Eccentric Existence 3 (a theological and Christian anthropology)

We are looking at David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence. According to Kelsey, anthropology is a discipline that seeks to answer three basic kinds of questions.

  • What are we?
  • How ought we to be?
  • Who am I and who are we?

These questions can be approached from a variety of non-theological perspectives (e.g. biology, cultural anthropology, etc.), as well as other non-Christian theological perspectives. And, that raises the question of whether Christian theology actually has anything unique to offer in this discussion.

What makes an anthropology distinctively Christian?

Kelsey argues that understanding what is distinctively theological and Christian about anthropology begins with the claim that God actively relates to humans in three key ways: “(a) God actively relates to human beings to create them, (b) to draw them to eschatological consummation, and (c) to reconcile them when they are alienated” (8). Thus, the basic task of a Christian theological anthropology is to find out what is implied about human beings by these three claims.

Even these basic claims, though, are not enough to ground a truly Christian theological anthropology. That is because the God who relates to humanity in these three ways is not just any God, but is the triune God of the Bible. Kelsey spends a good portion of one chapter discussing the history of Trinitarian thought in the early church. Although he thinks that much of this history had the unfortunate tendency to focus almost exclusively on only the redemptive relationship, to the neglect of the creative and consummative relationships, he still sees the Trinitarian framework of Nicene theology to be constitutive of an adequately Christian anthropology. He does argue, though, that this does constitute an overly constrictive framework because “there may be an indefinitely large number of possible ways in which to explicate, coherently interrelate, and elaborate on the affirmations made by the creed” (61).

What are the implications of the Trinitarian approach?

Affirming the Trinitarian structure of anthropology as provided in the ecumenical creeds of the early church has at least three important implications. First, reciting the creeds is “existentially self-involving” in that this practice is a key way in which Christians “have shaped, as well as expressed, their personal identities” (62). Second, this creedal approach has rhetorical implications in that it shapes our language of God in particular ways, especially those privileging the dynamic relations of the triune persons. And third, this Trinitarian framework offers two subsequent methodological implications.

The first of these methodological implications is that we cannot allow the redemptive relationship to undercut the other two relations, particular the idea that God relates to creation as Creator. We’ll talk more in the next post about the importance of affirming all three of these relations, but the very fact that the creeds themselves emphasize the logical priority of the creative relationship over the redemptive relationships suggests that the former should not be undermined.

And, the second methodological implication of this Trinitarian framework is that all anthropology is at least indirectly christocentric. Since the way that we understand the Trinity is shaped by what we believe about Jesus, “That is ultimately what qualifies theological answers proposed to anthropological questions as authentically Christian theological anthropology” (9). But, he goes on to argue:

That most emphatically does not mean that everything we may say theologically about human persons must be derived from an analysis of the metaphysics of the incarnation. The argument of this chapter does not warrant an ontological christocentrism, as though the very being of human persons is constituted by and revealed in the being of the Son of God incarnate. (66)

Instead of deriving everything directly from Christology, Kelsey argues that theological anthropology is indirectly christocentric. Insofar as our understanding of Jesus informs our understanding of the Trinity, and insofar as anthropology has a fundamentally trinitarian framework, then anthropology is indirectly christocentric.

For Kelsey, what makes an anthropology distinctively theological and Christian is that it begins with the fact that the triune God as revealed in and through the incarnate Christ has chosen to be related to human beings in creation, redemption, and consummation. The task of theological anthropology is to understand what exactly is implied about human beings in making these claims.


About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on July 7, 2010, in Anthropology, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Thank you for this post, very informative and I look forward to the next.

  2. Okay, I went backwards; I just read the post dealing with pneumotology, and then this one.

    It seems like he fails to deal with the imago Christi/Dei dialectic; and that he relegates the Incarnation to a level of epistemic significance, but not ontological for humanity. In other words, to say that . . . The argument of this chapter does not warrant an ontological christocentrism, as though the very being of human persons is constituted by and revealed in the being of the Son of God incarnate. . . . seems to not appreciate the archetypical nature of the Son as THE imago dei (cf. Col 1) wherein humanity can be said to find its image in Christ, and in fact relation to the “divine image” (within the Trinitarian koinonia).

    I don’t think I agree with his point here (at least through the short blurb you’ve provided).

    • He actually argues early in volume 1 and then more explicitly in an appendix that the imago Dei should not be our starting point for developing a theological anthropology. I decided to wait until I got to the appendix to engage this argument, so I haven’t written much about it yet. But I’ll get there. And, yes, he would reject the idea that the imago Dei means that we need to develop an ontological account of humanity from Christology. He does place much more of an emphasis on the epistemological and soteriological significance of the incarnation, contending that the historical and ontological particularity of Jesus prevents us from trying to develop an ontologically christocentric approach to humanity.

      • Interesting. Of course I disagree with his points on “history” precluding our ability to develop a ‘Christ conditioned’ anthropology; since in fact, it is “His-[s]tory” which actually dictates how we understand Him as the imposing category in the first place (see Torrance’s “Incarnation”). This was what my point on Ebionism was getting at in my other comment, on the other post.

      • Actually, he wouldn’t say that history precludes developing a “Christ conditioned” anthropology. He actually argues very strongly that a Christian anthropology should be christocentric. It’s a specifically ontological christocentrism like you find in Maximus and even Barth that he seems opposed to.

  3. That’s too bad, then. I noticed in the other post that you said he talks about an “indirect” christocentric anthropology. To me this seems to be a semantic move with no real substance behind it. What does an “indirect” christocentrism (anthropology) look like? And how does this have any meaning in regards to developing an actual Christ-conditioned anthropology that is grounded in Christ’s humanity for us (which I’m sure he would disagree with the language I just used).

    I think he has a problem from the get-go; viz. if he opposes Barth. Although I must say, I find TFT’s work on anthropology and vicariousness even more substantial than Barth in this regard.

    What do you think about TFT, Marc?

    • I’ve always appreciated TFT, though I have to say that I should know far more about him than I actually do. I had intended to dig into his theology more deeply after I finished my PhD, but life intervened. Still, I’ve appreciated what I’ve read and I’m currently working through his lectures on the atonement and the incarnation.

      • I know, life is so frustrating that way 😉 !

        Incarnation/Atonement are great. If the Lord ever allows me to do a PhD it will have something to do with TFT with his conversation partners — Barth and Calvin . . . trying to figure out how to make all that happen (would you pray about that for me, Marc . . . it almost seems like a funny thing to ask prayer for, but I’m serious about moving forward on this [getting a PhD, that is]).

      • Nothing funny about that at all. Doctoral work is a pretty significant step and well worth praying about. Thanks for sharing that.

  1. Pingback: Eccentric Existence 12 (the Spirit) « scientia et sapientia

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