Re-Envisioning Christian Humanism

Education and the Restoration of Humanity

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Jens Zimmermann
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Humanism, perhaps, seems to tilt away from Christianity, at least in its traditional forms—whether Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant. While the language of humanism remains prevalent, its tone has taken on an increasingly secularist note in addressing “human life, work, society, and culture.” The wager of Re-Envisioning Christian Humanism is that “Christian humanism shares its concern for all these things with other forms of humanism, and more often than not joins forces with them to protect common values, but it differs from them in finding their motivation in the central beliefs of the Christian faith” (11). Indeed, the claim is made that there are uniquely Christian and distinctly theological reasons for attesting a “theo-anthropocentrism” (6).

The present volume seeks to commend Christian humanism in the face of sociological research that suggests that the secularization thesis fails as an explanatory hypothesis for modern progress, on the one hand, and the increasing malaise with regard to fundamental institutional purpose in major elements of Western society on the other hand (12). Jens Zimmerman has gathered a band of authors, then, to suggest ways in which a distinctly Christian humanism might inform and bolster humanistic concerns.

The structure moves historically. Three chapters address the classical or patristic roots of a Christian humanism, in which John Behr’s sketch of patristic humanism stands out notably (chapter 1) for its analysis of Irenaeus and Clement. Then three chapters consider the renaissance and reformation periods, focusing on figures such as John Calvin, Desiderius Erasmus, and John Jewel. A three chapter interlude, not focused so much on a particular historical period, addresses education and the arts, and their contribution to Christian paideia. Finally, three chapters turn to the (late) modern situation, and there are special analyses of Roman Catholic institutional and theological developments in the last two centuries by Martin Schlag and Russell Hittinger.

Christian humanism, at least as sketched here, winds up as a porous concept. Zimmermann’s chapter—“The Cultural Context for Re-Envisioning Christian Humanism”—comes the closest to offering a programmatic theological argument for humanism (144-148). Zimmerman helpfully shows the breadth of Christian humanistic concern, especially by plotting the ways in which the idea of “secularity” it a distinctly theological concept tethered to the period between Christ’s advents and drawing on Robert Markus’s study of Augustine (148,). But his other principled point, namely that “by replacing the Greco-Roman logos with Christ, Christian humanists transformed the Greco-Roman ‘image of God’” (147), does not receive much by way of hermeneutical development. Similarly, Behr’s chapter—the most exegetical of chapters in as much as it lingers over Irenaeus’s reading of the Scriptures—draws attention to the figural breadth of biblical attention to the spiritual significance of the human and creaturely condition, though it does rather less regarding the sharp edges of what precisely marks out the nature or essence (metaphysically) and law or wisdom (morally) regarding the proper fulfillment of that condition. It will not do simply to refer to the incarnation as the center of gravity apart from some careful analysis of the incarnation’s context, form, nature, and effect—as any survey of fourth and fifth century Christological heresies would show one.

This volume manifests a number of strengths, showing the ways in which humanism is a commitment suffering from a lack of conceptual ballast, and suggesting means by which Christianity might offer that needed principled support. At the same time, it raises questions regarding the nature of education, whether focused on technical mastery or advancement or some notion of moral paideia. Other essays, especially those by David Lyle Jeffrey and Brett Foster on literature, advance the conversation in showing how humanistic postures manifest themselves in disciplines that too often appear rather un-theological. Drawing out such observations enables one to identify competing humanisms, with variant metaphysical and moral connotations that sometimes overlap and sometimes diverge, at play in these fields of discourse.

The book rightly suggests that Christian humanism holds promise for conveying hope to a wide range of academic disciplines and, through their practice of paideia, for human society. What it does rather less in showing is how Christian humanism also offers specific principles for signifying that hope and shaping that paideia.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Allen is associate professor of systematic and historical theology at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida.Theo

Date of Review: 
June 29, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jens Zimmermann was born and raised in Germany. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of British Columbia, Canada, and a PhD in Philosophy from the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. He currently occupies the position of Canada Research Chair in Interpretation, Religion and Culture, and is Professor of English at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia, Canada. His publications include Hermeneutics: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2015) and Humanism and Religion: A Call for the Renewal of Western Culture (OUP, 2012).


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