Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 103 (May 2000): 49-53.
Systematic Theology: Volumes I & II. By Robert W. Jenson. Oxford University Press. Vol. I: The Triune God. 244 pp. $49.95. Vol. II: The Works of God. 380 pp. $55.
Reviewed by Wolfhart Pannenberg
It is remarkable, at least to a foreign observer of the American theological scene, that a theologian of the stature of Robert W. Jenson has not been accorded a place at the center of the American academic establishment. Since the 1960s, his books on the concept of God, on eschatological theology, on the Trinity, and on ecumenism have established him as one of the most original and knowledgeable theologians of our time. Jenson is a distinctively American voice in the worldwide endeavor to retrieve and reformulate a trinitarian theology. In pursuing this vision he started, as others did, from Karl Rahner’s rule that the "immanent" and the "economic" Trinity—the eternal God and His activity in the history of salvation—are one. This led him to a "futurist option" for theology by conceiving of the kingdom of God and the Holy Spirit in terms of the future of God Himself.
Now Jenson presents the summary of his understanding of theology, a two–volume work on Christian doctrine. The first volume sets forth the doctrine of the Trinity, which in Jenson’s view must include also the treatment of Christology. The second volume deals with the doctrines of creation, the Church, and eschatological "fulfillment." The entire work is strongly ecumenical. Its systematic unity is provided by the trinitarian perspective: from the beginning, the creation was intended for "inclusion" in the triune community by virtue of union with Christ, the purpose being a "perfected human community." That is the promise of the gospel which is anticipated in the life of the Church and is finally achieved in the final advent of the Kingdom.
Jenson’s ambitious enterprise requires familiarity with the sources of Christian teaching through the centuries as well as with the biblical roots, and he displays an intimate knowledge of the Eastern Fathers as well as of Western figures such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. He is fully acquainted with the ecumenical discussions and documents of our time, including the contemporary contributions of Orthodox theology. This is indeed a systematic theology in the grand style.
Jenson’s thesis that serious Christian theology has to be trinitarian and that its treatment of the trinitarian life of God has to encompass everything else—creation, Church, and the eschatological future—corresponds to a growing consensus among the more thoughtful of contemporary theologians. Jenson is surely right in contending that the God of the Bible is identified by temporal events, and indeed by a history of such events. He boldly integrates this insight with his trinitarian theology by conceiving of the biblical narrative as "the final truth of God’s own reality" in the mutual relations of God the Father, His incarnate Son, and the eschatological accomplishment of their communion by the Spirit. The emphasis on mutuality in the interaction of the trinitarian persons offers a corrective to the traditional tendency to conceive of them only in terms of relations of origin, which is to say in terms of the dependence of Son and Spirit upon the Father. In emphasizing the mutuality of the trinitarian relations, Jenson secures the potential for integrating his trinitarian doctrine with the history of salvation.
In the second volume, Jenson appropriates another growing theological consensus, this time with regard to the nature of the Church as communion. This understanding includes sacramental communion with Jesus, especially in baptism and eucharist, but also communion among all the members of the Church, who participate in that communion with Jesus, as well as the local congregations that participate in the one body of Christ, the universal Church. Here again, Jenson establishes a connection with the trinitarian communion, in which Christians now participate, and with the kingdom of God that will be the full and comprehensive realization of humanity’s communion in the very life of the triune God.
Inevitably, an attempt at such an ambitious synthesis is not without its problematic aspects. In the case of Jenson’s work, a problem arises already in his introductory chapter on "the identification of God." While he is surely right in affirming that the God of Israel and of the Christian faith is identified by temporal events such as the Exodus and the Resurrection, as well as by Jesus addressing Him as Father (which in turn identifies Jesus as Son), this does not clarify the meaning of the predicate "God" as it is applied to the God of Israel.
In the biblical language, the word elohim was combined with the proper name of the God of Israel, and later the word theos was used in the same way. Both these terms—elohim and theos—carried a prior understanding of the reality that was identified by the proper name of the biblical God. Jenson is not unaware of this fact, nor of the corresponding role of philosophical ideas about God in the history of Christian theology, but he tends to disregard these matters. He rightly considers it a "temptation" that a philosophical concept of God could determine the distinctly theological discussion of trinitarian doctrine. Thus he shies away from treating the predicate "God" before addressing the question of the God of Israel.
But that predicate "God" must be examined, not least in order to correct philosophical conceptions of God in the context of Christian theology. In an earlier book (Unbaptized God, 1992) Jenson rightly criticized the "incomplete exorcism" of pagan elements in Hellenistic Christian theology, elements that have been influential throughout all subsequent Christian history. But criticism of such an "unbaptized God" does not dispense the theologian from arguing for the philosophical validity of the alternative he proposes. It is not enough to oppose philosophical concepts of timeless eternity by asserting the temporal character of God’s action in history (the economic Trinity).
In Jenson’s presentation, the difference between the "immanent" Trinity—the eternal communion of Father, Son, and Spirit—and the "economic" Trinity almost vanishes. It is certainly true that the trinitarian God in the history of salvation is the same God as in His eternal life. But there is also a necessary distinction that maintains the priority of the eternal communion of the triune God over that communion’s explication in the history of salvation. Without that distinction, the reality of the one God tends to be dissolved into the process of the world.
A related difficulty is apparent in Jenson’s account of "the being of the one God" in the trinitarian communion. The perichoresis of the trinitarian persons—meaning their life in mutual communion—presupposes the existence of the three persons. Hence it cannot constitute the unity of the one God without making that unity secondary to the existence of the three. Therefore the Eastern doctrine accounted for the unity of God in terms of deriving the Son and the Spirit from the Father. If theology now insists on the mutuality of these relationships, it must account for the divine unity as being in some way prior to the distinction of the three persons. It will not do to state, as Jenson does, that the three persons are "prior to the fact that God is." The Christian affirmation that there is one, and only one, God requires the notion of the one divine ousia or essence that the Father imparts to the Son and to the Spirit.
Further difficulties arise in connection with Jenson’s understanding of the divine Logos as "speech." This insistence reflects the continuing influence of Karl Barth on Jenson’s thought. God’s speaking is certainly one aspect of the biblical concept of the word of God, but it is hardly the first and all–important aspect. The "word" in Hebrew is not only word but the thing itself, understood as event. In the first chapter of John’s Gospel—the scriptural starting point of the Logos doctrine of the Church—Logos is a further development of the Jewish concept of God’s wisdom. Only in this way could the Logos be understood as a hypostatical reality—a reality distinct from God but coeternal and one with God. Speech could not be the hypostatical reality that became incarnate in Jesus (John 1:14).
Nor, contra Jenson, is the divine Logos reducible to the preexistence of Jesus in the Father’s eternal predestination. According to the doctrine of the Church, the Logos is a hypostasis of its own, distinct from the Father, but coeternal with Him. Speech is an image with limited value in Christian theology. If the Logos is understood only as speech, the God who "speaks" the Logos is not in His very life trinitarian. Moreover, speech cannot function as the principle that distinguishes the "otherness" of the creatures from the Creator.
In his doctrine of creation, Jenson focuses on the human being. The distinctive character of the human being is his active relationship to God. The human creature, we are told, is the "praying animal." This special relationship of human beings to God is indeed the point of the biblical affirmation that they are created "in the image of God." But their distinction is not that God speaks to them. In the biblical creation story God also speaks to the earth, directing her to cooperate in His creative work (Genesis 1:11, 24). The distinctive thing about human beings is that they are meant to be partners in His covenant and to represent the Creator, in the person of His Son, to the rest of creation. That constitutes, according to the fathers of the Church, the special dignity of human beings, and it should have been treated by Jenson in the section on "human personhood."
The discussion of the created universe of nature is not among the strong points of Jenson’s work. There is little here about the relation of theology to the natural sciences. The sequence in the emergence of creatures in the biblical creation story and in the view of contemporary science, including the issue of evolution, is not discussed. Nor is there critical discussion of the limitation posed by Genesis 1 on the concept of creation in the beginning of the world, as distinct from the view of creation as a continuous process. The remarks on space and time do not take sufficient account of the history of these concepts and of the issues emerging from that history. When Jenson says that God is "pres ent to creatures in their space" he is actually in agreement with Newton’s doctrine of God and space, though he earlier accused Newton (wrongly) of having "blurred the line between Creator and creation."
One of the most brilliant chapters of the work, on the other hand, is "Politics and Sex." The human person, Jenson contends, is created for communion with others. The kingdom of God will bring about the final fulfillment of that destiny, and in the course of history it is provisionally realized in the Church and in the state. In his treatment of the state, Jenson takes his clue from Augustine, according to whom the ultimate good in the polity is peace. Peace is based on "consent in law," and consent is derived from a moral discourse rooted in the law of God Himself. That law speaks in the human conscience and is expressed by the Ten Commandments. The "second table" of the commandments (equivalent to natural law) spells out the "minimum conditions" of all social order. In this connection Jenson offers some harsh but not unjust criticism of American public morality with respect to the violation of the fifth commandment ("You shall not kill") in the instance of legalized abortion. It is a criticism that applies equally to other secularized Western societies. He further reclaims the place of the family and of "heterosexual monogamy" as indispensable in a just society.
This side of the kingdom of God, the human destiny of communion is realized more purely in the Church, the body of Christ, than in the state, where it is disfigured by human self–love and lust for dominion. Together with Israel, the Church is the people of God, and its communion is constituted by communion with Jesus. One should expect, then, that the Church’s founding would be related not just in general terms to the Trinity, but more specifically to the Eucharist and to its institution by Jesus. The eucharistic communion is in the first place communion with Jesus himself. "The communion of the Church," Jenson writes, "is established only by communion with Christ." It is not clear, therefore, why Jenson chides me as "subtly sectarian" for making this very point in my own writings. The person of Jesus and therefore the issue of communion with him has to retain priority in the life of the Church. But the body of the risen Christ is not, as Jenson suggests, simply identical with the Church. If the reality of the body of Christ is not prior to the Church, how could Paul write that in the eschatological future the Lord will "change our lowly body to be like his glorious body" (Philippians 3:21)?
This also means that "body" is not only, as Jenson asserts time and again, the person as "available to others" and thus also "to oneself." The human body is first of all the full reality of the person, certainly with a relation to oneself but also in most intimate identity with oneself. In the case of the body of the risen Christ, believers participate in that reality, but it remains a reality that precedes and surpasses our participation. It is a merit of Jenson’s work that he takes Paul’s statements on the Church as body of Christ not only as a metaphor but literally. Yet the precise relationship between Church and body of Christ requires a more careful and differentiated treatment than it receives in these volumes.
In addressing the doctrine of the Church, Jenson takes up ministry and sacraments before turning to the authority and proclamation of the word. This is understandable from the point of view of a "communio ecclesiology." It is also legitimate, provided that the priority of the gospel is otherwise acknowledged. The thorny issue of eucharistic sacrifice is integrated by Jenson into the anamnetic theory of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, which agrees with the best results in ecumenical dialogue. One might have expected more emphasis, however, on epiclesis or the invocation of the Holy Spirit in the eucharistic event since it is the Spirit who brings about the presence of Christ in the memorial of his death and who unites the faithful participants with Christ’s offering of himself. The sacraments in general are treated by Jenson as "mysteries of communion" in accordance with the New Testament understanding of the mystery uniting Christ and his Church. But there is here no attempt to reconceive the Augustinian notion of sacrament as "sign" in the light of the biblical concept of mystery.
In discussing the ministry of the church as "office of communion," Jenson highlights the fact that in the historical development of episcopacy the concept of "bishop" changed from a local ministry comparable to that of the Protestant pastor to a regional ministry of oversight. But he does not, as one should expect, offer a critical evaluation of that development, which led to the result that the regional episcopacy is now considered the basic form of the Church’s ministry. Jenson’s discussion of the development of papal primacy, especially in the second millennium, lacks a necessary critical edge, although one might share his appreciation of the need for the ministry of a "universal pastor" in the life of the Church for the sake of her unity in the faith of the apostles.
One misses also an adequate emphasis on the critical function of Scripture and of the proclamation of the word in the life of the Church. The critical witness of Scripture and proclamation is necessary in order to maintain the priority of Christ and communion with him. Related to this, the crucial role of faith needs more emphasis in Jenson’s discussion of justification. Jenson is to be commended, however, for noting the difference between Luther’s teaching on justification—a teaching that focused on the unity of the soul with Christ in the act of faith—and a purely forensic doctrine of justification.
In his concluding section on eschatological fulfillment, Jenson’s interpretation of the final judgment as "rectification" deserves particular attention. The overcoming of death (and sin), he writes, is "simultaneously" the transformation of the creature’s natural finitude into the future that the Spirit will bring about. Though one notes a certain tendency toward affirming universal salvation, Jenson stops short of this consequence by declaring, "God can bring all to the kingdom, but He may not." He also observes that eternal damnation is not an article of faith.
In sum, the second volume’s execution of the great trinitarian vision set forth in the first volume is less than entirely satisfactory. One misses a more carefully systematic treatment of the consequences and implications of Jenson’s great vision as it applies to particular issues of Christian doctrine. Too often he seems to be taking up issues in an order that is determined more by rhetorical, even rhapsodic, impulse than by systematic necessity. Sometimes it is hard to discern the systematic function of a particular passage, while at the same point one looks in vain for a discussion of other questions that are necessarily related to the overall structure of his enterprise. At yet other times, one finds only a language of images where one would expect the rigor of conceptual analysis.
All that having been said, however, this two–volume systematic theology is a great achievement. Drawn from learning that is both vast and profound, the rich details and frequently exciting flashes of insight provided by this work confirm the stature of Robert Jenson among contemporary theologians—a stature that, it seems to this foreign observer, is not sufficiently recognized in American theology.