This post is part of the much larger Reader’s Guide to Kathryn Tanner. Here, we focus on the second chapter in her book “Christ the Key” dealing with grace.
Introducing Grace, Starting from Nature (58-62)
Based upon the grace-oriented discussion of the image of God Tanner offered in the first chapter of this book, here she undertakes an explanation of grace in general. Remember, for Tanner, we image God only by being bound to the real image of God: Christ. In other words, we only image God by participating in what we are not – this is grace plain and simple. Moreover, for the following descriptions of grace, the starting point is “nature” not “sin,” so it is nature vs grace not an account of sin vs grace. We need grace to become what we are by nature not. This is a similar starting point as the previous chapter where we needed grace to image God because we were not images by nature.
To jump right in, we do not merit either our creation nor our elevation, both are due to grace. The primary issue we face is not necessarily sin (though she will get to this later on), but that we are not divine, instead we are finite and therefore are naturally unable to receive all that God wants to give to us, including Godself. This is irrespective of any account of sin. Here too, Christ is the “key” because in him the divine and human are one – the humanity of Jesus has received the complete gift of God in its totality and utter perfection by being a single person both divine and human.
We were created to enjoy God, but our natures require an attachment to God in order to fulfill this intention. In other words, we need grace to live a truly flourishing life. This does not mean human nature is somehow “broken,” because we still need grace with or without the presence of sin in our lives. Tanner writes, “Grace is necessary for the perfection of the human because of how much it needs something – God – that by definition its own nature cannot possibly provide” (61). Grace is not just the transition from good to better, but from inability to ability. That is, grace does not help us to become more properly what we are apart from God, but so that we can live a life with God that we couldn’t naturally.
If grace is necessary for the enjoyment of God and our excellent operation, then sin is a major problem! We are living without the grace that we need to truly live. Because of this, our ability to fully live again is not on a continuum of “okay to great” but from death to life because only God can bring this change about. Our human nature itself is not necessarily made worse by sin, rather sin just keeps us from having that external element (God) we need in addition to our own nature. Human nature itself is not as affected by sin as other theologians might have led us to believe, sin just keeps us from attaining something external. It is not just about what we are in isolation.
Sin makes this transformative divine power inaccessible to us; and this, for Tanner is total depravity. Life without God is life in an environment that is not good for us. This is marked by our turning to other things besides God to fill the void that only God can complete within us. We are placing things in a place where only God will do, a life contrary to how we are designed. In sin, we seek for our nourishment things which are actually quite bad for us.
Sin and Nature Overcome in Christ (70-76)
Through sinning again and again, we become “hardened” to divine influence – we gradually lose our ability to receive God (perhaps due to habit or the systemic nature of sin). We need to be reformed in a way akin to the transition from death to life. Sin cannot be addressed, after all this time, by a mere return to our original condition because something has to now be done to us in order to undo what we have done in allowing sin to mar our lives. We need a release from bondage, not just the mere addition of externals. We need an inward transformation.
In Christ then, we gain this close attachment to the divine. In the person of Christ there is not just contact between the divine and the human, but unity: this is as close as it gets! The humanity of Jesus cannot lose the divine life because Jesus just is divine as the second person of the Trinity. Our uniting with Christ becomes the precondition for our transformation, and this occurs by virtue of the humanity we share with him. This new unity is not brought about by any disposition present within our own lives (it is by grace) so it cannot be lost by any attitudes or dispositions of our own either. God is not just external to us anymore (and in that way not susceptible to our rejection of and losing this influence) but is now internal to our life. Tanner writes, “The divine is no longer foreign and external to us in the way it was at our creation, but so properly and inseparably ours in Christ as to imitate a connection by nature” (73). We gain a sort of natural (as in, by the union of natures – divine and human – in Christ) connection to God which allows for this gift to be much more secure than something external. We have a fuller, much closer connection to God. Sin is only overcome through being joined to Christ. We needed the highest gift God could give to us: the gift of Godself in Christ.
Humility as the Proper Disposition Towards Grace (76-85)
All of the above implies that our proper disposition toward God is one of humility because all the good we have is not properly ours. Glory is reserved to God alone. Our humility, though, is not only based upon our sinful character and human achievements need not be minimized in the life of the Christian. We do not glorify God by refusing to acknowledge the value in other creatures. We are humble because we are dependent upon God (and not necessarily because we are mere “worms” without God). Even in our best moments of life we should be humble. Humility is both the proper posture of the one recognizing their sin and the one recognizing their redemption. In fact, our whole lives are truly saturated in grace from our creation to our redemption.
The powers of our achieving any good work are properly God’s. Our elevated abilities and capacities still need the Spirit’s help to continue to work rightly. They do not need to be limited by sin in order to still need the Spirit’s help. We are always in continuous need of the Spirit no matter the time or season of life.
Justification and Sanctification (86-98)
For Tanner, we are justified in our attachment to Christ because of what he is, not because of what we are in ourselves. Our justification refers solely to our union with Christ, nothing else. Moreover, God’s grace is what effects this union in the first place, which becomes responsible for our justification. We are sanctified only as a result of this union with Christ and what it in turn leads us to accomplish by allowing for our reception of the Spirit. The attachment to Christ (justification) and the effect of that attachment (sanctification) are distinct. Faith is an act of our attachment to Christ because it is an act to trust and cling to Christ instead of something else. This gives the impression that it is caught up in the concept of justification in some way. However, our attachment to Christ is not the result of our faith – our attachment is the result of the incarnation. Christ’s attachment to us produces within our lives the disposition of this unity: faith. Faith, in this way, should be associated more closely with sanctification as it is a gift of the Spirit and is more literally a consequence of justification. Love and gratitude to Christ are just as central in the sanctifying life as faith may be, and love perhaps arguably more so (because it can be present even in moments of doubt).
Sharply separating justification and sanctification prevents confusing divine and human works. Our sanctification is based upon our justification and we should separate justification from faith so that it does not become the product of our work.
The Centrality of Christ (98-105)
Christ is absolutely central to this account of grace because what is achieved in us has already first been achieved in him. Linking Christ to the preceding discussion, in him justification and sanctification were also separate. The former at Christ’s conception (relax all you heresy spotters, it’s not adoptionism) and the latter throughout the course of Jesus’ life, a theme Tanner continues all throughout her work. Our salvation is secure because in Christ the divine and human are inseparable. As humanity, we are now inseparable from God by virtue of the incarnation.
Adding to a discussion of atonement, Tanner adds that Christ atones simply because he achieves what we could not. There is nothing more that we need to do because it has all been done for us. We cannot remedy some deficiency in what Christ has already achieved. This is moreover not only imputed righteousness because Christ’s achievement becomes ours through participation in him. However, our righteousness does remain “alien” to us simply because only in Christ is there a perfect unity of divinity and humanity (something we cannot have). We only have this righteousness in dependence upon Christ. To conclude, “Rather than merely gaining by way of him, we have such benefits only in him” (105).
Tanner began by reformulating the discussion of grace away from sin and toward nature. Our nature could not give to us what we truly needed to flourish: God. In this way, the intent was to shift the discussion away from talk about what is wrong within us or sin specifically, and to reflecting about our need for an external good to complete us (we are designed to “run on God,” if you will). We are not fully ourselves without the addition of God to our lives. All in all, Tanner’s account saturates all of our lives – from creation, to redemption, to the process of sanctification – with God’s grace. And for that, we should be grateful for all God has done for us in Christ. Moving forward, Tanner will use this account of grace to attempt to bridge common gaps between Catholic and Protestant discussions of grace and nature, especially some difficulties that arise when one claims our natures might be oriented toward grace.