Theologian Spotlight: Kathryn Tanner

I’m starting a series of Theologian/Biblical Scholar/Philosopher spotlights in order to introduce my readers to new people and ideas. Each post will highlight who the person is, what they did/wrote/their main ideas, and why Christians should study them today. If you’d be interested in writing a guest piece on a particular figure, feel free to contact me!


kathryn tannerKathryn Tanner is a contemporary theologian who currently teaches at Yale. Educated with a BA, MA, and PhD from Yale University, Tanner has to-date authored six books and hundreds of academic journal articles as well as taken part in countless invited lectures or conferences on current issues in theology. She initially taught at Yale, moved to the University of Chicago’s divinity school for 15 years, but returned to Yale in 2010. Her work has always been marked by relevance, meaning that she tackles issues that are under discussion in her field, and contributes to furthering Christian theology’s scope by applying her system to traditionally outside topics like economics, culture, and feminism. In 2016 she will give the prestigious Gifford lectures with talks on theology and financial markets (the Gifford lectures are by far the most prestigious invitations in the realm of theology, check out a list of past recipients of the honor here).

I’m choosing to write about her on this blog because I think she has some great ideas that Christians of all types, not just fellow academics, should become familiar with. However, because she has written so much, I will be limited to explaining only a few of her ideas. Tanner writes from the reformed tradition of theology, but looks nothing like your typical american reformed person. Here’s a few of her most influential ideas.

Her earlier work was highlighted by an attempt to understand how God relates to the world, especially with regard to the Incarnation. Throughout history, many have thought of God as a being just like us, but perfect. This way of thinking implies that God somehow inserts Godself into the chain of events so that certain actions are considered God’s and others human. This is also related to a profound misunderstanding historically of Thomas Aquinas’ argument for God based upon first cause. People have taken theologians to mean that God acts in the world just as we act, as an agent who initiates (or is affected by) chains of events. The transcendence of God has often been understood as God being the opposite of many human qualities, or their perfection.

However, Tanner circumvents this idea by appealing to the intention behind the mass of theology that is church history, and it’s continual proclamation of real transcendence. God is not limited by what is not God in the same way that we are limited, finite creatures who are constrained by time, space, and other physical objects. God is simply not like that. God is beyond all contrasts (God is like that, we are like this, etc.). She introduces this idea under a couple different names, “non-contrastive” and “non-competitive.” The former is used within a doctrine of God, while the latter is primarily deployed within Christological contexts. God is transcendent, and to say God is a being like us, yet perfected, is to make God finite.

In Tanner’s mind, only a truly transcendent God could have made the Incarnation possible. Historically, the church has struggled under concepts of two-natures Christology, i.e. Christ has a divine and a human nature (or was fully God and fully human). But, how can this actually work if the two are supposed to inhabit the same person? Wouldn’t it require Christ to be part (50%) God and part (other 50%) human? Or perhaps there is a strict inverse relation here so that the more Christ is God (say 75%) the less he is human (25%). Of course, this kind of talk is not limited to the Incarnation but comes up in Christians’ daily lives when we proclaim that God did something in the world recently, or that a particular action was God’s and not our own. In other words, some think an action is done either by God, in which case it cannot be attributed to a human, or it is done by a human, in which case it cannot be considered divine.

Let’s get back to Tanner’s thought on the Incarnation. Do the two natures have an inverse relationship? Perhaps this explains why some theologians throughout history have pointed to specific actions of Christ as coming from either the divine or human side of Jesus (e.g. healing the blind man is divine, while torment in Gethsemane is human). Often this is upheld through discussions of high vs. low Christology (either Christ is more God than human: high Christology, or he is more human than God: low Christology). But, once again, this kind of idea limits God by what is not God. By proclaiming Christ FULLY human and FULLY God the Church rejects the possibility of this inverse (or competitive) relation between God and the world.

God relates non-competitively with creation, including within the human Jesus Christ. The transcendence of God allows for the existence of this paradoxical God-human Jesus Christ just because God is not limited in ways that humans are. The two natures do not compete with one another in that the less of one means more of the other. Rather, the humanity of Jesus becomes God’s own in the Incarnation in a perfect union (the “hypostatic union” of patristic Christology). Once again, this is not 50/50 so that half of God and half of a human are combined to make a whole person. Jesus is not a demi-God, he is God, but he is also human, both remain fully intact without losing out to the other.

I’ll now move on to a couple more of Tanner’s ideas. One of the most significant aspects of Tanner’s theology is the centrality of the Incarnation to salvation. For her, the Incarnation is not just a one-time event at Jesus’ birth, but is rather the term used to describe the whole of Jesus’ life. She also does not think that Jesus only saves at the cross (or even only at the resurrection). Many evangelicals, and other protestants have erred in this way. Many think that the only thing that really matters about Christ is that he died on the cross for our sins. Though they wouldn’t likely admit it, many Christians relegate the actual life of Jesus to no salvific significance. For them, all that really needed to happen was that God became man, and died on a cross, all else is inconsequential extra workings with no real meaning to us (besides perhaps the wise teachings of Christ). In fact, most of their theology would work perfectly well if, as soon as Jesus was born, God struck him down with the weight of all of our punishment and then rose him back to life at the age of 3 days old, at which point he returned to heaven! (if you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you’ll notice I seem to put a little jab against penal substitution in each of my posts!)

This type of theology neglects nearly all of historical Church’s proclamation, and reduces the life of Jesus to pragmatism with regard to their sinner’s prayer. On the contrary, Tanner renews within Protestant circles the idea that the Incarnation is what saves. The cross is a product of that Incarnation, yes, and perhaps the culmination of it along with the resurrection, but all of Jesus life is saving. Jesus overcomes sin when he is tempted, overcomes sickness when he heals, overcomes despair in Gethsemane, redeems the life of children as a child, sanctifies our friendships as he relates to his disciples, and then overcomes death by dying and resurrecting.

In this way, all of the events in Jesus’ life are saving, and this result should not be limited to just the cross. All of the events in the life of Jesus can be seen as part of the process of his perfecting of humanity, through the various examples I just mentioned, which results in our salvation. Jesus’ humanity is not perfected only at his birth or the resurrection, but undergoes a process, similar in kind to our own sanctification (though Jesus is certainly way ahead of us!) which provides salvation, and allows for our own unity with Christ as a by product of his life, death, and resurrection.

Lastly, I would like to touch upon some of Tanner’s ideas about theology and economics, as they comprise a great deal of her more recent work. You may be thinking, “what on earth does theology have to do with economics?” Her answer would be that it should have a lot to do with it! For far too long, Christians have tried to remain in their own sphere. This was manageable when entire empires were synonymous with Christianity in their day, but not in our current situation. Today we are marked by recessions, money management advice, and an entire economy based upon debt and repayment among other things. One of the best things about Tanner is that most of her ideas have far-reaching applicability, like in economics. I can only briefly mention a few things.

She highlights the unconditional and free character of God’s gifts to us and uses that idea to supplement our own economic thinking into a reality that is much more beneficial to all of humanity. God’s economy does not run on the model of debts and repayments like ours does, but is unlimited and unconditional in character. God does not lose anything when he gives (contra our losing money when we buy something), and neither do we when we do acts of benevolence. Grace is not something to be hoarded and possessed by individuals (unlike how we treat money), but something to be given without loss to others in need. Grace is given universally by God, and not just to a select few as payment. Grace is not based upon whether someone is a deserving recipient of that grace, but is based solely on our’s and others’ needs for grace. Grace is not just given for the sake of individuals, but for the good of entire communities. Of course, Tanner develops the results of this analysis much more in her writing.

Far from some sort of negative communist utopia, the economy of grace does have much to teach us in our modern financial situation. Her ideas are especially timely during a period in which more and more people are recognizing the pitfalls of unchecked capitalism: how it affects the rich and poor, and molds humans after the image of profit and efficiency rather than the image of God. The way we structure our economies heavily influences the way we think about God. It is no wonder people who have bought into the system of creditor/debtor in economic life (especially in America) usually put forth this idea into the very workings of salvation as if God were just like our own banker or debt collection agency. Most Christians, whether you agree with its theological principles or not, are completely unaware that the Church, for the majority of its existence up to modern times, has rejected the concept of charging interest as a form of sin that disproportionately exploits the world’s poor. Alas, another debate for another time. I’ve realized I’ve inserted too much of my own opinion when I’m supposed to be telling you hers. The point is, Christian theology has a lot to say about economic matters.

To close, we should continue to read Tanner (or be introduced) because her ideas are closely related to the current situation of the world, while yet extraordinarily faithful to the Christian tradition. Her vision of God as the giver of good gifts culminated in Christ helps us to remember who God is. Her talk of God’s interaction with the world helps us to understand our daily lives when we try to look for God’s presence. Her talk on grace inspires all of us to be more of a blessing to others as we re-give the gifts God has given to us to others who are in need like ourselves. In Tanner, any Christian will find a challenging, yet immensely refreshing voice for the Church. For all of these reasons, she is one of the foremost theologians in the world today, and her influence will continue for many years to come.


Below are links to purchase her books, with my short comments about their worth.

Jesus humanity and the trinityJesus, Humanity, and the Trinity. I’ve already written about this work here. It’s a very brief systematic theology, barely over a 100 pages, that outlines what she thinks are the core ideas of Christianity. This book should be required reading, in my humble opinion, for every Church-goer, especially those interested in learning about theology.

christ the key

Christ the Key. I’ve also already written about this one here. Enough said.

economy of graceEconomy of Grace. This is her book on theology and economics. It is dense in sections, but only because complex economic concepts require explaining. Overall, it’s a wonderful read that promises to shift the way one approaches both economic policy making in government AND personal finance decision in the everyday.

politics of godPolitics of God. I didn’t refer to this much in this piece, but it is definitely worth the read. She tackles issues of how beliefs affect people’s actions, and how the Christian community can be a force for good in the world backed by their beliefs.

Theories of Culture. In this work, Tanner outlines a postmodern understanding of culture theories of cultureand uses it to suggest new avenues for theological reflection. I particularly liked the section on the relation between academic theology and the everyday Christian life.

god and creationGod and Creation in Christian Theology. This was her first book. Most of it’s on the use of theological language, but it’s also in a few chapters here that she gives the most thorough treatment of her idea of non-competitive relations between God and Creation.

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