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.
Faith tells us only that God is. Love tells us that God is good. But hope tells us that God will work God’s will. And hope has two lovely daughters: anger and courage. Anger so that what cannot be, may not be. And courage, so that what must be will be.
St. Augustine (cited by David Kelsey in Eccentric Existence, vol. 1, p. 501)
- Koinonia lists its readers favorite blogs. Congratulations to Nick for getting a lot of love in the list.
- The annual Barth conference is underway at Princeton. Halden has posted on it here along with an excerpt from Nate Kerr’s paper.
- Peter Enns has finished his series on reading Genesis 1-2 in light of other creation stories.
- James Smith gives a few thoughts on David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence from a forthcoming review article that he’s doing. From these excerpts, I think it would be quite an understatement to say that he likes the book.
- Ben Myers comments on his experience reading Bonhoeffer over the last couple of years, along with some brief thoughts on three new books.
- And, here’s a BBC story about the discovery of an ancient Egyptian city that they think might have been the Hyksos capital. (HT Evangel)
I will soon (finally) begin posting some thoughts on Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence. To get the ball rolling, I thought I’d post a few excerpts that will help you get a feel for his project.
Kelsey consistently emphasizes that a theological anthropology must be centered on Jesus Christ: “the way Christians understand these matters is shaped in some way by their beliefs about Jesus Christ and God’s relation to him. That is ultimately what qualifies theological answers proposed to anthropological questions as authentically Christian theological anthropology” (9).
But, he also wants to be clear that he doesn’t think this christocentric approach minimizes the importance of the Trinity or subsumes anthropology ontologically or epistemologically into Christology.
[W]hat we say will be christocentric, albeit only indirectly so. That most empatically does not mean that everything we may say theologicall about human persons must be derived from an analysis of the metaphysics of the incarnation. The argument…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.
Indeed, so far as I can see, it is not necessary for most of the material content of Christian theological claims about human personhoodto have any privileged sources such as revelation, whether in Jesus Christ or elsewhere – though, of course, some of it may do so. Having a religiously privileged source for its content is not what makes an anthropology ‘theological’.
Rather, what makes anthropological claims Christianly theological is that the selection of their contents, and the way that they are framed, are normed by claims about God relating to us, when God is understood in a Trinitarian way. And such Trinitarian understandings of God are cognitively christocentric. (65-66)
The precise way in which he unpacks and utilizes this christological methodology will be the focus of some of my more expanded comments later.
I have finally decided that it’s time to start working my way through David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology (WJK, 2009). I’ve decided to call this Kelsey’s longum opus. With two volumes and 1,694 pages, I should be finished reading it by 2015. He even takes after Barth and includes quite a few “small print” excurses.
I will post some thoughts on the book as I work my way throw, mostly as a point of accountability to make sure that I persevere. Feel free to make fun of me if I let quite a bit of time lapse between posts.