Book Review: ‘Introduction to Theological Anthropology’ by Joshua R. Farris

Review by Timothy Kleiser, who is a teacher and writer from Louisville, Kentucky. His writing has appeared in The American ConservativeModern AgeThe Boston GlobeFathom, and elsewhere.


All interest in disease and death is only another expression of interest in life.” Novelist Thomas Mann penned these words long ago, and they continue to prove true in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the national police protests we’re experiencing today.

These ongoing challenges present litmus tests for our beliefs about ourselves. Our answers to questions like “Should I wear a mask in public?” or “How should I respond to police brutality?” are rooted in our answers to more foundational questions, such as: What does it mean to be human? How much is a human life worth? Who are my neighbors, and what do I owe them? What is the destiny of humankind?

In other words, our divided responses to the pandemic and protests expose the fact that we’re deeply divided over the nature and purpose of humanity. Any meaningful effort to address our nation’s challenges, then, must be grounded in a deep understanding of what, who, and why we are.

It’s precisely these three categories that Joshua Farris explores in his new book, An Introduction to Theological Anthropology: Humans, Both Creaturely and Divine. A theologian and philosopher, Farris has been writing and lecturing on a host of anthropological issues for years. This latest book represents his attempt to distill these issues into a single, accessible volume that traces his answers to the whatwho, and why questions.

Competing Narratives

“Humans live and die by stories,” writes Farris. He means that each of us possesses a “narrative identity” that’s made up of the stories we tell ourselves to help us make sense of ourselves and our place in this world. The question, then, is not whether we identify with some overarching narrative but which narrative it is. According to Farris, what primarily distinguishes one narrative from another is its account of human nature. That is to say, our beliefs about who we are and why we exist depend a great deal on what we believe ourselves to be.

There’s no shortage of views on human nature, and Farris does a careful and balanced job of presenting the ones that have been the most influential. Yet he devotes most of his attention to contrasting the two most pressing narratives: physicalism and substance dualism.

In each of its varieties, physicalism is the view that humans—and everything else in the universe—are made entirely of physical parts. We have no souls or minds or any other immaterial parts that contribute to making us what we are. A physicalist could say, “I am my body (or some part of my body), and my body is me.”

By contrast, substance dualism is the view that humans are made up of dual parts: a material body and an immaterial soul. Farris supports a version of substance dualism that sees humans as being identical to their souls. Fundamentally, he argues, each of us is a soul who happens to have a body. “It is not that the body is unimportant to personal identity,” he writes. Our souls are united to our bodies in such a way that they functionally depend on one another. But when our bodies die, our personal identities don’t disappear. We continue to exist as the same persons, albeit in a disembodied state. This means that, though our bodies are important to our personal identities, they’re not essential.

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Source: Christianity Today