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[Common Places]: Reading Notes: Theological Anthropology

Categories Common Places

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Some of the most influential works in theological anthropology are books not primarily about theological anthropology. For example, Irenaeus’s Against Heresies and Athanasius’s On the Incarnation provide overarching narratives that reveal the logic of the gospel from a specific vantage point. A key aspect of these accounts is the anthropological material—they rehearse and interpret the creation of human persons, the fall of humanity into sin, the means and effects of human reconciliation with God, and the union with God that comes from this reconciliation. Both works provide a compelling narration of the Christian gospel aimed at leading readers to the God of the gospel. Irenaeus and Athanasius model theological anthropology in action, showing why the most compelling Christian anthropologies have been developed in works focused on other theological loci. In the following brief bibliography, I want to highlight some of the important indirect contributions to theological anthropology.

Anthropologies are theological insofar as they take their cues from the doctrines of God and creation. So, Irenaeus and Athanasius emphasize the importance of creatio ex nihilo—that God made humanity from nothing. The basis for humanity’s life is participatory fellowship with the Living God. Humanity’s fall into sin is a participation in nothingness, and the consequences are devastating. The knowledge of God is lost and death becomes inevitable. Jesus Christ restores humanity’s fellowship with God, re-establishing human knowledge of God and life in God. As they reflect on the consequences of the atonement, Irenaeus and Athanasius emphasize graced participation in the divine attributes through fellowship with God. Participation in the divine nature is granted to humanity by the work of the Holy Spirit and through contemplation of God. The whole human person is redeemed. The emphasis upon living a rational life—a life in which mind and will are moved toward God—provides a window into an important patristic theme.

Augustine’s engagement with Pelagianism has served as an authoritative reference point for Western theology since the fifth century. These anti-Pelagian writings remain important direct contributions to theological anthropology. But Augustine’s indirect contributions are also profound. In On Christian Doctrine, he describes the Christian journey into deeper participation in God and the role of the Christian Scriptures in facilitating this journey. In On the Trinity, Augustine traces the contours of humanity’s mind and will as he looks for an analogue to God’s own Tri-unity. While Augustine acknowledges that the analogies he draws do not suffice to explain the divine life, they do provide anthropological insight into structure of the human soul. Finally, one of Augustine’s earlier works—Confessions—shows the reflexive way that knowledge and praise of God leads to truer knowledge of oneself. This dynamic is famously picked up and put to use dialectically by John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Augustine’s account of love and desire provides pervasive insight into human morality. Thomas Aquinas develops Augustine’s insights into a full-blown moral theology in the second part of his Summa Theologiae.

In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther’s recovery of an Augustinian anthropology was crucial to the success of the Reformation. In On The Bondage of the Will, Luther presses the biblical evidence for God’s sovereignty and humanity’s servanthood. This book has had a sustained influence on the major streams of Reformation theology. Another significant contribution is found in Luther’s Lectures on Genesis. Here Luther argues that humanity is meant to experience the image of God by living in the fullness of God’s righteousness and approval. Sin and its consequences tragically compromise human life in God’s image, leaving humanity under God’s condemnation. Only justification by faith in Jesus Christ establishes both God’s righteousness and God’s approval so that humans can experience the image of God once again.

Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics III/2 offers a rich Christological anthropology based on the logic of Jesus Christ. Barth explores the reality of Jesus Christ as the establishment and fulfillment of covenant fellowship between God and humanity. Elsewhere, Barth offers an insightful vision of theology rooted in the doctrines of God and Christian anthropology: Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum: Anselm’s Proof of the Existence of God in the Context of His Theological Scheme. In his book on Anselm, Barth argues that theology is an effort to conform human ratio to the objective reality of the gospel’s ratio. The gospel’s ratio is the expression of God’s eternal ratio, God’s Word. By faith humanity is invited to trace the logic of the gospel and so share in the mind of Christ. In this way theology participates in the truth, and humans come to know God and self, gaining in knowledge what had been possessed by faith. Readers will benefit from having read Anselm’s Proslogion directly prior to reading Barth’s book.

Christian anthropologies have been of vital importance throughout the history of the church because at each point in history there are cultural assumptions and philosophical perspectives about the nature of humanity that call the gospel into question, that question God’s Lordship, humanity’s servanthood, and their genuine fellowship in Jesus Christ. To maintain a biblical understanding of salvation, Christians have needed to emphasize humanity’s existence as embodied and as spiritual, as moved by intellect and by desire, as motivated by the will and by habitual acts that shape the will. In recent years, new ground has been broken with respect to the diverse ways human bodies shape human existence. But perhaps the most overlooked aspect of Christian anthropology in recent accounts is rational participation in God. Appropriating the patristic emphasis on participation would help Christian theology maintain the fundamental union of knowing, loving, and living. Such a full-fledged participatory account of the rational life, a life lived in harmony with God’s mind and character, may be the most critical aspect of earlier Christian anthropologies to recover. On this, further constructive work in theological anthropology needs to be done. Thankfully, indirect contributions to this aspect of anthropology are being made through studies that give attention to participation in conjunction with other loci (e.g., salvation and Scripture).


Ryan S. Peterson is Assistant Professor of Theology at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. He received his PhD from Wheaton College and is author of The Imago Dei as Human Identity.


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 the column introduction.

One feature that will appear regularly this year will be a monthly series entitled Reading Notes. In these posts, editors and contributors will lead readers to significant literature related thematically to our other ongoing series. This month Ryan Peterson introduces classical and contemporary literature related to theological anthropology as a fitting complement to our ongoing engagement of James K. A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project.

Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors

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