Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Christian Anthropology: Responding to Contemporary Challenges


‘Who am I?’ is surely one of theology’s most profound questions, yet Christian anthropology is a comparatively new field within the discipline, and a derivative enquiry at that (Barth, 1978, 28).  The historic creeds, focussing on the Triune God, say little about humanity other than forgiveness of sins and bodily resurrection.  Christian anthropological statements of belief have tended to arise ad hoc to combat heresies like Gnosticism and Pelagianism.  But what of more contemporary challenges to Christian belief about humanity?  This study cannot survey the full scope of Christian belief on human make-up and destiny, from creation in the imago Dei, to the marring of that image by sin whether original or not, free will and the many views on human existence post mortem.  Instead, it considers three contemporary challenges to Christian anthropology: materialism, the resulting loss of morality and purpose, and postmodern fragmentation of the self.  As each challenge is dealt with, a number of theological responses will be evaluated.


In Patristic theology, combating Gnostic beliefs that equated the material with evil, a recurring aim was the acceptance of the body as good and essential to our humanity.  Today, however, one serious challenge to Christian anthropology is a polar view, one that emphasizes the physical to the point of rejecting the spiritual.  Materialism is a product of the Enlightenment, a reductionist view of everything, humans included, as mechanical (Niehbuhr, 1941, 45; Murphy, 1998, 27).  Accompanying accelerated advances in anatomical and medical knowledge, arose a theological crisis: what of the soul?  Humanity was no longer viewed as having a teleological purpose, but according to a worldview shaped by Newtonian and Darwinian discoveries, in which even humanity, believed by Christians to be the apex of creation in God’s own image, could be reduced to deterministic laws of chemistry and physics.

Some like Cooper argue vehemently for a continued belief in the soul as a non-material substance (2000).  Cooper is a holisitic dualist (ibid., 37), believing that the body and soul are both essential parts of human beings, but that at death the soul can continue in a disembodied state with God awaiting bodily resurrection (ibid., 104).  As evidence, he cites OT references to ethereal human existence in Sheol (ibid., 55), and NT references to an intermediate state (ibid., 135ff).  He further argues that his soft version of dualism is compatible with the majority of historical Christian teaching, citing for example the Catholic Catechism (see also Sachs, 1991, 56).  Cooper argues strongly against monist claims that dualism owes more to Hellenistic thought and later Cartesian philosophy than scripture (2000, 25), and emphasizes the anxiety that would be caused if churches began to tell the bereaved that their loved on no longer exists (ibid., 62).  Another advocate of a possible disembodied state is Swinburne (1997), a more radical dualist than Cooper who claims that the soul is the essential part constituting humans.  But for Cooper, the body is also essential and only by divine miracle can the disembodied soul be sustained until reunited with the resurrected body (2000, 231).

Some monist theologians are quite willing to use neuroscience and related fields as sources of theology, and to revise their understanding of the make-up of humans accordingly.  Green advocates soul sleep, claiming that the human person ceases to exist between death and resurrection, for he cannot accept the idea of a disembodied soul (2008, 152).  For him, to be human is to be embodied; body and soul are not separable but are two ways of looking at one whole.  He claims that only monism is consistent with Hebrew thought, and points to the biblical emphasis on bodily resurrection, compared to the ambiguity if not absence of scriptural basis for a disembodied conscious existence (ibid., 170).  Green uses neuroscientific case studies as evidence of his view (ibid., 45), including emerging research that questions the need for a concept of mind, given the physical basis of thought, behaviour and even consciousness.  He examines Lukan material and proposes a neural basis of conversion (109ff).  In his analysis, brain structure and chemistry work as a neuro-hermeneutic system to form identity, narrative of faith journey and, locating the ‘God-spot’ in the prefrontal cortex, our very relationship with God.  Green’s neuropsychological conclusions may or may not be correct, but the vital point is that, if they are, belief in God and humans as his unique creatures remains philosophically possible: the materialist challenge need not be a threat to Christian anthropology.  Murphy emphasizes this point that physicalism is only a threat if reductive (1998, 25).  She claims that God enables higher functions, including free will, using a physical basis, thus maintaining belief in a special status of humans in relation to God.

Both Cooper and Green respond to the challenge of materialism using scripture, although Murphy and Green use science also as a valid source.  All agree that theological anthropology cannot rely on word studies as a primary response, because the results are subjective, categories overlap, and words changed meaning as Hebrew thought met with Hellenization (Cooper, 2000, 38; Murphy, 1998, 23).  Theologians must continue to collaborate on the monist-dualist debate, while firmly rejecting either extreme of reductive materialism and radical dualism.  Even Cooper and Green find themselves relatively close in this respect, with important common ground including holism and emphasis on bodily resurrection.  However, Cooper’s insistence on belief in the soul as a separable substance as essential to orthodoxy (2000, 231) is unfortunate, for the nature of the soul is impossible to ascertain solely from scripture, and Patristic and reformation theologies on the matter have historically varied greatly.  Theology must not respond to the challenge of materialism by making doctrine of a speculative theory of soul, setting up an unnecessary science-faith conflict.  Rather, exciting new theology can be generated in light of theological reflection on materialism, claiming our place as part of created order where once Christian theology permitted environmental degradation and the exploitation of humans while on earth, by denigrating daily concerns and spiritualizing human existence (Murphy, 1998, 29).


Christian anthropology involves a great deal more than the composition of the human person.  If everything is physical, and thoughts and acts are produced by chemical interactions, then what can theologians say of free will, sin and responsibility?  The perceived loss of morality as a consequence of materialist worldviews is a challenge to these classic avenues of theology.  How might theology fill the vacuum left by the move away from Aristotelian concern for purpose?  In other words, having considered the ‘what’ of humanity, we now consider ‘why and what for’.  

Just as Green today uses neuroscience as a source of theological anthropology on the monist-dualist issue, Kant engaged positively with contemporary philosophy to oppose the climate of moral scepticism (Price, 2002, 22).  He distinguished between the phenomenal world of science, and the noumenal world of metaphysics.  The former could be understood as a stream of raw data being systematizd by a priori categories.  The latter, the ultimate reality, is accessible also as humans are programmed to self-transcend (ibid., 16).  According to Kant, humans are imbued with reason and the ability to exercise free will.  Nouvelle théologie thinker Rahner follows this philosophical approach, equating imago Dei with this ability to self-transcend, and claiming that humans are caught between the historical and transcendental realms, able to respond freely to grace to become more fully ourselves (Beste, 2007).  Rahner’s theological response is therefore ‘from below’, consistent with Kantian categories, and says essentially that human purpose is to respond to God, and thus to become oneself.

The neo-orthodox response, with its Reformed roots and post-Holocaust context, is more pessimistic about human ability to seek God, such is our fallen nature, and challenges the value of examining sin-marred humans in the pursuit of understanding humanity theologically (Niebuhr, 1941; Barth, 1928).  Barth criticizes any theological response that is not ‘from above’, by which he means based on God’s self-revelation (Price, 2002, 100).  For him, then, humanity must be understood only in relation to God; science is a competing ideology and not acceptable as a source of theology (ibid., 105).  Human purpose is secondary to God’s plans, but he emphasizes that humankind is elected and cherished by God, the Protagonist.  Barth’s ‘primary text’ is the ‘real man’ of Christ (ibid., 123).  Sin is not, therefore, essential to human nature, for Christ is fully human.  He is our measure of humanity as God intended.  Barth’s anthropology is Christologically rooted, but his ‘from above’ response risks divorcing science and faith; dialogue between both communities is vital for Christian anthropology to remain credible.

Using methods like Kant’s and sharing Barth’s Christological emphasis, Pannenberg could be seen as combining the best of both approaches (Vanhoozer, 1997, 173).  For Pannenberg, humans are essentially self-transcendent, open to the world (exocentric) and conscious of future time (ibid.; Pannenberg, 2004, 63).  Furthermore, human destiny is inextricably tied to the person of Christ, for in him the imago Dei is revealed and will be actualized in the future.  NT references to imago Dei, Pannenberg notes, are Christological: 2 Cor. 4, 4; Col. 1, 15; Heb. 1, 3 (Grenz, 2001, 122).  He responds to challenges to a Christian understanding of humanity, then, from the end.  He views human destiny as full future fellowship with God, with the imago Dei actualized in Christ, as opposed to lost in a primeval Fall (ibid., 123).

Far from being an unnecessarily abstract detour, the above summary of theological responses – from below, from above, and from the end – is essential to the very prolegomena of any Christian anthropology.  Underpinning any claim relating to sin, free will and salvation is belief about how humans can relate to God’s purposes.  Perhaps Pannenberg steers the wisest course, remaining Christologically rooted but without ignoring the contributions of philosophy and science.  These approaches each attempt to rescue the transcendental and moral aspects of the human person from annihilation by a reductive materialism.  We now consider how they can be followed in addressing one more challenge, namely that of post-modernist fragmentation and loss of self.


Davies writes of the demise of the unified self resulting from the fragmentation and deconstruction of post-modernism (2001, xvi), with the human viewed merely as a product of multiple agendas rather than a knowing subject.  Various thinkers today argue the united self can no longer be aptly understood in isolation, as if a discrete person could be analysed in a petri dish, but must be understood socially.  Using Phil. 2, 6ff, Davies argues that ontology is kenotic, and that a human sense of self is a necessary in order to give oneself (ibid., 220).  His keystone to understanding human nature and purpose is compassion, by which ‘intersubjectivity, the interweaving of self and other’ expresses humanity in its highest form (ibid., 14).  For Vanhoozer, this human fulfilment is achieved not by compassion but by every speech act that creates relationship, including story-telling, promises, questions and praising (1997, 175).

As we have already seen, Barth’s Christological approach to theological anthropology is natural seeing as Christ is fully human.  His Trinitarian approach presupposes that Trinitarian design underlies all theology, and this helps theologians engage creatively with these post-modernist challenges (Price, 2002, 131).  God’s very being involves relationship, and this is reflected in his creation.  Barth explains intratrinitarian encounter as the foundation of imago Dei.  In the Genesis account, it is ‘in our image’ (plural) that humans are created (Gen. 1, 26).  Thus, encounter is not a faculty of humanity, but ontologically essential.  We are humans by our relation as creature to the Creator, and not by possession of any substance.  Being human means personal agency, and the fragmentation seen in society today as post-modernism takes hold is therefore a dehumanizing tendency (Price, 2002, 163).  The individual is not fully human, for humanity is in essence relational.  Human difference is thus part of the divine design, for humanity involves the other.  Barth’s proof, other than the Trinity, is human sexuality.  Its polar nature, he argues, says that sexuality is part of our humanity, whereby God demonstrates the relationship to and encounter with the ‘other’.  A motif throughout humanity is the meeting of others and recognition of common humanity.  Thus, Barth and Davies, the former limiting himself to the Word of God and the latter participating fully in a wider philosophical dialogue, concur that the real self finds itself in others, and the individual is fictitious humanity (ibid.,, 138).  Interestingly, non-Western theologies recognized this early on: ‘We are therefore I am.’ (Kapolyo, 2005).


Challenges to Christian anthropology can be detected as far back as the writing of the New Testament, such as Gnosticism.  We have seen how the church might need to be prepared to rethink much of what we have inherited as teaching on the nature of the soul, but in fact this may force theologians to a more Biblical monistic view, and away from dualistic tendencies.  Accepting a greater role for physical mechanism in the human person will require theologians to respond so as to preserve the transcendent and moral aspects of human experience and destiny.  Christian theologians must do so Christologically and not from the tabloids or even the darkest chapters of history books, for in Christ we see perfect humanity, the imago Dei which is the destiny of God’s redeemed people.  Yet Pannenberg’s methodological openness to interdisciplinary study combines the best of Barth’s Christological approach with dialogue with philosophy and science.  Furthermore, this task, if carried out according to Trinitarian principles, can effectively engage post-modern people in the throes of fragmentation and loss of self.  We have reason to be optimistic that theology can preserve a sustainable belief in the special place humans have in God’s purposes.



Barth, K.  (1978)  The Word of God and the Word of Man.  Gloucester: Peter Smith.

Beste, J. E.  (2007)  Karl Rahner’s Theological Anthropology: The Role of Freedom and Grace in the Construction of the Human Self.  Oxford: OUP. 

Brown, W. S., Murphy, N., and Maloney, H. N.  (eds)  (1998)  Whatever Happened to the Soul?              Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Cooper, J. W.  (2000)  Body, Soul and Everlasting Life (2nd Ed.).  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Davies, O.  (2001)  A Theology of Compassion.  London: SCM Press.

Green, J. B.  (2008)  Body, Soul, and Human Life.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Grenz, S.  (2001)  The Social God and Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei.                 London: John Know Press.

Gunton, C.E.  (ed.)  (1997)  The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine.  Cambridge: CUP.

Kapolyo, J. M.  (2005)  The Human Condition: Christian Perspectives through African Eyes.  Leicester:                   IVP.

Murphy, N.  (1998)  ‘Human Nature: Historical, Scientific, and Religious Issues.’  In Whatever                  Happened to the Soul? (1998, 1-29).  Brown, W. S., Malony, H. N., and Murphy,                    N. (Eds), Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, pp 1-29.

Niebuhr, R.  (1996)  The Nature and Destiny of Man.  Originally published as two volumes: Vol. I:           Human Nature (1941); Vol. II: Human Destiny (1964).  Louisville: Westminster John Knox.

Pannenberg, W.  (2004)  Anthropology in Theological Perspective.  London: Continuum, T&T Clark.

Price, D. J.  (2002)  Karl Barth’s Anthropology in Light of Modern Thought.  Grand Rapids, MI:                 Eerdmans.

Sachs, J. R.  (1991)  The Christian Vision of Humanity.  Minnesota: The Liturgical Press.

Swinburne, R.  (1997)  The Evolution of the Soul (Second Revised Edition).  Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Vanhoozer, ‘Human Being, Individual and Social.’  In Gunton (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to                        Christian Doctrine, Cambridge: CUP, pp. 158-188.

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