Leading up to the release of my new book Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective next month, I thought it would be fun to release an excerpt from the book each week. This week’s excerpt comes from the introduction to the book and focuses on trying to define what it even means to say that a particular anthropology is christological. After all, don’t most Christians think that Jesus was human and that this should matter in some way for our understanding of humanity in general?
Toward a Definition of Christological Anthropology
Before we continue, it might help if we take a moment to define more carefully what a christological anthropology entails. Although I would prefer that we allow a more robust definition of christological anthropology to unfold from the various studies in this book, an initial definition may help clarify both the scope and purpose of this study.
In its most basic form, the fundamental intuition of a christological anthropology is that beliefs about the human person (anthropology) must be warranted in some way by beliefs about Jesus (christological). We will explore more deeply what this “in some way” actually means through these various studies. Even without a more precise explanation, though, the distinctive nature of a christological anthropology is that Christology warrants at least some anthropological claims in such a way that those anthropology claims are only true in virtue of the truth of their christological ground. Ian McFarland expresses this fundamental intuition well when he argues that if Jesus is “the criterion” for Christian talk about what it means to be human, no argument about humanity “can be theologically binding unless it has a clear christological warrant” (Difference and Identity, 115).
In addition to this epistemological component, this study will also explore issues related to the proper scope of a christological anthropology. Although we noted above that theologians routinely affirm the central significance of Christology for understanding anthropology, the application of that insight to particular anthropological issues is often somewhat lacking. When we turn to the actual content of many theological anthropologies, we find that the explicit development of this christological insight tends to focus on a few key issues: especially the image of God and ethics. This should come as no surprise, given that both have obvious links to Christology. After all, few theologians would deny that Jesus is central to an adequate understanding of the imago Dei. The New Testament declares that Jesus alone is the image of God (1 Cor. 11:7; 2 Cor. 4:4; Col 1:15), and all other humans only participate in the image insofar as they are restored to the likeness of Jesus (Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:49). Similarly, ethics connects to the long-standing Christian intuition that Jesus should be the model or exemplar of Christian living. Even if we reject “What would Jesus do?” as overly simplistic, the conviction remains that Christian conduct should be guided by the example of faithful human living that we see in Jesus. In all of these areas, then, it is not difficult to find theologians who follow the basic conviction that Christology should ground at least some anthropological claims.
As important as these areas are for understanding humanity, however, they do not exhaust the whole range of anthropological issues. When we move to these other areas, though, the christological orientation of many anthropologies becomes decidedly less pronounced. Thus, for example, Charles Sherlock’s The Doctrine of Humanity begins with strong affirmations of Jesus’ central significance for theological anthropology, yet the majority of the work focuses on issues like economics, human dignity, culture, gender and sexuality, and family life, areas in which we see little direct appeal to Jesus Christ as the criterion for Christian thinking about the human person. Similarly, Hans Schwarz’s The Human Being: A Theological Anthropology deals extensively with issues like human constitution, evolution, freedom, and evil, all of which are developed almost entirely in isolation from explicitly christological concerns. And despite offering a robustly christological framework through much of the work, Paul Jewett’s Who We Are: Our Dignity as Human goes on to address issues like embodiment, racism, sexuality, and the environment in general isolation from those christological concerns. I could multiply examples, but this suffices to demonstrate the concern. Given that these anthropologies operate from a broader “worldview” that is itself shaped by christological concerns, it may be possible to retrieve a kind of christological emphasis, but only one that has been made so indirect as to offer little real help in understanding what it means to say that Jesus informs our vision of humanity in some unique way.
We are thus left with the question of whether Christology has something to say about what it means to be human across a broader range of issues than many theological anthropologies explore. Does Christology shed light on issues like the significance of the human body, the reality of gender and sexuality, the existence and meaning of human freedom, and the nature of race and ethnicity, as well as the painful realities of suffering and oppression that shape so many people’s experience of their own humanity? In short, does Jesus shed light on all aspects of human existence, or only those that have traditionally been associated with Christian spirituality? Or, to return to my teenage interlocutor from earlier, does Jesus only offer us a model of a life well lived, or does his human existence have something to say about what it means to exist as a gendered teenager with a body going through something as awkward and difficult as puberty?
Our initial definition of “christological anthropology” as I will be using that phrase in this book should thus address both the epistemological emphasis on Christology as the ground of anthropological claims and the application of this christological criteria to a broad range of anthropological issues. Thus, we arrive at the following minimal definition:
A minimally christological anthropology is one in which (a) Christology warrants important claims about what it means to be human and (b) the scope of those claims goes beyond issues like the image of God and ethics.
We will return to this definition in the final chapter and see if there are ways in which we can clarify and strengthen it in light of the various case studies. But it will serve for now as an initial definition and a way of helping explain how I chose the theologians for this project.