Robert Jenson: Burns Lecture 4 – The Apostles’ Creed

robert jenson-014

© 2009. Photo taken by John Roxborogh, when Robert Jenson visited the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership in Dunedin. Used with permission.

Professor Jenson began the fourth of his six Burns Lectures by following up a question that arose after the previous lecture. The question concerned the Resurrection. He suggested that when we think of ‘living persons’ we must attend to two ‘aspects’:

  1. There is among us a voice which changes those to whom it is addressed. When the living voice of the gospel is heard – whether in liturgy, preaching, casual conversation, debate, etc. – then Christ is heard.
  2. A live human person is embodied. They are available. For this reason, a corpse is not a body. The Eucharistic elements are the body, as is the sound of the preachers’ voice, as is the touch of the baptiser. These are – in the conviction of the Church – actions of the body of Christ. Consequently, if one desires to see Christ, then one must look at the community of Christ, Christ’s body.

Jenson then turned more properly to the topic of The Apostles’ Creed, the Symbolum Apostolicum, which he described as the final deposit/version where the regula fidei ceases to be an intuition in the Church and ‘becomes a text’. He noted its relationship to baptism, and its shaping after the one name of the triune God in whose life the baptised participate. The triadic form, he suggested, represents the ‘internal structure’ of the one baptismal name according to the plot of God’s narrative with his people. This means that God’s history with his people is not only his people’s history but is also God’s own history.

Jenson proceeded to recall that it is precisely by their distinction from/relationship to one another that the three persons are one God. The Father is the Father of the Son, etc. Father, Son and Spirit (who is God’s ‘liveliness’) ‘mutually imply each other’. Moreover, and following Barth, Jenson contended that Father, Son and Spirit is ‘the Christian name for God’. (I have posted on this here). His defence of the position that it is ‘Father’ rather than ‘Mother’ was christologically determined: Jesus spoke of and addressed God as his ‘Father’ because Jesus was a Jew, and Christians address God as ‘Father’ – and not as ‘Mother’ – because we address God in Christ. Jenson described the Spirit as ‘the mutual love between the Father and the Son’. We live in this ‘mutual space’.

The remainder of the lecture returned to themes introduced in earlier lectures. Specifically, to arguing that the structure of the Creed is determined by the NT itself, and this in a two-fold sense:

(i) by its references to God. Jenson noted that the NT is full of ‘primary trinitarianism’, that there is a trinitarian logic that governs the NT, and that ‘with very few exceptions’ references to God in the NT imply a trinity of Persons.

(ii) by its prayers, particularly the so-called Lord’s Prayer. In giving the Church the prayer Jesus did, he invited us to ‘piggy back’ on his prayer to the Father, to participate with him (who alone has a native right to address God as ‘Father’) in his own praying to the Father. In this context, Jenson suggested that ‘if you know how to pray the Lord’s Prayer then you’ve got it [i.e. you’ve got the gospel in nuce]!’

Jenson reminded us that the Creed does not encourage the parsing out of God’s works among the three Persons. The first article’s focus is praise (grounded in and recalling Genesis 1 and the Psalms) and the second’s is God’s works. He also suggested that the Creed does not support the Church’s native way of reading the OT. By moving directly from creation to the incarnation the Creed avoids (dismisses?) 2/3 of the Bible. While the regula fidei saved the OT as Scripture for the Church it did not preserve the ongoing role of the OT. Why? Here Jenson suggested two reasons: (i) the influence of the Gentile Church; and (ii) Marcion. It was at this point that Jenson offered his first of two real criticisms of the Apostles’ Creed, arguing that it by itself is an inadequate witness to the Church’s faith. The first line of the Creed – the reference to God as ‘Maker of heaven and earth’ – recalls the ‘last vestige of the Old Testament’. His other reservation concerning the Creed is its basic omission of Jesus’ life. To paraphrase Jenson: ‘It wouldn’t have hurt the Church one bit to add a line or two about Jesus preaching the kingdom of God, and of his fellowship with publicans, etc’.

To Jenson’s surprise, the question time that followed elicited no discussion about the feminist objections to God’s proper naming as Father, Son and Spirit. (I’m not sure what this says about the audience). Instead, discussion followed two main trajectories:

(i) the relationship between Jenson’s notion of ‘living persons’ and its implications for the parousia. His response to this question was unsatisfying. He rightly noted that the apocalyptic scenarios Scripture presents ‘cannot be harmonised’ and that the parousia represents ‘the explosion of the fire of love, love which is perfect in itself’. He preferenced the scene from the Book of the Revelation (over those from say Thessalonians) where the redeemed worship the Father in the crucified Lamb. But he was decidedly unclear about the Son’s locus in the parousia, and of the form which believers might reasonably anticipate concerning Jesus, suggesting instead that the Son’s parousia happens, among other ways, in the liturgical action of the people of God.

(ii) the article in the Creed ‘born of the Virgin Mary’. On this Jenson suggested that this article refers primarily to the absence of the will of the flesh in Christ’s birth. He also reminded us that the Creed is the Church’s and not the individual’s. What the Church must confess always need not necessarily be what any particular individual believer feels they can confess at the time. This latter response seems to beg further justification. I wonder how the absence of Joseph’s biological contribution or action in Christ’s birth constitutes ‘the absence of the will of the flesh’ if Mary’s fleshly identity is involved in the birth of Christ. Does perhaps Scripture indicate a parallel eclipsing of the human will in the way Mary was ‘overshadowed’ by the Holy Spirit? Are, in fact, both the doctrine of the virgin conception and the overshadowing of Mary, simply, tentative, possibly clumsy, ways of affirming that in Jesus’ birth and whole life history, his origin in the will of the Father and the power of the Spirit overrides the generative processes of fallen humanity (whether they be biological or socio-cultural)?


Past Lectures:

1. Creed, Scripture, and Their Modern Alienation

2. The Tanakh as Christian Scripture

3. The New Testament and the Regula Fidei

Following Lectures:

5. The Creed as Critical Theory of Scripture

6. Genesis 1:1 and Luke 1:26-38


Notes by Bruce Hamill and Jason Goroncy


  1. Thank you for putting up these most interesting and thought provoking lectures. The fourth lectures stops at about the 18 minute mark. Is there any way of getting the full lecture.


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