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[Common Places]: Toward a Liturgical Anthropology: Helps from James K. A. Smith

Categories Common Places

Holy_Grail_Tapestry_-The_Arming_and_Departure_of_the_KniightsIntroduction: a philosophical handmaiden to liturgical anthropology

How might theological anthropology benefit from James K. A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies series? I suggest that Smith’s project offers theology a philosophical handmaiden to the liturgical anthropology of Romans 6:17: “Thanks be to God that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the pattern of teaching to which you were delivered.”

The shape of homo liturgicus (1): inside out

The Apostle Paul’s word of gratitude in Romans 6:17 envisions the baptized human being as a worshipping animal, what Smith calls homo liturgicus. To be human, according to this vision, is to be the kind of creature that is moved from the inside out. Christian obedience flows “from the heart” and flowers in the presentation of the baptized body (Rom 6:19; 12:1) for service within the larger body of Christ (Rom 12:3-8).

This “inside-out” anthropology rests upon the deep metaphysical reality that, unlike the blessed Trinity, human beings are by nature incomplete and that we can only be made complete by drawing upon resources outside of ourselves. Discernment of the various goods that promise to complete us draws us to pursue our fulfillment in obtaining and sharing them. Physical appetites drive us to seek the nourishment of food. Social appetites drive us to seek the fulfillment of families, friends, and neighbors. Ultimately, the soul’s deepest appetite is to find rest in God, a point recognized by the psalmist, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God” (Ps 42:1), and by Augustine, “you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (Augustine, Confessions I.1.i).

The shape of homo liturgicus (2): outside in

Smith’s philosophical anthropology reminds us that corresponding to the “inside-out” movement of the human being is an “outside-in” movement. Baptism happens to the human being. Our hearts are moved to offer our bodies in service of God and neighbor because, by the Spirit’s gracious power, we are incorporated into the body of Christ through the preaching of the gospel and baptism.

In the Christian sacrament of initiation, the baptisand is “delivered over” to something definite and external: a “pattern,” “form,” or “standard” of teaching that is both verbal/aural (Rom 10:17) and sacramental (Rom 6:1-18). Echoing the language of Romans 6:17, Cyril of Jerusalem instructs catechumens that in baptism they are being “delivered over to the Creed” and thereby initiated into a life of training in “pious doctrines” and “virtuous practice” (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures IV.2-3). The curriculum of Word and Sacrament trains the baptized Christian in a pattern of sound doctrine and in patterns—habits—of godliness (1 Tim 4:6-7; Titus 2:11-14). As the public, social instruments of the Spirit’s work, these external patterns shape the baptized Christian from the outside in: training the heart to receive Christ as he is offered to us in the gospel (faith), awakening desire for the kingdom’s fulfillment (hope), and illuminating the pathway of embodied service to God and neighbor in church and world (practical wisdom, love).

The “outside-in” movement of Word and Sacrament, moreover, offers a counter-liturgy to the cultural liturgies of this age (Smith, DTK, 88, 187), which habituate us to their idolatrous and futile schematizations of human well-being and fulfillment (Rom 12:2; 1 Pet 1:18). Contrary to popular evangelical understanding, the cultural patterns and products of this age (whether they be shopping malls or iPhones) are not neutral vehicles of communication, intrinsically pliable to the service of competing worldviews and ideologies. These cultural patterns are preloaded to communicate idolatrous ways of being in the world and to shape idolatrous predispositions, perceptions, passions, and practices. Though the culturally savvy among us may attempt to communicate the software of the gospel through them, the cultural patterns of this age will have the last word by determining the hardware of those (usually unwittingly) enculturated by their schematizations.

The curriculum of the church’s liturgy must therefore take a shape that is intentionally antithetical to that of the world: calling us to put off the old man and his deceitful desires by putting off our former way of being in the world and calling us to put on the new man and his desires by putting on faith, hope, and love as they are communicated to us by the Spirit in the church through the ministry of Word and Sacrament (Eph 4:22-24; 2 Tim 1:13-14). This curriculum does not necessarily demand that we quit shopping at the mall or that we throw away our cell phones. It does demand that we clothe our bodies with the merchandise of the mall and that we bow our heads to our iPhones as those whose bodies have been washed with pure water and as those whose postures are being shaped by prayer.

Remaining questions

Smith’s project does not necessarily get theology all the way to the liturgical anthropology sketched above. But that’s not the handmaiden’s job. His project presses us to reflect upon the anthropological assumptions that drive our catechesis and spiritual formation. And it challenges us to consider the implications of our embodied, affective, social natures for the tasks of Christian education in church and school. In my judgment, Smith’s project delivers admirably on both fronts.

I realize too that some of the emphases in Smith’s philosophical anthropology may not prove hospitable to the worshipping animal as I have described him. Where Desiring the Kingdom (especially) and Imagining the Kingdom (to a lesser extent) exhibit a fairly consistent contrastive rhetoric1 when it comes to “head” and “heart” (but see ITK, 11n22, 125, 130), I am more inclined to see harmony in the biblical witness and in large strands of the Augustinian tradition of reflection upon that witness. Moreover, where Smith’s project seems to posit an “activist” or “missional” ultimate end for human beings (ITK, 151-64), I am more persuaded by a vision of human eschatological fulfillment that sees “the contemplation of God” as “the supreme reward of the saints” (Augustine, On the Trinity XII.22) and “as the end of all activities and the eternal perfection of all joys” (Augustine, On the Trinity, I.17). The kingdom that Scripture trains our hearts to seek is one wherein homo liturgicus is ultimately satisfied and realized in the intelligent adoration of the triune God (John 17:24; 1 Cor 13:12; 1 John 3:2; Rev 22:4). But, based upon his writings beyond the Cultural Liturgies series, I have reason to believe that Smith might not disagree with me on this point.


The call of baptism is a call to embodied obedience from the heart and to spiritual formation within the curriculum of Word and Sacrament. In responding to this call, theological anthropology stands in need of disciplinary assistance from exegesis, history, liturgics, and philosophy. In James K. A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project, theological anthropology finds a ready handmaiden in the pursuit of human flourishing in the knowledge and love of God.

1 I believe the contrast between “head” and “heart” in Smith is more rhetorical than substantive, resulting from the fact that Smith frames his project as a response to a one-sided intellectualism he detects in the “worldview” tradition of neo-Calvinism.

Image Credit: By Sir Edward Burne-Jones, overall design and figures; William Morris, overall design and execution; John Henry Dearle, flowers and decorative details. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Scott Swain is Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. He is author of several books, including The God of the Gospel: The Trinitarian Theology of Robert Jenson, and Trinity, Revelation, and Reading: A Theological Introduction to the Bible and its Interpretation. He serves as general editor (with Michael Allen) for T&T Clark’s International Theological Commentary and Zondervan’s New Studies in Dogmatics series. He is a regular blogger at Reformation21.


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.

Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors

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