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Theological Anthropology in Early Christianity
on January 24, 2004
Man does not disappear in contact with God but, on the contrary, becomes more truly and more freely man. (Karl Rahner)
The author & the Book:
J. Patout Burns, is a fine patrologist, a founder and past president of the American Patristic Society, 92/93. He authored many articles and books, on the message of the Fathers of the Church, the Economy of Salvation, and the Pelagian Controversy. Theological Anthropology is the third in the: sources of Early Christian Thought, a series of English translations and studies to render the fathers understanding better.
The theme of the book is to examine the human person, presenting an overview of coherent patristic thought in Irenaeus of Lyon, Gregory of Nyssa, Pelagius, an Augustine. He offers a selected appetizer from the Holy Fathers on faith issues.
In a concise review, JP Burns explains in plain English early Christian thought and its encounter with Gnostic ideas, and the ascetic movements. He shows how neoplatonism became the carrier of Alexandrine theology, and calls it Christian Platonism.
The Apostolic Fathers of the Church developed many interesting apologetic insights into the study of man, an anthropology deeply embedded in scriptures. Based on Genesis, it was developed in a continuity and contrast with Jewish thought. Other aspect which considers man as conceived within the context of early mystery religions, and Alexandrine Neo-Platonism enabled the Fathers to develop their ideas, thus helping them to present a far elaborate biblical and philosophical anthropology. They remained faithful to the revelation on man as given by the OT and Paul's Epistles. Alexandrine anthropology, has already taken far strides of a wider scope based mainly on the fundamental Pauline text (Acts 17:22-31).
St. Augustine of Hippo , theory of man, and free will debate with Pelagius, opened up the study of man towards a deeper understanding of man's relationship to God, in the Synergy of salvation. Patristic Anthropology accordingly got tightly linked to patristic soteriology, as best illustrated in Cyril of Alexandria.
Irenaeus & man's evolution:
The theological anthropology of St. Irenaeus of Lyons (2nd century) however, is not speculative, but got some very original ideas of mans conscious development to meet gods plan for his salvation (through spiritual evolution). It actually reduces itself to a practical explanation of traditional theology, yet, the majority of third century Fathers and Christian writers follow his work Against Heresies, where he writes:
"Humanity slowly progresses, approaches perfection, and draws near to the uncreated God. The perfect is the uncreated, God. It was therefore appropriate for humanity first to be made, being made to grow, having grown to be strengthened, being stronger to multiply, having multiplied to recover from illness, having recovered to be glorified, and once glorified to see its Lord. God is the one who is going to be seen; the vision of God produces incorruptibility; incorruptibility makes a person approach God."