Cross Purposes

Kathryn Tanner’s Christ the Key takes on what has been the knottiest problem in theological anthropology since the Reformation—namely, the relation between nature and grace. Does grace build on human nature, or does it cancel and replace nature entirely? And what exactly is our nature? In what sense, and to what degree, is the human being an imago Dei (image of God)?

Christ the Key will be a daunting read for the theologically unsophisticated, and a demanding one even for many theologians. Tanner, a systematic theologian, attempts to formulate new and comprehensive understandings of Christian teachings about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, revelation, Incarnation, Mary, and the relationship between nature and grace. The poet Shelley famously remarked that “poets and philosophers are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” That is at least partially true of theologians as well; their unacknowledged influence affects what the ordinary Christian learns in religious education classes, hears from the pulpit, and experiences in the pew.

Tanner begins by questioning whether there is any meaningful way to talk about human nature “imaging” God. She rejects Augustine’s notion of the mind itself as a trinitarian image, “an ideally self-enclosed self-sufficiency.” Tanner claims that human nature by itself can never be an image of God except in a very weak sense. Strictly speaking, the only image of God is the Word of God, Jesus Christ. Human beings are not themselves created as the image of God, but “according” to the second person of the Trinity, who alone is the image of God the Father. Christ is thus the key to any “strong” imaging of God in a human being. The humanity of Jesus, attached to the Word in hypostatic union, participates in the divine Image as fully as a human being can. When we, in turn, are attached to Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit so as to become “one with him, in all the intensity of faith, hope, and love,” our ability to image God is strengthened. Even then, however, we do not image God as Jesus himself does. “Simply because they remain creatures, humans are never sufficiently reformable to be made over into a good version of the divine image...in and through what they are as human beings,” Tanner writes. Human beings were created to participate fully and directly in the divine image that is the Word; because of sin, we no longer can. We are now reduced to the natural state of creation, and the only dignity that remains to us consists simply in having a nature capable of receiving the Word.

This is a minimalist account of human nature. “The peculiar nature of humans as rational agents is just to have no particular nature to be true to,” Tanner writes. Humans have an “open-ended plasticity,” an “excessive openness to what exceeds their own or any limited nature,” and therefore what we become depends on what “inputs” are received from our environment. “Formation through the influence of God would just be an extreme case of this sort of conformation of human character to external inputs.” This means that Tanner follows traditional Catholic theology in opposing grace to nature rather than to sin, as most Protestants do.

Yet Tanner’s theology is nevertheless “Protestant leaning” because, in her view, grace does not build on nature; instead, nature is essentially a lack that grace makes up for. “The move from nature to grace…is a discontinuous, radical leap between qualitatively different conditions…from next to nothing to everything,” Tanner writes. “Our nature is perfected and completed, ironically, by making us act unnaturally, in a divine rather than human way.”

This account rules out any Catholic theology of a “natural desire” for God. And any theology that uses a natural desire for God as the starting point of its anthropology (as do, for example, the theologies of Henri de Lubac and Karl Rahner) is dismissed by Tanner as offering too strong an account of human nature, one that threatens the very gratuity of grace. For Tanner, sin can neither vitiate nor corrupt human nature. Sin simply returns us to what will always be the “next to nothing” starting point of human nature unattached to the divine image. “Because what we lose through sinning is something that we are not, human nature remains as it is…essentially uncorrupted,” Tanner writes. “What makes us totally corrupt is the loss of something we are not—divinity—and therefore our human nature is not essentially changed for the worse in losing it.”

In a series of brilliant chapters, Tanner articulates a theology of redemption as one of participation in the life of the Trinity. “Bound to Christ through his Spirit we gain the Father’s favor and become recipients of the Father’s gifts as Christ was.” The idea is not for us to mimic all the relations among the Trinitarian persons, but rather to participate in those relations by imitating the human relations of Jesus. That is, we participate in the Trinity by participating in Christ’s relationships to the other two Persons. Tanner offers a persuasive case for recovering the language of sacrifice in theologies of redemption. The Cross is not the model for oppressive demands of self-destructive self-sacrifice but rather the declaration that “humans are not to offer sacrifices to God” because “the whole of Jesus’ life—before, as after his death—is such a life-giving sacrifice given by God for us to feed on, for our nourishment.”

There is much to admire in Christ the Key. Such worries as may arise flow precisely from the strengths everywhere evident in the book. The patristic citations seem at home in the framework created by Tanner’s theology, but one may wonder whether they are sometimes advanced in a way that leaves behind the full account of human nature they entail. True, Gregory of Nyssa’s theory of “participation in God” may be compatible with Tanner’s categories of weak and “strengthened” imaging of God, but Gregory would be surprised to find himself advancing a doctrine of human nature functionally equivalent to the doctrine of “total depravity.”

Tanner’s citations from Augustine, disconnected from his larger vision, are also used at cross-purposes. The whole book is based on the rejection of Augustine’s idea of man as the imago Dei, yet Tanner presses into service Augustine’s insistence on the radical need for grace. This was the telltale move of Jansenism: to resolve the tension in Augustine’s thought between the goodness of human nature on its own and the radical need for grace in favor of the latter. “The grace of God in Christ becomes the highest way of addressing the impediment to God’s design posed by creation, irrespective of any problem of sin.” Does this mean that creation itself, with or without sin, hinders the Creator’s design? It is even more worrying when Tanner writes that “our fundamental desires and inclinations are slightly askew, not properly attuned to our own good, frail or even damaged in their orientation to what is naturally good for us. Such damage is not the consequence of sin but its precondition.” Doesn’t this come perilously close to suggesting that original sin is the natural and predictable consequence of human nature as God designed it?

And just what does “attachment” to Christ’s humanity by the Spirit actually entail? In particular, what does it mean for the collectivity of those so attached? There is no theology of the church in Tanner’s book. After baptism, “we are both the body of Christ and the temple in which the Spirit dwells,” she writes. But it is not clear who the “we” are, or what is meant by the “body of Christ.” Elsewhere she writes that

the character of [his Father’s] mission, as Jesus’ own way of life makes clear, is to inaugurate a life-brimming, Spirit-filled community of human beings akin to Jesus in their relations with God. The mission means bringing in the kingdom or new community that accords with Jesus’ own healing, reconciling, and life-giving relations with others.

But this new community does not seem to be the church. Rather, the Spirit’s work seems to be primarily in individuals, who are then empowered to form new social relations, and so “bring in the kingdom.”

This attenuated ecclesiology is already implied by Tanner’s pessimistic view of human nature. Christ, she writes, “is foreign to us even when imparted to us.” This way of thinking makes it impossible to say, with Augustine, that head and body form the “whole Christ” in such a way that we are Christ. Tanner’s distrust of human nature creates a theology in which the church seems not only irrelevant but perhaps even an impediment to renewed human life. Meanwhile, those who have a radically constructionist or “plastic” view of human nature can live in rational accord, having more in common with each other than with members of their own church.

But Tanner does not attempt a comprehensive systematic theology, and so it is perhaps not fair to expect her to respond to all these worries. And the strengths of Christ the Key are enough to make even this worried reader look forward to her next book.

Published in the 2011-04-08 issue: 
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John C. Cavadini teaches in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, where he is also McGrath-Cavadini director of the Institute for Church Life.

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