Tag Archives: Systematic Theology

Introducing Christian Theology: An Essay by Ian McFarland

I’m beginning a multi-part series that functions as a running evaluation of books that are suitable as introductory guides to Christian theological reflection. Each book I’ll review is aimed at a beginner level audience with little background in theology, and so, could be utilized in a small group, mentoring, or individual exploratory setting. The goal of this series is to discern which books can help different types of people begin reflecting on their faith, their commitments, and how Christianity might relate to the whole of their life.

Other posts in the series can be found here.


In this post, I want to look at a lecture that Ian McFarland gave titled, “Why Engage in the Discipline of Theology?” Admittedly, this strays somewhat from the goal of this series: to examine the suitability of books for introducing folks to Christian theology. However, when I came across this lecture – in manuscript form – I immediately thought that it would be worth including in this series. You can access the lecture manuscript here – Ian McFarland – Why Study Theology.

ian mcfarlandIan McFarland (PhD, Yale University) is currently the Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge – a post established in 1540 (!) by King Henry VIII. The lecture was originally given to a Lutheran seminary audience but is easily accessible inter-denominationally. The main concern that runs throughout his talk could be summed up as “Why Bother?” That is, why do theology in the first place? Why not just get on with Christian practices that more evidently impact people’s lives? The question is made all the more disconcerting given the tragic history of Christian theology. At many times, it has not seemed like Christians talk about anything good or anything newsworthy for that matter. Add to that the oppressive ends sought by many Christian theologians throughout the centuries – e.g. justifying imperial rule, sanctioning the Crusades, sparking the Inquisition, supporting the enslavement of indigenous peoples, etc. etc. etc.

“The gospel Christians proclaim is supposed to be “good news” for all people everywhere,
yet Christians seem chronically incapable of convincing the world that what they have to say is either news or especially good.”

McFarland argues that, far from eliminating the need for theology, this history actually necessitates theological reflection in the present. Christian theology, he argues, is not something that must be figured out before one can engage in Christian practices (thank God!), but is necessary because of Christian practices that are already being carried out. Its goal is to make sure those practices – and wider ways of Christian talk about God – are faithful to the Gospel.

Christians are called to give an account of their particular hope (1 Peter 3:15). In describing our hope, we are not simply telling our story because Christians claim that their story is also God’s story. Christian theology aims to help Christians tell this story of God’s relations with God’s creation in a way that is faithful to its status as good news. McFarland cites two separate goals in this task.

First, Christian theology is in some sense apologetic. In the modern period, it faces the charge that theology is inherently oppressive and strikingly harmful to human life. It, therefore, must tell its story in ways that both acknowledge its past use and result in the affirmation of life. Second, theology is polemical. This, McFarland argues comes from the scriptural call to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1) because not all of them are from God – or, as he puts it: not all ideas and concepts are good ways of speaking the Gospel. This is theology’s task of judging between different proposals for how to tell the Christian story. In doing this, however, theology must always be aware of the temptation toward dogmatism. A self-critical spirit should be ensured that avoids the poles of either absolutism – only one way of speaking is right, and relativism – all ways of speaking are right.

The changing cultural situation Christians find themselves within requires continual reflection on the theologian’s part to help discern which adjustments to their way of speaking can be of greater benefit to new generations. Its tone should always be conversational in this regard. This should result in its willingness to say both “yes” and “no.” This conversation is not simply limited to the present or especially limited only to those in one’s direct proximity. On the contrary, McFarland argues for the necessity of looking to the history of Christianity in conversation with those who have come up with ways to tell the Christian story before us.

“This means listening to all these voices, past or present, in the hope and the confidence that as you enter into the conversation, whether in the work of Irenaeus of Lyons or Martin Luther, of Julian of Norwich or Karl Barth, or of the person sitting next to you, you will find yourself able to discern amid all their very human words the very Word of God.”

This little summary of McFarland’s work, I hope, piques your interest in this lecture. I have found it incredibly helpful for my own thinking about the task of theology, and it’s basic enough so as to be understood by a general educated audience – perfect for classroom or Christian ecclesial education settings.  The best part about it is its brevity and its simplicity. It’s barely a 15-20min read and McFarland clearly lays out his main points in an engaging and convincing manner. The lecture could reliably be used to introduce someone to the reasons why theological reflection can be useful or it can provide fodder for one already reflecting upon their faith, helping them to perceive its worthiness to a greater degree.

Ian McFarland is certainly one of the best systematic theologians today and it is a special treat to have someone of his caliber take the time to offer up accessible reflections on why theology is a worthwhile Christian practice to engage in. I hope you’ll take a look at his essay: Ian McFarland – Why Study Theology.


Note: Please only use the attached pdf for educational or personal purposes (use in Church educational settings is fine). It is licensed for free distribution (Scholars Commons @ Laurier © 2017) and originally published as: Ian McFarland, “Why Engage in the Discipline of Theology?” Consensus 23, no. 2 (1997): 43-59.

Books to Introduce Christian Theology: Robert Jenson’s “A Theology in Outline”

I’m beginning a multi-part series that functions as a running evaluation of books that are suitable as introductory guides to Christian theological reflection. Each book I’ll review is aimed at a beginner level audience with little background in theology, and so, could be utilized in a small group, mentoring, or individual exploratory setting. The goal of this series is to discern which books can help different types of people begin reflecting on their faith, their commitments, and how Christianity might relate to the whole of their life.


Robert Jenson, A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live?, ed. Adam Eitel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 152 pp, $27.95. (link to purchase)

Robert Jenson, a preeminent Lutheran theologian and former student of Karl Barth, has produced a fascinating little introduction to Christian theology. This book, A Theology in Outline, is a transcribed and edited version of lectures he gave to undergraduates as a visiting professor at Princeton University in 2008. Comprised of nine chapters plus an introduction, Jenson addresses most of the central loci of Christian theological reflection: Israel, Jesus, the Trinity, Creation, Imago Dei, Atonement, and Ecclesiology. Due to its style, however, the book is far from a dry exercise in academic theology; on the contrary, the chapters largely retain a lecture-like vibe and the tone is equal parts apologetic and conversational. Apologetic, because he appears to be trying to convince students of the relevance of Christian thinking (more on that in a second); conversational, because Jenson’s presentation of the topics always remains quite accessible without a significant amount of watering down the content.

jensonInterestingly, and I believe helpfully, Jenson frames his entire enterprise here as a response to the question posed to Ezekiel: “Can these bones live?” In short, Jenson’s book aims to discover whether Christian theology, the bones in this analogy, retains its relevance and life-giving power in our contemporary situation. This framework for the entire book works well both as a starting point for the myriad of scriptural themes and references throughout the chapters and as an orientation that takes seriously the challenge facing theology today – as well as the skeptic’s charge that theology is just a pile of dead bones, irrelevant for our world, or perhaps even for the Christian life.

To illustrate these features, we can consider briefly his chapter on the Trinity. With his characteristic wit, Jenson skillfully charts the emerging Christian religion’s missionary situation with regard to the competing understandings of God between Israel, the new Church, and the Greek worldview. He continues by describing the scriptural impetus for naming God as three yet lays out the difficulty this would have encountered within an ancient Jewish or Greek worldview, at least on the face of it. By then describing the conciliar consensus around the Trinity in the centuries after Christ, Jenson portrays both the simplicity of the Trinity as well as the various negotiations of worldviews and understandings of the divine that led to its more precise formulation and acceptance. In the midst of this discussion, Jenson never loses sight of the doctrine’s relevance to the Christian life as a means to reflect on the salvation history that we, even today, find ourselves within. The same sort of concerns are taken up in the chapters on other topics.

None of the topics are presented in an overly biased fashion, and one certainly does not get the feeling that Jenson is trying to force his version of the faith upon anyone. He masterfully navigates the main issues at hand in each of the doctrines and he does a good job presenting both an outline of what Christians have believed about the topic in the past, as well as the various options open to the believer today. More significantly, Jenson is always sure to relate each doctrine to its implications upon a Christian form of living. For instance, his chapter on the Church ponders what it might mean for the Church to be holy, and what sort of relation this might imply to the broader culture.

The book ends with a discussion of Christianity’s place within a competing system of worldviews (for lack of a better word) that mark out contemporary life. He is confident in theology’s ability to counteract nihilism and provide a compelling alternative for what makes for a life well-lived in the face of its challenge. These bones, that is Christian theology, can live, Jenson argues. That is, as long as it remains faithful to the cornerstone of its existence – Jesus Christ.

As you may sense, this book does require a bit of intellectual engagement and the ability to understand sometimes complex concepts both historical and theoretical in nature. For that reason, it is best as an introduction to theology for college-aged and older, educated Christians with a desire to think critically about their beliefs, especially as to how they all fit together and result in a semi-coherent picture of our relationship to God and each other. I certainly think this is one of the best introductions out there – one which you would do well to utilize when attempting to introduce Christian theology to those with a desire to explore their faith.

Classical Divine Attributes, Freshly Illumined: A Review Essay of Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology Vol. 1

A Review Essay of Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology Vol. 1: The Doctrine of God, Fortress Press, 2015, xxvi + 539pp. (Link to purchase here).

sonderegger doctrine of godReading (and I assume writing!) a multi-volume systematic theology is a quite taxing endeavor. For one, readers must choose wisely which theologians are worth their time, and then must stick through the often cumbersome – even in the best of books – sections of the series to reach the end. There, one hopes, a full picture of an individual’s thinking about many of the major topics of the Christian faith will become clear. Katherine Sonderegger’s first volume, The Doctrine of God, offers readers a foray into the most basic of theological questions – both the investigations of “what?” God is, and “who?” God is. Her written style is unique among modern systematicians in that I found it to be quite enjoyable in and of itself, regardless of content. Sonderegger simply knows how to write almost poetically, yet she always remains within a rigorous academic treatment of her subject matter. The uniqueness of her style foreshadows, in particular, a few of her own constructive contributions to the doctrine of God that, while being illuminating, a modern theological student might struggle to buy into.

In fact, Sonderegger wastes no time delivering her admittedly peculiar sentiments to the reader. She begins with a sort of justification of her entire project while trying to avoid the normal course of declaring a specific theological methodology (For a peak at her qualms with method – “Doctrine governs and generates method, not the converse!” xx, and “Method is a fatal disease in dogmatics,” 377). Since the mid-20th century, at least, theologians by and large have decided to stress the Trinitarian nature of God, and have begun their theology from that starting point rather than the oneness of God. Similarly, it is often the case that theologians ground their doctrines in Christology as the ultimate revelation of God’s nature (a sometimes burdensome refrain is scattered throughout this book: “Not all is Christology!”). Sonderegger rejects these two common moves, for “nothing is more fundamental to the Reality of God than this utter unicity” (xiv). It’s not necessarily clear as day why she begins that way, but I sense it has a lot to do with how much her theology attempts to embed itself within the order given in scripture. She understands the Christian faith to be deeply rooted with the tradition of ancient Israel along with a corresponding stress upon the relative value given to the Torah. She writes, “The Bible rests upon its own foundation, the law given to Moses, and inscribed in the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses” (13).

Underpinning this turn to the Hebrew Bible lies her understanding of theological reading of the text. Unfortunately, she waits until the very end of her book to explicitly disclose her method of reading scripture. The core of this method is that she believes scripture, even when not obviously instructive in genre, has the ability to teach doctrine, to teach metaphysics even. This allows her to give extraordinarily profound readings of familiar texts like the burning bush of Exodus, Elisha and his servant of 2 Kings, the structure of the Book of Numbers, and the first creation account of Genesis. These readings (more on these later) are one of the strongest, yet at times controversial, aspects of Sonderegger’s work.

Enough of my own throat-clearing; let’s dive into the main discussions in this text. Besides a few intro and concluding remarks, this first volume of systematics is largely framed around three classical attributes of God: omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience. In this first section then, Sonderegger’s overarching argument is that the one God’s omnipresence is God’s hiddenness. Of course, on the face of it, presence and hiddenness seem just the type of features we would consider polar opposites, but Sonderegger offers reasons why in a doctrine of God they should go together. Succinctly, “The presence of the One God takes place in the Mode and form of invisibility: when He is disclosed, He is not seen” (74). In this argument, her readings of the burning bush and 2 Kings 6 come into play. In the story of Elisha’s servant, we realize that God surrounds us with an infinite, yet hidden, presence. Again, while the text may not explicitly be instructive in genre, Sonderegger argues that this text is one of the foundational stories upon which to learn the metaphysical reality of God’s spiritual nature and invisibility. With the burning bush (an episode which she oddly claims is the “bedrock of all theological reasoning,” 80), a similar truth about God’s very nature is taught: God is clearly revealed in the bush as the One Moses encounters, but God remains unseen and hidden even when “revealed” in that way. Moreover, this story teaches about the compatibility between God and creatures – the bush is not consumed. God can be ever-present to creatures without their diminishment.

Along the way, Sonderegger remarks that God’s nature, in these instances, reveals itself as naturally communicable. In other words, it is the self-communication of God that teaches us the hidden nature of God’s omnipresence. This would be opposed to an apophatic type approach which arrives at a theology of hiddenness due not to the disclosure of God, but rather the lack thereof! Perhaps most strikingly, Sonderegger even cites atheism as testifying, albeit in a non-straightforward way, the hidden nature of God. While these moves are certainly clever, and quite illuminating at times, for the same reasons it is difficult to get fully onboard her project. Hiddenness and invisibility may certainly be a divine attribute based on God’s spiritual nature, but it is hard to see how Sonderegger’s approach is not at least a partial whitewashing of profound problems in certain Christian understandings of God. Sonderegger turns hiddenness into quite the virtue, indeed it even reveals the holy humility of the Lord in easing into our ways of knowing. I fear, however, that such a swift theological gesture to remove divine hiddenness from the deepest anxieties of human life discredits the profoundness of trying to make do with an often hidden God. Sonderegger is clear that the “hiddenness of God… emerges not from absence but rather from divine presence,” (68) with a stress on presence, but I’m not convinced that hiddenness should be so quickly put to positive use.

In the middle portion of the book, Sonderegger addresses the issue of divine omnipotence, or rather, as she puts it, the Lord’s holy humility. She is well aware of contemporary problems of divine power, i.e. the classical problem of evil, abuse, and basic definitions. Along the way, she makes interesting use of the identity of essence and existence of God according to scholastic theology; power is not a capacity that God has, but is God’s reality – God just is power (e.g., “God does not wield power, does not own it, or exercise it, but rather simply is this,” 188). Perhaps controversially, especially to those students of the tradition of omnipotence, Sonderegger does “not define power as to do as one wills” (176). Even further, “we must say that Divine Omnipotence, the Lord’s Holy Humility, must be removed from the category cause altogether” (177). Adding to the, now long, list of popular positions she rejects, Sonderegger refuses to think of God as either will (certainly not a deliberative will) or intellect, both positions favored by some of the more influential figures in Christian history. At this point, she tests the waters of her theory against Schleiermacher’s conception of God as absolute cause, favoring her own account of divine power in relation with creatures.

Delving into a theological reading of Jeremiah and the Book of Numbers, Sonderegger argues for a vision of a “dangerous” God, completely free over creation. With Jeremiah, she wonders whether the Israelite pattern of exile and return should not rather simply be called abuse. While foreshadowing elements of her later Christology, she proclaims that the cycle of exile and return has an ending (and it is not that we deserve our own suffering or trials), ultimate redemption, brought about by our relation to Christ – again, the real form of divine power. But perhaps more interesting is Sonderegger’s reading of Numbers as a whole. Through all of its rampant disorder and confusion, Numbers, for her, represents the general character of our human lives that are often difficult to put into a meaningful narrative. Strikingly, God seems rather strange in this book: jealous, changing moods, etc. Moses instead looks like the God Christians know; he intercedes for Israel, is patient, and embodies humility. She takes this to be a sort of (metaphorical?) fusion of divine and human in Moses and the Lord of Numbers whereby Moses displays many of the divine attributes we have been discussing thus far. Sonderegger writes, “The daring distribution of subjectivity we find in Numbers, the deification of Moses (!), speaks in its own idiom, of Christ’s personal life, His Hypostatic Union with the Word” (293). Apart from some often times odd remarks concerning Moses’ relation with the latter revelation of Christ, the point is driven home that God’s power lies within God’s relation.

This God, working through the human Moses and Jeremiah combines a sort of mutability in immutability. The relation to creatures that Sonderegger reads from these familiar narratives is the expression of omnipotence: holy humility, to descend and engage with creation. The creation accounts of Genesis come to her aid regarding the fusion of humility and power with Sonderegger’s account of the jussive “let there be…” of Genesis 1. This, according to Sonderegger, is God’s invitation to life demarcated from the notion of command. However, “the initiative in any relation ad extra lies with Almighty God: He makes a relation possible” (301). In summarizing all of these points, it is difficult to see just how Sonderegger imagines how the relation of the divine nature to creation results in what we would normally consider power. While rejecting any concept that identifies omnipotence with an all-powerful will, act, or causation altogether, the reader is hard-pressed to understand just what the divine relation ad extra is. Perhaps her forthcoming volumes will address this issue in its requisite depth when dealing with Christology – a unique salvific relation (utilizing Schleiermacher) she hints at in a few places in the present work.

Moving lastly toward divine omniscience, Sonderegger again highlights the identity of essence and existence in God. Knowledge, here, is not a faculty, nor the result of a filled divine mind. Connecting knowledge with the divine perfection of eternity (which for her, “is not the absence of time,” 343), Sonderegger makes a quite clever argument for God’s knowledge apart from any creation. God’s knowledge is not what is learned from observing the events of the world, in other words. Omniscience, like power and presence from above, is the way the Lord relates to creatures. In short, Lady Wisdom, for Sonderegger, is God personified – wise in all her ways. Omniscience, then, is independent of creatures, and is, in my mind, better placed alongside traditional notions of what it means to be wise – a feature of how one lives their life. Rejecting ideas of God filled with anxiety and fear, Sonderegger is adamant to argue that God as wisdom itself does not mean that God is a relentless inquisitor always ready to attack the human conscience. Humility, as in the other attributes, plays a central role; God’s knowing is humble, giving creatures their privacy and space to be themselves.

I’ll admit Sonderegger’s argument for divine omniscience was complex and took many detours along the way. It’ll take much closer study to arrive at the full ramifications of her thesis here, and to learn from her theological acumen. Sandwiched between her conclusions regarding divine omniscience proper is a brief roundabout treatment of human knowledge of God and the world. She calls these the problems of grounding and representation. Our knowledge is not “grounded” in an archetype in God’s mind, say, nor is God properly known through mental representation – this would violate the fundamental axiom that God is uncircumscribable and spiritual, without form. A nuanced form of representation is true though, especially regarding Christ (again with odd remarks regarding Moses – Christ is “the one who represents Moses perfectly,” 409), known in loving faith by humanity, and as a representative (rather than a representation) of God.

As was admitted in the beginning of my review, readers heavily influenced or convinced by a Christological grounding of theological epistemology may be confused why Sonderegger just doesn’t take that next step, particularly here when the potential seems most alluring. Readers on this point may just have to leave it at a fundamental theological disagreement, yet this should not be reason to ignore Sonderegger’s poking and prodding on this subject matter. Moving on now, Sonderegger concludes the section on divine omniscience with a heavily Augustine-influenced doctrine of divine illumination. God is not seen, but is that which we see by. God provides the basis for our own ability to know things.

Readers who have traveled this far, both in my review and deep into the last pages of Sonderegger’s book, will be graced with a discussion of divine love as the “keystone of divine perfections” (perhaps another nod to the structure of Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith). Theology, for her, should evoke love, not burden the reader with dull ‘castle in the sky’ remarks. Once again returning to her favorite theological position, Sonderegger tries to explore what it means for God to be love, not just have it. This immediately raises the question of whether or not God as love itself is inherently in need of an object for that love, after all, what is love without an object? Many theologians, Barth and Augustine included, have run full speed with this metaphor to posit the necessity of eternal distinctions within God to account for the seemingly necessary character of an object for divine love. But Sonderegger, as is par for the course by this point, wants to say that God is love irrespective of an object of that love. She likens divine love to a disposition that is a fact regarding God’s nature. Here, “The Lord God is Love as a metaphysical Disposition and Truth, a Substance that carries this Property, a Nature that is defined in just this way” (488). In the end, this God is passionate, but not in the same way as some liberation theologians would have it; God does not suffer in love, nor does emotion entail embodiment as some might worry.

That wraps up the first volume of Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology. While there are many points where readers and I may disagree on quite fundamental levels, others may find her account of God nearly flawless in its unique ability to illuminate our subject matter as theologians. Regardless of one’s perspective on the specifics, her book is at the same time thoroughly enjoyable to read, think through, and devote time to as it is a stark challenge to much late 20th century theology. I can wholeheartedly recommend this work to anyone with an interest in theology, content in my own experience of assurance that Sonderegger will challenge, and ultimately strengthen, the reader’s own understanding of God.


Also check out Chris Green’s wonderful review of this book over at The Other Journal.

“Creation ex nihilo as Mixed Metaphor” – Summary Analysis

This post is part of the much larger Reader’s Guide to Kathryn Tanner. In this post, I take up a journal article on the concept of ex nihilo as a linguistic element of theology.


The overall point in her article is to show the development of ex nihilo language in tandem with strong claims about God’s transcendence as Christian theology went along, and to show that explaining ex nihilo often involves the use of “mixed metaphors.” This task is taken up as a counter-measure to modern tendencies to create a dilemma between panentheisim or deism, that is, God is either absent from the world or part of the world; theologians that think this way merely show their misuse of the theological concepts of ex nihilo and transcendence. This article primarily concerns proper ways of speaking about God, and it has to do with method and language primarily rather than any specific doctrines or constructive theologies.

To begin, Tanner frames divine transcendence away from a doctrinal category, per se, and more toward an understanding that it is a linguistic strategy of Christian theologians. It signals the failure of all predications of the divine. God, in other words, is not a thing besides other things. God, using this linguistic category, does not follow the normal affirmative-and-opposite correlation of everyday speech (e.g. I am Vincent, so therefore not Tom.). God doesn’t “work” that way. Tanner uses the example of a somewhat common claim that because God is not a body, then God must be the opposite of body, spirit. Instead, transcendence implies that God is neither body nor spirit and cannot be put into these sort of contrastive categories like things of the world can be. God transcends contrastive terminology (For more on this, see her God and Creation in Christian Theology). If all of this is how transcendence ought to function linguistically, then it follows that Christian theology does not have a specific image or metaphor that is “right,” but that it can “mix” whatever is around to use from everyday speech or philosophical language. While theological language may borrow from normal ways of speaking, it also, in employing language about God, doesn’t abide by the normal limitations that specific terms might have in other contexts. Theology often crosses these sorts of linguistic boundaries by  the necessity of its subject matter.

In explaining the historical dilemma between transcendence and immanence, Tanner goes back to the origins of Christianity and what was the case in the contemporary Greco-Roman way of thinking about the divine. The idea was the God must be like the world in order to work inside of it or, it would follow that God would not be able to interact with things of the world if God was not like those things. Christians, Tanner says, ought to reject this dilemma and the principle behind it, the principle being, that only like interacts with like. She considers how this dilemma played out in the classic pantheon of gods who were very much like humans, and therefore very active in human affairs! In contrast, there were some strands of philosophical thinking about the divine that created more of a distance between God and creation, like Aristotle’s unmoved mover. Or, more complex, thinkers who posited some sort of “buffer zone” of emanations between God and the world so as to create the necessary “distance” for God to act in the world through a multiplicity of intermediaries. Here, transcendence often equals spatial distance, at least conceptually.

However, even this idea of the various emanations of God suggests that all is ultimately traceable back to God even if through a series of steps. Plotinus, the neo-platonist began to take this route when talking about God as neither a this nor a that, saying God is beyond finite being. Because he thought this to be true, God could be responsible for more than just what was “like.” Tanner writes concerning this development, “Because God is not any particular kind of thing, God is able to produce any sort of thing and therefore all of them.” In this model, in contrast to the usual dilemma, transcendence and involvement go hand in hand in stead of occupying an inverse relationship.

As far as early Christian theology goes, Irenaeus was one of the first to posit this type of radical transcendence by re-working many of the gnostic concepts of God. He claimed that God is not limited by what is not God and that the difference between God and the world is not the same sort of differentiation that exists between things of this world (hence, God does not fall into the same sort of contrastive categories as other existing things). For Tanner, the meaning of creation ex nihilo is that God works directly, not through an intermediary or by working upon anything else (this also has implications for denying a form of coercive domination between God and creation, or models of human hierarchy based upon this – themes Tanner takes up in her first two books more explicitly). Nothing, therefore is outside of God’s reach.

Moving more concretely toward her discussion of metaphors, Tanner uses many historical examples of Christian talk about God to make her point, citing Aquinas, Bonaventure, Barth, and Schleiermacher among others (I won’t repeat their positions here). This more developed form of transcendence has often been explained by leaning either toward naturalistic images of God (or creation out of God) or personalistic images of God. Theologians, in fact, often mix these metaphors in various ways in attempt to maintain a theological balance. Each type of language is not bound in definite ways that limit God in unnecessary ways. Some may claim there is no such thing as a logical necessity in God forcing God to create, but others may think that necessity, at least when speaking about God, does not deny freedom. In fact, Schleiermacher says this exact thing: “We must… think of nothing in God as necessary without at the same time positing it as free, nor as free unless at the same time necessary.”Other theologians, perhaps, think of this necessity in terms akin to generosity such that creation is the overflowing of divine superabundant goodness. These examples, more of which are used than restated here, all demonstrate the divergent ways theologians have explained the metaphor of transcendence and ex nihilo, often “mixing” various images with others so as to approximate more what is the case when we speak about God.

In conclusion, Tanner thinks it is especially necessary for theologians to realize that it has historically been the case that Christians use mixed metaphors when explaining God and creation and that our borrowed concepts (from the world or philosophy, etc.) must be twisted and re-shaped before they can be employed of God properly. We cannot resort to ways of speaking about God that conform to this ancient dilemma of transcendence vs. immanence because God-talk should not conform to the normal ways of sense-making in everyday life. It is correct to use these types of mixed images for God because they allow us to get at what is meant by transcendence and ex nihilo.


Full article citation: Kathryn Tanner, “Creation ex nihilo as Mixed Metaphor,” in Modern Theology 29, no. 2 (2013): 138-155.

 

 

Christ the Key – Part 2 “Grace I”

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


Introducing Grace, Starting from Nature (58-62)

Based upon the grace-oriented discussion of the image of God Tanner offered in the first chapter of this book, here she undertakes an explanation of grace in general. Remember, for Tanner, we image God only by being bound to the real image of God: Christ. In other words, we only image God by participating in what we are not – this is grace plain and simple. Moreover, for the following descriptions of grace, the starting point is “nature” not “sin,” so it is nature vs grace not an account of sin vs grace. We need grace to become what we are by nature not. This is a similar starting point as the previous chapter where we needed grace to image God because we were not images by nature.

To jump right in, we do not merit either our creation nor our elevation, both are due to grace. The primary issue we face is not necessarily sin (though she will get to this later on), but that we are not divine, instead we are finite and therefore are naturally unable to receive all that God wants to give to us, including Godself. This is irrespective of any account of sin. Here too, Christ is the “key” because in him the divine and human are one – the humanity of Jesus has received the complete gift of God in its totality and utter perfection by being a single person both divine and human.

christ the keyWe were created to enjoy God, but our natures require an attachment to God in order to fulfill this intention. In other words, we need grace to live a truly flourishing life. This does not mean human nature is somehow “broken,” because we still need grace with or without the presence of sin in our lives. Tanner writes, “Grace is necessary for the perfection of the human because of how much it needs something – God – that by definition its own nature cannot possibly provide” (61). Grace is not just the transition from good to better, but from inability to ability. That is, grace does not help us to become more properly what we are apart from God, but so that we can live a life with God that we couldn’t naturally.

Sin (62-70)

If grace is necessary for the enjoyment of God and our excellent operation, then sin is a major problem! We are living without the grace that we need to truly live. Because of this, our ability to fully live again is not on a continuum of “okay to great” but from death to life because only God can bring this change about. Our human nature itself is not necessarily made worse by sin, rather sin just keeps us from having that external element (God) we need in addition to our own nature. Human nature itself is not as affected by sin as other theologians might have led us to believe, sin just keeps us from attaining something external. It is not just about what we are in isolation.

Sin makes this transformative divine power inaccessible to us; and this, for Tanner is total depravity. Life without God is life in an environment that is not good for us. This is marked by our turning to other things besides God to fill the void that only God can complete within us. We are placing things in a place where only God will do, a life contrary to how we are designed. In sin, we seek for our nourishment things which are actually quite bad for us.

Sin and Nature Overcome in Christ (70-76)

Through sinning again and again, we become “hardened” to divine influence – we gradually lose our ability to receive God (perhaps due to habit or the systemic nature of sin). We need to be reformed in a way akin to the transition from death to life. Sin cannot be addressed, after all this time, by a mere return to our original condition because something has to now be done to us in order to undo what we have done in allowing sin to mar our lives. We need a release from bondage, not just the mere addition of externals. We need an inward transformation.

In Christ then, we gain this close attachment to the divine. In the person of Christ there is not just contact between the divine and the human, but unity: this is as close as it gets! The humanity of Jesus cannot lose the divine life because Jesus just is divine as the second person of the Trinity. Our uniting with Christ becomes the precondition for our transformation, and this occurs by virtue of the humanity we share with him. This new unity is not brought about by any disposition present within our own lives (it is by grace) so it cannot be lost by any attitudes or dispositions of our own either. God is not just external to us anymore (and in that way  not susceptible to our rejection of and losing this influence) but is now internal to our life. Tanner writes, “The divine is no longer foreign and external to us in the way it was at our creation, but so properly and inseparably ours in Christ as to imitate a connection by nature” (73). We gain a sort of natural (as in, by the union of natures – divine and human – in Christ) connection to God which allows for this gift to be much more secure than something external. We have a fuller, much closer connection to God. Sin is only overcome through being joined to Christ. We needed the highest gift God could give to us: the gift of Godself in Christ.

Humility as the Proper Disposition Towards Grace (76-85)

All of the above implies that our proper disposition toward God is one of humility because all the good we have is not properly ours. Glory is reserved to God alone. Our humility, though, is not only based upon our sinful character and human achievements need not be minimized in the life of the Christian. We do not glorify God by refusing to acknowledge the value in other creatures. We are humble because we are dependent upon God (and not necessarily because we are mere “worms” without God). Even in our best moments of life we should be humble. Humility is both the proper posture of the one recognizing their sin and the one recognizing their redemption. In fact, our whole lives are truly saturated in grace from our creation to our redemption.

The powers of our achieving any good work are properly God’s. Our elevated abilities and capacities still need the Spirit’s help to continue to work rightly. They do not need to be limited by sin in order to still need the Spirit’s help. We are always in continuous need of the Spirit no matter the time or season of life.

Justification and Sanctification (86-98)

For Tanner, we are justified in our attachment to Christ because of what he is, not because of what we are in ourselves. Our justification refers solely to our union with Christ, nothing else. Moreover, God’s grace is what effects this union in the first place, which becomes responsible for our justification. We are sanctified only as a result of this union with Christ and what it in turn leads us to accomplish by allowing for our reception of the Spirit. The attachment to Christ (justification) and the effect of that attachment (sanctification) are distinct. Faith is an act of our attachment to Christ because it is an act to trust and cling to Christ instead of something else. This gives the impression that it is caught up in the concept of justification in some way. However, our attachment to Christ is not the result of our faith – our attachment is the result of the incarnation. Christ’s attachment to us produces within our lives the disposition of this unity: faith. Faith, in this way, should be associated more closely with sanctification as it is a gift of the Spirit and is more literally a consequence of justification. Love and gratitude to Christ are just as central in the sanctifying life as faith may be, and love perhaps arguably more so (because it can be present even in moments of doubt).

Sharply separating justification and sanctification prevents confusing divine and human works. Our sanctification is based upon our justification and we should separate justification from faith so that it does not become the product of our work.

The Centrality of Christ (98-105)

Christ is absolutely central to this account of grace because  what is achieved in us has already first been achieved in him. Linking Christ to the preceding discussion, in him justification and sanctification were also separate. The former at Christ’s conception (relax all you heresy spotters, it’s not adoptionism) and the latter throughout the course of Jesus’ life, a theme Tanner continues all throughout her work. Our salvation is secure because in Christ the divine and human are inseparable. As humanity, we are now inseparable from God by virtue of the incarnation.

Adding to a discussion of atonement, Tanner adds that Christ atones simply because he achieves what we could not. There is nothing more that we need to do because it has all been done for us. We cannot remedy some deficiency in what Christ has already achieved. This is moreover not only imputed righteousness because Christ’s achievement becomes ours through participation in him. However, our righteousness does remain “alien” to us simply because only in Christ is there a perfect unity of divinity and humanity (something we cannot have). We only have this righteousness in dependence upon Christ. To conclude, “Rather than merely gaining by way of him, we have such benefits only in him” (105).

Tanner began by reformulating the discussion of grace away from sin and toward nature. Our nature could not give to us what we truly needed to flourish: God. In this way, the intent was to shift the discussion away from talk about what is wrong within us or sin specifically, and to reflecting about our need for an external good to complete us (we are designed to “run on God,” if you will). We are not fully ourselves without the addition of God to our lives. All in all, Tanner’s account saturates all of our lives – from creation, to redemption, to the process of sanctification – with God’s grace. And for that, we should be grateful for all God has done for us in Christ. Moving forward, Tanner will use this account of grace to attempt to bridge common gaps between Catholic and Protestant discussions of grace and nature, especially some difficulties that arise when one claims our natures might be oriented toward grace.

 

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.

An In-Depth look at “Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity,” by Kathryn Tanner – Part 4: The End

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. Here are links to my guides to chapters 1, 2, and 3


Jesus humanity and the trinityAppropriately titled, “The End,” Kathryn Tanner concludes her brief offer of systematic theology with some reflections about Christian eschatology. Responding to scientific understandings of the natural world and cosmology, Tanner attempts to offer up what she terms “An eschatology for a world without a future.” By taking seriously what scientists have to say about the eventual fate of the earth and the universe (e.g. the sun will consume the earth one day, or the universe will end through heat death according to the laws of thermodynamics,etc.), Tanner formulates what she determines are the most important aspects of eschatology without an appeal to the future of the earth.

If this is true, what are we to make of the eventual failure of biological life? Or perhaps more worrisome is the truth that sin is never overcome in this life nor do we ever come close to exhibiting the perfection of Christ’s humanity. In short, we should not expect to be free from the same types of resistance that Christ faced in his life. Toward a more comprehensive solution however, one might hope that God will somehow intervene in history to stop the natural processes that lead to death or the growth of our sun, or that God will use the world’s death as a purifying element of the New Creation (for views utilizing these types of solutions, see Moltmann or Rahner whom both posit God’s intervention to change history in these ways – however, to deny this as a possibility would be to limit God’s freedom; but to say it must happen is presumptuous, and Tanner thinks either option misses the real point). Yet, in light of death, might eschatology require a reinterpretation just as the doctrine of creation did (e.g. the theology of creation is not the belief in exactly how the world came about, but primarily that all have God as the ground of their being irrespective of the actual processes of the universe’s beginning)? Perhaps the way forward is to make eschatology a present concept rather than a future-oriented one.

For Tanner, eschatology is the description of our new relationship with God by virtue of Christ. Relationship with God, then, gives meaning to whatever thoughts about the future one might have. Relationship with God (along with what it entails, more on this later) could therefore be true regardless of what the future of the world holds. While seemingly out of left field (at least for the average Christian), this type of view has great biblical precedent. In the Bible, the concepts of “life” and “death” always have more than a mere biological meaning. There is a possibility of a life even within (biological) death and a death even within (biological) life. Life, in fact, often refers to the way in which someone lives their life – whether it was lived for God and others, for example. Death, along these definitions, would then be the act of cutting oneself off from life in God or relationship with God. However, Tanner recognizes that it is not enough to try to spiritualize the meaning of death and life.

Death, the Bible tells us, is a sphere within God’s power. The dead are not cut off from God and death does not ultimately have the power to separate one from God. This is the New Testament’s idea of eternal life, broadly speaking. Jesus, likewise, is not separated from God because he happened to die a biological death, because he is always in close union with the Father and the Spirit in the life of the trinity. Tanner continues, “united with Christ, we too are inseparable from God even in death” (Romans 8:38). Because we are united with Christ, God can sustain us even when we die. Our powers of life will be gone, however, leaving us to rely completely upon God’s power to give and sustain life; the only life we will have will be from God’s life.

“Because it runs across the fact of death, life in Christ is eternal life. There is a life in the triune God that we possess now and after death, in Christ through the power of the Spirit” (compare with Romans 14:8). Eternal life means that life with God is not conditional, even by our deaths, nor is it conditional on the existence of biological life. For Tanner, “eternal life is not the endless extension of present existence into an endless future, but a matter of a new quality of life in God… even now infiltrating, seeping into the whole. Eternal life is less a matter of duration than a matter of the mode of one’s existence in relation to God” (it might be worth reading that quote a second time!). As stated in the beginning, what ultimately matters for eschatology is the character of our relation to God, not whether the world itself has a future. Eternal life does not need to be associated with any moment of time, then. We also do not need to wait until our deaths to experience this new relation to God, but this does not mean it is complete in the here and now (it is not, clearly).

On the cross, in fact, death is taken up into the life of God, and Christ proves that it cannot separate us from God. Nonetheless, how should one understand this in light of the observation that death continues all around us? Tanner, perhaps controversially to some, argues that biological death is actually a good of creation. Without death, she says, no moment of our lives would have significance. She uses the prophet Isaiah as support for this line of thinking. In chapter 65, in his vision of the New Creation, there still seems to be death, but there is no mention of “bad” death, or harmful death (e.g., children dying young, death through freak accidents, etc.). Christian theology, likewise, should not promote an escapism from death; we should proclaim that Christ has overcome death’s power to break our relationship with God.

Moreover, we should not imagine that mortality will be overcome independent of our relation with God, as if the world will eventually have natural processes that do not result in the death of our bodies. If we ourselves were made independently immortal, we would have no more need of God! (see my extraordinarily underdeveloped thoughts on this idea here) Instead, it is only in union with Christ that our faculties are elevated and God provides the life power of our existence. Mortality per se, is then not the wage of sin, but rather removal from God’s life giving power is – something we do, not God (for example, it was not that Adam and Eve’s bodies could live forever or were naturally immortal, but just that their perfect relation to God, and God’s provision of God’s own life-giving powers prevented their deaths, until sin entered the picture and estranged humanity from God and the proper relation to God).

With a few final reflections on Christian action for the betterment of the world, Tanner rhetorically asks how her thoughts do not imply passivity if we indeed, as she describes, already have eternal life now and it is unconditional. We still work for the world’s betterment, partly because that is just how life in God manifests itself in the Christian life, but more fully, because there is a gap between the way the world ought to be (that is, living in this new relationship with Christ) and how the world actually is (suffering under the effects of sin). This is not a disparity between the present and the future (remember, Tanner’s goal is a theology that’s not dependent upon the future – a meteor could strike any second, or the threat of nuclear war, among billions of other ways the world could end quickly), but rather a disparity between life in and life apart from God. The Christian life, and its liturgy, can be a place of protest against the current state of reality.

Action, moreover, is the proper response to a world that is not what it should be. In relation with God, we act as God acts in the world, participating in Christ’s mission. We should conform our lives to the relationship with God that we have already been given through the incarnation. Yet, our apparent failures to do these things is not sufficient ground for despair. Christ, too, seemed to have suffered defeat and death at many points in his life (not to mention his death!), but his success was ultimately veiled in those various “defeats.” It could indeed be the same for us as we try to make the world a better place.

This concludes Tanner’s reflections on eschatology (at least until she publishes a further book!). The key things to take away are first, that theology (in light of modern understandings of the world) should articulate an eschatology that doesn’t depend on a particular future of the world, and second, that the kind of relationship one has with God due to Christ is what is of primary importance in any thinking about eschatology. It is the constitution of our relationship with God, and our dependence upon God’s own life that is ultimately of the most significance here.