The Importance of Christological Anthropology pt. 1

Religious roots of humanism found in the Imago Dei

Below is the opening of a presentation by Jens Zimmermann at a conference at Baylor University in early 2012. The purpose of the conference was to bring together a panel of Protestants and Catholics to discuss what it means to live the Christian life. Prof. Zimmermann’s presentation is a stirring call for a re-examination of what it means to be human and an attempt to bring into unity the various roles people play on the stage that is life. How can we be people who work, rest, play and be a Christian? The conversation starts with the fact that God became man so that we have the example of what it means to be human.  Read what Jens has to say…

Because my chosen topic is very broad, I thought it helpful to provide you with an interpretive lens for my presentation by stating the principle motivation for choosing this theme of christological anthropology. This topic lies at the heart of my scholarly efforts to articulate the common root for our Christian ecclesial, professional, and public commitments.  Who we are, and what we are here for, where we are going and how we get there, these are questions of which I want to know at least the beginning of an answer in order to have an integrative sense of meaning for the various roles of my Christian life as a husband, father, brother, teacher, university employee, and democratic citizen.

Many of my postmodern colleagues reject such a desire because they mistakenly equate an integrative focus that renders life meaningful with self-legitimating narratives of oppression. Unlike them, I find the fragmentation of life unbearable, and a unifying vision for what it means to be human indispensible for mental and spiritual sanity. Fragmentation of life is not limited to the postmodern mindset, however. Christians raised in a modern world, a world stripped of sacramental or transcendent dimensions, often have trouble reconciling their individual, inner faith experience with the secular world outside of the faith community. Yet a holistic view of human existence requires nothing less. When I try to explain this desire to my mostly evangelical students, I usually put it like this:  at the most intimate moment of worship, when we celebrate and participate in the presence of God during the Eucharist, how is this event not only of interior, mystical significance but how is it genuinely linked to every facet of my life in such a way that it gathers everything I am and do under one integrative focus? I found the answer to this question in the christological anthropology of the church fathers.  More precisely, the unifying focus for the Christian life is the idea of deification as expressed by the recurrent phrase in the early Christian tradition that “God became man so that we could become like God.” The frequent appearance of this catchphrase in early Christian theology indicates the centrality of the incarnation for patristic anthropology. Indeed, what makes patristic theology so attractive, is that the wonder at the miracle and mystery of the incarnation is still fresh. Athanasius, for example, marvels at the fact that  “at one and the same time, this is the great wonder—as Man He was living a human life, and as Word He was sustaining the life of the universe, and as Son He was in constant union with the Father.”[1]  Many important theological and philosophical implications flow from this conjoining of the divine and the human, this union of the eternal Word and Son through whom all things were made with human nature.[2] For our topic, the most important aspect of this doctrine is that the mystery of the incarnation gave rise to what Henri de Lubac has aptly called the fathers “all-embracing humanism.”[3]  In patristic theology, Christianity is not about saving individual souls from hell-fire, but it is about being and becoming truly human. In an incomprehensible exchange that manifested God’s unwavering covenant faithfulness and love for creation, God “took what was ours to be his very own so that we might have all that was his.”[4] In becoming human, God, and thus very being and very life itself, entered into and took upon himself a human body marked by sin and death to revitalize and transform humanity from within. God, as Irenaeus put it, “recapitulated in Himself the ancient formation of man, that He might kill sin, deprive death of its power and vivify man.”[5]  Along with other Greek and Latin fathers, [6] Irenaeus advocated a resolutely Christological anthropology according to which human beings were created in the image of the second person of the Trinity.  The fathers believed that Israel’s history with God already was an education in humanity. Yet the final interpretation of the imago dei,  the last word on what true humanity actually looked like was not revealed until the incarnation. Irenaeus makes clear the importance of the incarnation for a Christian understanding of humanity:


And then, this word was made manifest when the Word of God was made man, assimilating Himself to man, and man to Himself, so that by means of this resemblance to the Son, man might become precious to the Father. For in times long past, it was said that man was created after the image of God, but it was not [actually] shown; for the Word was as yet invisible, after whose image man was created. Wherefore also he [man] did easily lose the similitude. When, however, the Word of God became flesh, He confirmed both these: for he both showed forth the image truly, since he became Himself what was his image; and he re-established the similitude after a sure manner, by assimilating man to the invisible Father through means of the visible Word.[7]

…continue to part 2 here…

[1] On the Incarnation (Ignatius Edition), 45. See also, Cyril of Alexandria’s similar remark: “He remained Lord of all things even when he came for the economy, in the form of  a slave, and this is why the mystery of Christ is truly wonderful . . . . Indeed, the mystery of Christ runs the risk of being disbelieved precisely because it is so incredibly wonderful. For God was in humanity. He who was above all creation was in our human condition; the invisible one was made visible in the flesh; he who is from the heavens and from on high was in the likeness of earthly things; the immaterial one could be touched; he who is free in his own nature came in the form of a slave; he who blesses all creation became accursed; he who is all righteousness was numbered among transgressors; life itself came in the appearance of death. All this followed because the body which tasted death belonged to on other but to him who is the Son by nature” (On the Unity of Christ, 61). Clement of Alexandria exclaims in like manner, “Oh mystic wonder! The Lord was laid low, and man rose up” (Exhortation to the Heathen, ANF Volume 2,  203).

[2] We can note, for instance, the important extension of the internal to the economic Trinity (“in constant union”) so that in the incarnate Christ we really do see God. Christ is more than an exemplar of God, but his actual embodied reality. There is not hidden God “behind” this self-revelation.

[3] Henri de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, trans. Lancelot C. Sheppard and Elizabeth Englund (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 321.

[4] Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ, 59.

[5] Against Heresies (ANF Volume 1, book 3, ch. 18, p. 448).  A later passage expresses the same idea with added emphasis no reconciliation: “And the Lord summed up in Himself this enmity, when He was made man from a woman, and trod upon his [the serpent’s] head” (Ibid., 524 r.c.). Clement, similarly, argues that in the incarnation, God “enacted the drama of human salvation: for He was a true champion and fellow-champion with the creature” (Exhortation to the Heathen, ANF 2, 203). See also the following passage from Gregory Naziansus “Let us become like Christ, since Christ became like us. Let us become gods for him, since he became man for us. He took the worst lot that he might give the better; he become poor that we thorugh his poverty might receive freedom; he came down that we might be lifted up; he was tempted that we might conquer; he was dishonoured that he might bring honour; he died that he might save” (First Easter Oration in NPNF, 2nd series, vol,vii, pp. 203-204).

[6] Tertullian, for example, offers this view, whereas Augustine feared that such emphasis on the second person of the trinity might imply that the son is of lesser value. But, as Catheryn Tanner points out, “the premise of such a worry is disputed by most theologians who identify the image with the Word: it is by being in the image of the second person of the trinity that we come to be in the image of the trinity as a whole” (Christ the Key, 5).

[7] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 544 (5.16.2) (italics in the original).

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