The Next Faithful Step

Fuller Logo

Theological Anthropology

What is distinct about a Christian view of the person?

Introduction

What does it mean to be human? There are a myriad of responses to this question. The task of Christian theology is to clarify what is distinctively theological in its description of personhood, formulating criteria for what is authentically Christian in an account of the human being.
Christian theologians have understood humanity as first oriented toward God—in the words of Augustine’s famous prayer: “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” Therefore, primary sources for classical Christian thinking about the human being are the doctrine of God and the book of Genesis—knowledge of our selves is a part of our knowledge of God. Modern theology, however, reversed this order asserting that there is no knowledge of God except through knowledge of self. However, if this is our starting point, then we will not get beyond anthropology.
In contrast, a theological anthropology is an attempt to think through the meaning of the human story as it is lived out before, with, and by God. This orientation does not mean that various accounts of natural and human sciences are not relevant to our understanding of the human being. Such descriptions are provisional versions of human reality that must be deepened by Christian beliefs.

Key issues in historical perspective

The question of human personhood has most often been framed in terms of what it means to be made in the image of God (imago Dei). In the patristic period, especially, the concept of the image of God was interpreted in terms of human reason whereby human rationality is seen as a reflection of the wisdom of God. Related to this interpretation is the reference in Genesis to humanity being given dominion over the earth, thus humanity resembles God in its exercise of power and dominion over other creation. These approaches are examples of ways the imago Dei has been understood in Christian theology and there is much that could be said on this complex subject; however, our purposes here will be served by focusing on three broad categories [will have links to shorter articles on each of these]:

  1. One approach would see anthropology as a subset of Christology—Jesus constitutes true humanity. In this view, Christology alone lays the proper groundwork from which to consider the human creature, in its relation to God and its relation to others.

  2. Another approach understands the human creature neither from its past nor from its present, but above all from the perspective of its future destiny which is fellowship with God. This eschatological emphasis also has a Christological element in that Jesus Christ is the manifestation of this fellowship and reveals the true nature and meaning of humanity.

  3. Finally, theological anthropology can be conceived of from a Trinitarian point of view, making personhood primary to a notion of human being. From a Trinitarian perspective, persons are not autonomous individuals that are defined in terms of their separation from other individuals, but are understood in terms of their relations to other persons. Humankind is inherently social.

Whatever the differences of emphasis, the origin and destiny of human being are ultimately to be understood in the light of the triune God’s creating, redeeming, and sanctifying activity. In God’s act of creation humankind is created from God, for God, and with God—existing for the purpose of relation to God and in covenantal fellowship with God and his creatures. In God’s act of reconciliation through the Son, God maintains fellowship with creatures, upholding the purposes of humankind despite its efforts at self-destruction. By the presence and action of the Holy Spirit, this work of reconciliation is perfected by the renewal of the creature and by allowing humankind’s participation in God’s works of grace. Humankind acquires its identity within the context of this story.

Theological implications for Christian life

To be a person, made in God’s image, is to be made to love: it is to be created to be from and for the other. Human beings are uniquely related to God, other human beings, and to the rest of the created order in a way that other creatures are not. The roots of personhood lie in Trinitarian theology—to be a person is to be distinct from other persons, and yet inextricably bound up with them. Just as God is who he is in the inextricable fellowship of Father, Son and Spirit, so for us to be personal is to be what we are in relation to other persons. The relations of the Trinity are not simply a symbol that we mirror in our relationships, but they form the depth which makes human fellowship possible and actual. A distinctive Christian theological anthropology understands the human being as a relational being because it is rooted in the relationship of the triune God to humanity.

There are social and ethical implications that extend from such a view of humankind and yet we are aware that as human beings we fall short of this notion of personhood. This is one reason a Christological and eschatological perspective are so important for a Christian view of the person. If we only look to the past and our original nature for the meaning of human personhood, our anthropology will be sorely lacking since we know that through sin we have fallen short of God’s intentions for human beings. We look to Jesus Christ, the true human, through whom we have the ability to live in fellowship with God and each other. Understanding human nature not only concerns our origins, but also our destiny, thus bringing the eschatological element into our theological anthropology. Our destiny is to be the kind of creature God intended us to be. We have been called to be creatures that live well with others in justice and peace, to glorify God. We know that God works in us to fulfill this purpose for mutuality and fellowship in the present and will bring it to completion when Christ returns.

Tell me a story…

Christian marriage is an example of living from and for the other that is an integral part of human being. Just as the three persons of the Trinity do not subsume one another, so the marriage relationship is not the merging of two personalities into one or the subordination of one to the other. It is perhaps the most challenging aspect of marriage—to live as two persons who enable one another to be themselves, to flourish and grow into the unique human beings they are meant to be. The story of marriage illustrates that God has made us not for ourselves, but for each other. In relationships like marriage, we practice the living for others that is characteristic of God’s interpersonal triune life and our lives as ones created in the image of that God. Christ is the perfect example of this loving as he loved each of us first; therefore we can, by Christ’s Spirit, love others.

ldp 9-15-10