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God’s Many Splendored Image

Many thanks to Baker Academic for sending me a review copy of Nonna Verna Harrison’s God’s Many – Image: Theological Anthropology for Christian Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010).

This book focuses on presenting an understanding of theological anthropology drawn almost exclusively from the works of early Greek Christian thinkers. In this way, Harrison hopes to present a much more positive, holistic, and prophetic (teleological) understanding of human nature, in contrast to what she sees as the unfortunately negative and sin-bound image of humanity so common in western theology. So, she approaches each of the chapters in the book by showing how these early Greek thinkers provide resources for seeing each in ways that are importantly different from traditional, western anthropologies. (Her description of western theology is a bit of a caricature in places.)

Harrison’s book stands apart from other works on theological anthropology for at least three reasons. First, the book’s dialog partners. Most theological anthropologies try to engage a much  more comprehensive array of perspectives. Harrison’s exclusive focus on early Greek theology provides a much more focused perspective. That makes this book somewhat less helpful as an overall introduction to theological anthropology, though still helpful to that end. But, this also makes the book very interesting as an introduction to Greek theology and its particular perspective on humanity. Second, the book’s topics. Along with the expected chapters on freedom, christocentrism, the imago Dei, and embodiment, Harrison also has chapters on spiritual perception, virtues and humility, the arts, and community. These surprising inclusions help set the book apart and keep it from getting bogged down in topics that have been thoroughly explored elsewhere. And, third, the book’s readability. Given the book’s subject matter and dialog partners, I expected a much more technical work. Instead, this book is very clear and easy to read. It could easily be used in a classroom to introduce students to theological anthropology or the theology of the Greek fathers.

The book does have some drawbacks. The one that I noticed right away was more a reflection of my expectations that any inherent weakness in the book. I had anticipated that Harrison would dig more deeply into the theology of the Greek fathers and the unique characteristics of their anthropologies. Instead, Harrison presents a work that is suitable for a more general audience.

The second drawback is related to the first. Since Harrison tends to skim the surface in this book, she devotes relatively little attention to the important differences between the various anthropologies of the Greek fathers. Instead, she tends to focus on the common denominators that unite them. This contributes to an unfortunate tendency at times to present Greek theology as more monolithic than it actually was.

Third, I was frustrated that there was little-to-no critical interaction with these Greek fathers. Harrison focuses almost exclusively on presenting their anthropological insights, taking no time to wrestle with potential criticisms or inadequacies. If you’re looking for deeper analysis or more meaningful engagement with the Greek fathers, you’ll need to look elsewhere.

And, finally, although I appreciated her emphasis on a more positive and holistic anthropology, I would disagree with the direction in which she takes it at times. Early in the book, she summarizes the good news of such an anthropology in this way:

Surely the good news is that God created us with an inherent capacity for goodness, and Christ can help us, little by little, to learn to do good for others so that over time and with the help of divine grace we can become good. (5)

It may well be that she intended this to be read with the assumption that this all functions within the context of grace. But that shouldn’t be assumed. Without a clearer articulation of grace, this self-help explanation of the good news can hardly be adequate to the theology of the Greek fathers or the good news of the Bible.

Despite this drawbacks, I would definitely recommend this as a readable and interesting introduction to theological anthropology (used in conjunction with some other work) and/or the theology of the Greek fathers.