Friday, June 12, 2009

Blogging Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology: Volume 1, Part I: "Prolegomena," Chs. 1-3

This is part of a series blogging through Robert Jenson's two-volume Systematic Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). For more information, see the introduction to the series.

Chapter 1: "What Systematic Theology Is About"

I. What Prolegomena Are Appropriate for Thinking the Gospel

The church needs no prior justification to think the gospel, whatever modernity's demands have placed on works of theology in the past. Jenson's prolegomena, therefore, will be merely a sort of preview of what is to come. The gospel is the message about the man Jesus about whom people made the claim that, after he had died, he was alive again. This message and the commission to tell it to others constitutes the church, and theology is the church's thinking of the gospel, whether to and for creatures or Creator.

II. The Role of Prolegomena From Thomas Through Enlightenment to Today

Thomas Aquinas inadvertently began the modern tradition of providing prior methodological justification for what comes later in a system of theology by later misunderstanding of who Thomas includes in his audience when he refers to "all" knowing this or that self-evident truth. This led to the false distinction between "natural" and "revealed" knowledge. The ecclesial products of the Protestant Reformation sought to base their justification instead in scriptural authority; the Enlightenment, however, decimated all a priori biblical assumptions as a foundation of antecedent agreement. This led to "Neo-Protestantism" attempting and failing once again to overcome the Enlightenment through ever more rigorous prolegomena. "The project is hypertropic because it is hopeless" (p. 9). While engagement with prior and present religious cultures, Christian and otherwise, is necessary and good for theology, the primal mistake was and is to confuse "general knowledge/humanity" with late Mediterranean antiquity's theology -- otherwise erroneously known today as "philosophy." This discourse is no less theological than Christian theology; it merely has a different subject.

III. Jesus' Resurrection as the Object of the Gospel's Witness

Both "speculative" and "practical" theology is necessary to be faithful. The self-reflective nature of the task is all-important: "Does this teaching or other practice further or hinder the saying of the gospel?" (p. 11). The most important way for the church to keep itself from becoming its own object instead of that proper to it is always to remember that the gospel is witness to something: the raising of Jesus by the God of Israel. "Whoever" or "whatever" is the subject of this raising -- alongside but in truth equivalent to the raising itself -- is the proper object of Christian theology.

IV. The Triune God as Object of Christian Theology

The only way the God of the resurrection may be an object for the church is if the God identified by that event and its subsequent community is identified with them. To do so is explicitly to step into the Christian doctrine of Trinity. And it is in trinitarian faith that both prayer and proclamation are rightly ordered and given the ability to grasp their object.

V. Hermeneutics as Interpretation as the Church's Thought

Thinking the gospel requires thought precisely because there is no available ahistorical, pure mediation of a "timeless" gospel for every age, and thus every generation of believers must interpret anew what the gospel means today. The gospel is historical; the community of the gospel lives in and through history; the gospel as a future-promising, future-opening word is a history itself. Thus "hermeneutic" is born in the "seam" (p. 16) between the questions of "gospel then" and "gospel today."

VI. Finally, What Theology Is

"Theology is critical and possibly innovative interpretation at the turn from hearing to speaking the gospel" (p. 16). It is to commend to the community that x rather than y is a more faithful rendering of gospel speech/life. In this spirit, doctrine is when the church teaches broadly to prefer x instead of y. Dogma is when it does so irreversibly, as at Nicea, so that going forward, this decision determines the continuity or shattering of the gospel's church. Theology over time and place is not, however, a stacking up of bare propositions, but ongoing discourse and debate.

VII. The Materiality of Christian Grammar

Theology may unapologetically be described as a sort of grammar, "Christianese." Such grammar is internal to the church's task, but it is not empty speech, for Christian grammar makes material claims about the world it names as truthful. It does so without dissolution into mere relative subjectivity -- that is, theology speaks prescriptively and not merely descriptively -- exactly because the church claims to receive its language from the one true God.

VIII. Theology's Universal Hermeneutics

Theology makes claims that must be either foundational or laughable, for it either knows the grain of the universe or it does not. Thus theology is universal hermeneutics, and just so need not fall into the ever-present temptation to justify itself by recourse to alien philosophies claiming priority over against it.

IX. The Nature and Task of Systematic Theology

Systematic theology inevitably comes to the question, Given how our forebears did gospel then, how might we do that same gospel tomorrow? Thus historical and normative theology may never be separated without rendering both lifeless. Therefore pressing issues today will be explored alongside issues that pressed previous generations.


"In that the gospel always somehow makes the claim that Jesus is risen, the gospel is a message about an alleged event. That is, the gospel is a piece of news, even when we speak it to God; it belongs, insofar, to the same general class of utterances as 'there was an accident this morning on Main Street.' Therefore the gospel cannot occur apart from the process of its own tradition; the occurrence of the gospel depends on the chain of witnesses who have brought the news from the first witnesses to those who now hear.

"The characterization of theology as reflection internal to the attempt to speak gospel must therefore be amplified. We do not in any unmediated way have this gospel that we are to speak; we have it only as we receive it. To state the full case we must therefore say that theology is reflection internal to the act of tradition, to the turn from hearing something to speaking it. Theology is an act of interpretation: it begins with a received word and issues in a new word essentially related to the old word. Theology's question is always: In that we have heard and seen such-and-such discourse as gospel, what shall we now say and do that gospel may again be spoken?" (p. 14)

Further Thoughts & Questions...

In this opening chapter Jenson lays waste more or less to every prized assumption of liberal modernity, especially as embodied in American seminaries and biblical scholarship. Simply watching him in action is breathtaking, the way by a mere turn of a word he devastates the ridiculous notions that have crept into how Christians "must" do theology if wanting to be "respectable" or "modern." Jenson rightly asserts the claim of the church as first and primary receiver, transmitter, and therefore thinker of the gospel.

Belonging to an ecclesial tradition unfortunately divorced from history and rejecting any need for creeds, I want to ask: What does it mean for dogma to be irreversible? Is it possible for the church to make a dogmatic mistake? If so, does it thereby negate its own existence, and any possibility for rectification? Furthermore, what if a church believes the essence of the creeds but does not say or espouse them?

Overall, a remarkable and programmatic chapter. If only it could be read before every seminarian in America begins classes.

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Chapter 2: "The Norms of Theological Judgment"

I. The Church's Tradition and the Need for Guiding Norms

Theology must know how to identify what is or is not true gospel, and thus as a living tradition through history the church institutes roles and practices in order faithfully to carry on the apostolic witness to the resurrection. Ultimately confidence is not in any institution or idea or practice but in God the Holy Spirit who is the community's hope and future and guiding agent for life and faith.

II. The Canon of Scripture

The church receives the canon of Scripture inasmuch as it also created it. The dogmatic decision of the post-apostolic community that certain documents faithfully attest to the apostolic witness to the resurrection, and others do not, not only certifies (or destroys!) the continuity of the church across time, but establishes the norma normans non normata, the norm over which there is no other norm, for all future saying of the gospel in the community of the risen Lord.

III. The Church's Various Uses of the Canon

Scripture may not become, because it is not, object of faith, for that is only "God in his living word of the gospel" (p. 28). Within this distinction there are two uses important to distinguish for the present work: the authority of Scripture as living word of God in the community and the authority of Scripture "as a norm used in the church's theological effort to speak that living word" (p. 29).

IV. The Authority of Scripture

Scripture's authority exists through different kinds of Scripture. First, "the canon of Israel's Scripture is for the church a sheer given" (p. 30). The church does not decide or create the Old Testament; it is just there. From there the genre of "Gospel" is created by Mark and those after him to answer the question, Who is Jesus? "A Gospel is a very long proposition of the form 'Jesus, the one who..., is risen'" (p. 32). The New Testament is composed of diverse documents attesting by the authority of the apostles to the resurrection of Jesus. Because there is such great diversity, the church's questions cannot be answered by asking what the Bible says; it is likely to say multiple things! Instead, the test must be hermeneutical: "exegetical success or failure with mandated churchly homiletical, liturgical, and catechetical uses of Scripture" (p. 33). And a system of theology (such as the present work!) must be tested against the entirety of Scripture's witness in all its wild complexity.

V. The Authority of Instituted Liturgy

Certain "institutions" are dogmatically mandated by the church as practiced rites repeated regularly over time, such as baptism, ordination, or the use of Scripture in liturgy. The right question about such institutions is not who was the progenitor of one or the other, or by whose authority he did so, or whether it may be classified a "sacrament." Instead, the church must discover what God would have done in his church, how, and for what reason, "and only thereafter worry about how to classify each of the various things we are thus obligated to do" (p. 35).

VI. The Authority of Rules, Confessions, Creeds, and Dogma

There is no such thing as "no creed but Christ." The church in its mission must and does state the message of the gospel. A rule of faith is primarily instructional, for the sake of those new and upcoming in the life ordered by the gospel. A confession is essentially trinitarian content about the God into whom those new and upcoming are baptized, and a creed is a confession given dogmatic standing. Finally, dogma is the irrevocable decision of the church at a certain time about a certain matter of faith or practice, but only has meaning in the whole history of the church's theological thought. All of these norms exist because of the historical nature of the church and, necessarily, by faith in the Holy Spirit's guiding.

VII. The Necessity of the Teaching Office

Because these authoritative norms are texts, and are so precisely as the church's possession, there need be a way for the church to speak to itself, over time, in instruction and correction. This living teaching office -- for it cannot be dead, that is, unable to speak or surprise, like the texts -- must have some "diachronic unity" over time, and thus leads to the question of succession. Ultimately, like so much else in the church's life, faith here resides in God's use of such structures to sustain and build up his church.


"No structures of historical continuity merely as such can assure the integrity of witness to reality that is other than the transmitting group, at least if that witness is such as to require hermeneutical reflection. Thus neither Scripture nor creed nor liturgy nor teaching office, nor yet their ensemble, can as historical structures guarantee the fidelity of our proclamation and prayer to the apostolic witness. Affirmation that the church is still the church pledges the certainty of a historical continuity that no structure of historical continuity can make certain. This affirmation therefore reaches beyond its immediate object to be faith that God uses the church's communal structures to preserve the gospel's temporal self-identity and so also the temporal self-identity of the gospel's community." (p. 25)

Further Thoughts & Questions...

Once again my tradition's colors reveal themselves in listening to an ecumenical Lutheran theologian articulate the norms that must govern the church's life over time. I simply do not know (from church) the historical practices or institutions of theological tradition, ordination, creed, dogma, or magisterium. Incidentally, this week a friend lent my wife Frank Viola's recent book, Pagan Christianity?, and flipping through it I saw so much that resonated with churches of Christ yet so much also, under the tutelage of Jenson, that is flatly absurd. The church exists across history and so has a tradition -- full stop. There is no getting around this.

In that light, however, I once again find myself wondering what it means for those ecclesial streams whose tributary is the Reformation -- which includes Jenson! -- which, accordingly, do not have some such thing as apostolic succession or diachronic unity of the teaching office. Can the Spirit act even so? Can Scripture speak? Can Jesus reclaim or reconstitute a faithful church? I am so fascinated to see how he addresses the questions of division, which from the preface is clearly tragically important to him. Either way, a wonderful and challenging chapter.

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Chapter 3: "The Identification of God"

I. The God Who Raised Jesus From the Dead

The one who raised Jesus from the dead is none other than the God of Israel, and it is the perennial (but dogmatically early avoided) heresy of the church to deny this fact by word or deed.

II. The Triune God of Exodus and Resurrection

Israel is constituted by the events of Exodus. "Asked who God is, Israel's answer is, 'Whoever rescued us from Egypt.' Asked about her access to this God, Israel's answer is, 'We are permitted to call on him by name,'" YHWH (p. 44). Again: "To the question, 'Who is God?' the New Testament has one new descriptively identifying answer: 'Whoever raised Jesus from the dead.' ... Thus 'the one who rescued Israel from Egypt' is confirmed as an identification of God in that it is continued 'as he thereupon rescued the Israelite Jesus from the dead'" (p. 44). This new act entails new description of this God, new naming. The God of Israel is the Father of the one raised from the dead, Jesus his Son, and the Spirit is the enabling future of the two and of the community established by baptizing in these three names. Just as narrative and name appear together in Israel's identification of its God "(I am YHWH your God, who..."), so "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" is at once both name and compressed scriptural narrative.

III. The Identification of Israel's God By and With Temporal Events

The God of Israel and the church is a particular God identified by particular events in created time. Was this God "before" Exodus, "before" resurrection? He was, insofar as he promised to Israel before Israel was that Exodus would come -- that is, God spoke a yet-to-be future to Abraham that he would become a might nation. Similarly, the death of the Son of God did not thereby subtract one from three, but instead, precisely as a temporal event in the life of the man who was God, belongs to the very life of the triune God.

IV. Cultures, Idols, and the Free Election of the One God

The one God is not mere abstract "religion," as if "religious sentiment" were a generally available and positive aspect of human culture. Rather, the one God of Israel jealously demands allegiance, and the word for this turning away from false gods to the living God is conversion. And while cultures and religions exist, by his free decision God chooses Israel and thus himself establishes their culture and their religion. Whatever other idolatrous projections obtain within or outside of Israel, God chooses to reveals himself in truth.

V. Religion and Eternity

"God" does not denote the same thing for every person, culture, or time. More specifically, "religion" envisions and necessitates time as bracketed on each end, called "eternity," a static timelessness equivalent to "god(s)." It is not intrinsic that god(s) as such may be able to be interacted with or addressed; similarly, to know the meaning of a predicate one must know the identity of the subject. "God redeems" may mean "Baal fertilizes the crops" or "YHWH delivers from Egypt" depending on which god or gods are in question. Finally, the very notion of religious projection, of "the good" or "gods beyond," entails a "relapse from a self-introduction of God that is the enabling truth of every grasp for eternity" (p. 57).

VI. The One Biblical God of the One Biblical Narrative

The genre of Scripture is narrative, and there is an identifiable biblical narrative because Christians have affirmed from the first that there is a single identifiable agent from start to finish within the narrative. And this is because all of Scripture, in whole and in part, attests and points to the resurrection of Jesus. Any other construal of biblical unity other than that found in the church is bound to fail precisely because the Bible was composed and received by, and belongs to, the church.

VII. Theology of the Triune God Identified By and With His History With Us

If the God of the Exodus and the resurrection is merely identified by them yet not with them, space is left between the "eternal" and those in time -- in which space idolatry is birthed. Instead, God is identified with these temporal events and so is precisely the triune God. "The primal systematic function of trinitarian teaching is to identify the theos in 'theology'" (p. 60). Because of this, the Son and the Spirit, usually attended to in "our" history, will be addressed as part of the whole doctrine of God.


"Precisely being able to turn from their gods to the true God occasioned 'the joy' with which the apostles' gentile converts 'received the word.' In the act of faith, gentile believers recognize themselves as those who have worshiped or might worship Moloch the baby-killer or Astarte the universal whore or Deutsches Blut or the Free Market or the Dialectic of History or the Metaphor of our gender or ethnic ressentiment, and on through an endless list of tyrants. Only a naivete impossible for the apostolic church, which fully inhabited the religious maelstrom of late antiquity, can think that religion as such is a good thing or that gods are necessarily beneficent. ...

"Such things as forgiveness or liberation or empowerment are for gentiles what happen on the way of conversion from the gods to the God of Israel. They are not therefore unimportant. So, to take a principal example, not acknowledging the true God is sin, and therefore the privilege of conversion to him is forgiveness; moreover, in its undeserved happening it is forgiveness by grace alone occurring in this act of faith alone. But the 'therefore' in the preceding sentence and in all others like it is essential. Conversions to other religions or yogas or therapies may also in their own ways be describable as 'forgiveness' or 'liberation' and so on. To such possibilities the gospel's messengers can only say: 'We are not here to entice you into our religion by benefits allegedly found only in it. We are here to introduce you to the true God, for whatever he can do with you -- which may well be suffering and oppression.' " (pp. 50-51)

Further Thoughts & Questions

One of the most striking and laudable characteristics of Robert Jenson's theology is his steadfast refusal to relegate Israel to the background, even in the midst of his central emphases on the resurrection and the Trinity. Analogously, it was a happy surprise to see just how much, even in this very systematic theology, he not only refers to but quotes from Scripture. For Jenson theological thinking, however conceptual or difficult or supposedly irrelevant to today's concerns, is always rooted irrevocably to the concrete story of God and God's people and God's creation. I saw that N.T. Wright will be at the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton for a set time this year, and for just this reason it is fascinating to imagine Jenson and Wright having a conversation about Israel, Jesus, Paul, atonement, and the church. Wow.

No questions to conclude this opening salvo of my attempt at blogging through this great work of theology; only admiration at Jenson's constant boldness in proclaiming the truths of the gospel in the face of opposition or charges of being antiquated or irrelevant by the academy or some sectors in the church. Here's to continued learning from this great teacher -- and to a much condensed sequel to this mammoth first entry.


  1. I noticed that you mentioned Frank Viola's "Pagan Christianity?" in your blog. I thought you might be interested in the sequel, which goes into the constructive side of the argument. It’s called “Reimagining Church”. It picks up where “Pagan Christianity” left off and continues the conversation. (“Pagan Christianity” was never meant to be a stand alone book; it’s part one of the conversation.) “Reimagining Church” is endorsed by Leonard Sweet, Shane Claiborne, Alan Hirsch, and many others. You can read a sample chapter at .
    It’s also available on Frank is also blogging now at .

    Also, for a look at the purpose and vision behind these books, check out Viola's brand new book, "From Eternity to Here" at .