Atonement,  Karl Barth,  Kathryn Tanner

Tanner’s Atonement

The following is an analysis of feminist theologian, Kathryn Tanner. She is quite difficult to read, but I enjoyed tackling her thought. I am possibly a little harsh sounding in my critique so forgive the polemics. However, her thought is very common in contemporary modern theology and so you might, perhaps, find it interesting.

The theological starting point for feminist theology is usually something like: “scripture must be re-interpreted to support the emancipation of women rather than their oppression.”1 The traditional understanding of the atonement, particularly as it had been understood in the male dominated Western church, is, according to feminists, most in need of re-interpretation. Whatever the atonement is, feminists conclude, it must never enslave.

Kathryn Tanner plays a distinctive role in feminist theological literature. While she shares the concerns of her fellow feminists, she is primarily concerned to offer palatable account of a theological system of which those of the feminist persuasion can be a part. For this, Tanner draws on Karl Barth for a Christological emphasis. The idea that God and humanity and united in Christ forms the basis for her ontology. More in line with fellow feminists, Tanner reduces of the place of the Bible as authoritative revelation and replaces it with a “consciousness” theology. The goal of her project is to push for an existential and political reading of human existence – political emancipation is used as a repetitive motif which justifies her theological system and human individuation is made the existential goal of history.

Rather than write off atonement as a cruel doctrine, as some other feminist theologians have done, Tanner makes the atonement central to all Christian theology, in large part following Karl Barth’s Christology. However, Tanner suggests that the atonement mechanism is found primarily in the incarnation. This, she suggests, is a “nearly forgotten form of the classical atonement theory.”3 This mechanism of atonement allows her to posit an emphasis on ontology rather than morality. Her view of the atonement stresses the ontological union of humanity and God incarnate:

It is in virtue of the incarnation that humanity is saved—first the humanity of Christ himself and then through him that of every other human being, one with him. The humanity of Christ (and united with Christ our humanity) is purified, healed and elevated—saved from sin and its effects (anxiety, fear, conflict and death)—as a consequence of the very incarnation through which the life-giving powers of God’s own nature are brought to bear on human life in the predicament of sin. Humanity is taken to the Word in the incarnation in order to receive from the Word what saves it.4

Tanner sees the difficulty of maintaining traditional theories as primarily moral and so offers an ontological rendering of what it means to be atoned for. In her view, the atonement unites the being of humanity with the being of God in Christ; alien properties of both are exchanged and taken on by the other.5 The exchange is not primarily an exchange of moral standing before God, but the uniting of being to form a new, atoned for, humanity – a new humanity in the ideal man, the Christ:

The point of the incarnation is… the perfection of humanity; this is a human-centered Christology just because it is an incarnation centered one. By way of this perfected humanity in union with God, God’s gifts are distributed to us—we are saved—just to the extent we are one with Christ in faith and love; unity with Christ the gift-giver is the means of our perfection as human beings, just as the union of humanity and divinity in Christ was the means of his perfect humanity.6

If we follow Tanner’s logic, we must ask how this mechanism works for anyone apart from the particular human, Jesus of Nazareth. Traditional understandings of the incarnation are of a uniting of God with man, but it is one man in history not with all humanity. How, then, can Tanner’s conception of the atonement forge a unity of the same kind with other humans who are not Jesus of Nazareth?

In order to answer this question we must ask how such an atonement theory fits within Tanner’s overall system of thought. At the back of Tanner’s view of atonement is her view of creation’s dependence on God and the ensuing God-consciousness, the “feeling of our absolute dependence on God.”7 The transcendental precondition for human consciousness is God-consciousness. The relation of God with his creation is therefore that of the correlative precondition for existence. As such the distinction between the two cannot be named “since, as the transcendental precondition for the possibility of all categorized distinctions, it is not itself specifiable by those same modes of distinction.”8 Revelation, then, is consciousness or, more precisely, God-consciousness.9

Tanner sees God as non-competitive gift-giver.10 He is the source of all that humanity is. The relationship of God and humanity is two levels of one being.11 The gift of God are an overflow of the nature of God, “something like the aura or penumbra that a generously fecund sun gives off for nothing into the surrounding darkness of space.”12 Without expecting anything in return, Tanner’s God gives his gifts as a “love-filled non-purposive or gratuitous trinitarian overflow.”13

As Tanner locates humanity in Christ as she locates God in Christ, in the perfected humanity, she joins Barth in his affirmation that humanity is ontologically in union with Christ even if she might have no appreciation of that fact. Belief, in Barth’s conception, is the realization of one’s existing position in Christ. Therefore, missionaries are to “tell people the truth about themselves.”14 “No one is excluded”,15 says Barth, because the missionary “approaches not an ontologically different kind of human being… there is only one ontology for all men.”16 “There is no man”, Barth tells us, “without Christ, no man who is not a virtual brother of Christ, we may say that there is no reality of manhood apart from Him.”17

Tanner argues that the cross is the ultimate rite which mimics the ontological unity established in the incarnation. Indeed, her interpretation of the theme of sacrifice in both Old and New Testaments is that “sacrifice is a kind of social mimicking and reconstruction of biological bonds.”18 Sacrifices in the Old Testament are not propitiatory; rather, the “rite trades on God’s unbroken faithfulness to a decision to be with those engaged in temple service.”19 When it comes to the New Testament, the union of humanity to God takes place prior to the cross, in the incarnation: “This expiatory rite is not then a preparatory rite for communion sacrifice; communion has already occurred in Jesus’ person by way of the incarnation.”20

Consequently, Tanner argues that the New Testament does not provide grounds for a penal substitutionary theory of atonement. Since sacrifice does not achieve the union with God, but only symbolizes a prior covenant, the sacrifice cannot be read as contractual in nature. Sacrifice, if it achieves anything, achieves “community formation” through a “political import” in the death of Christ.21 The death of Christ, then, is “a sorrowful act in which what is sacrificed is not offered to anyone but is simply considered a necessary cost incurred for doing the good.”22

Correlative to the unity of God and humanity is the radical freedom of humanity. Tanner proposes that since God is the precondition for human consciousness, he is also the precondition for human freedom. This leads to Tanner’s appreciation of Barth’s declaration that, “Alongside [God’s] activity there is a place for that of the creature. We even dare and indeed have to make the … assertion that He cooperates with the creature, meaning that as He Himself works He allows the creature to also be active in its freedom.”23 Creaturely freedom, therefore, is correlative with dependence on God.24 The relationship between God and humanity is, according to Tanner, “non-competitive,” in that the dependence of humanity on God does not lead to a coercion on God’s part. Humanity is dependent on God for all things, but is not under any divine rule for their use.25 Tellingly, Tanner quotes Kierkegaard saying, “If, therefore, man had even the least independent existence… God would not have been able to make him free.”26

In Tanner’s conception of the atonement, the world is a “sin-afflicted, death-ridden” world in which humanity dwells in “all its horrors.”27 Tanner sees Jesus as the advocate for humanity in the sense that he, as the Word, “makes our cause its [the Word’s] own and does what we cannot do.”28 The saving work of Christ, therefore, is what Tanner calls the “incarnational identification” – the Word lives our life as we find it:

Humanity is humanity suffering from fear and distress, conflict with others, anxiety before death, betrayal and isolation, separation from God—all the qualities of death-infused, sin-corrupted life that require remedy. The cross then typifies the character of human life that the Word becomes incarnate to reverse by making its own; incarnation does not distract attention from the cross but sees all the struggles of Jesus life as the Word made flesh in light of it.29

The significance of the incarnation and the consequent crucifixion is the solidarity which Christ shows with our cause to stand against sin. Salvation is the welcome appearance of the Word in Christ and his taking up of humanity into himself. Christ, so to speak, joins himself with all that is human to show that he is in agreement with our disgust at our circumstances. He then rises, taking us all with him, so that we might find healing. The temporal struggle for emancipation is now lifted into the eternal life of God: “There is every reason to bring the sinful, the death-ridden, the impure, into direct contact with the holy.”30

In Tanner’s analysis there is a dialectic understanding of history in which event transcends itself and transcends history; it is the historical emergence of a universal from a particular. The Christ of particularity, born and killed, is raised from the dead as universal. He is like Julius Caesar, who, when killed, is also raised to a universal – Caesar as name of Julius becomes Caesar the title for supremacy.31 Tanner, following Karl Barth, sees history in terms of primal history. Corneilus Van Til explains:

“Primal history is a dimension that lies as it were between super-history and ordinary or surface history, while yet it impinges on both… This realm is free from ordinary historical continuity; its unity is that of contemporaneity. “It is history but it works directly on men of nearest and farthest times.” (Barth, Dogmatics, 239) Men become “partners in primal history” and, when they are such, they are members of the Church of Christ.”32

Humanity, then, is in process of realization of this ontological status; it is the “struggle to be what our humanity has already become in Jesus.”33 The struggle is won through “growth in unity with God.”34

There are a number of difficulties I have with Tanner’s view of atonement. They arise from her system of which atonement is a central part. However, each stem from her perspective of union of humanity with Christ. In contradistinction to Tanner, I think we should not regard the incarnation and atonement synonymously. To do so conflates the moral status of humanity with the being of God and, in my view, leads to a quite disastrous consequence.

How, then, do we describe the ontology of the incarnation? From the point of view of God taking up flesh we can say that the ontological unity of God and man is in one man – Jesus, a Jew, from the city of Nazareth, who, being fully God and fully man, is our substitute in an atoning sacrifice. We might say that, although the incarnation is primarily an ontological doctrine, the atonement is primarily moral (although it has significant ontological ramifications). However, the New Testament does speak of union of humans with God. In what way, then, does the New Testament speak of being “in Christ”? Calvin locates the idea in God’s plan.35 The elect are chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world. According to Grudem, Paul links the union with election – those who were chosen “in Christ” for blessing (Eph 1:4). By Christ’s life, work, death and resurrection those who were chosen are “in Christ” in the sense that they are considered by God to be in Christ. Consequently, Christians are considered to be obedient (Rom 5:19), to have been crucified (Gal 2:20), to have been raised to the heavenly realm (Eph 2:6) and await the blessings there (Eph 1:3).36 Grudem goes on to say that the phrase is used in the New Testament to indicate our new life in Christ and our sanctification – we can now do things in Christ, in accordance with Christ. The outcome of such union is not a universal subject—humanity—but particular elect peoples of God – Israel and the church.

Even a close examination of 2 Peter cannot bring about a view of ontological union with God. Peter writes that we become “partakers the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) as we reject the world’s hostility to God. This is not to say that humanity is, in the Hellenist sense, taken into the divine nature. Rather, it is the “ethical imperative”37 which controls the interpretation. Peter turns the Greek idea of participation with the divine being against itself by reinterpreting it in moral terms. I think that Tanner is doing to Peter’s words what Peter had done to the Greek; she reverses the meaning back to an ontological statement.

According to Calvin, union with Christ is not the mystical ontological exchange of essential properties, as is postulated by Tanner, but a statement of the saving work of God in Christ and the blessings given to those who are His. Calvin says we are all his offspring “not in substance, but in quality.” Then, being sinful and in hostility to God, we cannot be said to damage the essence of God. “Creation,” according to Calvin, “is not a transfusion of essence.” Consequently, the same is true of our union with Christ: “by beholding the glory of Christ, we are transformed into the same image as by the Spirit of the Lord; and certainly the Spirit does not work in us so as to make us of the same substance with God.”38

Evangelical views of the atonement should not conflate the incarnation with the atonement, nor should the atonement be read as a bringing together the being of God and the being of humanity. If we accept the distinction, we can conclude that the atonement is moral in nature, an exchange of right standing before God between God in Christ and sinful humanity. This distinction presupposes a view of sin whereby humanity stands judged and without excuse before God in need of a substitute to pay the price for her sin.

What, then, is the moral idea behind Tanner’s conception of sin? According to Tanner, the chaos of random sin that threatens humanity is the cause against which humanity fights. This is especially true for certain groups of humans – the poor, women and the outcasts. The Word is not responsible for such a state and is not governing it in any apparent way (although he continually provides means for both chaos and order by way of his gifts to free humanity and his non-competitive stance). The incarnation is the taking up of the human cause in a common fight for emancipation and the making of that cause the very nature of the Word. God and humanity are distinct from one another but “in a common process, they become identical with one another and therefore indistinguishable from one another.”39 Nothing remains of Christ in the union of God with humanity and the chaos that he takes up into himself becomes the taking up of the irrational sin-afflicted world. Christ is the sign of God’s collapse into his own reality, his own horror. Yet it is into this horror that she, the human, is born; she is the result of it. The human “springs from pure possibility. The Chaos element surrounds and pervades [her].”40 If Tanner is to rely on revelation being identical to consciousness, she has to show how, given the contingent origin of both the apostles and herself, she can know God at all. God is conceptualized as the precondition for consciousness yet this cannot lead to the knowledge of a person in history who can be known as God incarnate unless such a God could bypass such contingency. At the back of the penal substitution “mechanism” is the knowledge of God directly known in both creation—including humanity herself—and in the written Word of God. Furthermore, since the scripture reveals to us what we need to know about history, we can say that humanity is born not into chaos, but the plan of God.

It is pertinent that Tanner makes no mention of origin, consummation, the fall of man and judgment day, at least not in a historical way. Tanner maligns any view which asserts a certain set of events in history which constitute the end times; these events are secondary to the ever heightening unification of God with humanity:

The central claim of eschatology must not refer to what happens at the end… Understood that way the eschaton—consumption in the good—would have to do primarily with a new level of relationship with God, the final one surpassing what we are simply as creatures, beyond which there is no other… The world has this future whether the world, considered in itself, ends or not and whatever the process by which it does; the world will have this future, irrespective of such events, because it has this future in virtue of the character of its relationship with God… The world can enjoy this new level of relationship with God whatever the process by which it does. The relationship holds whether the world continues to exist or ceases to exist.41

Yet always we are concerned not only with the Christ event, but with the killer himself. In the Hegelian conception the killer is purely particular and chaotic. The realm of Lordship, therefore, is confined to universal and has no say in particular. Yet is this not the denial of Christ’s own claim to “control” his killer? Such a relationship of God in Christ with creation would require a theology of Christ’s lordship over creation, that every event is the result of the plan of God. The particularity of the children of Israel, chosen, elected as God’s own nation, is lost in the idea of universal humanity. Therefore, the eschaton, whatever it is to Tanner, cannot include either a kingdom or a king in the Jewish sense.

Distinctly lacking in Tanner’s conception of atonement is any apparent theology of lordship. In her efforts to place emancipation center stage, she treats Christ’s claim of authority over all creation as periphery, if not as contradictory, to her project. Christ’s claim to be the arche is replaced with a motif which advances Christ more as anarchist.

For Tanner, sin—the bondage to evil—is the slavery humanity finds itself under. Christ establishes a new kingdom not in any sense of being a new master, but in the sense of solidarity with those in bondage. He becomes a fellow prisoner in the struggle, one who dies for the cause of liberation from all oppressive power including its own.

Given the somewhat trans-historical nature of the atonement theory of Tanner and the revolutionary premise, we are left with a continual revolutionary motif. The continual struggle for the overthrow of oppression. This continual revolutionary motif is found in Karl Marx’s perception of emancipation. Marx, in his Communist Manifesto, implied that the bourgeoisie actually provided the tools for revolution through state sponsored education programs: “The weapons with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism to the ground and now turned against the bourgeoisie itself. But not only has the bourgeoisie forged weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons – the modern working class – the proletarians”42 In this way the atonement includes an autoimmune disease:43 Christ, in Tanners system, is the fulfillment of the human as a, “religious and political subversive at the hands of imperial power.”44 As such, he is continually the subversive – a revolutionary by nature. Subsequently, since it is God who has given us all that we are (the radical dependence of man on God and the radical freedom that accompanies it), he has truly become one of us. Since humanity is “in Christ” in this manner, the properties being mutually owned, the revolutionary spirit is made transcendent and eternal.

Analysis of Tanner’s work on the atonement requires an analysis of Tanner’s entire system of thought. Rather than focusing on a particular atonement model I have had to focus on an entire worldview. This is due to Tanner’s own view of the atonement as a metaphysical union between God and humanity. Consequently, Tanner’s view of the atonement is systematic in nature and should, I think, be treated as such. From my perspective, Tanner’s system is one built on the sand of consciousness theology and neo-orthodoxy which in turn is built on historical criticism and existentialism. It stands in opposition to an evangelical theology in its assertion of ontological union of humanity and God. Secondly, it considers sin to be that which humanity and God in Christ struggle against rather than the willful rebellion of humanity against God. Thirdly, it denies the particularity of redemption whereby God elects those for eternal life and treats humanity throughout history as one subject with equal standing before God. Finally, it contains a politicized goal of history as the human struggle for liberation as opposed to the subjugation of all creation to the Lordship of Christ.

1Darby Kathleen Ray, “The Feminist Critique of Atonement Theory,” The Journal of Women and Religion (1997): 94.
3Ibid., 40.
4Ibid., 41.
5Ibid., 41.
6Kathryn Tanner, Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity: A Brief Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress press, 2001), 9.
7Kathryn Tanner, God and Creation in Christian Theology (New York: Basil Blackwell Inc., 1988), 66.
8Ibid., 67.
9This line of thought, I think, is borrowed from Schleiermacher who said, “What is revelation? Every original and new communication of the Universe to man… every moment of conscious insight… every intuition and every original feeling… each one knows best himself.” in William Placher. Ed, Readings in the History of Christian Theology 2 (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1988), 134.
10Tanner, Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity, 2.
11Ibid., 3.
12Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity, 68.
14In John Godsey (ed.), Karl Barth’s Table Talk (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1962), 15.
16Ibid., 16.
17Ibid., 15.
18“Incarnation, cross, and sacrifice”, 50.
19Ibid., 49.
20Ibid., 54.
21Ibid., 50.
22Ibid., 50.
23Karl Barth quoted in Tanner, God and Creation, 91.
24This allows for human freedom to be the ultimate arbiter of truth. As Van Til said of Schliermacher’s view: “When the religious man says that he is wholly dependent on God and upon Christ he virtually says that he admires them greatly for their noble attitude toward reality.” Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge (Nutley: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1977), 60.
25Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity, 4-5.
26Soren Kierkegaard, Journals (1846) in God and Creation in Christian Theology, 81.
27“Incarnation, Cross, and Sacrifice”, 44.
28Ibid., 44.
29Ibid., 46.
30Ibid., 55.
31Slavoj Zizek, “The Limits of Hegel” (lecture, Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, London, UK, 23, 25, 26 March 2011), See also G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, 1837,
32“It is here that God meets man in person. Ordinary history points to primal history and primal history constitutes the meaning of ordinary history. Primal history is the realm of meaning inasmuch as it is the realm of the Logos.” Cornelius Van Til, The New Modernism (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1947), 154-155.
33Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity, 71.
34Ibid., 2.
35John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), II: xvi, 4, 436. Also see Seng-Kong Tan, “Calvin’s Doctrine of our Union with Christ,” Quodlibet Journal 5, October 2003,
36Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 841-842.
37Michael Green, The Second Epistle of Peter and the Epistle of Jude (Grand Rapids: Tyndale, 1973), 64.
38Institutes, III: xx: 11, 165-166.
39Van Til, 386.
40Van Til, 385.
41Tanner, Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity, 104.
42 Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto (New York: Pelican, 1985), 87.
43The idea of autoimmunity, rooted in the materialist dialectic, is applied creatively by both Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida to the events of 9/11. Derrida wrote: “Immigrated, trained, prepared for their act in the United States by the United States, these hijackers incorporate, so to speak, two suicides in one: their own… but also the suicide of those who welcomed, armed and trained them.” In Giovanna Borradori, Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 95.
44“Incarnation, Cross and Sacrifice”, 36.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.