Kathryn Tanner’s newest book is an impressive, creative, and inspiring work of theology. It brings to life the historic conversation within the tradition around Jesus and enlivens it with her keen sensitivity to the present challenges we are facing as a church. I have no idea how many posts I will get out on the book but here’s my attempt to get heart of the book….a book you should just read for yourself! Ohh there is a podcast with her coming your way this Advent!!!
In Christ the Key she intends to display the force of her most central theological commitment, that God desires to give humanity the fullness of God’s own life in deepest way possible – through Christ. For her Christ is indeed the key but in a very specific way. It is through God’s participation with us and for us in the hypostatic union that all of humanity comes to participate and share in the divine life. The nature of the human, the trinity, God-World relationship, atonement, and whole host of other theological topics are developed out of this central thesis such that from her account of the incarnation unfolds more than simply her Christology.
No concept has as much interpretive power in Tanner’s account than participation. Throughout her description the work of the Cappadocian Fathers and Gregory of Nyssa in particular play an essential role. From them she is able to appropriate a modified Platonist vision of participation in which all particular human beings participate in the human being par excellence, Jesus Christ the image of God. In contrast to a more traditional Platonist scheme, a strict ontological divide is placed between the Creator and creaturely reality. Because there is a strict dichotomy between the two there cannot be “an ontological continuum spanning the difference between God and creatures” (18). Instead it is the Christological commitments fashioned in response to the Arian controversy that reveal a two-fold participatory relationship between the creature and their Creator, both of which take as their origin the eternal Son. The Son is both the Word from whom all creation comes and the incarnate one in whom the perfect union and image of God is given to the world. Creaturely existence which is composite and has being only through participation in that which it is not leads Tanner to distinguish between weak and strong participation, both of which are divine works of grace originating in the Son.
Weak participation is our givenness as a creature of God brought forth from the Word. Prior to the act of creation what we receive preexists in God the Word and our coming into being is then a movement that originates in God, making our image-bearing identity something we do not possess but derived from our participation in the Word, the image of the invisible and incomprehensible God. This weak form of participation, while not our own, is part of our created identity before God. Strong participation, in Tanner’s mind, is our coming to participate in what we are not, namely God. This intense form of participation took place and is made possible through the incarnation in Jesus Christ. Here in this particular human being God was redemptively present in a unique way with a universal horizon. As Tanner puts it, “Jesus, in so far as he is divine, does not just have the divine image within himself through participation but is it” (35). In Christ his humanity shared fully in the derivative dignity of humanity, its weak participation, and yet because of Christ’s divinity God’s own being is given and shared with humanity as a whole. Through the Word’s incarnation “the Word has us in a new way and that means we can have the Word in a new way” beyond the previously available possibilities (36). The hypostatic union is the means by which the ontological gap between the Creator and God’s creatures is bridged. This makes the life of Jesus more than simply a model of the perfectly faithful human being but neither is the life of Jesus relegated to the neglected preface of God’s redemption through the cross and resurrection. Through the dynamism of her two forms of participation she is able to follow Athanasius who saw that the Word is known both in the act of creation and redemption through his work. In Augustinian fashion, the eyes of faith are necessary to see the incomprehensible God present in Jesus. In fact, for Tanner seeing in faith does not mean comprehension but participation for in being one with Christ, “incomprehensible in his divinity, we take on the very incomprehensibility of the divine rather than simply running after it, working to reproduce it in human terms” (56). Through the uniting of humanity and divinity in the one human Jesus, he becomes both the pattern and the cause of a new form of reconciled human life – a human life that participates by grace in the divine life.
Having established both forms of human participation in God as derivative from the Son it follows that her Christology would be centered in an exploration of the nature of grace. Here the intricacy of her ground breaking account come to the fore. One way of setting the stage for the contribution of her work is by considering how she is able to weave the Christological concerns of the Cappadocians together with the Reformers. Of course the centrality of grace for Christology is vintage Protestantism, yet her incarnational approach allows her to nest it within the cosmological frame of the Cappadocians. How she accomplishes this becomes clear in her account of the human predicament.
For Tanner it is nature and not sin that is the primary place of departure for understanding the character of grace. Human beings are images of God by grace and not by nature. This difference is important for distinguishing humanity from the eternal Son and incarnate Christ. Only Christ is the image of God by nature and we were created to participate in God. The human predicament is not then, our failure to live up to the potential that was rightfully ours in our own nature, namely being a sinner before God. Humans “cannot be the image in virtue of the human nature with which we were created. Grace is necessary to make us strong images of God because our nature as human creatures is incapable of doing so” (59). Our coming to strongly participate in the divine life comes through God’s own free loving initiative that was present in our creation through the Word and redemption through the incarnation. It is hard to exaggerate how this shifting of the human predicament from sin to nature transforms her account of grace. The problem is not humanity’s fallen status because of our participation in sinful humanity. Grace is not God’s creative response to a failed and fallen project. Instead we are given grace through our originating status as beings from God created to live before God. One could say that Tanner’s redemption story from creation to consummation could be summed up as ‘grace upon grace.’
The removal of sin is not key to the Christological metanarrative of grace, it is God’s initiative and intention to bring a creature into existence who could come to participate in God’s essence. That humans are not divine yet created for it is the predicament in which the grace of God’s strong participation with us in Christ is best understood. As Tanner puts is plainly, connecting the two works of grace, “humans have to be given God in addition to being given themselves” and it is in Christ that both God and humanity are one so it follows that “the grace of God in Christ becomes the highest way of addressing the impediment to God’s design posed by creation, irrespective of any problem of sin” (60). Important to note here is how Tanner’s account of grace does not require sin to create the conditions for its coming. In differentiating her grace laden account from the Catholic view of the nature-grace relationship she restates the function of grace by distinguishing it from a continuum view. In a world where sin is present there can exist a continuum between humans and their natural responsiveness to God, yet “there cannot be any such continuum between God and creatures. Grace that takes the form of the gift of God’s own presence is for this reason never anything less than unexacted” (133). Human nature cannot exist apart from grace and its coming is not a supplement to what was already present precisely because it was created from and for grace – participation in God. The human, even one in sin, is not in the process of overcoming what they have become to become what they are not. The human is in the process of receiving the fullness of the divine life that God chooses to freely give in Christ. Here one becomes exactly what one is, God’s. Human nature differs then from other animals because its nobility comes not from being itself apart from God but by being itself before God. It is constitutive of our very nature to adhere to the goodness of God for our ultimate value depends on something outside ourselves (139).
If human nature is given in grace and completed in grace then specific attention needs to be given as to how both of these acts of grace are given. On multiple occasions Tanner uses a helpful distinction by differentiating between conceptions of participation that inhere within the human and those that adhere. Even in the above discussion about humanity’s weak participation in God as creatures Tanner consistently wants all our goodness to come from adhering to God. This distinction being employed even the account of our created status clearly serves to emphasize the nature of grace but more than that it enables her to make the connection between the Cappadocians and the Reformers more robust. By centering the story of redemption on the transformation of human nature rather than the conquering of sin, Tanner is echoing the theological heart beat of Gregory of Nyssa and yet this peculiar grace laced account enables her to speak it in the accent of Luther.
For Tanner in both creation and redemption it is the divine that is being given to us so it must never “become some kind of ‘inherent form,’ some odd but still human quality of a supernaturally elevated sort.” No it “remains the power of the divinity itself, made ours by clinging to what we are not. Rather than being inherent in us, this power merely adheres to us in virtue of that clinging” (104). The goodness given by the Word in creation and redemption is properly alien to us, the pure gift of divine participation. Grace is not the result of a process with incremental improvement but a disjunctive leap to a different condition. Just as the creature is given their existence in a free decision of grace from God, so too is our redemption an act of God’s grace that brings what we lack by nature. Humans are no more responsible for their recreation in Christ than they are for their creation from the Word. Our divinity is always external to our nature, an adherent to our being that comes from God by grace. By making that which is divine in the human an adherent our human nature remains unchanged under the effects of sin. Our corruption is not the corruption of what we were but the loss of what we are not (65). Here her previously developed anthropology that emphasized a natural openness, malleability, and plasticity in the world bears theological fruit. If sin does not entail the transformation of human nature then to what is sin directed? For Tanner it is the status of the divine power within us that is the focus. By locating sin’s distorting effects to our environment “our operations are corrupted because sin alters what is available in our surroundings for our proper nourishment. Without any disease or damage to our natural capacities, we are poisoned or polluted from without, because of what we have done to the only environment suitable for us” (68). If the human is by nature in need of divine nourishment then a different environment substantially alters the human’s relationship with God and World without altering human nature (42). In this way Tanner is able to affirm both total depravity and the preservation of our created nature in spite of sin.
The final observation to make about the nature of Tanner’s grace led Christology is how the incarnation of God in Christ is able to transform our human nature. Tanner is clear that “the incarnation is for the sake of human redemption,” which means it is “not to give the Word a human shape but to bring about an altered manner of human existence, one realizing on the human plane the very mode of existence of the second person of the trinity” (147). The incarnation ultimately serves neither a pedagogical intention of God nor a preparatory purpose but is “the primary mechanism of atonement” (252). Humanity, sinful through the hardening of our hearts to God’s influence we become closed off to God. In a sense our weak participation in God is weakened as we more openly embrace our sin-filled environment. Sin’s influence on the individual is dramatic. For Tanner sin’s solution is not a return to a more open human nature, through a renewal of our weak participation, but the completely new way in which the Word and Spirit are ours in Christ. For this reason the human needs from God precisely what it cannot do for itself in two respects. The human needs both its sinful context changed so that it can freely love God and it remains in need of a new nature so that it may participate in the God. The hypostatic union is the context in which Tanner sees both acts take place. In Christ the attachment of humanity to the divine is closer, stronger, and categorically different than that which is available to the human nature alone. Jesus’ relationship to the divine is not simply one of radical human faithfulness and devotion to the divine but the humanity’s assumption “into the unity with the second person of the trinity to form a single person; a hypostatic union” (71). To be clear about the nature of the divine initiative in the incarnation Tanner emphasizes how the hypostatic unity is a precondition for the life of Jesus and the means by which both sin’s influence can be negated and the human nature transformed. Because it is precisely God who is acting in Christ, all of humanity is transformed. Tanner compares the gain humanity makes through Christ as “comparable to the natural connection that the Word enjoys with other members of the trinity” (73). Because Christ is attached to us in virtue of the humanity he shares with us, we share in the divinity that he participates in. Justification then is “a matter of the incarnation and of the divine powers possessed by the humanity of Christ in virtue of that unity with the Word. Sanctification refers to what happens to the humanity of Christ on that basis over the course of his life and death” (99). In Christ we receive the gift of God’s own life and its impact both justifies us and enables us to participate in Jesus’ own sanctification. Tanner’s vision has this thoroughly Protestant chant of grace and yet it is amplified through connecting to the cosmic vision of the Cappadocians. The individual Christian indeed comes to know God through God’s benefits and yet God’s gracious intention has always been to give all creatures the fullness of God’s own life and this story swallows sin, defeats death, and transforms our nature.