An In-Depth look at “Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity,” by Kathryn Tanner – Part 3: The Shape of Human Life

I’m doing a 4-part series on my favorite book, “Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity” by Kathryn Tanner. I normally just write single reviews, but this book’s influence upon my life requires that I share some of its more important considerations for my readers. Here are the links to my summaries of Chapter 1 and Chapter 2.

Jesus humanity and the trinityFollowing her reflections on the nature of God and Christ, Kathryn Tanner devotes her third chapter toward explaining what Christian life should look like. The main issue for her is what role humans have in distributing God’s good gifts to other humans. Even though God, per say, does not need anything from us (being complete in Godself), our reflection of God to the rest of the world is desperately needed. In short, God doesn’t need anything from us, but other humans surely do (just as we ourselves stand in need). Humans have a role to play in God’s saving mission.

For Tanner, all creatures reflect the goodness of God because they are all what God made them to be: human persons fit to receive God’s love. Our assumption by Christ is meant to produce Christlikeness and be reflected visibly, yet, as we all know, this is actually a very long struggle due to how far behind we are relative to Jesus’ starting point! Christ helps to form our actions, but he certainly doesn’t take control of our wills as if some moments we are merely passive agents. There is much more divine-human cooperation than a model of that sort would allow for. Faith, in the Christian life, is not mere passive receptivity, something Tanner would like to stress.

She says that our actions should reflect our empowerment by the Spirit, and should, therefore, be characterized by grace in totality. Grace is not only present at a “starting point” of the Christian life, say at our justification, but is the defining feature of our whole Christian lives. This graced life is not just to repeat the life of Jesus in our own, because there are new things to be done now than were needed in the first century! As Christ’s humanity was not perfected as a state of existence, but only through process, so it is with our own lives as we are lead by Christ. We will only be perfected in the final eschaton.

kathryn tanner

Kathryn Tanner

To these ends, our relations with others should always be life-affirming just like God’s relations are to us. Moreover, we should not only seek to emulate the results/outcomes of Christ’s life, but more so even in the process or method we use, our actions should conform to a Christlike pattern. The pattern of our actions (and not only their perceived outcome) should mirror divine goodness (for example, it’s not enough to ask “what outcome would God desire?” but to go a step further with “what strategies might we use that reflect God’s character in our eventual goal of bettering the world?”). Because Christ doesn’t only deal with individuals, but also with entire communities, we are to be engaged in communal sanctification. We are not just fighting against “personal” evils in an individualistic sense. This, for Tanner, provides ample grounds for the Christian Church to fight against the structures of evil throughout the world that affect entire communities and nations (see her book Economy of Grace for an extended example of this) and not limit their benevolence to only individualistic struggles (even if those are indeed important). Likewise, our reception of God’s gifts is not only meant for our individual benefit (notice a consistent theme in Tanner’s theology?), but we are blessed so that we can bless others as well.

At the time of Tanner’s writing (2001 and earlier), the concept of Social Trinitiarianism as a model for human community was very influential (as it is today – proposed by theologians like Jurgen Moltmann and Miroslav Volf to name but a few). The idea behind this is that, in the Trinity, there is a perfect community of equality and respect for difference, that should be applied as a model for human communal life in shared love. Tanner pushes back on this idea quite a bit because she thinks there are too many unique features of the Trinity that preclude using it as a model for our own communities. In technical terms, our relations with others are not based on “Immanent Trinitarian” relations. Nonetheless, our lives should be marked by unconditional giving. God does not give to us because we deserve it but precisely because we are in need of what God can give to us. Our own benevolence toward others should be the same. We should not give based upon whether we deem someone worthy of our gifts, and we shouldn’t expect something in return. In short, our gifts of love should be unconditional. Of course, Tanner is sure to remark that God hopes we will reflect God’s goodness, but even God’s giving is not conditional upon our reflection of God. In other words, God may have intentions for how we receive God’s gifts, but God’s giving is not conditional on how we will end up using said gifts. Sin may block God’s gifts, but God will always try new ways of showing love to us. The fact that some of God’s gifts are blocked from our reception of them is not a consequence of divine punishment but rather just a natural consequence of human sin (i.e. God is not punishing us when it’s hard for us to receive God’s blessings, it’s just our sin that is in the way).

Similarly, Tanner argues that humans do not have some sort of infinite debt we owe God. In fact, in the cross, God removes the entire system of debts and repayments by God’s act of unconditional grace and love bestowed in the life of Christ. God’s unconditional grace in the cross was universal in scope and not based upon a repayment of a debt (as if God needed to be paid before God could love us).

In conclusion, Tanner writes that all people have a common right to God’s goods because we are all in equal need and God’s giving is universal and unconditional in nature. Therefore, we owe good works to everyone (not just those who look like us!). We do not own the gifts God has bestowed upon us and we should practice inclusive giving of our gifts and talents that God has blessed us with. This is not simply self-sacrifice (though it may include it) because we give out of our own fullness. In other words, we do not lose God’s gifts by giving them to others, we only extend God’s love outward to others without losing that love ourselves. In a perfect community then, all would be mutually fulfilled and no one would lack anything good. This is our aim in human community today, and perhaps its ultimate fulfillment in the eschaton. With that, Tanner concludes before spending her final chapter making remarks about the end of all things (one of the few instances where Tanner deals explicitly with eschatology, so be sure to take note!).

To end my own remarks, this chapter is an extraordinarily succinct account of Tanner’s theology of human life. Her creative use of the category of “gift” provides a very inspiring framework for the nature of the Christian life. Some of the themes are taken up in more detail in her books The Politics of God and Economy of Grace, and she revisits the critique of Social Trinitarianism as a social model in a chapter of her book Christ the Key. Readers interested in learning more (beyond her aptly titled “very brief” systematic theology) should consult those other works – or wait for my later reviews!

For those interested, I recently wrote my own account of flourishing life that is heavily influenced by Tanner’s thoughts in this chapter. Here is the link to that paper.



One thought on “An In-Depth look at “Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity,” by Kathryn Tanner – Part 3: The Shape of Human Life

  1. Pingback: An In-Depth look at “Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity,” by Kathryn Tanner – Part 4: The End | School of Religion


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