[We’re continuing our series on David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology.]
With chapter 12, Kelsey is ready to move on the second part of his 3-part approach to theological anthropology. As we discussed a while back, Kelsey takes an intentionally Trinitarian approach to theological anthropology: “It is the Father who creates through the Son in the power of the Spirit; it is the Spirit, sent by the Father with the Son, who draws creatures to eschatological consummation; it is the Son, sent by the Father in the power of the Spirit, who reconciles creatures” (122). Having completed his reflections on God relating to create as Father, he is now ready to move into his discussion of God relating to draw his creatures to eschatological consummation as Spirit.
And, since Kelsey sees each of these three perspectives as different narratives with their own narrative logic, each also serves as a legitimate starting point for a theological anthropology. They are all “equi-primordial” (449). In other words, for Kelsey, you basically have to start the anthropological enterprise over again every time you move from one narrative to another. Having recounted the basic shape of a theological anthropology told from the perspective of creation, Kelsey now wants to narrate a theological anthropology from the perspective of eschatology. Thus, “part 2 promotes an analogous set of anthropological proposals that are held accountable to canonical Christian Holy Scripture’s narrative of God relating to all that is not God to draw it to eschatological consummation.” And, for Kelsey, this means that particular attention must be paid to the role of the Holy Spirit in theological anthropology.
Kelsey argues that a primary function of the Spirit in the NT is to draw humans to eschatological consummation and that this “is an aspect of creatures’ most embracing and most necessary context” (443). As part of humanity’s ultimate context, human persons simply cannot be understood adequately apart form an understanding of the Spirit in his relation to human beings and their destiny. This in itself is notable in Kelsey’s theological anthropology. Many anthropological projects make no effort to reflect on the importance of pneumatology for anthropology. And, Kelsey does more than any other recent theological anthropology that I am aware of to probe what this might actually mean for the shape and content of a truly Christian theological anthropology. Thus, although Kelsey was clear at the very beginning that theological anthropology must be christocentric, it is also quite evident that he thinks this christocentric shape requires a strongly pneumatological emphasis as well. (Indeed, Kelsey’s work serves as a great example of the fact that a truly christocentric theology will always also be both trinitarian and pneumatological. Done well, there is no real tension between these.)
As we’ve noted several times in our discussion of this book, Kelsey is fond of complexity. At least, he’s very comfortable with it, and he feels no need to reduce the complexity by offering systematic ways of organizing complex data. And, this is no exception. So, surveying the NT data, Kelsey concludes that there is no simple way of categorizing the diverse ways in which the Spirit relates to human beings.
New Testament texts, both by the structure of their narratives and by the metaphors they employ, characterize the Spirit’s way of relating to human persons in a wide and not entirely consistent variety of ways. However, a certain bipolar pattern is consistent. The Spirit is regularly characterized both as persons’ environing context always already there and enveloping them, and as intimately interior to them. (444)
This bipolar pattern will guide much of Kesley’s reflections. He reflects on the many ways in which the Spirit serves as one who is always-already shaping our proximate contexts while at the same time shaping us as human persons in the most intimate ways. Thus, unlike other anthropologians who take the time to reflect on the significance of pneumatology for anthropology, Kelsey does not do so by reflecting exclusively on how the Spirit affects the “inner” person. Indeed, Kelsey rejects any such simple dichotomy between inner and outer.
Unsurprisingly, Kelsey argues throughout that this pneumatological approach requires us to see both the “already” and the “not yet” of human being. Although the Spirit is already with us as both proximate and ultimate context, the fact that the Spirit is the one drawing us toward eschatological consummation means that there must always be some element of futurity in the Spirit’s relation to us.
Finally, the fact that the Spirit comes as both gift and promise means that we can rule out any idea that the human person alone has the responsibility to bring about the eschatological consummation through his or her own efforts.
The adventus character of eschatological blessing rules out use of metaphors of human creaturely action to build or co-create the eschatological kingdom of God. It also rules out use of metaphors of a cosmic physical or spiritual evolution into the eschatological kingdom. (453)
We certainly have a role to play in our own development, but the gift-character of the Spirit and the already/not yet nature of eschatological consummation means that we must anticipate the future as gift and promise. Grace is not an addendum to nature, but has been there from the very beginning.
[We’re continuing our series on David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology.]
For Kelsey, living faithfully before God in the quotidian is “dying life.” As finite beings, we are constantly poised on the edge of death, constantly dependent upon God, the source of life. As we respond faithfully to God in our context, we flourish. But, if we respond unfaithfully before God, “dying life” turns into “living death” (402).
The Nature of Evil
Kelsey makes a very helpful distinction here between “sin” and “evil.” For Kelsey, evil is anything that violates the integrity of God’s creatures:
Evil may be understood as a violation of creatures….It is a violation of what the violated ones are, either as instances of some natural kind or as individuals in their particularity. (403)
It is, therefore, anything that hinders the “well being” of God’s creatures and prevents them from being and doing everything that God created them to be and do. But, it’s important for Kelsey that evil does cause creatures to become any less creaturely. That is, we are still God’s creatures, possessing dignity and (potentially) serving to manifest his glory in the world. Thus, he critiques the Augustinian notion that sin should be understood as a “privation of being” because he thinks it suggests a diminution of our creaturehood. Instead, he argues that we should see evil as distortion rather than privation. (I’m not entirely certain that this is as different from the Augustinian notion as he suggests, but the distinction is still helpful.) And, since we remain God’s creatures, we retain our dignity and purpose despite the ravages of evil:
evil may be said to damage their well-being but not to damage their flourishing as God’s glory….Consequently, violation of their creaturely integrities in no way undercuts human cretures’ dignity and their inherent claim on their neighbors for unconditional respect. On the other hand, the fact that who they are and how they are able to be is also the glory of God becomes very ambiguous and obscure when they are violated by evil. (407)
And, Kelsey rightly points out that when our existence has been distorted by evil (either our own or others’) it often takes on a life of its own, resisting efforts at amelioration and spreading to those around us. So, the violated becomes violator and the death spiral continues.
The Nature of Sin
Sin, on the other hand, is best defined as “living foolishly in distorted faith” (408). Thus, “Sin is folly – that is, an inappropriate response to the triune God relating to us creatively” (408). Unlike evil, then, which primarily has to do with the impact that we have on our fellow creatures, sin is theocentric; it refers exclusively to our faith response to God.
In one of my favorite sections, Kelsey addresses the origin of sin in the world. He adopts the Kierkegaardian notion that “sin posits itself” and argues that we cannot “explain” why sin entered the world.
Every theological explanation of how sin entered creation either turns out to be circular, presupposing the very thing it sets out to explain, or explains it away by reclassifying it as another type of evil. (410)
Thus, the origin of sin is a “mystery.”
Sin is a type of negative mystery. It is not mystery in the sense of something in principle explicable but about which we present have insufficient information for an explanation. Nor is it mystery in the sense of something too richly complex for our finite minds to be able to grasp its rationale. Rather it is mystery in the sense of something undeniable real but a-rational, without cause or reason. (411)
The Origin of Sin
Although the entrance of sin into the world is a mystery, Kelsey affirms that human existence as we now have it is sinful. He agrees that we all act in sinfully distorted ways that renders us guilty before God. But, he goes further and affirms that there is a deeper sense in which we are all sinful before God. And, Kelsey rejects any suggestion that our sinfulness comes through some kind of genetic connection to Adam and Eve. Instead, he seems to argue that we are born into a sinful state because we are born into quotidian relationships that are already sinfully distorted. Thus, our own existential “how” is distorted from the very beginning.
every personal body is born into an everyday world that is already constituted by exchanges of giving and receiving among personal bodies whose existential hows and personal identities are sinful. (435)
So, we enter the world sinful because we are always already in sinfully distorted relationships. But, Kelsey argues that this doesn’t necessarily mean that we are “guilty” (i.e. morally culpable) from the beginning. Instead, he argues that impurity and shame are much better descriptions of our sinful state at birth:
However, I suggest, the objective status one enters by violating relationship with God by responding inappropriately to God’s creative relating might better be designated by impurity before God than by guilt before God. Subjective awareness of this status might better be described as feeling shame rather than feeling (subjective) guilt. (436)
Thus, we have the status of being “sinful” at birth and are always-already subject to the dynamics of a sinful world, but we don’t become morally culpable until we begin to express our own existential hows in sinfully distorted ways.
Sins vs. Sin
That gets us to Kelsey’s explanation of the difference between “sins” and “sin.” For Kelsey, sin in the plural refers to the “distortions of faith’s existential hows” (412). In the previous post, we discussed the ways in which we are to respond faithfully to God in our everyday context (existential hows). Now, Kelsey argues that “sins” are the myriad (infinite?) ways in which those faith responses can be distorted. So, practices of delight become sentimental practices; practices of wonder become exploitative practices; and practices of perseverance become practices of self-abegnation. For each, Kelsey offers insightful discussions of the ways in which sinful practices actually mirror faithful practices.
Sin in the singular, on the other hand, is “best understood as a living human body’s personal identity distorted in an inappropriate trusting response to God relating to her creatively” (422). Thus, for Kelsey, sin (in the singular) is more about one’s identity than one’s practices (though the two are ultimately inseparable).
When their quotidian personal identities are defined by acknowledgement of some aspect of their quotidian proximate contexts as the basis of their reality and value, their personal identities are distorted in a bondage of limitless dependence on that by which they consider their identities to be defined, whatever it may be. (424)
The key here is that when we allow our identities to be fundamentally grounded in creaturely realities, as opposed to the Creator, we get involved in relationships of “limitless dependence” (427). Since neither party is capable of fully meeting the needs of the other, the relationship lapses into a never-ending spiral of dependency, ultimately undermining the true existence of both. Thus, instead of being eccentric beings, fully and fundamentally defined by our relationship to the Creator, we become “deficiently eccentric” (426), locked into our finite and sinfully distorted relationships.
Up to this point, Kelsey hasn’t really addressed the question of what exactly it means to be human. He has argued strongly that we can only understand the human in light of the threefold narrative (creation, redemption, restoration) and the three persons of the Trinity. He then moved on to argue that we need to view the human person in light of two basic contexts: the ultimate context (Creator/creature) and the proximate context (everyday life). But, he has yet to tell us what he thinks a human is. That by itself should tell you that for Kelsey being human is far more about relationship and function than it is about ontology. Nonetheless, he recognizes that ontology is an important category for theological anthropology.
1. Scientific Perspectives
Since the human person is a creaturely being, it can and must be understood scientifically as well as theologically. And, from a scientific perspective, Kelsey argues that we should be viewed as physical beings who are “self-regulating sets of energy systems” (i.e. “living”). And, he contends that we need to take seriously what science tells us about the death, predation, and evolution as necessary for the health of a living system.
He also argues that the best scientific definition of a human person through DNA. If you have human DNA, you’re human. If not, you’re not. Nice and simple.
Of course, these scientific perspectives don’t cover everything that needs to be said about the human person. But, Kelsey does think that theological anthropology cannot ignore or downplay these perspectives. So, though his anthropology will transcend these basic scientific descriptions, they will remain important aspects of his overall picture.
2. The Nine Core Themes of a Wisdom Anthropology
Kelsey continues to argue that our anthropology should be normed by the creation perspective of the wisdom literature. And, here he identifies nine normative themes for theological anthropology:
“What God creates in a human being’s having been born is a living body that is (1) a gift; (2) actual (in contradistinction to ‘possible’ or ‘potential’); (3) related to creatively by God in ways appropriate to its distinctively creaturely powers, but on par with God’s relating to every other kind of creature in regard to the freedom and intimacy of God’s creative relating; (4) classified as ‘human’ by its genetic structure; (5) constantly changing and developing; (6) inherently a center of a variety of powers; (7) finite in its powers; (8) inherently ‘mysterious’ in the sense of being inexhaustibly complex both epistemically and ontologically; and (9) by virtue of God’s creative relating, ‘good’.” (250)
It would take too long to unpack all of these, so I’ll highlight a couple of things I liked. First, he did a good job of unpacking the way that God accommodates to humanity’s creaturely capacity and identifying humanity as both unique in creation (by virtue of humanity’s particular relationship to the Creator) and yet still fully a part of creation. I also liked his discussion of “mystery.” He was careful not to let this get out of hand. But he did a nice job pointing out that if our anthropology is going to have a Trinitarian structure, there will be a necessary element of mystery. And, I liked the fact that the “good” of humanity lay in God’s creative relationship to humanity, rather than some inherent quality of human nature.
Probably my main objection in this section was his discussion of the human being as “actual” in contradistinction to “potential.” He rightly points out that we should not talk in terms of “potential” or “possible” human beings. Something either is or is not human. So, we don’t properly talk about an unfertilized egg and a sperm as a potential human being. Sure, there’s a sense in which the potentiality is there, but in actuality they are an egg and a sperm, not a human being.
The question, then, is when is it appropriate to speak about the existence of a human being? And Kelsey’s answer is that according to the wisdom literature a human being exists when it is “created as an actual living human body able to live apart from the body of its mother, although not apart from a complex physical and social network that is the newborn, newly created human being’s necessary life support system” (255). So, the idea of “having been born” along with the presence of human DNA is what constitutes an actual human person:
Apart from it shaving been born, it has not yet been created, although other creatures with human DNA may have been created – tissues of living human cells, an actual zygote, an actual embryo, an actual fetus – that were the potentialities of an actual living human body having been born. (264)
“’Having been born’ is the marker by which actual living human creatures are distinguishable from potential living human creatures” (264).
I’ll set aside for a second that I don’t agree with him on when we should talk about the existence of an actual (vs. potential) human person. My main criticism is that I’m not clear on how this argument fits within his own framework. Everything up to this point has suggested that he defines a human primarily in terms of (1) the Creator/creature relationship; (2) quotidian relationships; and (3) embodiment and DNA. All three of these would seem to be present well before the fetus emerges from the womb. It is true that the “unborn” human does not exercise all the capacities of a fully developed human being, but many that we would want to call “actual” human persons also do not display these capacities (newborns, disabled, unconscious, etc.). So, it would seem that the framework he’s presented would actually provide more support for seeing an actual human being before that human being emerges from the womb.
So, why doesn’t he? I think it’s because of the limiting framework of the wisdom literature he’s operating in. Let’s assume for a moment that he’s understood the wisdom literature correctly. We really should be surprised that literature focused on “everyday life” emphasizes the human person as a being at work in the world. But I think this is another example of the way in which the creation narrative is subtly twisted by its location within another narrative – here a narrative of the quotidian.
The other context important for understanding human persons is that of our creaturely context – i.e. the world in which we find ourselves. And, since Kelsey prioritizes the wisdom literature, this means that he is going to analyze our creaturely context primarily by considering the everyday world of the wisdom writers.
He’s aware, though, that creaturely contexts vary wildly from one place to another and that it is, therefore, impossible to privilege one finite context as paradigmatic for all the others. So, rather than “absolutizing the quotidian” (193) of the wisdom literature, Kelsey instead seeks lessons from the wisdom literature applicable to all everyday realities. This means that our hermeneutic cannot move directly from the exhortations of the wisdom literature to specific practices in our own context. Instead, we have to understand why and how these constituted wise living in that creaturely context, so that we can be challenged to live similarly wisdom-shaped lives in our own context.
Our creaturely context also serves as the context for our most fundamental vocation. God created humans to live for the well being of one another and all creation. The “wisdom” of the wisdom literature, then, portrays primarily a way of living that seeks the well being of one’s whole environment. That is our vocation.
“This means that the very context into which we are born has the force of a vocation regarding our practices: human creatures are born into a vocation, called to be wise in their practices.” (194)
Once again, the literature provides more of a general shape for understanding that vocation than specific details regarding how vocation should be lived out.
Kelsey argues that emphasizing our creaturely context as viewed through the wisdom literature has three consequences.
1. Intrinsic limitations on anthropology
The fact that we can only understand humans as they exist in actual creaturely contexts means that there can be no absolute model for true humanity.
“the real and authentic human being is the ordinary, everyday human person….It is important because it warrants on theological grounds the abandonment of the notion of a perfect or the perfectly actualized human being.” (204)
Kelsey rejects the idea that even Adam/Eve and Jesus should be seen in this way. As we’ve seen, Kelsey does not believe that we should build our understanding of humanity from the Genesis narratives. And, while Jesus certainly modeled faithful humanity in his context, this is far different from being an almost platonic exemplar of perfect humanity. The other option for creating a more theoretical understanding of true humanity would be through the motif of the imago Dei. As we’ll see when we discuss the appendices to the work, though, Kelsey rejects this approach as well.
So, for Kelsey, we have no absolute model for true humanity. And, he thinks this frees us from an unhealthy attempt to strive toward some unrealizable, perfect standard.
“The idea that one might be a perfect human person who lacks nothing in regard to one’s human personhood presupposes that there is (a) a single scale of possible degrees of completeness which is (b) comprehensive of all the relevant respects in which a human person might be complete….and presupposes (c) that there is a ‘true’ self awaiting actualization, perhaps deep within, which serves as the norm by which to assess how fully self-actualization has occurred.” (205)
The intrinsic limits of a quotidian anthropology, then, constrict us to pursuing faithful humanity in our own everyday world, rather than pursuing an abstract and unachievable ideal.
2. Extrinsic limits on anthropology
I’ll say less about this, but Kelsey also points out that an emphasis on the everyday world means that we need to pay attention to the limitations that are placed upon us by our context. We are finite beings, bounded by the people and circumstances into which we are born. So, wise and faithful living will be shaped by our quotidian realities.
3. The ambiguous nature of our everyday existence
Finally, Kelsey contends that the wisdom literature portrays the quotidian as inherently ambiguous in several ways. At the very least it’s ambiguous because we’re finite beings living in diverse contexts. That means that discerning what “wise living” looks like in any given quotidian will be a challenging task. Further, humanity is ambiguous because we lack that abstract ideal that can show us what true humanity should look like. And, most significantly, the quotidian is ambiguous because of sin and evil.
This last point gets considerable attention from Kelsey. In a manner very similar to his discussion of creation, Kelsey argues that the wisdom literature makes no attempt at offering a theodicy. (He reads Job as dealing with the reality of sin, not explaining its existence.) Instead, it takes the reality of sin and evil for granted, and offers a way of living wisely in broken contexts. This means that the anthropology we have in the wisdom literature shows humans as acting in community, but in ways that often have correspondingly negative consequences for other people. For Kelsey, acting in the quotidian is always ambiguous because all such actions are embedded in broken realities and result in or contribute to sinful world structures.
The upshot of all this is that we are left without any clear picture of what it means to be truly human in any given quotidian. We can look at the life of Christ as model of what it looks like for one particular human to live a wise and faithful life in his everyday world, but that can only provide the shape and not the details of what it means for me to live a fully human life in my quotidian.
According to Kelsey, if we’re going to understand what it means to be humans, we need to understand our context as created beings. As we saw in the last post, Kelsey thinks that the wisdom literature provides the best perspective on a biblical view of creation. So, Kelsey builds his understanding of our creation context primarily through the lens of those books (esp. Proverbs and Job).
Kelsey makes a helpful distinction between our “ultimate” and “proximate” contexts as created beings. Our ultimate context is that we are creatures fundamentally dependent on our Creator, our proximate context is our relationship to the rest of creation. Both are important for understanding what it means to be human.
Our ultimate context is defined by the Creator/creature relationship. And, for Kelsey this is primarily characterized by “hospitable generosity, free delight, and self-determining commitment” (163). “In this delighted freedom and free delighting, God is hospitably generous, giving reality other than God time and space to be itself, genuinely other than God” (165). This means at leats three things.
- The Wisdom literature presents a God who relates freely to creation. He is not under any constraint to create, but he is comletely free in his sovereign self-determination. At the same time, he chooses to relate to his creation through the “rhetoric of ‘address'” (166). So, he he expresses his freedom as a freedom to be in relation to the “other” that he has created.
- This “other” that he has created is not simply an extension of himself or another expression of himself. Rather, God chooses to create time and space within which creation can be truly “other” to God. This necessarily involves a kind of divine self-limitation, the kind necessary for creation to have real being, capable of signifianct freedom, and able to enter into meaningful relationships.
- Because of the Trinity, we understand that the idea of relating-to-another is intrinsic to Godself. “The triune God’s own reality as a life constituted by the dynamic of a self-giving that is productive of the genuinely-other-in-communion is itself the condition of the possibility of God’s relating creatively to reality that is at once other than God (in a different mode of otherness) and in intimate communion” (168).
Kelsey builds a lot of this off of his analysis of Wisdom as “a creature paradigmatic of the triune God’s way of relating to all creatures” (170). The relationship between the triune God and the paradigmatic creature Wisdom, thus, exemplifies God in his free self-giving to creation. And, he also sees in the emphasis on Wisdom and declaration that God relates creatively to the world in an orderly way that renders creation “sufficiently orderly to be a reliable context in which living creatures can adapt themselves to it, sustain themselves in it, and make their way toward enhanced well-being” (172). And, this leads to the second context, which we’ll discuss in the next post.
We are looking at David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence. In the last post, we saw that Kelsey argues that what makes an anthropology distinctively Christian and theological is the fact that it begins with the claim that the triune God as revealed primarily in and through Jesus Christ relates to human beings in creation, redemption, and consummation. Thus, Christian theological anthropology is Trinitarian, christocentric, and oriented around these three relations. Before we move from the introductory material into the main argument of the book, it will be helpful to understand the four main ways in which this Trinitarian framework shapes the content of a theological anthropology.
Relations and Community
Kelsey spends a fair amount of time discussing the shift that takes place after Nicea from an emphasis on the economic Trinity to the immanent Trinity. In the process, theologians began to spend much more time reflecting on the perichoretic nature of the triune relations. And, this has implications for the way that we develop a theological anthropology guided by these Trinitarian reflections.
The character of God’s eternal life privileges a distinct set of images for the type of existential ‘how’ that constitutes human flourishing. The communion in self-giving love that constitutes God’s life presupposes and requires that the beloved is an irreducibly other reality than the lover. Indeed, such communion nurtures the flourishing of the beloved precisely as other. (72)
So, even without predetermining the actual content of a theological anthropology, this Trinitarian framework indicates that its basic shape will privilege relationship and community in its vision of human flourishing.
Kelsey is actually rather cautious about introducing the idea of mystery into his discussion of theological anthropology. He warns,
Although Karl Barth grumped that ‘transcendence’ is the most tedious concept in theology, ‘mystery’ is surely a close runner-up, so loosely is it commonly used. (72)
Tightening up the definition significantly, he argues that properly used “mystery” refers exclusively to God himself. He alone is the true mystery. But, insofar as a Christian theology begins its understanding of the human person by looking to this essentially mysterious God, there will always be an element of “openness” and “transcendence” in theological anthropology. Since he’s written over 1,000 pages on the subject, this obviously doesn’t mean that Kelsey doesn’t think we can say anything constructive about the human person. But, as we will see, he does think that there is a lot about our understanding of human beings that must remain “open.” Indeed, we will see that he thinks we can say a lot about the shape of human flourishing in the world, but he is quite reticent to offer much in the way of particular content. And, much of that is driven by the fact that God himself is ultimately mysterious.
And, that segues nicely into the third feature of his Trinitarian anthropology. For Kelsey, the Trinitarian relations provide the key for understanding human flourishing.
Therein lay its anthropological implications, for it defines human flourishing. By such engagement humans are called to analogous life which is their flourishing. Their flourishing lay in a community in communion analogous to that of the triune God, marked by mystery – that is, by analogous glory, incomprehensibility, and holiness, analogous to that of the triune God. (77-78)
As we’ll see throughout the discussion, Kelsey does not think that everything we need to say about the human person can be derived directly from Christology or the doctrine of the Trinity. He indicates at the very beginning of the work that he has a high view of what non-theological anthropologies can provide to our understanding of human beings. But, he does think that the Trinity offers the only legitimate starting point for a Christian understanding of human flourishing.
The Three Relations that Constitute Theological Anthropology
As I’ve mentioned several times, the entire shape of Kelsey’s theological anthropology is driven by the three ways in which God relates himself to humanity—creation, redemption, and consummation. A proper understanding of the Trinity, though, nuances these relations in two important ways.
First, each of these three relations involves all three persons of the Trinity, but with their own distinct pattern.
Formulated abstractly, these differences of pattern are the following: It is the Father who creates through the Son in the power of the Spirit; it is the Spirit, sent by the Father with the Son, who draws creatures to eschatological consummation; it is the Son, sent by the Father in the power of the Spirit, who reconciles creatures. (122)
So, as Kelsey unpacks the significance of each relation for understanding anthropology, he will need to pay close attention to these distinctive Trinitarian patterns.
Second, he also argues that although all three of these relations are fundamentally important, we do need to notice several important “asymmetries” in these relations.
- God’s relating to create is ontologically prior to and logically independent from the other two relations. The idea that God creates human beings does not necessarily entail that he will need to redeem them or consummate his creation in any way. But, for there to be anything for him to redeem or consummate, he must already have created. So, stories of creation will have a certain primacy in developing a theological anthropology. Though never in a way that undermines the significance of the other two.
- God’s relating to consummate and God’s relating to reconcile as “complexly interrelated” (122). In other words, there is a sense in which stories about the redemption of humanity and the consummation of God’s redemptive plans for humanity are intertwined and inseparable. This means that the two will be mutually informing in the context of a theological anthropology.
- Nonetheless, stories of redemption and consummation remain distinct stories, and neither should be subsumed under the other. There is a sense in which the idea consummation is logically independent of redemption. That is, it is conceptually to tell a story about bringing creation to its proper consummation without implying that it has fallen and is in need of redemption. On the other hand, stories of redemption seem necessarily depending on stories of consummation. That is, a story about redemption would seem to imply some story about the completion of that redemptive process.
- So, although each of these stories needs to remain independent of the other and should be told with its own narrative logic, there is a complex pattern of relationships among the three stories that influences the way each will function in developing a theological 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.
David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence undoubtedly ranks as one of the most significant works in theological anthropology of the last several decades. Indeed, I recently heard it described as the most significant theological work of the last decade. I’m still assessing whether I think it warrants that kind of praise, but such a comment does highlight one important feature of the book. Although its primary focal point is theological anthropology, Kelsey ranges broadly enough in his discussions that very few areas of theology are left untouched. Thus, it bears close consideration from anyone interested in contemporary theology.
The basic shape of Eccentric Existence runs as follows:
- Part One – Created: Living on Borrowed Breath
- Part Two – Consummated: Living on Borrowed Time
- Part Three – Reconciled: Living by Another’s Dream
The first volume comprises the introduction and the first two parts, with the last part and the coda reserved for the second volume.
The created/consummated/reconciled framework is fundamental for how Kelsey understands the nature of a truly Christian theological anthropology, and we’ll look more closely at this in subsequent posts.
Another interesting structural feature of the book is the use of multiple “small print” chapters. Kelsey routinely introduces key ideas in the main part of his argument (e.g. the anthropological centrality of wisdom literature), developing them just enough for the reader to understand what he means and why these ideas are important for his argument. But, he’ll often refrain from offering an extended discussion and defense of these ideas within the course of the argument itself. Instead, he’ll reserve that work for his small print chapters, which then function like really long footnotes. Of the 25 main chapters in the book, nearly half are accompanied by such small print discussions.
James K. A. Smith recently commented on Eccentric Existence and offered the following as a suggested reading plan for engaging the book.
If I were crafting a multiyear reading program for Eccentric Existence, I would recommend the following strategies to help non-theologians wade into its deep waters: On the first reading, I would suggest skipping (or merely skimming) those chapters set in smaller font. They are generally pursuing more technical questions and, at least on a first reading, can be treated as asides—though returning to them on a second reading will yield fruit for nontheologians, too. For an orientation, Introductions 1A, 2A, and 3A are necessary reading. The crucial chapter for understanding the architectonic of the book is chapter 3A. But I would also recommend that, relatively early (perhaps after reading 3A), readers skip to the final Coda (of three) at the end of the book: “Eccentric Existence as Imaging the Image of God” (pp. 1008-1051). This reads almost as an independent treatise (if one is familiar with chapter 3A) and does two important things: first, it explains how the three narratives of God relation’s to humanity are intertwined in Christ (as the image of God), and second, it explains why Kelsey does not use the imago Dei as the orienting image for his project. The latter is especially important given the prominence of appeals to “the image of God” in Christian scholarship.
This two-volume project runs to over a thousand pages by the time he’s done, so it will be impossible for me to survey everything that he addresses with any kind of adequacy. Instead, I will follow Kelsey reading plan to some extent. First, I’ll trace Kelsey’s argument through the main chapters of the book. Then, I’ll go back and comment on some of the more important/interesting small print chapters. And, finally, I’ll comment on the codas at the end of the book.