Kathryn Tanner's Three Principles of a Theological Economy

In her book Economy of Grace, Kathryn Tanner posits that "every theological category and topic is of direct economic import . . . every Christian idea about God and the world is directly and from the first an economic doctrine" (1). Furthermore, it is Tanner's contention that "one of the most salient features of the wider world, especially in our day, is its economic character" (2). Because of this, Tanner contends that Christianity must work towards appropriate theological responses to the economic systems of this world, evaluating them in light of our theological doctrines, and positing constructive alternatives wherever these economic systems fall short of our theological ideals.

While Tanner's short book is certainly not free from critique, the strength of her work comes near the end of her second chapter where she lays out three principles of what a theological economy ought to look like. In what follows, all I want to do is to draw our attention to each of these principles, as I believe that the breadth of these principles provides ample opportunity for further reflection on what a theological economy ought to look like.

1. Unconditional Giving

Tanner's first principle is unconditional giving. For her, "If human relations are structured in a way that reflects the character of God's own giving, they should be marked by unconditional giving" (63). Tanner's principles are modeled upon an idea of God's extravagant and ever-present grace, and because God gives this grace ubiquitously, all that we have is a gift from God. Any lack is not a result of God, but our sin, for "the loss of what we might have enjoyed is not God's punishment of us, but the natural consequence of our turning away from and refusing what God is offering us for our good" (65). For Tanner, "the point of God's giving is the world's benefit, and not God's. God is trying to communicate the goodness of God's own life outward to what is not God" (67). Thus, as God has given for the benefit of all people, we respond to God's grace by extending this act of giving for the benefit and betterment of all people.

2. Universal Giving

Very closely related to the first is Tanner's second principle of universal giving. "God's giving as creator is universal in scope; everything that exists benefits" (72). In God's giving, categories of distinction becomes obsolete, as "God simply gives to those in need, in order to address every respect in which they are needy, without concern for anything they especially are or have done to deserve it" (72). Thus, as God has given universally, Christians must hold our goods as gifts of God, which means "recognizing God's efforts to give similarly to all others" (73). Ultimately, "nothing can stand in the way of a common right of access becoming a common right to actual possession and enjoyment" (73). Because of this, our good works are not owed to God, but to the world. For Tanner, there is "an unconditioned obligation to give on our part because God's unobligated or gracious giving to the world is unconditioned by any differences of merit; God's giving only follows need, to the end of a complete distribution of the goods of God to all" (74). As in her first principle, Tanner insists that in a theological economy, we must give to others in the same way that God has first given to us.

3. Noncompetition in a Community of Mutual Benefit

Tanner's final principle is noncompetition in a community of mutual benefit. While Tanner's first two principles are relatively straightforward, they will not come to fruition without an assumed level of noncompetition. For Tanner, in a theological economy, everyone benefits. Thus, "there is no competition in property or possession," and "there is no competition between having oneself and giving to others" (76). This is because, as we saw in the first two principles, God's giving is for all people, unconditionally. It is worth quoting Tanner at length to see the full thrust of her argument:

All this property which is ours as creatures in this very strong sense is never simply ours in that it remains inseparable from God's giving of it. God's giving is never a finished fact, with an end product that goes its own way, giving completed in the given. Instead, we remain constantly dependent upon God for all that we are and have as creatures. We exist and have what we have as creatures only as God continues to hold all this up into existence, so to speak, only to the extent that God continues to give us all those things. In a new twist on the same general pattern, we genuinely have the gift of eternal life in Christ - it is ours to enjoy - but not in and of ourselves as some kind of new 'supernatural' human property that we have acquired for ourselves. Eternal life, as a divine property, just cannot become a natural property of human beings in that way. We have eternal life only insofar as we are one with Christ, in a close relationship with him that allows us to draw upon what is proper to Christ as the divine word incarnate. In sum, our coming to be and to act independently of God is never the ground of our becoming ourselves and making things our own. We are our own and have for our own only as what we are and have remain God's own (81).

For Tanner, individuals do not receive from God as isolated entities. Rather, it is in our common humanity that we receive together from God. Together, we participate in the good gifts of God, giving and receiving as anyone has need. 

Tanner's principles can likely be summarized in the following: "The whole point of God's dealings with us as creator, covenant partner, and redeemer in Christ is to bring the good of God's very life into our own. Our lives participate in that divine mission and thereby realize the shape of God's own economy by giving that follows the same principle: self-sharing for the good of others." A theological economy ought to be good news for all people, not simply for the rich and powerful. By recognizing Tanner's principles of a theological economy, we can work towards an economy by which all people benefit.

What would such an economy look like? Tanner has some of her own ideas, which she explicates in her final chapter. But I am more interested in hearing from you. What do you think such an economy would look like like? Is Tanner on to something here, or has she missed the mark? Does she go too far? Does she go far enough? What do you have to say?