Paul and the Person: Reframing Paul’s Anthropology

Susan Eastman’s book, Paul and the Person: Reframing Paul’s Anthropology is an attempt to generate a three-way conversation between stoic understandings of personhood, contemporary cognitive science/philosophy, and Pauline scholarship. She argues that Paul’s writings—at least in modern scholarship—have been read through the lens of Enlightenment assumptions about persons as autonomous, discrete, self-determining individuals. As Eastman puts these three conversation partners into discussion with one another she identifies some overlapping insights. First, the self is irreducibly embodied and socially formed. Second, the self is formed in encounters with one another – thus the practice of change or spiritual formation always occurs in the context of relationship with others. Finally, we become individuals in and from relationships.

Her thesis that for Paul the self is always a self in relation to others raises a number of questions, like: “What kind of agency is implied by a self that is not solely self-determining?” “What happens to both freedom and responsibility?” “What is the role of the body in an account of the self.?” “How are Paul’s accounts of the person as self-in-relation to ‘sin,’ on the one hand and to Christ, on the other mutually related?” “How do people change-or do they?” (9) She answers some of these questions over the course of this book. However, what interests me the most is her discussion about how a person is a self-in-relation to Christ. The main takeaway for me is that she ends up defining personhood in terms of our relation to Christ and Christ’s relation to us. She suggests that “Paul’s anthropology counters any criterialism about qualifications of being a person, precisely because it is grounded in the story of Christ’s mimetic assimilation to the human condition.” (178) This story is expressed in Philippians 2. Christ is sent into the world in human form, he identifies with sinful humanity to the point of death, and is victorious over death. As Eastman explains, “for Christ to become en homoiomati anthropon is for him to share fully in the desperate contingency, suffering, judgement, and death of Adam’s heirs.” (139) Thus, Christ relates to every person who expresses the form of human existence. Christ “establishes a new relational matrix of humanity.” In a real sense he takes up all of humanity’s story when he becomes incarnate. She suggests that human personhood is thus “not attained by any achievement including participation in Christ; it is granted globally by Christ’s participation in the depths of human life.” (179)

Eastman’s proposal that for Paul humans are persons-in-relation can’t help but raise some important questions. For example, we might wonder if there is any significant difference between those who are personalized simply in virtue of being the kind of creature that Christ entered into their story and those who are united to Christ in virtue of faith. At one point she says that her working definition of a person is “’one for whom Christ died,’ thereby including the entire human race.” (14) Naturally such a view would rule out any form of limited atonement because that doctrine would claim that the reprobate aren’t persons! Perhaps those who are inclined to accept limited atonement could distinguish between different degrees of personhood in a way similar to Zizioulas. For those who aren’t inclined to accept limited atonement there is still a question as to whether the relational account admits to degrees of personhood. Christ certainly relates to those who are united to him by faith differently than those whom Christ died for. How does this different relation fit into Eastman’s account of personhood deriving from one’s relation to Christ? She doesn’t say. Perhaps a distinction between objective personhood derived from being the kind of creature that Christ died for and the subjective experience of personhood derived from experiencing union with Christ might help solve this puzzle. By this I mean that on this model perhaps it is the case all persons are personalized in virtue of being related to Christ’s salvific work but that only those who are aware of their relation to Christ experience all the benefits of personalization.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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