A Review of Economy of Grace by Kathryn Tanner

[1] The final stage through which civilizations pass on their way to social dissolution, according to C. Northcote Parkinson, is “liberal opinion.” His point is that the great spiritual disease of any democratic society is the hegemony of a feeble sentimentality that weakens the thinking and will of its people. Parkinson avers: “What concerns our argument is not that the world’s do-gooders are mistaken but that their attitude is decadent. They are moved by sentiment rather than by reason and that is itself a symptom of decay. Still more to the point, their interest is solely in the present and for them, too, the future is merely the end.” [1]

[2] If the historian Parkinson’s insight is applied to the world of theological reflection, one must ask whether liberalism’s end result is the effective dissolution of all theology. Certainly, Kathryn Tanner’s latest book, Economy of Grace, causes a Lutheran to question the value of the interests currently occupying the time of academia.

[3] Tanner sets out with the noblest of intentions: her goal is to discover an alternative to global capitalism, with its attendant flaws, by searching the Christian Scriptures for a divine model of a better world arrangement. She believes she has found just such an economic option lying in wait in the great over-arching meta-narratives of the biblical record. It is the paradigm implicitly established by God in dealings with sinful humanity: a model of giving according to the needs of God’s children, and not in relation to work or reward or “just desserts.” Tanner’s end product is a prescription for an amorphous one-world arrangement in which a “guided” or “command” economy functions according to “Christian principles” of equity and common welfare.

[4] In this apology for a world re-made in the image of Marxist\feminist\liberationist ideals, Tanner draws upon the insights of deconstructionist analysis. Through this method, she professes to find parallels between the two realms of economics and Christian revelation. Having uncovered an “economic model” of the Christian story by means of this highly controversial approach to cultures and texts, she then proceeds to compare and contrast the biblical economy of grace with the current realities of our American, free-market economic system. It is apparent to her that God’s way of dealing with humans via creation\salvation\Great Commission is not only preferable to the familiar world of work and reward, but it is directly applicable to the project of changing the “capitalist” system that has us all in its death-hold.

[5] As a committed Lutheran in the evangelical-catholic mold, I have serious disagreements with Tanner’s understanding of what the gospel requires of the believer, and of the goal a Christian should have for society. First, Tanner appears to believe that human nature is malleable, changeable according to the social arrangements that nurture and harbor it. She obviously believes that the individual, under her recommended regime, would be non-competitive, co-operative, and selfless. (If that isn’t what she believes, then I earnestly hope she has made plans for really big, really secure dungeons for the recalcitrant!)

[6] But I – and Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther, Sts. Augustine and Paul, and a host of witnesses throughout the history of the Christian faith – think differently. Unlike the agreeable, imaginary denizens of Tanner’s utopia, we ordinary stiffs are confessed, abased, and ornery sinners. And there are better odds that all university faculties will tomorrow declare their undivided support for the war in Iraq than that anyone on my street will be sharing in the glorious harmony of an economy of grace. (Is this what Dr. Tanner’s father meant when he said she didn’t know the value of a dollar?)

[7] Being a Christian theologian ought to mean being willing to face with candor certain intractable problems. One of those “little bumps in the road of life” that a theologian should account for in any constructive theology is SIN. The “original” kind. You know, that nagging little blemish in your character that causes you to assert yourself above all others – even in theological debate – and that is never absent in your spirit, even for a tiny fraction of a second. What Augustine called the libido dominandi. What Luther knew as concupiscence: something that rears its ugly head especially when we are engaged in projects involving the control of others! No matter how much she wants to wish it away, Tanner must one day face this fact of Christian existence. I am afraid that the beautiful dream of Dr. Tanner comes up short against the stubborn reality of human nature, and that no amount of hoping can change it this side of the eschaton. “A culture which underestimates the problem of freedom and necessity in nature is bound to depreciate the reality of freedom in man. The modern man is, in short, so certain about his essential virtue because he is so mistaken about his stature… Hence he hopes for redemption, either through a program of social reorganization or by some scheme of education.” [2]

[8] But it is not only with regard to the nature of humankind, it is also Tanner’s irrepressible optimism for society that is disturbing from a Christian point of view. I detect in her work more than a trace of naive theological discourse merged with political utopianism; a mixture that has a strong family resemblance to the sectarian “enthusiasm” Luther encountered in his conflict with Thomas Munzer and the chiliastic prophets. In opposition to magisterial Reformation theology, this “spiritualist” talk about God ignores or despises Luther’s perceptive grasp of the “Two-fold Rule of God,” his law-gospel distinction, and his profound grasp of paradox. Without these, a public theology easily falls into the trap of mistaking the latest “progressive” idea for getting rid of bullies in school, outlawing “running up the score” in high school football, or forbidding selfishness by a new set of laws with the onset of the Kingdom of God. One can sympathize with those who desire a perfect world, but not with the willful ignorance of the tragic character of life. Contrary to anything Tanner would want, the attempt to apply the perfectionist ethic of Jesus to the rough and tumble world of social struggle can only lead to a crusader mentality on the part of zealots, or to the ultimate despair of the disappointed.

[9] Finally, a sectarian perspective upon reality results in an interpretation of scripture in which law is turned into gospel. Not only is Tanner’s deconstructionist interpretation alien to the nature of the Bible as the revelation from the world of eternity to this world of chaos, it also leads to an expectation that fulfilling God’s demands will bring about a perfect world, and deludes the believer into thinking that the extravagant love of God can be a guiding principle for ordering life in this world. Surely her goal of an economy of grace is inappropriate for redeemed sinners living under the merciful dispensation of God and awaiting the fulfillment of kingdom-promises.

[10] How to measure Tanner’s book? Truthfully, one would like to salute a theologian for attempting a systematic application of theological principles to hard-edge public issues. That is especially true when the theologian is as well-known as Kathryn Tanner for maintaining a rigorously anti-Pelagian thrust in her constructive work. For a Lutheran, this alone gives her work an immediate favorable reception. But, alas, it is not encomia which are merited by this small, yet sometimes dense, tract.

[11] Instead, Kathryn Tanner’s book forces the question about the current state of theology as practiced in institutions of higher learning which are held in thrall to the philosophical trends of the day. She approaches the task of deciphering a divinely sanctioned economic model in the Bible by using the method of “comparative analysis.” That is, Tanner chooses to frame theological concepts within a post-modernist semantic analysis. That is my way of contending that Weberian sociological analysis, the structural linguistics of Ferdinand Saussure, and the structural anthropology of Claude Levi-Strauss do not seem fit vessels for faithfully representing Christian faith to its critics.

[12] This kind of structural analysis has debilitating defects. First, it denies the importance of the individual and of humanist endeavors in altering the fate of society. In their place, the structuralists give primary place to the power of social structures to determine personal and social well-being. Hence, in interpreting texts, including the Bible, they look for the hidden role of social structures behind every passage.

[13] Worse, in my view, the hermeneutic of a deconstructionist is “anti-logocentric.” Philosophy and theology, which take words as referring to “real things out there,” are relegated to the sidelines as false consciousness. Those who accept this interpretive principle are willing to forego all claims to speaking about objective realities, or truth. Deconstruction sees this as a futile goal. Rather, the most one can aim for is to discover the duplicity of all texts, expose them for the frauds they are, and open the path for the interpreter to insert his grasp of reality upon the text in question. Is this honestly the best option for Christian public theology to take?

[14] Needless to say, Tanner’s approach to constructive theology is markedly controversial. As theologians in her camp look to cultural analysis and criticism rather than to philosophy as a dialogue partner for cross-disciplinary studies, there is every reason to expect the demise of theology. Her choice of a grammatical approach to doctrine removes all ontological or referential content for dogmatic statements. “Jesus is Lord” no longer says anything about the ontological status of the second Person of the Trinity. Rather, in her hands, it might say more about economic status of the person making the confession; or it may simply be a coded message containing the meta-narrative of Western culture, legitimating capitalist ideology.

[15] The end result is a truly disappointing read for someone wanting either a genuinely Christian view of present day world realities, or just a little inspiration for living each day with faith and integrity. Rather, what one receives is a dense book lacking the kind of theological wisdom or political maturity that a truly public theology would be expected to provide. We have been given a book slanted against a rational approach to economics and nursing antipathy toward traditional Christianity and the culture it has created in the West.

[16] One unanswered question is raised by the advent of this book on the current scene. What is driving the dissatisfaction with the present state of the world? A concomitant issue: why has theology forfeited its unique and priceless assignment to proclaim Jesus Christ and Him Crucified in favor of a social gospel? There is no denying that those occupying chairs of theology in our land are frequently – like Tanner – clearly unhappy with an American society in which people are free to work at what they choose, arrange their lives according to priorities others disagree with, and freely engage in business enterprises with their own talents, time, and money. It is a world, in their minds, totally out of whack: one that is dehumanizing, wasteful, and – worst of all – contrary to the will of God, as they have been given to understand it. So, they want to change it. Indeed, they believe that changing this state of affairs is more important than directly addressing the loss of a cosmic dimension to human self-understanding and the attendant crisis of antinomian nihilism which so beset Western civilization in our time. They spend themselves in “prophetic proclamation” about the practical effects of belief in God rather than doing the hard, creative, and truly constructive public theology of demonstrating “that religion is an intellectually credible path to the nature of ultimate reality, the character of nature and history, the nature and destiny of the human being, the character of human fulfillment, and a model for moral life.” [3]

[17] This book is an accurate marker of the state of the world in which we live.

Michael Shahan

Michael Shahan is Book Review Editor of Journal of Lutheran Ethics. A retired ELCA clergyman, Shahan does freelance writing from his Nashville home.