Christ the Key – Part 1 “Human Nature”

This post is part of the much larger Reader’s Guide to Kathryn Tanner. Here, we focus on the first chapter in her book “Christ the Key” dealing with the theological concept of human nature.


Orienting Possibilities (1-15)

The goal as stated in the opening lines is a Christocentric (or at least Christologically informed) theology of human nature and the image of God. She will argue that human nature is essentially malleable. To begin with, the main question is what exactly do humans image: God, the Trinity, or the Word? If God generally, many try to carry out the pseudo-science of searching out human nature for some defining characteristic they deem closest to God (e.g. rationality or intelligence), but which is mostly just the outcome of a mindset of assumed human superiority. Another particular option is that humans are the image of God in that they are designed to relate with God. In that case, the image would not so much be a specific characteristic than something considered in the human as a whole.

Tanner moves to talk about Augustine’s discussion of human nature, as it is perhaps the most influential treatment in the Christian tradition. Augustine talked about the Trinity with reference to various human elements with the result that humans image the Trinity through our capacities of knowing, loving, and remembering. Many of the readers may already be familiar with this, yet it results in humans having the image of God in a self-contained way within themselves.

christ the keyOther early Christian theologians, apart from Augustine, thought we were to image the second person of the Trinity because Christ is the true or real image of God. We are not the image exactly, but only (following the language of Genesis) “in” or “after” the image. Augustine, however, rejects this idea because of the biblical language that the Trinity might in some way be more central to the image (e.g. “let us make humans in our image…”). The opposite strand of theologians disputed this claim because they had always thought the second person of the Trinity is the way in which we, as humans, come to relate to the Trinity as a whole regardless. This strand often reads New Testament concepts into the Genesis story, especially Hebrews that claims Christ is the image of God. Therefore, we cannot image God in this same way and only divine can image divine (Tanner cites Athanasius and Nyssa here). In this way, the Son is not the image by imaging something the Son is not, but rather that the Son is what is imaged (as God). The Son doesn’t “borrow” the image from, say, the Father, as if the Son was incomplete or insufficient independently. The Son is divine naturally. In contrast, in the way humans might image God under this model, they could only image God by what they are given (or by participation in what we are not).

Tanner then further makes a distinction between two different senses in which we might image Christ by participation. The first option would be a “weaker” sort in that we participate in the image just because we are creatures. As creatures, we have our life and being only in God – we participate in these and we aren’t literally life and being as God is. Moreover, if we were created through the Son, then all of creation might in this way participate in this image but it wouldn’t be something we would have independently of God but only in relation to God as creatures. In this way, it is conceivable that we might image Christ “better” than other creatures because of characteristics that approximate God, but as creatures, all of creation has the same “level,” if you will, of God’s goodness because God, in creation, extends God’s own life to all creatures. Further, transcendence (a concept Tanner has developed extensively throughout her life’s work) negates the possibility of some sort of continuum or “chain of being” where some creatures approximate God more accurately, because God is not similar to creatures in a way that allows creatures to be ranked or contrasted to God in varying degrees (i.e. Tanner’s concept of non-contrastive relations between God and creation).

The second way Tanner talks about our ability to image Christ by participation would be if humans were given the image itself so that we all share in the image by virtue of this gift. In this way, one might be able to talk of receiving an “alien” image (similar in concept to Luther’s “alien righteousness”) because it would be ours only as gift from outside of ourselves. Christ would be our paradigm here (a human as image of God) because he has the image by nature, not by gift, and, because of the hypostatic union the person Jesus is the perfect image. Tanner, in fact prefers this way of talking about the image because we are then the image of Christ insofar as we cling to Christ who is the real image (and the gift given to us). In sum, there is only one image, but we can participate in the image through union with Christ. Jesus is not just the paradigm for our imaging of God, but the means to it as well – becoming ours by the Spirit’s drawing us to Christ. In this way, the image is still never ours independently of God, but only insofar as we are united in some fashion to Christ.

The Effect of the Fall on the Image (15-35)

If the above account is accurate, human nature itself would be altered and perfected “by being reworked through our attachment to the divine image.” The human life of Jesus is the paradigm of this transformation as the Incarnation itself transformed the human nature of Christ. Only the incarnation allows us to strongly image God (contrasted to the weak sense due to our creaturely nature). We can only be what we are created to be in participation with the Son. For Tanner, our human capacities are elevated by the Spirit conforming us to Christ, so that it is by grace that we image God. However, using the language of “sin” and “fall,” she can reflect on the situation at our creation. When we sinned, we lost this close fellowship/union with God that allowed us to image God in the strong sense. We lost it (in the strong sense) by removing ourselves from relation from God – and remember, we don’t have the image independently of our relation to God.

Since we were created for fellowship with God, it is important to not talk about human nature independently from God or isolate some of our specific characteristics because our human faculties operate properly only in God. The perfection of our capacities is not our supreme self-sufficiency, but is only due to the most extreme type of dependence upon God and God’s presence in our lives. That this is the case leads Tanner to quote Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa to further support this idea that we are only truly ourselves in relation to God. One way this is true is because we are only good in that we participate in the ultimate source of all goodness, God – we are only truly good in sharing in something other than ourselves, God. But this is what we lost in the fall – and subsequently in our pride we thought we had all of our gifts in and of ourselves and not from God. This was an improper reception of the good gifts God wants to give to us. We lost the image except for retaining the weaker sense of it as creatures. So, Christ comes and restores this close relation that brought about our stronger imaging of God and our true humanity.

Christ, Transformer of Human Nature (35-57)

Jesus restores the image in a way so that it cannot be lost again. As the Word himself, Jesus cannot lose the image due to the hypostatic union. The incarnation creates a unity between us and Christ and leads to the process of our sanctification. What defines human nature in this case is the possibility to receive and be united to the divine in Christ. Tanner favors talking about this potentiality using terms like human nature’s changeability or malleability. In fact, change in this sense is our only hope in a world and individual life constrained as it is by sin. “We must have a created nature that does not put rigid bounds on what we can become.” This allows for our elevation and sanctification in Christ – the potential to be changed by God means that what is most significant about our nature is its “plasticity.”

Concretely, we all know this to be more or less the case in our everyday experience. We know the massive affects that external inputs can have upon us, say the societal pressures we feel throughout our lives. God, as a sort of “input,” if you will, certainly has the capacity to transform us even more so. It is not, however, merely passive because we are also transformed by our own choices and effort – the results of our will. We are often formed by what we care about most (hence the importance of right desire in Christian discourse). Human nature, overall for Tanner, means to be undetermined. Because God is not limited, our fellowship and union with God gives our malleable human natures great potential for sanctification – our whole selves, not just our “minds” or our “bodies” alone. We are marked by an expansive indefiniteness. To conclude, the second person of the Trinity, and the Spirit drawing us to him, allows us to properly image God – thereby the whole of our good life is in Christ and we are only truly ourselves as humans as our lives are defined and conformed to Christ, as Christ’s human nature was in the incarnation.

Like most of Tanner’s work, this is a thoroughly “orthodox,” if I may, account of human nature, yet one filled with immense creativity that results in very interesting discussions about human nature as it is formed by Christ. The key thing to remember here is that we do not image God independently of our connection to Christ, nor are our human faculties elevated except through Christ. Tanner’s talk about the near infinite potentiality of human nature should not be recourse for worrying about this doctrine’s destructive potential (say, by pride in exploiting our possibilities) because all this is true only as we relate to Christ and we become ourselves in him. As always, Tanner provides us here with a creative starting point, her own gift to us, perhaps, that we may extend in other exciting directions in our own theological thinking.

Moving along in Christ the Key, Tanner devotes the next two sections to a discussion of grace, especially as it relates to nature and Tanner’s discussion of our imaging Christ.

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