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[Common Places]: Reading Notes: Christological Anthropology

Categories Theology Common Places

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Trying to identify the most significant works on christological anthropology can be a little tricky. On the one hand, since incarnation and atonement both involve some connection between Christology and anthropology, we should not be surprised to discover an almost countless number of works on the relationship between these two loci. Nearly all theological anthropologies draw on Christology at some point in their discussion of what it means to be human. If that’s all we mean by a christological anthropology, then it would seem that the following list should just include a few of the more influential theological anthropologies.

But that’s not quite what I have in mind when talking about specifically christological anthropologies. Instead, the label refers more to those anthropologies that draw on Christology to inform their understanding of the human person in fairly robust ways. Rather than merely affirming the ontological claim that Jesus is fully human, these anthropologies develop around the epistemological claim that Jesus is truly human in such a way that a proper understanding of humanity must be firmly grounded in the humanity we see revealed in and through him.

Before I get into specific works, though, I should mention one further challenge. The idea in this post is to highlight a few particularly valuable books. Yet some of the more robustly christological anthropologies were never articulated in individual works. For example, Martin Luther’s vision of the human person is firmly grounded in his Christology, particularly (and unsurprisingly) his doctrine of justification. Yet, although he gestures at this relationship in his Disputation Concerning Man, he never develops their interconnection fully in any particular work. Instead, you have to connect threads from multiple works written to address other issues. That is true for quite a number of other theologians. Even Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Making of Man, one of my favorite theological anthropologies of the early church, fails to make the list below. Despite the fact that Gregory’s overall understanding of the human person is thoroughly christological, that particular book really does not really do justice to the christological shape of his overall anthropology. All of this means that the list below does not necessarily indicate the theologians I have found most helpful for thinking christologically about the human person; instead, it highlights a few more of the more valuable books for that purpose.

Irenaeus, Against Heresies. One of the more valuable pieces of theological writing in the early church, Against Heresies offers an excellent starting point for thinking christologically about the human person for two reasons. First, because the primary purpose of the work is to refute a broad range of heretical theologies, each of which came with its own vision of the human person, Against Heresies is an early example of comparative anthropology, demonstrating the power and significance of a christological anthropology over against other approaches. Given that the modern world is rife with alternate anthropologies, we would do well do learn from Irenaeus’ model. At the same time, Against Heresies offers an early look at what it means to ground anthropology thoroughly in Christology. For Irenaeus, Jesus is both the Creator of humanity and the pattern after which all humans were created. The life of Christ thus demonstrates true humanity and provides an epistemologically sure foundation for reflecting on what it means to be human.

Lars Thunberg, Man and the Cosmos: The Vision of St. Maximus the Confessor. I’m going to cheat just a bit here since Maximus falls into the category mentioned above about theologians who do not articulate their christological anthropologies in any single work. Instead, Maximus’ entire theological project is built around a christological vision in which Jesus is the center of the cosmos. He is the Logos at the center of all the logoi of creation—i.e. the divine ideas that provide the ground and structure for all created things. Maximus thus draws on important strands of Neoplatonic philosophy and Christian spirituality to develop a vision of the human person centered from all eternity on the person and work of the God-man. And Thunberg’s work offers an excellent introduction to this theandric vision and its implications.

Julian of Norwich, A Book of Showings. We take a bit of a turn with this recommendation, since, unlike most of the other books on this list, Julian’s christological vision of the human person is grounded primarily in the atonement rather than the incarnation. In Showings Julian offers a theological reflection on a series of visions she had of the crucified Jesus and his suffering. Along the way, she offers a powerful vision of God’s love and how this should shape the way we understand ourselves even in the midst of our own pain and brokenness.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/2. No discussion of christological anthropology would be complete without some reference to Barth’s theology. For Barth, Jesus is the key to understanding humanity because of God’s eternal decree of election, in which God determined both the kind of God he would be (God-for-us-in-Jesus) and the kind of creatures we would be in turn (us-for-God-in-Jesus). So Jesus is both the ontological ground of humanity—we are human simply because we have been included in Jesus’ own eternal election—and the only real epistemological ground for knowing true humanity. Barth explains this christological anthropology most fully in III/2 of his Church Dogmatics, and he offers a fascinating discussion of its implications for things like the body/soul relationship, community, and death.

Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key. In many ways, Tanner takes themes developed in each of the earlier works and gives them a contemporary articulation. Her discussion of humanity focuses primarily on the imago Dei, explaining how an anthropology can be both christological and trinitarian (especially pneumatological) at the same time. And she develops a robust theology of grace that shapes her vision of what it means to be and to live as human persons in the world today.


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


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