Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Blogging Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology: Volume 1, Part II: "The Triune Identity," Chs. 4-6

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 4: "The Way of God's Identity"

I. The Identifiable Particularity of the One God

The Exodus and resurrection events identify their agent not only as God, but as this God rather than that one, and this particularity may be called God's hypostatic being. Contrary to popular belief, "all aspects" (p. 63) of the triune God's hypostatic being are present in Israel's Scripture.

II. The Dramatic Coherence of God's Identity

The triune God is known through his story with his creatures. While the deities of religions are in general identified as transcendent removal from history, and as "death's amelioration" (p. 66), not so Israel's God. The story of the Old Testament is Israel's repeated insistence -- even in the face of that ultimate crisis, exile -- on identifying, re-imagining, and reinterpreting the protagonist, instigator, hope, and redeemer of its life and future as the one God who identifies himself exactly with history's contingencies. Similarly, this God is the enemy of death, and so in the death of the Son does not abandon or betray himself but gathers this focal crisis into his own life, so that crucifixion and resurrection belong to the triune life of God. Thus Israel knew beforehand that its God must inevitably deal with the threat of death in time.

III. The God Whose Being is Promised Anticipation

In contrast to deity as infinitely enduring sameness, Israel's God is defined by the future he enables, the anticipation he offers, the promise he speaks. Established order is the slavery of Egypt, is the bureaucracy of monarchy, is the captivity of temple -- and this God is only danger to such established limitations. From Abraham to Exodus to Torah to David to return from Babylon, Israel's God is in the business of unforeseen futures delivered as gift. The final eschatological realization of this future may be seen as image in apocalyptic prophecy, but ultimately only "by the Lord's intrusion" (p. 70) will the new age transform and overtake the old.

IV. The Role of Sin and Evil in God's Sovereign Purpose in Christ

Ineluctably God's people fall prey time and again to sin, to rebellion from the God who identifies with this community. But would death have come, and so would Christ have come, if there had been no sin? The question is too abstract and/or unhelpful precisely because it conceives of the incarnation as either "an emergency measure" or "construable apart from sin" (p. 73), neither of which theology may affirm. Somehow, sin and evil belong to the good long purposes of God for his creation in Christ.


"The crisis of the total biblical narrative is the Crucifixion. As the cry of dereliction laments, the one called 'Father' here hands the one called 'Son' over to oppositional and deadly creatures. Therewith it becomes problematic that anything specified by listing 'Father, Son, and Holy Spirit' can be one God and not rather a mutually betraying pantheon. If the phrase can still be the name of one self-identical personal reality, his identity must be constituted precisely in the integration of this abandonment. The God of crucifixion and resurrection is one with himself in a moment of supreme dramatic self-transcendence or not at all." (p. 65)

Further Thoughts & Questions...

Once again Jenson's relentless insistence on the story of God with his people and, centrally, the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, as that which identifies "which" God is in view and "how" this God is, is inexhaustibly substantive and edifying for the project of Christian theology. There are authors and thinkers who force you constantly to reorder, to refocus, the priorities and the worldview you hold. (I think of John Howard Yoder and Wendell Berry especially here.) Robert Jenson belongs to that category. It is impossible to read him and remain unchanged in one's thinking.

My only question has to do with the translatability of this chapter's content to, say, a Sunday morning class at church. How do we speak the language of God's eternity as anticipation, as enabling future, in sentences the average person understands? This question will reappear as we go along, but this is the first instance where it presses against the dividing wall between theology in the academy and theology in the church.

Chapter 5: "The Persons of God's Identity"

I. Dramatis Dei Personae

"A story has more than one agent" (p. 75); therefore God's identity -- because it is told by his story with creatures -- must be a plurality of characters in the drama of God. The oneness of Israel's God, however, is no contradiction to this observation, for the Shema is not metaphysics but "the slogan for a drama." The dramatis dei personae is mere explication of this all-important confession.

II. The Son of God

The trinitarian notion of the Son is not foreign to Israel. As the Shekinah -- all those terms and tales of the Lord as "settled" to Israel and its story, whereby God is represented by a messenger "of" or something other than himself, yet is himself present as participant in the proceedings -- Israel's Lord "is identified with Israel in that he is identified as a participant in Israel's story with him" (p. 77). Thus could Israel, or an individual Israelite like David, be called God's son. Similarly, the incarnation names the kind of God Israel's Lord is precisely because a wholly transcendent God of "pure spirit," unwilling to get his hands dirty in the muck of Israel's world, "would be the precise antagonist of Israel's God" (p. 78). The final Shekinah figure is the Word: "The word of the Lord" that comes to prophets and patriarchs is not a mere message for the moment; it is the very same reality which comes to Israel in all of its times and experiences, the effectual word that creates, that demands recognition and response, conversation between creature and Creator, even argument. This word is the very Logos of God, which both "is" God and is "with" God (p. 80).

III. The Servant of the Lord

Israel was called ebed, the servant in the house of the Lord. That this was the people as a whole yet also somehow a person belonging to the people is made evident in the Servant Songs of Isaiah 40-55. The fathers interpreted this by the totus Christus, "the total Christ" who is both the community and the one belonging within and to the community. Thus there is one of the community to die on behalf of the entire community, and just so one in the identities of God to die and "one before whom the death is enacted" (p. 82).

IV. King, Messiah, Immanuel

The kings of Israel embody this particular space: both belonging to the community and the savior of that community. And for Israel's eschatological hope to become fully realized in time, this dual-role person must somehow both be creature and participate in the divine life without abolishing either reality but sustaining each. Israel's hope, then, is in the anointed one, the Messiah, a coming King to right all wrongs and establish justice once for all. Even this King may be Shekinah come to earth: Immanuel, "God with us."

V. The Eschatology of the Resurrection

All of Israel's eschatological hopes are answered and bound up together in the resurrection of the Messiah Jesus. The forgiveness of sins, the age to come, and resurrection from the dead all cluster around the life, death, and resurrection of this man. Yet this "first" proleptic happening, in anticipation of the final end to come, while unexpected, coheres in the context of the Lord's mission for Israel from the beginning: "to be a blessing to all nations, who are to be gathered to her God. ...By Jesus' Resurrection occurring 'first,' a sort of hole opens in the event of the End, a space for something like what used to be history, for the church and its mission" (p. 85). Not only that, it makes room for a sinful people: their sinfulness is not looked over nor does God become sinful; rather, the Son of God so identifies with the community that, as the totus Christus, together they are both sinless and righteously judged for sin.

VI. The Spirit of the Lord

While the Son appears through various figures in Israel's story, the Spirit is present explicitly from beginning to end. The Lord's breath is absolute, either creating or destroying. It is the mover of history, God's "historical agency through Israel's leadership" (p. 86). It is the agent of prophecy, speaking and bringing a previously unknown future into reality, and later becoming the content of the future promise. These hopes were both messianic and communal: one would come on whom the Spirit would rest who, as bearer of the Spirit, would give the Spirit to all.

VII. The Bearer and the Community of the Spirit

Jesus of Nazareth is this promised bearer and giver of the Spirit. The coming of the kingdom is synonymous with the outpouring of God's Holy Spirit, and so Jesus claims the authority of God as giver of this Spirit. When Jesus is raised from the dead and ascends to the right hand of God, he pours out the Spirit at Pentecost, and so "the Spirit appears in his personhood; he shows his face" (p. 88). When the Spirit appears, the church is born -- the community of the Messiah, distinct from yet identified with the risen Jesus, the eschatological fulfillment of Israel's hopes, and so a people of both Jews and Gentiles. Yet for all the problems raised by Israel's continued disagreement with and separation from the church, the church has not thereby "superseded" Israel.

VIII. The Narrative Unity of the Triune God

The God of Israel is paradigmatically "in the beginning," the Spirit is the future-bringing mover of history, and "the Shekinah, in all its modes, is the mediation of the two" (p. 89). The poles of time occupied by the personae dramatis are what specifically characterize the triunity of Israel's God present throughout its history. This leads to a final mystery to be explicated later, that somehow the God of Israel is the one to whom Jesus looks as Father and names as the source and sender of the Son and the Spirit, yet also is only one amongst these three whose mutual life is the biblical God.


"Jesus addressed his God as 'my Father,' and with him we address the same God as 'our Father.' Jesus and we address God in this way as the God of Israel. But this God is the God of Israel as the one who allows himself to be claimed by her addresses, the one to whom Israel as one nation can address all the lamentation and adoration of her history. Thus the God of Israel can be the God of Jesus and his church just insofar as Israel is in one what Jesus and the church are together, just insofar as Israel is at once the Son and the community of the Son. It is, vice versa, this duality of Israel's history that itself becomes a historical event with Jesus the Christ and his community.

"How is God, as God settled to Israel and so as a participant within her story, to face Israel's death with Israel? As he must, if he is to be in Israel's time finally identified by Israel's temporal course? And how is he just thereby to assert that he is God? The Servant Songs may, again, direct our attention. Servant Israel sings of the individual Servant that in being sent to 'a grave with the wicked,' 'he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.' Within the confrontation of the totus puer domini with death, there is one to die and there is his community to be died for. Just so, there is among the dramatis dei personae one to die and one before whom the death is enacted." (p. 82)

Further Thoughts & Questions...

Jenson is a sight to behold when reading Israel's history. He faithfully walks the balance between respecting the historical integrity and particular witness of Israel without sacrificing the church's practices of spiritual exegesis and trinitarian reading. His analysis of the presence of the Shekinah and the Spirit in Israel's story is simply wonderful; I know that various Jewish scholars and theologians have engaged Jenson on this point, and I look forward to listening to those responses and seeing how faithful they feel he is.

My question is one I fully expect him to address in Volume 2, and which I know he has addressed elsewhere: the non-supersessionism of the church. It's such a tortured and labored question, but I have had trouble jumping on the recent bandwagon that (not just otherwise, but outright) spectacular theologians like Jenson, Douglas Harink, and (I believe) Stanley Hauerwas, among others, have put forward regarding Israel's coterminous existence as God's people alongside the church. More than anything I have yet to find a coherent explication of the argument that does not do violent injustice either to Scripture or to the church's witness, or both. I recently picked up Mark Kinzer's Postmissionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People (endorsed on the back cover by both Jenson and Harink!), however, so hopefully that might offer some constructive clues.

Chapter 6: "Of One Being with the Father"

I. The New Testament's Trinitarian Logic

The Greek fathers did not Hellenize the gospel; rather, they did their best to submit their Hellenism to the authority of the gospel. The central evidence for this is in the trinitarian logic of the New Testament: "God" and "Christ" often prove interchangeable; Jesus is Lord; Father, Son, and Spirit "all demand dramatically coordinating mention" (p. 92) time and time again when speaking of the work and message of the gospel. Jesus' prayer in John 17 is central here, for unless construed as a window into the inner life of the Trinity the entire Gospel proves incoherent. After the apostolic age, the church's liturgy sustained the language of this inner logic even when it was unsure how philosophically to work out the details.

II. From the Apologists to Origen

In the midst of a culture which deemed "deity" equivalent to "impassible immunity to time," and thus in which the idea of a semi-divine mediator held sway, the gospel's earliest apologists sought to articulate the roles of Son and Spirit, sometimes only partially succeeding, but often enough proclaiming the gospel's nonconformist message even when it did not fit their preconceived notions of who or what "God" may be. For a time, then, Son and Spirit were thought of as in some sense "mediators." A different option was that offered my modalism: God remains above time but in different stages of history adopts roles through which to act on earth -- never, however, being affected himself nor identifying as any of these roles. Finally, another alternative came forth, that of subordinationism, wherein one of the three (the Father) could be identified as God -- and thus secured as safely removed from time's contingencies -- and the other two (Son and Spirit) as lesser deities allowed to operate in time. Origen's entrance onto the scene entailed a heightening and establishing of the triune structure of understanding God even if he still envisioned it as subordinate realities. His great gift to future Nicene dogma was the Logos' generation from the Father without temporal beginning, that is, eternally. The question "How divine is the Logos?" could then only lead to the more biblical question, "Is the Logos creature or not?"

III. Arius' Challenge: Nicea to Constantinople

Arius and his followers only stated the obvious: if God cannot and must not "stoop down" to human life, and if therefore the Logos is ontologically subordinate to God, then the Logos is a creature of some sort. And so Constantine called a council at Nicea in 325 and the church's teachers anathematized all who followed Arius' teaching by constructing a creed which he could not endorse. The Son is "God from God," "true God from true God," "from the being of the Father," "begotten, not created," "of one being with the Father." The God of the Bible is not undifferentiated uneventfulness, nor so distantly removed as to need a semi-god to mediate between himself and creation. Jesus the Son of God may never, in the one holy catholic church, be abstracted from the one true God, nor vice versa. In the next fifty or so years what was needed was articulation of just how the one God could somehow be "three" without then being three gods -- and the Cappadocians supplied the answer. The terminology became all-important: "hypostasis for an identifiable individual and ousia for what such an individual is with others of the same sort" (p. 105). Father, Son, and Spirit are each a hypostasis of the one divine ousia. The three may be identified individually yet it is their inner relations to one another by which they are one God: the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, who is the source of the deity of both Son and Spirit, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father as his future and as the enabling love of both Father and Son for the other. The Cappadocians' faithful minority stance was vindicated in the conclusion to the fourth century's frenzied theological disagreements at Constantinople in 381, which with Nicea was taken as one dogmatically verified creed by the council of Chalcedon in 451: Father, Son, and Spirit to be worshiped as one God.

IV. The Narrated Reality of Trinitarian Metaphysics

How does the subsistence of the trinitarian relationships actually work within the biblical narrative? Each identity of the godhead points away from himself toward the others and so constitutes the perfect love and mutuality that marks the deity of each and the unity of the three. The Father hands over all he has and is to the Son he sends; the Son directs others' gaze to the Father and acts in perfect obedience to him; the Spirit as sent by the Son speaks only what he hears in the loving discourse between Father and Son, taking all that is the Son's and declaring it to the world -- each coming to be seen as God exactly in his relentless love for, obedience to, giving of, sending of, and pointing to the glory of the others.

V. The Perfectly Mutual Action of the Triune God

In God's actions with and for creatures, it is not merely one persona who acts but the undivided agency of the Trinity. Augustine had trouble understanding this concept and so thought "Father, Son, and Spirit must simply do the same thing, or simply different things; the possibility of a mutually single act cannot occur to him" (p. 111). This collapses the Trinity in on itself and in so doing evacuates any meaning of the triune relations either for God's life or for his actions toward creatures. "The identities' agencies ad extra do not achieve an undivided work because they are indistinguishable but because they are perfectly mutual" (p. 113). This is not metaphysical acrobatics but intrinsic to the plot of the biblical narrative, which is the story of God's life with God's people.


"As nearly instinctive as they were, the Nicene decisions are the church's most decisive dogmatic achievement to date: they clearly differentiate the God of the gospel from the God of that culture through which the gospel entered its world mission, and in some descent from which the author and most readers of this work still live. Nicea teaches dogmatically: the true God needs, and the gospel provides, no semidivine mediator of access to him, for the gospel proclaims a God who is not in fact distant, whose deity is identified with a person of our history; antiquity's struggle to overcome a supposed gulf between deity and time is discovered to be moot in light of the gospel. Vice versa, any pattern of thought that in any way abstracts God 'himself' from this person, from his death or his career or his birth or his family, or his Jewishness or his maleness or his teaching or the particular intercession and rule he as risen now exercises, has, according to Nicea, no place in the church." (p. 103)

"We may indeed think of the Arians on the pattern of biblicists generally: on the one hand, they often put the more conceptually sophisticated to shame in their grasp of certain necessities of the gospel; on the other hand, precisely the conviction of their own faithfulness to Scripture can blind them to their captivity to the culture." (p. 100n71)

Further Thoughts & Questions...


This was the chapter that both entranced and perplexed me. Even writing out the summaries is difficult without quoting straight from Jenson himself. A few thoughts:

My favorite part of the chapter was the clear-headed, straightforward explication of the New Testament's trinitarian logic. For all of the difficulties of trinitarian belief, the language of the apostles is by far the most undeniable cog in the Nicene wheel. You simply cannot get away from it.

What might it mean to deny the need for a mediator in the light of 1 Timothy 2?

The connections drawn between modern "biblicists" and Arius' followers were superb and right on the mark.

Finally, I am constantly confounded by academic or professional theology's line of demarcation, below which "legitimacy" is not conferred and above which whatever trends or work done is the source of serious engagement and cultural influence. For example, at multiple points Jenson decries the nagging tendency of Christians throughout history -- and for examples he offers prominent theologians and writers -- to give in to the whims of culture, and immediately following to give up trinitarian faith. But what of the normal people on the ground, or the popular authors and preachers, or the pastors in the churches -- all of whom seem to remain trinitarian in the midst of so much turmoil above their heads?

For example, authors will refer to renewed interest in and exploration of the Trinity in recent decades. Okay ... but aren't these just the "respectable" or "sophisticated" cases? C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, Jonathan Edwards, and so on, going backwards from the mid-twentieth century, all wrote on and taught and spoke of the Trinity, and were not lost in unitarian disarray until Barth or Moltmann or whoever showed up to right the ship. On which churches or groups of people or individuals was someone like (the Trinity-denying) Schleiermacher truly influential, not including academic theologians and cultured non-Christians? I'm sure I'm out of my element here, but it is probably the one nagging annoyance of the academy's over-inflated estimation of its own importance. If books haven't been published focusing on the Trinity, the church must have lost the faith! In my experience -- which, admittedly, is an atom of a grain of sand on a seashore of the smallest beach on the planet -- it is not the academy-occupying scholars who sustain the church's faithfulness in dogma and deed (though their vocation as teachers is essential -- I plan to be one!), but instead the everyday Christians who make up the churches themselves.

In other words: Let those of us devoted to the task of theology douse ourselves with a bit of humility in the process. The cleansing would be a great gift to our work and to the church.

[Images courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.]


  1. I'm curious of what you think about this line, "Somehow, sin and evil belong to the good long purposes of God for his creation in Christ." By saying that sin and evil belong to the good long purposes of God does that mean that God brought them into being for his purpose?

  2. Brad

    I've got Jenson on my comps reading list and was wishing I had taken better notes when I read him for the Trinity and Mission class. No need! Thanks, bud. Now could you do Pannenberg? Thanks for the nice words about the new degree.


  3. Mark,

    Glad I can help! And I might be on my way next to Pannenberg ... but this summarizing is taking quite the toll. Maybe I'll just start offering "cliff Notes Theology" for sale.


    He addresses the issue of sin and God's purpose in creation in more detail in Volume 2. He's actually pretty straightforwardly in line with Jonathan Edwards or Barth on this issue, but doesn't want to go so far as to say "sin" was in God's "plan," or that the horrors the earth has seen "had to happen" for God to accomplish his purpose, much less that we ought to respond to them in anything other than horror and lamentation (i.e., we can't point and say, "Look, the glory of God!"). What he does want to emphasize is that the creation's telos is God, and creation's purpose is redemption, and the only redemption we can or will know (whatever we may conjecture "might have been") is that wrought by Jesus the incarnate Son, crucified and raised again. He sums it up with a magnificent quote by Maximus the Confessor about "the one who laid the tomb knows the reasons for these things," and that while we cannot explain sin or suffering, we can inhabit them liturgically.

    Make sense? Your thoughts?

  4. Correction: "the one who laid IN the tomb..."