AAR (additional) meeting – The Promise of Robert Jenson’s Theology: Constructive Engagements

RobertJenson 8If you are heading to AAR in San Diego this year, consider joining a rich gathering of bods engaging with the theology of Robert Jenson. With the sponsorship of Pentecostal Theological Seminary, Chris Green and Stephen Wright are hosting this exciting additional meeting. A wonderful lineup of speakers will address Jenson’s theology from a variety of perspectives:

Daniela Augustine, Lee University
Creation as Perichoretic Trinitarian Conversation: Reflections on World-making with Robert W. Jenson

The paper will engage Robert W. Jenson’s rich and sophisticated reflection on the Trinitarian act of creation as a perichoretic divine discourse that opens time and space for the existence and conversational inclusion of the other. It will highlight the “narrative” character of the world’s materiality and its liturgical essence as “created word of obedience and worship” in which humanity comes forth as the distinct creature, made to hear the direct address of God’s creative speech and to respond in prayer. This conversational communion with the creator culminates into the divine command for humanity’s deification as union with Christ – the human (and cosmic) telos manifested as the Word made flesh – the uncreated Logos redemptively-united to his creation. Echoing Jenson’s concept of “God’s roominess,” the text will depict the event of creation as an act of unconditional divine hospitality, of radical re-spacing within the Trinitarian proto-communal life as an internal act of praktike – of God’s loving askesis and kenosis in self-fasting for the sake of the other. Finally, building upon Jenson’s assertion of the created cosmos as an “omnipotent conversation that is open to us,” the paper will conclude by offering a vision of human life as a liturgical embodiment of the communion between matter and spirit while partaking in creative, in-Spirit-ed, world-making conversation with the creator.

Eugene F. Rogers, University of North Carolina, Greensboro
How does the Work of Robert Jenson Help to Answer Questions about Christian Blood-Language?

Christianity uses “the body of Christ” to unite God, believer, history, community, and physical symbol in an ineliminable pattern. On different levels, the historical body of Jesus is the body of Christ; the church is the body of Christ; the bread is the body of Christ; the believer makes up the body of Christ; the crucifix around her neck displays the body of Christ; and the body of Christ is the body of God. Closely allied to the body of Christ is his blood, appearing in the NT three times as often as his “cross” and five times as often as his “death.” The human blood of Jesus is the blood of Christ; the church lives from the blood of Christ; the wine of the eucharist is the blood of Christ; the believer drinks salvation in the blood of Christ; icons ooze the blood of Christ; and the blood of Christ is the blood of God. There is no Christianity without some version of this ordered series, which theology calls “analogy” and Durkheim “totemism.” Arguing whether “blood” means “death” or “life,” conservatives and liberals find blood a language in which to disagree. Reading blood into texts where it hardly appears (the Akedah mentions no blood, and crucifixion kills by suffocation), interpreters find blood a key to the scriptures.

One of the marks of great thinkers is that we use them to think through questions that they did not themselves address. At a time when scholars of Christianity across many disciplines were thinking about “the body”—and even before!—Robert Jenson, in his sacramentology, atonement theory, and ethics, was making profound remarks about the body: It was the “total of possibilities that I may grant myself as object for those I address,” including the availability of a person, a person’s “to-be-transcended presence,” a person’s idenfiability (Visible Words, 22-23).

Lately, scholars have moved on to focus on “blood” (Biale, The Circulation of a Metaphor; Bynum, Wonderful Blood). In particular, Gil Anidjar has made blood the basis of a Nietzchean polemic against Christian blood-language (Blood: A Critique of Christianity, 2014). Meanwhile, Bildhauer (Medieval Blood, 1-6) points out that blood marks and alarms the bounds of the body, so that it is in the languages, images, and sites of blood that society’s work to maintain the social body takes place. Can Jenson’s work also respond to or deepen this new inquiry? If Christ is restlos eingefleischt, what consequences does that bear for the analogy of blood?

In much of Jenson’s work, “blood” appears in the phrase “body and blood,” where he then goes on to interpret body without reference to blood. Does blood reduce to body in Jenson’s work? If so, is the reduction a model to follow (because the blood-critics are right), an anemia to be faulted, or an opening to be filled? Or does the Ezekiel Commentary (with a chapter called “City of Blood”) prove an exception, where “blood” says something more or other than “body”? The paper will certainly raise, although it may not yet answer, these questions about how Christians use the languages of blood to think with.

R. Kendall Soulen, Wesley Theological Seminary
People of God, Body of Christ, Temple of the Holy Spirit: The Trinitarian Being of the Church in Conversation with Robert W. Jenson

In Systematic Theology II, Robert Jenson displays the Trinitarian being of the church by structuring his ecclesiology using a triad of biblical images: People of God, Body of Christ, and Temple of the Holy Spirit. Though the triad is commonplace in contemporary ecumenical discussion, Jenson uses it in typically creative fashion to develop a post-supersessionist account of the church. In this paper, I seek to develop and extend Jenson’s insights. If, following Jenson, we thematize the church’s solidarity with the Jewish people under the theo-centric rubric “people of God,” then (I propose) “Temple of the Holy Spirit” provides a fitting, Spirit-centered way to thematize the church’s (equally fundamental) solidarity with the nations (cf. Acts 2; Eph. 2:19-21; 1 Pet 2:4-9). “Body of Christ,” then, thematizes the church as the site of messianic peace between people (Israel) and peoples (nations). We recognize the church as Christ’s body by the peaceful reconciliation of Jew and Gentile in differentiated unity.

Time and venue:
9:00–11:00am, Saturday 22nd Nov.
Hilton Bayfront – Sapphire D

Art that Tells the Story: a commendation

We homo sapiens are, essentially, both a storied people and a story-telling people. So, a basic human question is not primarily, ‘What am I, as an individual, to do or decide?’ but rather, ‘Of what stories do I find myself a part, and thus who should I be?’; for we literally live by stories. The Church, too, understands itself as a pilgrim people, as a people storied on the way, as a people whose very way becomes the material which shapes the narrative that has long preceded it and which is being written with it. It understands that being human never begins with a white piece of paper. As Alasdair MacIntyre rightly reminds us in After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, we never start anywhere. Rather, we simply find ourselves within a story that has been going on long before our arrival and will continue long after our departure. Moreover, Christian community begins with being found in the very act of God’s self-disclosure, an act which, in Jamie Smith’s words, ‘cuts against the grain of myths of progress and chronological snobbery’ and places us in the grain of the universe. And what – or, more properly, who – is disclosed in that crisis of discovery is one who provides memory, unity, identity and meaning to the story of our life. So Eberhard Jüngel: ‘We are not … simply agents; we are not just the authors of our biography. We are also those who are acted upon; we are also a text written by the hand of another’. Hence it is not just any story by which the Church lives but rather a particular story given to it – namely, Israel’s story in which, in the words of R.S. Thomas, it ‘gaspingly … partake[s] of a shifting identity never [its] own’.

Back in 1993, Robert Jenson wrote a great little piece titled ‘How the World Lost Its Story’ (First Things 36 (1993), 19–24). He opened that essay with these words:

It is the whole mission of the church to speak the gospel … It is the church’s constitutive task to tell the biblical narrative to the world in proclamation and to God in worship, and to do so in a fashion appropriate to the content of that narrative, that is, as a promise claimed from God and proclaimed to the world. It is the church’s mission to tell all who will listen, God included, that the God of Israel has raised his servant Jesus from the dead, and to unpack the soteriological and doxological import of that fact.

To speak the gospel and, in Jenson’s parlance, to ‘do so in a fashion appropriate to the content of that narrative’, the Church is given a pulpit, a font and a table; in fact, many pulpits, fonts and tables. And these remain the principle ‘places’ where the people of God can expect to hear and to see and to taste and to learn and to proclaim the story into which they have been gathered, redeemed and made an indispensable character. This is not, however, to suggest that these are the only places wherefrom the free and sovereign Lord may speak, nor to aver in any way that the gospel is somehow kept alive by the Church’s attempt to be a story teller, for the story is itself nothing but God’s own free and ongoing history in Jesus. As Jüngel put it in God as the Mystery of the World, ‘God does not have stories, he is history’. To speak gospel is literally to proclaim God, speech that would be a lie and completely empty were it not the story of God with us, of the saving history which has become part of God’s own narrative, of the world which has, in Jesus Christ, become ‘entangled in the story of the humanity of God’ (Jüngel), a story at core kerygmatic and missionary, and unfinished until all its recipients are included in its text. For, as Jenson has written in his much-too-neglected Story and Promise, the story of Jesus – who is the content of the gospel – ‘is the encompassing plot of all men’s stories; it promises the outcome of the entire human enterprise and of each man’s involvement in it’. To know this man’s story, therefore, is to know not only the story of God but also our own story. Indeed, it is the story that makes human life possible at all. As Jenson would write elsewhere, ‘Human life is possible — or in recent jargon “meaningful” — only if past and future are somehow bracketed, only if their disconnection is somehow transcended, only if our lives somehow cohere to make a story’.

And here we come up against the perennial question of human speech, and it’s back to Jüngel (and to Peter Kline’s article on Jüngel and Jenson) to help me out: ‘The language which corresponds to the humanity of God’, writes Jüngel, ‘must be oriented in a highly temporal way in its language structure. This is the case in the language mode of narration, [or] telling a story’. In other words, if Kline reads Jüngel correctly, Jüngel is suggesting that narrative or story is the mode of human language which most appropriately corresponds to the form of God’s life among and with us. Commenting on Jüngel, Kline argues that narrative alone witnesses to the change from old to new, can capture the movement and becoming in which God has his being, corresponds to the eschatological event of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and brings ‘the word of the cross’ to expression in a way apposite to us. So Jüngel: ‘God’s humanity introduces itself into the world as a story to be told’. Kline notes that for Jüngel, the church is given a story to tell, but, in Jüngel’s words, it ‘can correspond in [its] language to the humanity of God only by constantly telling the story anew’. God’s humanity ‘as a story which has happened does not cease being history which is happening now, because God remains the subject of his own story . . . God’s being remains a being which is coming’. The community, Kline says, tells only the story of Jesus Christ’s history, and so it constantly looks back to what has happened. Yet the telling of this story is also always new because God’s entrance into human language that once happened continues to happen again and again as Jesus Christ continues to live in the freedom of the Spirit. God is not confined to his once-enacted history, to one language or culture; history does not consume God. So Jüngel again: ‘God who is eschatologically active and who in his reliability is never old [is] always coming into language in a new way’.

‘Telling the story anew’. ‘God … [is] always coming into language in a new way’. Which brings me to Chris Brewer’s new book, Art that Tells the Story. Others have already summarised the book, so let me simply say that Art that Tells the Story is a freshly-presented and beautifully-produced book which attempts to tell the old, old story … again. Boasting some intriguing prose (by Michael E. Wittmer) and coupled with well-curated images from a diverse array of accomplished visual artists including Jim DeVries, Wayne Forte, Edward Knippers, Barbara Februar, Clay Enoch, Julie Quinn, Michael Buesking and Alfonse Borysewicz, among others, herein, word and image work in concert to open readers up to hear and see again, and to hear and see as if for the first time, the Bible’s story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, inviting – nay commanding!, for the gospel is command – readers to comprehend in this story their own, and to enter with joy into the narrative which is the life of all things. A book this beautiful ought to be in hardback; but may it, all the same, find itself opened and dialogued with next to many coffee mugs, and in good and diverse company. Like its subject, this is one to sit with, to be transformed by, and to share with others.

Flannery O’Connor once confessed, in Mystery and Manners, that ‘there is a certain embarrassment about being a story teller in these times when stories are considered not quite as satisfying as statements and statements not quite as satisfying as statistics’. ‘But’, she continued, ‘in the long run, a people is known, not by its statements or statistics, but by the stories it tells’. And so the dogged persistence of theologians and artists. Indeed, it is stories – in fact, a particular, if not very short or simple, story – that Brewer’s book is primarily concerned to tell. That his chosen medium is the visual arts reminded me of something that NT Wright once said, and which is, I think, worth repeating:

We have lived for too long with the arts as the pretty bit around the edge with the reality as a non-artistic thing in the middle. But the world is charged with the grandeur of God. Why should we not celebrate and rejoice in that? And the answer sometimes is because the world is also a messy and nasty and horrible place. And, of course, some artists make a living out of representing the world as a very ugly and wicked and horrible place. And our culture has slid in both directions so that we have got sentimental art on the one hand and brutalist art [on] the other. And if you want to find sentimental art then, tragically, the church is often a good place to look, as people when they want to paint religious pictures screen out the nasty bits. But genuine art, I believe, takes seriously the fact that the world is full of the glory of God, and that it will be full as the waters cover the sea, and, at present (Rom 8), it is groaning in travail. Genuine art responds to that triple awareness: of what is true (the beauty that is there), of what will be true (the ultimate beauty), and of the pain of the present, and holds them together as the psalms do, and asks why and what and where are we … And our generation needs us to do that not simply to decorate the gospel but to announce the gospel. Because again and again, when you can do that you open up hermeneutic space for people whose minds are so closed by secularism that they just literally cannot imagine any other way of the world being. I have debated in public … with colleagues in the New Testament guild who refuse to believe in the bodily resurrection and, again and again, the bottom line is when they say ‘I just can’t imagine that’, the answer is, ‘Smarten up your imagination’. And the way to do that is not to beat them over the head with dogma but so to create a world of mystery and beauty and possibility, that actually there are some pieces of music which when you come out of them it is much easier to say ‘I believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’ than when you went in.

Art that Tells the Story is grounded upon the premise that artists and theologians can not only help us to see better, but also that like all human gestures toward the truth of things, the work of artists can become an instrument through which God calls for our attention. And here I wish to conclude by re-sounding a call trumpeted by Michael Austin in Explorations in Art, Theology and Imagination:

Theologians must be on their guard against commandeering art for religion, must allow artists to speak to them in their own language, and must try to make what they can of what they hear. What they will hear will tell of correspondences and connections, of similarities, of interactions and of parallel interpretations and perceptions which will suggest a far closer relationship of essence between art and religion than many theologians have been prepared to acknowledge. As the churches at the beginning of the twenty-first century become more fearful and therefore more conservative there may be fewer theologians prepared to take the risks that embracing a truly incarnational religion demands of them. In particular what they hear may suggest to them that their many (often contradictory) understandings of God and redemption and salvation in Christ need to be radically reconsidered if a new world is to be made.

Chris Brewer’s Art that Tells the Story is just such an attempt. It’s good stuff.

Robert Jenson on the Supper

I’ve just completed writing a lecture on the Supper. It was great fun to research, not least because I used it as an excuse to read Robert Jenson’s two-volume systematics. And while I don’t engage with Jenson in the lecture per se, his charateristically-stimulating work charged my thinking in ways that I had not anticipated and which birthed some fruitful avenues of thought. Here’s one passage that I spent some time meditating on:

‘When the Eucharist is celebrated, Christ’s promises of the Kingdom and of his presence in it are in fact fulfilled: even though the Kingdom is still future so long as we are not risen, each celebration is already a wedding feast. Anticipation, we may say, is visible prophecy; so in the Eucharist we come together to live the Kingdom’s fellowship beforehand. But our coming together, however faithful and pious, does not locate us at the gate of heaven, unless God puts us there. That he does is the content of faith that has the Supper itself as the external object to which it clings. That is, it is the content of faith in those other promises: “This bread is my body. This cup is my blood of the new covenant”’. – Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, Volume 2: The Works of God (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 216.

A word from the East on Yoder and Jenson

Brad East has posted some helpful notes on the similiarities and differences between the theology of Yoder and Jenson. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but here’s a taster on the question of the nature of the church:

‘Yoder sees the church as a minority people in exilic sojourn among the nations, a servant community sent on behalf of others and therefore unwilling to exercise coercion for any reason, but just so socially responsible insofar as cruciform servanthood is the grain of the cosmos and the only truly transformative power in human community. In other words, the life of the church is defined by Spirit-enabled apocalyptic discipleship to the concrete sociopolitical life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen.

Jenson sees the church … differently. Somewhere he says that the entire mission of the church is “the saying of the gospel.” Elsewhere he claims that the community of the church over time is literally the body of the risen Christ on the earth. He also states that, when Constantine asked the bishops to help run the empire, they had nothing else to say but “yes.” He believes with Augustine that the only truly just society is one that worships the true God, and that just war is possible in a legitimately Christian society. Finally, he is able to articulate and is energized by the vision and history of a (high) Christian culture, and speaks to American governance in the hopes that a Christian politics – namely, the right ordering of heterosexual marriage and the consequent protection of the unborn – might both win the day and lead to the formation of a more coherent society.

Moreover, of course, the church catholic for Yoder is the free church: dogma, creed, papal bull, ecumenical council – none of it is binding or revelatory for God’s people. And for Jenson, dogma is either always and everywhere true and binding for the church, or the church is not the same community as that of Peter and Paul. And to be sure, in a church divided, God may act for unity tomorrow – in the restoration of communion with Rome. Not so much for Yoder’.

Robert Jenson: The 2009 Burns Lectures on Video

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

I recently posted notes on Robert Jenson’s 2009 Burn Lectures delivered at the University of Otago on the theme, ‘The Regula Fidei and Scripture’:

The video podcasts of those lectures are now available for download as MP4s:

Robert Jenson: The 2009 Burns Lectures on ‘The Regula Fidei and Scripture’

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

Here’s a list of recently posted notes on Robert Jenson‘s 2009 Burn Lectures delivered at the University of Otago:

The video podcasts of those lectures are now available for download as MP4s. See here for details.

Robert Jenson: Burns Lecture 6 – Genesis 1:1 and Luke 1:26–38

jenson-2For his grand finale Robert Jenson offered a practical demonstration of what had been argued for in the first five lectures, namely, a creedal critical exegesis of Scripture. Due to time limitations Jenson took as his text Genesis 1:1-3 only. The joy of hearing him on this text was that it touched on many of the key themes of Jenson’s thought and gave us a kind of overview of his doctrine of creation and time.

His starting point was the observation that, although the two well-known translations of Genesis 1:1 are both grammatically possible, the shift in the NRSV to the temporal subordinate clause (‘when God created the heavens and the earth’) is a move from the most straightforward and default translation to something that more closely reflects the religiosity of ancient paganism. (There is no reason, Jenson contends, to abandon the LXX and KJV here) It is a departure from radical Judaism to a view of the universe in which chaos is antecedent to and coeval with God’s creating. Jenson noted that if in the beginning there is both God and chaos then both God and chaos are involved – at least at one level – in our creation. Creedal criticism, where the creed provides the lens for our suspicion of appearances, makes us immediately alert to this reading which assimilates YHWH to the anthropomorphic gods of religion. Even if it is only chaos it is a foothold outside God – a point of independence – something other than the absolute beginning of the Christian faith. It challenges our faith in the world’s ‘self-founded timeless being’. It is, says Jenson, Scripture’s scandalous ‘metaphysical put-down’ that we try and avoid. Interestingly, Jenson notes this same impulse in the cosmologist’s attempt to avoid creatio ex nihilo by means of positing multiple universes – a totally untestable and therefore unscientific hypothesis, which has nothing other than the conviction of ‘no absolute beginning’ as its basis.

With an eye on the creed Jenson continues: ‘Who is this God who tolerates no antecedents of his work?’ Creedal criticism assumes it to be obvious that it is the Father of the Son, Jesus Christ. It thus justifies the gloss ‘In the beginning the Father of Jesus created the heavens and the earth’. Thus we may conclude that ‘the contingency of the world is founded on the contingency of the life of Jesus’.

Jenson cites Westermann to claim that Genesis 1:1 is a caption summary for the whole story that follows. This then leads on to 1:2, which is where the creation narrative properly begins. Jenson claims that the best scholarship locates this verse in the post-exilic editing of a priestly savant in the second temple and then poses the question of whether this scholar was (a) thinking paganly or (b) using pagan language of Near Eastern mythology to serve the purposes of 1:1. Under the guidance of the creed, Jenson choses to read it the second way. His account of 1:2 is something like this. Given the unavoidable sequentiality of the narration of events, the writer wields the language of subsistent nothingness as a place-marker to indicate an absence. There can be no question about before. In Jenson’s phraseology, ‘To ask what was God doing before he created the world is a dumb question.

Again in verse 3 Jenson’s creedally-suspicious mind spots ideology at work in the NRSV’s translation of ‘a wind from God’ where in every other instance of the phrase ruach elohim is translated ‘Spirit of/from God’. What’s more, because Genesis 1:3 is a late text the tradent knew this title. Jenson’s creedal reading thus concludes ‘The Holy Spirit agitated the empty possibility posited when God begins to create and there is nothing’. What’s more, this suggests that there is an ‘inner liveliness in God’ which is directed towards making something when there is nothing.

At this point Jenson offered asides on the Nicene concept of the Holy Spirit as ‘enlivener’ and the folly of continuing to insist on the filoque which was after all an illegal addition.

From here the story of creation begins: (a) God said let there be light; (b) God saw that the light was good; (c) God separated the light from the darkness. The world simply is an affirmative response to God’s command: ‘That’s all there is to it’! And this explosion of energy (light) is good (for something). Here Jenson explores all the non-creedal and non-trinitarian puzzlements surrounding this text. A monotheistic/Unitarian/Aristotelian God cannot speak. For such a god eternity is necessarily silent.  At best, if a god like Aristotle’s did speak it would be an act of condescension. Moreover, for such a god to speak presupposes a polytheistic pantheon. However the creedal critic knows that not only can the Triune God speak, but God can be conceived as a conversation. ‘God is a conversation’. Only the Triune God who is a conversation can issue a command to creation before creation existed because the second person of the Trinity is himself a creature – Jesus of Nazareth. At this point Jenson talked of a conversation in which the Son, as the creature Jesus Christ, hears and speaks. ‘In what language does God speak?’, Jenson provocatively asks. In the language of Spirit – that universally self-translating language heard by the prophets, and which at Pentecost all the nations heard as their own.

And God saw that the light was good. Was it good because he saw it so, or did he discover it to be good? Jenson responds that there is ‘no humanly ascertainable difference’. However the key question Jenson moves quickly on to is, ‘Good for what?’ And here he refers us to the second and third articles of the creed – that is, that creation is the good stage for the drama of Jesus Christ. Moreover, this 78-year old ‘unreliable’ Lutheran affirms with Barth that creation is the ‘outer basis’ or ground for the covenant and its events, and that covenant is the inner ground of creation.

What about darkness? Does God create a non-good. Jenson accepts Augustine’s reading of darkness as absence, where light runs out. Evil is the ‘running out’ of being in its finitude. Thus like the dimming of light an apparent necessity (or at least an actuality) of created finitude. The creation of life includes within it ‘death on an enormous scale.’

The story moves from the creation of life (‘energy’ in (post-)modern parlance) to its endless differentiation. Jenson comments: ‘Never rest too much on agreement between science and theology’ precisely because science is constantly changing and it is inherent in its claim to be science that it is open to such change. So Jenson argues, our priestly savant used the best science of his day to tell of God’s creation of the world – ‘what other science was there?’ We ought to emulate his courage?

Question time followed. The first question in the gladiatorial fray went to the heart of Jenson’s theology asking whether the creatureliness of the Son (no logos asarkos) implied the eternity of creation (pantheism?). Jenson, clearly familiar with the need to defend this ‘novelty’ in his thought, was surprisingly brief in his response. It was two-fold: (a) his Ockham’s razor saw no need for a pre-incarnate logos (begging some prima facie questions posed by John’s prologue, of the Word’s becoming) and (b) a pre-incarnate logos becoming flesh presupposes a common timeline in divine and human history. This doesn’t correspond to Jenson’s view of the relation between time and eternity, and is a nonsense. However, he didn’t feel the need to defend this claim here. No doubt time did not permit.

Further questions focused on theodicy. In different ways, Jenson’s succinct conclusion was that ‘we can’t get God off the hook for evil. We can’t do it, but we have confidence that God can do it!’ Jenson mentioned in passing the open theist theodicy which diminishes the notion of omnipotence so that God is not morally responsible for all that happens. Jenson is not personally happy with this, but was not completely dismissive either.

The lecture was a powerful presentation of Christian reading/exegesis which depends on the premises of his previous lectures (see I, IIIIIIV and V). One might reasonably be not entirely convinced by Jenson’s radically post-modern/pre-modern scepticism with respect to objective meaning in texts (see Lecture 5) and therefore have some doubts about the pathway Jenson takes to a theological interpretation. Are authorial intentions really as private as Jenson suggests (and Vanhoozer, for example, denies)? A comment Jenson made to post-graduates at a seminar on Wednesday morning about the infinite malleability of texts makes one wonder about the distinction between reading a text and projecting onto the text – if this distinction is lost the proposal of a creedal exegesis seems to have a certain kind of arbitrariness. However, even if Jenson is wrong about hermeneutics, it does not follow that his theological reflections on the text of Genesis 1 are wrong, just that its relation to something one might call ‘the meaning of Genesis 1’ is different from how he conceives it.

One might also think that Jenson’s suggestion that the contingent creaturely life of Jesus is part of the eternal life and conversation which is the Triune God requires considerably more unpacking than Jenson is want to do. Might Jenson’s formulation suggest that this creature who is also creator might be in fact self-creating? Might Ockham be cutting himself shaving?

A final thought: however one arrives, one never leaves a Jenson lecture unchanged. Whether he is lecturing on theology proper, on eschatology, on the Trinity, on culture, on anthropology, on ecumenism or on the relationship between Holy Scripture and the Church’s Creeds, Jenson is undoubtedly one of the most original and erudite theologians of our time. Certainly, as one commentator noted, ‘Jenson’s mind makes stimulating company’. One comes away from this series of Burns Lectures with a renewed love for Scripture, with a new appreciation of the abiding witness and value of the Church’s Creeds, and with a lively sense of doxological fervour for the Triune God. At the end of the day, isn’t that what all theology exists to be about?

 

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

5. The Creed as Critical Theory of Scripture

 

Notes by Bruce Hamill and Jason Goroncy

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

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

Robert Jenson: Burns Lecture 3 – The New Testament and the Regula Fidei

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

Professor Jenson’s third Burns Lecture was concerned with the emergence of the NT as canon.

Initially he looked at the emergence of the NT canon as documented in the writings of Irenaeus. He noted that Irenaeus‘ arguments are circular, however, this is not a vicious circularity, indeed ‘circularity is the very mark of the Holy Spirit’.

In the search for authoritative apostolic teaching, Paul’s writings were accepted in spite of the appearance of gnosticism. Paul’s letters are scripture but only in the broader context of the story to which they contribute. The acceptance of the gospels arose due to the ‘logical relation’ between the gospel and the earliest expressions of the regula fidei. ‘Jesus is risen’ – ‘the ‘shortest statement of the gospel’ – calls out for narrative specification of Jesus’ identity. The gospel offered precisely that thickness of description and ‘morally and religiously specific news’ that the Church’s continuing identity required. On the other hand the theology of Paul and the other writers gave specificity to the meaning of ‘is risen’. So ‘Jesus’ is a reference to a real person; ‘is risen’ is a statement of ‘utmost salvific import’, especially in Second Temple Judaism.

The overall argument of the lecture was for the mutual interdependence of gospels and letters, alongside the mutual interdependence of creed and canon. Just as the crisis of identity threatening the Church’s fading regula fidei called for both the narrative of the gospels and the theology of the letters, so the emerging creedal formulations arising out of the regula fidei required the canon.

In something of a introductory survey of the Second-Century Church, Jenson reminded us that it was Clement of Alexandria who was the first to refer to the ‘Old Testament’ and to the ‘New Testament’. He also argued that the NT canon probably would have been formed even without Marcion, but that it may have been a different canon. Still, ‘we cannot say’.

Jenson proceeded to argue that creed and canon ‘fit together’ like two halves of a puzzle: the NT is indispensable to the creedal tradition and the canon is indispensable to the NT. Although he didn’t specify which creeds have authority for the Church (e.g. what ought we make of the Reformation creeds?), he did define the criterion by which that may be determined. He reserved the title ‘creed’ for those statements which derived ‘organically out of the regula fidei‘. Thus this notion of the communal self-consciousness of the first witnesses (he praised Bauckham’s recent study here, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses) becomes more and more central to his emerging argument. Canon and creed together as the source of the identity of the Church over time take over where ‘regula fidei’ leaves off.

He made a brief comment on inspiration, stressing that the work of the Spirit – undergirding that circular reasoning we talked of earlier – was a work from within (not from outside) both the writers and the interpreters of the canon. The inspiration of the Spirit, on Jenson’s view, is not a gift separable from the presence of the Spirit. Like other gifts, it is a gift in the self-giving of the Spirit and not apart from that.

Past Lectures:

1. Creed, Scripture, and Their Modern Alienation

2. The Tanakh as Christian Scripture

Next Lectures:

4. The Apostles’ Creed

5. The Creed as Critical Theory of Scripture

6. Genesis 1:1 and Luke 1:26-38

 

Notes by Bruce Hamill and Jason Goroncy

Robert Jenson: Burns Lecture 2 – The Tanakh as Christian Scripture

robert-jenson-3-1
© 2009. Photo taken by John Roxborogh, when Robert Jenson visited the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership in Dunedin. Used with permission.

The Burns Lectures are definitely warming up. In this lecture Robert Jenson dealt with the Tanakh, or Old Testament (as is his preferred terminology with appropriate qualification: ‘old’ equals ‘prior’ rather than ‘antiquated’) as Christian scripture. He began by clarifying the appropriate questions – the status of the OT as Christian scripture was never questioned and for Jenson this can’t be the Church’s question since it is both absolutely prior (presumably in the sense that it constitutes the world in which the Christian faith is born) and necessary for the Church’s self-understanding. Jenson says that the really interesting question for the first Christians was a kind of obverse to that which questions the status of Israel’s scriptures, namely whether Israel’s scriptures could accept the proclamation of the resurrection. The Church, he insisted, did not accept Israel’s scriptures. Rather, Israel’s scriptures received the Church. Jenson noted that for the century, it was Israel’s scriptures which served the Gospel rather than the obverse. This question is alive even though it cannot be clearly asked since God has already answered it in raising Jesus.

Jenson proceeded to highlight how this question is constantly in the background of NT writing and how the NT demonstrates in the way it tells its story a ‘narrative harmony’ with Israel’s scriptures – relationship between passion narrative and Isaiah 53 being a case in point. The OT prophets were the one’s who provided the answer to ‘why’ did Jesus needed to die. Jenson argued that we cannot ask why the OT Scripture after Christ. Rather, we can only ask how scripture is the way for the Christian community. He also observed that the Church reads the OT as narrative because her gospel is itself a narrative, and because her gospel recognizes itself as the climax of the story told in the OT. Jenson cautioned about ‘unguarded talk of the unique fullness of God’s revelation in Christ’ [is that the mythological Christomonism?]. Such talk requires, says Jenson, the important qualification that the God present to the OT sages is the same Word, Jesus Christ. Jesus taught the scriptures with ‘authority’ says Jenson, ‘that is, as if he were the author … because, in a sense, he is’. Jenson continued this line with comments like ‘Christ prayed the psalms as the leader of Israel’s worship gathered as the body of Christ’. When ancient Israel gathered in the temple with their hymns and lamentations they were gathered as ‘the body of Christ’. At this point he introduced some of the difficult issues that were to arise later in his lecture also. In response to those who wonder whether Christians can pray the Psalms that call for the destruction of their enemies and the bashing of babies against rocks, he suggested, with some rhetorical flourish, that they could pray them at the foot of the cross against the devil and his angels. [We shall return to this claim]

The key question which the latter part of Jenson’s lecture focuses on is not whether the OT is Christian scripture but precisely how it so functions. Jenson’s answer is that it functions as ‘narrative of God’s history with his people’, including the Church. This arises because the Church’s gospel is narrative and it identifies itself as the climax of the narrative of Israel’s history. Why this should be so stems from the character of the ‘regula fidei’ as a ‘plotted sequence of God’s acts’ (economy) on the one hand and the nature of the book the Church wrote as a second testament. He interestingly contrasts the two movements to emerge from old Israel with the destruction of the temple – rabbinic Judaism ended up using the Tanakh differently from the Church because their second testament (Mishnah) had a legal character which meant that they read their Torah with law as a guiding concept. On the other hand the Church with its narrative gospel ended up contextualising law within the narrative of God with his people. This also had a lot to do with Paul’s very complex problematisation of the law.

The ‘how’ question in relation to the role of the OT was forged in contrast to various challenges to the initial role of the OT – Gnosticism, Marcionism, and Platonism. Although there was a certain ‘Church History 101’ feel to the lecture here, Jenson’s characterization of the movements and issues was always interesting. In response to all these developments, but particularly to that ‘monomaniacal Paulinist’ Marcion, Jenson says that Christians have no way of avoiding the fact that the God of Israel is a ‘man of war’ who goes into battle, sometimes for, sometimes against, his people, but a God who takes sides in history. This, says Jenson, is the only alternative to a god who abandons history. God is either involved in fallen history as the God of Israel is, or God is not. If God is to engage a violent history God cannot do so without being a ‘God of war’, that is, without getting God’s hands dirty. And it seems, for Jenson, to be involved is to be implicated as an agent of violence. Like Hans Boersma has also recently argued, Jenson seems to hold that God uses violence as a means justified by God’s ends – that God participates in the world’s violence but he does so by entering into that violence and dying in it, through which violence is undone.

When questioned as to whether there was a third alternative, namely to suffer violence as the crucified one, Jenson responded effectively that in relation to this issue it was not really a third alternative since the crucifixion was an event in which God was both the crucifier and the crucified – and therefore, presumably, not non-violent. He also presumed that the question was motivated by the issue of theodicy.

Three critical questions arise at this point:

  1. The first picks up on the difference the revelation of God in Christ makes. Why did Jenson limit the praying of that psalm to prayers against “the devil and his angels”? If he is to be consistently true to the ‘man of war’ motif, why do not Christians pray against their human enemies and their enemy’s babies? And if they do so, how is this consistent with love for one’s enemies?
  2. Is it necessary that if the Father sent the Son to the cross and the Son went to the cross in obedience to the Father that the God of Israel must be seen as both the crucified and the crucifier? Surely the willingness to be crucified and the willingness to let the Son be crucified (not my will but yours) do not entail the agency of crucifixion. Surely the fact that this evil event is ultimately good (Friday) lies in the good consequent upon it (for the joy that was set before him). There is no paradoxical necessity to make God (in whom there is no darkness) the agent of death. Surely the triune God is here its defeater.
  3. Finally, does the fact that the Old Testament is the Church’s scripture rule out the possibility that it, like the New Testament, is a ‘text in travail’ bearing witness to Israel education by God. Is it not possible to discern in the light of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ a journey within Israel to unlearn pagan violence – we think here of a trajectory which includes the Cain/Abel story, the Akideh, the repentance of God post flood, the Joseph story, story of Job, the servant songs and so much more. So rather than accepting a strand which is taken for granted in the scriptures – God as man of war – why not discern how that strand is being deconstructed in the course of Israel’s journey with God? If such a reading is persuasive then the motivation to question the ‘man of war’ motif need not be motivated by theodicy, or not in any simplistic way.

 

Past Lectures:

1. Creed, Scripture, and Their Modern Alienation

Following Lectures:

3. The New Testament and the Regula Fidei

4. The Apostles’ Creed

5. The Creed as Critical Theory of Scripture

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

 

Notes by Bruce Hamill and Jason Goroncy

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:

Robert Jenson @ Otago: ‘The Regula Fidei and Scripture’

robert-jenson-2During March, the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Otago will be hosting Professor Robert Jenson who will deliver the 2009 Burns Lectures.

The title for the series is ‘The Regula Fidei and Scripture’, and will include the following lectures:

1. ‘Creed, Scripture, and Their Modern Alienation’, Wednesday March 11th, 5.10pm, Archway 2 Lecture Theatre.

2. ‘The Tanakh as Christian Scripture’, Thursday March 12th, 5.10pm, Archway 2 Lecture Theatre.

3. ‘The New Testament and the Regula Fidei’, Friday March 13th, 5.10pm, Archway 2 Lecture Theatre.

4. ‘The Apostles’ Creed’, Tuesday March 17th, 5.10pm, Archway 2 Lecture Theatre.

5. ‘The Creed as Critical Theory of Scripture’, Wednesday March 18th, 5.10pm, Archway 2 Lecture Theatre.

6. ‘Genesis 1:1 and Luke 1:26-38’, Thursday March 19th, 5.10pm, Archway 2 Lecture Theatre.

For more information, contact the department.

Conversations with Poppi about God: A Review

Robert W. Jenson & Solveig Lucia Gold, Conversations with Poppi about God: An Eight-Year-Old and Her Theologian Grandfather Trade Questions (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006). 158 pages. ISBN: 97815874321613. Review copy courtesy of Brazos Press.

When was the last time you had a conversation about baptism, temptation, purgatory, time, economics, the Nicene Creed, creation, the Trinity, Christmas, metaphysics, church calendars, evil, indulgences, the Holy Spirit, liturgy, Lucifer, hamsters, a ‘really stupid’ bishop, the disestablishment of the Roman Church, the imago Dei, and a host of other things, all with the same person? When was the last time you did so with a person who just happens to be a world-renowned Lutheran, and ecumenical, theologian? When was the last time you did so with an eight-year-old who knows more about Dante than not a few philosophy undergrads?

In this remarkable book, we are invited to eavesdrop on a spontaneous and unscripted conversation between elementary schoolgirl Solveig Lucia Gold and her septuagenarian grandfather affectionately called ‘Poppi’, more formally known as the Reverend Canon Professor Dr. D. Robert W. Jenson, B.A., B.D., M.A., D.Theol., D.H.L., DD.

The book comprises the verbatim transcripts – with minor editing of ‘Ums’, ‘Well, buts …’ and ‘You knows…’, etc – of conversations recorded on a Radio Shack cassette recorder over a series of weekends in which Solveig visited her grandparents (‘Poppi’ and ‘Mimi’) in Princeton. After each session, Mimi typed it up.

The authors invite us to read their book ‘as you would a Platonic dialogue, though in this one, the role of Socrates goes back and forth’ (p. 10). Their discussion is more wide-ranging than most systematic theologies, and is filled with wit, warmth and wisdom.

Time for an example:

Solveig: How can God pick who goes to heaven or hell?

Poppi: By looking at Jesus, who loves you, Solveig.

Solveig: Can you show me?

Poppi: One way of saying what happened with Jesus is that Jesus so attached himself to you that if God the Father wants his Son, Jesus, back, he is stuck with you too. Which is how he picks you. (p. 20)

The young Episcopalian and her ‘sort of half Anglican and half Lutheran’ (p. 70) Poppi return to some themes a number of times over the weekends. One such theme that offers some of the book’s richest insights concerns the Spirit, or ‘God’s liveliness’ (p. 38), as the good Professor Dr Poppi likes to remind his granddaughter. Solveig tries on more than one occasion to argue a case that the second and third articles in the Creed ought to be reversed not only because ‘all of us share in the Spirit’ (Father and Son included), but also because that’s how you cross yourself. Poppi agrees, ‘Father, Spirit, Son is probably a better arrangement’ (p. 146). The Spirit is also ‘God’s own future that he is looking forward to’ (p. 42). They compare God’s liveliness with Santa Claus who is ‘sort of like a messenger from the Holy Spirit – in a way’ (p. 100), before coming to discern the spirits to see if they are from God, for whom to have Spirit means that he ‘doesn’t stay shut up in himself … but that the goodness and mercy – and wrath, when it comes to that – that is in God blows out from him to hit you and me. And that means that just like your spirit is yours and not mine, even though your spirit effects me, so God’s Spirit is his and not a spirit like Santa Claus’ (p. 101).

In between laughs, they talk about what it is about Holy Communion – Solveig’s ‘favourite part of going to church’ because she gets to ‘stretch and walk around a little’ (p. 31) – that means that ‘the wine should be the very best’ (p. 33) and that dissolvable bread should be banned. The meal should be appetising, and not like those baptisms ‘when they just dribble a couple of drops on the baby’ (p. 34). They also talk about a confirmation service led by ‘this weird bishop guy’ who is ‘really stupid’ (p. 34).

While I’m trying to resist the temptation to share every gem in the book (and there are lots), allow me one more, this time on heaven, purgatory, and hell:

Solveig: Do you think of where you might go after you die as two places or three places? I think of it as three places.

Poppi: What three is that?

Solveig: Heaven, purgatory, and hell.

Poppi: So you hold to the doctrine of purgatory?

Solveig: Yes.

Poppi: You know that is very controversial.

Solveig: Why? It’s in Dante, isn’t it?

Poppi: Well, it’s in Dante, yes. But of course, Dante isn’t exactly in the Bible.

Solveig: No. But he’s still …

Poppi: The thing about purgatory is that it’s a very reasonable idea. It’s just that we don’t know if it is true.

Solveig: Except … Maybe God thinks that you should just go to two places. If you are bad, he has no patience with you at all, and he will just sort you to go to heaven or hell. I think that is reasonable enough.

Poppi: That God is impatient?

Solveig: Yes.

Poppi: That’s where I think the notion of purgatory is reasonable. I don’t think the Bible talks about God’s being impatient in quite that way.

Solveig: If he isn’t impatient, maybe he doesn’t want us to spend time thinking about where we should go.

Poppi: You know that plate that your mother and father gave us that hangs on the wall in the dining room?

Solveig: Yes.

Poppi: Remember what it says on it?

Solveig: I don’t remember what it says.

Poppi: It says, ‘I desire not the death of the wicked.’

Solveig: ‘As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked.’

Poppi: Right. So the biblical God takes no pleasure in sending people to hell, and that’s why I think that purgatory is a reasonable idea. The problem is we don’t have any way of knowing whether the purgatory idea is true or not.

Solveig: It’s just Dante’s idea.

Poppi: Well, it was older than Dante.

Solveig: It was?

Poppi: Yes.

Solveig: Yes. Well, see, I think of Dante as a theologian, in a way.

Poppi: He was a very great theologian.

Solveig: Yeah, I know. I’m saying that he kind of liked to make up things he wasn’t quite sure about, if you know what I mean.

The delightful exchanges in this album offer us a model of how good theological dialogue can and should take place: with mutual respect and humility which delights in both the giving and the receiving; with an eye on the scripture, an eye on the tradition, and an eye on the world (for those who possess at least three eyes); and within an environment of safety in which no idea is too whacky and no avenue of enquiry cut off prematurely.

Carl Braaten’s words regarding this book are worth repeating,

Robert Jenson has created a new medium, with his granddaughter Solveig, to teach the basics of the Christian faith. Just as Martin Luther wrote his Small Catechism for children, this book of conversations covers the beliefs and practices of the Christian church – among them the commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the sacraments – in a way that parents, regardless of their denomination, can confidently read and discuss with their children. Robert Jenson has translated the core convictions of his two volumes of Systematic Theology into simple truths that his eight-year-old grandchild can understand in the course of their unrehearsed and lively conversations. If you want to know what a sophisticated theologian really believes, listen to him explain the mysteries of the Christian faith to a child in simple terms without being simplistic.