22 January 2013

God and Creation in Christian Theology

A review of God and Creation in Christian Theology: Tyranny or Empowerment? by Kathryn Tanner (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988). (Originally written for Science and Christian Belief.)


How is it possible to affirm both absolute divine sovereignty and the existence of genuine freedom within the created order? For many people today this is simply not an option. Theologians and believing scientists alike carefully qualify the concept of divine sovereignty by, for example, referring to God’s respect for the created order. Alternatively, those who are concerned to maintain divine sovereignty at all costs are prepared to allow determinism to creep into their accounts of the created order. Both sides tacitly admit that traditional theological attempts to maintain both were mistaken.

Tanner denies that widespread modern conclusion. She argues instead that traditional theological discourse is coherent so long as it conforms to certain linguistic rules about the transcendence and creative agency of God. The bulk of this book is devoted to uncovering those rules at work in certain traditional theologies. In a concluding chapter she examines the reasons behind the belief that divine sovereignty and creaturely freedom are incompatible.

The approach adopted in the book is unashamedly linguistic. Tanner readily admits that ‘In studying theology I am concentrating, not on what theologians are talking about, but on the way they say it’ (p. 11). One effect of this approach is a pragmatic view of theology: it exists to help us live life in a ‘Christian’ way rather than to promote understanding of the object of our faith. The association of this semantic ascent with non-referential approaches to religious (and scientific) discourse may well render it uncongenial to conservative Christians (or, practising scientists). However, the linguistic approach does enable her to lay bare a variety of rules of discourse which, taken together, enable the theologian to affirm coherently both divine sovereignty and creaturely freedom.

Turning first to divine transcendence, she examines the difficulties created by this concept in the Hellenistic context of early Christian theology. Transcendence and divine agency appeared to be mutually exclusive. Neo-Platonic efforts to maintain both were only partially successful, resulting in an emanationist understanding of creation. Christian theology had to hold together belief in a radically transcendent God and in his intimate involvement with every aspect of the created order. Tanner perceives two rules of discourse at work in the theologies which developed in the face of this requirement: as regards transcendence, the theologian must ‘avoid both a simple univocal attribution of predicates to God and world and a simple contrast of divine and non divine predicates’; as regards God’s creative agency, we must ‘avoid . . . all suggestions of limitation in scope or manner’ (p. 47). Her argument is amply illustrated with analysis of particular theological cases, notably Aquinas and Barth.

She then repeats this procedure for Christian theological talk about the power and efficacy of creatures. At first sight the rule about divine agency appears to preclude talk about genuine creaturely freedom. However, Tanner maintains that in traditional theological discourse divine and creaturely power were not inversely but directly proportional: ‘If power and efficacy are perfections, the principle of direct proportion requires that creatures be said to gain those qualities, not in the degree God’s agency is restricted, but in the degree God’s creative agency is extended to them’ (p. 85). This fundamental rule is then developed in a variety of subsidiary rules defending the Christian doctrine of creation against tendencies to deism or occasionalism among other errors.

One implication of her theological functionalism and her linguistic bent becomes clear at this point. She argues that the rules she has uncovered are dipolar and, thus, a force for theological diversity. Specifically, Reformed and Roman Catholic theology are two sides of the same coin. They are functional complements arising from differences of emphasis within the rules of discourse for responsible Christian theology as a result of different cultural contexts. This will surely come as a surprise to many theologians on both sides of the divide. I venture to suggest that the reason for their surprise will be that, unlike Professor Tanner, they have not bracketed out the object of theology.

Tanner concludes her study with an analysis of what has gone wrong in the contemporary climate. Why does the suggestion that divine sovereignty and creaturely freedom are compatible meet with such resistance today? She argues that a complex of ideas and intellectual methods widely regarded as the legacy of the Enlightenment is responsible. The result is an intellectual milieu in which talk of creaturely freedom is most naturally interpreted in a Pelagian fashion while talk of divine sovereignty is understood as advocating divine tyranny. In such a situation, attempts to reaffirm the traditional Christian doctrine of providence are fraught with difficulties.

Once again, Tanner illustrates her analysis with historical examples. Her choice (the theology of Gabriel Biel and the de Auxiliis controversies) is interesting. Implicit in this choice is a denial that the Enlightenment is the chief source of our difficulties. The tendencies which came to fruition then were already at work before the birth of the Reformation.

Finally, Tanner does not leave us without hope. The problems analysed in her final chapter are not intractable. We do not have to give up traditional claims for a transcendent creator God in order to speak to late twentieth century western culture. On the contrary, there are forces within contemporary culture which will enable us to do what Christian theology has always done, namely, ‘fracture anew the language of the ordinary, so that traditional affirmations about God and the world come to hang together intelligibly once again’ (p. 169).

Stylistically, this book is far from easy. She writes in the opaque style beloved of American theologians and she assumes that her readers will have a good working knowledge of Christian theologies of creation. Nevertheless, what she has to say well repays the effort of reading her.

Setting aside my doubts about her theological functionalism and her tendency to focus upon the language of theology rather than its referents, I found this book fascinating. She does not offer us a Christian theology of creation and providence for the end of the twentieth century. However, her analysis of the rules of discourse lying behind traditional claims in these areas ought to be taken seriously by anyone who is working in this field.

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