Robert W. Jenson, 1930-2017
In 2011, while I was writing a master’s thesis about Robert Jenson’s theology, I had the jarring experience of noticing him and his wife, Blanche, seated in the pew in front of me at Trinity Church in Princeton, New Jersey. We had only exchanged email before. My heart raced. During the exchange of the peace, I approached him and Blanche to introduce myself, and nervously blurted out, “Are you Robert Jenson?” Blanche smiled, and Jens said, “Well, that’s my name.” Three years later, I was living in New Jersey again, and working on a doctoral dissertation on his and James Cone’s theologies. Jens agreed to meet with me for an hour each week, and this routine continued until June of this year.
At the third or fourth of our weekly meetings I asked him something, and he gave me a characteristically terse answer. I waited a few moments, and then broke the silence by saying, “Dr. Jenson, I feel like I’m doing all the talking.” Through his beard I could see him smiling. “That’s exactly what I intended,” he said. “Also, my friends call me Jens.”
In my first year of graduate school, almost a decade ago, I read the first volume of Jenson’s Systematic Theology, and since then there has hardly been a day when I did not grapple with his theology in some way. But more than that, the time spent meeting with him to discuss theology, to read books and Scripture together, to reflect on the state of the Church and the world, to celebrate milestones, and finally to prepare for his death established a transformative relationship. At first he was a name on the cover of a book, but he became a teacher, and then a mentor and a friend. Jens once admitted to me that even then, in his old age, he could not so much as write his name down without thinking about Karl Barth, about whom Jens wrote his dissertation, and with whom, like me, he had regular meetings. Jens observed, rightly and humbly, “It could hardly be different for you.”
Jens was a gift to me. His theology has deepened my faith, and has taught me to worship more faithfully. But more importantly, Jens was a gift to the Church. His death is a loss, even to those who do not know his work. However, as St. Paul put it, the gifts of God are irrevocable. Though Jens has passed from this life, God is not finished using him in the Church. Jenson’s theology is only beginning to be appreciated and understood.
In his classic book Story and Promise (Fortress, 1973), Jenson wrote that the gospel is “a word about an alleged past event, and it functions as an unconditional promise.” In Jensonian fashion, one may say that if the gospel of Jesus is true, then the history of God’s work in and through Jens is not only a past to be remembered, but is a promise for the future, which we may anticipate. Death did not have the last word on Jesus; it will not have the last word on Jens, nor on God’s work through him. I want to share some of the significant things I have received from Jens, which I hope to see God use in the Church in the future.
Jenson taught that theology is the work of thinking about how to convey the significance of the gospel. Chiefly, he argued, this means putting the claims of the gospel in dialogue with the religious assumptions of the culture. From St. Paul’s appropriation of the shrine to the unknown God at Athens, to Gregory of Nyssa’s or Thomas Aquinas’s reworking the notion of being, Church theologians have been evangelizing paganism. The Church’s missionary work has always required theologians to develop a revisionary metaphysics, that is, a renewed apprehension of all reality in light of the news that the God of Israel has raised his servant Jesus from the dead, having first raised Israel from Egypt.
In Jenson’s interpretation, the Church’s theological work of evangelizing paganism begins with the startling news that God has come to us creatures in Jesus, having promised salvation to Israel, and by his Spirit having moved created history to the fulfillment of this promise. Evangelism, and so the theological thinking that goes into it, begins with the evangelical narrative, which requires us to talk about the three agents of this narrative: Jesus, the God of Israel whom he called his Father, and their Spirit.
In telling and thinking about this evangelical narrative, what we learn is that the One who made the promise to Israel is the same One by whom the promise came to fulfillment, and again is the same One who himself is the fulfillment. In Jenson’s theology, the climactic truth of the gospel is not, as some have suggested, God’s Threeness; rather, it is found in Israel’s confession of faith, the Shema. The great mystery of the gospel is that God is one. The mystery of the Trinity is that God is one. The mystery of the Incarnation is that God is with us, and yet God is still one. Jenson wrote in his Systematic Theology, “The identity of the crucified Jesus and the risen Jesus is nothing other than the oneness of God. That is why it can and must be believed: it is identical with the final object of faith.”
Revisionary metaphysics teaches us that our conceptions of God are premature. We rush to grasp God’s oneness; the gospel makes us wait for the triune God’s promise. What God promises is that we will be with him, and that we will see in Christ’s death and resurrection — and ours with him — the mystery that God is one. Regarding this mystery, Jens told me, “The point of Trinitarian doctrine is not to resolve the mystery; I have been attempting to describe it. There are things that I have written that I do not understand fully, but that I nevertheless believe.”
Jens spent his career pursuing those things that he believed but did not understand fully. When I once asked him what he would like to have spent more time on, he responded with two things: his understanding of the pre-existence of Christ, and politics.
Because the driving force of Jenson’s theology is the oneness of the Creator God who is nevertheless one with us creatures, he was never completely satisfied with his answer to the metaphysical question of the Word prior to his Incarnation. In Jenson’s thinking, if the Word exists prior to and apart from the flesh of Jesus, then the Word will always remain, in some way, distinct from Jesus. But Jesus is the eternal Word. Therefore, he reasoned, there can be no Word apart from the flesh of Jesus — no “Logos Asarkos.”
This reasoning generated Jenson’s most radical theological proposal: an eschatological rather than protological understanding of being, or ontology. Jenson taught that God’s being is not the adamant persistence of what already is, but the perfect anticipation of what will be.
Jenson’s theme of story and promise captures this eschatological ontology. In Jenson’s theology, the oneness of God is the absolute identification of God’s promise with its fulfillment: God is principally the End, the One who promises the End, and the Word of promise. Creation is the history made by God’s Word of promise. God promises that we creatures will be with him, and therefore we creatures and our history exist. By his Word of promise, God called Abraham, gathered Israel, and, at the fullness of time, the Word was born to Mary. The man Jesus is eternally God’s Word — to himself and to us. God’s Word is the last word, and therefore the first word. The time in which we live is bracketed in the eternity of this God.
What we creatures anticipate is the final fulfillment of the history God has created. We wait, as Jenson would say, for the dry bones to live. We await the kingdom. God created us for a political community in which, with death behind us, we will be gathered to Christ and one another. Life in history is lived by hope. But this is not hope for pie in the sky; rather, as Jenson wrote, eschatological hope is the basis of our hopes for “potatoes on earth.” Because we are promised the kingdom, we are free to be a revolutionary “conspiracy” and “band of spies” for the future, subverting the stagnation and status quo of a world that resists the future.
Jens’s political sensibilities remain a delightful surprise to me. Once, when discussing my efforts to put his theology in dialogue with Cone’s work, I asked what he thought of black liberation theology, and he said, “Not radical enough.” I laughed and told him that Cone might not agree. He laughed and said, “Well, in the end we’ll see who the real revolutionary is.”
If there is any revolutionary community, for Jens that community is the Church, which is the only community whose life is to anticipate the kingdom. Baptism into the Church is also initiation into the kingdom. I suspect that the centrality of the Church in Jens’s political and eschatological thinking was what motivated him to work toward ecumenical unity. Jens was unsurpassed in his faithful grief over the divisions of the Church. His dedicated work in cofounding and leading the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology is just one example of his commitment to doing theology for the one Church. I experienced this commitment as Jens gave me pastoral counsel as I prepared for ordination in the Episcopal Church.
Jens’s pursuits were not only metaphysical and political but aesthetic. Jens saw the beauty of God, and believed that it was central to the Church’s resistance against nihilism to reflect God’s beauty in worship, in art and drama, in literature and storytelling. Jenson taught that Christians comprise a community that tells and lives out the drama of God’s story, and in so doing lets the world see the beauty of what God has done and will do.
Jenson ended the first volume of his Systematic Theology identifying God as a great fugue: as the sheer beauty of the perichoresis of Father, Son, and Spirit, as the music that the triune God is. To be a creature is to be mentioned by this God, to be given as a gift. I am grateful that God gave us Jens. The Church will have much to remember of him and for which to give thanks because of him. Thanks be to God, we also have much from his legacy for which we may yet hope.