Theological Anthropology and Christian Formation

After my reviews of Jamie Smith’s work here and here, I’ve decided to do something of a series of book reviews here on theological anthropology, culminating in the new two volume Eccentric Existence by Kelsey. I have already looked at Cortez’s book on the subject in the Guide for the Perplexed series (here), and I will return to Cortez with a look at his dissertation-turned-monograph Embodied Souls, Ensouled Bodies. Here, I am looking at a new volume from Baker Academic entitled God’s Many-Splendored Image: Theological Anthropology for Christian Formation by Nonna Verna Harrison.

Harrison’s work follows along similar contours as many new volumes, which seek to bring Patristic teaching to the church today. The best example of this I have seen thus far was Fairbairn’s volume Life in the Trinity, which I reviewed here, here and here. I say best, because Fairbairn does not simply seek to offer tidbits from the Patristics, but to grasp the center of their theology and utilize their insights, in a holistic fashion, for modern theology. Harrison’s book, on the other hand, takes on a different feel. Throughout, one is left wondering if she is merely wielding her own thoughts and proof-texting Patristic sources to make her point. In the end, one is never sure, since her interaction with the Patristic material is used to answer specific questions outside the contours of their own work.

Harrison works through major issues in theological anthropology just as Cortez does in his work. Again, like Cortez, freedom becomes one of the defining features. What I found odd about her development though was that “freedom” was synonymous with “spontaneity.” Freedom became a static category which all personal beings fit into – whether that be humanity or God – and was one of the defining characteristics of the imago dei. I am all for discussions and emphases on freedom, but to link God’s freedom of spontaneity with our own understanding of freedom seems to collapse some central conclusions of a robust creature-Creator distinction. Furthermore, building on his point, “Christian Formation” is reduced to sheer fortitude. Though claiming to write something with more theological depth than the self-help material found in book stores today, I’m just not sure her view isn’t just that – self-help. In her words:

The message of the desert fathers and mothers is that though we are sinners, and though the world may tell us we are worthless, it is possible for us to learn, little by little, to become good people and to do good for others and thus to make a real contribution to society. In the church community, wise and experienced people can coach us, and with practice we can learn. So ultimately we can choose to be transformed for the better, though it takes work and persistence. In my opinion, this is an essential part of the good news of Jesus Christ” (26).

I have, in the end, the same frustration as with Smith’s volume. In an account of Christian formation, we are offered human formation generated from self-willing. The Spirit isn’t used to talk about true freedom, but freedom itself transcends the Spirit’s work to be an aspect of human persons as such. God’s work is something of an afterthought. What we find is an account of human freedom which works fully by itself – for believers and non-believers alike – but when it works for believers they are supposed to affirm God’s action as the causal role. It is hard to see why this is good news.

In the end, what I found missing in Harrison’s book is what Fairbairn’s book provided so well – a theological recasting of Patristic material into a helpful framework for which to think about these issues. Harrison shows deep knowledge of the Patristic tradition, a grasp of central issues in theological anthropology and an eye towards modern life under God – but her failure to develop a truly theological reconstruction leaves unanswered foundational issues to build upon.

3 thoughts on “Theological Anthropology and Christian Formation

  1. Kyle,

    The language of ‘spontaneity,’ as you probably already know, is from Kant, and is used as a technical gloss for freedom, which is an extremely indeterminate concept.

    Freedom is problematic concept for Christian theology in general, as surely God wants to create free creatures; but just how ‘free’ are they? This unhelpful question has dominated Western Chrisendom for centuries.

    As for issues of spiritual formation, spontaneity, and theological anthropology, all of these could be better served, in my opinion, by attention to the fact that humans are animals that are born way too early by mammalian standards (the unusually short gestation period coupled with a long dependency upon family) and need a great deal of attention before they even reach a place where ‘spiritual formation’ might be an issue.

    • Ken, your critique of Kantian (and Ignatian) freedom as spontaneity from the perspective of the intensive and necessary nurture of humans is well spotted.

      Maybe this is the reason for the quotes on spiritual formation, but it seems that we have now a very rich set of information on how nurture of young humans is a spiritual formation – of course that is no guarantee of its quality.

      Often Christians ignore infancy and childhood as a place of spiritual formation because we don’t consider our bodies or the bodies of others to be spiritual instruments or because we want to believe in an “age of responsibility” and thus in an “age of unresponsibility.”

  2. Good comments. I had many of the same thoughts as I read and reviewed the book. I also found her engagement with the Fathers to be frustratingly light, though I think that may have been because she was writing for a different (more popular) audience than I expected. Overall, I thought her comments about particular Fathers were accurate (though, I’d differ with her interpretation in places). My biggest issue here was that she selectively used just a few of the Fathers, but then took their ideas as representative of the Greek Fathers as a whole.

    And, I’d agree completely about what looked like a largely self-driven approach to Christian formation. I not only wouldn’t agree with that picture, but I don’t think it’s adequate to most of the Greek Fathers either.

    I’m looking forward to the rest of your series on this. Good choice of topics!

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