Christ the Key – Book Review

This book review — Christ the Key (Current Issues in Theology) by Kathryn Tanner — is part of my coursework for my Master of Theological Studies degree. I’m studying at Regent College in Vancouver, BC; this summer I took a week-long intensive course called THEO 500: Theology Overview.  

Here’s the course description of THEO 500: “In a postmodern age marked by suspicion of truth, it is all the more important to be rooted in the essential teachings of the Christian faith. Deepen your faith and your understanding with this systematic survey of the basic elements of Christian doctrine. Investigate the biblical foundation and historical context of theological truths, considering their implications today. Leave equipped to bear witness to Christ more effectively wherever you are.”

The course description may not sound appealing, but I learned so much about the history of the church — beginning with Justin Martyr, who lived 100 years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ! I wouldn’t recommend taking a dense course like Theology Overview in a week (like I did); you don’t have a chance to absorb the information. That said, however, this book review of Christ the Key and the take-home exam weren’t due for six weeks after the week-long class lectures ended. So, there was time to sink into the two textbooks (Christian Theology: An Introduction and The Christian Theology Reader, both by Alistair McGrath)…but not enough class time to discuss the difficult theological concepts.

I’m sharing this book review (as well as my other academic theology papers and Christian writing) here on Echoing Jesus to help divinity and theology students in their own work. Feel free to ask questions in the comments section below; this is my second Master’s degree, so I’m an experienced undergrad and grad university student!

Christ the Key by Kathryn Tanner — Book Review

Jesus Christ the Key Current Issues in Theology Echoing Jesus

In this book review I briefly explore some of Kathryn Tanner’s arguments and insights in Christ the Key – Current Issues in Theology (Cambridge University Press, 2010). I begin with a glimpse into Tanner’s theological tradition and primary sources, then critically analyze her thesis.

I describe how and why I believe Christ the Key succeeds (a point of affirmation), then suggest how the book is lacking and what might improve it (a point of criticism). Finally, I end with a personal reflection on how Christ the Key relates to my theological context.

a) Theological tradition and primary sources

Tanner is currently the Frederick Marquand Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School. According to YaleNews’ announcement of her new position in January 2011, Tanner is a “proponent of ‘constructive theology,’ focusing on how Christian thought might be brought to bear on contemporary issues of theological concern using social, cultural and feminist theory” (Kathryn Tanner is appointed the Frederick Marquand Professor). She is a past president of the American Theological Society and has been a member of the Episcopal Church’s Theology Committee, which advises the Episcopal House of Bishops, for over 15 years. 

Christ the Key is Tanner’s sequel to Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity — a brief systematic theology that discussed early Christian accounts of Jesus, his significance for today, the ethical and political implications, and the eschatology in Christ. According to Tanner, the central theological vision of both books is the same: 

“God wants to give us the fullness of God’s own life through the closest possible relationship with us as that comes to completion in Christ. In the incarnation one finds the immediate convergence of the most disparate things — God and humanity suffering under the weight of sin and death — as the means by which the goods of God’s own life are to be conveyed to us in fulfillment of God’s original intentions for us” (vii). 

This thesis isn’t easy to summarize in a sentence or two, which is why Tanner wrote a whole book! I didn’t fully understand everything she wrote, but I believe she argues that Jesus Christ’s incarnation, fully man and fully divine and through the animating power of the Holy Spirit, is the cornerstone of God’s plans for an intimate and intense relationship with humans. I need a second close reading of Christ the Key to discern exactly how Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and resurrection fits into this picture. Tanner’s primary sources in Christ the Key are early church theologians such as Augustine, Athanasius, Aquinas, Cyril of Alexandria and (especially) Gregory of Nyssa.

b) Critical analysis of Tanner’s thesis

As far as I can tell — given my ignorance of early theologians and church history, complicated by Tanner’s dense academic writing and depth of education and experience — she does frame her thesis well. Each chapter (Human nature, Grace, Trinitarian life, Politics, Death and sacrifice, and The working of the Spirit) points to her argument that “When the Genesis verses (1:27 and 5:1) say that human beings are created in the image of God that means, not that human beings have something in them that images God, but simply that they were made for a relationship with God, one perfected in Christ” (vii). 

While Christ the Key revolves around the seemingly simple idea of humans participating in a personal relationship with God, Tanner dives deep into both sides of theological debates that have been argued for centuries. For example, she devotes two chapters to grace, human nature, and the conflicting perspectives of Catholics and Protestants. She describes and attempts to reconcile the difference between East and West views of the Trinity. She even explores a Trinitarian approach to current political and economic systems. Yet underlying the debates, and at the end of each chapter, Tanner keeps pointing back to Christ as the key to our relationship with God, the Holy Spirit, and fellow human beings.

This sentence early in the book represents her work: “The problem that stands in the way of our being strong images of God and that grace remedies primarily has to do with human nature and not sin. We cannot receive the highest good that God wants to give us, the good of God’s own life, while remaining mere creatures” (60). That sentence contains several issues that theologians have wrestled with and argued about for almost 2,000 years: imaging God, grace, human nature, sin, God’s own life, God’s highest good for human life, and sinful humanity. Throughout the book Tanner weaves her thoughts on these issues with quotes from a variety of early church theologians.

Because Tanner quotes snippets of writing from many theologians on several complicated issues, it’s difficult to know — without reading their original work or knowing much about their theologies — if their words are quoted appropriately. Sometimes she disagreed with them, such as Irenaeus’ view of immature humanity (34) and von Balthasar on the obedience of a subordinate as characteristic of Jesus’ relationship with the Father (187). Often I couldn’t tell if Tanner was disagreeing with people, such as in Politics when she said the theological judgements of the proper relationship between individual and community seem (italics mine) very easy and clear-cut (207). Her preceding sentence contained names such as Moltmann, Zizioulas, Volf, Boff and LaCugna; I presume Tanner was implying that their ideas for the establishment of human society were easier in theory than practice (which she does make clear later in the chapter).

d) Affirmation

Tanner explored many complicated, crucial theological issues in Christianity. Most of the concepts were academic, theoretical, and abstract — but her chapter on Trinitarian life was surprisingly applicable to my own perspective of and relationship with the Trinity. She explored the ongoing relationship between God, the Son and the Holy Spirit as a continual rhythm or cycle of ascension and descension. “The Spirit sent out to us makes it possible for us to enter into the Trinitarian movements and follow along their own circuit of descent and ascent. The Spirit enables us first to ascend or return to the Father as Christ does with him” (197). I found Tanner’s further description of how God draws and keeps us in relationship with the Trinity deeply moving spiritually, emotionally, and practically. Not only did Tanner thoroughly explain God’s relationship with the Son and the Holy Spirit, she also made it meaningful.

e) Criticism

It’s hard for me to say what Christ the Key is lacking because this book and Tanner herself are so far beyond my scope of knowledge, education, and experience! I’m way out of my depth. I hadn’t even heard of Athanasius or Gregory of Nyssa until last month.  

That said, however, I was disappointed by the Politics chapter. I wasn’t surprised to read a chapter on political systems in a book written by a constructive theologian; I was dismayed by how much time and space Tanner dedicated to arguing against the application of the Trinity to socio-political systems. The idea of a Trinitarian model in politics seems like a fantasy, though I gather it’s been explored in depth by scholars. It just seems impractical and unbelievable — even to Tanner herself. “My first caveat about appeals to the trinity for socio-political purposes has to do with the inflated claims made for the trinity in contemporary political theology. Many contemporary theological over-estimate the progressive political potential of the trinity” (208). 

Instead of arguing against political theologians such as Moltmann and Boff, I wish Tanner had reflected on realistic applications of the Trinity to human relationships in society today. How do Christians reflect the Trinity when they have no political, economic, or social power? Instead of imagining or imposing an economic structure, how do we reveal the Trinity from within and underneath?

f) Reflection

Reading Christ the Key — even though I didn’t understand most of it — was an excellent way to conclude my coursework and prepare for future Regent courses. Tanner’s references to early church theologians reinforced what I read in McGrath’s books and heard in class lectures. She pulled together threads of grace, atonement, incarnation, trinitarianism, sacrifice, death and resurrection. I was particularly pleased to read her thoughts on the East and West’s differences regarding the Trinity — a question I tackled in the take-home exam! Unfortunately, I read Christ the Key after writing the exam so didn’t benefit from her reconciliation of the two perspectives.

I’m not sure how Christ the Key fits into my theological context, but I value Tanner’s reflection on her own writing process. In an interview she said: “I’m trying to do something with the history of Christian thought that is comparable to what Christians have often done with the Psalms…read them over and over again and incorporate that language, that discourse, that way of looking at things. You make it part of your own way of looking at things, and then you extend it” (Christ the Key with Kathryn Tanner podcast interview with Tripp Fuller on Homebrewed Christianity).

Tanner added that she was doing a “thought experiment” with Christ the Key. She was playing with, living into, and writing about ideas to shock and startle readers. She wanted to take concepts to the extreme and push them to see what would happen. 

“How far can I get with this idea?” Tanner asked herself…and then she went as far as she could. I admire this, partly because Tanner participates in the Episcopal Church’s Theology Committee and teaches at Yale University. She’s pushing the theological envelope, yet she’s accountable to communities. As a fledging theological student, that may be my most valuable take-home lesson.

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Your thoughts, big and little, are welcome below. If you’re thinking about going to grad school — whether or not you’re considering a theology degree — you might find How to Get Into Grad School helpful.

In peace and passion,

Laurie

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Bibliography

Fuller, Tripp. “Christ the Key with Kathryn Tanner.” Homebrewed Christianity, Podcast audio,March 14, 2011. https://trippfuller.com/2011/03/14/christ-the-key-with-kathryn-tanner-homebrewed-christianity-92/ (accessed July 2, 2019). 

Tanner, Kathryn. Christ the Key. Current Issues in Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Yale University. “Kathryn Tanner is appointed the Frederick Marquand Professor.” https://news.yale.edu/2011/01/21/kathryn-tanner-appointed-frederick-marquand-professor (accessed July 6, 2019).

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