Book review: The Christian Doctrine of Humanity

The Christian Doctrine of Humanity Book ReviewReaders should have realised by now that one of my biggest theological interests is ‘theological anthropology’, or rather understanding what it is to be human in an explicitly Christian way, informed by Scripture. This book, then, represents the proceedings of a conference on that topic that, having read it, I would like to invent time travel for. Edited by Oliver Crisp and Fred Sanders, this book comes from the edition of the LA Theology Conference that focused on what it means to be human – and comprises a range of papers that do positive, constructive theology. The twelve chapters vary in length, topic and style, with contributors drawn from a range of theological traditions and perspectives. With that in mind, it is easy to say that The Christian Doctrine of Humanity is a brilliant introduction to what cutting edge theological ideas about what it means to be human are being batted around.

At the risk of over-simplifying, I would suggest that the chapters can be divided into two broad categories: what it means to be human, and how that relates to other big theological themes. Some chapters obviously fit into both, and this broad generalisation does overlook some key distinctives of various chapters.

Marc Cortez’s Nature, Grace and Christological Ground opens the volume powerfully, with a Jesus-focused exploration of the image of God, in such a way as to challenge any other theological account of humanity that doesn’t have ‘space’ for Christology. The second chapter, Faith Glavey Pawl’s Human Superiority, Divine Providence, and the Animal Good, offers a fascinating consideration of what it means to be human in relation to both God’s sovereignty and the non-human creation. There is an increasing interest in theological reflection on animals (And nature more generally) and this chapter engages in that conversation, drawing the thought of Thomas Aquinas in carefully. Pawl’s conclusion that invites us toward “harmonising what is good for us with what is good for the world under our care” gives a sense of where she goes. The third chapter, The Relevance of Biblical Eschatology for Philosophical Anthropology by Richard J. Mouw is a brilliant piece of writing, covering the relationship between philosophy and theology, and the vital nature of eschatology for this conversation. I was particularly encouraged to read Mouw’s statement about the breadth of humanity;

our theological imaginations must be closely conversant with those exercising pastoral imaginations. Whatever metaphysical accounts we set forth about individual personhood, the imago Dei, and human composition, we need to wrestle with the challenges posed by concrete questions about dementia, disabilities, and pastoral care for the dying and the grieving. We must use our theological imaginations to discern where positive spiritual yearnings at work in the realities of the human condition, looking for expressions of a legitimate longing for a participation in a new creation in which the best of the old creation is radically transformed

Amen! One of the ongoing discussions in this area is whether or not dualism – soul and body being constitutive of our humanity – is a helpful way to think theologically about ourselves. Hans Madueme, in his From Sin to the Soul, ponders these questions. He notes the “growing consensus in biblical studies… that the Old and New Testaments are most consistent with a physicalist anthropology“, challenges simplicity by observing that “Scripture never endorses an autonomous free will but instead depicts us as slaves to sin and also fully responsible“, and ultimately concludes that “As creatures fashioned in the image of God who is spirit, it makes perfect sense to ground human moral agency in a dualistic anthropology“. I don’t disagree entirely, based on his argument, but would point readers beyond, to the approach I believe that I’ve identified in the work of Anthony Thiselton.

In chapter five, Human Cognition and the Image of God, Aku Visala offers an interesting perspective suggesting that our reason and brains are vital for our humanity. As Visala puts it, “Without reason, we would not be able to act freely and rationally, engage in loving and meaningful interpersonal relationships…” – for him, reason is vital. I would push back on this, slightly, but Visala’s chapter draws in some useful reflections on cognitive-evolutionary science that can’t just be ignored. Chapter six is by the brilliant Gabrielle R. Thomas, titled Vulnerable, Yet Divine: Retrieving Gregory Nazianzen’s Account of the Imago Dei. This is partly a distillation of her recently published book, with a particular focus on the role of the Devil as antagonist and opponent to humanity, particularly in terms of becoming fully human and imaging God. Gabby’s chapter is a provocative and fascinating account, one advantage of which, in her words, is “creating the space for the enchantment of the imago Dei“.

It is often said that academic theology and popular culture are divorced, but chapter seven, Ryan S. Peterson’s Created and Constructed Identities in Theological Anthropology puts the lie to that. This is a superb engagement with contemporary constructions/self-definitions of ‘identity’, that appear both inside and outside the church. This was a chapter in which nearly every page was scribbled on and corners turned. Peterson offers something very helpful, which could be a real and profound challenge to much of popular culture:

Stability is grounded in God and God’s creative determination, not in an immutable human essence. Essentialism is not ruled out by these theological moorings, of course, but neither is it required by them. The doctrines of the Trinity, Christology, creation and eschatology provide a distinctively theological context for identity claims. Turning our attention to these doctrinal loci will prove illuminating“.

To put this in simple terms – turn away from the self, and towards God and God’s creation, and we might understand ourselves better. Chapter eight, Frances M. Young’s Adam and Christ is an interesting diversion, which a winsome tone and scientific interest that makes it quite unique in this volume. Fans of participation and pondering of creation will enjoy this chapter. Lucy Peppiatt’s Life in the Spirit, the ninth chapter here, is a superb bit of work that explores the murky world of ‘spirit Christology’, and its relation to being human. Broadly an account of John Owen’s Christology/Pneumatology, I found this chapter incredibly helpful for teasing out some of the issues that emerge in some charismatic accounts of who Jesus is, and what it means to be human. Her emphasis on spiritual formation reminded me fondly of Alexander Venter’s new book Doing Spirituality, which goes some way towards engaging with Lucy’s otherwise very sensible observation that “Owen has far exceeded any theological reflection on the Spirit so far undertaken within the Pentecostal/charismatic churches“! Before anxious readers wonder what this means (either that there are no good teachers/writers in these circles [Lucy is one!] or that Owen was a closet charismatic), it is worth noting that Lucy simply agrees with Owen, “who saw the whole of Christ’s life as a model for our own“.

The tenth chapter, by Joanna Leidenhag and R. T. Mullins, is titled Flourishing in the Spirit, which really needs the subtitle to be understandable, in my opinion: Distinguishing Incarnation and Indwelling for Theological Anthropology. Rooted in an orthodox Chalcedonian Christology, this is a superb essay that helps tease out what it means to say both that Jesus is God, and that Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit. A brilliant example of the practical usage of historic and systematic theology. The enigmatically named eleventh chapter, Mapping Anthropological Metaphysics with a Descensus Key by Matthew Y. Emerson is a fascinating exploration that takes the language of ‘Christ descended to the dead’ seriously for thinking about what it means to be human. Emerson draws on a range of thinkers and images, including N. T. Wright’s work, to argue that “affirming Christ’s descent to the dead, which is warranted by both historical and biblical considerations, should lead one to affirm some form of anthropological dualism“. This is an important chapter for thinking about what it means to be human, in the light of Christ, by thinking about an area of doctrine not often discussed. The final chapter, The Upward Call, is an interesting set of suggestions by Ian A. McFarland about the role that vocation plays within an understanding of human nature. More than just ‘work’, this is a chapter that, again, has immense practical pastoral implication. I enjoyed his emphasis that “to be human is not merely to be something: a particular kind of creature. It is rather to be someone: an entity whose end, while by no means self-constituted, is nevertheless inseparable from its own willing agency“.

To close this rather long review, I would warmly recommend The Christian Doctrine of Humanity to those wanting to think about what it means to be human, with their bibles open and brains switched on. It is a hard but very rewarding read – which may place it out of reach for some readers. That’s fine, because we need books of all kinds to help us understand thing. Personally, this is a dangerous book as it has reminded me of some passions, and increased the size of my Amazon wishlist substantially.

If this review has stimulated you, you may want to check out the following books:

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