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Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective

Cortez, Marc, Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective: Ancient and Contemporary Approaches to Theological Anthropology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 233 pp. $27.99 (paperback).

Reviewed by Timothy McGee (April 25, 2017)



In his latest text in theological anthropology, Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective, Marc Cortez surveys the Christian tradition in hopes of showing how Christology has informed various anthropologies. The book is extremely well-written, both in terms of the accessible language used and in the way Cortez guides his readers straight to the heart of various theological arguments. The deft summaries of these major theological voices, coupled with a good use of secondary materials, make the book ideal for classroom use. Each chapter focuses on a particular theologian, with the exception of the analysis provided in the final chapter, which means that each chapter stands on its own, allowing it to be easily excerpted for a supplemental course reading.

For his studies, Cortez engages one theologian from the patristic (Gregory of Nyssa), medieval (Julian of Norwich), and Reformation (Martin Luther) periods before turning to major modern and contemporary theologians: Friedrich Schleiermacher, Karl Barth, John Zizioulas, and James Cone. Knowing that selection is always normative, Cortez clarifies that he chose these authors in part because they offer relatively “high” Christologies. If the goal is to show how various anthropologies are structured by or grounded in Christology, then theologies that strongly emphasize the distinctiveness of Christ in relation to all other humans will offer more insight into how Christology functions in this determinative way (24).

Cortez is aware that his focus on method (226-7), or even the thematic focus on theological anthropology (24), is not a timeless issue shared by all these authors. Though Christology is central for some authors, like Karl Barth and James Cone, Cortez has to argue for this centrality for other figures. He notes John Zizioulas might be understood as a more Trinitarian than christological thinker but argues that the application of the trinitarian term “person” to human beings is structured by Zizioulas’s Christology (164). Similarly, Martin Luther’s notion of justification by faith moves from soteriology to Christology once justification is understood as being “righteous in Christ,” which becomes, on Cortez’s reading, “the essence of what it means to be human” for Luther (85). Cortez understands that each doctrine is interconnected with the rest yet believes he can isolate the Christology from this dense theological web to show how it plays a stronger, more determinative role in each theologian’s anthropology

There is, however, a significant procedural problem in his approach. Cortez wants to read each author along a kind of foundationalist trajectory, such that Christology operates as the basis of—offering epistemic warrant or grounds for (20) —anthropological claims. Each chapter therefore begins with a broad survey of a major christological theme in that author’s work before turning to show how it impacts his or her anthropology overall and in regard to a specific issue, like race, sexuality, vocation, or the mind-body problem. The texts he engages, however, were not written in this fashion and do not show evidence that the authors thought in this way. Further, to argue that Christology is determinative, one must isolate the Christological moment from the rest of the theologian’s doctrinal framework, which entails downplaying the way a particular Christology itself might be heavily determined by other doctrinal concerns, like Trinitarian personhood for Zizioulas or soteriology for Luther.

More problematic, however, is a point Cortez doesn’t consider. Cortez admits that culture, experience, and all sorts of other sources of data will influence any theologian’s anthropology (232). Christology is, therefore, not the only source of information, though it “alone reveals the ultimate truth of humanity” (228). The problem here is that Christology is presumed to have achieved some kind of cultural transcendence, functioning now as a kind of purely theological “hermeneutical lens” through which to decipher and correct all other accounts (228). Yet, it is quite evident that every Christology is set within certain intellectual, cultural, and material contexts. For instance, though Cortez may be correct that even Schleiermacher’s central category of religious feelings is structured by his Christology (123), Schleiermacher’s emphasis on experience itself, which is central to how he develops his Christology, comes not only from his own historical context, but also from a specific set of anthropological convictions. One could make similar points for each other authors Cortez analyzes. To frame the issue another way, Cortez does not maintain a careful distinction between the person of Jesus Christ and the intellectual discipline of Christology, something that raises questions both in terms of how he reads each author and what he ultimately hopes to gain through these readings.

Given the setting of the review, it will be apposite to say a few words about his treatment of Barth. Cortez’s chapter relies on his previous monograph on the mind-body problem in relation to Karl Barth’s theological anthropology (Embodied Soul, Ensouled Bodies: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2008). It is, like every other chapter, extremely clear and focused in its treatment, and, perhaps given his previous treatment of the theme, it is the shortest chapter, coming in at just over twenty pages. Barth’s commitment to offer a Christological anthropology gives Cortez the occasion to provide a more precise articulation for how such a “truly christological anthropology” will operate (162). Cortez specifies that there is a first set of arguments, moving from Christology to a set of implied, and therefore obligatory, claims about human existence. This initial move is then followed by an application of these general, christologically mandated beliefs to “particular anthropological issues” (162), like the relationship between the body and the mind, or many others. Though suggesting that Barth offers this “nuanced” methodology (162), Cortez also acknowledges that Barth never provided “principles” for making this movement from Christology to general anthropological claims (148), an absence that should perhaps give Cortez more pause than it does, especially since Barth is the figure most focused on this kind of Christological reasoning.

In his treatment, Cortez describes how, for Barth, the Gospels portray the soul of Jesus as directing his body (152). Cortez notes the biblical texts Barth cites as support for his view but misses an opportunity to reflect on an underlying problem for Barth, as well as for any Christological anthropology: the biblical authors wrote accounts of Christ out of their own cultural and theological frameworks. That Scripture speaks of Jesus Christ in a certain way, for instance, as an “embodied soul” (modifying Cortez’s chapter title), need not imply that such a hierarchal and dual ontology—spiritual and material substances—is required. It is a missed opportunity, both for the way this hierarchical ordering plays out all across Barth’s theological anthropology, most notably and controversially in his account of the relationship between men and women, and also for showing again how difficult it is to decide which aspects even of the biblical accounts should be taken as providing clear and theologically mandated anthropological claims.

If this review has focused on these methodological issues as opposed to the historical surveys of every figure, it is because Christological anthropology, for Cortez, is defined by this methodological and epistemic concern to reason from Christology to anthropology. This concern shapes which authors are discussed, how each chapter is structured, what themes are drawn out, how they are explicated, and the introductory and concluding discussions in the book as well. Those who largely share Cortez’s interests will find much to take from the book. Those who might be less interested in or suspicious of this his approach will certainly find aspects dissatisfying or problematic, and yet even they still have much to gain from the book. Though one might wish any account of Schleiermacher’s anthropology to mention and even engage his connections to the racialized anthropologies and global politics of the time, still, a clear account of some of the central theological claims he makes can be extremely helpful. Cortez offers these clear and concise engagements for each figure he considers.

Overall, the book is a considerable achievement, covering a vast amount of terrain with insight and clarity, all in under two hundred and fifty pages. Whether introducing new readers to major theological voices or refreshing the memories of those who’ve engaged them before, the ease in Cortez’s exposition makes the book well worth the read and a good resource to keep on the shelf.

Timothy McGee, Ph.D. Candidate, Southern Methodist University

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.