On the Vice of Forgetfulness (Or, Why Theological Retrieval is Necessary for Cultural Warfare)
At the last Together for the Gospel conference, I attended a panel conversation entitled, Together in an Age of Division. The panelists were Nate Akin, Brian Davis, Dustin Messer, Andrew Walker and Joe Rigney. Each of the panelists made worthwhile contributions to the conversation, but it is the reflections of the last two names that inspired this post. I am particularly grateful for how thought-provoking two comments were. The first of these thought-provoking comments was Rigney’s, when he said that anthropology was the “single most important theological issue of our day.” It does not take a stretch of the imagination to see why Rigney might say something like this. As a civilization, we seem to have come to a crisis moment in which even the most basic of questions surrounding humanity are unanswerable (be it because we are genuinely confused, or because we are genuinely afraid of answering them honestly).
The examples we could cite are legion, but consider the following: a man who changed his name from Will to Lia broke six records in NCAA female swimming, and we cannot figure out if he is a heroic woman or a prime example of “toxic masculinity;” the most recent incumbent Supreme Court Justice cannot define what a woman is because she “is not a biologist;” ethnic heritage has ascended to becoming the primary and most important identity marker a person can have; and despite the break-neck speed of medical and technological advancements that would seem to uniquely qualify us to answer this question, we still cannot find ourselves to identify as a society when life begins. This is a confused and confusing age. Small wonder, then, why Carl Trueman’s recent book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self has received such eager engagement. It is as if we were aching for some kind of intellectual orientation—a map of recent history with a bright red star and the caption, “You Are Here.” What are humans? What are they for? What is a person? How does one come to have an identity? These are the questions of our age.What are humans? What are they for? What is a person? How does one come to have an identity? These are the questions of our age. Click To Tweet
The Defining Issue of Our Day
Which is all to say, Rigney may very well be onto something when he says that anthropology is the single most important theological issue of our day. But as I pondered this comment, I could not help but relate it to John Calvin’s comment that “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” The topics of Theology Proper and Anthropology coinhere one another. We humans cannot contemplate God apart from the self-knowledge that we are creatures. All of our contemplating exercises happen within this complex of embodiment, and the physical grey matter we call our brains, and the miraculous mysteries we call consciousness and soul, all bound by time and space. All of our contemplating exercises happen, in other words, within the grooves of our nature. Until we come to grips with this fact, we will be forever hindered with a failure to launch, burdened with the unfortunate mistake of thinking that the essence of the divine is something within our grasp, just like any other matter that exists on our same plane of reality. And yet, we cannot know ourselves rightly to be creatures apart from the knowledge that we were made by the Creator. To know ourselves rightly, we must know Him of whom there is none greater rightly. And therein lies the paradox at the heart of all theology proper and anthropology: we must always theologize as self-aware and humble creatures, and we must always consider our creatureliness with a fear of God.
The Furnace of Conflict
As I pondered Rigney’s comment in light of Calvin’s paradoxical insight, Walker offered the second thought-provoking comment I referred to above. He said that he hopes and expects that future church history books will look back on this age, circa 1965 to [whenever this chapter is over], as the age when the church hammered out these issues. Presumably, Walker was making use of the principle many others have pointed out, which is that the Church’s theology is clarified and forged in the furnace of conflict. It is when the Church meets moments of crisis that she picks up the hammer and tongs and beats general and unformed convictions into sharp statements in the forms of creeds and confessions. I took his comments to mean something like this: if (in incredibly broad and crude strokes) the fourth century was when the Church was forced to articulate its convictions on the Trinity, and the fifth century was when the Church was forced to articulate its convictions on Christology, and the Medieval period was when the Church was forced to articulate its metaphysics, and the sixteenth century was when the Church was forced to articulate its convictions on revelation, Scripture, and soteriology, perhaps the twenty-first century is when the Church will be forced to articulate its convictions on anthropology and sexuality. I’m not sure if that’s exactly what Walker meant, but if it is, I think I agree with him.Therein lies the paradox at the heart of all theology proper and anthropology: we must always theologize as self-aware and humble creatures, and we must always consider our creatureliness with a fear of God. Click To Tweet
So, to summarize, Rigney observed that anthropology was the most important theological concern of our age, and Walker observed that it is, in fact, our age that will sort this theological concern out. In God’s providence, our age is likely the anthropological age similar to how the sixteenth century was the justification age. There are, however, at least two factors that complicate the rather crude summary (that, again, I broadly) agree with. The first factor is that anthropology has already been hammered out in profound ways. While the fine-toothed questions of our age about anthropology may not be codified in confessions and catechism answers, this is not because well-reasoned and matured articulations of anthropology were lacking (Matthew LaPine’s excellent work, The Logic of the Body, points to this fact—Aquinas’s anthropology was just about as well-refined as we could hope for). So, if this age is the age of anthropology, it is only because it is the age of forgetfulness.
The Age of Forgetfulness
This brings me to the second factor that complicates the summary that would simply put anthropology next in line of a long list of theological issues with which the Church catholic has wrestled (after Trinity, Christology, Scripture, and Soteriology): all of those other issues were hammered out in a context of self-conscious ecclesial and theological heritage. The fifth century church fathers were able to work out their Christology precisely because they had not forgotten what the fourth century church fathers taught them about the Trinity. They were building. The same is true all the way down through the reformation: the reformers worked out their convictions on Scripture and Justification within the inherited context of convictions about metaphysics, the Trinity, Christology, divine attributes, humanity, the relationship between the body and soul, etc. What separates our crisis surrounding anthropology from the Reformers’ crisis surrounding justification, in a way that is altogether unlike what separated their crisis surrounding justification from the fifth century church fathers’ crisis surrounding Christology, is a massive intellectual fissure we call the Enlightenment. We cannot simply build on what we have inherited because what we have inherited has already been disregarded. In fact, we were incentivized to disregard this inheritance in the name of intellectual maturity. To grow up, we had to move out and start a name for ourselves. Our prodigal departure promised self-fulfillment and freedom. But now we find ourselves eating out of the pods with the pigs and wondering where we went wrong.Our prodigal departure promised self-fulfillment and freedom. But now we find ourselves eating out of the pods with the pigs and wondering where we went wrong. Click To Tweet
This means that arguments over theological retrieval and doctrines like divine simplicity, immutability, impassibility, inseparable operations, eternal generation, monothelitism vs dyothelitism, kenotic Christology, and the extra calvinisticum are not altogether distinct from the culture wars and Christianity’s response to transgenderism or globalism or cultural Marxism, etc. This is important to say, because sometimes, on the one hand, we have theologians and philosophers who want to argue about Thomas Aquinas or the doctrine of divine simplicity or what constitutes as “Classical Theism,” who cannot be bothered with talk of Canadian pastors getting arrested or Disney catechizing children in the sexual revolution; they have bigger fish to fry. On the other hand, we have Christians eager to engage in the culture wars (rightly so, I believe), who believe that talk of metaphysics and the finer points of Trinitarian doctrine are distractions from what really matters. But the fact is, what really matters right now in our culture wars fundamentally depends on what really matters right now in our theological disputes. If our anthropology is not resourced by the theological heritage of the Great Tradition, all our culture warring amounts to nothing more than wheel-spinning. And if our theological resourcing of the past does not inform contemporary concerns material to the average Christian in an increasingly hostile culture, we are squandering a rich stewardship. All that to say, we have our work cut out for us. We have to simultaneously unlearn the revisionist theology detached from the Great Tradition and relearn the theology of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, even while having to unlearn the expressive individualism of our modern age and relearn the theological anthropology of biblical Christianity. We forsake either of these duties to our own peril, and the peril of future generations.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1, ed. John T. McNeil, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1060), 65.