, there were some odd omissions. For example, the section on the image of God does not even mention the ontological/structural views of the image (e.g. the image as rationality or free will) that have dominated Christian thought from the beginning. Although Schwarz may well be correct that this is an incorrect interpretation of the image, I was surprised to see such a historically influential position passed over in complete silence.
Similarly, Schwarz simply dismisses substance dualism in any form as a viable option for theology, again failing even to address the historical reality that dualism has dominated throughout church history, and here failing to mention the important differences that exist between various forms of substance dualism. Again, the question is not whether he is correct in assessing dualism negatively, but whether his account does justice to the "major voices through the centuries." Indeed, with the exception of the section on sin and evil, the book contains relatively little engagement with historical voices in theology, focusing largely on contemporary voices. That is, of course, a valuable task in its own right. But it is one that comes at the expense of a more historical perspective.
Despite these drawbacks, The Human Being offers a valuable contribution to the growing literature on theological anthropology. It will be particularly useful for anyone looking to understand modern discussions about human uniqueness, sin and evil, and sexuality, particularly those discussions that are informed largely by the modern sciences. I would have liked to see more theological integration and dialog with historical voices, but it's not possible for a single book to do everything. So pair this book with something that offers a more robust historical perspective and/or more thorough theological integration, and you will have a powerful combination.
Marc Cortez is Associate Professor of Theology at Wheaton College. His recent works include, Theological Anthropology: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark, 2010) and Embodied Souls, Ensouled Bodies (T&T Clark, 2008). His forthcoming works include, A Theological Anthropology Reader (T&T Clark, forthcoming) and Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective (Zondervan, forthcoming)