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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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Snoopy TheologySo says Marc Vandersluys (who should be blogging this here, but instead I’m reblogging a snippet with a link 😉 ).

For many, “theology” is a field of the academic world, out of the mental reach of the average person, and not really all that valuable in day-to-day life. It’s certainly true that much of what is known as theology is often written in nearly impenetrable prose. In this respect it really is “the science of God”, because people who “do” theology for a living (I’ll call them “vocational theologians”) have created specialized terminology in order to make dialogue between vocational theologians a little simpler: they could string a bunch of verbs and adjectives together when talking about God or some concept relating to God, or they could come up with a single word that encapsulates all of them. The one-word option makes communication much less cumbersome and less confusing within the field, just like the latin names of plants and animals may be a more efficient form of communication for botanists and entomologists (or for me to say “entomologist” instead of “guy or girl who studies bugs”). But to the rest of us, this also makes theology seem like the exclusive field of vocational theologians.

But here’s the thing: theology is simply “thinking about God” or “words about God”. Theology is what we do when we try to come to grips with who God is or understand what God is doing in the world, when we ask “Who is God?” or “What is God like?”. And we all do this. All of us. Even you. When you say, “Jesus loves you,” you are doing theology; when you say “God is love,” you are doing theology; when you confess that “Jesus is Lord,” you are doing theology. Even if you say “There is no God” or “God doesn’t care about the world anymore,” you are in some sense doing theology….

Marc has quite a bit more which he shares (and you should read the rest), not least of which is why we should take care to think through doing the theology we all are doing anyways. He even manages to work in a discussion of Barth’s Church Dogmatics (which I joined him in mob-pressured purchasing…okay…so I may have been more the pressure-er rather than pressure-ee ©).  Great post Marc! Keep ’em coming!

And, yes, I did just “copyright” the terms “pressure-er” and “pressure-ee”…just protecting my personal intellectual property…or as I prefer to call it my “persintelperty” ©. Look at me…I’m a creative  etymologist. 🙂

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Barth and Jesus

You’ve heard the adage: “Jesus is the reason for the season” and perhaps are familiar with Andrae Crouch’s “Jesus Is The Answer“…well…here is perhaps Karl Barth’s bumper-sticker theology (could we even say the summation of his 10,000 page unfinished Kirchliche Dogmatik).

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Mike Bird posted a video interview with N. T. Wright about what he would want his children to know after he is dead…his answer: look to Jesus!  I’d be interested though in thoughts on his comments as I have my own thoughts about an existentialist approach to Jesus.

On a slightly totally less serious note…check out the following interview of N. T. Wright by Stephen Colbert on the topic of “heaven” HERE.

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While N.T.Wright goes on to make a different point than the one I make here concerning the reconstruction of history…I quote:

“The very subject matter of history is unruly, and all attempts to reduce it to order by a sort of intellectual martial law are suspect.  The more one knows about any event, the more complex one realizes it to be.  Simplicity is much easier to project on to events when little evidence is to hand.  Thus, though there will be an eventual or ultimate simplicity about a good historical hypothesis, and though one should not rest content with odd complexities, inclusion of data is ultimately the more important of the first two criteria” [that is (1) the relative weight of “different criteria used in the verification or falsification” and (2) the “proper working out” of those criteria].  (N. T. Wright, NTPG 1992, pp. 104-5).

He argues from this against those who would over complicate the issue and try to “simplify” Jesus and the Gospel accounts by trimming out portions considered as reflective of early church confession, polemics and history rather than belonging properly to the historic Jesus.  While I certainly follow him in this assessment, my own assessment includes the notion that historical reconstruction from the Gospel accounts (or from anywhere in Scripture…or anywhere else for that matter) is not as straightforward as some would have us believe.  Nor is it as complex as others would have us believe.

Having preached now through the Gospel according to John over the last two years I have repeatedly encountered what many expositors and theologians have considered to be non-historical writings littering John’s account.  To be certain, he cannot be easily correlated to the other three.  But rather than this being a problem for myself…I see this as a blessing.  It has added a complexity to the historical reconstruction of Jesus that I believe helps to actually sharpen and deepen and widen my faith rather than shake and undermine it.  John should neither be dismissed as a-historical, nor should he be the historical and the others regarded as a-historical.

The gospel writers were all writing history, but with specific theological intent and not with modern pre-conceptions and illusions of historical objective aloofness  and scientific exactness.  They wrote not always in exact chronological order nor identical details, but with important themes and foci always before them. There have been times in my studies that I have had to laugh at the attempts of commentators to bring the accounts into some form of “harmony” and other times that I’ve thought, “That actually seems to make sense of what seemed before to not.”  What we end with is not a simple stick-man picture of Jesus who seems only lifelike to other stick-people…but a (and…yes…THE) Jesus who is complex…multifaceted…cannot quite ever be comprehended…who challenges us time and again to read His story…and ultimately…to be read by His story.

I must admit that John has enriched my faith (through simultaneously complicating and simplifying it) more than I thought he would when I first began the series (which shouldn’t surprise me given his stated purpose for writing – John 20:31; cf. J. Ramsey Michael’s comments in the newly published NICNT on John  HERE).   I will be sad when I finish this coming December…but on to 1 Corinthians where Gordon Fee and Anthony Thiselton have a bit for me to read on that wonderful letter of Paul’s.

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