Thinking about Theological Anthropology

Humanity has forever been asking and defining what it means to be human. But today answering the “human question” crosses scientific, philosophical, theological, moral, and social (or a combination thereof) boundaries. Some have emphasized a theological anthropology “from below,” using human experience as the source and criterion to determine divine reality.

Christian anthropology, however, does not start with the phenomenon of being human as a societal, individual, or even a theological construct. It begins with God. So it seems like the best starting point for a “Christian” theological anthropology is the biblical narrative, then moving on to emphasizing certain doctrinal and ethical considerations. The biblical text, of course, in all its richness and variety, narrates this grand story of creation in relation to God: good, fallen, reconciled, and eschatologically restored in the New Creation. So from that biblical narrative, one needs to look at the human condition: the soul, freedom, rationality, and love. But one must also consider the hard issue of “original sin.” And then what comes next is the question of grace and regeneration as a consequence of the process of redemption. This “new life” is grounded in faith, hope, and love.

All of this has a long and complex history. In fact, I would argue that the whole history of science and religion has been dealing, directly or indirectly, with issues of theological anthropology. The interest lies in the possibility of deepening and/or “updating” some traditional Christian doctrine about human nature and meaning in light of the advances in science. But this comes at a cost. Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917), James George Frazer (1854-1941), Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942), and others, of course, constructed an anthropology devoid of the faith of their fathers and mothers.

At the same time, as most ethnologists know, most everything has a prehistory. Tylor, for instance, the so-called “father” of anthropology, credited not himself but James Cowles Prichard (1768-1848) as the “founder of modern anthropology.” Interestingly enough, Prichard was raised as a devout Quaker and became a earnest evangelical Anglican in adulthood. Tylor himself was raised a Quaker before shedding his Christian faith later.

Chasing footnotes, I’ve come across several works that may serve as helpful guides to the topic, including Marc Cortez, Theological Anthropology: A Guide for the Perplexed (2010) and more recently the edited collection by Celia Deane-Drummon and Agustín Fuentes, Theology and Evolutionary Anthropology: Dialogues in Wisdom, Humility, and Grace (2020).  I have also discovered the work of Joshua R. Farris, including his co-edited volume The Ashgate Research Companion to Theological Anthropology (2017) and his own An Introduction to Theological Anthropology (2020). As I read through these and other works, I will jot down some observations here.

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