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What Does It Mean to Be Human? Exploring the Christian Doctrine of Humanity

Categories Theology

9780310595472“What does it mean to be human?” Throughout our history people have offered many, sharply different answers.

But what does the Bible say about what it means to be human? What can the Bible and Christian doctrine show us about humanity's importance in context of God's full creation? To answer these questions we can turn to the task of theological anthropology, and a new book collecting essays from the January 2018 Los Angeles Theology Conference offers guidance for our task.

Representing the proceedings of the sixth annual conference, the book The Christian Doctrine of Humanity (edited by Oliver D. Crisp and Fred Sanders) constructively and comprehensively engages the task of theological anthropology by offering a slate of voices. These voices give shape to the important contours of theological anthropology. The book includes the following twelve essays by renowned scholars across the ecclesial spectrum:

  1. Nature, Grace, and the Christological Ground of Humanity (Marc Cortez)
  2. Human Superiority, Divine Providence, and the Animal Good: A Thomistic Defense of Creaturely Hierarchy (Faith Glavey Pawl)
  3. The Relevance of Biblical Eschatology for Philosophical Anthropology (Richard J. Mouw)
  4. From Sin to the Soul: A Dogmatic Argument for Dualism (Hans Madueme)
  5. Human Cognition and the Image of God (Aku Visala)
  6. “Vulnerable, Yet Divine”: Retrieving Gregory Nazianzen’s Account of the Imago Dei (Gabrielle R.Thomas)
  7. Created and Constructed Identities in Theological Anthropology (Ryan S. Peterson)
  8. Adam and Christ: Human Solidarity before God (Frances M.Young)
  9. Life in the Spirit: Christ’s and Ours (Lucy Peppiatt)
  10. Flourishing in the Spirit: Distinguishing Incarnation and Indwelling for Theological Anthropology (Joanna Leidenhag and R.T. Mullins)
  11. Mapping Anthropological Metaphysics with a Descensus Key: How Christ’s Descent to the Dead Informs the Body-Mind Conversation (Matthew Y. Emerson)
  12. “The Upward Call”: The Category of Vocation and the Oddness of Human Nature (Ian A. McFarland)

Below is the complete introduction to The Christian Doctrine of Humanity. In it you will find an overview of the essential issues involved in answering our questions about humanity; you will learn about key aspects of theological anthropology; you will also understand the scope of the book, and how it will enable you to join the conversation about the Christian doctrine of humanity.


What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?

Psalm 8:4

The question the psalmist asks God is primarily about the relative importance of humanity in the midst of the rest of God’s creation, especially the vastness of the heavenly realms. But it is also phrased as a straightforward question of definition: What are human beings? Precisely what is the thing that a human being is? The task of theological anthropology is to answer that question.

In offering answers along the lines of “constructive dogmatics,” as all the essays in this volume do, theologians can take a direct or indirect approach. The direct approach is to consult the Bible for the terms, categories, and schemas found in the layers of its manifold witness. The same sacred volume that asks, “What are human beings?” also answers the question: human beings are a single unified race of creatures, each one in the image of God, created male and female, given life by the divine breath, and so on. Any one of these categories offered by the biblical witness could be the subject of an expansive study in its own right; each has received such treatment in the history of doctrine, and each is taken up by the authors of this volume.

Often these biblical accounts have been subsumed in theological categories for the divine image so that today there are at least three broad approaches to which one can point. The first is the structural account of the divine image, represented in this volume by Aku Visala’s chapter and that of Faith Pawl, as well as (to some extent) in the essays by Hans Madueme and Marc Cortez. On this way of thinking, the divine image found in Scripture is to be understood as something substantive in human beings that sets them apart from other creatures. Often this is identified with human reason or possession of a soul. Then there are those who think that the imago Dei is more of a function of human beings, giving rise to functional accounts of the divine image. On this way of thinking human beings bear the divine image in virtue of acting in a particular way—that is, as God’s viceroys on earth, imaging the deity in virtue of a benevolent caretaking role over creation. A third approach to the divine image thinks of it relationally, as something that human beings bear together as a community of creatures. There is something of this view in the contribution from Ryan Peterson, as well as in the chapters by Frances Young and Ian McFarland. Another ancient approach to the divine image is to identify it with Christ as the archetypal image, and human beings as ectypes. We image God as we image Christ. This way of thinking about the matter is prominent in Cortez’s work. Christological considerations also make an appearance in the chapters by Lucy Peppiatt, Gabrielle Thomas, and Joanna Leidenhag and R. T. Mullins.

In addition to the more direct approach to thinking about humanity dogmatically, there is an indirect approach to answering the question about human beings. This involves considering the implications of other doctrines and approaching theological anthropology through them. Each tract of systematic theology has implications for the Christian doctrine of humanity, and the indirect route takes its bearings from doctrines nearby (creation, sin, salvation) and doctrines farther afield (Christology, pneumatology, eschatology). The indirect approach to theological anthropology has the advantage of tracing the many connections that unite the doctrinal system, ensuring that the resulting doctrine of humanity is explicitly Christian. In this regard, one interesting subtheme that runs through several chapters has to do with how attending to a particular aspect of traditional Christology may help us understand some aspect of divine action in human beings better. For example, Peppiatt examines how Spirit Christology bears upon the work of the Holy Spirit indwelling human beings, while Leidenhag and Mullins seek to demarcate the difference between the indwelling of the Spirit in human beings and the manner in which God the Son is said to be incarnate in Christ. By contrast, Ian McFarland’s essay presses in a rather different and more apophatic direction with a more skeptical account of what we can say about the image in human beings in light of wider theological considerations. Another broader theological concern on display in this volume is the current debate about the constitution of human beings. Do we have souls distinct from our bodies? If we do, how should we think of such things? If we do not, what important implications follow from such a claim? The essays by Rich Mouw, Hans Madueme, and Matthew Emerson all touch on these matters in important ways.

There is also an interesting interplay in these essays between the retrieval of ancient doctrine for contemporary dogmatics and the correlation between contemporary philosophy, science, and theological construction. This creative tension is quite evident in, say, Young’s desire to recapture Athanasius for moderns or in the ways Mouw, Madueme, and Visala worry about the relationship of theology to wider intellectual concerns of a more philosophical nature.

Ideally, a satisfying theological anthropology will be engaged in all these things at once: direct and indirect accounts of human beings in relation to God, the careful plotting of a route through the various accounts of the divine image, and attention to the development of doctrine in this area as well as the pressing need for correlation with our current state of knowledge about our relation to the wider created world—including our place in a creation full of many other creatures that are also subject to God’s divine care. The chapters of this volume delve into all these areas, providing the reader with a rich smorgasbord of dogmatic explorations on theological anthropology. Whilst not a systematic account of the doctrine of humanity, these are rich and rewarding studies that repay careful reading towards a more systematic-theological understanding of humanity’s place in God’s creation.

Overview of the Chapters

Marc Cortez has written much on christological anthropology, and his chapter opens this volume by pressing for clarity on Irenaeus’s teaching that “the image of God is the Son, after whose image man was made.” Cortez puts several questions to Irenaeus: Is it the embodied humanity of Christ that makes him the image, or is it his eternal identity as the Son? In what sense can one of Adam’s descendants be the prototype of Adam’s being? In a wide-ranging discussion that in many ways sets the scope of the whole volume programmatically, Cortez argues for an ontological and epistemological priority of Christ over Adam, as well as pneumatological considerations that keep nature and grace from being merely bifurcated.

In chapter 2, Faith Glavey Pawl locates the human creature among the other animals with whom we share the world and does so by defending an admittedly unfashionable notion: hierarchy. Drawing on Thomas Aquinas, Pawl argues that we can affirm that humans are superior to nonhuman animals and that in fact creation is ordered toward the good of humans. Yet we can do this without relegating nonhuman animals to the status of irrelevance for either humans or, more significantly, for God. Where conventional accounts of the good of animals tend to discard hierarchy as early as possible, Pawl argues that hierarchy can serve as a valuable metaphysical tool for ecological theology.

In chapter 3, Richard J. Mouw considers the implications of Christian belief in the afterlife for a Christian account of human composition. Must Christians who believe in an afterlife believe that humans are composed of bodies and souls? It is not quite that simple, according to Mouw. Cognizant of neuroscientific findings and alert to the reasons why moderns are skittish about any Platonist dualisms, Mouw nevertheless insists that our affirmations about human composition should comport with our control beliefs about eschatology. A judicious use of theological imagination, he counsels, will also consider pastoral implications such as speaking about the intermediate state, or of failing to do so.

Hans Madueme, in chapter 4, likewise considers the way our view of human composition should be determined by outlying control beliefs. The beliefs he has in mind are Christian affirmations about sin, which require that we be morally responsible for our actions before God. “Dualism makes better sense of human sinning than physicalism,” he says, because mere physicalism enmeshes human agents too completely in chains of physical causation. What Scripture presupposes is moral accountability that is most consistent with body-soul dualism. While physical determinism crowds out moral accountability, Madueme argues for a form of divine determinism that is compatible with human responsibility and thus comports with Scripture’s presuppositions about sin.

In chapter 5, Aku Visala considers the challenge that recent cognitive science poses for any doctrine of the image of God that locates the image in human cognitive abilities. Visala believes that modern cognitive scientific findings, far from erecting insurmountable obstacles, actually point to human uniqueness in a new and helpful way for theology. Humans have several unique cognitive capabilities: flexible reasoning, the ability to adopt moral norms and to follow them behaviorally, and the most flexible social cognition of any animal. Visala argues that there is much to be gained from developing an account of the imago Dei that is informed by current cognitive sciences.

Gabrielle Thomas, in chapter 6, considers the imago Dei from another perspective, arguing that human nature is open to influence from two directions: contact with God on the one hand and contact with spiritual enemies on the other. For her project, Thomas appeals to Gregory of Nazianzus, whose theology, spirituality, and poetry set forth a classic Christian conception of humanity in terms considerably more holistic and dynamic than most modern theologies have been interested in. One of the advantages of this retrieval of a patristic witness is, perhaps unexpectedly, greater attention to the actual lived experience of being in the image of God. This contrasts with merely structural or even merely relational accounts of the imago Dei, which are more concerned with identifying the image than illuminating the experience of being in the image. To be human, on this account, is to stand between the cosmos and God in an active and dynamic relationship with both. The imago Dei is not only vulnerable to God because of its intended purpose of union with God, says Thomas, but also vulnerable to “the world, the flesh, and the devil” as it moves toward its destiny.

In chapter 7, Ryan Peterson examines humanity’s use of the category of identity, which has in recent decades become a pervasive and important way of talking. Peterson is interested in the relation between constructed identities—racial, ethnic, national, religious, and sexual identities, for example—and what he calls biblical-theological identities, such as creaturely, covenantal, redeemed, and eschatological identities. As he points out, the novel category of identity has entered contemporary usage without much clarity or definition, so it is ripe for some theologically guided conceptual scrutiny. Extending his earlier work in this field, Peterson argues that biblical-theological identities have a certain priority. They should constrain and shape constructed identities, keeping them from some evident idolatrous tendencies. But within proper boundaries, a range of constructed identities can serve human flourishing by enabling people and communities to find and name their distinct places in the world. Peterson recommends using identity talk alongside of, but not in place of, more traditional categories like nature, ends, faculties, and habits.

Chapter 8, by Frances Young, is an ambitious project of considerable scope. Young opens up the world of patristic Christology, tracing the thought of Athanasius of Alexandria with special attention to the way he could build arguments about redemption on the presupposition that there is such a thing as humanity. Strong patristic notions of human solidarity, whether they drew on a Platonic conceptual background (a world-soul) or some other ancient metaphysical schema (any sort of realism about universals), enabled thinkers like Athanasius to make sense of biblical language about Adam and Christ as the locus of an old and a new humanity, respectively. If we as moderns do not share these ancient underlying metaphysical assumptions, Young says, we nevertheless have the same need to make sense of the biblical way of speaking about humanity as a coherent entity. In pursuit of a contemporary appropriation of patristic anthropological holism, Young offers a catalog of thick collectivities: slime mold, an oceanic feeling, a collective unconscious, interlaced narratives, emergent unity, and social forms of solidarity such as the shared life produced by the stresses of a labor camp. Young announces an agenda for theological anthropology: since we need to make good sense of shared sin, shared guilt, and shared judgment, we need to articulate in contemporary terms an account of real human unity.

In chapter 9, “Life in the Spirit: Christ’s and Ours,” Lucy Peppiatt puts some hard questions to the proponents of Spirit Christology, particularly those who emphasize the role of the Spirit in the life of Christ in order to show that Christ’s life is enough like our life to serve as a model for Christian experience. Peppiatt shows how these accounts of Christology tend to run aground on questions of agency in the incarnation and especially on the question of how to manage the difference between our willing and doing and Jesus’s willing and doing. Deeply informed by the theology of John Owen and (to a lesser extent) Thomas Aquinas, her constructive account is more attentive to the analogical difference between Christ and us in this regard. The result is not an entire rejection of Spirit Christology’s contribution to theological anthropology but an account of how a pneumatic christological model, with its attention to the empowering, guidance, and comfort of the Holy Spirit for Christ and for us, is the most promising matrix for a view of human development and spiritual formation.

In chapter 10, “Flourishing in the Spirit: Distinguishing Incarnation and Indwelling for Theological Anthropology,” Joanna Leidenhag and R. T. Mullins consider the biblical portrayal of human flourishing as being somehow related to the incarnation but also as being filled with the Spirit. They are especially concerned to offer a clear conceptual distinction between incarnation and indwelling because they want to account for how Christ’s humanity unlocks flourishing for the rest of humanity. By distinguishing the work of the Son from the work of the Spirit, they show that the special, divine, and personal presence of the Holy Spirit is what brings about transformative sanctification, and thus it provides the best model for understanding indwelling and the necessary condition for the flourishing of humanity.

In chapter 11, Matthew Emerson looks to Christ’s descent to the dead as a crucial testing ground for both the Christian understanding of the afterlife and its distinction between body and soul. In Emerson’s retrieval of the traditional theology of the descent, Christ’s body went into the earth as his human soul went to the place of the dead. Christ, in other words, experienced an intermediate state between his death and resurrection. Because Christ’s humanity is paradigmatic, human beings must also be capable of experiencing an intermediate state between their deaths and the final day, and one of the key conclusions to be drawn from this is that we should confess humanity as being composed of body plus soul.

Ian McFarland’s chapter closes the volume by directing our attention to a very large question in theological anthropology: the relation between nature and grace. In some classic ways of describing the relation, it seems that humanity can only have one or the other but not both. If humans were created to reach the end of union with God in glory by grace, then grace seems to be built into the nature or definition of what it is to be human—but then it is not a matter of grace. On the other hand, if we preserve the gratuitous character of union with God, then we have to define human nature as being complete in itself without such an end, in which case grace is supplemental and in no way a natural end of humanity. McFarland proposes the category of vocation as a solution to this problem of “the oddness of human nature.” To be called by God is to be summoned to an end that is compatible with human nature but is beyond it and not intrinsic to it. With this account of human nature as open-ended, McFarland is undertaking to resolve a theological conundrum that has usually been posed in updated Thomist categories by the judicious application of a Lutheran category.

May these essays extend discussion of the task of dogmatics, ad maiorem dei gloriam.

Oliver D. Crisp and Fred Sanders, April 2018


9780310595472Theological anthropology is a vast and complex doctrinal subject that needs to be elaborated with careful attention to its relation to other major doctrines. It must confess the glory and misery of humanity, from creation in the image of God to the fall into a state of sin. It must reckon with a holism that spans distinctions between body, soul, and spirit, and a unity that encompasses male and female, as well as racial and cultural difference.

The Christian Doctrine of Humanity explains and explores this vital, complex doctrine through twelve engaging essays. Read them yourself to enter a constructive and comprehensive conversation that engages the task of theological anthropology with insight and care.

Also, sign up to attend the 7th annual LA Theology conference January 18-19, 2019. The theme of LATC 2019 will be divine action and providence and feature these plenary speakers: William J. Abraham, Oliver Crisp, Christine Helmer, Brenda Deen Schildgen, and Philip Ziegler.

What is Docetism?
What is Docetism? Docetism is an ancient heresy that says Jesus was not fully human. According to Docetism, he seemed to be human, but bec...
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