Robert Jenson: Burns Lecture 1 – Creeds, Scripture, Niebuhr and the Preposition between Christ and Culture

robert-jensonThis afternoon, I was priviledged to hear a lecture by Robert W. Jenson who is visiting the University of Otago to deliver this year’s Burns Lectures on the theme of ‘The Regula Fidei and Scripture’. I’ve heard Professor Jenson lecture on a number of occassions, and on three different continents, and he is always enormously stimulating. In his opening lecture today entitled ‘Creed, Scripture, and Their Modern Alienation’, Jenson argued that the relationship between Holy Scripture and the ecumenical Creeds determines the whole life of the Church because together they witness to the Church being the same community yesterday, today and forever. He defined the Church as ‘the community of a message of the God of Israel who raised Christ from the dead’. Those already familiar with Jenson’s work would have heard here themes discussed and argued elsewhere in his writings.

Jenson proceeded to note that whereas the Christian community in the first century lived in the orbit of, and was defined in the light of, as it were, a first-hand history of Jesus and with little regard for its future, the second-century Church had to think through the community’s ‘future history’ and the shape which it would take as the institution of the future. It is to this end that both Scripture and the Regula Fidei bear witness to the one history of God with his people. Creeds are, he insisted, ‘a sort of communal linguistic awareness’  – a ‘gift of the Spirit’ who guides the church in every generation. On the relationship between the Regula Fidei and Church tradition more generally Jenson had little to say, at least in this lecture. [One hopes that this might get some teasing out in subsequent lectures].

Where more breath was expired, however, was over the question of Modernity and the demise of Regula Fidei. Modernity, Jenson repeated, sponsored a shift whereby Scripture and Creed came to be seen as alien to one another rather than as co-witnesses to the one Word of God and of the abiding presence of God with his people. Describing himself as an ‘unreliable Lutheran’, Jenson argued that the modern biblical studies movement began as a movement to redeem itself from creeds.

One fundamental conviction that drove Jenson’s entire presentation was his confidence that ‘Christ does not fit into other narratives. Other narratives have to fit into Christ’. I wish Jenson had unpacked this further (again, perhaps he will in the remaining lectures), but I did find one place where he does do such unpacking:

I have long thought that Niebuhr’s book, for all its individual insights, was based on a false setting of the question. Whatever preposition you put between Christ and culture, its mere presence there marks and enforces the supposition that Christ and culture are entities different in kind. But it is of course only the risen Christ who can now have a relation to a culture, and this living Christ’s body is the church. And the church – with its scriptures, odd rituals and peculiar forms of government – is plainly itself a culture.

Therefore the real question is always about the relation of the church culture to some other culture with which the church’s mission involves it at a time and place. And I do not think the relation can be the same in every case. During the time of “Christendom,” the culture of the church and the culture of the West were barely distinguishable. I do not think this “Constantinian settlement” was avoidable. When the empire said, “Come over and help us hold civilization together,” should the bishops have just refused?

As to Christendom’s consequences for faith, some were beneficial and some were malign, as is usual with great historical configurations. During the present collapse of Christendom and its replacement by an antinomian and would-be pagan culture, confrontation must of course be more the style.

Next lectures:


  1. When I look at the list of lectures he will be holding, my heart sinks within me as realize that I am not there! Will you be covering the other lectures?


  2. By the way, if you’re interested in the regula fidei but can’t read German, there’s an important essay by Bengt Hägglund, the most of which I have translated here. It had an important impact on Brevard Childs.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Phil. I hope to get along to most of the lectures and I will plan to post some notes from each. Thanks for the link to your translation of Hägglund’s essay. I will read with great interest.

    Liked by 1 person

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