In the course of philosophical and theological history, the question “what does it mean to be human?” rests at the center of much intellectual inquiry. To attempt to survey the Christian understanding of the human being, along with the relevant questions that result, is no small task. Joshua R. Farris sets out to accomplish this task in An Introduction to Theological Anthropology: Humans, Both Creaturely and Divine. Writing from a broadly Reformed perspective, Farris guides the reader through the larger human narrative of Christian theology and scripture while arguing for an understanding of both the creatureliness and divinity of the human person (xviii–xxii). Farris’ method of philosophical inquiry interpreted by theological insights is evident in the very structure of the text, organized in a “standard way of arranging theological loci” (xix), yet it emphasizes the narrative arc of creation, redemption, and eschaton (the end). Though the book is intended to be a critical survey of the salient issues regarding theological anthropology, the narrative that shapes Farris’ treatment of these subjects is one that emphasizes the creaturely nature of humanity seen in its embodied life, patterns of birth, immaterial and material makeup, and its dependence on others (283). Alongside this is the central idea of God’s relationship to these realities, as Farris’ simultaneously affirms humanity’s divine position in relation to God’s creation of humanity, redemption of humanity, and union with it (284). Thus, the guiding principle that unites these various issues is profoundly and explicitly theological.
The success of Farris’ method is seen particularly within his initial treatments of personal ontologies (30), evolution (51), and the imago Dei (image of God, 79). By briefly surveying the common understandings of human ontology, ranging from reductive physicalism to substance dualism, Farris brings the theological data to bear upon the subject. Not only does he give a compelling account of substance dualism by pointing to the continuity of personal identification through stages of change (36), Farris also points to a theological understanding found in scripture that ties this dualism to the creational narrative by which humanity is understood in relation to God (46, 81). Aware of the seeming unpopularity of substance dualism, Farris makes the case that holding to a philosophical/theological understanding of the position does not negate the value of the material but rather places its value in the context of the creating and redeeming acts of God (50, 63, 72, 76). Situating the human ontologies of both body and soul in the context of humanity’s divine origins plays a central role in how Farris understands the purposes of humanity in relation to God and to other humans.
These first chapters lay the ontological and narrative foundations for Farris’ subsequent treatment of freedom and responsibility (134) and original sin (135). Farris argues for the compatibility of philosophical data relating to human responsibility and the theological data related to human sin, pointing to the fact that the latter does not negate the former (159). It is clear how the Christian narrative of redemption plays a significant role in constructing metaphysical accounts of the human person, and this narrative significance is likely Farris’ strongest contribution to the wider conversations.
Upon establishing these ontological and metaphysical foundations, Farris then begins his exploration of Christological and cultural questions regarding anthropology. While Farris admits to his own skepticism regarding Christological anthropologies, confessing that he is “dubious about constructing a totalizing or comprehensive vision of humanity from Christology” (162), he nevertheless provides a brief foundation for this approach to aid the reader in doing further work. While stronger Christological anthropologies argue for the fundamental metaphysical and substantial foundation of Christ to our understanding of the human person, Farris focuses on Christ’s human nature as a confirmation of “theories of constitution” (165) and on Christ’s atoning work in the narrative of humanity’s redemption (176). A critique certainly could be offered against Farris’ skepticism of Christological anthropologies and his satisfaction with natural law and creational narratives (162), but with his goal in mind Farris succeeds in introducing the Christological approaches to anthropology and offers a space in which the reader can do the work to expand this field.
In Farris’ treatment of what might be construed as the ethical field of anthropology (culture, race, disability, gender, and sexuality), he maintains the methodology of using both philosophical and narrative theological approaches to point to humanity’s role in God’s creative and redemptive work. The treatment of disability provides a quick sketch of two approaches to thinking eschatologically about those with disabilities but leaves the ways in which disability problematizes more foundational questions of the human person open for further engagement (203). It would be worthwhile to see the topic of disability earlier in a text like this, so as to convey how it introduces questions of ontological makeup or capacity, since as it stands Farris seems to reduce the conversation to the role those with disabilities play in the kingdom via their availability for Christ’s healing work (203). Yet, Farris is successful in displaying how this issue is central to theological anthropology and central to the diverse creative, redemptive, and eschatological works of God.
Overall, Farris’ large undertaking serves as a successful introduction to the vast field of theological anthropology. Readers are not only exposed to the in-depth conversations of ontology, Christology, culture, and the like, but also invited to expand and explore the avenues Farris has left open. This book is an essential recommendation to any reader in need of a guide to traversing this important and growing question of what it means to be human.
Cody Bivins is an independent scholar and an assistant at L’Arche Portland.
Date Of Review:
July 15, 2021
Joshua R. Farris (PhD, University of Bristol) is Chester and Margaret Paluch Lecturer for 2019–2020 at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake. He was assistant professor of theology at Houston Baptist University.
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