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On Theological Anthropology
As we approach Newsletter #100, I’d love to hear from you! What has been your favorite topic or post over the last two years?
What’s a Human?
In the last few years, several wise commentators have observed that the defining question of our time is, “What is a human?” I first encountered this sentiment in a helpful First Things article years ago when preparing to give a talk at the 2017 Free Will Baptist National Association. My topic was transgenderism. Remember the old, halcyon days of 2017, when transgenderism seemed like a silly fad? Most of us knew more was at stake, but I’d be lying if I said I knew it would be as widely endorsed as it has been—especially in medicine.
In 2015, Ryan Anderson placed the issue in historical and theological perspective:
The two-thousand-year story of the Christian Church’s cultural and intellectual growth is a story of challenges answered. For the early church, there were debates about who God is (and who is God)….A thousand years later, with the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the Church saw renewed debates about salvation—building on those Augustine had waged with Pelagius, no less. Whichever side you favor with in the debates of the sixteenth century, they left the Church as a whole with a much richer theology of justification, ecclesiology, and soteriology. Debates about the nature of God, of salvation, and of the Church never disappear, of course. But today, the most pressing heresies—the newest challenges for the Church’s teaching and mission—center on the nature of man. The tribulations that marked the twentieth century and continue into the twenty-first—totalitarianism, genocide, abortion, and the sexual ideology that has battered the family and redefined marriage—have sprung from a faulty humanism. I don’t mean to equate each of these human tragedies with the others, but they all spring from faulty anthropology, a misunderstanding of the nature of man. 
Christians have been expressing concerns about the dehumanizing tendencies of modern culture for a long time. C.S. Lewis may have done so most memorably in The Abolition of Man, but by no means was he alone.
In seeking to understand the issues involved, I want to offer some definition and context to the term “theological anthropology.”
The theological commission on which I serve recently announced that its 2024 symposium was seeking papers on subjects in this area. Moreover, the Evangelical Theological Society’s annual meeting next month has adopted this as its conference theme. Numerous papers on its program will consider some angle of this broad topic. But what is it?
Anthropology is simply the “study of man.” But typically, researchers and academics will aim to be more precise, given how obviously broad this phrase is. Cultural anthropology may be the sub-discipline that receives the most attention since it seeks to understand human beings in their social and cultural lives across millennia. How people have functioned and still function in groups, tribes, and societies occupy scholars in this area.
Where does adding the phrase “biblical” or “theological” take us? Usually, biblical anthropology is associated with questions surrounding the nature of man as one with a soul and body (or body, soul, and spirit, depending on who you ask). This area of inquiry focuses on key terms in the Bible that are seen as part of human beings, such as heart, mind, soul, spirit, body, and/or flesh. I personally am fond of John Cooper’s Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting, and Craig Troxel’s With All Your Heart.
The subject is by no means trivial. Ever since modern evolutionary theory (or theories!) seeped into the assumptions of many biblical commentators and theologians, it has been increasingly difficult to disentangle those assumptions from the scholarship they’ve produced. More recently, neurology—specifically neurobiology and evolutionary biology—have brought more complexity to theological work.
As I’ve said many times before, common grace is to be taken seriously. Many findings in some of these fields are plausible and, more importantly, compatible with biblical truth. However, some are not.
What’s Theological about Anthropology?
Although “biblical anthropology” and “theological anthropology” are sometimes used interchangeably, the latter tends to reach further and deeper at the same time. Questions of the constitution of man (e.g., body and soul, male and female, mind and spirit) are explored in great depth, and especially as they relate to other aspects of Christian thought. I’ll mention just a few questions that would be discussed under the banner of theological anthropology:
If mental states are somehow associated with the brain, what can we say about the status of the soul in people who are brain dead?
If biological sex is a physical property, should gender be best understood as an extension of biology, a mental state, a social identifier, some combination of these, or something else?
Given that the Bible teaches that human beings were created as finite beings, and one of the causes of sin in Scripture are humans trying to reject their finitude (in different ways), how should we think of most modern technologies, which in various ways offer humans the capacity to transcend their embodied condition?
Some scientists assert that genetics point to the fact that human behavior is largely predetermined. How is this compatible with a view of human freedom?
One can draw a few conclusions very quickly from these questions. First, they are complicated! Second, they reveal a relationship between theology, ethics, philosophy, and more areas of understanding. Third, they are all extremely relevant to our present lives and ministries. Theological anthropology raises and helps answer (and reframe) some of the most crucial questions today.
We must finally reject the characterizations of theology as something that’s dry and dusty, or cold and sterile. It can be turned into those things. However, theology is inherently relevant. The number of books being published currently on theological anthropology—especially the body—should clue us into this fact. More importantly, the many questions related to human nature and purpose that many believers and unbelievers are wrestling with should be a sufficient wake-up call to the church to give more attention to this vital area of reflection.
 Ryan T. Anderson, “Same-Sex Marriage & Heresy,” https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2015/07/same-sex-marriage-and-heresy; Accessed 16 April, 2017.
In Newsletter #68 I wrote about war and war films. One reason a lot of Christians, me included, are hesitant to say much about this topic is because we could be perceived as giving a blanket endorsement to Christians watching extreme violence in television and film. (This is a subject that deserves more than 200 or 300 words.)
However, the recent brutality experienced by Israeli civilians at the hands of Hamas should at least remind us of another aspect of this discussion. Is portraying extraordinary violence, at times, essential to the integrity of filmmaking? If one is to capture the realism associated with armed conflict, can this be entirely whitewashed in the course of producing a film?
It's a question we need to at least consider as a matter of both ethics and aesthetics.
What I’m Reading (or Rereading):
Edward McClelland, How to Speak Midwestern.
Leila Philip, Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America.
Christie Tate, Group: How One Therapist and a Circle of Strangers Saved My Life.
Phillip Yancey, Where the Light Fell: A Memoir.
Quote of the Week:
Sometimes certain moments in history reveal in minutes what was concealed for decades. And sometimes those moments of revelation come with hearing oneself say the words, “Yes, but …” or “But what about …”
The aftermath of the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel is not one of those times. In this case, saying who is to blame—and who is not—is not factually or morally difficult at all.
“Bothsidesism” is an imprecise label, much like deconstruction or evangelicalism. There are several senses in which an appeal to “both sides” of the reality here are completely right. For one, both sides—all sides—are human beings created in the image of God. We ought to care about the lives and deaths of Israelis and of Palestinians in the West Bank, in Gaza, or anywhere else. An Israeli life is of no more value in the eyes of God than a Palestinian life, and vice versa.
“Both sides” is also perfectly appropriate when it comes to working for and hoping for a better future for both Israelis and for Palestinians. That rules out the unthinking acceptance of anything the modern state of Israel does (God certainly didn’t accept everything even biblical Israel did!). And it rules out chanting “From the River to the Sea” in Times Square, just as it rules out any viewpoint or program that would see Israel completely eradicated. We want “both sides” (here referring to Israelis and Palestinians, not to Hamas) to thrive and to co-exist.
All of that is far different from the kind of “both sides” language that has been used in some conversations about the morality of the Hamas attack. Hamas targeted innocent civilians. Hamas butchered young people dancing at a music festival. Hamas murdered elderly people and toddlers and babies, reportedly in the most sadistic ways imaginable. There is no “contextualization” needed to condemn that, to recognize Israelis (and innocent Palestinians) as victims here, with Hamas as the evildoer.
Russell Moore, “Israel, Hamas, and the Lure of Bothsidesism.”
Common Grace Wisdom: More on the Excesses and Harms of “Gender-Affirming Care.”
Lisa Selin Davis is a journalist who has been reporting on issues concerning gender for several years at Broadview. She does a great job touching on many of the relevant developments and controversies in this area. She especially exposes some of the propaganda and unfounded claims in the mainstream about trans issues, especially as it concerns the medicalization of children.
In a recent piece, she reports on some of the developments in my own region. These concern the St. Louis Transgender Center at Washington University. Pay close attention to the underlined portions:
The fallout in Missouri from Jamie Reed’s disturbing allegations about the care young patients received at the Washington University in St. Louis Transgender Center continues this week. The Center announced that it will completely stop providing puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones to children, even those who currently fall under a legal exemption for continuing care. Missouri’s recent law banning the gender medicalization of minors, SB 49, also allows gender clinic patients to sue until 15 years after they turn 21 or from the date of harm, whichever is later. As the Center put it, that creates an “unsustainable liability for healthcare professionals and makes it untenable for us to continue to provide comprehensive transgender care for minor patients without subjecting the university and our providers to an unacceptable level of liability.” It’s so strange that these clinicians seem to have suddenly lost confidence in the long-term benefits of the care they’re providing.
Perhaps this happened when doctors at the Transgender Center realized they couldn’t provide their legal counsel with good evidence for their existing interventions. We can only speculate, but in the continuing saga of low-quality gender affirmation research, Leor Sapir reported for City Journal on the latest JAMA Open Network study that claims to show benefits for early access to testosterone for transmen. TLDR: nope.
On My Mind: Back on Campus
Today and tomorrow, I am speaking to two groups of students at Welch College in Gallatin, Tennessee. I plan to share a portion of those remarks later here at Churchatopia.