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Dependent Creatures

In his book, Dignity, Chris Arnade introduces his readers to Takeesha, who he had met in the neighborhood of Hunts Point, the Bronx. When asked how she wanted to be described she said, “As who I am, a prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God.” Takeesha’s story and her context in Hunts Point can awaken us to the ways our theological anthropology makes sense of our world and gives direction to the life of the local church.

There is perhaps no area of doctrine so contested in the public sphere as theological anthropology. People are asking what does it mean to be a human, and who gets to say? Local church pastors face challenges surrounding gender and sexuality, challenges surrounding the use of power in social systems or relationships, and a cascade of mental health issues. Virtually every headline in the news involves theological anthropology.

The general study of anthropology is extremely broad, covering human biology, behavior, culture, social groupings, and communication. The traditional doctrinal questions of theological anthropology have oriented around the origin, nature, constitution, and moral qualities of human beings as image bearers of God. In this way, the doctrine of humanity overlaps with the doctrine of God and Creation, but also with Christology (God incarnate), Sin, Salvation, and the Church. Kelly Kapic notes that the image of God has “often served as shorthand for the whole doctrine of humanity.”[1]

Christian theological anthropology teaches us that Takeesha is an image bearer, who like all of us, suffers from the corruption but not the loss of that image. One question is, can we see the image of God in the face of Takeesha? Another question is, in just what ways is that image distorted by sin and suffering? In what follows, I will give a very brief overview of the doctrine with some practical points of emphasis for the local church.

The Foundations of Theological Anthropology

The idea of humanity as the image of God originates in God’s first determination to make humanity “in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). Theology has focused on this phrase, not because Genesis 1 answers all of our questions, but because this relationship to God is fundamental to understanding humankind.[2] To image God is to be like him in some way and to carry out some sort of reflecting function. The three leading candidates for how we are like God are: capacities (e.g., reason), functions (e.g., exercising dominion, Gen. 1:26), and/or relationality. It is common to admit that each of these assumes the others, and that we need to affirm a holistic image where we represent God as image bearers in our capacities, functions, and relations.There is perhaps no area of doctrine so contested in the public sphere as theological anthropology. Click To Tweet

Theological anthropology develops its understanding of what it means to be human through a redemptive historical pattern, especially Creation, Fall, and Redemption. I want to highlight how the themes of capacities, functions, and relationships are present in the Biblical text in the structure created relationships in Genesis 1-2. Our origin story establishes that we are holistically embodied creatures made to cultivate fruitfulness on the earth.

Genesis 1-2 explain how the man and the woman are created in relationship to God, to one another, and to the land. Genesis 2:7 teaches that our origin is from God as creator and life-giver. He establishes relationship with us through gifts, blessing, and commands. We also originate from the ground, establishing a relationship of mutuality with the land, oriented toward cultivation of the land for blessing. This dual origin is also our first indication that humankind is constituted of body and soul (Matt 10:28). In a similar way, Genesis 2:23 highlights origin and a relationship of mutuality between the man and the woman. The text puns both man and ground and woman and man. “Man” (’ādām) from the ground (’adāmāh). “Woman” (’īšāh) is from “Man” (’îš). Each seems to establish a cooperation oriented toward an aspect of human flourishing, fruitfulness of the ground and the womb (Deut 28:4), each according to God’s blessing in Genesis 1:28, “be fruitful and multiply.”