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.

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

  1. Pingback: An In-Depth look at “Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity,” by Kathryn Tanner – Part 4: The End | School of Religion

  2. Pingback: An In-Depth look at “Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity,” by Kathryn Tanner – Part 3: The Shape of Human Life | School of Religion

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