God and Creation in Christian Theology // Kathryn Tanner.


In this, her first book (actually dissertation-turned-book), Kathryn Tanner tackles one of the most head-throbbing debates of the Christian Tradition: Divine sovereignty vs free will. Are these really mutually exclusive positions? For many modern theologians (and laymen) it is absolutely the one or the other–any middle ground is incoherent. Ironically, though, Tanner calls the dichotomous divine sovereignty vs free will incoherent. (Very briefly) Below is how Tanner makes her meta-case.

First, the Christian Tradition has maintained coherence between God’s sovereign power and human will with a nuanced understanding of God’s (utter) transcendence based on God’s wholly otherness. Tanner draws on creatio ex nihilo and stakes two rules for coherent Christian discourse: (1) God is utterly transcendence and, therefore, (2) God is immediately related to creation. (Confused? So was I for a couple weeks and I barely understand it now. Here’s my best take: Since God is Creator and wholly other from creation, God is utterly transcendent. In other words, God and creation are not on the same playing field: they have a “noncompetitive relationship.” What follows is that God is immediately related to creation: because God is utterly transcendent, there is no need for a medium or middle ground for God to relate to creation. Thereby, God is both utterly transcendent and immediately immanent.)

Second, taking the two rules for discourse, Tanner shows how the divine sovereignty vs free will debate is fictitious because it betrays a competitive mindset. In that debate, God is brought down or humanity is brought up to equalize the playing field: what one does takes away from what the other is able to do. For free-will-ists, God and humanity are equal, so God must limit himself to make room for humanity’s free will. For divine-sovereign-ists, humanity’s free will is emptied to make room for God’s governance. Tanner closes by saying that both sides, sadly, works with a Pelagian mindset (Pelagius was one of the earliest and most infamous heretics who claimed that people can work their way into heaven or into receiving grace from God). Free-will-ists affirm what Pelagianism fights for, whereas divine-sovereign-ists reject the Pelagian man–not the Pelagianism mindset. Of course, not all those who side on either/or falls into incoherence–Tanner admits that. But this debate is popular in our modern time, therefore Tanner offers her critiques and recommendations–which should be carefully taken.

This book, more than her other ones, is much more technical. Caution is given to tread slowly: be prepared to be confused. But continue on, because the reward is refreshing. Theologians: Let us be vigorous meticulous with our language because they do matter.


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