Book Review: God and Creation in Christian Theology by Kathryn Tanner
Kathryn Tanner, God and Creation in Christian Theology: Tyranny or Empowerment? Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005, 208 pgs., $23.00.
The problem of how to correlate God’s sovereignty and human freedom has been a persistent question throughout the history of Christian theology. Rather than offering a full-fledged constructive solution to the God-world relationship, Kathryn Tanner proposes linguistic rules in this work for coherent Christian discourse about God’s sovereignty and human freedom. According to Tanner, modern theology has been stuck in an irresolvable struggle over the incoherence of its statements concerning the relationship between God’s sovereignty and the dignity of creaturely reality. Rather than attributing the modern breakdown to the infiltration of alien philosophical systems, Tanner suggests that the problem is due to Christian theology’s forgetfulness of its own talk about God. Simply put, Christian theology has forgotten its own rules for coherent talk about God.
Tanner argues that traditional Christian explanations are viewed in modern theology as incoherent because of certain modern assumptions. Tanner insists that modern conclusions and givens must be subjected to scrutiny and viewed as temporally conditioned. Tanner calls into question the modern framework by subjecting it to the Christian discourse of the past. Tanner admits that her approach is colored by the linguistic turn. She is concerned to examine theological language and the work this language performs. Rather than focusing on what theologians say, Tanner focuses on how they say it. In her view, the theologian must pay attention not only to theologians but also to the theological talk of Christian communities. Specifically, the theologian is interested in well-formed Christian statements that make one a competent Christian speaker. By examining both how theologians and competent Christian speakers talk, the theologian is able to produce a map or grammar which outlines the rules of proper Christian speech. Theological reflection on the community’s linguistic practice can also help to resolve problems of Christian practice. Tanner specifically focuses on the problem when there is apparent incoherence between well-formed Christian statements. The task of the theologian is to develop linguistic rules that enable and establish coherent Christian statements.
According to Tanner, theologies that explain the coherence of the God-world relationship share certain rules of discourse. Whereas Plotinus set up a scheme where divine transcendence was set up in opposition to divine involvement, Tanner suggests that the Christian theologian should radicalize both divine transcendence and divine involvement. God’s otherness from the world is so great that his involvement with the world does not identify him or set him in competition with any created reality. Tanner posits two rules which guide coherent Christian discourse concerning both divine transcendence and God’s creative agency in the world. The first rule is to “avoid both a simple univocal attribution of predicates to God and world and a simple contrast of divine and non-divine predicates” (p. 47). The second rule is “avoid in talk about God’s creative agency all suggestions of limitation in scope or manner” (p. 47). In other words, these two rules dictate that God’s transcendence is beyond both simple identity and opposition with created reality and that God’s creative agency is both immediate and universal.
The rules for understanding creaturely agency flow out of the rules for understanding God’s transcendence and creative agency. Tanner argues that creaturely power and efficacy must be seen as grounded or founded in God’s creative agency. The basic rule for understanding the creature’s relation to God is that “created efficacy is grounded immediately and entirely in God’s creative agency” (p. 91). The creature is not to be thought of as independent of God since God is the very source of the creature’s freedom. Discourse concerning the capacity of creatures must always be tempered by emphasizing the creature’s direct dependence on God. Therefore, the freedom of God and the freedom of the creature are not to be viewed as to be in competition with each other. Divinity grounds rather than suppresses creaturely being. To illustrate this point, Tanner suggests viewing created causes and effects along a horizontal plane while viewing God’s founding of creaturely efficacy along a vertical plane. The value of this distinction is that it points out the fact that God is not to be viewed as a finite cause in the creaturely realm but is rather to be understood as the one in whom the creaturely realm is totally and immediately dependent.
In the modern context, the “rules are deformed and their function lost” (p. 160). Tanner complains that modern theologies tend to overemphasize the positive aspect of creaturely power and efficacy or distort a proper balance between divine sovereignty and creaturely integrity. To provide examples of how modern theology violates the rules for proper talk about God, Tanner cites Gabriel Biel’s overemphasis on creaturely independence from God and the de Auxiliis controversy between Dominic Banez and Luis de Molina. Tanner alleges that modern theology operates on Pelagian assumptions of creaturely independence from God. Due to these assumptions, the rules for proper talk are violated and incoherent discourse is the result. Problems in modern theology mount when creatures are ceded an independent reality apart from God. When creatures are viewed as being self-sufficient apart from God, grace can only be seen as an add-on and God’s activity is placed on the same level as finite causes.
My major criticism of this work is that Tanner assumes that competent Christian speakers exist, but she does not indicate explicitly by what standard a Christian speaker is found to be competent. It is almost as if a certain doctrine is correct if the Christian community conforms to it. It is unclear if there is an authority, whether Scripture of tradition or something else, that norms Christian practice. Another criticism is a minor one. I was hoping that a book dedicated to the subject of divine sovereignty and human freedom would address the issue of evil and sin. Yet these issues were not dealt with. It would be interesting to know how Tanner explains evil and sin in the world since she insists that creaturely efficacy is grounded immediately in God’s creative agency.
There are many significant insights in this work. Tanner’s conception of God’s transcendence is especially helpful. She argues that God’s transcendence ought not to be construed negatively as a divine isolation from a self-sufficient world. Instead, God is so utterly transcendent that he can be involved in the world without being confused with finite causes. Neither is God’s agency to be viewed as though it were in competition with creaturely agency. In other words, there is not a direct proportion between God’s working and creaturely working. God’s transcendence prohibits univocal predication between God and creatures. Another strength of this book is that Tanner displays a wide familiarity with the Christian theological tradition and also with American and analytic philosophy. Tanner’s comments on the value of returning to the theologies of the past and learning how previous theologians talked is advice certainly to be heeded. Tanner is also to be commended for her stringent and insightful attack on modern theology’s Pelagian tendency to view created reality as independent and autonomous from God. For the most part, Tanner’s thesis is to be accepted. Coherent discourse about God and the world must constantly assert God’s transcendence, God’s universal and direct creative agency, and the creature’s dependence upon God. The creature does possess real power and efficacy for actions but these actions must always be grounded in God’s sovereign agency. When the rules suggested by Tanner are followed, Christian discourse can properly explain God’s transcendence and involvement in a world where creatures possess their own genuine freedom.
Reviewed by Micah Throop, MAHT Candidate