Robert Jenson: Burns Lecture 5 – The Creed as Critical Theory of Scripture

Robert Jenson‘Texts by themselves do not automatically flaunt the meaning they harbour’. From this postulation Professor Jenson proceeded – in this his fifth Burns Lecture (for earlier lectures see I, II, III, IV) – to challenge Modernist attempts to discern what the text is ‘really saying’. He warned of the limited value of efforts to understand ‘who is up to what’ with any particular writing (authorial intent), but also that the Church cannot simply opt out of Modernity’s critical agendas. The question becomes then which critical theory to adopt.

Jenson advanced that the Church is the body which must interpret the biblical texts, and to do so in light of the regula fidei, the Apostle’s Creed, and with the Triune God who is ‘up to something’ in these texts. ‘Acknowledging God’, he said, is a necessity for every interpretation except of that of the nihilist. The Triune God is a Person, and as such is the metaphysical bond between reality and discourse about reality. The alternative, Jenson contends, is that texts float free in a void of indifference. Reality and language meet only in God. This relates not only to Scriptural texts but to any texts. The Church has confidence to do hermeneutics only because the Church knows God personally, because the Church lives in a shared history with God.

From here, Jenson posed and proceeded to answer the question ‘What is creedal-critical exegesis?’ His answer: it is ‘christological common sense’, by which Jenson meant that Christ is God’s agenda in Scripture, not as allegory or figure, but ‘plainly’ (except when the genre of the text demands an allegorical or figurative reading). So, for example, Jenson contended that when Israel went into exile, the Shekhinah (who is Jesus of Nazareth) when went them. One implication of this is that when Israel is redeemed the Shekhinah will be redeemed with them. Jenson was completely unapologetic in his insistence that Old Testament references to ‘the angel of the Lord’ and ‘son of God’ are references to the second triune identity – Jesus of Nazareth. He proffered that to read the OT like this is to take seriously its ‘plain meaning’, and also that a legitimate rendering of John 1 might be, ‘In the beginning was the Shekhinah, and the Shekhinah was with God …’ etc. This, at least to my mind, was not the clearest section of the lecture series.

Jenson concluded his lecture by suggesting that the historical-critical exegetes are not critical enough (particularly of their own agenda), and reminding us that the Church’s theological tradition is always an ongoing conversation rather than the passing on of a fully-defined body of knowledge. In light of the latter, he suggested that if Paul, James and Peter were not involved in genuine dispute with one another then they can be of little use to us.

One of the questions that Jenson responded to during the question time that followed concerned the notion of God as a God of war. This had come up in previous lectures too. Again, Jenson was nothing if not clear in outlining his basic position: If we don’t want God involved in the violence of history then this equates, Jenson contends, to the confession that we don’t want God involved with us. The implications of this position – the questions it raises – would undoubtedly require a second series of lectures, or at least a few more nights at the pub with friends, to unpack.

 

Past Lectures:

1. Creed, Scripture, and Their Modern Alienation

2. The Tanakh as Christian Scripture

3. The New Testament and the Regula Fidei

4. The Apostles’ Creed

Next Lecture:

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

 

Notes by Bruce Hamill and Jason Goroncy

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