Remembering Jenson

Remembering Jenson September 6, 2017

A few items from the archives about Lutheran theologian Robert W. Jenson, who died earlier this week.

Here’s my best effort to summarize Robert Jenson’s take on God-and-time, written with faux-Jensonesque pithiness.

Is God eternally and infinitely the eternal and infinite God that He is?  Of course.  He’s God.

Is God dependent on creation for His fulfillment?  Of course not.  He’s God.

The biblical God uniquely does not try to escape time.  All other gods do; that’s what makes them gods.

The world is what it is.  History is what it is.  No use worrying what might have been.

God promises to show mercy, and give Himself to His people.  These promises are given to a real people, in real time.

Those promises come true, or they don’t.

If they don’t, then God is not in fact the God who shows mercy.

If they do, then God is in fact the God who shows mercy.  He could not be the God who shows mercy if He failed show mercy.  By definition.

Given the kind of world that is, this mercy must involve the Cross and Resurrection.  God could not be in fact the God who whose mercy without crucifixion and resurrection.

Think of the contrary: God could be a God bursting with mercy and grace, but refuse to make or keep promises.  But then He wouldn’t be the God of mercy and grace.

Or, what amounts to the same thing: God could be a God of mercy and grace “in Himself,” without reference to the creation.  But then God would no longer be the biblical God, but an idol who does what all gods do – provide security against time.


Robert Jenson admits in a 2004 essay that in most of his theological writing he tried to do without the claim that Scripture is inspired. Historically, inspiration has been used to justify the authority of Scripture, but Jenson doesn’t believe that use of inspiration is necessary. It’s simply obvious that Scripture is authoritative in the church, and “if the existence of the church is willed by God then so is the Bible’s authority within it” (393).

The article, though, is a “second thought” about inspiration, and presents a brief brief in favor of the doctrine as a ground for the church’s Christological reading of Scripture. The problem he addresses is that the Christological reading of the Old Testament seems to be an imposition on the text’s original meaning:

“When it is proposed that Old Testament texts have a christological or ecclesial sense, many scholars will now agree, but this sense will then promptly be contrasted with another sense which the texts are supposed to have ‘in themselves’ or ‘originally’ or ‘for their own time’ — unless of course we are in so post-modern a conversation that the distinction is held to be meaningless. These days, the official exegetes will not often simply brush off proposals of christological and ecclesial reading of the Old Testament. But they will still quickly say, ‘On the other hand, we must not override their original sense’ or something to that effect; and all of us will automatically resonate to the point. The trouble is: when reading Old Testament texts christologically or ecclesially is contrasted with another reading which is said to take them ‘in themselves,’ or in their ‘original’ sense, the churchly reading inevitably appears as an imposition on the texts, even if an allowable one. Christological or ecclesial readings will be tolerated for homiletic purposes, or for such faintly suspect enterprises as systematic theology, but are not quite the real thing” (395).

That instinct, he argues, is a phenomenological mistake: “an author’s intention or a community of first readers’ reading is not identical with the texts ‘themselves’ or an ‘original’ import. An author constantly interprets her own writing, before, during and after formulating text. We are not the only ones with a particular hermeneutic and with resultant interpretations of the texts an author produces; he has his own, and these are no more identical with those texts than are ours.

Moreover, first readers are just that and no more: they are not pure receivers of meaning but first readers, which is to say, the first to have a chance to impose their hermeneutical prejudices.” The choices are not “christological v. original reading” but “christological v. author/first readers’s reading” (395). And neither of these is identical to the texts themselves. The question is, which best captures the texts “in themselves”?

Jenson concedes in a footnote that these phenomenological considerations leave Christian interpreters “with Derrida and company” (395, fn. 4). But the church doesn’t stay in the company of Derrida, and it doesn’t because of the Spirit’s inspiration of Scripture: “a function of the old doctrine of inspiration to trump the created author and first readers with a prior agent, the Spirit, and prior readers, the whole diachronic people of God, preserved as one people through time by that same Spirit. And then we may very well take the christological-ecclesial sense of Old Testament texts as ‘original’ as their entity ‘in themselves,’ if we have grounds to suppose that it responds to the intention and reception of this primary agent and these primary readers” (396).

Without inspiration, the Old Testament isn’t legitimately used as the church’s Scripture, and then it is reduced to “religious ‘background’ for the New Testament” (396), “the real Christianity is the pusilanimous religiosity of ‘mainline’ denominationalism” or one of the “late-modern appropriations of Christian language by some ‘theory’” (397). With inspiration, the church is justified in its christocentric, figural reading and use of the Bible.

I don’t believe we need to pose an either-or on this point. Inspiration underwrites both the authority of Scripture and its unity as a narrative of the Christ. One might use Jenson’s own logic: If the church exists by God’s will, the Bible’s authority in the church does too; therefore, the Bible’s authority is by God’s will, and that is precisely what the traditional doctrine of inspiration asserted. Still, Jenson is write to highlight the somewhat neglected hermeneutical import of inspiration.

(Jenson, “Second Thoughts on Inspiration,” Pro Ecclesia 13:4 [2004] 393-8.)


Robert Jenson ( Essays in Theology of Culture ) gives this clever summary of the work of Alasdair McIntyre: “MacIntyre ended [After Virtue] by saying that what our civilization must have to survive is something like the Benedictine order.  Many who read this wondered how there could be Benedictines without St. Benedict, or a saint without God.  MacIntyre appears to have read his own book and wondered the same things, whereupon he reconverted to the faith.”


Robert Jenson notes in his comments on the Song of Songs 8:1-2 that the lovers long for public recognition of their love. The bride wants to be able to kiss her lover in the street like a brother.  Jenson contrasts this to the contemporary claim that sex is a purely private matter between consenting adults.

For the Song, “however private the act of sexual union may indeed be, its existence and character is vital public information . . . . Where sexual union is conceived of as ‘private’ and so is legally unregulated and just so legally powerless, community can be held together only by arbitrary fiat and, if it comes to that, by force.  Sexual ‘liberation’ and political tyranny are but two sides of one coin.”


Robert Jenson continues his series of essays on Christ as Culture in the January 2004 issue of IJST , arguing that “Christ is Art.” Here are a few of the highlights:

1) Jenson defines art as experimentation with possible worlds. One of his examples is Mondrian: “Mondrian and his allies, who invented truly ‘abstract’ painting, did so by inspiration of and in support of a formulated theology: they were theosophists – Mondrian was a formal member of the society. He espoused Pythagorean doctrines, that underlying the flux of the perceived world, which the impressionists and various ‘post-impressionists’ had explored, is a world of pure, simple and changeless geometric archetypes. Painting, according to Mondrian, was to induct the viewer into this world, it was, indeed, to save the viewer’s soul.”

2) Jenson goes on to say that the experimentation with possible worlds takes place against the background of a real world. He affirms that “the world as we perceive and so inhabit it is indeed always the world construed by a certain eye, bourgeois, Bolshevik, Hinayana Buddhist or whatever.” Yet, “believers know that there is indeed a standard of our experiments, because there is only one God and all reality is his creation.”

3) He agrees with postmoderns that “we are not in position to access this standard directly,” but only through our “arts” (including, surely, language) and the possible worlds with which we experiment. Yet, there is a “sign” (Jenson doesn’t say proof) that there is a standard, even though we have no direct access to it. This sign is the fact that “artistic production is work.” If there were no world on which to work our experiments, those experiments would not require labor.

There is a crucial epistemological point here as well: “Rowan Williams argued that the chief component of a realist epistemology is recognition that at least some knowledge requires to be learned, to be acquired by labor. So also a realist understanding of artistic activity is recognition that an artist must labor to construe his possible world, that he cannot just decree it: he must work on something, that is, on a given world which indeed neither he nor we can see independently of this labor, but which nevertheless presents itself precisely in the necessity of laboring.”

Williams’ point is quite profound: Were subjectivist epistemologies true, and all knowledge merely the projection of the knower, then knowledge would involve no labor at all. The English language, microorganisms, the literature of sensibility – all would simply bow to our all-controlling, all-forming minds. That we have to study to know means that there is a world out there that serves as a standard of what we know.

4) Finally, Christ as art: The Father is artist, and Christ is the art. The Logos is “the particular shape which the world in fact makes” but He is this “precisely [as] an experiment, for nothing binds the Father to make this sense ad extra instead of some other sense. The Son is not the sense which the world just has, for apart from the Son precisely as the sense of which he is the experiment, there would be no world.”

There is thus no world that stands over against the Father, which can be used as a test or standard of the Art that is the Son. The Father is the purest Artist, whose experiment in possible worlds is the action world. Jenson says, “Like us,the Father does not know the standard world except as and by his experiment [in the Son]; but unlike us he is not at the mercy of the standard world, which does not exist except as he experiments. Unlike us, the Father does no labor between his experiment and the standard thereof.”

5) This lends a deep jollity to our experience of the world, a profound and weighty lightness. Moderns, even modern Christians, think instinctively that the world is as the Enlightenment described it: “a vast mechanism, whose basic structure and laws are changeless and eternal, and whose bits of discrete substances interacting in space, like the parts of an engine or like clockwork.”

Yet, Christians know that “if God is the Trinity the mechanistic picture of the universe must be false.” Rather, “We inhabit a world that is as free as the world taking shape under Picasso’s pencil and yet it is not at all arbitrary, is not subject to deconstruction to make way for another experiment . . . . God . . . is satisfied with his experiment, he pronounces it good.”

This “lightness of being” can be intolerable – life is nothing and less than nothing – unless we know it is an artist’s freedom. If we do know that, then the dogwood tree outside my study window, in its amazing thereness and simultaneously amazing never-the-sameness is above all an occasion for merriment. Then the question, ‘Whyever should there be such a thing as a house, and in particular that perpetually-in-repair mansion across the way?’‘Warum gibt es uberhaupts Seiendes und nicht vielmehr Nichts ?’ is not a solicitation of Sein zum Tode but a solicitation of freedom, to join the fun of being something.”

6) To be in Christ, then, is to be an inhabitant of the great experiment himself: “to live in Christ is to live in the rush of the great fugue as God is composing it,” riding “the great Painter’s brush” and skipping “between the great Composer’s hands on the keyboard.”

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