Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key, Cambridge University Press, 2010, pp. xii + 309. Link to purchase here.
I’ve been a fan of Tanner’s work for awhile now, but just recently finished up her most recent book “Christ the Key.” It is the promised expansion of her very brief book Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity (link to my review of JHT), her first significant contribution to systematic theology. Within her work, she develops theological maxims that guide her thinking as it becomes more developed. In Christ the Key, the underlying feature of her theology is once again:
“…in the incarnation, one finds the immediate convergence of the most disparate things – God and humanity suffering under the weight of sin and death – as the means by which the goods of God’s own life are to be conveyed to us in fulfillment of God’s original intentions for us.”
As promised, this single theme appears throughout the book in all of its various parts. Christ, in the incarnation, literally, for her, is the “key” to understanding other areas of theology ranging from the Image of God, the Trinity, and politics. I usually prefer not to summarize in my reviews, so as to abstain from removing the hard work of reading from you, and I will continue in that fashion today. Christ the Key is part of Cambridge University Press’ “Current Issues in Theology” series of academic theology books. In my opinion, it is the premier series of works in the contemporary theology scene today. Tanner’s work only adds to its esteemed reputation.
This book is extremely creative, yet, like most of Tanner’s work, relies on careful interpretation of the Church Fathers, albeit in new and exciting ways. She undertakes most of the traditional areas of Christian doctrine one by one beginning with a discussion of the image of God. Rather than appeal to Genesis, as most misguided attempts do, she appeals to Christ as the Image of God and our participation in his life through the results of the Incarnation. The Image of God is not a single trait to be found in human beings, but appears in their transformation as they are continually remade into the image of Christ.
The next section, almost 100 pages, is devoted to grace. In it she deals with some of the most monumental controversies of the Doctrine of grace such as whether or not grace is a result of our nature or whether it is over and above our nature as human beings (are we complete in ourselves without grace, or do we need grace to be fully human?). She recounts her own view of just how Christ enables transformation in our own lives before moving on to her, similarly, massive section on the Trinity. Usually, theologians begin with a general doctrine of God, but Tanner has always, preserved throughout all of her written work that I know of, began with Christ and then moved on to the Trinity. As the title foreshadows, Christ is the “key” to understanding both Trinitarian relations and our own incorporation into the Trinity (perhaps her most creative insight in this work) through our connection with Christ, who is the divine Son of the Trinity. Once again, her craft of evaluating the major controversies of the faith is particularly admirable as she discusses the nature of the Trinity.
All of these discussions lead to the more “practical” considerations of politics, atonement theory, and the working of the Spirit. She doesn’t use Trinitarian relations as the standard for how human community should function (contra other influential figures like Moltmann, Zizioulas, and Volf), but instead goes back to the traditional way of modeling our lives after Christ himself as he lived out a human life on earth in conjunction with the Father and Spirit. Moving on to atonement theory, she counters all of the controversial models which are commonly posited today, and instead reinterprets the workings of salvation founded upon the incarnation’s beginning of sanctifying the human all the way until the end of the cross (including Jesus’ life, not disregarding it like most atonement theories which only focus on Jesus’ death).
Finally, she brings her voice to whether or not the Spirit works primarily through supernatural miracles or through everyday activities, falling on the latter due to all of the problems she points out with the first. In this last chapter, she brings to a close the whole work and forms a conception of what it is to claim revelation and how that relates to the Church’s tradition and the scriptures. Overall, the flow of the work is pretty evident, though the more significant chapters are surely towards the middle third of the book.
I cannot recommend this work, as well as all of Kathryn Tanner’s writing enough. Her creativity and theological prowess is genius. She does not shy away from the big problems for Christian thinking, but instead works out solutions of her own that prove time and time again to benefit the Church as a whole as it ponders God and the world, and our place in it.