Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective: Ancient and Contemporary Approaches to Theological Anthropology

Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective: Ancient and Contemporary Approaches to Theological Anthropology

by Marc Cortez


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What does it mean to be “truly human?” In Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective, Marc Cortez looks at the ways several key theologians—Gregory of Nyssa, Julian of Norwich, Martin Luther, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Karl Barth, John Zizioulas, and James Cone—have used Christology to inform their understanding of the human person. Based on this historical study, he concludes with a constructive proposal for how Christology and anthropology should work together to inform our view of what it means to be human.

Many theologians begin their discussion of the human person by claiming that in some way Jesus Christ reveals what it means to be “truly human,” but this often has little impact in the material presentation of their anthropology. Although modern theologians often fail to reflect robustly on the relationship between Christology and anthropology, this was not the case throughout church history. In this book, examine seven key theologians and discover their important contributions to theological anthropology.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780310516415
Publisher: Zondervan Academic
Publication date: 02/02/2016
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Marc Cortez (Ph D, University of St. Andrews) is Associate Professor of Theology at Wheaton College Graduate School. He is author of Theological Anthropology and Embodied Souls, Ensouled Bodies and has published articles in academic journals such as International Journal of Systematic Theology, Scottish Journal of Theology, and Westminster Theological Journal. Marc blogs at Everyday Theology (, writes a monthly article for, and had articles featured on The Gospel Coalition and Christian Post.

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Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective

Ancient and Contemporary Approaches to Theological Anthropology

By Marc Cortez


Copyright © 2016 Marc Cortez
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-310-51641-5


Beyond Genitalia

Gregory of Nyssa's Transformative Christology and the (Re)orientation of Sexuality

* * *

The scope of our proposed enquiry is not small: it is second to none of the wonders of the world, — perhaps even greater than any of those known to us, because no other existing thing, save the human creation, has been made like to God.

Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, preface

At first glance, Gregory of Nyssa might seem an unusual starting point for our study in christological anthropology. Some might even question whether Gregory offers a truly christological anthropology at all. Although no one would deny that Christology sits at the heart of Gregory's theological project, and several scholars have specifically labeled Gregory as a "christocentric" theologian, questions can be raised about the extent to which Gregory offered an explicitly christological approach to theological anthropology. In his famous On the Making of Man, one of the few treatises in the early church dedicated entirely to theological anthropology, Christology played a relatively limited role. Indeed, Gregory explicitly referred to Jesus only a handful of times in the entire manuscript. How can his theological anthropology be meaningfully informed by Christology when it makes almost no reference to Christ?

Additionally, Gregory is famous, even infamous, for construing human sexuality such that it appears not to be a fundamental aspect of what it means to be human. Instead, he seems to suggest that sexuality is an extraneous "add on" to human nature, and thus something that will not characterize humanity in its resurrected form. In the eschaton, we will transcend sexuality as we finally achieve the "true" and non-sexed humanity that God always intended. But one might legitimately wonder, how can a theological anthropology that starts with Jesus Christ and takes seriously the reality of the incarnation along with the fact that Jesus was male, avoid the apparently obvious conclusion that sexuality is important for being human?

Issues like these raise legitimate questions as to whether Gregory really qualifies as having developed a christological understanding of the human person. Nonetheless, as we move through this chapter, we will see that Gregory's anthropology is thoroughly christological, albeit rooted in a vision of human transformation that began with the incarnation and will continue on into eternity. Understanding this will help us appreciate Gregory's surprising interpretation of sexuality. Contrary to what some might think, Gregory was not simply captive to Greek suspicions of physicality in general and sexuality in particular. Instead, we will see that his vision of human sexuality flows from an anthropology that is transformational, eschatological, and ultimately apophatic, all three of which flow directly from his christological starting point.

Despite initial impressions, then, Gregory of Nyssa stands as one of the earliest theologians to develop a thoroughgoing theological anthropology rooted in Christology. That he does so in ways that produce startling conclusions about the human person in general and human sexuality in particular, conclusions that often challenge modern assumptions about what it means to be human, makes him an interesting interlocutor for our anthropological project.


Gregory's understanding of the human person is framed by three theological loci: the imago Dei, the incarnation, and the resurrection. And it is not difficult to see why, since all three loci introduce challenging questions about what it means to be human. According to many theologians, the imago Dei claims that fallen and finite beings somehow "image" the infinite and glorious divine being. Yet the attributes and actions of the divine and the human seem so radically contrary that it becomes difficult to imagine what it could possibly mean for one to image the other. Our imaginations are stretched even further when we consider the incarnation and its claim that two such disparate natures are actually joined in one person. And finally, the resurrection presents a vision of transformed humanity, leading to questions about whether there is any real continuity with our present existence and whether we remain truly human in such a radically transformed state.

Many theologians engage these issues by wrestling with how such things can be possible. Gregory, on the other hand, although he was certainly willing to ask how questions, prefers a logic flowing in a different direction. Instead of beginning with an existing understanding of the human person and focusing on how that kind of being can possibly image God or be united with a divine nature, Gregory allows his discourse to be directed by the that — given that humans image God, given that the incarnation is a reality, and given that the resurrection will take place, what must we believe about human nature? Taking these theological convictions as his starting point, Gregory offers a radical reinterpretation of what it means to be human.

Mirrors of God: Finite Images of an Infinite Reality

Like many theologians, Gregory begins his anthropological reflection with what it means to be made in the image of God. As he says at the beginning of On the Making of Man, the human person is "second to none of the wonders of the world" because the human person is the only creature "who truly was created after God, and whose soul was fashioned in the image of Him Who created him." Thus, the human person is a "mirror" of God that functions as an image so long as it "keeps its resemblance to the prototype." This is what distinguishes the human person from the rest of creation and establishes the value and dignity of the human person before God.

Despite this confident beginning, however, Gregory later argues that understanding the imago is far from easy. Indeed, it serves as one of the fundamental problems of a Christian anthropology, one that may well transcend our ability to comprehend. In Gregory's words, "How then is man, this mortal, passible, short-lived being, the image of that nature which is immortal, pure, and everlasting? The true answer to this question, indeed, perhaps only the very Truth knows." Gregory's discussion of the imago, then, is an attempt to explain — or, more accurately, to speculate about possible explanations of — how finite and fallen human creatures can be said to "mirror" the divine being in any sense.

Gregory's definition of the imago Dei is fascinating and multifaceted. Although he is often lumped together with those who define the imago as humanity's capacity for rationality, and he did describe the image in such terms on a number of occasions, he presents a more complex view of the image, one that includes an equal emphasis on both love and free will. And Gregory goes further, claiming that "the image is properly an image so long as it fails in none of those attributes which we perceive in the archetype." Rather than limiting the image to a particular attribute like rationality, then, Gregory argues that humans image the divine being in all of its attributes, even attributes typically viewed as inimical to creaturely existence. Thus, for example, Gregory argues elsewhere that human persons image even divine simplicity. Ultimately, Gregory concludes that imaging God is about participating in God's own goodness and all of its associated virtues.

To make the picture even more complex, unlike many early thinkers Gregory does not limit the image to the soul alone. Although the soul is the proper seat of the image, he refuses to exclude the body entirely. Instead, the body images the soul in much the same way as the soul images God: "it too is adorned by the beauty that the mind gives, being, so to say, a mirror of the mirror." God specifically designed the human body as an instrument uniquely suitable for the task of imaging God in the world. This means the body itself is mediately involved in imaging the divine nature.

This seems to create an impossible tension. How can a finite, creaturely nature manifest all of the divine attributes? Or, as Gregory himself asks, "How then is man, this mortal, passible, short-lived being, the image of that nature which is immortal, pure, and everlasting?" As mentioned earlier, however, the logic of Gregory's argument flows in another direction. Rather than wrestle with whether it is possible for a human creature to image the divine nature, Gregory began with the theological conviction that humans in fact do so. Thus, Gregory's real question is this: Given that humans image the divine nature, what must we conclude about human nature? And the only possible conclusion Gregory can identify is that human nature is far more glorious than we imagine. Gregory recognizes that a finite human nature will never exemplify the divine attributes in the same way that the divine nature will, but the fact that a human nature can do so in any way suggests that our definition of "human" is far too limited.

Indeed, Gregory argues that human nature itself ultimately transcends our ability to understand. And this should come as no surprise. We were created to image an incomprehensible God, so we should expect that incomprehensibility would be part of the image itself. Thus, "since the nature of our mind, which is the likeness of the Creator evades our knowledge, it has an accurate resemblance to the superior nature, figuring by its own unknowableness the incomprehensible Nature." For Gregory, an apophatic anthropology is the only possible result. We are more than we imagine, indeed, more than we can imagine.

In the Ocean of the Divine: Incarnation and the Transformation of Human Nature

Like the imago Dei, Gregory's theology of the incarnation presses us to understand that humanity is far more than we could possibly imagine. Indeed, Gregory presents an anthropology in which the union of the divine and the human in Christ, and the corresponding transformation of human nature, is the lens through which we come to understand what comprises true humanity.

Gregory articulates much of his understanding of the incarnation in his writings against Apollinarius and his followers. In this context, his real concern is to show how the incarnation requires a real union of divine and human. Thus, Gregory is sharply critical of the incomplete human that he thought Apollinarius was proposing with his union of the human body with the divine mind. For Gregory, such an approach necessarily denigrates the true humanity of Christ, turning it into a mere "beast of burden" since it lacks the soul that is an essential aspect of any truly human being. Like his fellow Cappadocians, Gregory insists that the incarnation must involve the Son taking on a complete human nature, including a human soul, if it is going to result in the salvation of human persons. In short, any aspect of human nature not included in the incarnation would not be healed.

However, it is precisely this union of the divine and the human that raises so many critical questions. How is it possible for the two to be joined in one person? Although Gregory wrestled with this question in the face of Apollinarian objections to the coherence of the Cappadocian account of the incarnation, here as well his anthropological focus rests on what must be true of human nature given the reality of the incarnation. In other words, if the incarnation is a reality, and if our understanding of human nature is incompatible with the incarnation, then it is our understanding of human nature that must change. From this perspective, Gregory argues for a christological transformation of human nature that, while remaining creaturely, becomes something far more amenable to union with the divine.

One of the primary ways in which Gregory distinguishes the creature from the Creator is the creature's liability to change. For Gregory, "all things that are seen in the creation are the offspring of rest and motion." This is the necessary result of having been "brought into being by the Divine will." The simple fact that all creatures have changed from non-being to being means creaturely nature is necessarily malleable. And for Gregory, this stands in obvious contrast to the immutable divine being since "that which may happen to move or change would cease to admit of the conception of Godhead." Although this causes problems for understanding what it means for humans to image God, the essential malleability of humanity's creaturely nature also creates resources for dealing with the challenge of the incarnation. In the incarnation, Jesus transforms humanity into that which is suitable for participating in the divine life, reshaping and exalting it. Taking humanity to himself, the Son brings it into his "own exalted place," and by the "combination" of divinity and humanity, makes the human to be what the divine is by nature. Thus, "all the corruptible may put on incorruption, and all the mortal may put on immortality, our first-fruits having been transformed to the Divine nature by its union with God."

At this point, some grow concerned that such a "transformation" of human nature entails its destruction. What does it mean for humanity to "put on immortality" such that we come to participate in divine attributes like impassibility and incorruptibility? Does that not sound as though humanity ceases to be human and becomes divine instead? Such concerns grow louder when we consider Gregory's famous explanation that Christ's humanity is like a drop of vinegar in the ocean of the divine: "by mingling with the divine, the mortal nature is renewed to match the dominant element, and shares the power of the deity, as if one might say that the drop of vinegar mingled with the ocean is made into sea by the mixing, because the natural quality of this liquid no longer remains in the infinity of the dominant element." At first glance, such an analogy seems to suggest that the human element has been absorbed into the divine nature in such a way that it ceases to have any meaningful existence of its own. Although Gregory refers to the human nature as being "renewed," he explains this renewal as mingling the human with the divine to such an extent that the human element "no longer remains." Thus, although the human nature may have a continued existence in some sense, it is only the kind of existence that a drop of vinegar might have when mingled with an entire ocean!

Nonetheless, as Brian Daley argues, this transformation "does not seem to involve ... an annihilation of human nature, so much as the suffusion of all its naturally changeable, 'fleshly' characteristics with the stability and luminous vigour of God." And he goes on to point out that Gregory consistently used terms for union (henosis) and mixture (mixis, krasis, etc.) that denote for him "the close unification of elements that still remain naturally or numerically different: a relationship (schesis) rather than a total absorption." Thus, to use slightly different language, Gregory seems to be describing a situation in which the essence of humanity remains — in other words, the human nature does not become some other kind of nature (e.g., divine) — even though the properties exemplified by that nature become "deified" in the sense that they come to resemble divine properties so closely as to be virtually indistinguishable. Thus, the transformation of the properties of the human nature demonstrates that those properties, as human properties, were capable of far more than we generally imagine. When Gregory says that the human takes on the property of "immortality," for example, he seems to suggest that this is the completion of humanity's own telos, the completion of its nature through transformative union with the divine.


Excerpted from Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective by Marc Cortez. Copyright © 2016 Marc Cortez. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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Table of Contents

Part One: An Empty Cipher
1. The Glory of Christ, the Image of God, and the Christological Orientation of Theological Anthropology
Part Two: Centered on Christ through the Centuries
2. What is a 'Will'?: Maximus' Cosmological Christology and Human Volitionality
3. Prototype, Archetype, and Gender-type: Gregory of Nyssa and the Christological (De)gendering of the Human Person
4. Cross-Centered Vocation: The Theology of the Cross in Luther's Theological Anthropology
5. Consciousness of God, Awareness of Self: Schleiermacher's Reconstruction of the imitatio Christi
6. Summoned into Being: Body, Soul, and Eternal Election in Barth's Theology
7. Person, Persons, and Personhood: Zizioulas and the Ecclesial Nature of Humanity
8. The Black Christ: James Cone and the Race-ing of the Human Person
Part Three: Tentative Steps Forward
9. Reforming Our Anthropological Vision: Some Concluding Thoughts on the Shape of a Christ-Centered Theological Anthropology

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

In this book one of today’s foremost experts on theological anthropology reintroduces some neglected thinkers and launches an intriguing new research angle. Marc Cortez has some surprises in store for those who think they know the exact parameters of what counts as Christology or what it means for Jesus to embrace our humanity. — Daniel J. Treier, Blanchard Professor of Theology, Wheaton college Graduate School

Goods theologians listen before they speak, and this volume provides a master class in learning how to listen well. In chapter after chapter, Marc Cortez shows us what it looks like to hear the voices of the church’s greatest theologians clearly and interpret them charitably. The diverse cast of characters and provocative topics make for absorbing reading, and we learn how to speak of Jesus Christ, human beings, and our life in relationship with God better than before. This book comes highly recommended for students and scholars alike. — Keith L. Johnson, Associate Professor of Theology, Wheaton College

As he leads readers through important historical figures, Cortez makes a valuable contribution to the doctrine of the human being and to Christology. He demonstrates how key biblical themes have been taken up in the tradition and, in doing so, points readers to what it means to be human in Christ. This book will be valuable to students and professionals alike. — Beth Felker Jones, Associate Professor of Theology, Wheaton College

In this fine book, Marc Cortez lends his well-trained ear to the often wonderful (and occasionally weird) tradition of Christian teaching about human beings, specifically, what it has to say about how the person and work of Jesus Christ shapes our understanding of human being and action. The result is a clear, exceptionally learned, and rewarding overview of different approaches to “Christological anthropology” in the Christian tradition. This book will prove a useful resource to anyone seeking to develop a theological anthropology that honors the supremacy of Jesus Christ. — Scott R. Swain, professor of systematic theology and Academic Dean, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando

In what way does God’s entering history in the fully and truly human Jesus serve to ground or establish a Christian anthropology? How does Christological warrant for anthropological claims extend beyond ethics to offer a fuller picture of what it means to be human? With careful and insightful analysis Cortez engages key theological voices from the history of the church and unfolds a striking breadth to the ways that Christology informs anthropology. In so doing, this volume unearths the essential starting points to continued constructive work in Christian anthropology with unparalleled clarity and comprehension. — Kevin Diller, Ph.D, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion, Taylor University

Marc Cortez has established himself as one of the more important thinkers around what it means to be human in theological perspective. In this latest offering, his theological acumen, sense of humour, and ability to adeptly navigate large swathes of the Tradition result in a work which is as profound as it is useful. In an age where the centrality of Christ is too-often replaced by a cultural sentimentality, Cortez reminds us that what it means to be human can only be defined in relation to Jesus Christ; and knowing that, makes all the difference in the world. — Dr. Myk Habets, Head of Carey Graduate School, Carey Baptist College, Auckland, New Zealand

Many scholars talk about doing 'theology of retrieval,' but Marc Cortez actually does it. Employing several fascinating case studies (involving Gregory of Nyssa, Julian of Norwich, Martin Luther, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Karl Barth, John Ziziouas, and James Cone), he looks wide and digs deep for insights into a theological anthropology that is properly Christological. The result is a work of erudition that sets the table for Cortez's own much-anticipated offerings. — Thomas H. Mc Call, Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

For those who take seriously the fact that there is one truly human being for and with us by the Spirit—Jesus Christ, Son of Mary and God—this is a helpful book. It sits us down with saints through the ages who have also considered the implications of Christ’s humanity for our own. Cortez is a gracious host, inviting us to listen and hear, that we might hear more clearly when visiting these saints in their original “homes.” This makes for the best kind of resource book—one that welcomes, engages, and ultimately serves a critical need in the life of the Church. — Cherith Fee Nordling, Associate Professor, Northern Seminary

What makes us human? And how does Jesus make a difference? Dr Cortez offers us a stimulating and convincing tour of the role of Christology in theological anthropologies from Gregory of Nyssa to James Cone, via Mother Julian of Norwich and Martin Luther, amongst others. The reader is invited to explore the varied ways in which major thinkers have made Jesus the key to being human, and to ask the crucial questions that will decide between their accounts. The readings are persuasive; the expositions lucid; and the whole is a compelling tour of the ways in which belief in Christ might change our vision of our common humanity. This is a quite excellent book; I commend it unreservedly. — Stephen R. Holmes, Senior Lecturer in Theology, University of St. Andrews

At different periods in Christian history, different doctrines have ascended to the center of theological debate. I believe that in the early decades of the twenty-first century, the doctrine of humanity seems to be near the epicenter. I’m grateful to Marc Cortez for this helpful, judicious survey of how different theologians have grounded their anthropology in their understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ. Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective is a welcome contribution to ongoing discussions of human nature. As in so many doctrinal discussions, we need to look to the past for wisdom for the present and future. Cortez helps us to do just that in this timely book. Highly recommended. — Nathan A. Finn, Dean of the School of Theology and Missions, Professor of Christian Thought, Union University

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