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[Common Places]: Christological Anthropology: An Interview with Marc Cortez

  • Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors of Common Places
  • July 7, 2016
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Categories Common Places

For the concluding post on christological anthropology, we offer an interview with Marc to further explore some questions and issues related to his recent book Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective: Ancient and Contemporary Approaches to Theological Anthropology (Zondervan Academic).

cortezWhat is a “christological anthropology”?

I explored a few ways of defining this in the book. From one perspective, almost all Christian anthropologies are “christological” in the sense that we think Jesus was fully human and is, therefore, relevant to understanding what it means to be human. We also have the imitatio Christi tradition, in which Jesus serves as an exemplar of a human life well lived, and the imago Dei discussions in which Christology often features prominently. So you could define the concept rather broadly and include many kinds of theological anthropology. My focus was a bit narrower, however, because I wanted to see what looks like when theologians approach anthropology from a more robustly christological perspective. So the definition I used in the book was as follows: “A minimally christological anthropology is one in which (a) Christology warrants important claims about what it means to be human and (b) the scope of those claims goes beyond issues like the image of God and ethics.”

Why was it important to you, as a systematic theologian, to research and write a historical study of this subject? What is the role of retrieval in constructive dogmatics?

If I’m completely honest, part of the reason comes from the fact that I simply enjoy historical theology. History was my first love, and I didn’t really turn my attention completely to systematics until after I finished my master’s degree at Western Seminary. That love of history has carried over into my theological work, and I almost always prefer to engage theological issues in dialog with prior theologians. Beyond that, however, it is also the case that I think that’s a good approach for theology in general. We talk a lot today about the importance of dialoging with theological voices from other cultural contexts because we know how easy it is to get locked into cultural myopia. But that doesn’t help with the problem of temporal myopia. No matter how many cultural perspectives I draw on today, we’re all living in the same period in history, shaped by many of the same global events and developments. Historical theology is the only resource we have for broadening our conversation beyond our current situation. Alongside that are convictions about the importance of doing theology ecclesiologically, which means doing theology for and with the whole people of God, you have some pretty compelling reasons for the value of historical studies in systematic theology.

This historical approach had particular significance for my interest in christological anthropology. When I first started getting interested in theological anthropology, I was intrigued by the fact that many books would say something about how Jesus defines/reveals what it means to be truly human, but they never seemed to explain that claim very carefully or explore its implications for anthropology with any great rigor. So I got interested in doing some constructive work in developing a christological anthropology, which is the focus of the book I’m working on at the moment. Before I attempted something like that, though, I thought it would be wise to see how other theologians have engaged that same task, what they learned in the process, and how that might shape my own approach to the issue.

Who are some other historical figures that you didn’t treat in your book but who have made significant contributions on this topic?

That’s a great question. This book is really a set of case studies in christological anthropology rather than any attempt to offer a comprehensive survey of ways in which theologians have used Christology to inform anthropology, it is necessarily selective, excluding quite a few people who probably would have been excellent candidates. Keep in mind, though, that for the purposes of this book, it isn’t enough for a theologian to have written a lot about both topics (Christology and anthropology), and it isn’t even enough for him or her to have written about the interaction between the two if their focus is on (a) how anthropology informs Christology—which is an important but altogether distinct question from the one I’m asking—or (b) how Christology informs things like ethics or the imago Dei. So, for example, I’m not entirely sure that someone like Thomas Aquinas fits the project terribly well. As important and valuable as his writings on Christology and anthropology might be, I’m not sure that he relates them in the way necessary for the kinds of questions I’m exploring here. Whether this is really the case takes a fair bit of study, since you have to dig rather deeply into someone’s theology before you can discern precisely how Christology and anthropology are related in their project.

Having said that, there are some other people that I think have made considerable and more direct contributions to christological anthropology. Among historical theologians, Irenaeus, Maximus the Confessor, John Owen, and Søren Kierkegaard, would all be worth exploring further. Maximus was actually part of the original plan for my book, but I eventually replaced him with Julian of Norwich since she offers such a distinct and interesting perspective on the issue. Among more recent theologians, I would definitely recommend Kathryn Tanner’s work as a good starting point.

Can you give us a preview of any of the constructive arguments you intend to make in your dogmatic treatment of christological anthropology?

Since the book is still in progress (i.e. complete chaos), I’m a bit limited here. But I can say that the goal is to address three questions. First, what is the biblical/theological basis for claiming that Christology should inform anthropology in this way? In my historical survey, it was interesting to see how often this was simply assumed rather than robustly developed and defended. So the first part of the book will be digging into issues like the imago Dei, the Adam/Christ relationship, the incarnation, among others, offering what will hopefully be an interesting exploration of some important themes that should ground a christological anthropology. Second, how should we go about developing anthropological proposals on the basis of this christological starting point? Christological anthropology faces some interesting methodological challenges. For example, given that Jesus is fully divine and sinless he is not just fully human. How do we account for these differences when moving Christology to anthropology? Similarly, how do we account for the differences that come from his particular human existence (e.g., race, gender, culture)? Questions like these mean that a christological anthropology can’t move directly from what we believe about Jesus to what we should believe about humanity in general, raising important methodological considerations. Finally, I wouldn’t be satisfied if we didn’t spend at least some time reflecting on how all of this impacts the way we understand particular issues in theological anthropology. I’m still figuring out the whole set of issues that I want to cover in this section, but I know race and sexuality will be among them.

What practical implications might a christological anthropology hold for contemporary anthropological crises (e.g., racism, immigration) and controversies (e.g., gender and sexuality)?

The applicability of Christology to specific issues in anthropology was precisely what got me interested in this particular topic. Earlier I mentioned my experience with many contemporary theological anthropologies and my sense that they often failed to explore thoroughly the claim that Jesus reveals what it means to be human. And it was really in their discussions of specific issues like these that I felt that absence most notably. It just seemed surprising that they could claim that Jesus reveals what it means to be human and then say little about Jesus when dealing with things like sexuality. I’ll admit that I’m still working through precisely how I’m doing to deal with these issues in my book, but one way in which Christology affects the discussion about sexuality is by framing the questions somewhat differently from how we tend to. In modern discussions about sexuality, there’s a tendency to take sexuality as one of the most fundamental truths about human life. This is what makes questions about sexuality, and thus sexual expression, such dominant issues today. But Christology at least presses us to consider sexuality from a different perspective. For example, if Jesus really is fully human in such a way as to render him able to represent all human persons irrespective of their sexuality, then don’t we have some reason for emphasizing our common humanity as more fundamental than our particular sexualities? Similarly, if being united in Christ as one people of God is the eschatological telos of being human, the ultimate reality of which sexuality and marriage serve as created images, doesn’t that reshape how we understand our sexuality even now? I realize those are still pretty general comments that don’t directly address some of the specific questions we have today (how to understand transgender, for example), but I think that the benefits of a christological anthropology often come from the ways in which it causes us to reframe contemporary issues and forces us to view them from an importantly different perspective.

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Marc Cortez is Associate Professor of Theology at Wheaton College. He has written several books, including Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective, Theological Anthropology, and Embodied Souls, Ensouled Bodies.

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Common Places is a regular column on the Zondervan Academic blog with a focus on systematic theology. The loci communes or “common places” of Christian theology, drawn out of the Scriptures and organized in a manner suitable to their exposition in the church and the academy, have functioned historically as common points of reference for theological discussion and debate. This column will focus upon the classical loci of systematic theology, not as occasions for revision, but as opportunities for entering into the ongoing conversation that is Christian systematic theology. We invite you to join and dialog with us on the first and third Thursdays of every month. For more about Common Places, read column introduction here.

Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors of Common Places

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9780310516415Buy Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective today on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Christian Book.

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