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The God of the GospelScott R. Swain, The God of the Gospel: Robert Jenson’s Trinitarian Theology (Strategic Initiatives in Evangelical Theology; Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013). Paperback, pp.258.*

This volume belongs to a wider series (Strategic Initiatives in Evangelical Theology) intended to “foster interaction within the broader evangelical community and advance discussion in the wider academy around emerging, current, groundbreaking, or controversial topics.”

This particular volume is related (though distinct) to its author’s (Scott Swain) PhD dissertation from TEDS in 2002. Swain has made a helpful contribution to the study of the inner trinitarian life by careful engagement with the work of the under-appreciated theologian Robert Jenson. In order to frame the work of Jenson, Swain begins with a critical discussion of work of Karl Barth (and Barth’s context) as providing the initial conversation for Jenson’s own project. Swain’s guiding question is stated as follows: “[T]rinitarian theology after Barth demands that a consistently evangelical doctrine of God wrestle with the implications of divine election and divine incarnation for the being of God’ (32). Thus, how do we know God as God? In what manner is the economic trinity (in election and incarnation) revelatory of the inner being of the trinity?

In Barth (as in Jenson), Jesus Christ is both object and subject of God’s election. For Jenson, the “grammar” of God is historicized in the event of Jesus Christ and it could not be otherwise. What is considered innate to God’s inner being can only be known in the revelation the man Jesus Christ who was both endowed with God’s Spirit as God’s Son. In the electing and election of Jesus, God is revealed wholly: Father, Son, and Spirit. This means a historicized boundedness for the knowledge of God and more than simply the knowledge of God, but also the very being of God. What is revealed is what is reality with God’s own being. The act of God reveals the being of God, but not as if this can be known from the beginning, but only with anticipation of the consummation. This is the essential premise of Jenson’s project and thus what Swain lays out in the context of the OT, NT, and dogmatic story (each of which form a chapter with the last being separated into the trinitarian structure of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”). He closes the framing of Jenson’s work with a brief but specific discussion of the current leading Barthian scholar Bruce McCormack’s work in relation to developing the theological reflection of Karl Barth on this topic. This at least allows for an alternate voice attempting to follow and answer the question of BarthThroughout his project, Swain attempts to carefully articulate the proposals of Barth, Jenson and McCormack all the while offering his own brief comments toward the direction he believes the conversation should go.

The key features to note in the theology of Jenson (which Swain elicits well) is the narrative approach to understanding and confessing God as God. Any abstractions are (at the least attempted to be) put aside and a careful reading of the story of God with and on behalf of Israel (specifically the Exodus story as paradigmatic) and as true Israel (specifically the story of Jesus). This narrative trinitarian approach is helpful in recognizing the storied nature of God’s self-revelation, but for Swain it fails to address the true ontic relationship of God’s self and instead only appeals to the economic trinitarian (pro nobis) relations, but not fully to the in se of God’s being. For Jenson, the Gospel’s God is God in God’s true inner being…what one finds in Jesus as the Son of the Father and the baptizer in the Spirit is who God truly is and none other. Swain argues against this reading of the Scriptures because of the difficulty suggested by the potentially contingent nature of God’s inward being if it is dependent upon creation, redemption, and re-creation. This is certainly a dilemma that needs addressing, and Jenson has attempted to do so in his later writings (which Swain notes throughout).

Outline

Introduction

1. The Question stated

2. The State of the Question

Part One: Robert Jenson on the Gospel’s God

3. The Way of God’s Identity According to the Old Testament

4. The Way of God’s Identity According to the New Testament

5. The Triune Identity

Part Two: Toward a Catholic and Evangelical Account of the Gospel’s God

6. ‘A Father to You’: God’s Fatherly Self-Determination in the Covenant of Grace

7. Immanuel: The Son of God’s Self-Identification with Humanity in the Incarnation

8. ‘Deluged with Love’: The Spirit and the Consummation of Trinitarian Fellowship

9. Grace and Being: Bruce McCormack on the Gospel’s God

Conclusion

10. Concluding Reflections on the Question

A few reflections:

Swain’s work offers a helpful contribution to the doctrine of God and an overdue appraisal of Jenson’s theological contributions to theology proper and dogmatics specifically. Swain is to be commended for this work. Trying to appropriate the narrative theological work of Jenson contributes to a more well-rounded appraisal of the revelation of God given in the Scriptures testifying to this God in Christ Jesus. It is hoped that more theologians and Biblical scholars will similarly take such care in reading Scripture to discern the contours of God’s being and move away from philosophical speculations which have tended to obscure the God of the Gospel for some God of creative philosophical imaginations.

The style of writing is definitively for trinitarian scholars and few others. It is doubtful that this volume would prove helpful to students unless they are either very well-versed in trinitarian dogmatics (and its concomitant language) or have ready access to a theological dictionary. The use of untranslated Latin terms throughout the project does not lend itself readily to a wider readership. It is certainly understandable that such terms were not translated (as this would just add further to the bulk of the book), but some sort of footnoted translation would have been helpful as well as perhaps some glossary of terms.

There were a number of errata which should have been corrected: footnote 47 double cited on page 27, double “that” p.61.

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*I received a copy of this book to review from IVP Academic (for which I am grateful), but I was not financially compensated in any way. The opinions expressed are my own and are based on my observations while reading this volume.

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CBD Academic has a blog well worth reading where there was a guest review of Eric Metaxas’ “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” by Bonhoeffer scholar Joe McGarry (Aberdeen University).  In it, he gives credit to Metaxas for his ability to craft a book that has become a NYTimes best seller about a dead German theologian (something I am truly happy about and is a masterful feat for anyone).    The issues that McGarry raises against Metaxas presentation of Bonhoeffer essentially come down to whom Metaxas has written his book for: the general public.  I will give a brief summary of my own in what follows (since it was a rather lengthy critique).

The problem isn’t that he wrote it for the general public (I for one am delighted to have more people interested in Bonhoeffer), but that he presents a Bonhoeffer who does not seem to quite match the Bonhoeffer of Bonhoeffer’s own writings.  Two things that I will mention in particular that McGarry notes in his review (and they are ‘small’ but not unimportant matters in the wider scheme of Bonhoeffer studies): the influences upon Bonhoeffer’s theology and the language of Bonhoeffer.

Concerning the former, Metaxas has seemed to over-emphasize the place of the Abyssinian Baptist Church of Harlem as influencing Bonhoeffer (while neglecting the possible…even likely influence of Neibuhr and Bonhoeffer’s fellow students while he was at Union).  He also plays up the influence of Karl Barth on the theology of Bonhoeffer…something I’m not altogether unconvinced of and think may be an area that has perhaps been neglected in Bonhoeffer studies in the past.  But McGarry in his critique is right to note that while Barth played a part in shaping Bonhoeffer, yet Luther was ALWAYS paramount to the thinking of Bonhoeffer (whether explicitly or implicitly).  Bonhoeffer seemed to continuously think in Lutheran categories and was thoroughly engaged in an internal Lutheran theological dialogue.  Metaxas’ book seems to miss all of this (or at least to diminish it).  This is something that the general reader who has no familiarity with Bonhoeffer would simply not know, but should.

The other issue that McGarry notes is Metaxas’ use of “God” in place of “Christ” in the thinking of Bonhoeffer.  While this may seem a nit-picky thing to a non-theologian…it is a major issue when one spends time with Bonhoeffer who was radically Christo-centric in all of his writings.  Bonhoeffer, does not often speak generically of the relation to “God”, but always to “Christ”.  For Bonhoeffer, Christ was the very center and essence of all that gives meaning to God (not as fully expressive of all that is God, but that we only encounter God through Jesus Christ our Lord).  This, again, might easily escape the general reader of this otherwise wonderfully written biography (not that there aren’t other things to take some issue with, but they are all minor).

I would still say that if you haven’t yet read “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy”…you need to…whether you have read any of Bonhoeffer’s other works or not.  He simply is one of those saints of the Church that we would do well to know better…and Eric Metaxas has done the Church a favor by making Bonhoeffer accessible and interesting to a wider audience.

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his little work entitled Life Together wrote about the Reformed perspective of “alien righteousness” (“fremde Gerechtigkeit”) which in Luther’s doctrine of justification was extra nos.[1] He explained the need, based upon this doctrine of “alien righteousness,” for community and the spoken Word of Christ.

If they are asked ‘Where is your salvation, your blessedness, your righteousness?,’ they can never point to themselves. Instead, they point to the Word of God in Jesus Christ that grants salvation, blessedness, and righteousness. They watch for this Word wherever they can. Because they daily hunger and thirst for righteousness, they long for the redeeming Word again and again. It can only come from the outside. In themselves they are only destitute and dead. Help must come from the outside; and it has come and comes daily and anew in the Word of Jesus Christ, bringing us redemption, righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. But God put this Word into the mouth of human beings so that it may be passed on to others. When people are deeply affected by the Word, they tell it to other people. God has willed that we should seek and find God’s living Word in the testimony of other Christians….They need them again and again when they become uncertain and disheartened….They need other Christians as bearers and proclaimers of the divine word of salvation.[2]

While I’ve been reading and reflecting on a recent book (Justified in the Spirit: Creation, Redemption and the Triune God; Eerdmans 2010) by Frank Macchia I was struck by the utterly non-pneumatic presence of Bonhoeffer’s statements.  So close and yet so far away.  What Bonhoeffer has to say rings true, but it should be added that we speak as the Church by the will and word of the very Spirit of Christ.  It is not simply a speaking words from the book which is the Bible.  That would not be “God’s living Word.”

The extra nos righteousness of Luther seems to fail to do justice (pun intended?) to the inward justifying of the Spirit within the believer in the very midst of the believing and confessing community.  I believe Bonhoeffer has in some ways redeemed Luther in this (though I haven’t read Luther so thoroughly that he may in fact do so himself) by reminding the Church that we speak the Word of God as righteousness…one to another.  We confess the forgiveness of sins as fully granted.  A community that is redeemed and redeeming by the Spirit which cries aloud “Abba, Father!” that others may believe and take heart.  That we may believe and take heart…together having been justified we may also be glorified with our Lord Jesus Christ.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer et al., Life Together; Prayerbook of the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 31fn10.

[2] Ibid., 32.

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I was doing some further reading in Barth for a paper I’m writing on Tom Wright (makes perfect sense doesn’t it???) and happened upon this gem that was related to the topic I was researching in a round-about-manner.  I’m researching Wright’s view of justification and the relation to the “cry of the Spirit” (Rom.8:15; Gal.4:6) and how this works out into a fuller pneumatological doctrine of justification.   I’m working on this project because it seems that too often the Spirit has been relegated to a second-tier role (at best) in justification, but Wright suggests this should be otherwise and I believe he suggests this correctly and pursue this idea further (hopefully beneficially).  Anyways here the quote:

It is not a twofold but a single fact that both Jesus Christ with His prayer and also the Holy Spirit with ‘unutterable groanings’ is our Mediator and Intercessor. This can and must be said both of Jesus Christ and of the Holy Spirit, and in both cases it concerns the one event of laying a foundation for prayer, i.e. for the cry, Abba, Father. It is He—Jesus Christ through the Spirit, the Spirit as the Spirit of Jesus Christ—who makes good that which we of ourselves cannot make good, who brings our prayer before God and therefore makes it possible as prayer, and who in so doing makes it necessary for us. For Jesus Christ is in us through His Spirit, so that for His sake, praying after Him as the one who leads us in prayer, we for our part may and must pray, calling upon God as our Father. And the Spirit who frees us for this and incites us to the power in which we are with Him the children of God and are addressed as such, so that irrespective of what we ourselves can offer and perform we can call God our Father and go to Him with our requests. (CD III.4.pg.94)

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My first recollection of Barth being mentioned: as a young man–possibly in Bible college, but I’m not sure–my dad told me that Barth was “a liberal”, which to my ears meant that he was very, very bad and mustn’t be read or listened to. The problem, as I recall, was that my dad thought that Barth didn’t think that the Bible was the word of God. Given the little I know about my dad’s theological and doctrinal leanings, he wasn’t likely to have read much Barth himself, taking second-hand information as fact.

Of course, I’m currently in that situation as well–most of my Barth knowledge is second-hand.

My dad’s claim came to mind again last year during one of Chris Holmes’ “Theological Foundations” classes. In one of the first classes of semester, we discussed the “threefold form of the Word,” which he took from Barth (who in turn took it from Calvin).  It looks like this, in order of importance:

  1. The Incarnate Word (that is, Jesus Christ himself)
  2. The written word (scripture)
  3. The proclaimed word (probably the broadest of the three, in that it includes the tradition and proclamation of the church and its people throughout history)*

This came up in a discussion of theological norms, and I take it that “theological norms” have to do with what is authoritative. If this is right, I can understand how, from my dad’s perspective, Barth might have a suspicious view of scripture. That is, from a fundamentalist/conservative** point of view, which seems to take the notion of sola scriptura much farther than originally intended, scripture is our only authority on matters of faith and doctrine. Bumping the written word to second place in a list delineating authority would understandably seem suspect.

I am, of course, sympathetic to this, because having Jesus as the ultimate authority gets a bit philosophically sticky, since the only representatives of Christ’s authority we have are scripture and the Holy Spirit, and the history of the church is evidence of the fact that Christians often don’t hear either representative very well. (Perhaps Barth will address this in CD.)

Nevertheless, the Christocentrism of Barth/Calvin’s view hit me like a ton of bricks. Even in its mystery and philosophical stickiness, it made a great deal of sense to someone like me, who was (is?) still working his way out of a very “Biblocentric” (as opposed to Christocentric) point of view.

I am only just beginning to understand the influence that Barth has had on the theological and pastoral world. And if his theology is indeed as Christocentric as it appears, well…wonderful!

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* According to my notes, this is from volume 1 of CD, so we should run across it relatively soon. (Relatively.)

** To be fair, I think my dad is fundamentalist/conservative only so far as a European can be.

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