David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence undoubtedly ranks as one of the most significant works in theological anthropology of the last several decades. Indeed, I recently heard it described as the most significant theological work of the last decade. I’m still assessing whether I think it warrants that kind of praise, but such a comment does highlight one important feature of the book. Although its primary focal point is theological anthropology, Kelsey ranges broadly enough in his discussions that very few areas of theology are left untouched. Thus, it bears close consideration from anyone interested in contemporary theology.
The basic shape of Eccentric Existence runs as follows:
- Part One – Created: Living on Borrowed Breath
- Part Two – Consummated: Living on Borrowed Time
- Part Three – Reconciled: Living by Another’s Dream
The first volume comprises the introduction and the first two parts, with the last part and the coda reserved for the second volume.
The created/consummated/reconciled framework is fundamental for how Kelsey understands the nature of a truly Christian theological anthropology, and we’ll look more closely at this in subsequent posts.
Another interesting structural feature of the book is the use of multiple “small print” chapters. Kelsey routinely introduces key ideas in the main part of his argument (e.g. the anthropological centrality of wisdom literature), developing them just enough for the reader to understand what he means and why these ideas are important for his argument. But, he’ll often refrain from offering an extended discussion and defense of these ideas within the course of the argument itself. Instead, he’ll reserve that work for his small print chapters, which then function like really long footnotes. Of the 25 main chapters in the book, nearly half are accompanied by such small print discussions.
James K. A. Smith recently commented on Eccentric Existence and offered the following as a suggested reading plan for engaging the book.
If I were crafting a multiyear reading program for Eccentric Existence, I would recommend the following strategies to help non-theologians wade into its deep waters: On the first reading, I would suggest skipping (or merely skimming) those chapters set in smaller font. They are generally pursuing more technical questions and, at least on a first reading, can be treated as asides—though returning to them on a second reading will yield fruit for nontheologians, too. For an orientation, Introductions 1A, 2A, and 3A are necessary reading. The crucial chapter for understanding the architectonic of the book is chapter 3A. But I would also recommend that, relatively early (perhaps after reading 3A), readers skip to the final Coda (of three) at the end of the book: “Eccentric Existence as Imaging the Image of God” (pp. 1008-1051). This reads almost as an independent treatise (if one is familiar with chapter 3A) and does two important things: first, it explains how the three narratives of God relation’s to humanity are intertwined in Christ (as the image of God), and second, it explains why Kelsey does not use the imago Dei as the orienting image for his project. The latter is especially important given the prominence of appeals to “the image of God” in Christian scholarship.
This two-volume project runs to over a thousand pages by the time he’s done, so it will be impossible for me to survey everything that he addresses with any kind of adequacy. Instead, I will follow Kelsey reading plan to some extent. First, I’ll trace Kelsey’s argument through the main chapters of the book. Then, I’ll go back and comment on some of the more important/interesting small print chapters. And, finally, I’ll comment on the codas at the end of the book.