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Flotsam and jetsam (9/24)

Okay, I tried “Morning Links” for a while, but that’s just way too boring for me. Besides, Esteban has been riding my case, and I’m afraid he might turn violent if I don’t switch back soon. So, “Flotsam and Jetsam” it is.

Christology and anthropology – a very nice summary of my book

Kyle Strobel has just posted a very nice summary of my book Embodied Souls, Ensouled Bodies: An Exercise in Christological Anthropology and Its Significance for the Mind/Body Debate. This is the published version of my dissertation. So, if you don’t have the time (or the money) to read the whole book, go on over to Theology Forum and check out Kyle’s post. I’d be happy to interact with thoughts/comments/questions there.

By the way, if you’re a Th.M. student involved in this semester’s philosophy and theology class may find this post particularly interesting. My dissertation is really an exercise in philosophical theology and in many ways it displays my understanding of how philosophy and theology interact. When we get a little further along in the class, I’ll be using the mind/body debate to explain my approach to philosophical theology.

Eccentric Existence 14 (hope)

[We’re continuing our series on David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology.]

Throughout this work, Kelsey has emphasized the open-endedness of being human – we are finite, contingent, mysterious, and (in our fallen state) sinfully ambiguous. At the same time, Kelsey has consistently pointed to the fact that we are beings summoned into relationship by God and called (despite the ambiguities) to live faithfully in our everyday realities. As we discussed in the last post, this means that although our action in the world is both important and necessary, any particular actions is wrapped in its own ambiguity. For Kelsey, the confidence that grounds human action lies not in our certainty that a particular action is indeed the “right” thing to do or that it will foster the growth of the Kingdom in the, but in a “joyous hope” that looks to the inbreaking of the Kingdom. For Kelsey, human life in this world seems best described as living faithfully in the midst of an inherently ambiguous world through a joyous hope that God will redeem human action in its ambiguous faithfulness and accomplish his eschatological purposes.

What is “Joyous Hopefulness”?

Kelsey begins his discussion with the following definition of hope:

hope, like faith…, is best construed as personal bodies’ attitude in which they are oriented toward their ultimate and proximate contexts. It is an attitude of expectancy that a good and desired transformation of our quotidian contexts,…now actually begun, will be fully actualized. (501-2)

The hope that Kelsey has in mind, then, is directed both toward God as its object and ground (ultimate context) and the world in which this hope is lived out and fulfilled (proximate context). Any hope that focuses on just one of these two poles will ultimately lapse into something that is sub-Christian and unable to ground meaningful human living.

And, Kelsey further defines Christian hope as that which expresses hope in joy. This “joyous hopefulness” corresponds to the “doxological gratitude” that is the only appropriate and faithful response to the divine summons that constitutes personal identity (see here).

The Public Nature of Hope

The twofold context of joyous hopefulness means that hope must always be public. Kelsey is keen to emphasize that joyous hopefulness cannot be understood merely as “a mode of subjective inwardness” (502). It is not merely a feeling or attitude. Instead, joyous hopefulness is “a disposition to enact certain types of practices publicly”  (502). And, by “disposition” he does not mean some kind of inner attitude that simply motivates human action. That still bifurcates hope from public practice in a way that Kelsey finds unsatisfying. Instead, he argues:

[E]nactments of eschatological hope cannot be defined without reference to the hope they enact. As appropriate response to the public eschatological mission Dei, eschatological hope is best defined as a personal bodies’ orientation that disposes them for enactments of certain practices in public proximate contexts….Joyous hopefulness is a settled and long-lasting attitude. It orients personal bodies in their quotidian contexts as agents, disposing them across extended periods of time to engage in certain types of socially established cooperative human action. (503)

Joyous Hope in an Ambiguous World

But, Kelsey wants to emphasize (yet again) that we live in an inherently ambiguous world and that this means that the possibility of hope does not lie in anything that we see in the world itself, but in the promise-keeping nature of God himself. Hope must always be grounded in our ultimate context or it will co-opted by the finite and sinful social structures and practices of the current age. For Kelsey, “the possibility of such hope lies solely in the actuality of God keeping God’s promise” (504), and never in our attempt to discern the “progress” that we think is taking place around us.

To a large degree, of course, this is because we live in a sinfully broken world. And, short of the eschatological culmination of God’s purposes, our proximate context will always remain sinfully ambiguous. Joyous hope in this age, then, “is a disposition to act hopefully in tyrannical and oppressive circumstances of excessive social and cultural control that appear to offer little possibility for individual human well-being” (504-5).

But, Kelsey also wants to remind us that much of the ambiguity lies in our creaturely finitude.

Hence, eschatological hope is not in the first instance hope despite sin and evil. The disposition to act hopefully is a disposition to act in creaturely quotidian circumstances in ways hopeful of their flourishing in eschatological blessing even when the quotidian happens to be neither chaotic nor especially oppressive, even were it, contrary to fact, not at all distorted by sin and bound in evil. (505)

Joyous hope, then, is a disposition to act publicly in the world, seeking the flourishing of all of God’s creation in faithful response to God’s call and the hopeful expectation “that eschatological blessing will be fully actualized in and upon our proximate contexts” (506). This does not rob human action of meaning, though it does relocate our source of confidence in the meaning of human action.

What does joyous hope look like?

Kelsey, of course, argues that it is impossible to provide a systematic schematization of joyous hopefulness. But, he does argue that it is possible to comment on its general shape.

we must say that in response to God relating to draw them to eschatological consummation, personal bodies’ practices of joyous hopefulness consist of socially established cooperative actions of personal bodies in community that exemplify, however incompletely, the quality of common life that constitutes personal bodies’ eschatological glory. (512)

So,  joyous hopefulness finds expression in “socially established cooperative actions…in community” that seek to model in our everyday realities (to the extent possible) the kind of life that will be characteristic of eschatological glory, which he summarizes briefly as being mysterious, cosmic, finite, contingent, marked by growth and development and by aspects that are both individualistic and communal.

And, though he refuses to describe specific practices since the details need to be worked out by each community in their quotidian, he does offer seven guidelines for such practices:

  1. They should be “utterly realistic” about our quotidian worlds.
  2. They should be holistic, orienting the “entire array of personal bodies’ powers” and shaping them toward eschatologically hopeful practices.
  3. They should cultivate the intellectual disciplines – critical reflection will be necessary to shape and guide these practices in an ambiguous world.
  4. They should discipline the affections – orienting our emotions (affections directed toward some object) in eschatologically hopeful ways.
  5. They should help us learn to be open to the “gift of help” – recognizing our contingency and dependence.
  6. They should direct us toward healthy dependence on others.
  7. They should discipline our “imaginative powers” – seeing the world in ways shaped by eschatological hope.

Again, though, it’s important to emphasize that for Kelsey a practice grounded in joyous hope, and therefore shaped in these seven ways, is not aimed at achieving the liberation of the world and the inbreaking of the Kingdom. We simply can’t accomplish these things and were never intended to. The Kingdom always breaks into the world from “outside” and is always a divine act, a gift. Joyously hopeful practices, on the other hand, are ways of modeling lives shaped by eschatological hope in the midst of finite and sinful ambiguity.

p. 501-2 “hope, like faith…, is best construed as personal bodies’ attitude in which they are oriented toward their ultimate and proximate contexts. It is an attitude of expectancy that a good and desired transformation of our quotidian contexts,…now actually begun, will be fully actualized.”

Eccentric Existence 13 (social action)

[We’re continuing our series on David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology.]

In the previous post, we discussed the pneumatological framework of Kelsey’s theological anthropology. And, we saw that Kelsey presented the Spirit as both gift and promise. The Spirit is both the gracious presence of God with his creation (humanity’s ultimate context) and the promise that God will continue to lead all of creation (humanity’s proximate context) toward its eschatological telos. This immediately raises the question of human action in the world. Do we have any role to play in the eschatological consummation of God’s promised purposes? If so, what is that role and how should we go about it?

The Meaning of Human Action

According to Kelsey, “Perhaps the most important anthropological question about our proximate social contexts is whether historical change…is meaningful” (478). Is there any for us to look at the messy, complex world that we live in, as well as the sin and brokenness that so often accompanies even our most well-intentioned actions, and still come to the conclusion whether there is any real meaning to the historical changes that we work so hard to achieve.

Do such changes amount to a movement toward any goal of such transcendent value that it redeems the suffering and loss? Or is unrelenting historical change finally sheer ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing’? (478)

At this point, Kelsey sounds very much like James Davison Hunter in his recent work To Change the World. Both express significant reservations about whether we can have any real confidence about whether our actions really are leading to meaningful change in the world. Instead of working in accordance with God’s eschatological purposes, even envisioning ourselves as contributing to and ushering in God’s eschatological Kingdom, isn’t it entirely possible that we are instead acting in our own selfish best interests, furthering the sinful world orders that we seek to undermine? Does human action have any real meaning in this broken world? Or, are we hopelessly compromised in our sinfulness and can only wait in anxious anticipation for the fulfillment of God’s eschatological purposes. For Kelsey, it appears to be a little of both. He does want to affirm that human action in the world has meaning, but only in a highly qualified way.

The Ambiguous Nature of Human Action

If you’ve been following this series, this emphasis on the ambiguous nature of  human action should come as no surprise. Kelsey has routinely emphasized that sin, finiteness, and sinfulness all contribute to making it nearly impossible to systematize virtually any aspect of theological anthropology. Instead, at every turn we are confronted and frustrated by ambiguity and complexity. Human action in the world is no different.

First, Kelsey appeals to the Wisdom literature to contend that there is “no overall teleological order” (479). God did not create any single creaturely existence that precisely mirrors “the inexhaustibly rich and complex beauty of God’s glory” (479). So, the ambiguity of human action is integral to being God’s creatures. Rather than trying to find the ideal expression of God’s “will” in every situation, we are instead called to find the best expression of human faithfulness in our particular quotidian. And, it was precisely for this that God created us as creatures who have “their own time and space” (480). By giving us time an space to be ourselves, God creates the opportunity (and responsibility) to use that freedom for his glory. It’s our task to respond to this gracious gift in faithful hope.

Of course, our inherently creaturely complexity is rendered even more ambiguous by the reality of sin. Instead of just being manifold expressions of human faithfulness in our finite quotidian realities, the existence of God’s creatures is “radicalized into a living contradiction when their creatureliness is distorted in sin” (481). Thus, we fall into “inexplicable self-contradictoriness” (481) that renders human action opaque and often absurd.

Given these two kinds of ambiguity – the ambiguity inherent in being diverse creatures living in his manifold creation and related to by God in complex ways, and the ambiguity introduced by sin and its absurd contradiction of all that God intended – there is an inherent “ambiguity in every historical change that is apparently a change for the better” (484).

The Missio Dei

At this point, one would be forgiven for thinking that Kelsey was going to introduce a God-of-the-gaps resolution to the problem. Human action is ambiguous because of our finiteness and fallenness, but don’t worry, God’s action in the world will make sense out of everything. For Kelsey, though, the missio Dei actually introduces yet another source of ambiguity.

the missio Dei moves in God’s own very peculiar way sometimes with, sometimes against, and sometimes obliquely at cross-grain to the various trajectories of change that we can discern in our social and cultural contexts. (487)

Rather than clarifying the situation, we see that God’s action often works against what we might think of as the betterment of the world order and society. Indeed, Kelsey points to apocalyptic language as a great example of how the missio Dei often works against the natural currents of the world.

apocalyptic imagery concerns the structure of the cosmos, not the logic of history….Paul does not use apocalyptic rhetoric for that purpose. He uses it to describe a radical change in the structure of the world, a shift from an old creation to a new creation. (490)

We sometimes think that we can easily identify the ways in which God is at work in the world. But, what we are often doing is identifying God’s action with what we think the world really needs. When we see those things happening, we presume that it is God at work. Kelsey argues, though, that apocalyptic imagery forces us to consider the fact that God’s inauguration of the Kingdom through Jesus’ resurrection means that “all such principles used to constitute a socially constructive lived cosmos” have been radically relativized” (492-493). Instead of operating in accordance with our preconceptions and socially derived views of human flourishing, God breaks into the world and “unilaterally constitutes a new social reality, a new lived world” (496).

God’s work in the world thus constitutes another source of ambiguity in the world. The apocalyptic inbreaking of God’s eschatological reign is so radically other that we often fail to recognize it when we see it.

Grace and Judgment

At this point, one could legitimately begin to wonder if Kelsey’s qualified affirmation of human action in the world is really a resounding “no.” Given all this ambiguity, how could human action have real meaning? For Kelsey, the answer is to recognize both God’s grace and his judgment on all human action. Since all of our actions are inherently ambiguous, we must anticipate God’s judgment on everything that we do.This judgment is not simply the result of ambiguity, since at least some of the ambiguity comes from our the finiteness and diversity of God’s good creation. But, God’s judgment falls on “our idolatrous reliance on culturally relative values to generate such blessing on their own” (499). Thus, we can never afford to fall into a complacent confidence that assumes God’s stamp of approval on our actions. Instead, we should recognize the diversity, messiness, and brokenness of human existence, seeking to be faithful in every situation, but always also anticipating God’s judgment on our every action.

At the same time, though, we anticipate with eschatological hope God’s gracious mercy.  “God drawing humankind to eschatological consummation does entail that, by the creativity of God’s free love, what has been distorted will be transformed, the threat of meaninglessness overcome, and living deaths liberated into true life” (500). Even while anticipating God’s eschatological judgment on our actions in the world, we can still stand firm in our hope that God’s grace is sufficient and that he will accomplish his purposes in the world. Human action is not thereby rendered meaningless, we are still called to live faithfully in our quotidian, but it is seriously qualified in light of the inbreaking of God’ eschatological Kingdom and the sinful ambiguity of our creaturely contexts.

Eccentric Existence 12 (the Spirit)

[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.

A hole in the Calvinist logic regarding free will?

According to Roger Olson, there’s a glaring hole in the Calvinist logic regarding free will. And, it’s a hole that Calvinist’s generally refuse to acknowledge.

To see why, Olson points out that many Calvinists contend that incompatibilism as a view of free will is simply incoherent. (There are many different kinds of incompatibilism, but in a nutshell it’s the idea that my having true free will in a given instance is not compatible with the idea that my action in that instance could be caused by some prior event or state of affairs.) The Calvinist contends that if an actually is truly “uncaused,” then it is irrational or random. And, if our actions are irrational and/or random, then they do not come from our choices and they they are not the kinds of actions for which we can be held responsible – i.e. they are not “free.” Consequently, there is no such thing as incompatibilist free will. For the Calvinist, according to Olson, that is an oxymoron; it is incoherent.

But, Olson goes on to argue that this raises a problem for our understanding of God’s free will. If the very notion of incompatibilist free will is incoherent, then God himself cannot have incompatibilist free will. This, in turn, would mean that God’s own actions are caused by some event or state of affairs. And, many Calvinists will agree here, contending that God’s actions are “caused” by his nature. He does the things that he does because he is perfectly the kind of God that he is. But, and here is the real nexus of Olson’s argument, this would seem to mean that all of God’s actions are necessary. He created the universe because he had to; it was an expression of his perfect and immutable character. There’s really nothing else he could have done.

And the problem for Olson is that this account of God’s creative act was clearly rejected and declared heretical by quite a number of early theologians. Most of these thinkers insisted that God’s creative act had to be understood as a free act of his will. God was free to do otherwise, though it was perfectly fitting for him to choose to create.

So, the tension that Olson sets up is this. If you are going to claim that incompatibilist free will is incoherent, then you must also affirm that God’s actions are all necessary consequences of his character. Conversely, if you are going to claim that God has incompatibilist free will, then you cannot also claim that incompatibilist free will is incoherent.

I’m sure that Olson is perfectly aware that none of this actually serves as an argument for maintaining that humans actually have incompatibilistically free wills. But, he maintains that it does place the Calvinist in quite the quandry, and he argues that most Calvinists are unwilling to face it head on.

What do you think? Is this truly a hole in the Calvinist logic regarding free will?

Eccentric Existence 10 (personal identity)

[We’re continuing our series on David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology.] Kelsey moves on in the next chapter to discuss the nature of personal identity. He begins by addressing several common ways of understanding personal identity, arguing that each of them actually addresses a subtly different issue than the “Who” question he is interested in. He contends that this question can only be answered buy understanding humans as those who are constituted as God’s creatures by the divine address. This brings with it two implications.

First, that we are constituted by the divine address means that

we are finite creatures empowered by God to be and to act, to give and to receive in our own places and times, creatures whose personal identities are defined by our responsive trust in God. (338)

And second, it means that “we are finite creatures called by God to be wise for the well-being of the quotidian” (338). This is our vocation, and it is a vocation that fundamentally shapes our identity. Thus, the personal identity of human beings is grounded in its ultimate context (addressed by God as his creature) and its proximate context (the quotidian).

From here, Kelsey move into a discussion of our “existential hows” – i.e. the ways in which we live out (or fail to express) our identity in the world. These existential hows should be expressions of “doxological gratitude” as we respond in faith to God’s glorious presence.

Consistent with his emphases elsewhere, Kelsey rejects any attempt to identify normative hows for every context. Instead, he argues that we need to learn how to practice wonder, delight, and persevere through a series of formative practices (disciplines), in community, and in everyday life. I won’t take the time to unpack everything that he says here. But I did appreciate his argument that expressing doxological gratitude toward God includes learning how to attend carefully to God’s creation and express wonder  at our fellow creatures. This is more than idle curiosity or technological study. This kind of wonder requires a commitment to see our fellows creatures in their own particularities, attending to their uniqueness and individual splendor. And, this attention is not simply instrumental, a practice that leads to worshiping God, but is itself a liturgical practice.

I also found his emphasis on perseverance to be helpful. Our identity is grounded in our vocation to seek the flourishing of ourselves and all creation. But, we live in a broken world filled with alienation and ambiguity. Thus, the fulfillment of our identity through vocation will often be filled with frustration and failure. But, this is where it becomes important to see that our identity is primarily in our status as creatures called by God. Despite the apparent failure of our vocation, we persevere in our identity by faithfully maintaining our trust in God.

Perseverance is doxological gratitude’s loyalty to God’s call to be wise for the well-being of the quotidian; and therein it is loyalty to and trust in the triune God’s loyalty to God’s creative project despite God’s apparent indifference to, or even apparent abandonment of, the project. (353)

Who am I? For Kelsey, this question cannot be answered exhaustively. But, he contends that one answer must precede and ground all others. I am a creature summoned by God and gifted with the vocation of serving with and for my fellow creatures to see that all of creation flourishes and manifests the glory of God. This identity is difficult to maintain in a fallen world where God’s presence, faithfulness, and even existence seem to come into question with every starving child, broken home, and betrayed trust. But, I persevere in hope, holding on to the faithful God who will not abandon us.

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.

Eccentric Existence 8 (humans as living bodies)

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.

3. Actuality

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.

Eccentric Existence 4 (a trinitarian framework)

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.

Mystery

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.

Human Flourishing

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.