By J. Scott Jackson
In what critical and constructive ways might systematic theology address real world problems of the 21st century such as questions of economic justice? This contentious question excites contemporary theologians in schools of thought ranging from liberation theology to radical orthodoxy. Through more than 20 years of published work, Kathryn Tanner has made substantial contributions to clarifying how traditional Christian claims about God, Christ and the world might be fruitfully integrated with progressive proposals for social justice. She has accomplished this by rigorously engaging such diverse resources as analytic philosophy, critical social theory and postmodern cultural theory to mobilize classic theological motifs – centering, especially, upon divine transcendence and the doctrine of the incarnation – in novel and striking ways. Taken as a whole, this work amounts to a thorough reconstruction of theological method to take account of and empower liberating practices in everyday life, which include ethical actions to reform society. Tanner draws widely from the history of Christian thought in developing her ideas, engaging such diverse thinkers as Irenaeus, Maximus the Confessor, Aquinas and Schleiermacher. One of her most significant theological interlocutors is Karl Barth, though Tanner reuses to label herself as a “Barthian” (BEG).
Tracing Tanner’s relationship to Barth is no simple matter, and I will not try to assess Barth’s stance on political theology as a whole. Rather, I offer three general observations that culminate in a practical example where Tanner would agree with Barth: both thinkers find Christian grounds, though somewhat differently, for criticizing capitalist notions of private property. In an attempt to give readers an overview of Tanner’s work, I suggest some comparisons between the two in the knowledge that these claims require more thorough testing than I can provide here. First, Tanner and Barth agree on the propriety of relating Christian theological claims to concrete questions of social justice (even in 2010, the theologian cannot presume such a connection but must argue for it). Second, Tanner and Barth agree on the proper theological basis for this relationship, namely the transcendent Creator’s free gift of grace perfected in Jesus Christ. Third, Tanner seeks to go beyond Barth in articulating the implications of theology for socio-political ethics more explicitly.
Clearly, first of all, both Tanner and Barth would agree on the propriety – perhaps even the necessity – of linking theology to socio-political concerns; but there are inherent dangers and ambiguities to this effort, as both also would recognize. As Tanner has noted, Barth himself suggests in his 1932 preface to Church Dogmatics I/1, written at a time of dire crisis in Europe, that clarity about theological first principles is essential to responsible Christian engagement with politics (BEG). Indeed, if we take Barth’s words at face value, we might understand the Dogmatics on the whole as a sustained attempt at political theology (for example, to advance a socialist agenda, as Marquardt has argued) or, more plausibly, as an effort to construct an adequate doctrinal basis for engaging politics in sound ways. Of course, Gollwitzer and others have argued that Barth as an academic theologian was less than entirely successful in his endeavor to keep theology politically relevant, radical, and real.
Barth’s critical stance toward capitalism, especially its ideological conception of private property, was never more explicit than in his early days as a left-leaning pastor and labor organizer in Safenwil. In a famous 1911 lecture, he rejects the common claim that the aims of Christianity and of modern social democracy are mutually exclusive, because the former promotes an otherworldly piety that shortchanges the practical agenda of the latter (JCSJ). On the contrary, Barth argues, Jesus himself taught a coming kingdom of God that would establish radical social and economic justice in this world. What stands in the way of this transformed world is capitalism itself, especially what one might call a model of private property based on scarcity (“What’s mine is mine!”). This system pits the capitalists, who own the means of production, against the workers, who must sell their labor at a cost far below its actual value. Barth is a fairly straightforward socialist here: “This system of production must therefore fall, especially its underlying principle: private property – not private property in general, but private property as a means of production” (29). Only state ownership of the means of production will neutralize the competitive class struggle that afflicts capitalist society. Barth quotes, with approval, a secular socialist who named self-seeking as the “original sin” of humanity. Barth appeals straightforwardly to Jesus’ critique of mammon in various Synoptic sayings, but he does so without any clear reference to the broader sort of theological or Christological basis he would later seek to explicate in the Dogmatics.
So just what has Wall Street to do with Jerusalem? As invigorating as the early Barth’s rhetoric is, even a century later, the pertinence of classical Christian theology for modern socio-economic issues is far from self-evident. Tanner wrestles with this ambiguity in her book Economy of Grace, as she offers an alternative proposal for a noncompetitive economics grounded in a theology of divine gift-giving and human sharing. Since the practical economic import of the gospel is so often contested, she seeks to demonstrate explicitly “how every Christian idea about God and the world is directly and from the first an economic doctrine” (1). This means that the economic dimension of theology may not be reduced to the realm of individuals’ personal morality (2-4).
Similarly, in an earlier work on political theology, Tanner demonstrated the potential relevance of classical theism, especially claims about divine transcendence, for Christian engagement with progressive social causes (PG). In particular, she showed how a theology that clearly distinguishes God from creation, and that posits a non-contrastive relationship between universal divine sovereignty and contingent human freedom, can serve as a basis for criticizing oppression and fostering tolerance, a respect for difference, and other progressive social values within a stance of engaged commitment. Still, the liberating power of such doctrines is not self-evident. Tanner notes that, historically, Christians in power have often used notions of a transcendent God to legitimate oppressive hierarchies – for example, by using notions of divine sovereignty to promote absolute monarchy. The point I take from Tanner is that abstract theological principles, in and of themselves, are neither inherently oppressive nor liberating. If I may give an example of my own, both a Thomist asserting a clear distinction between God and creation and an ecofeminist conceiving of the world as God’s body could support the same proposal to slow climate change, and both could do so on theological grounds. The process of linking theological theory to Christian practice is a matter of careful argument, and of a certain social construction of reality. Yet, Tanner suggests, this task of engagement is one that theology should not shirk. Christian communities are inevitably implicated in a complex web of social practices from a variety of cultural influences; in this environment, theologians should carefully explore ways to promote cultural changes that are consonant with central Christian claims and practices (TC, chap. 7).
A second and even more significant parallel between Tanner and Barth consists in a striking agreement about first principles; they share formal theological commitments to views about God and creation, and about the normative impetus for Christology to shape theology as a whole – a view which logically also means that claims about Christ should govern the way theology’s import ramifies in practical applications. In her first book, Tanner articulates and defends the coherence of traditional claims that God is the transcendent Creator who exercises universal providence without detriment to the contingent freedom of finite human agents. This noncontrastive account of Creator-creature relations was a commonplace in Christian philosophical theology from the time of the second century apologists through the medieval scholastics, until it began to break down in early modernity (e.g., in Nominalism). In making her case, Tanner draws extensively from Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth. This noncontrastive paradigm became and continues to be a linchpin in Tanner’s subsequent work. For example, her concern to defend divine transcendence recently has taken the form of an apophatic theology that resists any direct correspondence between human beings, whether as individuals or as communities, and a God who remains ineffable. Humanity bears the imago dei only through the mediation of Jesus’ incarnate humanity (CK, chap. 1). Consequently, and contrary to recent social trinitarians, she argues that it is improper to model human social relations upon the unique inter-communion of persons within the Trinity (ibid., chap. 5).
Elsewhere, in explicating Barth’s accounts of creation and providence, Tanner draws a parallel between the Thomistic notion of divine concursus and Barth’s account of how divine action accompanies the actions of free creatures, a theme developed in CD III/3 (CP, 123-125). For Barth,
the creature’s action is always only a response to what God has already done for it. This sequence, or order of call and response, is irreversible, and in that sense one must say that God’s action is never conditioned by the creature’s action. The creature is, moreover, most itself and properly free only when its actions so follow God’s primary action for it (123).The most salient feature of Barth’s doctrine of creation, as of all other loci of the Dogmatics, it is framed by the reality of Jesus Christ, the formal and material norm of theology as a whole. Drawing upon Barth – and many other thinkers, from the church fathers to Karl Rahner – Tanner frames her own systematic theology within an account of the incarnation. Both Barth and Tanner construct Christology “from above,” in dialogue with a patristic framework that culminated at Chalcedon. In Jesus, the eternal Son assumes, heals and redeems human nature; in Jesus divine and human natures are joined in perfect unity without mixture or confusion (JHT, chap. 1; Hunsinger).
Still, on the one hand, Barth often frames his Christology within reconstituted Reformed categories such as election, covenant, exaltation and humiliation, the three-fold office, etc. Tanner, on the other hand, tends to focus more consistently on the classic incarnational framework as developed by Irenaeus, the Cappadocians, Athanasius, Cyril, Maximus and others. Thus, for example, whereas Barth conceives the incarnation of the Son in CD IV/1 as the culmination of the one covenant of grace, Tanner criticizes Barth for assimilating incarnation into a covenantal schema. She argues, rather, that “the incarnation is a higher form of unity than fellowship with God, and thereby the closest approximation to the triune life that is possible for a creature” (JHT, 50). I might suggest, without trying to prove the point textually here, that incarnational Christology is more of a fixed point systematically for Tanner than it is for Barth, who freely interweaves a wider variety of Christological motifs from different sources in a more fluid fashion, perhaps not always with total transparency. Thus, Barth seeks to retrieve elements of a Western penal substitutionary atonement soteriology in his discussion of “The Judge Judged in our Place” (CD IV/1, par. 59), whereas Tanner jettisons such a theory completely. For Tanner, atonement occurs not through a perfect human satisfaction for sins, but through the communication of divine blessedness to humanity in the hypostatic union (JHT, 87-88; CK, chap. 6).
Without evaluating this debate here, I suggest that this more rigorously incarnational focus gives Tanner an edge over Barth in terms of just how a christocentric theology might inform ethical and political positions. This broaches my third main comparison between Tanner and Barth. In her book on economics, Tanner seeks to reconstruct economic theory and practice on the basis of a theology of gift, a vision of an overflowing divine beneficence with the incarnation at its center (EG). God, the gracious font of all free gifts, offers creatures a share of the divine bounty in creation, covenant and, above all, the hypostatic union of the Son of God with humanity in Jesus Christ. In light of the sheer giftedness of our status as creatures before God, our common economic life should be characterized by sharing with others what God has freely given us. Because everything comes from the overflowing love of the creator and redeemer, I have no claim to hoard goods that could benefit others and that in no wise belong exclusively to me. Tanner’s strategy, as she lays it out in the preface, is to bring economic and theological concerns together under a more generalized discourse on economy. The third part of the book relates a host of specific proposals (often quite technical) for economic change. What interests me here is a line of critique vis-à-vis capitalism.
Tanner pointedly criticizes a zero-sum notion of exclusive property, which holds that competition drives the exchange of inevitably scarce resources, whether that competitive struggle is adjudicated by the “free” markets of capitalist theory or the government agencies of state socialism (34-40). From a Christian standpoint, the claims that God freely creates and sustains human beings and showers the riches of God’s own being on us in Jesus Christ points to an alternative, non-competitive vision for economics. “The history of God’s relations with us as those have their beginning and end in Christ contain in themselves a critique of competitive relations” (BEG). If God in Christ has freely given us all we could ever need, we might imagine new ways of equitably sharing the goods all people need to survive and flourish. Giving becomes unconditional (based on need and not merit), universal and mutually beneficial for all. Tanner’s contra-example to exclusive property is a lighthouse, common property of the community that benefits all ships equally. There is no need to parse out its beams among ships, but all can travelers may share its rays without draining it (BEG).
Tanner’s alternative to prevalent views of private property has some resonances with Barth’s own reticence to enter the Cold War fray between East and West, and his groping to find a “third way” between free market capitalism and state socialism (BEG). Barth was worried that taking one side or the other would compromise the freedom of theology to witness to the Kingdom of God as a transcendent reality that cannot be instantiated by sinful human agents, but can only be brought about by divine initiative. “Upholding ‘a third way’ in this sense simply signals the need to maintain a distinction between God’s kingdom and any human claimant. God’s kingdom, Barth reminds us, is found already complete in Christ, and therefore one needn’t turn to the church or any trajectory of human history in search of it.” The third way, then, is more of a critical principle of judgment than a concrete proposal or agenda in its own right. Tanner notes:
Christian insistence on a third way becomes the constantly applicable rebuke to any power, human movement or trajectory in the world purporting to be lordless, hoping, that is, to exempt itself from judgment in light of that history of God’s dealings with the world that has its beginning and end in Christ.To be sure, Barth maintains that Christians are free to engage in concrete efforts at social, economic and political justice on an ad hoc basis as situations demand. Efforts within and without the church to instantiate freedom, justice and peace may serve as fallible yet real “parables” of God’s coming kingdom. Nonetheless, Christian social ethics must remain grounded in the basic story of what God has done for us in Christ.
Tanner affirms Barth’s basic standpoint here, both in his commitment to the integrity of a critical and distinctively Christian discourse on social matters and his intent to frame this discourse christologically. Still, she seeks to go beyond Barth in arguing that a Christ-centered theology should be able to speak more explicitly, more critically and more constructively to economic issues. “The gospel message is of much more direct social and political consequence than the ethical portions of the Church Dogmatics, at least as far as we have them, imply.”
Tanner seeks to articulate a critique of capitalistic assumptions that is more pointed than what Barth offers in the unfinished lecture fragments of CD IV/4 (published as The Christian Life in English translation). In that work, Barth tackles problems of socio-political ethics under the general rubric of his doctrine of reconciliation developed in CD IV/1-3. The framework for Christian engagement in the political sphere is the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Barth’s brief critique of capitalism emerges in a discussion of mammon as one among the “lordless powers,” those created-yet-fallen human capacities and forces that have turned against their human agents because of the fall (222-224). Under the conditions of humanity’s alienation from God, we have lost the freedom to govern our own desires and capacities, and these realities have begun to exercise an almost independent and lawless agency in their own right; they have “become spirits with a life and activity of their own, lordless indwelling forces” (214). Just as humans have rebelled against God, so these disordered forces turn against humans.
Among these powers, the New Testament mentions mammon, indicating “the material possessions, property, and resources that have become the idol of man, or rather his very mobile demon” (222). Material human resources needed to secure a livelihood and human well-being become twisted and disturbed under sinful human alienation. The Synoptic Gospels depict mammon as a second lord competing with Christ for human servitude.
Within a modern context, Barth identifies mammon as money, which does not directly support human need but rather serves as an effective symbol and agent of distributing material resources and negotiating social status. Barth’s insight here suggests an interesting analogy: just as mammon is a natural human power that has become abstracted from its salutary function under human freedom, to secure material wellbeing for humans, money itself has become abstracted from the actual material goods it is intended to mobilize – food, housing, clothing, etc. Money becomes something people crave in and of itself quite apart from the concrete good it can do. As such, mammon – like its cousin, Leviathan (the state) – becomes a prime candidate for idolatry.
Tanner finds this Barthian critique pertinent for the contemporary context. As state socialism seems to be waning today,
Capitalism has become the lordless power par excellence in our day, by seemingly exhausting the field of economic possibility and by conformity to the neo-liberal ideal of markets completely unconstrained by any governmental or social regulation that might subordinate their workings to the ends of human well being (BEG).Nonetheless, she charges Barth’s critique of capitalism with a lack of specificity, as being “almost entirely formal.” What specifically about capitalism, Tanner asks, tends to foster this distortion from a Christian standpoint? And what would the alternative look like in a human nature redeemed and governed by Christ? According to Tanner, Barth does not draw out the implications of his Christological doctrine of reconciliation. Her assessment at this point is correct, in my view, and her proposal is much better positioned than Barth was to articulate a real critique of private property on Christological grounds.
Nonetheless, and in conclusion, I want to suggest one way Barth’s view might broaden and enrich Tanner’s. A theology of the powers that seeks to relate New Testament insights to a critique of socio-political realities has become a major theme in contemporary theology, thanks to the work of such thinkers as William Stringfellow and, more recently, Walter Wink. Barth’s own work anticipated, to some degree, this powers theology, as was evident in his fascinating interchange with Stringfellow in Chicago in 1962 (Kellerman, 187-191). I wonder how such an understanding of the powers might be integrated with Tanner’s own incarnational framework by, let’s say, a more explicit retrieval of what dialectical theology says about the problem of idolatry (a theme well developed in Tanner’s earlier political theology). I wonder, in short, whether an exclusively incarnational framework, while undeniably crucial for Christian thought, is by itself adequate to convey the fullness of what the New Testament has to say about Christian engagement with economic forces in a fallen world.
Barth, Karl, (CL) The Christian Life: Church Dogmatics IV/4 (Lecture Fragments), trans. Geoffrey W. Bromily (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981).
----(JCSJ) “Jesus Christ and Social Justice”, in George Hunsinger (ed. & trans.), Karl Barth and Radical Politics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), 19-45.
Gollwitzer, Helmut, “Kingdom of God and Socialism in the Theology of Karl Barth”, in Hunsinger, op cit., 77-120.
Hunsinger, George, “Karl Barth’s Christology: Its Basic Chalcedonian Character”, in John Webster (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 2000), 127-142.
Kellerman, Bill Wylie (ed.), A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of Wiliam Stringfellow (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994).
Marquardt, Friedrich-Wilhelm, “Socialism in the Theology of Karl Barth”, in Hunsinger, op cit., 47-76.
Tanner, Kathryn, (BEG) “Barth and the Economy of Grace,” unpublished manuscript for lecture given at Princeton Theological Seminary, June 2008.
---- (CK) Christ the Key (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 2010).
---- (CP) “Creation and Providence”, in Webster, op. cit., 111-126.
---- (EG) Economy of Grace (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005).
---- (GC) God and Creation in Christian Theology: Tyranny or Empowerment? (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1988).
---- (JHT) Jesus, Humanity & the Trinity: A Brief Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001).
---- (PG) The Politics of God: Christian Theologies and Social Justice (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992).
---- (TC) Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997).
Apocalyptic Noncompetitiveness and a Theopolitics of Subversion:
A Response to J. Scott Jackson
By David W. Congdon
Scott Jackson’s lucid analysis of Tanner’s theology in relation to Barth points out the way each theologian, in their different ways, criticizes free market capitalism as an idolatrous worship of mammon. While both ground their critiques in christology, Tanner goes beyond Barth in using her noncompetitive-incarnational model of divine and human agency as the basis for her economic counterproposal to the competitive economics that currently rules the day. Where Barth’s critique of capitalism remains formal and abstract—revealed, as she points out, by the fact that his criticisms in CD III/3 and CD IV/4 are essentially identical despite their location in different theological loci (BEG)—Tanner’s is quite concrete and specific. Her theologically grounded ethics is thus a positive supplement to the dogmatic revolution that Barth began. This view was reinforced by Tanner herself at the 2008 Karl Barth Conference at Princeton Seminary. During her paper, Tanner mentioned that she views her project as an attempt to fill in the “ethics of redemption” that Barth might have written had he lived to write the fifth volume of his Dogmatics.
On all these points of similarity, Jackson’s thesis is on solid ground. What I would like to do, in the brief space that remains, is explore the point of conflict that he mentions near the end and suggest a possible way forward. Jackson rightly points out that Barth views mammon as a “lordless power,” an aspect of the sinful and fallen creation that enslaves humanity in systems of oppression, and which God has decisively judged and nullified in Jesus Christ. What this means, crucially, is that Barth’s “solution” to the problem of mammon is essentially competitive, rather than noncompetitive. Barth locates the source of an anti-capitalistic Christian ethic in the competitive arena of Christ’s crucifixion, where God combats the lordless powers and emerges the victor in the light of the resurrection.
By contrast, Tanner locates the source of her ethic in the non-contrastive, gift-giving union of divinity and humanity in the Son’s incarnation (cf. EG, 64-65). The difference this makes becomes starkly evident in her doctrine of the atonement. She thoroughly rejects the substitutionary and satisfaction models favored by the Reformers and appropriated by Barth, and instead she opts for the Greek patristic (especially Cyrilline) view wherein the locus of redemption is found in the deifying assumption of human flesh. Her view is thus an ontological, rather than forensic, version of the “happy exchange” (cf. ICS, 41). Tanner’s view is attractive because it frees atonement from the legal, penitential, and violent logic that severely hampers most Reformational accounts of salvation.
I bring this up not to engage in a debate about the atonement; that must await another occasion. Rather, I take it for granted that both Tanner and Barth’s emphases are worth retaining: Tanner rightly focuses on the noncompetitive relation between God and the world, while Barth rightly focuses on God’s competitive (and victorious) confrontation with both personal and systemic human sin. To put it another way, in Barth we hear God’s No against the power of mammon, whereas in Tanner we hear God’s Yes toward an “economy of grace.” If there’s anything that dialectical theology has taught us, it is that we need both the No and the Yes. In this case, we need both Barth and Tanner, though that will require finding a “third way” between (or beyond) them—much like Barth’s pursuit of a “third way” between capitalism and socialism.
I suggest here that this “third way” will require thinking creatively about an apocalyptic noncompetitiveness—that is, a noncompetitive theology of God’s apocalyptic interruption in Jesus Christ. This is, obviously, a paradoxical manner of speaking, but only in this way can we bear faithful witness to the God who is present with us as the crucified one. With Tanner (contra Barth), we need to replace the penal conceptions of the atonement with the notion of a superabundant divine self-donation in Jesus Christ which exposes and subverts the fallen logic of debt and redemptive violence. But the Cyrilline notions of assumption and deification—which she admits “trades on a Platonic reification of universal terms such as ‘humanity’” (ICS, 45)—need to be jettisoned. Here I agree with Barth in seeking to overcome the abstract metaphysical language of natura or physis, though I suggest we need to go still further than Barth was able or willing to go.
In my “third way,” God’s self-donation is not an ontic communicatio idiomatum, but rather a kerygmatic event in which the “word of the cross” (1 Cor. 1.18) confronts us with a judgment on our sin that simultaneously grants us unconditional forgiveness. The gift of God is the gift of an apocalyptic interruption by Christ through his Spirit that frees us for a subversive counter-politics. It is noncompetitive in that this interruption is not a miraculous intervention but paradoxically coincides with and occurs within our social historicity. In the modality of faith, we encounter the word of Christ in the word of our neighbor. Christ’s gracious judgment confronts us in our contingent historical situation, disrupting our bondage to systemic patterns of idolatry and opening us up to a new future of freedom from mammon.
In short, I am suggesting that we unite Tanner’s gift-giving focus with a thoroughly non-metaphysical, apocalyptic-kerygmatic theologia crucis. The gift is not an abstract ontological exchange, but rather a contemporary encounter with God that funds a theopolitics of subversion in every new hic et nunc. I take this to be an example of the “more explicit retrieval of what dialectical theology says about the problem of idolatry” that Jackson asks about at the end, albeit in a more explicitly apocalyptic and existentialist vein. Unfortunately, for now these ideas will have to remain only suggestive.
Tanner, Kathryn. (BEG) “Barth and the Economy of Grace.” Unpublished manuscript for lecture given at Princeton Theological Seminary, June 2008. Forthcoming in Daniel L. Migliore, ed., Commanding Grace: Studies in Karl Barth’s Ethics (Eerdmans, 2010).
——. (EG) Economy of Grace. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005.
——. (ICS) “Incarnation, Cross, and Sacrifice: A Feminist-Inspired Reappraisal.” Anglican Theological Review 86, no. 1 (2004): 35-56.
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