(This is my second formal paper submission this fall and first one for a class called “Studies in Systematic Theology” with Philip Clayton – it’s 12 pages and not really “blog entry friendly” just to warn those who aren’t interested in reading a lengthy post!)


The challenge raised by modern atheism has no doubt been recognized by Christians everywhere at least to some extent.  One could argue that, by and large, theology seems to have been stripped of its power to speak to people today.[i] The church has attempted to respond in a variety of ways.  Oftentimes the effort is made by means of strictly positive, analytical apologetics (somewhat ironically in the current anti-foundational, post-structural setting),[ii] as if God were merely an idea or concept to be grasped and proven.  Cardinal Walter Kasper however is fully aware that such an approach to theology is futile at best and the most ignorant kind of idolatry at worst.  He asserts that “God’s freedom-in-love in the form of a gratuitous self-communication would in fact be annulled if it could be shown to be rationally necessary.”[iii]

Kasper’s rigorous work in The God of Jesus Christ illustrates his ability as an expert synthesizer to take the reader through the criticisms of the Christian faith offered by modern and post-Enlightenment thinkers like Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche,[iv] followed by a comprehensive walk through the history of the development of the doctrines on the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  It is a journey through the Ecumenical Councils and the writings of the Church Fathers along with attention to twentieth century thinking in biblical criticism, the feminist movement, and the theologies of Rahner and Barth.  Kasper concludes the book by spelling out a specifically Trinitarian theology as the only true proclamation of the Christian God.

Despite the problem posed by those declaring the death of God, and despite the insufficiency of reason and words as finite structures to exhaust or define God, Kasper hardly relinquishes – far from it in fact.  Rather than committing sacrificium intellectus by resorting to some form of blind or irrational fideism, he is convinced that God can nevertheless be confessed in praise, in grounded (revealed) mystery, as the reality that includes all else, as triune, and as the God of Jesus Christ.  Conveying a classical, dialectical character in his doctrine, Kasper successfully avoids the fatal flaws of overly mystifying God on the one hand and reducing God to a proposition on the other.[v] Indeed, while there is always a risk in striving to conceive of God solely on the basis of what is (Heidegger),[vi] there is an equally grave danger with post-metaphysical God-talk of blurring the lines between theism and agnosticism.  If one wishes to elicit a wise silence about God, then it will nonetheless be necessary to determine something about what this silence says.[vii] So while God is incomprehensible and not situated on the ontological continuum of Being, Kasper knows that now more than ever are Christians responsible for demonstrating a scrupulous reasonableness about the faith – not to give an answer, but instead to add profundity to both the God question and the Trinitarian confession.[viii]

Having extended a similar critique of Feuerbach, Kasper states that, “the defects of the Marxist interpretation of religion are due, among other things, to the fact that Marx nowhere expressly analyses the phenomenon of religion in itself but a priori reduces it to economic and political functions.”[ix] As a result, like Freud, Marx is guilty of overlooking the possibility that atheism too could be the result of wishful thinking.[x] Concerning Nietzsche, Kasper observes that his attempt to locate eternity in the present life as opposed to a life beyond this one only eternalizes meaninglessness – the reality that Nietzsche’s nihilism knew so well.[xi] In a persuasive endeavor to take advantage of what Kasper identifies as a major weakness in Nietzsche’s insightful analysis of human nature, Kasper understands the historical hope of humanity to essentially be one for justice – justice not only for those of us living now or in the future, as that would be only a very feeble hope, but for all of the fallen before us in addition.  Without this hope (and he is careful not to call it a certainty), Kasper believes the case for faith to be senseless.  And yet, the hiddenness of God demands that Kasper not settle with a merely historical-philosophical argument.


A truly theological theology preserves the Godness of God not by abstraction but precisely by locating the image of God in the concrete, historically revealed Christ, and the communication of God in the present work of the Holy Spirit, giving humanity the perfect freedom and fullness of life it seeks.  It is also through this process that the mystery of God’s self-emptying and self-revealing nature is disclosed by an absolute freedom-in-love; namely, the radical love that is God.  God acts exactly to have communion with humanity even as humanity “is in quest of signs in which the absolute mystery of an unconditioned freedom addresses [humanity] and communicates itself”[xii] to people in the world.  In this way, Kasper’s soteriological and Trinitarian doctrine of God is not without an implied anthropology.  This “absolute mystery” and “perfect, unconditioned freedom” that Kasper speaks of is one that humanity actually “pre-apprehends.”[xiii] The human being is the one “who lives in the presence of the infinite mystery and who waits and hopes for the free self-revelation of this mystery.”[xiv]

While it was mentioned above that Kasper regards God as the reality which determines everything and in which everyone participates, citing Wolfhart Pannenberg, Kasper boldly admits that such a reality must even now “be substantiated by the experienced reality of man and the world.”[xv] Thus, while God is wholly and qualitatively other in essence (substantia), existing without contingency, Kasper’s doctrine of God does depend in a sense on the possibility of contemporary application.  This is exactly what obliges him to proclaim that “precisely because dogmas are true they are in constant need of new interpretation.”[xvi] At the same time, one can also say with Kasper that “knowledge of God . . . presupposes illumination by the truth which is God,”[xvii] and so his approach is at once anthropological and theological, resulting perhaps from an effort to hold the two in tension.  Furthermore, with the following contention one can see that while Kasper acknowledges many arguments from below in anthropological fashion (his theodicy for example), he does so from the starting place of fides quaerens intellectum (Augustine, Anselm), or with the “reason of the heart” (Pascal), making the whole of his theology still a project from above: “It is therefore possible for theology to develop the anthropological relevance of what it says only if it remains theology and does not turn into anthropology.”[xviii] Someone like Pannenberg is alternatively more comfortable with anthropology.


Kasper relies on anthropology, as one can now see, not for empirical verification but to bear witness to the revealed mystery that is the saving truth of God’s “turning to us” in unreserved grace and love.[xix] The culminating event wherein this disclosure is made manifest occurs with the death and resurrection of the Son, the consequence of which is the reigning of the kingdom of God in the present aeon. Proceeding in apologetic prose, Kasper traces the language of suffering love back to the Greek Fathers of the Church and relies upon Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen to support the claim that God suffered with Jesus on the cross.  For Kasper, such an assertion exonerates God of blame for the suffering in the world.

Though Kasper does not explicitly espouse or develop a tidy theory of atonement here, an erudite volume such as this one on the doctrine of the Christian Godhead inevitably leaves remnants for the reader to piece together.  It is necessary to consider what Kasper might say in full about Christ’s atoning work in order to both educe a more comprehensive soteriology and make a comparison below.  About this one can notice that Kasper seems to want humanity’s justification to be non-violent in nature.[xx] Perfect obedience and weakness are part and parcel of what is accomplished in Jesus’ death.  Despite this, however, as a Catholic cardinal, Kasper does elicit ransom speech and even suggests that the cross is the very purpose of the incarnation.

In response to God’s saving will and saving action, human beings, suspended between the infinite and the finite in the search for freedom, must open themselves to the truth of this mysterious self-revelation of God and, inspired and assisted by grace, believe – not because the “natural light of reason” has made the “inner truth of things” known, but because of the authority of God’s revealing self.[xxi] The revelation exists in human, historical mediation so that the message is not concerned with theoretical speculation but is a “practical message of judgment because it ultimately says that man has no power over the mystery of God either through knowledge or through action.”[xxii] God confers revelation in order to evoke a decision from people.  Faith, therefore, is not a sheer momentary act of emotion, volition or comprehension, but encompasses all of these powers through an on-going choice and a “comprehensive mode of existing.”[xxiii] In Kasper’s estimation, the revelation of the mystery of God is essentially and decisively the revelation of the mystery of humanity’s salvation.  In light of this very mystery, soteriology becomes doxology,[xxiv] and is professed in faith as the revelatory and saving action of God the Father through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit who gives absolute freedom and love.


Plainly working from a completely different starting point than that of Kasper, the Protestant and feminist theologian Kathryn Tanner begins her Christological exposition from a fairly a-historical perspective.  While she relies heavily on the Cappadocian Fathers (Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa in particular), the veracity of the tradition is merely presupposed for the purpose of an artful and almost playful experiment with the usefulness of the Christian faith.  If the Trinity is the hermeneutic for Kasper, Christ is the key for Tanner, and the Christ of the hypostatic union at that.  Assuming Jesus saves, or more accurately, justifies human beings primarily by means of the incarnation, Tanner seeks to answer other questions about human nature, sin, grace and the Trinity through the same interpretive filter.

In Tanner’s view, human nature is not innately flawed (here she differs from many other Protestants).  She says instead that humans are “neutral” (neither corrupt or nor predisposed to God) in this regard but as a consequence highly malleable and open.  Designed for strong participation in the divine life, human beings will inevitably venture astray when detached from relationship with God through Christ.  This participation is akin in some measure to what Pannenberg calls humanity’s destiny to participate in God’s eternal presence.[xxv] Nothing about humanity naturally lends itself toward seeking God, however.  Contra Kasper in some respect, grace does not merely assist or guide people further along in the right direction.  Even if grace is absolutely necessary for salvation as both Catholics and Protestants affirm, this grace in Tanner’s mind is performing a far more radical transformation in the way that human beings are subsequently able to live.  Said differently, and in this respect allied with Kasper, Tanner following Saint Thomas emphasizes the categorical disparity between the essence of God and creation (Tanner and Kasper both depart from, however, the Thomistic or mostly Aristotelian confidence in reason for knowledge of natural law).  Grace therefore is made available because God dwells in human flesh with Christ making visible the incomprehensibility of God.  Even Christ’s perfect imaging itself of the divine nature incomprehensible.  As a result of humanity’s strong participation made possible only by the advent of the second person of the Trinity, human beings too can experience the sanctification that leads to this incomprehensible nature.  As a kind of “Christian version of the basically Platonic understanding of participation . . . all that derives from a perfect exemplar for that reason approximates it.”[xxvi] Nonetheless, the imaging of the divine by those who are not participating in Christ is quite weak.  One could even say that there is really no imaging happening at all in this case.  Strictly by merit of being a creature, however, people have intrinsic value that still appoints them to be participants in a faint sense.[xxvii] It is necessary for Tanner to stress this weakness in order for grace to be bestowed upon the world in spite of the absence of a desire for God.


Like Kasper, for Tanner the Holy Spirit has a critical role to play, but rather than applying what the imminent Trinity may or may not tell us about politics (unlike Moltmann, Volf, Boff, etc.), again, Christ is the key.  As with later statements in the book about the Trinitarian Life, Tanner asserts early on that, “By virtue of that Spirit within us, we come to lead informed lives in imitation of him.”[xxviii] Thus, “In being attached to Christ, we gain the power of the Spirit to renovate our lives,[xxix]” so justification takes precedence over sanctification.

By this attachment to Christ, human beings are justified because of what Christ is (righteousness) and not because of what we are.  For this reason, nothing about humanity in and of itself has to change in order to be justified.[xxx] God forgives through Christ’s emptying of equality with God and lowering himself to the status of an obedient servant, subjugated to the waywardness and rejection of society.  One could say the resurrection is God’s resounding “no” to death, and the power demonstrated therein provides the hope for a final consummation.  In a certain sense, Christ’s coming and life are atoning, whereas his death and resurrection are instructive, but Tanner is prudent not to polarize these respective meanings.  There is still something indispensably justifying and solidifying about Christ’s death.  It is the ultimate act of solidarity with human beings and a loud protest against their detestable situation.  The incarnation is therefore the process of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection and not one immediate, saving moment.  Conversely, the West has customarily construed saving significance vis-à-vis the cross either in the form of ransom, victory, or penal substitution.[xxxi]

Due to her commitment and sympathy to feminist criticism, Tanner is convinced that the many common appropriations of sacrificial imagery in the Bible are outdated and in urgent need of reinterpretation: “the death and suffering of an innocent victim, in and of themselves, are in no respect good; there is nothing saving about them as such.”[xxxii] Tanner finds no evidence for propitiation as contractual or as a byproduct of payment as a penalty for satisfaction in the ritual sacrifices of the Jewish temple services.  Instead of being practiced for reasons of a moral sort, Tanner argues that, “sacrifice is all about the establishment of communion and exclusion in social terms, and about how community is to be organized.”[xxxiii] There is a function in these sacrificial rites for wiping away fault or impurity, but the purpose is not to plead for mercy from a wrathful God.  God is already desirous of communion.[xxxiv] In other cases the sacrifices are for thanksgiving.  The full sway of her argument cannot be brought out here, but it is imperative to understand that in Tanner’s view, this is not some new theory.  She believes it is the oldest one.

Tanner states that the succeeding decline of the incarnational model in modern theology could be attributed in part to the concurrent distaste for “the Platonic reification of universal terms such as ‘humanity’”[xxxv] and the charge of Hellenization raised by Adolf Harnack and Protestant Liberalism.  She appears to successfully counter this charge, however, and remarks further that rather it is likely the incorrectly assumed concentration of the theory on the birth of Christ over and against his death that turns people away – a criticism already addressed above.


An ecumenical spirit is much more recognizable in Kasper than in Tanner, especially with regard to reconciling divergent ideas on the Trinity (East vs. West or Barth vs. Rahner) or between contrasting conceptions of human nature and grace. While Tanner probably holds some kind universal or, at minimum, collective position on salvation, her low view of humanity’s orientation to the divine requires a correspondingly low view of other world religions.  Kasper’s willingness to maintain a hint of natural human inclination toward God, however limited, enables him to posit a more optimistic anthropology.

Kasper’s soteriology on the other has a trace of mystery to it.  Tanner is more straightforward insofar as she is christocentric and stresses the incarnation.  According to Kasper, because humanity seeks freedom and fulfillment, a process of interiorly opening oneself to this truth brings about a posture of faith in response to the revelation of God’s self-communicating love as portrayed in Christ’s sacrificial love.[xxxvi] Salvation is not earned but mysteriously gifted.  For Kasper, like Pannenberg, the basic form of faith is not to believe some thing (concept) but to believe someone – that is, to trust God.  This is what Pannenberg juxtaposes with humanity’s inherent yearning and reaching for control.[xxxvii] Trusting implies moving toward and depending upon something.  It also includes risk.  In short, it is to give up control or mastery of both one’s own existence and that of others (something Tanner capably characterizes in her treatment of ethical, political and social implications for the Christian life).[xxxviii] Kasper, however, because he explicitly strives to refute modern atheism, could be indicted for positing dogma precisely where reliance on a better reinterpretation of natural law and analogy would fortify his admittedly polemic rhetoric.[xxxix]

Tanner on the other hand, despite what is an otherwise a lucid explanation, does not sufficiently support her conclusions on the topic of sacrifice in the ancient world.  To the extent that she intends to show why focusing on “the death of Christ to the exclusion of attention to the social and political circumstances that surround it”[xl] is off-based and thereby dethrone this view, she obviously succeeds.  Regarding the perfectly sensible wish to expunge all seemingly atoning significance embedded in the event of the crucifixion and to  the apparent biblical references to such significance, however, there is much wanting.  At one instance her argument boils down to the following declaration: “Propitiation is not the reason why the rite wipes away sin; no real explanation is offered.  God simply wants to reinstate God’s people to full communion with God and this is what God tells God’s people to do in such cases.”[xli] While Tanner is clearly not naïve about this, if there is any hope of overturning what has for better or worse been the foundation of the Christian faith for millions of people since Luther and Calvin, a feat like this would require a far more extensive and less sentimental investigation.  Others have sought to refute penal substitution more convincingly,[xlii] but in circles where the authority of Scripture in undisputed, though such an undertaking is doubtful to be forcefully realized without painstaking effort.

The exegetical questions aside, one relatively major concern for some will be the question of what exactly is being forgiven in Tanner’s constitution of both atonement and human nature.  If the term sin has any reference to actual wrongdoings (maybe for Tanner it does not), one gets the impression that what is forgiven is not sin but the condition of separation – separation from participation in or attachment to God – which if anything only need be blamed on God, since for Tanner we have no “natural” desire for God and thus can’t be culpable.  This  outlook would be permissible only if either (1) one felt that judgment for specific sins committed by individuals, however atrocious, was unnecessary, or if (2) the testimony of Scripture and the Christian tradition could defensibly be shown to not promise some kind of repayment to evildoers in the eschaton, even if such punitive action were only provisionary and pacifying.

Tanner goes to great lengths to distinguish herself from the contemporary Catholic position of human nature by accusing it of failing to uphold the integrity of gratuitousness (God’s grace), precisely because it maintains a spectrum between natural and supernatural grace.  Though the distinction should not be reduced to a level of ambivalence, it seems to me that Tanner’s insistence on this discrepancy is moderately unsubstantiated.  Supposing that, as many Catholics believe, human nature did somehow naturally entail an identifiable desire for relationship with God that could potentially direct one toward God apart from supernatural grace, wouldn’t Tanner still have to admit that it is God who orchestrates this natural desire in the first place, rendering the alleged divide between nature and grace to be something of an allusion – much in the same way for instance that some evangelicals want to distinguish between micro and macroevolution?  Tanner herself concedes that humility before God is the proper attitude regardless of humanity’s sinful or severed condition.  In my judgment, while the resistance to anything resembling a works-based soteriology is warranted, the apparent chasm between sanctification and justification might be, in spite of historical (the selling of indulgences for instance) or biblical justification (Ephesians 2:8), a bit reactionary or invented.[xliii] Why else could one find such resemblance of strong participation in adherents to other faith traditions if humanity was not at least fragmentarily disposed to God?  Case in point is Pannenberg’s characterization of human nature as at once open to God/world/future and yet egocentric.[xliv]

Interestingly enough, such an alternative reading of justification language in Scripture is quite compatible with the incarnational model of atonement espoused by Tanner.[xlv] Moreover, for someone who depends mostly upon the classical tradition for a depiction of historical Christianity, her doctrine of justification sounds surprisingly like one birthed out of the Reformation.  She is Barthian and obviously Protestant in this regard, but her formulation and utilization of key aspects from both traditions (the Reformed and Eastern) should be praised and appreciated, as it accomplishes something anew and is truly constructive.  But while Tanner’s methodological approach to theology from above is not philosophically developed or defended on historical grounds like that of Kasper, she should not be accused of being extraneous or impractical.  For example, she made this startling assertion in a recent publication: “Theologians are now primarily called to provide not a theoretical argument for Christianity’s plausibility, but an account of how Christianity can be part of the solution—rather than part of the problem—on matters that make a life-and-death difference to people, especially the poor and the oppressed,” implying that “Theology’s closest analogue can no longer be a perennial philosophy.”[xlvi]

In this brief and rough comparison it may seem that the differences in the soteriology and anthropology of these two theologians outweigh any similarities elsewhere; but in my reading, the reverse is true.  In effect, I see their respective endeavors as complimentary.  The unifying themes found in Kasper and Tanner in my assessment are threefold: (1) a willingness to think critically about the Christian tradition and even amend it without dismissing it altogether, (2) a reinvigoration of God’s otherness and ineffability without reduction to absolute negation or inaccessibility, and (3) the courage to hold the Christian faith to a standard of historical contingency (though they do this in very different ways).  On this last point, like Pannenberg, Kasper and Tanner agree that “The Christian tradition opens a free view for the future of the world in the light of God’s future, yet does not rob men of an orientation to the richness of the forms of life in earlier times.”[xlvii] In other words, Tanner and Kasper exhibit in masterful form what Pannenberg describes as the balance between devotion to tradition and revolution.  There is unity amidst the diversity, maybe even as a direct result of the diversity,[xlviii] and working from the classical doctrine of God and Christology with contemporary yet faithful modifications may be the crux that conserves an authentic expression of faith in both of their accounts.

[i] Walter Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ (Crossroad Publishing Company, 1986), 47.

[ii] Anthony J. Godzieba, “Ontotheology to Excess : Imagining God without Being.,” Theological Studies 56, no. 1 (March 1, 1995): 3.

[iii] Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, 268.

[iv] John H. Wright, “The God of Jesus Christ,” Theology Today 43, no. 1 (April 1, 1986): 108.

[v] John R. Sachs, “The God of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 54, no. 2 (June 1, 1986): 354.

[vi] Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, 54.

[vii] Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being: Hors-Texte (University Of Chicago Press, 1995), 54.

[viii] See José Miguel García Pérez, “El Dios de Jesucristo,” Estudios eclesiásticos 61, no. 239 (October 1, 1986): 453. “El misterio cristiano de la Trinidad no sólo ofrece una respuesta, sino que ilumina y contribuye a profundizar en la pregunta.”

[ix] Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, 37.

[x] Ibid., 31.

[xi] Ibid., 44.

[xii] Ibid., 115.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid., 113.

[xvi] Ibid., 184.

[xvii] Ibid., 111.

[xviii] Ibid., 316.

[xix] Ibid., 129.

[xx] Ibid., 176.

[xxi] Ibid., 122.

[xxii] Ibid., 130.

[xxiii] Ibid., 120.

[xxiv] Ibid., 316.

[xxv] Wolfhart Pannenberg and Duane A. Priebe, What Is Man? Contemporary Anthropology in Theological Perspective. (Fortress Press, 1970), 76.

[xxvi] Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key, Current issues in theology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 9.

[xxvii] Ibid., 10.

[xxviii] Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, 25.

[xxix] Tanner, Christ the Key, 87.

[xxx] Ibid., 86.

[xxxi] Ibid., 248.

[xxxii] Ibid., 252.

[xxxiii] Ibid., 265.

[xxxiv] Ibid., 264.

[xxxv] Ibid., 258.

[xxxvi] Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, 105.

[xxxvii] Pannenberg and Priebe, What Is Man?

[xxxviii] See Kathryn Tanner, Economy of Grace (Fortress Press, 2005).

[xxxix] Elizabeth A. Johnson, “The God of Jesus Christ,” Horizons 12, no. 2 (Fall  1985 1985): 402.

[xl] Tanner, Christ the Key, 265.

[xli] Ibid., 264.

[xlii] See S. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006).

[xliii] See James D. G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul, Revised. (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007).  Also defending this perspective would be such New Testament scholars as Krister Stehdahl, E.P. Sanders, Richard B. Hays, Ben Witherington, and N.T. Wright.

[xliv] Pannenberg and Priebe, What Is Man?, 76.

[xlv] Kathryn Tanner, “Incarnation, cross, and sacrifice: a feminist-inspired reappraisal,” Anglican Theological Review 86, no. 1 (December 1, 2004): 35-56.

[xlvi] Kathryn Tanner, “Christian claims: how my mind has changed,” Christian Century 127, no. 4 (February 23, 2010): 41.

[xlvii] Pannenberg and Priebe, What Is Man?, 136.

[xlviii] Ibid., 86.