Christmas time, for the Christian, is an intensity of time to reflect on the season of advent, and what it means for God’s Son to become human for us. At a surface level we don’t often ponder the deeper theological ramifications of what the incarnation of God entails for humankind. In this post we will get into the deeper thinking of Christmas’s implications with particular reference to the theological-anthropological import of the incarnation. Maybe you have never thought of Christmas from this perspective, but it is the sine qua non of what Christmas is all about. Christmas is about what Irenaeus writes: “The Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.” Do you see the implicit questions in Irenaeus’s statement? When he writes ‘what we are’ and ‘what He is Himself,’ these are the questions of theological-anthropology; points of reference that press us into asking what in fact we are as humans, and who Christ is as the human that we might become through union with Him.
Rene Descartes famously is known for his cogito ergo sum, ‘I think, therefore I am.’ Helmut Thielicke, among others, notices that Descartes was among the very first to start thinking what it means to be human in abstraction from God. In other words, as Thielicke argues, prior to Descartes humanity was never thought of as a singular “I,” or in abstraction from relationship with God. In the “pre-critical” period, prior to Descartes’ turn to the subject, Thielicke notes that humanity, for the Christian, was only and always thought in and through its fellowship with God; indeed, this ‘ground of being’ was taken for granted, according to Thielicke. In order to grasp this seriously important point we will read along, at length, with Thielicke, as he sketches what it meant to be human pre-Descartes and post-Descartes. Following, we will apply some of the implications of Thielicke’s thinking towards Christmastide, and what it means to be human as found in concreto in Christ.
Second, concentration on the “I” and the “I think” tells us more. In the Middle Ages, as in Aquinas or Luther, self-knowledge means knowledge of the relationship to God. The nature of the self cannot be abstracted from the fact that it is created by God, that it has guiltily broken free from him, and that it is visited and redeemed by him. We are those who have a history with God. This is the point of our existence. The point is not to be found—primarily—in ontic qualities, e.g., the possession of reason or the upright stance. If the history with God constitutes our being, this being can only be defined relationally. It is a being under judgment and grace. Our worth is also relational. Ours is an alien dignity.
We can thus know who we are only as we know who and what God is. But we learn about God only as he reveals himself in Jesus Christ. We can know ourselves, therefore, only as we relate ourselves to this self-revelation. We find our humanity in the humanity of Jesus Christ. We see in him the original of humanity. We perceive our goal in a living person. We cannot say of ourselves who we are, for we cannot say of ourselves who God is. In this sense anthropology is always for Christians a part of theology.
Epigrammatically, one might say that we learn our nature through revelation. We are ourselves an object of faith. To try to know our nature by listing ontic qualities is thus pointless. As Norbert Wiener says bluntly and ironically, it leads us only to the definition of ourselves as “featherless bipeds,” puts us in the same category as plucked hens, kangaroos, and jerboas, and does not seize on anything specific to us. In contrast, Augustine’s Confessions is the classical expression of a Christian anthropology. This biography is in fact a history of divine leading. The underlying relationship finds formal expression in the fact that it conceived of as a prayer.
In this instance we might as well be reading Karl Barth or Thomas Torrance; Thielicke like the Swissman and Scotsman, has a significant notion of the vicarious humanity of Christ as the fund of what it means to be human before God. What is significant for our purposes is to simply notice, along with Thielicke, that prior to Descartes’ turn to the subject anthropology, humanity could never be thought apart but only from Christ’s humanity for us. As an aside: Barth (and Torrance) is singled out as a modern theologian. But at the very base of Barth’s theology, in particular, his infamous doctrine of election is this return to the pre-modern theological anthropology that Thielicke is referring us to.
Even so, the joy of Christmas is that God has become human that we might become genuinely human before God; human in and through the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. This is the Good News of Christmas: we were plunged into sub-humanity at the Fall (cf. Gen 3), but elevated to the ultimacy of what it means to be human as that is understood through the archetypal humanity of Jesus Christ. We have been elevated from the straw of the manger’s bed, to the Kingly throne-room of the Almighty. Christmas, as understood through this theological-anthropological lens, tells us that the sanctity and nobility of what it means to be human only comes as that is refracted in the light of God’s light in the face of Jesus Christ. He has invited us to partake of His humanity so we might feast with Him at the banqueting table of the Father. He has called us into relationship with Him; this is the pinnacle of what it means to be human according to the analogy of the incarnation: viz. we are thoroughly relational beings insofar as what it means to be human is to be participants in the eternally relational life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We have been brought into this eternal life; this is the good news of Christmastide. Maranatha.
 Irenaeus, “Preface,” in Against Heresies, book 5.
 Helmut Thielicke, Modern Faith&Thought (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 53.