Theological Anthropology versus Anthropology

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General anthropology deals with the study of the human experience. Eriksen (2017) describes the discipline as “a comparative study of humans, their societies, and their cultural worlds” (p. 3).  As well, general anthropology seeks to understand who/what is man apart from God and ignores the implications of the Fall of Man (Gen. 3). In contrast, theological anthropology explores the entirety of the human experience, “with all its complexities and ambiguities,” and  “is viewed from the standpoint of the biblical story, which is both the story of sin and the story of glory and the glory of divine salvation” (Cameron, 2005, p. 54). 


Rusty Small defines theological anthropology as a study of “what Christianity affirms about humanity” (week 1 lecture). Fleshed out, Hughes (as cited in Cameron 2005) suggests that theological anthropology “highlights several features of human experience, which bears the imprint of God’s image (imago Dei) in humanity―personality, spirituality, rationality morality, authority, creativity” (p. 57). Why is imago Dei central to theological anthropology? Because it was always God’s plan from the beginning that mankind become like His Son (Rom.8:29), the image of God (2 Cor. 4:4), and the basis for the entirety of the human experience. Kilner (2018) describes this as “having a special connection with God and indeed being a meaningful reflection of God” (p. 53). The Hebrew and Greek terms rendering a more precise range of meanings (respectively) are tselem andeikon. Keep in mind, the concept of the image of Christ “designates an image that is similar to, but not an exact representation of, the original” (Kilner, 2018, p. 59). This “image” is described as a “standard of what humanity should be, toward which people are being transformed – a close connection to God, a manifestation of God’s glory and a visible reflection and expression of who God is and how He acts” (Kilner, 2018, p. 62).

How men and women have defined imago Dei has been the source of disagreements for centuries. These disagreements include narrowing the meaning of image-bearing (2 Cor. 4:4; Heb. 1:3; Col. 1:15), associated with Christ’s connection with and reflection of the Father. Where is the line drawn for those who claim humans are “gods” given that Christ took on the likeness of humanity (Phil. 2: 6-8)? Is one race superior to another? How does one attribute human likeness to Christ-likeness (image of Christ)? Kilner (2018) posits, that “Christ, then, as the likeness of humanity, frees people from the sin that prevents them from fulfilling God’s intentions for them as God’s likeness-­image. Christ as the image of God, meanwhile, is the standard for what being God’s image should look like” (p. 72). Historically, the varied interpretations of imago Dei have both encouraged the liberation and protection of people, as well as oppressed and destroyed countless lives.

On the positive side, the liberating knowledge that all humans bear God’s image has informed countless works promoting human dignity, human rights, and the promoting of justice on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised. On the negative side, atrocities such as abortions, slavery, genocides, the dehumanization of peoples, “the mass manufacture of nerve toxins, court-­mandated sterilizations, and harmful experimentation on prison populations have only become thinkable once the perpetrators have set aside the protective view that all human beings are in God’s image” (Kilner, 2018, p. 7).

Lastly, another disagreement centers around whether humans still possess the image of Christ given the biblical “fall.”  To that claim, this author agrees with John Piper (1971) who states “the image of God which Christians receive is really, but only partially, possessed in this life;” and “to receive the image of God through Christ means to begin to share in his glory, knowledge, righteousness, and holiness.” Given that the present culture continues to affirm the impact of a reductionistic view of humanity (Rom. 1), the challenge, then, lies in integrating both general and theological anthropology for the benefit of humanity and the ultimate glory of God and His purposes.

References:

Charles, C. (2005). An Introduction to theological anthropology. Evangel 23.2, 53-61. Retrieved from 

https://www.theologicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/anthropology_cameron.pdfEriksen, T. (2017). Why Anthropology? In What is Anthropology? (pp. 3-18). London: Pluto Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctt1pv89ct.4. Retrieved from 

https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.liberty.edu/stable/j.ctt1pv89ctKilner, J. F. (2018). Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the image of God. Retrieved from 

https://app.wordsearchbible.lifeway.comPiper, J. (1971). The Image of God: An approach from biblical and systematic theology. Studia Biblica et Theologica. Retrieved from 

https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-image-of-godSmall, R. (2020). CLED 800 Week 1 Video Presentation. Liberty University: Lynchburg, VA.GoogleImage

Written by Kevin A. Hall

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