Tanner Talk 2 In What Sense is Tanner an Anglican Theologian?

Taner Talk 2

In What Sense is Tanner an Anglican Theologian 

This is our second talk on Kathern Tanner, and our question is, in what sense is Tanner an Anglican theologian.  The question arises because Tanner identified her chief influences as “the early Greek Father’s … Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, the Reformers, Karl Rahner, Karl Barth and some contemporary figures of Eastern Orthodoxy.”  Anglican theologians are notably absent from her list unless one might be included in the category of “Reformers.”  This impression is reenforced by the general absence of references to Anglican theologians across her extensive writings.

But providing an answer to this question is not easy for it is difficult to identify Anglican Theology and those who are to be counted as its theologians.  The Anglican communion has not been noted for its theologians, but for its preachers, poets, and scholars whose work in the historical fields of scripture, patristics, liturgics, and spirituality, is highly regarded.

Richard A. Norris Jr, a noted Episcopal historian of eighties and nineties, provided his list of Anglican theologians at time when he alleged, “everyone is busy talking about the heart or soul or spirit of Anglicanism.”  He went on to argue that it was odd that the great fashioners and interpreters of that tradition—are almost uniformly out of print and unavailable. He continued with a list, Hooker, Pearson, Maurice, Gore, Westcott, Scott-Holland, DuBose, Temple, and Austin Farrer.”  Not long after that Stephen Sykes, late the Bishop of Durham, in his Spirit of Anglicanism, published in 2008, also lamented the state of Anglican Theology and called for the writing of “a distinctly and self-consciously Anglican systematic theology.”   Sykes, were he alive, would be a far more qualified than I to answer the question of whether or not Tanner has done so.

Given the lack of definitive resource, I will rest on my own sense, that there is,  if unwritten, an Anglican Theology and that it’s distinctive mark is a focus on the incarnation. At the time of my formation, it would have been commonplace to identify Anglican Theology as incarnational.  John Booty, an Episcopal church historian at the time, supports this view.  In a forward to the works of John Donn in the series, Classic of Western Spirituality, referenced William J Wolf, and his book “In the Spirit of Anglicanism.”  Wolf, he tells us, wrote “that an incarnational piety has always dominated Anglicanism. Anglicanism has, in a way, appropriated the feast of the Nativity as a celebration of its own particular ethos.”

Anglicans chose, early on, to put the incarnation at the center of their theology as a means of separating themselves from Western theologies, Protestant and Roman Catholic, which were centered on the question of salvation, on soteriology and opposed to Christology.  These theologies were focused on how an individual is saved: by grace, which comes by means of faith and/or obedience.  These theologies produced a sterile and hostile debate which Anglicans thought was preventing and/or warping the process of change, so urgently needed in the church at that time.

From this choice came three significant corollaries. The first corollary involves history.  With the incarnation, God has assumed history.  This results in the obligation for theology to address history.  Theology cannot, by means of dogmatic claims or ideals, exempt itself from doing history.  The second corollary involves community. The continuation of the incarnation, the saving event, is community, the saving mediation.  The community is the-sacrament!  It grounds all other discrete sacraments and preaching.  The third corollary has to do with nature. With the incarnation God assumed not only human history but also all of the natural world.  It follows that reality itself is a sacrament, at least potentially.  This has been represented by the common Anglican teaching that we live in a sacramental universe.

 Our question then is in what way does this fit what Tanner does. We need to be aware as we look for evidence that the nature of a systematic theology is to be universal. In other words, we should not expect a systematic theologian to wear on their sleeves the stripes of a local identity.  A systematic theology is by definition a search for universal rules to govern theological statements.  It aspires to being outside of the local, not to replace it, but to serve it.

Anglican Theology is essentially local.  It has never been the position of the Anglican Church that it was the universal church.  Its position has consistently been that it was the error of the Church of Rome, a local church, to take its doctrines and liturgy to be universal. A position, it should be noted, that has been greatly modified by Vatican II.  What the Anglican perspective asked was that Rome’s relationship with other churches should be one of mutual respect. 

This is not the same as saying all theology must be local. To the extent that the Anglican Communion has not produced systematic theology, is not to be taken as it is sometimes to be a virtue, but an accident and/or a matter of indolence.  A viable systematic has a role in mediating the relationship between local communities. Our question is then whether or not there is a fit between the rules governing Tanner’s systematic and the substance of Anglican Theology. Does her theology put the incarnation at the center of the theological enterprise?  Does it own the need for theology to be invested in historical enquiry?  Does community precede individual in the mediation of salvation? Does reality itself take on a sacramental role?

We can begin then by noting that the center of Tanner’s systematic is the book entitle Christ the Key, published in 2010.  This provides prima facie evidence the incarnation is the center of her theology. Ahead of its publication, Tanner previewed it in Jesus, Humanity and Trinity, 2001, saying that “This book sketches a  systematic theology that centers on Jesus Christ and the meaning of his life for the world.  (p. 1.}  She further defines this systematic, arguing that it would be based on,

“an understanding that incarnation was the essential means of grasping the Christian matter, from which it follows that Christianity is historical (local not universal), and it is experienced in community by means of being assumed individually and personally by Christ.  Salvation is not something done for us but is something worked in us by means of this assumption.”  

She continues by clarifying how this assumption unites us with Christ: “in hearing the Gospel as an irrevocable call for a transformed life, in being baptized, in being lifted up in the Eucharist to Christ in order to go with him to the Father … to make Christ the center or axis of all that we do with the Spirits help.”

She identifies her Christology with the Christology of Council of Chalcedon and more particularly with the Alexandrian interpretation of the council, frequently citing Athanasius.  (JHT p. 20) Noting that there has been a modern tendency to prefer an “Antiochian” interpretation Chalcedon which emphasizes the humanity of Jesus, and that while “there is evidence of a slighting of Jesus’s humanity by the early Greek or Alexandrian theological traditions,”  she argues that it is less than one might think and that  “working from aspects of this long tradition of incarnational thinking—the early Greek Fathers up through the sixth century, Thomas Aquinas, Karl Raher, Karl Barth and some contemporary figures of the Eastern Orthodoxy – one can recuperate the emphasis in the early creeds on the divinity of Christ.”

The consequence of Tanner’s position is that no doctrine or theological statement is exempt from history.  Inevitably, theological discussion must sort through it history in order reprise the theological element to be relocated in a new historical setting.   This has been an Anglican position from its beginnings whether in dialogue with a Protestant or Roman Catholic orthodoxy. It was also the key issue confronting the Roman Catholic theologians preparing for and counselling the Second Vatican Council.  Chief among these was Karl Rahner.  Dogma was presented as having escaped history by means, among other things, papal definition.  Carefully its doctrine had to be contextualized in its past history which made it possible to re-contextualize in its contemporary history making change possible.  This was the labor of Rahner’s famous “Questions in Dispute,” which Tanner identifies as significant for her own thinking.

When we come to the way salvation is shared with us, Tanner places the initiative with the incarnate Christ.  Christ assumes us.  “We are united with Christ after the fact of our existence as a kind of second creation, a second birth or adoption to be the Son of God’s own in Christ.” 

“Baptized, for example, into Christ, initiates a struggle to shore up our oneness with him: the character and the quality of our union with Christ must be bettered, heightened from weak union to strong, for example, through the repeated performance of the Eucharist in the power of the Spirit.” (JHT p.54)


In the Eucharist,” we offer up the things of the earth for the Father’s blessings through Christ so that they become new for our renewed sustenance; we are empowered to do so in and with Christ who has already taken up the things of the earth by assuming our body in all its fragile connections with the natural world.” (JHT p. 58) 

If the Incarnation according to Tanner engages us with history, it also results in community that is essentially sacramental.  This reaches out into the natural world itself, which is understood sacramentally. 

        More could be said, but at this point I am ready to conclude that there is a substantial fit between what we have identified as the marks of Anglican Theology and Tanner’s Systematic Theology. I feel at home in it. More than I would in that of Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Wolfgang Panneburg or Karl Rahner. How much Tanner owes to Anglican Theology for her own theology, is not so easily concluded.  As we have pointed out, her writings are silent on this question. Her journey though American academic life would done little to reinforce an Anglican Theology or reward her for referencing it. As a result, we will limit our conclusion to a question, how could she have arrived at her mature theology without it?

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