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[Common Places]: Ecce Homo: A Christ-Shaped Vision of Ourselves

Categories Common Places

With this post we begin a new series attending to Marc Cortez’s  Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective: Ancient and Contemporary Approaches to Theological Anthropology (Zondervan Academic). While other posts will follow in short order this month and next, we begin with a word of orientation from the author.

9780310516415Looking down on this scarred and bleeding body, head adorned with thorns and body draped in purple, Pilate exclaimed, “Behold, the man” (ecce homo). But what did he see? Was it only a miserable example of a human life crushed by a fallen and jealous world? Or was there something more, something only vaguely glimpsed and inadequately understood?

At one level, Pilate’s statement was almost certainly intended to point out Jesus’ miserable condition, either to express pity for this poor figure of a man or to mock the Jews for fearing this miserable wretch, maybe even as a rhetorical ploy to elicit pity and secure Jesus’ release. Yet many have wondered if something more is going on. Could it be that John intends us to view Pilate as an unintentional witness to a deeper theological truth, similar to Caiaphas’ famous declaration about Jesus’ impending death (Jn 11:49-50)? Could the ecce homo be directing our attention to the theological significance of Christ’s humanity? If so, what are we supposed to see?

Answering that question within the context of the Gospel of John would take a bit too long for a single blog post, but it directs our attention to the kind of question that I wanted to pursue in Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective. What are we supposed to see when we look at the humanity of Jesus? Or, said differently, what is the significance of Christology for doing theological anthropology?

At one level, that seems like a reasonably easy question to answer. Soteriologically, we have long maintained that there must be a relationship between Christology and anthropology given that Jesus had to be fully human in order to be our savior. In the incarnation, then, Jesus was both fully human—human in every way that we are—and truly human—untainted by sin. As important as this is, however, it doesn’t really say much about what we’re supposed to see when we look at Jesus’ humanity. It’s entirely possible to affirm the soteriological importance of Christ’s full and true humanity without saying anything about whether it offers us any real epistemological access to truths about humanity in general.

So many have pressed further, convinced that we should be able to look at Jesus’ humanity and draw at least some conclusions about what it means to be human. This is most obvious in areas related to how we should live as humans. Since we are called to imitate Christ (1 Cor 11:1) by living as he lived (1 Jn 2:6) in things like love (Jn 13:34), humility (Phil 2:5), and even suffering (1 Pet 2:21), many have looked to Jesus’ life as offering insight into the how of true humanity. We thus get many forms of exemplarism in which Christology is related to anthropology primarily as a model of true humanity that we should seek to imitate in our own contexts.

Without getting into the important questions about the value of this exemplarist tradition, I think we can still ask whether such an approach really exhausts the possibilities of a christologically informed approach to theological anthropology.

Can we say more? Should we say more?

Much of the motivation for my book arose from these questions. Reading modern works on theological anthropology, I was often left unsatisfied by the extent to which they explored Christology as a resource for understanding what it means to be human. In such books, you frequently run across claims about Jesus “revealing” or “unveiling” true humanity. But in the actual content of these books, it’s not unusual to find Jesus making only a few guest appearances, offering only marginal contributions to the real shape of these theological anthropologies beyond the exemplarist insights mentioned above. But if Jesus really is fully and truly human, it seems likely that Christology should offer further resources for understanding what it means to be human.

In 2005, the World Council of Churches produced a Faith and Order Study Document, Christian Perspectives on Theological Anthropology, that captured this intuition nicely. It not only makes the core claim that “Jesus Christ is the one in whom true humanity is perfectly realized” (p. 51), but it goes on to press the epistemological implications of this claim. Because of his perfect humanity, we will only understand “what we are as humans” if we “keep the person of Jesus in focus” (p. 34). Consequently, “the Christian understanding of true humanity is rooted in reflection on the person of Jesus Christ” (p. 37). Although the document does not spell out the implications of this robust christological concentration, it clearly suggests that Christology should shape anthropology in ways that go far beyond the exemplarism of the imitatio Christi.

The real focus of the book, then, is to explore the various ways in which a christologically shaped anthropology might be developed. Starting in the early church with Gregory of Nyssa and working all the way through to the modern period with John Zizioulas and James Cone, each chapter investigates the resources that Christology offers for addressing anthropological issues like sexuality, suffering, vocation, community, personhood, race, and more. And each sought to press beyond the how of humanity (i.e. How should we live with respect to these issues?) and instead focus on who and what it means to be human in light of Jesus’ own humanity. I won’t pretend to have answered such difficult questions. The book actually does more to demonstrate the diversity of approaches and corresponding conclusions, suggesting a range of christological anthropologies rather than definitive christological answers to challenging anthropological questions. But I think it also demonstrates the potential Christology has to inform our understanding of humanity in far more ways and to a far greater degree than we commonly think.

Ecce homo.


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.


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



Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective

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