Participatory Anthropology: Essence, Existence, and the Absence of Virtue in Systematic Theology

A survey of modern and contemporary systematic theologies is revealing: while they do address anthropology, they rarely do so in conversation with “virtue.” Evangelical systematic theologies are no exception to such a lacuna. However, this glaring absence was not always the case. Virtue used to be an essential component of classical Christian theology. Many reasons could be provided for this suspicious absence, but one strikes at our modernist turn: we struggle and sometimes fail to define the human person as a being who participates in the likeness of God’s being. By consequence, systematics has outsourced discussions on anthropology and virtue to ethics. This paper, however, is an attempt to encourage evangelicals to bring virtue back to the world of systematic theology. To do so, I will take several steps: (1) I will first situate the human person in relation to the Creator by proposing a “participatory anthropology.” By defining the human person according to his/her composition of essence and existence, I will show our great dependence on the Creator whose essence is his existence. (2) With our transcendental disposition established, I will then define virtue and defend the classical understanding of the virtuous life. (3) I will conclude by asking where we should locate virtue in systematic theology if, as scripture indicates, man/woman has been created for participation. I will not only consider an example like Thomas Aquinas who locates virtue within anthropology, but I will also consider how participatory anthropology affects the virtuous life of the saints (e.g., sanctification) by looking to examples from Boethius to John Owen.

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