Home > Uncategorized > Kathryn Tanner’s Christ the Key, Synopsis – Part 2

Kathryn Tanner’s Christ the Key, Synopsis – Part 2

Chapter 4: Trinitarian life

In her longest chapter, Tanner reflects upon the Trinity using the following principle:  “Because he is the Word, Jesus Christ displays in his human life the relationships that the Word has to the other members of the Trinity” (140). She argues for a general two-fold movement in the economy: 1) The Word and Spirit are sent out by the Father for our benefit; they descend into the world of sin and death.  2) having accomplished their mission, they ascend to the Father with us.    Within this movement, the Son and Spirit are interdependent.  The Son sends the Spirit to us.  Yet, the Spirit prepares the way for the incarnation, dwells in and guides Jesus, and is the transformative power at the Eucharist.  This interdependence is seen with us as well:  “The Son brings the Spirit to us as a power of new life; the Spirit conforms us to the shape or pattern of the Son” (161).  Tanner then moves from this analysis to the inner life of God: the Son and Spirit are interdependent in their emergence from the Father.  “The Son is responsible simply for giving shape to the Spirit as it emerges from the Father…the Spirit is the love or power of the Father by which the Son is drawn out of the Father to be the perfect manifestation of all that the Father is” (192-193).  Other arguments in the chapter are important (i.e. her reading of Jesus’ obedience; our entrance into the Trinitarian relations through the Son; sacraments; our mission in Christ) but the economic and imminent interdependence of Word and Spirit is most central.

Chapter 5: Politics

Tanner argues strongly against various political readings of the Trinity.  First, monotheism does not necessarily lead to authoritarian politics (see her The Politics of God). Second, trinitarian thinking does not necessarily lead to egalitarian politics.  Finally, appeals to the Trinity for structuring human communities (Zizioulas, Boff, LaCugna) do not take the radical difference between God and us seriously enough (see Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity, p.82f for this argument in brief).  They also often appeal to images (perfect reciprocity) which are not exhibited in the economy (where two are sent and one is not) and can emphasize the communion of persons to an extent that verges on tri-theism.  What we have here is the project of one’s politics onto the Trinity.  Tanner counters that we are to be incorporated into the Trinity rather than model it.  We enter into the divine life in the place of the Son.  United to the Son, we are to relate to the Father and Spirit as Jesus did.  In terms of politics, we are to relate to others as Jesus related to others: “Jesus’ way of life toward other people as we share in it is the trinitarian form of human social life” (237). At various points in the chapter she also engages questions of Trinity and gender.

 Chapter 6: Death and Sacrifice

This chapter is Tanner’s theology of the cross.  Here she develops her critique of atonement theologies of satisfaction, sacrifice, and substitution made very briefly in Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity p. 29.  In the earlier work her appeal to feminist and womanist theologies is quite jarring.  Here she gives this appeal greater context and defends it more thoroughly.  The center of ch. 6 is an argument for an incarnational model of the atonement. Salvation comes primarily through the very assumption of our humanity by the Word of God.  In virtue of the Word’s union with the humanity of Jesus, humanity is renewed.  Thus, she argues that the primary meaning of “atonement” is “at-one-ment,” undercutting various legal or contractual models for the cross (256).  The meaning of the cross is found within the overall meaning of incarnation.  The Word assumes fallen humanity and “if the powers of the Word are to reach humanity suffering under the forces of sin and death,” the incarnation will include at-one-ment on the cross (257).  We are saved by the union of the Word with the humanity of Jesus which reworks humanity over the process of his life, including his death on the cross.

Chapter 7: The Working of the Spirit

In the final chapter Tanner contrasts two understandings of the working of the Spirit in modern Christianity: 1) the Spirit works immediately, directly, and exceptionally, often in the interior depths of the human person, and ensuring infallible certainty of religious insight; 2) the Spirit works gradually, through fallible human beings, without final resolution, and within the messy processes of ordinary life.  Although she does highlight certain benefits of the first view (it can be subversive to entrenched, oppressive authorities), she argues strongly for the second.  She builds upon her view of a “non-constrastive” divine/human relation in God and Creation : “there is no reason to think that God is working more the less we are” (280; 296). God works within our finitude and within contextual, fallible truths; divine agency does not remove the finite character of our acts.  This also has a progressive political potential: it would “loosen up” religious authority by bringing greater flexibility and openness to change (291 – the first view may be prophetic but is entirely inflexible). Consistent with the entire book, the Spirit works within us to reshape, reform, and empower our whole existence, not to override it in moments of miraculous revelation.

  1. February 25, 2010 at 10:52 am


    Great reviews. You convinced me to drop another $25 on this purchase. I’m fascinated by the implications of emphasizing the interdependency of Word/Spirit and economic/immanent Trinity. Seems like this is a profoundly Protestant answer to other prominent Protestants critics of the immanent trinity, like Colin Gunton.

    I’d be curious to sketch this out, as well, in terms of the debate over secularity (as in Taylor’s view of transcendence and the immanent frame).

    • Todd Walatka
      February 25, 2010 at 12:44 pm


      It’s well worth the $25. A great and provocative book. I think that the theme of interdependency in the chapter on the Trinity is probably the most original aspect of the work (perhaps also her configuration of nature and grace). It indicates more of an eastern tendency (denying the filioque but also challenges eastern theology to take the Son’s sending of the Spirit as indicative of the inner relations and not merely economic. I should note, however, that she does not use the terms “immanent” and “economic” in ch.4 on the Trinitarian life (she does use them in ch.5 – see p.175 n.49 for her explanation). I don’t think the terms really obscure what she is doing but she also does not want to navigate all those debates in order to make her point in ch.4.

      As for the debate over secularity, I’d love to read it when you write it!

  2. February 26, 2010 at 12:48 am

    Great stuff Todd. Thanks for the wee chapter-by-chapter precis. The seed is now sown.

  3. March 27, 2010 at 2:55 pm

    Thanks so much for these synopses. Very helpful!

    I’m wondering about Chapter 4. How does she unfold the distinction between the Son and Spirit’s descent/ascent from/to the Father? Certainly post-Pentecost there is the important truth that Christ has already ascended to reign but sent the Spirit to us. Would she see this as a repetition in some sense of the Spirit’s descent at the Incarnation? Does she see the Eucharist as a new descent in some way?

    Also, she seems to me to be saying more than we can say about the generation of the Son and procession of the Spirit. To say that “The Son is responsible simply for giving shape to the Spirit as it emerges from the Father” is unabashedly filioquist, writing missio back into processio very strongly. I can see the soteriological concerns behind it, but I’m wary. Thanks.

    • Todd Walatka
      March 29, 2010 at 4:31 pm

      I don’t have her text with me but let me offer some sort of response for you. I’ll start with the second paragraph. Tanner argues that we can move from mission to procession (though not without remainder) because the relations between Father, Son and Spirit that we see in history are an image of those relations in the life of God. She argues against the filioque with her notion the Son and Spirit coming from the Father interdependently: the filioque is true insofar as it points to the Spirit’s emergence from the Father through the Son but for Tanner it eclipses the reverse truth that the Son emerges from the Father through the Spirit.

      In the economy, the Father sends the Son and Spirit for the sake of the salvation of the world (they descend in order to ascend with us). I think that each particular instance that you point to would be understood within this one overall descent/ascent. To turn to your examples, the role of the Spirit in the economy is to unite humanity to the Word (the Word, in turn, gives shape to our lives). Thus the Eucharist would not be another descent, but rather part of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit initiate us more fully into the divine life through our union with the Word.

      I hope this helps but if you have other questions I can try to clarify more when I have the text with me.

  4. March 30, 2010 at 8:18 am

    Thank you. That’s very helpful. I realized I had skipped the second part of that quote when I brought up the filioque issue. That’s interesting, especially for ecumenical reasons, though I guess I’m still wary of reading too much back into processio.

    I’m very eager to pick up this book, but I guess one further question I have is how or when she reads this descent/ascent pattern beginning. Is it creation? Abraham’s call? The incarnation? Thanks again.

  1. February 27, 2010 at 8:05 am
  2. March 6, 2010 at 7:10 pm
  3. March 13, 2010 at 9:56 am

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