Stanley Grenz’s Theological Anthropology – An Overview (Pt. 3)

This is part three of a short series in which I look at Stanley Grenz’s theological anthropology as it can be found in “The Social God and the Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei.”


Having provided a brief overview of Grenz’s methodological commitments we are now in a position to provide a brief overview of his argument. This text is divided into three parts covering Context, Texts, and Application. Part one, “The Context: Trinitarian Theology and the Self,” traces out historical developments of Trinitarian theology and theological-philosophical-psychological understandings of the self. Part two, “The Texts: The Imago Dei in Trinitarian Perspective” addresses biblical texts which shed light upon the imago Dei. Part three, titled, “The Application: The Social Imago and the Postmodern (Loss of) Self” provides an eschatologically determined, social, ecclesial conception of the image of God.

Chapter one begins with the conviction that theological anthropology must be developed under the confession of the the Triune God. Given this conviction Grenz sets the context for a Trinitarian theological anthropology by providing a survey of the renewal of Trinitarian theology that has characterized the 20th and 21st centuries. Grenz begins with Hegel’s turn to the subject and his assumption that Trinitarian theology must take seriously the close connection between the Trinity and the unfolding of history. Starting with Hegel, he travels through the works of Rahner, Barth, Moltmann, and Zizioulas on his way to LaCugna. The thrust of this chapter is to show that the movement away from psychological models of the trinity and the revival of social Trinitarianism is commensurate with the modern rethinking of the notion of persons. Or as Grenz says, “the ascendancy of the focus on the three Trinitarian persons, in turn, opens the way for a truly theological anthropology.”

In chapters two and three Grenz maps the development of contemporary concepts of the self. Chapter two is dedicated to treating the emergence of the concept of the self. Here Grenz states that the modern concept of the self is marked by one key feature: Inwardness. Quoting Charles Taylor Grenz says “our modern notion of the self is related to, one might say constituted by, a certain sense (or perhaps family of senses) of inwardness.” Grenz makes a case Augustine being the progenitor of the “Western concept of the self with its focus on the inwardness of self-consciousness in contrast to the outwardness of relationality to others.” His historical survey covers much ground, expositing the works of Descartes, Locke, and Kant, all whom according to Grenz elevate the autonomous individual self. A second feature of the inward turn according to Grenz is a desire for self-mastery. He deems Calvin as the progenitor of the individualist quest for self-mastery, hidden under the guise of sanctification. Among the “villains” of this individualistic, self-sufficient narrative, Grenz also cites Jonathan Edwards as bequeathing to evangelicalism an individualistic, self-sufficient, “navel-gazing” ethos of spiritual growth. Chapter three argues that the modern sense of self was destabilized and ultimately completely undermined by the postmodern sensitivities of authors such as Montaigne, Rousseau, Emerson, and Nietzsche.  The result was that the postmodern self became “a bundle of fluctuating relationships and momentary preferences…highly unstable, impermanent.”

How can the Christian faith speak into the problem of the post-modern loss of self? Grenz argues that the concept of the imago Dei is the solution to this problem. Surveying three motifs in the theology of the imago Dei: a structural motif, a relational motif, and a “destiny” motif he argues that these three motifs form a constellation of themes which should be considered together. However, the image of God as “being with a destiny” is the fundamental basis for the imago Dei.

Chapters five through seven treat the concept of imago Dei in conversation with the latest findings from the field of biblical studies. Chapter five treats the exegesis of Genesis 1:26-28, the locus classicus for the imago Dei. He also explores the New Testament designation of Christ as the image of God. In chapter six Grenz further develops the idea that Christ is the divine image, by arguing that “he is the head of the new humanity destined to be formed according to that image in fulfillment of God’s intent for human kind fro the beginning.”

Having established on exegetical grounds that conformity to the image of God in Christ is humanity’s eschatological destiny he then turns towards applying this concept to the problems of the postmodern loss of self. In chapter seven he suggests that human sexuality reflects the relation character of the Triune God. Sexuality, Grenz argues, is constituted by a drive towards bonding, the participation in the fullness of the other. This drive towards bonding is only truly fulfilled in the eschatological community of the saints in union with Christ. Thus, the drive for intimacy so prominent in the sexual self hints at something which is fundamental the the nature of the “self,” namely that the self consists of persons bonded in community.

Grenz concludes his section on application in chapter eight where he constructs a notion of an eschatological, ecclesial ontology of the self. Providing another survey detailing the historical development of thought, this time surveying the history of social psychology and narrative theology, Grenz comes to the conclusion that ultimately the solution to the postmodern problem of the loss of self comes in conceiving of the self as the ecclesial self, i.e. a person whose being is grounded in their relation to the eschatological community of Christ. This is grounded in Zizioulas’s Trinitarian theology, in which he claims that God’s being is constituted by relationship or communion. Thus like God himself whose being is in communion, the human self finds its ultimate expression in communion, more specifically communion with the community of those who are bound to the true image of God, Christ.

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