Kathryn Tanner’s Systematic Theology: AN OUTLINE AND QUESTIONS

This is an outline of Kathryn Tanner’s Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity (2001), an early version of a more detailed systematic theology that she outlines in Christ the Key (2010). I included the points that were of interest to me; all errors are my own.


  • “In order to witness to and be a disciple of Jesus, every Christian has to figure out for him or herself what Christianity is all about.” (xiii)
  • She argues that our Christian identity is, to some extent, ultimately arbitrary. “There is no obvious, established answer to this question” about what it means to be a “good Christian” and what it commits someone to. (xiv)
  • Basically, she argues that the Christian vocation includes entering into the long conversation of two thousand years of Christian philosophy, theology, and ethics and to do the hard work of deciding for ourselves what it’s going to mean to us and how to change our lives.
    • The full introduction is available online here. It is a short, concise, and empowering call for Christians to enter into the work of theology and to decide for themselves what this identity means to them. I can highly recommend.


  • Why does God do what God does? Because God “freely wishes to replicate to every degree possible this fulness of life, light, and love outward in what is not God” (2). “Attempting to give all that God is to what is not God.” (15)
  • God is fully transcendent. “God is not a kind of thing among other kinds of things.” Fully separate and apart in nature from the rest of the Universe. (4) This is what enables God to freely give in abundance, because it removes the “zero-sum” constrictions that would otherwise be operational on God.
  • This full transcendence is what enables Jesus to be fully God and fully human. This, to her, is what solves the puzzle of historical Jesus vs. Jesus of faith. God’s full transcendence enables full divinity in Jesus while still fully limited human at the same time.
  • “The triune God is therefore being nothing other than Godself in unity with a world different from God.” (13)
  • She argues for the Christus Victor model of atonement theology.


  • The Trinity “are like three distinct appearances of the same thing from different angles, although here such appearances are objective and lasting.” (38)
  • God Created to share the perfect Fullness of God with everything that is not God. (41) “God therefore permeates creation with the created versions, so to speak, of God’s own goodness.” (43)
  • “Because God is not finite as the world is, the world [universe?] does not and cannot circumscribe, enclose, or fill up God with its good things, the way God does it.” (43)
  • Sin is what happens when we “close our eyes and block the reception of God’s gifts to us and others.” (46)
  • We are able to connect with God because Jesus unites us with himself and because Jesus is fully at one with God, we also become one with God. (53) “It is as we are united to Christ by the Holy Spirit that we receive the perfections that Jesus received in his humanity.” (53-54)
    • This unity with Christ is formed and maintained through the Christian life. Baptism represents our desire to enter into this relationship, then Christian life and worship is how we maintain and strengthen this relationship to become ever more united with Christ (and thus also to God) (55-56). This is where justification, sanctification, faith, works, worship, discipleship, etc. all come in. They help bring us more and more into alignment with Christ’s identity.
    • The Eucharist is a visible manifestation of this phenomenon. Food becomes united with Christ (the Eucharist ritual), which then becomes united with us as we eat it and it becomes one with our bodies. (60)
  • What is our job? “The perfect correspondence of identity that is Christ’s life remains our hope. … we aim towards this unity or identity by efforts, never completed in this life, to eradicate sin and match the life intended for us by Christ’s assumption of us.” (59)
  • View of the cosmos: “We, in short, are sanctified and serve the ends of trinitarian love. Human beings become in this way the administrative center of cosmic-wide service.” (61)


  • “God does not so much want something of us as want to be with us. God does not really need us for anything. There is nothing yet to achieve beyond what God’s own trinitarian perfection already instantiates. … God’s relations with us from creation to consummation are the purely gratuitous acts of beneficent love extended outwards to us.” (68-69)
  • “We do not have to achieve anything as a requirement for inclusion in Christ’s own life.” (69) “Nor are our achievements, particularly in the realm of morals, a requirement for sustaining our assumption by Christ.” Basically, she’s arguing that however good or bad we are, it’s the Spirit and Christ to take us on, not because we’re earning anything by any good works that we do.
  • So why do we do things? Because while God might not need us, the world does! And we can spread goodness with others just as God spreads goodness to us. Our lives can be an “active fellowship or partnership with the Father through our union with Christ” (70).
  • What should we try to do? “we are to live our lives in community with Christ’s life as that is demonstrated in all that we think, feel and do” (71).
  • Political/economic implications:
    • She pushes back against Enlightenment individualism. We should imitate God’s Trinitarian unity with each other as much as possible. BUT the reality is that we are also Created individuals, “we are united with one another as what we are and remain in our differences” (83).
    • The systems of the world should distribute resources so that it involves active resistance to “a world of poverty and constriction, greed, and oppression.” (81) Resource allocation: “giving that is not obligated by prior performance and that is not conditional upon a return.” (84) Christians are “called and empowered to revise [these structures] through an ongoing process of purification.” (84)
    • Economics should not be based on competition, but rather equal access and distribution without a selfish profit motive.
    • Our identities should be “as persons in community with others and not simply persons for ourselves.” (93)


  • The bottom line from a science perspective is that the Universe is probably finite. The Universe will probably meet its end in either a Big Freeze, a Big Rip, or a Big Crunch. So that has to be accounted for in a serious consideration of the eschaton. (97-105)
  • So we need to reconceptualize eschatology as the transformation of our relationship with God and of the world’s [universe’s] relationship with God. This relationship is not depended on whether the world continues to physically exist or not. (104)
  • Our relationship to God is upheld by God’s transcendent side, not on our side. So whatever happens to our physical bodies and universe, “we are alive in God” (109).
  • “Eternal life” is spatial rather than temporal. It’s about the nature of our relationship in God, not about living for eternity. (110-112)
  • “We have immortality pre- and post-mortem only in virtue of our relation to an eternal God.” She spends several pages trying to say that salvation and eternal life is not coterminous with whatever happens to our physical bodies after our physical death (and that of the Universe). We’re immortal because we become one with the immortal God through Christ.
  • So do we continue to live after our physical death? “Clearly, something also happens to our mortal lives in and of themselves by virtue of life in God, post-mortem.” (119)


  1. Tanner argues for a fully transcendent God, one that is not contained in the universe, different than the “stuff” of the universe, and (presumably) separate from and prior to the universe. This is an ongoing question for me: is God a product of the universe (a la Process Theology) OR was God prior to the universe and the cause (the unmoved mover). I tend toward immanence in my theology because I’m motivated to find explanations that are congruent with multiple paradigms as much as possible (in this case, scientific materialism and theology).
  2. The purpose of life, according to Tanner, is essentially to receive the good gifts that God is eager to give us and share them with others. Is that all there is to it?
  3. Tanner’s point with eschatology seems to be “we don’t really know what happens after our bodies die, but there is good reason to think that eternal life and salvation are things that happen here and now and not somewhere else and later. That’s all fine and good and I am persuaded by this to some extent… but it seems to me that one of the key points of Christian hope is precisely that–to give hope. I suppose “we don’t really know” is unsatisfactory to me. That’s something that I already can accept without faith or religion. What’s the added value of faith and hope if it provides no further insights into this very ultimate question?

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