“Theological Anthropology: A Guide for the Perplexed” – Book Review

One of my goals for 2020 was to read more. Some of that reading has been the result of taking some graduate classes. I figured I would share some insights of the books I’ve read recently.

Cortez, Marc. Theological Anthropology: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: T&T Clark International, 2010. 167 pp. $26.95

Biographical Sketch of the Author

Doctor Marc Cortez holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theology and Greek from Multnomah Bible College, two Master’s Degrees in Theology from Western Seminary, and a Ph.D. in Theology from University of St. Andrews. Not only is he a professor of Theology at Weaton College, but he is also one of the leading theologians on Theological Anthropology in today’s time, with a specialized emphasis in Christological Anthropology, the imago Dei, the writings of Karl Barth, and several other thinkers. 

He has written an assortment of books aiming to broaden the reader’s understanding of free will, sexuality, the relationship between the mind and body, and the image of God. His passion for the text and an understanding of theological anthropology comes across in one of those books, Theological Anthropology: A Guide for the Perplexed, which is a textbook widely used in colleges and seminaries. 

Summary of Contents

Cortez laid the groundwork for a solid foundation and framework on which to study theological anthropology, beginning with a Christological understanding of humanity then continuing on with a look at imago Dei and human sexuality, ultimately addressing different thoughts in the compatibility of mind and body and the understanding of free will.

The study of man has been addressed from various vantage points throughout the years. Though mankind may be well acquainted with the act of being human, there remain questions about humanity and the study of it. Theological anthropology is the study of humanity from a theological vantage point. It aims to address the questions of human identity and essence – “Who am I?” and “what am I?” – while acknowledging that the answers will never be fully revealed prior to the return of Jesus since He is the fulfillment of the imago Dei

Theologians largely agree on several points that define the image of God; however, there are points of contention, one of those being how the image of God is reflected. The presence of God in imago Dei is representational, personal, and covenantal. God’s people were created to enter into covenantal relationship with Him and manifest the personal presence of God through their relationships with one another. 

There is a distinct and intimate connection between who humanity is as persons and as sexual beings. Multiple debates surround human sexuality and how it influences the essence of humanity, even within theological circles. Cortez says that sexuality and gender are defined in part by biology (genitalia, chromosomes, etc.) and cultural influences (stereotypes, gender shaping, etc.); however, they are ultimately defined by theological factors (44).

Sexuality is seen as a person’s desideration for bonding. This leads to the desire for sexual partnership in marriage, communal relationships and friendship, and even the need for a bonding relationship with God.

The authors of the Old and New Testaments had plenty to say about humanity and people although there is a noticeable absence of scripture on ontological views of what it is to be a human. Physicalists and dualists have their varying understanding of the correlation of mind and body with a few points that they mostly agree on. God designed humans to be identified as embodied beings with real mental capabilities and understanding of such should take into account findings of contemporary science. That identity carries on through the process of death and resurrection. 

No matter the view of Christian anthropology, there are several things that must be affirmed coherently. While each ontological view should be held loosely, any that reject or cannot explain these views should be rejected. The most notable of those views is the truth that Jesus Christ should be the foundation on which Christian anthropology is built. Even with that, there will always be aspects of humanity that are not comprehended or explainable. 

One of the longest debated facets of anthropology is that of free will. Its understanding influences so many areas of ontology yet after millennia of discussion there is still no easy resolution. Most agree that humans have free will and with it comes some degree of moral responsibility among people; however, theologians do not necessarily define free will the same. Free will fits with the doctrine of divine sovereignty but the degree of compatibility shifts with different schools of thought. 

Classical compatibilism argues that man is free to choose unless an outside and preexisting source stops man. In other words, man has free will within the strict parameters of God’s sovereign allowances/restrictions. Then comes the unanswered question: is that choice truly free? This leans toward determinism. On the other hand, libertarianism rejects determinism while elevating free will. Ultimately, when the views of the mind, body, and the compatibility between God’s sovereignty and free will are measured against the imago Dei framework, it must be concluded that each of the leading views have legitimate questions to answer. Theologians should continue to pursue a deeper understanding of ontology, as that pursuit of understanding is part of what it means to be human.

Critical Evaluation

The goal of Cortez’s Theological Anthropology seems to be to emplore his reader to engage the ontological questions of identity and essence: “who and what am I?” (2). If a reader is expecting to read this book and walk away with simple answers to these questions, they will be disappointed. Cortez takes a methodical walk through a few different facets of what it means to be human and how that correlates with a Christocentric foundation. With that said, what he set out to do, he did very well. 

In each of the chapters Cortez offers an informative overview of the subject at hand. After his introductory chapter, he spends a chapter each on imago Dei, sexuality, mind and body, and free will. While the scope of this book is not one to allow for extensive lists of the differing views with each subject, he does offer a handful of the leading views in each one with an explanation of each school of thought’s strengths and weaknesses. 

The flow of the book was smooth. It is easy to track with where he is in expounding the different topics. Whether he is pointing out arguments against views or gaps in their thinking, he did so in a way that flowed with the same format through each chapter. As he concluded most chapters Cortez would give thoughts on a way forward and a conclusion. He would bring together the views from that chapter and help the reader understand what to do with the information and ways to begin the groundwork on further reading and research. With Cortez’s background in anthropology, the reader will inevitably appreciate his thoughts on the subjects, though many will probably want him to give more conclusive answers to the questions he initiates.  These sections at the conclusion of each chapter were the most reader friendly in the sense that they were the easiest to understand. That is unless you pick the book up with a philosophy or theology background as Cortez definitely pushes the reader to dig, think, and comprehend words, phrases, concepts, and beliefs that are rarely addressed in church circles. 

Along those lines, the pages of resources he references at the conclusion of the book are a valuable tool to any reader looking to further their reading in any of the topics. It would be a great starting block to dig into any of the topics further. 

One of the things that I struggle to understand and connect with is Cortez’s view on the correlation between human sexuality and how its revelation of man’s incompleteness leads him to bond through relationality. Specifically, what seems to be his view that sexuality leads to relationality and eschatological connectiveness to God (66). He goes on to say, “we can say that the divine being is ‘sexual’—that is, in God we see the three person who are both ‘other’ and same’ eternally bonded in intimate community” (67). Without question he is an expert on this matter, but it leaves me curious and desiring more explanation. Though it may be an issue of semantics, throughout the book this was the one concept that, if I am understanding what he is saying, I struggle to bring myself to accept. 

Cortez did a great job beginning his address of each topic with a general consensus. It levels the field and brings the reader to a place of common understanding, regardless of most preconceived convictions. He also points out weaknesses and flaws in the different views and calls schools of thought to return to Jesus and a Christocentric approach (97). Since Jesus and the imago Dei should be the starting point, it was refreshing to see him do such. 

His allowance for unanswered questions is both disappointing and refreshing. If the reader comes to this work wanting answers, they will be disappointed. However, it is encouraging to see theologians that are willing to say, “I do not know.” Cortez reminds the reader often that answers to many of the questions raised will not be answered until the return of Christ and humanity is able to see the completion of the imago Dei. 

2 thoughts on ““Theological Anthropology: A Guide for the Perplexed” – Book Review

  1. I like the subtitle ” A guide for the preplexed” . Do you feel more or less perplexed after reading the text? The section on free will seems especially timely. I hope our church will explore this topic in future studies. It seems like the issues of free will and differing definitions of sovereignty have become a taboo topic that some avoid talking about.
    Congratulations on your continued studies. Look forward to reading future reviews.

    Like

    1. Hey Ryan! Thanks for commenting…
      Honestly, it was a book that had me wading deeper than I normally go, so it many ways the answer is that I still feel perplexed. Ha!

      Over the course of this last class I came under a bit of conviction that I had gotten a bit comfortable in not having much of an opinion on the tough theological topics. My approach was “who knows?” so I didn’t really dig in. However, the course forced me to dig in. So in regards to the topic of free will, God’s providence, etc. I’m still trying to work through where I stand.

      I feel like a lot of pastors don’t tackle the topic for two reasons (thought there’s more): 1) there is no cut and dry answer to these questions, and 2) free will, specifically, is so polarizing that the ones on the far ends of the debate can get a bit unhinged with folks that disagree. Therefore, we tend to steer clear.

      All that said, I’m enjoying the classes and the reading. We miss you and your crew and pray for y’all and your coworkers often! Thanks for all you do, brother!

      -T

      Liked by 1 person

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