Home > Uncategorized > Kathryn Tanner’s Christ the Key, Synopsis—Part 1

Kathryn Tanner’s Christ the Key, Synopsis—Part 1

Kathryn Tanner is one of the best theologians in the world today and her newest book, Christ the Key, develops her previous thought in new and interesting directions.  In her previous books she argued for the radical transcendence of God as constitutive for coherent Christian discourse (God and Creation in Christian Theology, 1988), the progressive political potential of an affirmation of divine transcendence (God and Politics, 1992), the implications of post-modern cultural theory for theology (Theories of Culture, 1997), a brief systematic theology for the whole of the Christian faith which centers of the meaning of Jesus Christ for us (Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity, 2001), and a model of non-competitive relations and unconditional giving (Economies of Grace, 2005).  Christ the Key has connections to each of her previous works but is explicitly the sequel to Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity.  Both have the same fundamental vision: “God’s wants to gives us the fullness of God’s own life through the closest possible relationship with us as that comes to completion in Christ” (Christ the Key, vii).

Christ the Key developed out of her Warfield Lectures given at Princeton Theological Seminary in 2007 (reported on with great detail by a few bloggers at Princeton—1, 2, 3). It will also be the subject of a panel discussion at the Midwest AAR this March.  In this post I am simply going to provide a basic summary of her key arguments in the first half of the book (chapters 1-3).  This will be followed by another post covering the second half as well as a few posts that will engage some of her most important and/or provocative points in dialogue with other thinkers.  (note: given the length of this intro and the need for a synopsis, this post will be longer than usual)

Chapter 1: Human Nature

The first three chapters all engage the question of the relationship between God and creation (and, in particular, humanity).  Chapter 1 focuses on the question of what it means to say that humanity is created in the image of God.  As with each chapter, Christ is the Key.  Tanner argues that the only “proper” image of God is the second person of the Trinity.  We primarily image God through participation in or attachment to the divine image by the power of the Holy Spirit; the greater our unity with second person of the Trinity, the greater we image God (the humanity of Jesus, with the hypostatic union, being the perfect instance of this).   Tanner distinguishes throughout the chapter between “strong” and “weak” imaging.  The “strong” sense is participation in the divine image already mentioned (although, as finite, we can never be this image; we are to be in the image of God).  However, we also image God in a weak sense as creation.  The main way Tanner explores this is through the inherent openness and “expandability” of our existence.   We have unique capacity to be shaped by others; our nature is “underdetermined,” open to vast diversity of relations, cultures, language, etc. We are like “soft wax that a vast variety of seals might indent to their image” (44).  We image God in this openness: “Humans imitate God’s incomprehensibility by having a nature that is also in a sense unlimited, unbounded by a clearly delimited nature” (53).  This openness and “essential malleability” is the natural ground for our ability to receive and be shaped by the divine image in Christ.

 Chapter 2: Grace (part one)

In Chapter 2 Tanner builds upon her account of the imago Dei in terms of nature and grace.  Human beings need grace to become images of God, not because of sin, but because of our very nature as creatures. Tanner begins with the affirmation that God’s intention in creating us is that we would enjoy the good of God’s own life by participating, through grace, in the divine image.  Accordingly, she boldly claims: “Because we have been created to have such a close relationship with the very goodness of God, with a nature that requires attachment to God to be what it is supposed to be, grace is necessary to complete out nature, to add to it what it requires for its excellent operations and well-being.  Receiving God’s grace become a requirement for simply being a human being fully alive and flourishing” (60). The presence of the Word and Spirit is “an ingredient of our very constitution” and necessary for us to function excellently.  God’s Word and Spirit, present in us at creation, is necessary for our capacities of thinking and willing to be used well. Tanner then develops an account of sin as the loss of the divine presence, of our total depravity without this presence, our proper humility before God regardless of sin, and the priority of justification over sanctification.

Chapter 3: Grace (part two)

In chapter 3 Tanner places her proposal in the context of Catholic nature-grace debates.  She acknowledges that she seems to jeopardize both the integrity of human nature and the gratuity of grace since grace is necessary for our ordinary operations.  She argues, however, that unless Catholics revert back to a total separation of “nature” and “supernature” (making grace extrinsic to our natural existence), Catholics are unable to maintain gratuity and integrity.  In order to bring together nature and grace, Catholic theology generally appeals to some sort of “natural desire”; however, any sort of desire, on Tanner’s reading, endangers gratuity.  The problem here is that Catholic theology starts with the idea of “integrity” as self-containment and then tries to fit grace in as unexacted yet still desirable.  Instead, she argues that we have no “natural” desire for God: “desire for God results from the presence of God that forms an essential ingredient of our constitution as the prerequisite of human well-being” (126).  What assures gratuity is the very difference between the divine and human – divine gifts are by definition unexacted.  The integrity of our nature does not require self-containment but rather openness; and this openness and adherence to God for our own well being is a sign of dignity rather than diminishment:  It is “natural” for us to have grace.

My next post will continue with chapters 4-7: Trinitarian Life, Politics, Death and Sacrifice, and the Working of the Spirit.

  1. andrewlp
    February 23, 2010 at 9:41 pm

    This sounds like a very interesting text. Your synopsis has left me wondering whether Tanner preserves any sense that creation and salvation are distinct gifts. This seems to be one of the central ideas in de Lubac’s *Mystery of the Supernatural*–an idea which leads to the paradoxical claim that humans have a natural desire (first gift) for a supernatural end (second gift). It seems like Tanner is saying we need to understand these as a unity; whether you call it nature or grace doesn’t seem to matter as long as you grasp the gratuity of the divine-human relationship in Christ. But my question is whether thinking of this unity (which de Lubac also wants to do) authorizes us to abolish the distinction altogether. It seems there is something good about de Lubac’s way of specifying the tension, the paradox, the mystery by positing a unity-in-distinction.

    • February 24, 2010 at 1:17 pm

      I was just talking about this with Han-luen yesterday—I honestly don’t see the point in separating the “two gifts” in the first place. What’s the problem with saying that human beings are directed towards self-transcendence as created?

  2. Todd Walatka
    February 24, 2010 at 6:53 am


    On the one hand, I don’t think she wants to distinguish between creation and salvation in terms of intention or telos. We do not have any sort of natural end other than the enjoyment of the life of God through unity with the Word by the power of the Spirit. That said, she does make three distinctions throughout that get at what your asking: 1) unity with God through Christ is stronger than what we receive at creation (here she follows early Church readings of God’s presence at the Fall versus after Christ so that we do not fall again); 2) sin is the removal of divine power necessary for us to function well. This very much makes the salvation through the incarnation a new and distinct gift; 3) she always distinguishes nature and grace/divine presence throughout the text. It is in the nature of human beings to draw their power from what is within them but from what is not them.

    She does at points come close to de Lubac (in my reading of de Lubac, gratuity is ultimately preserved in much the same way she does). However, she strongly resists the notion of a natural desire for God. She argues that positing a natural desire leads to questions of whether this desire, orginating out of ourselves, demands to be fulfilled by God through grace (since we cannot fulfill the desire). Thus, she argues that the appeal to a natural desire makes it impossible to actually preserve gratuity and misinterprets integrity. For Tanner, we desire God because an intitial sense of God’s presence that makes us want more and more (think of Nyssa’s eternal growth in God, but extend it).

  3. andrewlp
    February 25, 2010 at 1:30 am

    I think I really need to read the text before I can say more! Thanks for your clarifying comments, Todd.

    But in response to Brian, I can say something about the nature/grace question in general, without reference to Tanner: distinguishing (without necessarily separating) the two gifts seems important to me in order to avoid pantheism, on the one hand (in which “grace” is merely the self-fulfillment of nature), and theopanism, on the other (in which “nature” is nothing other than grace, i.e. divine presence). I’m following Erich Przywara in this respect, as well as Balthasar in his Barth book. But this gets back to the question you asked me awhile ago (https://memoriadei.wordpress.com/2009/12/05/analogia-omnis/): what’s wrong with theopanism? I think it forgets that we, creatures, are meant finally to be really different from God, and that that is okay.

    • February 25, 2010 at 8:28 am

      Yeah, I was thinking about that earlier conversation too. This is a larger conversation, and I guess there’s no need to pursue it now. I would only say, by way of indication, that there’s no reason humanity being created already ordered to their own end in God needs to imply that humanity isn’t really different from God. It only means that God gave them their being and the possibility of a supernatural end (such as that exists for finite creatures) in one and the same gratuity. (As an aside, even in a “theopanism” like Dionysius’ and Eckhart’s—I’m assuming they count, if any Christian theologian does—creatures are decisively different from God, because unmistakeably finite.)

  1. February 27, 2010 at 8:01 am
  2. March 6, 2010 at 7:10 pm
  3. March 14, 2011 at 11:20 am

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