A Vision for Anthropology
Note: The following is adapted from An Introduction to Theological Anthropology.
... That you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God (Eph. 3:19).
With all the noise of contemporary culture, it might seem rather ambitious to advance a theological vision of the human. In the present climate, passionate discussions on the nature and purpose of the human are at the center of social, political, and cultural understandings. With discussions on the appropriate vision of sex or race relations, it is apparent that we are living in a time deeply divided in our understanding of the human. Some suggest that humans are biological accidents with a unique autonomy in the world. Others argue that humans are the central objects for God's creative and redemptive purposes. The central and driving question behind all these complicated issues has to do with what we mean by the term human. What is the human being?
This is a question which theological anthropology attempts to answer, and which I address in my book, An Introduction to Theological Anthropology. As an introduction, the book offers a survey of key topics and prominent views. However, I also intend to advance an overarching vision of humanity that is consistent with ancient and biblically driven views of the human and that, at the same time, is commensurate with and informed by contemporary reflections from the sciences. In other words, don't let the word "introduction" throw you. The book is traditionally disposed, given my intention to portray the human as both creaturely and divine (i.e., divine in purpose, not as if we are demigods as in ancient Greek religions). Many theological anthropologies are concerned with the creaturely or fallen nature of humanity, but such a vision, by itself, is myopic and limited. When a broader swath of data facilitates our understanding and reception of biblical revelation, it yields an integrated vision of humanity as heavenly as well as earthly. By "heavenly" I am not necessarily communicating the notion that souls are made out of heavenly stuff—assuming there is such a thing—although souls may have properties in common with heavenly beings. At a minimum, I mean to convey that souls, particularly human souls, have a destiny-heaven...
The story of humanity laid out in divine revelation begins in Genesis 1–2 with the creation of Adam and Eve, the first human pair. It shifts in Genesis 3:6 with their partaking of fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat from. In this act, on my view the author intentionally conveys that Adam and Eve die and will die, spreading a curse to the rest of humanity, which affects the whole of creation (and will later be restored according to Rom. 8). God’s story of redemption begins in Genesis 3, where he clothes them and provides for their needs by prohibiting them from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Through the establishing of covenants, God enters into relationship with Adam and those divinely chosen to represent God to humans. By establishing covenants, God gives life and blesses that life in the way described in Genesis 1. The life that Adam and Eve lost is the life of God’s presence, which he restores in Jesus Christ.
Yet, there is another dimension, one that directs the human story. Human destiny is found in the vision of God. The richness of the scriptural imagery is the primary means in which God reveals himself. In the Old Testament, God reveals his glory by way of an image through the visual sense of sight. God reveals himself to Moses in Exodus 33, where Moses sees the back of God. Isaiah sees God’s glory as he sits on the throne in Isaiah 6:1. Jacob saw the Lord in heaven through a dream by way of a ladder that leads to heaven in Genesis 28:12–13. Daniel has a similar vision of God on the throne in his glory in Daniel 7:9. All of this points to and anticipates the divine-human, Christ, who reveals God. As Christ states in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matt. 5:8). And the means by which humans see God is via Christ. In John 14:9b Christ states, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” The final end of the journey for humanity is not the vision of some aspect of Christ as with his humanity or his body, but to see the fullness of God in Christ. As Hans Boersma has so helpfully put it, “The only reality worthy of being called the sacramental truth (res) of our lives is the end-point of our lives: God in Christ." By “sacramental” Boersma means to convey that all of created reality (i.e., natural creation, and the Old Testament) is teleological in nature and points us to the triune God revealed ultimately in the person and work of Christ. Our goal is God in Christ through a vision that sums up or comprehends all of history. The last book of Scripture, Revelation, describes the final state of humans, the new heavens and the new earth, in richly visual ways. John in Revelation describes the purpose of humanity in ways that give credence to this notion of visio Dei (the vision of God). For in Revelation 22:4–5, “They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (ESV). Playing on the themes of light, it is by seeing God in Christ that humans are able to see all else, and this is the end for which humanity is created.
Christ is the light that illuminates the prominent theme of this introduction, thus the subtitle Humanity, Both Creaturely and Divine. Christ unites the creaturely nature of humanity with divinity. While this unity is concretely defined in Christ, several Reformed theologians understand the vision of Christ as the means by which humans see God and are united to God. Unlike some ancient understandings where deification subverts our creaturely design, in Christian thought, and particularly Reformed developments of it, the vision of Christ (and, specifically, God in Christ) is the means by which humanity is affirmed and elevated through the humiliation of God the Son in the incarnation, which culminated in death.
This is the story of the Bible in a nutshell, but the story contains many other details. Tracing the details of what the Bible says isn’t the end of the theological task. Instead, the theologian’s task requires the hard work of organizing the categories of the Bible into a coherent system for a contemporary audience. The task of the theologian is one of faith seeking understanding in which the theologian works from the premises of faith, found in revelation and tradition, while seeking to understand those premises in light of their larger Christian framework. The task requires the hard work of engagement with other relevant anthropological disciplines such as philosophy of mind, biology, and neuroscience.
Think of An Introduction to Theological Anthropology as a guide. As with all guides, you will at times hike well-trodden paths. Other times, if you are lucky, the guide will take you off the beaten path, maybe even into uncharted terrain. That is what I intend to do in what follows. Undoubtedly, you, the reader, will not agree with all the details, and you may not even agree with the overarching vision. But as one of my professors stated, sometimes you need to try on a pair of boots, walk around, and see how they fit. You can always try on another pair. Or, in our age of innovation, you can always modify the boots to meet the demands of the territory at hand. Come along with me to think hard about one of the most complicated but fulfilling areas in contemporary Christian theology. Try on this vision of what it means to be human. See if it fits.
Joshua Farris (PhD, University of Bristol) is Chester and Margaret Paluch Lecturer for 2019-2020 at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake. He is the author of The Soul of Theological Anthropology and the coeditor of several volumes, including Being Saved: Explorations in Human Salvation, New England Dogmatics, and The Routledge Companion to Theological Anthropology.
An Introduction to Theological Anthropology by Joshua Farris
"The Human Being: A Theological Anthropology," review by Marc Cortez
"A Biblical View of Race(s)" by Guy Richard