Robert W. Jenson (1930–2017) is one of the most important, yet often overlooked and frequently misunderstood, theologians from the English-speaking world in the past century. Jenson’s place as a Lutheran theologian has been controversial because of his sometimes “unreliable” allegiance to his own tradition and his strong penchant for creativity. On account of this, his work presents both problems and possibilities for those seeking to retrieve and advance the Reformation tradition as it comes to expression in the Lutheran confessional heritage.
Indeed, Jenson’s sheer productive inventiveness is the dimension of his work that makes him so difficult to assess. While there are features of his work that are profound and commendable––and some in which his theology has to be dealt with more carefully––I would like to tersely discuss the way he conceives of the relationship between theology and philosophy. His doctrinal reflection is consistently ingenious, often idiosyncratic, and sometimes perplexing. But his view of how theology should engage philosophy is one I hope to recommend here.
A Brief Biographical Note
As an entrée to Jenson’s take on the relation between theology and philosophy, let me say a little bit about his life. Jenson’s own thought first percolated in the parsonage, since he was the son of a Norwegian Lutheran pastor in the Upper Midwest. Jenson (known as “Jens” by his friends) remarked that he acquired the name Robert because he was born at a time in which immigrants, especially from the Germanic countries, aggressively pursued assimilation to American culture. As for his own work, he self-consciously forwarded this task of assimilating the insular, conservative Lutheranism of his upbringing to the wider world of theological conversation and public involvement.
Educated at Luther College, Luther Seminary, and the University of Heidelberg, Jenson authored a number of important works: first, a published version of his dissertation treating the doctrine of election in the theology of Karl Barth. Over the years, he engaged the “death of God” theology so popular in the sixties, wrote about the Lutheran Confessions, authored a number of singular theological monographs, a two-volume systematic theology, and two biblical commentaries––in addition to hundreds of articles. He spent time teaching at Oxford early in his career, but spent many productive years at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, and finally retired from full-time teaching out of St. Olaf College in Minnesota.
Though Jenson was an ingenious theologian with eclectic taste, a punchy and sometimes esoteric writing style, and a penchant for doctrinal creativity, he was also a staunch defender of the unborn and traditional marriage––even when these were not popular positions to take in the broader world he worked so hard to engage with.
Theology and Philosophy in Conversation
The aspect of Jenson’s work that I’d like to highlight here is that he conceives of the relation between theology and philosophy in conversational terms. Theology is not to simply adopt the positions and presuppositions of philosophy, nor should it reject philosophy. In this way, Jenson evinces a “continental” sensibility about what philosophy is: various philosophical traditions are productions of human culture and thus thoroughly located in their time and place and configured by the values of the people who construct them. An “analytic” sensibility might conflate philosophy simply with human reason, thus ascribing to it a certain objective validity vis-à-vis the developments of culture or truth claims of a theological nature. For Jenson, philosophy refers to the traditions of thought produced in a given cultural and religious milieu. Reason is a human faculty.
Theology is not to simply adopt the positions and presuppositions of philosophy, nor should it reject philosophy.
Jenson, however, makes a kind of two-sided claim about what philosophy is––eloquently set forth in his Systematic Theology (1997–1999). For Jenson, philosophy is as much a theological artifact as it is anything else since it makes a claim to say something true about the world’s ultimate significance. Similarly, theology might seem dissimilar in appearance but fundamentally does the same thing, making distinctly philosophical claims by offering up its own, independent logic and its own account of what the world is like. Jenson pithily captures this claim by asserting that Isaiah is as much a philosopher as is Plato, just as Plato is as much a kind of theologian as is Isaiah.
What then is the proper way of engaging the philosophical heritages of the various human cultures? For Jenson, the test case for what happens in such a dialogue is the engagement between Christianity and western, classical antiquity. The Bible’s understanding of God, the nature of the world, and the ultimate end of all things was incubated amidst such an ongoing encounter between the biblical world and the Hellenistic world. As Jenson reads the history of doctrine, its development takes the form of a conversation between the God revealed in the Gospel and the architecture of Greco-Roman thought, broadly conceived.
Precisely in this conversation, a kind of evangelism for metaphysics occurs: theology must address the Gospel to the existing cultural and philosophical sensibilities of its surroundings. Just as Christianity came to evangelize the Roman Empire (and beyond), the progress of doctrinal development in the works of the church fathers and the decisions of the ecumenical councils embodies a kind of theological and philosophical evangelism for antiquity’s fundamental beliefs about the world.
In some cases, this process of evangelization remained incomplete, Jenson surmises. The Reformation, consequently, means the continuation of this evangelistic task, especially with its doctrine of justification by faith alone. The Council of Chalcedon (451) taught, according to the Scriptures, that Christ is fully human and fully divine without either confusion or separation. But it took the Reformation to finally reach the conclusion that Christ’s full humanity and divinity means the accomplishment of the world’s salvation rests with Jesus and His atoning work, not human collaboration or cooperation.
Jenson’s own contribution to contemporary theology has been to think through the ongoing implications of engaging with the world on the basis of the identity of the triune God revealed in the Gospel. Some of Jenson’s proposals are admittedly strange. One of the most vexing and intriguing dimensions of his thought is how he conceives of God as an event––a specific event in the man Jesus of Nazareth. Only in Jesus Christ is God the event of all other events, yet never apart from God’s gifting of himself to the world in cross and resurrection. Theology must continually narrate this event, for it is also a story about what God is doing in Jesus. This has profound implications for how theology interfaces with philosophical accounts of what the world is like since the Gospel contends that the nature of reality itself is bound up with the unavoidable specificity of God’s coming in the person of Jesus.
The Gospel is preached not to conjure thought, but to create faith.
Though Jenson’s remarkably “eventful” account of what (and thus who) God is runs into some issues in its application––particularly the meaning of divine hiddenness outside the Gospel––the impression Martin Luther has made on Jenson is detectable at this juncture. Like Jenson, Luther contends that we are to have no other God than Christ Jesus in all his physical and historical particularity. For Luther, there is no God but the one who bleeds and dies on Calvary’s cross for your sins and those of the whole world. The Gospel’s assertion of Christ’s saving act has profound consequences which extend to the nature of the world. Even so, the Gospel is not a mirror (speculum) by which we spy out the inner workings of the world God has made for us to dwell in, but it is meant to be proclaimed, announced, and applied to sinners who need to hear it. The Gospel is preached not to conjure thought, but to create faith.
Yet Jenson still has much to say at this point. He rightly recommends that the Gospel must be applied even to its most intellectual alternatives. A confident and aggressive use of the Word of God in evangelizing philosophy and its practitioners is indeed a task for the church in its engagement with culture. In this, Jenson is a most useful voice to which the church––and especially its intellectual evangelists––would do well to listen.