Theological Anthropology. Sources of Early Christian Thought. By J. Patout Burns. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981. 130 pp. Paper, $9.95.
The more fully we understand human sinfulness, the more profound must be our understanding of God’s grace. Grace is God’s solution to our problem of sin. Likewise, a trivializing of sin leads to a trivializing of grace. This important principle is well illustrated in J. Patout Burns’s recent anthology of early patristic texts, Theological Anthropology.
Theological Anthropology is the third volume in a series of anthologies on early Christian thought published by Fortress Press (other volumes in this series include The Trinitarian Controversy, The Christological Controversy, and Early Christian Spirituality). In keeping with the series format, it begins with a short historical introduction (Burns’s introduction is particularly helpful) followed by approximately 100 pages of excerpts from early theologians. These are newly translated by Burns himself (except for Gregory of Nyssa’s Sermon on the Sixth Beatitude, which is translated by Joseph W. Trigg).
Burns focuses his attention on four important Christian thinkers: Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa, Pelagius, and Augustine. What will be most valuable to the readers of JOTGES is the way in which these four theologians model the relationship between sin and grace.
Irenaeus explains man’s entanglement in sin in developmental terms. Man was created in a state of immaturity. A steady growth into godliness was to follow. Sin, however, stalled that process. Christ enters human history as God’s grace for a new beginning. In the grand scheme of things sin is reduced to a powerful object lesson. Having learned from our mistakes, by grace we get a clean slate and the ability to start anew.
A Platonist, Gregory of Nyssa focuses on the divine image in man. Sin is conceived as the sullying of this otherwise intact image. In his Sermon on the Sixth Beatitude, Gregory describes sin as “the mold of evil” that is “caked over your heart.” He urges that it be “rubbed off.” For Gregory, God’s grace need be nothing more than the superior moral instructions of the Sermon on the Mount which, unlike the old Law of Moses, address the inner life and thus call attention to the real problem.
Practically, there is little difference between Gregory of Nyssa and Pelagius. Pelagius, however, was not a philosopher but a popular moralist. He functioned as a spiritual guide to those who shared his ascetic temperament and who wanted to escape the corruptions of this world pursuing personal holiness. For Pelagius, sins are simply bad habits. We are born into a sinful culture and we are raised by sinful parents. We learn to sin from our youth. To reverse this we need only to realize the power of free choice that God has graciously given to each of us. Grace is the power of human nature to reverse the effects of human custom. Not surprisingly, Pelagius’sLetter to Demetrias (a young virgin he talked into permanent celibacy) reads like a modern self-help pamphlet. He even goes so far as to argue that holiness begins with a proper self-image!
Augustine is by far the most pessimistic in his view of man. Sin is not a hiccup in our otherwise natural development, nor is it a layer of mold coating our inner person, nor is it merely an acquired habit. Sin is a corruption penetrating to the innermost depths of our being. For Augustine we have each become a “lump of sin.” Accordingly, God must decisively intervene in our behalf. Grace is therefore nothing less than God’s sovereign initiative. It must be operating in the life of the believer from the very beginning, and it must remain active to the very end.
Theological Anthropology offers its careful reader a valuable introduction to the essential Christian concepts of sin and grace. It also stands as a warning to those who today are toying with a shallow view of sin: A shallow view of grace is soon to follow.
Department of Early Christian Literature
The University of Chicago