Tag Archives: theology

A Lenten Reflection on Sloth

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against You and our neighbors, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

Lent is our special opportunity to devote time toward introspective admission of sin as we make room in our hearts for Christ through penance. Our faults, as we are becoming more aware of day by day, seem vast, nearly unending – in short, we are sinners through and through. There is nothing in our lives or in our individual being that is not touched by sin in some way. The time we have to patiently wait for the coming of Christ is fundamentally marked by sin. Whether in our social life, in our relations with other human beings, or in our individual lives, in the depths of our identities, we cannot escape the effects of sin.

This is a difficult reality to face. In our everyday lives, we are not usually aware of the extent of sin; yet, during Lent we are pressed to confront the reality of our sinfulness head on. There is no space in this season to whitewash the reality of our fallen world and the fault by which we are to blame for its condition.

Although we usually focus on wrong-doing, this only encapsulates one half of sin. In the opening prayer, we confessed that we have sinned by what we have left undone. We have failed to love God with all of our hearts and we have failed to extend this love to others. Irrespective of anything we have actively pursued through our actions, our sin extends further to what we have not done. We are not only beset by evil action, but by evil inaction as well.

We have so often refused to answer Christ’s call, “Follow Me!”


We would rather continue fishing or collecting taxes, so it would seem. Let us at least bury our own dead first, Jesus! Most of the time, Christ’s call to follow him goes unheeded. We might say that the cares of this world are too great, or that our time is too short. Leave me alone. Let me be.

And so, we bury our talents in the ground hoping to secure what we have thus far accumulated.

The grace of God in Christ calls us not only to repentance, but to action. We cannot stop at merely admitting our past faults, though that is a welcome start. Sin as sloth is not, because of its apparent emptiness, somehow lesser than our evil actions. In both senses, our sin is disobedience – first because we do what God does not want, and second, when we do not do what God wants. In a fundamental sense, however, sloth is the most basic form of sin because it is this very refusal to heed the call to follow Christ that sets us further down the path of active sin, rebellion, and idolatry.

Christians are called to action, to diligent action on behalf of the gospel. Focusing for a bit on our duty to love our neighbors, we can begin to see the intensity of the Gospel’s call on our lives.

You shall love your neighbor. This call is a personal one; it is directed to you – there is no escape. You shall love your neighbor. This call directs our attention to others, away from our own comfort. You shall love your neighbor. This call consists in the duty of an active pursuit – it is a demand, a joyful demand to extend God’s love.

In our sloth, we treat Christ’s call with indifference. We disobey God’s command to love others. We do not trust in Christ’s promise to those who actively follow his will. Chiefly, sloth expresses our refusal to give thanks for the gift of Christ. We demonstrate our own ingratitude toward what Christ has done and has called us to continue alongside him. Here then, our sloth results finally in our refusal to love God.

And so, we confess that we have sinned by what we have left undone.

What does God offer as the remedy to our slothful condition? The remedy lies chiefly in that which sloth refuses: the call, “Follow Me!” This call is not simply an arbitrary expression of what we ought to do. First and foremost, the call is a response to Christ’s person. It is Christ whom we are called to follow. “Follow Me!”

A call to follow is a call to imitate, to tag along if you will. In contrast to our sloth, we see in Christ the supreme example of God’s love in its diligent, ever-active expression.

“Christ, who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death—

even death on a cross.” – Philippians 2:6–8.

God, knowing our need for redemption, did not exhibit sloth – just the opposite, in fact. During Lent, we should recognize the incredible nature of the Incarnation. Although it has likely become a matter of simple affirmation, no longer connected to our sense of joy or wonder due to the sheer repetition of its presentation to us in Church, let us return to a childlike faith filled with awe at the humility through which God demonstrated love toward us.

In the Exodus story, too, we are confronted with God’s diligent activity on our behalf. God told Moses, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians.” Unlike the call whereby we are directed to follow Christ, our cries to God never go unheeded. We respond with slothful inactivity, God responds through redeeming acts of love.

God’s diligence, moreover, is superabundantly greater than the strength of our sloth. God upholds the world in its entirety in each and every moment of its existence. Were God to exhibit sloth, we would cease to exist. Our very being is held together by God’s sustaining grace. By following Christ in our situation today, we are called to imitate this active love toward others that God demonstrates in Christ: “Follow Me!”

Our lives are in the meantime marked by sin. Sloth is the chief expression of our mistrust, disbelief, and disobedience. When we confess these inactions of ours, we figuratively make room for God to come into our lives. May we allow this Lenten season to provide us with a more complete recognition of our sin, and so for our repentance to more fully express the reality of our slothful refusal to completely love God and others. As we liturgically prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ, let us not lose sight of the hope which is ours: God’s diligence, in redeeming acts throughout history and the sustaining grace that gives us every breath we take, is always actively demonstrating God’s unconditional love for all of creation. “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.”

And so finally, we close just as we have begun: looking to our most merciful Lord and Savior, acknowledging our sin.

We confess that we have sinned against You and our neighbors, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

This post originally appeared in Emily Bricker’s “Voices of Lent” Reflection series

Christ the Key – Part 1 “Human Nature”

This post is part of the much larger Reader’s Guide to Kathryn Tanner. Here, we focus on the first chapter in her book “Christ the Key” dealing with the theological concept of human nature.

Orienting Possibilities (1-15)

The goal as stated in the opening lines is a Christocentric (or at least Christologically informed) theology of human nature and the image of God. She will argue that human nature is essentially malleable. To begin with, the main question is what exactly do humans image: God, the Trinity, or the Word? If God generally, many try to carry out the pseudo-science of searching out human nature for some defining characteristic they deem closest to God (e.g. rationality or intelligence), but which is mostly just the outcome of a mindset of assumed human superiority. Another particular option is that humans are the image of God in that they are designed to relate with God. In that case, the image would not so much be a specific characteristic than something considered in the human as a whole.

Tanner moves to talk about Augustine’s discussion of human nature, as it is perhaps the most influential treatment in the Christian tradition. Augustine talked about the Trinity with reference to various human elements with the result that humans image the Trinity through our capacities of knowing, loving, and remembering. Many of the readers may already be familiar with this, yet it results in humans having the image of God in a self-contained way within themselves.

christ the keyOther early Christian theologians, apart from Augustine, thought we were to image the second person of the Trinity because Christ is the true or real image of God. We are not the image exactly, but only (following the language of Genesis) “in” or “after” the image. Augustine, however, rejects this idea because of the biblical language that the Trinity might in some way be more central to the image (e.g. “let us make humans in our image…”). The opposite strand of theologians disputed this claim because they had always thought the second person of the Trinity is the way in which we, as humans, come to relate to the Trinity as a whole regardless. This strand often reads New Testament concepts into the Genesis story, especially Hebrews that claims Christ is the image of God. Therefore, we cannot image God in this same way and only divine can image divine (Tanner cites Athanasius and Nyssa here). In this way, the Son is not the image by imaging something the Son is not, but rather that the Son is what is imaged (as God). The Son doesn’t “borrow” the image from, say, the Father, as if the Son was incomplete or insufficient independently. The Son is divine naturally. In contrast, in the way humans might image God under this model, they could only image God by what they are given (or by participation in what we are not).

Tanner then further makes a distinction between two different senses in which we might image Christ by participation. The first option would be a “weaker” sort in that we participate in the image just because we are creatures. As creatures, we have our life and being only in God – we participate in these and we aren’t literally life and being as God is. Moreover, if we were created through the Son, then all of creation might in this way participate in this image but it wouldn’t be something we would have independently of God but only in relation to God as creatures. In this way, it is conceivable that we might image Christ “better” than other creatures because of characteristics that approximate God, but as creatures, all of creation has the same “level,” if you will, of God’s goodness because God, in creation, extends God’s own life to all creatures. Further, transcendence (a concept Tanner has developed extensively throughout her life’s work) negates the possibility of some sort of continuum or “chain of being” where some creatures approximate God more accurately, because God is not similar to creatures in a way that allows creatures to be ranked or contrasted to God in varying degrees (i.e. Tanner’s concept of non-contrastive relations between God and creation).

The second way Tanner talks about our ability to image Christ by participation would be if humans were given the image itself so that we all share in the image by virtue of this gift. In this way, one might be able to talk of receiving an “alien” image (similar in concept to Luther’s “alien righteousness”) because it would be ours only as gift from outside of ourselves. Christ would be our paradigm here (a human as image of God) because he has the image by nature, not by gift, and, because of the hypostatic union the person Jesus is the perfect image. Tanner, in fact prefers this way of talking about the image because we are then the image of Christ insofar as we cling to Christ who is the real image (and the gift given to us). In sum, there is only one image, but we can participate in the image through union with Christ. Jesus is not just the paradigm for our imaging of God, but the means to it as well – becoming ours by the Spirit’s drawing us to Christ. In this way, the image is still never ours independently of God, but only insofar as we are united in some fashion to Christ.

The Effect of the Fall on the Image (15-35)

If the above account is accurate, human nature itself would be altered and perfected “by being reworked through our attachment to the divine image.” The human life of Jesus is the paradigm of this transformation as the Incarnation itself transformed the human nature of Christ. Only the incarnation allows us to strongly image God (contrasted to the weak sense due to our creaturely nature). We can only be what we are created to be in participation with the Son. For Tanner, our human capacities are elevated by the Spirit conforming us to Christ, so that it is by grace that we image God. However, using the language of “sin” and “fall,” she can reflect on the situation at our creation. When we sinned, we lost this close fellowship/union with God that allowed us to image God in the strong sense. We lost it (in the strong sense) by removing ourselves from relation from God – and remember, we don’t have the image independently of our relation to God.

Since we were created for fellowship with God, it is important to not talk about human nature independently from God or isolate some of our specific characteristics because our human faculties operate properly only in God. The perfection of our capacities is not our supreme self-sufficiency, but is only due to the most extreme type of dependence upon God and God’s presence in our lives. That this is the case leads Tanner to quote Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa to further support this idea that we are only truly ourselves in relation to God. One way this is true is because we are only good in that we participate in the ultimate source of all goodness, God – we are only truly good in sharing in something other than ourselves, God. But this is what we lost in the fall – and subsequently in our pride we thought we had all of our gifts in and of ourselves and not from God. This was an improper reception of the good gifts God wants to give to us. We lost the image except for retaining the weaker sense of it as creatures. So, Christ comes and restores this close relation that brought about our stronger imaging of God and our true humanity.

Christ, Transformer of Human Nature (35-57)

Jesus restores the image in a way so that it cannot be lost again. As the Word himself, Jesus cannot lose the image due to the hypostatic union. The incarnation creates a unity between us and Christ and leads to the process of our sanctification. What defines human nature in this case is the possibility to receive and be united to the divine in Christ. Tanner favors talking about this potentiality using terms like human nature’s changeability or malleability. In fact, change in this sense is our only hope in a world and individual life constrained as it is by sin. “We must have a created nature that does not put rigid bounds on what we can become.” This allows for our elevation and sanctification in Christ – the potential to be changed by God means that what is most significant about our nature is its “plasticity.”

Concretely, we all know this to be more or less the case in our everyday experience. We know the massive affects that external inputs can have upon us, say the societal pressures we feel throughout our lives. God, as a sort of “input,” if you will, certainly has the capacity to transform us even more so. It is not, however, merely passive because we are also transformed by our own choices and effort – the results of our will. We are often formed by what we care about most (hence the importance of right desire in Christian discourse). Human nature, overall for Tanner, means to be undetermined. Because God is not limited, our fellowship and union with God gives our malleable human natures great potential for sanctification – our whole selves, not just our “minds” or our “bodies” alone. We are marked by an expansive indefiniteness. To conclude, the second person of the Trinity, and the Spirit drawing us to him, allows us to properly image God – thereby the whole of our good life is in Christ and we are only truly ourselves as humans as our lives are defined and conformed to Christ, as Christ’s human nature was in the incarnation.

Like most of Tanner’s work, this is a thoroughly “orthodox,” if I may, account of human nature, yet one filled with immense creativity that results in very interesting discussions about human nature as it is formed by Christ. The key thing to remember here is that we do not image God independently of our connection to Christ, nor are our human faculties elevated except through Christ. Tanner’s talk about the near infinite potentiality of human nature should not be recourse for worrying about this doctrine’s destructive potential (say, by pride in exploiting our possibilities) because all this is true only as we relate to Christ and we become ourselves in him. As always, Tanner provides us here with a creative starting point, her own gift to us, perhaps, that we may extend in other exciting directions in our own theological thinking.

Moving along in Christ the Key, Tanner devotes the next two sections to a discussion of grace, especially as it relates to nature and Tanner’s discussion of our imaging Christ.

An In-Depth look at “Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity,” by Kathryn Tanner – Part 4: The End

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 links to my guides to chapters 1, 2, and 3

Jesus humanity and the trinityAppropriately titled, “The End,” Kathryn Tanner concludes her brief offer of systematic theology with some reflections about Christian eschatology. Responding to scientific understandings of the natural world and cosmology, Tanner attempts to offer up what she terms “An eschatology for a world without a future.” By taking seriously what scientists have to say about the eventual fate of the earth and the universe (e.g. the sun will consume the earth one day, or the universe will end through heat death according to the laws of thermodynamics,etc.), Tanner formulates what she determines are the most important aspects of eschatology without an appeal to the future of the earth.

If this is true, what are we to make of the eventual failure of biological life? Or perhaps more worrisome is the truth that sin is never overcome in this life nor do we ever come close to exhibiting the perfection of Christ’s humanity. In short, we should not expect to be free from the same types of resistance that Christ faced in his life. Toward a more comprehensive solution however, one might hope that God will somehow intervene in history to stop the natural processes that lead to death or the growth of our sun, or that God will use the world’s death as a purifying element of the New Creation (for views utilizing these types of solutions, see Moltmann or Rahner whom both posit God’s intervention to change history in these ways – however, to deny this as a possibility would be to limit God’s freedom; but to say it must happen is presumptuous, and Tanner thinks either option misses the real point). Yet, in light of death, might eschatology require a reinterpretation just as the doctrine of creation did (e.g. the theology of creation is not the belief in exactly how the world came about, but primarily that all have God as the ground of their being irrespective of the actual processes of the universe’s beginning)? Perhaps the way forward is to make eschatology a present concept rather than a future-oriented one.

For Tanner, eschatology is the description of our new relationship with God by virtue of Christ. Relationship with God, then, gives meaning to whatever thoughts about the future one might have. Relationship with God (along with what it entails, more on this later) could therefore be true regardless of what the future of the world holds. While seemingly out of left field (at least for the average Christian), this type of view has great biblical precedent. In the Bible, the concepts of “life” and “death” always have more than a mere biological meaning. There is a possibility of a life even within (biological) death and a death even within (biological) life. Life, in fact, often refers to the way in which someone lives their life – whether it was lived for God and others, for example. Death, along these definitions, would then be the act of cutting oneself off from life in God or relationship with God. However, Tanner recognizes that it is not enough to try to spiritualize the meaning of death and life.

Death, the Bible tells us, is a sphere within God’s power. The dead are not cut off from God and death does not ultimately have the power to separate one from God. This is the New Testament’s idea of eternal life, broadly speaking. Jesus, likewise, is not separated from God because he happened to die a biological death, because he is always in close union with the Father and the Spirit in the life of the trinity. Tanner continues, “united with Christ, we too are inseparable from God even in death” (Romans 8:38). Because we are united with Christ, God can sustain us even when we die. Our powers of life will be gone, however, leaving us to rely completely upon God’s power to give and sustain life; the only life we will have will be from God’s life.

“Because it runs across the fact of death, life in Christ is eternal life. There is a life in the triune God that we possess now and after death, in Christ through the power of the Spirit” (compare with Romans 14:8). Eternal life means that life with God is not conditional, even by our deaths, nor is it conditional on the existence of biological life. For Tanner, “eternal life is not the endless extension of present existence into an endless future, but a matter of a new quality of life in God… even now infiltrating, seeping into the whole. Eternal life is less a matter of duration than a matter of the mode of one’s existence in relation to God” (it might be worth reading that quote a second time!). As stated in the beginning, what ultimately matters for eschatology is the character of our relation to God, not whether the world itself has a future. Eternal life does not need to be associated with any moment of time, then. We also do not need to wait until our deaths to experience this new relation to God, but this does not mean it is complete in the here and now (it is not, clearly).

On the cross, in fact, death is taken up into the life of God, and Christ proves that it cannot separate us from God. Nonetheless, how should one understand this in light of the observation that death continues all around us? Tanner, perhaps controversially to some, argues that biological death is actually a good of creation. Without death, she says, no moment of our lives would have significance. She uses the prophet Isaiah as support for this line of thinking. In chapter 65, in his vision of the New Creation, there still seems to be death, but there is no mention of “bad” death, or harmful death (e.g., children dying young, death through freak accidents, etc.). Christian theology, likewise, should not promote an escapism from death; we should proclaim that Christ has overcome death’s power to break our relationship with God.

Moreover, we should not imagine that mortality will be overcome independent of our relation with God, as if the world will eventually have natural processes that do not result in the death of our bodies. If we ourselves were made independently immortal, we would have no more need of God! (see my extraordinarily underdeveloped thoughts on this idea here) Instead, it is only in union with Christ that our faculties are elevated and God provides the life power of our existence. Mortality per se, is then not the wage of sin, but rather removal from God’s life giving power is – something we do, not God (for example, it was not that Adam and Eve’s bodies could live forever or were naturally immortal, but just that their perfect relation to God, and God’s provision of God’s own life-giving powers prevented their deaths, until sin entered the picture and estranged humanity from God and the proper relation to God).

With a few final reflections on Christian action for the betterment of the world, Tanner rhetorically asks how her thoughts do not imply passivity if we indeed, as she describes, already have eternal life now and it is unconditional. We still work for the world’s betterment, partly because that is just how life in God manifests itself in the Christian life, but more fully, because there is a gap between the way the world ought to be (that is, living in this new relationship with Christ) and how the world actually is (suffering under the effects of sin). This is not a disparity between the present and the future (remember, Tanner’s goal is a theology that’s not dependent upon the future – a meteor could strike any second, or the threat of nuclear war, among billions of other ways the world could end quickly), but rather a disparity between life in and life apart from God. The Christian life, and its liturgy, can be a place of protest against the current state of reality.

Action, moreover, is the proper response to a world that is not what it should be. In relation with God, we act as God acts in the world, participating in Christ’s mission. We should conform our lives to the relationship with God that we have already been given through the incarnation. Yet, our apparent failures to do these things is not sufficient ground for despair. Christ, too, seemed to have suffered defeat and death at many points in his life (not to mention his death!), but his success was ultimately veiled in those various “defeats.” It could indeed be the same for us as we try to make the world a better place.

This concludes Tanner’s reflections on eschatology (at least until she publishes a further book!). The key things to take away are first, that theology (in light of modern understandings of the world) should articulate an eschatology that doesn’t depend on a particular future of the world, and second, that the kind of relationship one has with God due to Christ is what is of primary importance in any thinking about eschatology. It is the constitution of our relationship with God, and our dependence upon God’s own life that is ultimately of the most significance here.

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.


An In-Depth look at “Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity,” by Kathryn Tanner – Part 2: The Theological Structure of Things

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. I’ll post in this series once per week, each devoted to a chapter in her short book. To read the post on the first chapter, click here

Jesus humanity and the trinityBefore her third chapter on “The Shape of Human Life,” Tanner takes a short excursion into the traditional areas of Christian theology, briefly tackling topics ranging from the Trinity and Creation, Forgiveness and the Eucharist. Though many theologians have written entire volumes on topics Tanner gives only a couple of pages attention to, her thinking is extraordinarily clear and straight to the point. We’ll begin here with the Trinity and then move on to the others.

In the Trinity, the unity of substance is due to the fact that each person is communicated to the others without loss of self. There are three different objective angles to perceive God (hence the threeness of God) even though there is divine unity of action because of a unity of will and power. However, each member of the Trinity acts out of a distinct mode. As the Trinity moves outward, God desires to give God’s own fullness (or at least as much as is possible to finite creatures) as a free gift to creation. Life is the first gift bestowed upon humans though others gifts are given over time. In all of this, creation depends utterly and totally upon God. In this progression of God’s gift giving, it eventually results in the Incarnation wherein the gift is Godself. For Tanner, part of the goal of this giving (in all its forms) is correspondence between our wills and God’s will. Likewise, sin is refusing to accept God’s gifts and blocking others from receiving them too.

Using the concept of gift, Tanner points out that external gifts are easily rejected. This, perhaps, was part of the ineffectual nature of the law “(my reflection, not her’s), it was too easily reject-able by humans. On the contrast, Jesus, even as human, has all of God’s gifts internally and naturally (due to being the second person of the Trinity). In the incarnation, God does not just fellowship with the human Jesus, because God just is the human and vice versa here. As Jesus’ humanity is perfected (remember, Tanner thinks this is a process throughout all of Jesus’ life), Christ becomes the means of God’s further distribution of gifts to the rest of humanity (in all forms). She writes that the Spirit communicates God’s gifts to us through the very humanity (shared with all humans) of Christ and by virtue of our unity with Christ brought about by the incarnation.

We are not merely saved, however, by having a common humanity with Christ (if such a thing as a common humanity even existed). Rather, it is the Spirit who draws all creation to Christ and we therefore (and obviously) have God’s gifts by grace, not by nature. We are all already saved in the Incarnation, and this saving event does not need to be repeated in order to effect our salvation. Yet, we still need the Spirit’s drawing us to God because we, unlike Jesus, do not have unity with God by nature; we are especially in need of the Spirit’s help.

Moving toward talking about forgiveness, Tanner significantly emphasizes that we are assumed to union with God in a state of sinfulness. This sinfulness is much more drastic than it was in the case of the human Jesus because sin is in our very persons. By demonstrating love in the Incarnation even while we are in a state of sinfulness, God shows us mercy and forgiveness, not requiring us to attain a prior perfection before we can commune with God (a significant point contrasting Tanner with many other theologians who want to talk about “justification” in a particular way).

In our own lives as Christians, our actions can be attributed to Christ’s work within us because Christ is always the primary agent within our grace-filled lives (e.g. Galatians 2:20). However, unlike Christ, as we act in love there are still, of course, two subjects acting (us and God). We are sanctified as we, as was mentioned above, with God’s help conform our wills to God’s, eventually allowing humans (perhaps in an eschatological state) to be moved internally without the need for external commands.

Further, the Eucharist is the visible sign of our salvation. In the sacrament, we are fed by the Father’s food through the body of Christ, which has been made ours by the Spirit. There is a real transformation as the “things of this life” (bread and wine) are changed into Christ’s body and blood for us. Likewise, we offer ourselves for God to transform by partaking in this sacrament. All of our outward works then flow out of our close unity with Jesus. Christ took us in the midst of a sinful state, so we are called to to the very same for others (not requiring others to attain perfection before we love them as neighbors). Moreover, we give as fellow needy people before God, and this leaves no room for boasting or for dividing up humanity  in pride. All people are equally needy before God. We have compassion for others because we recognize our common need for Christ, yet only Christ’s actions (and not our own) have the real power to save. Because this is the shape of Christian life, we must give to others without respect to whether they are Christian, thereby modeling God’s own giving (themes Tanner will take up especially in her book Economy of Grace). 

It is this “theological structure of things” that lays the foundation for Tanner’s reflections upon “the shape of human life” in chapter 3. Everything we do is centered around the meaning of the incarnation and God’s dealings with all of creation.

An In-Depth look at “Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity,” by Kathryn Tanner – Part 1: “Jesus”

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. I’ll post in this series once per week, each devoted to a chapter in her short book. 

Jesus humanity and the trinityI’ve already written a short review of this work here, but I think this book deserves significantly more close attention than I’ve previously given it on this blog. The first chapter, titled “Jesus” outlines her basic concept of God, and then moves onto Jesus (duh!). She writes specifically on the Incarnation, discussing some of its existing theological problems along the way. Tanner then ends the work discussing the Christian idea of salvation, and how it is that Jesus saves. I’ll take each point in turn.

Her concept of God is, more or less, the bedrock of her entire theological project. Though she centers in on Jesus, and has even written a book on Christology called Christ the Key (see my review here), both perhaps giving one the impression that her starting point is Christ, Tanner’s thinking flows out from the character of God – if derived ultimately from the revelation of Christ. She begins, “At the heart of this systematic theology is the sense of God as the giver of all good gifts, their fount, luminous source, fecund treasury and store house…in establishing the world in relationship to Godself, God’s intent is to communicate such gifts to us” (p. 1). In her mind, the reason for creation is so that God can give God’s fullness to what is not God, i.e. all of creation. Moving on to the central theme of this chapter, Tanner thinks Jesus is the supreme measure of God’s gift to the world.

Her main task initially is resolving some christological problems. How is it possible for Jesus to be both fully God and fully Human? Theologians, in the past, have often insisted on either a high or low Christology, i.e. emphasizing Jesus’ divinity over against his humanity or vice versa. Tanner thinks this is all nonsense given the transcendence of God. God relates non-competitively with the human Jesus. The two natures do not “compete” with one another for space within Jesus, e.g there is not an inverse relationship between divinity and humanity in Christ. Though formulated in an incredibly unique and influential way for contemporary systematic theologians, Tanner really wants to return to patristic era christologies that stress the transcendence of God along with single subject predication of the actions in Jesus’ life (cf. Irenaeus and Cyril of Alexandria). In other words, in Jesus’ actions, it is NOT that some actions are the human and some are the divine; rather, all the actions of Jesus have a single reference point in the Word made human. “In Jesus, unity with God takes a perfect form; here humanity has become God’s own. That is the fundamental meaning of incarnation…” (p. 9).

We cannot divide the events of Jesus’ life between human and divine. Both divinity and humanity characterize all of his life. Divinity is “invisible” in Jesus similarly to how God’s acts are invisible in the rest of creation, i.e. looking at Jesus, one would see a human being. Yet, the manifestation of divinity in Christ comes by way of the saving effects of his life and its perfect character. The unity of Christ is not achieved by some sort of mixture between divinity and humanity, but that in the incarnation, Jesus’ humanity IS God’s (as I mentioned above). Jesus the human has no existence apart from the Word. Unlike us, his existence is IN God not merely FROM God. If this is who Jesus is, what does it imply about the nature of salvation?

Her christology is human-centered. This does not mean it is idolatrous (or “from below”), on the contrary, it means the problem in need of resolution is on the human side of things, not as some would say, on God’s side, e.g. a dilemma between God’s love and justice/wrath so that God is really just saving Godself from wiping out humanity (the problem is NOT that God must first punish his Son for our sin before God can love us). For Tanner, the point of the Incarnation is the perfection of humanity through union with God. “By way of this perfected humanity in union with God, God’s gifts are distributed to us – we are saved – just to the extent we are one with Christ in faith and love…” (p. 9). God is not changing God’s relation to us, per say, but rather God is changing our relation to God: we are brought to God in union with Christ.

This salvation, for Tanner, is a process. She is quite unique among classical western theologians in this way: salvation plays out over the course of Jesus’ life, not merely out of the cross, or the resurrection (even though she may admit those are the culmination of the incarnation). Through unity with the Word, the humanity of Jesus, and by way of Jesus our own as well, is in a sense deified or made perfect as the characteristics of divinity are communicated to Jesus’ humanity (a feature normally emphasized only in Eastern Orthodox expressions of salvation). “As Jesus’ life and death proceed, all these various happenings are made part of God’s assumption of the human, with purifying, healing, and perfecting effects. Each aspect of Jesus’ life and death, moreover, is purified, healed, and elevated over the course of time, in a process that involves conflict and struggle with the sinful conditions of its existence” (p. 27).

“The humanity of Jesus is therefore not perfected from the first as an immediate consequence of the incarnation, making Jesus’ struggles and sufferings something he merely decides to go along with… Jesus does not overcome temptation until he is tempted, does not overcome fear of death until he feels it, at which time this temptation and fear are assumed by the Word” (p. 28). In other words, all of the events of Jesus’ life take on a salvific character. This elevates the significance of Jesus’ time of ministry to a much higher degree than I’ve ever seen done before. This has extraordinarily beneficial implications for how the average Christian approaches the gospels for spiritual edification. One can view the individual occurrences of Jesus’ life and death as particular pieces of salvation that culminate in his death (e.g. his birth dignifies our births, his teaching save us from despairing learning, his love for outcasts and sinners extends God’s love in a most clearly visible way to those most in need of salvation, in anxiety he saves us from the damaging effects of our own, etc.). The cross is the culmination in that the word’s assumption of sin and death into itself results in the conquering of sin and death, and the erasure of its damaging effects upon our own nature.

For the sake of clarity, the cross is the culmination of the Incarnation, not the only saving moment in Jesus’ life. The cross does not save as an atoning sacrifice or as a vicarious punishment for sin. These conceptions are extraordinarily problematic for people today. “The cross saves because in it sin and death have been assumed by the one, the Word, who cannot be conquered by them” (p. 29).  In this way, the Word’s own life and perfection are communicated to Jesus’ humanity, and likewise to our own, even in the features, sin and death, which are most in need of salvation. This theology of the cross, is, moreover, a by-product of the whole of the incarnation developed thus far.

Through this process of incarnation, humans are saved by our unity with the humanity of Jesus made possible as the Spirit draws us to Christ in love. Over time, those same saving characteristics are communicated to ourselves in ways that allow us to live authentically human lives. Through this close association with Jesus, we enter into the Trinity, per-say, and our own lives take on the character of the Son of God as we are adopted as children of the Father by way of the Spirit uniting us to the Son. And with that, my readers must wait for part 2 as Tanner applies this logic of incarnation, and our resulting salvation, to “the ordinary affairs of human life” (p. 33).

Helpful links and resources:

Here’s a link to purchase your own copy of Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity.

For those more interested in Tanner’s conception of God, and especially her idea of the non-competitive relations between God and Creation, check out her first book God and Creation in Christian Theology written in 1988. Consult especially chapters 2 & 3 on God’s transcendence and God’s action within the world respectively.

For examples of patristic era formulations of salvation with a focus on the incarnation, check out Gregory of Nazianzus’ Orations 29-30 available online here or in print here as part of a collection of his most famous writings. Also worth familiarizing oneself with is Cyril of Alexandria’s On the Unity of Christ.

For secondary literature explaining some of Kathryn Tanner’s more famous concepts, check out the brand new volume of work celebrating her theology written by many of her former students. It’s called The Gift of Theology: The Contribution of Kathryn Tanner.

Christian Theological Perspectives on Joy, my review of “Joy and Human Flourishing”

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Joy and Human Flourishing: Essays on Theology, Culture, and the Good Life, eds. Justin E. Crisp and Miroslav Volf, Fortress Press, xviii + 155 pp. Link to purchase.

joy and humanThis little essay collection reflects a paradigm shift in the theological scene today. Theologians are beginning to think about the deeper questions of life rather than limit their discourse to doctrinal disputes from the past 2000 years. This edited volume brings together many of the foremost theologians and biblical scholars of this generation: Jurgen Moltmann, Charles Mathewes, N.T. Wright, Miroslav Volf, Marianne Meye Thompson and Mary Clark Moschella. Each author attempts to define joy, and then to work out a theology or framework of Christian joy from the perspective of their particular discipline.

Moltmann opens with a short chapter on the very nature of Christianity as “a religion of joy,” by emphasizing the celebratory character of one’s response to God’s blessings. It acts as an introduction to other contributor’s essays.

Marianne Meye Thompson identifies three versions of Joy in scripture that all end up centering around the idea of joy “because,” even the concept of joy “notwithstanding (some suffering)”; In this case, because of something God has done or because of who God is. N.T. Wright continues the biblical interpretation section of this book through his helpful discussion of joy as the response to God’s presence both now and in the future as a kind of hope. Yet, he is careful to distinguish the difference between the centrality of hope within second temple Judaism, in that it was always looking to what God will eventually do, with the way the first Christians aligned their perspective around joy, in that God, in Christ, has already brought his kingdom to earth. That salvation has been realized in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ is the cause for the Christian’s joy in the present.

Next, Charles Mathewes, as usual, develops his theological program on the basis of some Augustinian idea; in this case, desire. Most of the readers will be familiar with Augustine’s notion of infinite human desire that is only satisfied in God. Mathewes applies this to the idea of joy which he considers to be “in the middle voice,” that is, it is not fully something that happens to us nor something we do, but in-between. He argues that real joy is only possible when our desire is rightly oriented toward God, toward cultivating lives of flourishing for others, and that we experience joylessness when we place the hopes of our desire in what is not God.

For the more pastoral-minded chapter, Mary Clark Moschella identifies what she renders a problem with modern pastoral education. Pastors are only taught how to discover the good within the bad, and not, perhaps, the joy within the good. She thinks this one-sidedness has actually contributed to a less joy-filled society than if pastors were comfortable strengthening into joy the perceived experiences of well-being within their congregants and those they care for.

Finally, Miroslav Volf adds a final summation of the theologian’s project of joy. He connects, as do all of the other authors, the idea of blessing/gift to joy. When one has the ability to experience life, including all of its goods, as “blessing,” one can have joy knowing that this is how life was designed by God.

Overall, this book is significant because, as I mentioned initially, it represents some of the firstfruits of this paradigm shift towards articulating the Christian vision of flourishing humanity. Further, the caliber of the individual contributors is another important reason why many Christians, and scholars of religion, cannot afford to miss out on the insights available here, all in one place thanks to the editorial efforts of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture as well as doctoral fellow Justin Crisp. I certainly look forward to the other books the Center publishes in the coming years as the results of their John Templeton Foundation grant to research theology and joy. You won’t want to miss those either.