An increasingly common mode of theology is retrieval. Maybe that’s not the right way to phrase it, but the idea is that we aren’t the first people to ask theological questions. Just maybe some important voices from the past can shed light on our contemporary questions. If one is merely explaining what the past voices said, it’s historical theology. If you’re drawing the historical sources into the present it’s retrieval.
Marc Cortez has done a masterful job of this in his recent Christological Anthropology In Historical Perspective: Ancient and Contemporary Approaches to Theological Anthropology. While Zondervan doesn’t want to own the fact they published this on their website, they sent me a review copy nonetheless. You’ll notice the word “anthropology” shows up in the title and the subtitle. If I were to take a stab at rewording the title to eliminate jargon, it would actually be longer than it already is. It might help though if you’re new to this type of terminology. Basically, Cortez book is a study of how past voices have understood the man Jesus Christ and how that helps us understand humanity in a theological sense.
His chosen conversation partners are:
- Gregory of Nyssa
- Julian of Norwich
- Martin Luther
- Friedrich Schleiermacher
- Karl Barth
- John Zizioulas
- James Cone
The last two names are actually consider modern, and I suppose Barth is as well. Luther gives us a Reformer’s perspective and Schleiermacher and Enlightenment tinted one. Julian of Norwich gives us a medieval and mystical point of view, and Gregory of Nyssa represents the Church Fathers well.
These historical perspectives are bracketed by an introduction that explains what it means to use a Christ-centered lens for the study and a conclusion that points toward how this study can help our understanding of ourselves. For the former, Cortez explains,
In its most basic form, the fundamental intuition of a christological anthropology is that beliefs about the human person (anthropology) must be warranted in some way by beliefs about Jesus (christological). We will explore more deeply what this “in some way” actually means through these various studies. Even without a more precise explanation, through, the distinctive nature of a christological anthropology is that Christology warrants at least some anthropological claims in such a way that those claims are only true in virtue off the truth of their christological ground (20).
The two questions that then frame the study are “what does is mean to say that Christology somehow grounds anthropological claims?” And second, what issues in anthropology can such christologically oriented anthropologies meaningfully address?” (23) In the conclusion, Cortez makes a distinction between minimal and comprehensive christological anthropologies (225):
- A minimally christological anthropology is one in which (1) Christology warrants important claims about what it means to be human and (2) the scope of those claims goes beyond issues like the image of God and ethics
- A comprehensively christological anthropology is one in which (1) Christology warrants ultimate claims about true humanity such that (2) the scope of those claims applies to all anthropological data
He then notes that all of the case studies he worked through are the latter. Ultimately, each case study Cortez presents is from a perspective that is “convinced that a christological vision is necessary for a theologically adequate understanding of the human person,” yet also demonstrates “continued diversity within this common conviction” (232). In other words, they share a philosophical base even if they reach some varied theological conclusions. The authors are asking different questions and responding to different challenges. What Cortez suggests is that bringing these different perspectives to bear in our modern (and/or postmodern) context can be a fruitful theological project. These past theologians provide a kind of methodology that we can and should utilize in the present.
While not long, this book is fairly dense and it’s not something you’ll want to take the beach for light reading (unless you’re weird). The individual chapters can be read out of order (if you’re into that) but it is a commitment to really sit down and read a single chapter at once. I wouldn’t recommend pausing in the middle. It’s not actually that bad, I just want you prepared.
If you or someone you love is interested in studying the human person in light of theology and more importantly, Jesus Christ, this book is worth procuring. You don’t need a seminary degree to read and benefit from it, but you probably do need to be used to academic theological writing. If you are, you’ll benefit from listening to key voices from the past in order to have the tools to better understand the present (I think I said that before).