What is theological anthropology? Put simply, it is the attempt to study the nature of humanity in light a proper understanding of God. So it differs from a secularist approach to anthropology in the sense that it does not simply seek to determine what has been common amongst human beings across space and time. Consequently, theological anthropology often stands in stark contrast to its secular peer, as it builds upon theological foundations that necessarily put it at odds with the prevalent humanist ideologies of our culture.
Several days ago, I attempted to initiate a conversation on this subject by posting a provocative quote by Stanley Hauerwas. In the midst of a rich and insightful interview that is well worth your time, Hauerwas argued that the core of Christianity could be reduced to the following maxim: “Jesus is Lord and everything else is bullshit.”
Not surprisingly, the few comments that did come in on my initial post largely sidestepped the intended conversation in favor of commenting upon Hauerwas’s use of vulgar language. So today, we are going to turn our attention to the Apostle Paul and his letter to the church at Philippi. For in this letter, we see the great Apostle laying the foundation not only for Hauerwas’s central contention, but for his idiosyncratic use of language as well.
“Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! For we are the circumcision, the ones who worship by the Spirit of God, exult in Christ Jesus, and do not rely on human credentials – though mine too are significant. If someone thinks he has good reasons to put confidence in human credentials, I have more: I was circumcised on the eighth day, from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews. I lived according to the law as a Pharisee. In my zeal for God I persecuted the church. According to the righteousness stipulated in the law I was blameless. But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things – indeed, I regard them as dung!– that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness – a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness.”
Paul begins his discussion by warning his readers against those that insist upon the Gentiles’ need to be circumcised so that they might be truly saved as part of the chosen people of God. Notice how he calls these individuals out as “dogs.” As Gordon Fee in his commentary on Philippians rightly points out:
“A culture that spends millions of dollars on dogs as pets can scarcely appreciate the basic contempt that ancient society had for dogs, who were both scavengers (eating whatever street garbage they could find) and vicious (attacking the weak and helpless). They get nearly universally bad press in the Bible and thus are metaphorically applied to humans only pejoratively.”
So where modern English readers see a mild insult at worst, ancient readers saw an opening linguistic salvo that only gets more inflamed as Paul builds to his stunning conclusion. Look now, if you will, to his warning to “those who mutilate the flesh.” The Greek word for “circumcision” (v. 3) is περιτομη (peritome), which means “to cut around.” But the word for “mutilation” is χατατομη (katatome), which means “to cut off” or “to cut to pieces.” So what Paul is rather aggressively suggesting here is that the Christians are the “true circumcision,” while those that ironically insist on an actual, physical circumcision are actually mutilators of the flesh that have metaphorically “cut off” their genitalia. This dovetails rather nicely, of course, with a similar conversation that Paul has with the church of Galatia. In his often biting letter to that community, Paul actually goes as far as to say that he wishes these troublemakers would go so far as to castrate – or “mutilate” – themselves.” In other words, if we were writing this letter today, it might read something like this:
“If you’re going to insist on circumcision, than I wish you would just go all the way and cut the whole thing off. Then I’d know that you’re serious about following the law!”
As you can see, Paul isn’t mincing any words with his early Christian audience. He sees something extremely dangerous at work in those that are trying to add to the Gospel by making Gentiles into Jewish law-followers; and he pulls upon the strongest of language to make his point. But before he reaches his rhetorical and linguistic climax, he wants to be sure that his Jewish agitators are listening closely. And this is why he gives us his resume, which is cleanly captured by N.T. Wright in his fresh translation of this passage:
“Mind you, I’ve got good reason to trust in the flesh. If anyone else thinks they have reason to trust in the flesh, I’ve got more. Circumcised? On the eighth day. Race? Israelite. Tribe? Benjamin. Descent? Hebrew through and through. Torah-observance? A Pharisee. Zealous? I persecuted the church! Official status under the law? Blameless.”
So what Paul is saying here is this: “You think you’re protecting the Jewish roots of the Christian faith by insisting on circumcision. But in truth, you are wild dogs that would do well to castrate yourselves. You think you’re Jewish and you’re in the covenant. But I too am Jewish and I too was under the law. And I have come to see that all of it – indeed, I have come to see “all things!” – as nothing more than a liability. In fact, I have come to see it as σκυβαλον (skybalon).”
So what is the meaning of σκυβαλον in Koine Greek? Well, according to The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament and to The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, σκυβαλον is a vulgar term for human excrement. Indeed, notable scholars such as Kennedy, Hawthorne, Silva, O’Brien and Hays have all written on this subject and they all maintain that this word carries the strongest of connotations. In other words, as Peter T. O’Brien, a conservative, Reformed theologian, succinctly puts it:
“[The Apostle’s] choice of the vulgar term stresses the force and totality of this renunciation. [And] although the apostle’s language is stark, it is inappropriate to weaken its meaning because of embarrassment, as some of the early Church Fathers did.”
So what we have in the Hauerwas quote that was posted on Friday is essentially a restatement of Paul in Philippians 3. For when Paul is faced with describing his “blamelessness” that came before his conversion in light of the resurrection and Lordship of Jesus the Christ, he dismisses it as “shit.” In point fact, he goes one step farther to dismiss “all things” as “shit” in light of Jesus.
And thus, we return to the original question that I posted at the conclusion of the previous post.
Do you think most modern Evangelicals agree that the claim of Jesus as Lord necessarily reduces everything else to “bullshit?”
And what about his claim that we – you and I – are the one’s that compete with his Lordship? Do 21st century American Christians see their own quest for personal autonomy as a counter-claim to Jesus’ rightful claim to be the king of creation?
 Galatians 5:12.
 Philippians 3:4-6 in N.T. Wright, The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation.