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.
I’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.