Eccentric Existence: Part 1 (of many)

For those of you who remember, I’ve been in the middle of a series of books on theological anthropology over the past year or so. I’ve looked at several books, some introductory and others much more advanced, but I have always intended to end the series with David Kelsey’s work Eccentric Existence. That is, until I saw it. Kelsey wrote a massive two volume work in answer to the question of anthropology (the introductions, and yes, that is supposed to be plural, take up 158 pages). Kelsey’s work takes up about the same amount of space on my shelf as my two volume edition of Calvin’s Institutes! More importantly though, for those of you who remember, I was critical of Jamie Smith’s work Desiring the Kingdom, which I claimed failed to be theological (and therefore distinctively Christian). Jamie was kind enough to interact with me about my critique, and when he asked me about anthropology, I suggested that Kelsey’s volume would probably offer a helpful account (one of my criticisms of Jamie’s anthropology was that it was not trinitarian). Therefore, it seems fitting that I finally put a close on this series by digging into this massive beast clogging up my desk.

To start, I want to pick up on a piece noted above in response to Jamie Smith, that anthropology needs to be guided by a robust trinitarian theology. Kelsey picks up here well: “My aim in this project is to think through the agenda of theological anthropology in a way shaped from beginning to end by the triunity of the God with whom we have to do” (46). Kelsey located anthropology under the doctrine of the Trinity, which, as a claim, is one of the more obvious statement in contemporary theology, but as a method, it is often one of the more muddy. To clear the possible muddiness of this endeavor, Kelsey offer five “moments” of God’s triunity that have anthropological implications. I will let Kelsey narrate an overview of this fivefold story:

The story that follows (1) begins with reflection on the threefold way in which canonical Christian Scripture leads us to speak of God’s relating to us and how that is related to a triadic formula of divine names used in Christian practices (‘Father,’ ‘Son,’ ‘Holy Spirit’); (2) moves away from the threefoldness of God’s active relating to us to focus on God’s relation to Jesus in just one of the ways in which God relates to us; (3) formulates creedally the implications for understanding God of that one way in which God relates to humankind; (4) moves then from God’s active relating to all-that-is-not-God to reflection on how God is intrinsically self-relating; and (5) returns finally to the original topic, reflection on the threefold way in which God relates to all-that-is-not-God, reconceiving it more complexly” (47).

In brief, this is how Kelsey understands anthropology being conceived according to a trinitarian framework. Let me unpack these as they develop in Kelsey’s text (in as little space as possible).

1. Kelsey starts with the baptismal formula, “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:13). This is not, Kelsey notes, a proper trinitarian formula, nor is it a brief trinitarian creed. Rather, this is a formula “used in talk to God and on behalf of God, not in talk about God” (47). The anthropological implication of this triadic talk to God is that we must relate to God, to some degree, according to this theefold way. “Thus,” Kelsey notes, “the triadic formula serves to give an identity description, not only of God, but also of its users” (48). By linking this triadic formula to the practice of baptism, this language was identity forming from its inception, because the very practices it helped orient were identity forming practices.

2-3. Shifting away from the threefold way in which God is said to relate to us, theological reflection turns to Jesus Christ to focus on just one way God relates to us. This turns attention away from God as such to God qua redeemer. What we say about human persons, therefore, is rooted in ways that God relates to us, and how God primarily relates to us is christologically focused, but only indirectly so. Kelsey emphasises that a truly theological anthropology is not so by an analysis of the incarnation, nor is it so by claiming a privileged source for its content. “Rather, what makes anthropological claims Christianly theological is that the selection of their contents, and the way that they are framed, are normed by claims about God relating to us, when God is understood in a Trinitarian way. And such Trinitarian understandings of God are cognitively christocentric” (66). This christocentric focus was oriented by the adoption of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. Regarding theological anthropology specificially, the creed filled three roles: existential, rhetorical, and methodological. Existentially, through the liturgical use of the creed in forming identity and practice under the God it proclaims; rhetorically, by shaping the rhetoric appropriate to use to describe God’s ways of relating to us; and methodologically in two ways: (1) Savior and Creator were never divided, and (2) as noted above, anthropological proposals will be indirectly christological epistemically, but are not so by deriving their material content from christology.

4. Taking a turn away from the economic, Christian reflection used the economic to push back into the immanent life of God. The arguments oscillated between two similar poles, one focusing on God’s giving Godself in the economy, while the other attended to God’s self-consistency in the economy of grace. Based on this turn to God’s inner-life and its connection to the economy (projected its image in the economy), provided fodder for which to develop an account of human flourishing. God’s eternal life, as developed through the economy, priviledged a distinct set of images. Kelsey notes the “communion in self-giving love” as one such image.

5. Kelsey pushes this off until later chapters, turning next to the relationship between the questions, “What is the logic of Christian beliefs?” and “What is the logic of coming to belief or to faith in God?”

Kelsey offers exactly what one might expect, a theological exploration of the grammar of Christian self-understanding through the development of trinitarian and christological controveries and creedal developments. Kelsey focuses on the early community’s trinitarian understanding of God and how that was tied up with its practices and common life. More to come…

Any thoughts off the bat?

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3 thoughts on “Eccentric Existence: Part 1 (of many)

  1. It sounds as though Kelsey employs an excellent anthropological methodology. When you speak him engaging with trinitarian and christological controveries and creedal developments do you refer specifically to the controversies of the early church and the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed or does Kelsey address the theologies and confessional developments of later periods as well?

    • At this point, Kelsey has focused on the ecumenical texts, and I imagine that he probably will continue to do so. I’ll keep an eye open for that as I continue to read, and I’ll try to flag it if I notice something in later posts.

  2. Kyle:

    A sometimes-minister friend of mine said, “If you’re a believer, go into the ministry; if not, go into theology.”

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