Sunday, February 13, 2011

Reading Eccentric Existence: Chapter 3A: "The One Who Has To Do WIth Us"

This post belongs to an ongoing series engaging David Kelsey's Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology, as part of an online reading group for the year 2011. For more information, read the introductory posts here and here.

Previous posts: Chapter 1A: "The Questions"; Chapter 1B: "What Kind of Project Is This?"; Chapter 2A: "The One with Whom We Have to Do"; Chapter 2B: "The Kinds of Project This Isn't"

Section of text: Chapter 3A: "The One Who Has To Do With Us"

Pages: 120-131

Guest reflection by Garrett East:

Rather than offer a summary of Chapter 3A, I would like to start my engagement of Kelsey’s chapter with several criticisms and questions, and then end my response with some affirmations of what I found helpful in this chapter. I will focus most of my response on criticisms/questions, but that is not because I disagree with Kelsey a lot. Instead, it is because I think my disagreements might be more interesting than my reiterations of his best points.

My first question concerns Kelsey’s decision to frame his entire theological anthropology around the roles each person of the triune God plays in each of the three ways God relates to creatures (creation, consummation, reconciliation). Are there substantial anthropological implications to be learned from the Trinitarian relations in each scriptural story? Kelsey assumes that a claim like “the Father creates through the Son in the power of the Spirit” is packed with anthropological implications and he elaborates on some of those implications in this chapter. However, I am not yet convinced that that statement tells us as much as Kelsey believes it does. For example, all of the implications that he gleans from “through the Son” seem to be true to Scripture, but it is not clear to me that they have to be grounded in “through the Son.” I am not seeing the connections as clearly as Kelsey is.

Another place where I am not seeing the connections is in his section on the Spirit’s role in eschatological consummation. For example, Kelsey says, “In enacting love to draw creatures to participate in God’s own life, the triune God is at once self-consistent and freely self-determining. That is the force of saying ‘the Spirit,’ rather than the Father or the Son, ‘draws creation to eschatological consummation’ ” (126). Would this statement not be true if we said “the Son” draws creation to eschatological consummation?

Also, I recognize that creation, eschatological consummation, and reconciliation are the three central events in God’s relationship with his creation, but I wonder what anthropological implications would come from exploring everything that happens in between each of those definitive events. Is there anything anthropologically significant about God’s calling of Abraham, his election of Israel, his great acts of deliverance in the Exodus and the return from exile, in his opening up of the people of Israel to Gentiles, or in his mission through the church? Are all of those things included in God’s reconciling humans back to himself? Or, does Kelsey set them aside to focus on the three major events of creation, incarnation, and new creation?

Kelsey also focuses a lot on metaphysical claims about Jesus, specifically focusing on him as the eternal Word/Wisdom of God. However, it seems to me that Jesus’ life on earth is more illuminating of humanity than his preexistence is. I wonder if Kelsey is going to explore Jesus’ humanity more, specifically as it is narrated in the gospels, or if he will continue to put more emphasis on Jesus as the Logos.

In his discussion of the triune God’s relating in the eschaton, Kelsey says that the Spirit, sent by the Father with the Son, draws creatures to eschatological consummation. However, while the Spirit is certainly connected with the future renewal of all things throughout Scripture and definitely has a vital role, I am not convinced that the Spirit is the primary actor here. There seem to be many canonical witnesses that point to the Father as the primary actor, though of course the Son and Spirit are intimately involved as well (I am specifically thinking of Revelation here).

I am interested to see where Kelsey’s anthropology based on the Trinity and these three central scriptural stories will go. Prior to encountering Kelsey, I have had very little exposure to theological anthropology. The little I have read and heard has focused on scriptural claims about humankind being made in the image of God, being a little lower than the angels, being children of God, or falling short of the glory of God. The focus has always been exegesis of Scripture rather than exploration of normative theological claims, and so I am looking forward to seeing how this proposal works itself out.

Another thing: it is not altogether clear to me what Kelsey means when he emphasizes that creation is ontologically and logically, but not chronologically, prior to consummation (121 and 126). Is he making a claim about God’s existence outside of time? What does it mean to say creation does not chronologically precede consummation?

Kelsey continually emphasizes that God is self-determining and radically free in everything he does. One question I have for Kelsey is if he believes God has any qualities/characteristics that compel him to act in a certain way. For example, would he be able to say something like, “God’s love compels him to draw his creatures to eschatological consummation”?

In addition to all of these questions and concerns, here are some of the things I found most valuable from Kelsey in this chapter: the independence yet interconnection between each scriptural story (for example, God’s relation to creatures as “consummator of” is ruled by God’s relation as “creator of”); the changing pattern of relationships among the three persons in each of the three sets of scriptural stories so that each type of story has a distinctly different character; the prepositions used to emphasize the ways in which God is both near and distant in each Scripture story (“to” in creation, “between” in eschatological fulfillment, and “among” in reconciling action); and the asymmetries among the three scripturally narrated ways in which the triune God relates to creatures.

Finally, my favorite quote from the chapter: “There is no single, simple Christian metanarrative. Nor can there be, parasitic on it, any Christian anthropological metatheory about human persons that can, at least in principle, systematically synthesize all relevant truth claims about human being, Christian theological claims and otherwise. Human beings are in their own way too richly glorious, too inexhaustibly incomprehensible, too capable of profound distortions and bondage in living deaths, too capable of holiness, in short, too mysterious to be captured in that fashion” (131).

Next week: Chapter 3B: "The Concept of Christian Canonical Holy Scripture," pages 132-156


  1. Great reflection. A few thoughts/responses:

    It seems that much of your difficulty stems from the notion of arguing from achieved theological doctrines that are not in themselves explicitly biblical (like the Trinity) to conclusions regarding particular questions (like anthropology). Is that correct? If so, is it because "the Trinity" per se is not "biblical," or because you don't think the trinitarian relations/implications/etc. follow or are as useful/helpful for doing something like anthropology? That is to say, what is it that makes it questionable or worth challenging?

    I appreciate your question about the other acts of God apart from the "big three," and whether Kelsey will draw on those in the work.

    Do you not think Kelsey's emphasis on the Spirit's role in consummation is warranted, biblically or theologically? I think it is, so I'd love to know why if your answer is no.

    I think the ontological/chronological split is that, perhaps, for God the "moment" or "action" of creation and of consummation are not "separate" or chronologically disparate, even if they are experienced in that way be creatures in time.

    And for me, I love the particular emphasis on the different pronouns of "to," "between," and "among." Great point, and I look forward to seeing it play out in the work.

  2. My problem is not that I have an issue with arguing from achieved theological doctrines that are not explicitly biblical. In fact, that is something I find most intriguing about Kelsey's project and it seems perfectly legitimate to me. However, as I read this chapter, many of the conneciton Kelsey makes between trinitarian relations and anthropology seemed unwarranted. It wasn't that his claims were wrong, but that I was not convinced that the trinitarian relations properly fit as the ground for those claims.

    Also, I do think the Spirit's role in consummation is biblically and theologically warranted. However, I do not think the claim, "the Spirit, sent by the Father with the Son, draws creatures to eschatological consummation," sufficiently encapsulates the canonical vision of eschatology well enough. For example, in the book of Revelation, the Spirit certainly plays a role in the eschaton, but the Father seems to be the one drawing creatures to eschatological consummation. There seems to be more diversity in scripture over the picture of the eschaton than over creation or reconciliation.