Theological Anthropology After Aristotle? Bonhoeffer, Heidegger, and Being in Christ

This paper attends to an oft overlooked aspect of theological anthropology – its conceptual dependence upon philosophical work – and asks what possibilities open when theologians address these philosophical foundations more diligently.

If, as Marc Cortez states, theological anthropology expresses “the basic conviction [that] the human person can be fully understood only from a theological perspective,” philosophical anthropology provides the concepts and grammar to articulate what being a human person is in the first place. Stated differently, though scripture speaks of a variety of aspects of being (body, soul, mind, spirit, etc.), it provides neither a conceptual framework nor a grammar for how these aspects of being inter-relate. Philosophical, not theological, anthropology provides these concepts and grammar. Theological anthropology deploys these categories to discuss our understanding of renewed, justified Christian life. What does it mean for humanity to be is philosophical. What does it mean for humanity to be in Christ is theological.

This is significant because theological anthropologies often frame their work off Platonic or Aristotelian metaphysics. The 20th century philosophy’s hermeneutical turn – in which the interpretation of being superseded the metaphysics of being – revolutionized philosophical anthropology in ways theological anthropology has not yet appreciated. What horizons might open if theological anthropology moved beyond Aristotle? What might it mean for the discipline principally to concern itself with interpreting fallen and regenerate being? Such a move would be particularly important for 21st century majority world theology, as post-Colonial Indigenous theologians increasingly reject Western metaphysics in favor of their Indigenous ways. Increasingly so, theological anthropologies need post-Aristotelian concepts and grammar to meet our unfolding century’s emerging demands.

This paper explores these issues through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s appropriation of Martin Heidegger’s existentialism in his work Act and Being and his 1930 inaugural lecture “The Anthropological Question in Contemporary Philosophy and Theology”. These works illumine how Bonhoeffer produces a Cortez-style Christological anthropology (showing the human person can only be fully understood from a theological perspective), and does so in a very different mode and to very different ends. No longer concerned about the metaphysics of being, Bonhoeffer’s theological anthropology concerns itself with the way human being exists in the world. Humanity can exist bound and in reference to itself (being-in-Adam) or it can exist free and in reference to our renewed nature (being-in-Christ). This approach, though surely unanticipated by Bonhoeffer, directly speaks to emerging Indigenous theological work.

This paper will conclude by exploring the potential within Bonhoeffer’s turn for non-Western Indigenous theological traditions. Post-colonial, Indigenous theologians continue to struggle against Western concepts that are foreign to the ways of their ancestors and therefore struggle to have their theological work respected, both within the academy and within their culture. Reframing this discourse away from metaphysics and towards hermeneutics opens space for a variety of Indigenous metaphysical frameworks to freely operate without recapitulating past colonial wounds. Thus, by adopting a mode of theological anthropology after Aristotle, theologians immediately open contributive pathways for marginalized voices.

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