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An Introduction to Theological Anthropology: Humans, Both Creaturely and Divine (Book Review)

November 20, 2020
By Kyle D. Claunch

Editor’s note: The following book review appears in the Fall 2020 issue of Eikon.

Joshua R.Farris. An Introduction to Theological Anthropology: Humans, Both Creaturely and Divine. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2020.


Joshua Farris’s An Introduction to Theological Anthropology: Humans, Both Creaturely and Divine is written to be a comprehensive introduction to the major theological issues of anthropology. Farris is unapologetic in his commitment to the Scriptures and the broad contours of the Christian tradition. He identifies with a “broadly Reformed” tradition and informs readers early that he intends to construct a clearly Christian account that is informed and guarded by the orthodoxy of the ecumenical creeds of the church catholic as well as the major symbols and thinkers of his own tradition. The result is a lengthy and substantive account of theological anthropology that brings the challenges of this locus of theological inquiry into clear focus for critical engagement.


Farris approaches the issue of humanity by asking three sets of questions: What are we? Who are we? Why are we? The first what question (Chapter 1) addresses human ontology, in particular the constitution of human nature as either material only (monism), material and immaterial (dualism), or some nuanced middle ground (e.g. hylomorphism, emergent physicalism, emergent dualism). Farris opts for a Cartesian version of substance dualism in which human persons are embodied souls, a conclusion that raises pertinent Christological questions, which I will address later. The issue of human origins is another what question (Chapter 2) that is made difficult by the prevailing notion of biological evolution and the question of its compatibility with the Christian faith. Farris contends for the ultimate compatibility of Christian theology with the biological evolution of the human person (so, a form of theistic evolution) and labors to account for the uniqueness of humanity and the reality of a real primal pair within that framework. Despite his thorough labors, readers who are skeptical about the compatibility of any kind of evolutionary account of human origins will likely remain so at the conclusion of the chapter (more on this later). Other what questions take up the issue of the image of God (Chapter 3) and the meaning of human freedom in which Farris prefers a version of Libertarianism as opposed to various forms of compatibilism, another issue taken up later in this review (Chapter 4).

The next set of questions are the who questions. The issue of original sin and creaturely failure is considered under the question, “Who am I at Birth?” (Chapter 5). Farris argues for an account of original sin that does not include the heredity (federal or seminal) of guilt. Rather, only the corruption of Adam’s sin is inherited by his posterity. More strictly Reformed/Augustinian readers will take issue with Farris’s “broadly Reformed” understanding on this score. Humanity as redeemed is taken up under the question, “Who am I in Christ?” (Chapter 6). Here Farris discusses the discipline of “Christological anthropology” and argues that Christology is a regulative principle for anthropology. In this chapter he includes a wonderful discussion of the retrieval of a Reformed notion of the beatific vision, which is a resurrected vision of the risen incarnate Son in glory. Another who question – “Who are We in Culture?” – takes up the important topics of work and race as well as the pertinent question of disability (Chapter 7).

Under the question, “Who are We as Male and Female,” Farris tackles the tough subjects of gender and sexuality (Chapter 8). Here Farris walks with careful biblical fidelity and philosophical precision through such issues as the relation between biological sex and gender, the meaning of marriage, same-sex attraction, and the fascinating question of gender in relation to the human immaterial soul.

The final section of the book takes up the why questions. “Why am I Here?” (Chapter 9) addresses the question of the afterlife with particular attention given to what theologians traditionally refer to as the intermediate state. For Farris, the intermediate state is a state of personal disembodied existence, the existence of the soul, after somatic (bodily) death. This state is characterized by fullness of joy because of the soul’s experience of the beatific vision. However, the joy experienced in this state includes a hopeful anticipation of bodily resurrection. The book’s final question, “Why Do I Exist?” (Chapter 10) takes up the issue of the afterlife with particular emphasis on the final resurrected state of believers. Here, Farris develops most fully his understanding of the beatific vision, acknowledging as he goes that his emphasis on the priority of the immaterial soul and the immaterial nature of the beatific vision seems at first to make the resurrection of the body rather insignificant. He appeals to John Owen and Jonathan Edwards, however, as theologians who prioritize the immaterial in their understanding of the beatific vision but unite it with corporeal seeing through a resurrected body in a way that parallels the words of Jesus to Philip: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9). Thus, the soul’s immaterial vision of the divine essence is concurrent with the body’s corporeal vision of the risen Christ.

Critical Interaction

Given the breadth of the topics addressed in this substantial volume, this review will have to be quite selective in its critical interaction. I will begin by addressing a couple of matters for which I commend Farris and his approach. I will follow this with several areas of significant concern regarding his conclusions.

Positive Observations

First, this book is commendable for the sheer scholarly force and breadth of its presentation. While he acknowledges the need to limit the depth with which he addresses each issue, Farris has left few topics unaddressed in these pages. He is clearly an expert in the field of theological anthropology as both his own prior publishing record and the evidence of research in the present volume make clear. He seems to have admirably struck the balance between introducing the major topics in an objective way without being entirely noncommittal in his assessments. On major topics, Farris clearly identifies his own position, but when addressing the finer points of discussion within his broader commitments, he often leaves the reader to consider the options. The result may be frustration for those wanting to pin the author down on particulars. However, the strategy is quite effective for an introductory text because of the way it invites readers to think carefully through potential problems and explore possible solutions more carefully in their own study.

Secondly, Farris is to be commended for his strongly held Christian conviction. The field of theological anthropology, perhaps more acutely than any other field of Christian study, is subject to extreme cultural and intellectual pressure to abandon the classic commitments of the Christian faith as laid down in Holy Scripture. The pervasive influence of secular materialism, the ever-controversial matters of gender and sexuality, the sanctity of the unborn human in tension with the so-called freedom of a woman to choose, the dignity of all ethnicities and the evil of racial injustice – these are all massively divisive issues in our current cultural moment, and all of them are directly related to the topic of theological anthropology. There is no such thing as a truly Christian theological anthropology that is going to placate the spirit of the age and find acceptance among its cultured elites. In spite of the enormous pressure this field of study is under, Farris presents a theological anthropology that is clearly and distinctly Christian. While I take issue with a number of the positions he advances regarding matters of no small importance, Farris is to be commended for clinging to a thoroughly Christian view throughout the volume. In an age when all the intellectual momentum is swinging toward materialistic monist accounts of human nature, influencing many Christian theologians in that direction, Farris is committed to a dualist account that acknowledges, with Scripture and the Christian tradition, the concrete reality of the immaterial human soul. In an age when all the intellectual and popular cultural momentum is swinging toward the obliteration of God’s sovereign right as Creator to make humans as male or female, man or woman, Farris is firm in his commitment that God creates gendered humans; we do not create our own gendered identity. In a cultural moment marked distinctly by the demand for sexual autonomy, Farris defends the clear biblical teaching that sex acts are intended by God only for the covenantal context of sacred marriage, which is only legitimate between a man and a woman. This list could go on.

Areas of Concern

The Christological Problem of Persons as Souls. For all that is positive about this impressive volume, there are a few issues that are of more than minor concerns in my estimation. In his fascinating and insightful chapter on the discipline of “Christological anthropology” (Chapter 6), Farris rightly warns: “If our theories of constitution lack the resources to account for our Christology or have some significant challenges, then we should consider rethinking our anthropologies in light of our Christologies” (165). I could not agree more, yet it is precisely in the area of Christology that Farris’s account of human constitution runs into problems.

In his opening chapter, Farris engages in a helpful and interesting discussion of the constitution of human nature, considering various kinds of monism and dualism that have been advocated by Christian theologians. As already noted, Farris embraces a substance dualist understanding of the human, such that the human soul is an immaterial substance. As the discussion develops, however, it becomes clear that Farris’s account of substance dualism is a Cartesian account, meaning that the soul is not only a component part of a complete human nature, but the soul just is the human person. Farris states this plainly: “I take it that persons are identical with a soul or an immaterial thing” (36). This Cartesian account of substance dualism creates a particularly difficult problem for Christology. A Cartesian account of substance dualism entails a kind of Apollinarian Christology or, alternatively, a kind of Nestorian Christology.

Apollinaris of Laodicea (d. AD 382) taught that God the Son, in the incarnation, assumed only a human body but that he did not assume a human soul. Rather, the person of the Son was in the place of a human soul. This understanding of the incarnation was rejected as a heresy in the Fourth Century because it failed to represent faithfully the biblical teaching that Christ is fully human (e.g. Heb 2:14-18). Gregory of Nazianzus, in his refutation of Apollinarian Christology, famously said, “Whatever is not assumed is not healed” (Epistle 101: To Cledonius Against Apollinaris). That is, if the Son of God did not assume a human soul in the incarnation, then the human soul is not saved by the Son’s atoning work. The church clearly stated its rejection of Apollinarianism in the Definition of Chalcedon (AD 451) with the assertion that the Son of God, who is “consubstantial with us according to manhood” (thus, human in every way), assumed a human “rational soul.” Cartesian dualism is in grave danger of the error of Apollinarianism because of its assertion that the soul is the human person. Because the person of the Son pre-exists the incarnation, the church has always maintained that the person of Christ is a divine person who assumed a human nature. But if the soul just is the human person, then the pre-existent divine Son could only assume a human body, the material part of human nature. The soul, being a person, could not be assumed because the Son of God is already (eternally) a person.

Another major error comes into view if the Cartesian dualist affirms that the Son of God did in fact assume an immaterial, rational soul at the incarnation. If the eternal divine person of the Son assumes a human soul, which is a person, the result is two persons. This is precisely the error of the Nestorian heresy. Nestorius, an early Fifth Century bishop contended for an account of the incarnation that resulted, conceptually, in two sons – the Son of God and the son of Mary – and thus two persons. The unity of the Son of God as the only redeemer of humanity was lost in his account. The church rejected this notion as heretical, and the Definition of Chalcedon once again gives the definitive pronouncement with its repeated refrain of “one and the same Son” and with its famous negating adverbs that declare the two natures of the Son to be “without separation” and “without division.”

Interestingly, Farris is aware of this problem. In his generally fantastic discussion about the discipline of Christological anthropology, after rightly recognizing Christology as a regulative principle for anthropology, he acknowledges that Cartesian dualism raises the problem identified above: there is a challenge for “dualist accounts that take it that the individual human just is identical to his or her soul or that the core of the individual human is the soul – that is, broadly Cartesian accounts of human nature.” He goes on, “The challenge for this account is that minds or souls just are persons” (175). In response, Farris very briefly suggests two possible solutions without committing to either one. Furthermore, it is not at all clear that either solution does anything to alleviate the problem. One solution makes the human rational mind a property of the material body, thus effectively undermining substance dualism in the first place. The other solution is an abstractist conception of the incarnation that claims that Christ’s humanity is his possession of sufficient properties to be human without assuming a concrete human soul. But this is just a version of Apollinarianism, thus an example of the problem, not a solution to it.

The only coherent way for a substance dualist to avoid the grave error of Apollinarianism without falling into the equally serious mistake of Nestorianism is to conceive of the rational, immaterial soul as a component part of human nature but to maintain a distinction between human nature (as a composite of body and soul) and the human person. It is Christology that makes Christian theologians aware of the important need for such a fine distinction. As Farris himself rightly recommends, it would seem that it is time to consider rethinking anthropology in light of Christology.

The Problem with Biological Evolution and a Primal Pair. The next concern pertains to Harris’s embrace of an evolutionary origin of human life. In his second chapter, Farris tackles the thorny question of origins. As one would expect, he recognizes the many different approaches to the question of human origin among Christians, especially in light of the challenge of the theory of biological evolution. He then advances a view of human origin that assumes the biological evolution of the species from lower life forms. He openly acknowledges the difficulty such a view raises for one who (like Farris) remains committed to the uniqueness of humanity over against the animals and the historical reality of a primal pair. Farris entertains several possible strategies for affirming these commitments without committing himself to one view over another. Space does not permit a summary of all possibilities, but they all have in common the necessity of understanding the account of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2-3 as something other than straightforward historical narrative. Thus, while the strategies he proposes may allow Farris coherently to affirm human uniqueness and a historical primal pair, the hermeneutical entailments of affirming an evolutionary origin for humanity are more costly than he acknowledges.

The hermeneutical commitments necessary to affirm an evolutionary worldview, in my estimation, are detrimental to faithful interpretation of Scripture and thus to the Christian faith. If the story of Adam and Eve as our first parents cannot be taken as narrative history, then the historical reliability of the rest of the Genesis narrative is cast in doubt. Farris himself is committed to the historicity of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as is clear from other discussions in the book. But what textual basis is there for affirming the historical character of Abraham and his progeny if the account of Adam and Eve is to be taken in some manner other than narrative history? In fact, one of the key textual clues that identifies Genesis as a historical account is the repetition of the Hebrew word toledot (generations) to introduce key figures and their stories. The history of Noah and each of his three sons, the history of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob, of Esau – all are introduced with the genealogical historical marker, toledot. Interestingly, the story of Adam and Eve in Eden is introduced in the very same way in Genesis 2:4, “These are the generations (toledot) of the heavens and the earth” (ESV). Furthermore, Adam’s own family history is introduced with a toledot in Genesis 5:1. It would seem that adopting a view of the story of Adam and Eve as something other than historical is motivated exclusively by a commitment to theories of origin that are foreign to the text itself. Once one is compelled to make this move for Genesis 2-3, what is there to stop the move from being consistently applied to the rest of Genesis and beyond?

Libertarian Freedom as Consistent with God’s Sovereignty. Another concern, one that will be shared by most Reformed readers, is Farris’s embrace of a libertarian notion of the freedom of the will. Libertarian freedom, which means “human actions are not determined, but instead humans are able to do otherwise” (112), is the intuitive view and the only one that can coherently account for human responsibility according to Farris. He gives space to discussing compatibilism, the view that true human responsibility is compatible with exhaustive and meticulous sovereignty. Classical compatibilism defines freedom in an entirely different way than libertarians, saying that freedom is the ability to act according to one’s highest desires. But Farris wonders if this is really freedom at all. He ultimately rejects compatibilism as unable to deliver on its promise. Thus, Farris affirms libertarian freedom and accepts the entailment that all actions are not ultimately determined by divine decree.

Farris rightly notes that the greatest challenge for libertarian models of freedom is to maintain the genuine sovereignty of God. He claims that libertarian models are able to do this coherently (115), but he offers no suggestion as to how this is the case. Furthermore, Farris explicitly rejects open theism (the view that the future is unknown, or open, even to God) and affirms divine foreknowledge (115, fn. 5). Even so, he makes no attempt to explain how a libertarian model of freedom is even remotely coherent in light of perfect divine foreknowledge, which is one of the most trenchant critiques of libertarian models of freedom in the compatibilist literature. It seemed to me that compatibilism did not receive a fair hearing but was presented in a weak form and dismissed without serious consideration, a move uncharacteristic of Farris on other topics.


Interested students of theology and seasoned theologians alike will benefit greatly from Farris’s work in this book. It serves as a stimulating and enjoyable foray into the major issues of Christian theological anthropology and opens up countless pathways for further rigorous thought, research, and development.

Kyle D. Claunch, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Lead Pastor at Highland Park FBC. He resides in Louisville, KY.

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