Posts Tagged ‘Robert Jenson’

Continuing my lenten blogging project, I now turn to Robert Jenson. For me, Jenson ranks among those theologians whose writings never fail to capture my attention, the sort whom I will read on any subject—whether or not I am particularly interested—just to see what he has to say on it. I should also say that probably no other writer produces in me such strong feelings of simultaneous agreement and doubt, inviting endorsement while demanding critique. For the present, I will try to leave both endorsement and criticism aside (although comments in either direction are welcome!), restricting myself to description and paraphrase.

The doctrine of God, for Jenson, begins with the divine identity, specifically the God identified by the biblical narrative. Throughout both testaments, God is identified by certain key events in time. Centrally, for Jenson, “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt” (Systematic Theology, 1:63 [hereafter: ST]). This way of identifying God more or less corresponds with Jenson’s summary of the gospel message: that the God of Israel has raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Thus, for Jenson, God’s identification by the events narrated in the biblical text is inextricably tied up with the content of the gospel itself.

Though this may seem like an innocuous and perhaps unremarkable observation, Jenson goes further, making a conceptual move “from the biblical God’s self-identification by events in time to his identification with those events” (ST 1:59). In other words, God is in himself who he is for us in history. Since historical events are the only means by which God has revealed himself, if God’s inner-being in eternity differs in content from God’s being-for-us in time, then we could never know God truly. “The revealing events would be our clues to God, but would not be God” (ST 1:59). And any concept of revelation as a divine pointer that is ultimately void of divine presence is what the Bible calls idolatry (ST 1:60).

Jenson thus operates with something very much like Rahner’s rule—that the immanent trinity is the economic trinity and vice versa—but with a particular emphasis on the way in which God is identified by narrative—not to mention an unflinching willingness to follow this rule to its logical conclusion. In Jenson’s view, “the doctrine of the Trinity is but a conceptually developed and sustained insistence that God himself is identified by and with the particular plotted sequence of events that make the narrative of Israel and her Christ” (ST 1:60). And he does not shy away from the implications of this statement. The eternal being of God is determined by the contingent history of God with God’s people, and specifically the history of Jesus Christ. This determination is, to be sure, God’s own self-determination to be the God he is. Yet if this eternal decision is a decision for a history with human beings, that is, to constitute his identity in relation to historical human creatures, then we cannot construe historical contingency as alien to the eternal being of God. When God makes promises on the twin bases of his past deeds (“I am the one who…”) and his revealed name (“I am the Lord”), God “explicitly puts his self-identity at narrative risk” (ST 1:65). God is in himself who he is to us in human history, not merely by reflecting his eternal being into history, but actually by allowing his actions in history to determine who he eternally is.

A Jensonian theology of Holy Saturday would thus require careful thought about how the historical event of Jesus Christ lying dead in the tomb identifies the biblical God—not just as an example of his character, but as his own historical and contingent basis of establishing his eternal identity. As Jenson says,

The crisis of the total biblical narrative is the Crucifixion. As the cry of dereliction laments, the one called “Father” here hands the one called “Son” over to oppositional and deadly creatures. Therewith it becomes problematic that anything specified by listing “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” can be one God and not rather a mutually betraying pantheon. If the phrase can still be the name of one self-identical personal reality, his identity must be constituted precisely in the integration of this abandonment. The God of crucifixion and resurrection is one with himself in a moment of supreme dramatic self-transcendence or not at all. (ST 1:65)

Put briefly, “the gospel does not tell of work done by a God antecedently and otherwise determined, but itself determines who and what God is” (ST 1:165). To put it another way, God does not merely demonstrate who he is in history; he makes himself who he is.

For Jenson, there is no story behind the crucifixion that is somehow more “real” than the event itself. It does not conceal an invisible transaction between God and the devil or Father and Son, nor is it a historical mask worn over a mythic event. The crucifixion is “an event in God’s triune life” (ST 1:189), and it is so precisely as a human and historical event. Specifically, it is the event wherein God determines and establishes his relationship to fallen creatures, and as such determines and establishes fallen creatures’ relationship to him. It is important to note that Jenson refuses to view the cross apart from the resurrection. Consider the following:

The Crucifixion put it up to the Father: Would he stand to this alleged Son? To this candidate to be his own self-identifying Word? Would he be a God who, for example, hosts publicans and sinners, who justifies the ungodly? The Resurrection was the Father’s Yes. We may say: the Resurrection settled that the Crucifixion’s sort of God is indeed the one God; the Crucifixion settled what sort of God it is who establishes his deity by the Resurrection. (ST 1:189)

When God raises Jesus from the dead, he is saying of this crucified man, “Yes, that is who I am.” The three-day story of crucifixion, grave, and resurrection narrates the central drama in which God becomes who he eternally is. We might therefore say instead that in the act of raising Jesus from the dead, God says, “I will be who I will be, and that is who I will be.” That God says this of the crucified one must be cause for careful reflection; that God says this by means of resurrection must be cause for great rejoicing.

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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).



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


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.


*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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These aren’t exactly polished thoughts, but I was wondering if any of you had any insights (or heretical labels) to offer on this. Much of what follows is highly indebted to Robert Jenson’s 2009 Burns Lectures delivered at the University of Otago. They can (and should) be viewed here. (The quotations in this post come from his first lecture, “Creed, Scripture, and Their Modern Alienation.”)

The word of God is none other than Jesus Christ. I don’t think this is a controversial claim in Christian circles. Anything else we call “God’s word” must somehow derive this status from Jesus Christ. The question about the word of God, then, can only be framed as a “Who?” question. If our doctrine of the word of God cannot be related to the person of Jesus, then we are off track. So the most appropriate question about God’s word is not, “What is it?” which usually entails the follow up, “What can we point to today and say, ‘That is God’s word’?” The question is, rather, “Who is it?” which entails a more appropriate follow up question, “Where is the concrete form of this One in the world?” Of course, when we ask about the concrete form of Jesus Christ in the world, our first and most obvious answer is: incarnation. But how do we answer this question now, that is, after the resurrection and ascension? Where is the concrete form of the incarnate, crucified, and risen Jesus Christ in the world today? And to what extent can we identify it as the concrete form of God’s word in the world today?

If we identify the word of God as the second person of the Trinity who became incarnate in space and time, then it becomes necessary to posit a direct connection between the divine logos and Jesus’ human body. “The word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The bodily presence of Jesus simply is the presence of God’s word to the world. Thus, to ask how God’s word takes concrete form in the world today is to ask how we can speak of Jesus’ embodied presence today. Considering Paul’s statements about the body of Christ, I think that we need to answer this question ecclesiologically and sacramentally. To skip to the conclusion of these reflections, can we not say that the concrete form of God’s word in the world is the church-community? That the word God speaks in the world today is spoken concretely not only through this community but as this community?

This brings me to the question of the authority of the New Testament in the church. (I must leave aside for the moment the question of the Old Testament, because its place and role in the church has a much different history.) The New Testament canon, as we know it today, did not exist in the earliest days of the church. Yet the church existed, thrived, and grew. What brought about the need to gather and preserve these texts we now know as the New Testament? As Robert Jenson observes, “Any community that intends to be around for more than a moment, that hopes to remain itself through some palpable stretch of yesterday, today, and tomorrow will have to deal with the fragility of a life thus stretched across time.” He offers the following phenomenological description of scripture: “A religious community’s scripture is a body of literature that is fixed in some medium that preserves it—and that may simply be trained memories—and that in that fixity is necessary for the perdurance of the community for its self-identity through time.” Canonical Holy Scripture for the church thus functions as an authoritative set of texts designed to preserve the church-community as church through time.

The basic thesis I’m trying to test out is this: The New Testament is authoritative insofar as it functions to preserve the identity of the church-community through time. (I’m not suggesting that happens automatically or as a result of “applying” the text; it only happens as the Holy Spirit takes up the texts and uses them to enliven and shape the life of the community that the New Testament can function this way.) Thus, it is the church, not scripture, that is the concrete form of God’s word in the world, because it is in the form of this community that Christ’s body lives on earth.

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I’ve been reading Robert Jenson’s systematic theology for fun lately. I read the following passage this morning, where he talks about the body of the resurrected Jesus and how Paul can speak of both the bread and cup and the congregation as the “body of Christ.” I thought it was interesting.

But what can Paul mean, speaking so of Christ’s body? Neither the bread and cup nor the gathering of the church look like a human body or react as one.

The obvious first suggestion, which turns out to work perfectly on the texts, is that he speaks of the “body of Christ” as he speaks of “bodies” generally. In Paul’s language, someone’s “body” is simply the person him or herself insofar as this person is available to other persons and to him or herself, insofar as the person is an object for other persons and him or herself. It is in that Paul is a body that persecutors can mark him as Christ’s (Gal 6:17); it is in that Paul is a body that he can be seen and interrogated by one of his congregations, or be remote from this possibility (1 Cor 5:3); it is in that Paul is a body that he can discipline his own self (1 Cor 9:27). In Paul’s ontology, such personal availability may or may not be constituted as the biological entity moderns first think of as “a body”; for Paul, a “spiritual” body, whatever that may be, is as much or more a body as is a biological body (1 Cor 15:44).

The church, according to Paul, is the risen body of Christ. She is this because the bread and cup in the congregation’s midst is the very same body of Christ. Paul’s first statement on the matter does not extend quite to this equation. “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:17). But Paul then applies this doctrine to the behavior of the Corinthian congregation: because the Corinthians eat and drink disrespectfully of one another, they fail to “discern” the body of Christ (1 Cor 11:29). We want to ask which body Paul has in mind, the bread about which he has just reported the dominical words “This is my body,” or the congregation that is in fact the offended entity and which he has just earlier called Christ’s body. Paul’s text makes sense only when we grasp that he means both at once, and would reject our question as meaningless.

It is time for theology . . . to let what Paul meant by “body” teach us also what to mean by “body.” . . . We must learn to say: the entity rightly called the body of Christ is whatever object it is that is Christ’s availability to us as subjects; by the promise of Christ, this object is the bread and cup and the gathering of the church around him. There is where creatures can locate him, to respond to his word to them.

No metaphor or ontological evasion should be intended. Sacrament and church are truly Christ’s body for us, because Christ himself takes these same things for the object as which he is available to himself. For the proposition that the church is a human body of the risen Jesus to be ontically and straightforwardly true, all this is required is that Jesus indeed be the Logos of God, so that his self-understanding determines what is real.

The subject that the risen Christ is, is the subject who comes to word in the gospel. The object—the body—that the risen Christ is, is the body in the world to which this word calls our intention, the church around her sacraments. He needs no other body to be a risen man, body and soul. There is and needs to be no other place than the church for him to be embodied, nor in that other place any other entity to be the “real” body of Christ. Heaven is where God takes space in his creation to be present to the whole of it; he does that in the church.

(Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology, I.205-06)

So, for Jenson, Christ’s body is who he is in his availability to us. In my estimation, this might be a good way of explaining how we can speak of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist (especially for a Lutheran like Jenson), and how we might similarly speak of the church as the bodily presence of Christ on earth. What do you think?

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