Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Blogging Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology: Volume 1, Part III: "The Triune Character," Chs. 10-12

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 10: "Jesus"

I. The Content of the Gospel

The next three chapters will deal directly with the claim of the gospel, "that Jesus is risen from the dead" (p. 165), i.e., who the man Jesus is that died on the cross and was raised from the dead. Jenson here offers what is almost a summation of his entire Christology: "[T]he gospel does not tell of work done by a God antecedently and otherwise determined, but itself determines who and what God is." But what does it mean for Jesus to be a historical character?

II. Jesus the Word as Narrated Eschatology

In order to understand Jesus historically as the Word of the Father, and just so as the Son, one must appropriate then work through the problematic created by Rudolf Bultmann's understanding of the "word-event." Bultmann insisted speech itself does something, opening up a future previously unknown or untenable; further, that historical events themselves are such instances, in which "something 'comes to word' that was not before amenable to language" (p. 166). In the event of Jesus what came to word was faith: proclamation brings about eschatological surrender, forgiveness and freedom from the past, a new future. Bultmann's failure, however, was twofold: disallowing the importance of any content to the one proclaimed, precisely because eternity and time stood opposed to each other and thus there allowing no narrative in the eschaton. Barth's critique of religion is so important, then, because while eternity and time remain opposed for him, they come together in the event of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and "as this difference is enacted in the death and resurrection of Christ, it constitutes God's identification with us" (p. 170). Therefore: "the eschatological proclamation needs the narrative of Jesus in order to identify the eschaton that in fact is proclaimed."Jesus is then the Word of God in that he is the content of the future God opens for us in the event of his life, death, and resurrection.

III. The Coherent Identity of the Historical Jesus

Bultmann made the mistake of severing the resurrection of Jesus from his life and death, so that the risen Lord has no continuity with, is somehow a different agent than, Jesus of Nazareth. If this is true, there is no resurrection faith because there is no continuity between the man prior to death and the man having been raised. If it is indeed the same one, however, "which" Jesus are we speaking of: a historical reconstruction, the one told of in the canonical gospels, or the one who meets us in proclamation and worship? This question remains dire only if Jesus is not risen: if he is risen indeed, then he remains an agent in history and thus is the one who supplies the content of his own identity. Though this is circular, it is exactly the church's faith: the Jesus who taught and healed in Palestine is the same Jesus who guides the church's life today, who (most importantly here) guided the hearing, remembering, retelling, writing, and sharing of the stories and teachings from his life. Modern knowledge, to be sure, complicates our understanding of the canonical documents with accounts of oral tradition, redaction, etc., and the Christian faith is unqualifiedly "historically vulnerable" (p. 174) in this sense. The church will therefore take much more seriously those "quests" and inquiries into Jesus' identity which conclude reasonably -- for example, that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet -- than those that do not, such as "more recent depictions of a New Age guru." Regardless, we see that the resurrection must belong to the telling of who Jesus was and is, and cannot be a secondary response on the part of faith; risenness is intrinsic to the identity of the subject of the gospel.

IV. A Bare Sketch of the Historical Jesus

"Jesus was an itinerant prophet and rabbi, the content of whose message was the immediate advent of the Kingdom of God" (p. 176). He enacted the Kingdom in his own life by calling all to repent, by healing the sick, and by welcoming those rejected or marginalized by the present (passing) age. In himself Jesus was, so to speak, the end of the line: his life would characterize, and could then even be equated with, the coming of the Kingdom. He could and did, therefore, speak in the role and with the authority of God himself, even calling God "Father" and himself God's "Son." Either his claim was true or he was a blasphemer; and just so he was executed by "the priests and the lawyers ... on a political charge of subversion ... as pretender 'King of the Jews'" (p. 178).


"Jesus the Christ, in his full historical reality of birth, life, death, and resurrection, is the Word of God in that he is the identity of the future opened by the Word of God. He is the Word of God in that he is the narrative content of the proclamation that, because it poses eschatological possibility, is the Word of God. He is the Word of God because he is the narrative content of the word-event that is the Word of God.

"A certain caution will be noted in this statement of Jesus' reality as word. This is appropriate, for he is not the Word of God in isolation as himself, nor is he first word and then the particular Word of God. Jesus the Christ is the Word of God, and so is word, as he is the content of the proclamation whose power is the Spirit and whose source is the Father. Otherwise stated, Jesus would not be the Word without the resurrection." (p. 171)

Further Thoughts & Questions...

Jenson once again laudably refuses to cede history to some external or prior reality to faith, recognizing and insisting that the historical narrative of the man Jesus is decisive for the reality and character of the one God. The way that he allows for historical inquiry without giving up the Gospels is especially potent in its nuance, but I wonder how that might be spoken in a different context vis-a-vis modernity's insistence on "did it happen exactly thus or no," and the consequent doctrine in the church of literal infallibility.

Chapter 11: "Crucifixion"

I. Crucifixion or Resurrection?

Why did Jesus die, and what were the effects of his death, if any? Such questions are important, and thus theology has reflected on the cross distinct from the resurrection usually grouped around what has been called the "atonement," but strangely the tradition has often placed such emphasis on Jesus' death that his resurrection has become an afterthought, something that happened to happen or had to happen merely because he was God. To think that Jesus' accomplishment somehow concluded with Golgotha, or was even primarily located there, is to ignore the evidence of the New Testament: the early proclamation in Acts by the apostles was that the one crucified was raised from the dead, not that something happened in the cross. It was the cross itself that proved a difficulty, that required an argument (and later a set of theories) that not only did Christ die, but his death was meaningful.

II. Possible Ways of Thinking About the Cross

To interpret the cross as belonging to God's salvific purposes requires God's having ordained it. We might say that the cross has meaning because the one who lived for others, in the end, died for them; or, with Luther, that Jesus had to die in keeping with the nature of a testament, for a will becomes final only upon death; or that the cross is the assurance that Jesus meant what he said, that he would go to the end, and that his Father would act to rescue him -- and "that is our salvation" (p. 181). But the New Testament does interpret the cross, looking backward, as somehow salvific even at the time of its happening, as part of God's saving purposes. What later theology must remember is that even this cannot be construed apart from the narrative unity of the crucifixion with the resurrection.

III. Dramatic Narrative Climax, and Reconciliation

The early church had two primary ways of interpreting the cross: as the dramatic narrative climax to God's history with his people as told in Scripture, and as reconciliation. The Gospel accounts are suffused with the interpretive lens of the Old Testament, such that Jesus or the Gospel writers can say that x or y event was done "to fulfill the Scripture" -- including Jesus' death. Not only did it fulfill Scripture, but it had to happen. The language used itself explicitly evokes the suffering servant of Isaiah 40-55 and the suffering voice of the Psalms. With regard to reconciliation, the cross is the act by and through which God acts to heal the brokenness of humanity both within itself in community and toward God. Jesus dies "for" others, and for others' sin. The "how" is not worked out by the New Testament witnesses; the "that" is assumed and stated as fact "by rich use of Old Testament language." Examples include "'ransom' ... sacrifice ... Christ 'bore our sins' ... a victory over the powers" (p. 185). Only when the gospel moves from the assumption, knowledge, and worldview of Israel's Scripture are theories called forth to explain the "how" of Jesus' crucifixion.

IV. The Promise and Failure of Atonement Theories

Some way of explaining and understanding the cross is of course required, although it is an incredible fact of the church's history that no "atonement theory" has ever been agreed upon. The one that has come the closest is Anselm's "satisfaction" account, but it both wrongly construes God's justice and fails to explain how Christ's death might "pay my debt" (p. 186). Moreover, it makes the atonement about changing something in God and not in humans. The alternative perspective has been what are called "subjective" theories -- the most laudable exemplification of which is Schleiermacher's -- whereby the cross tells us something "about" God or God's character or love without it actually doing anything. Finally, there is the classic Christus Victor theory, modeled profoundly in Gustav Aulen, in which the cross is God's victory over the powers. While commendable for not abandoning the narrative character of the passion, this theory actually ends up leaving the narrative of the Gospels behind for a "deeper" or mythical one "behind" the concrete events of history. No theory need abstract from the actual story found in the Gospels. Instead of thinking of the effects of the cross, stemming from a dualistic Nestorian Christology, "we must understand the Crucifixion, precisely as Jesus' human doing and suffering, as itself an event in God's triune life" p. 189). Is God the one, and the kind of God who would be, on the cross? The resurrection proclaims in the affirmative.

V. Liturgical Enactment

The Gospel accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection are the true story for and about God and God's people in the world. The canonical narrative itself carries the meaning of the cross. Thus -- as theology must sometimes respond that the church do rather than think or believe something in order faithfully to witness to the gospel -- to understand the passion narrative is to embody it liturgically. Every year the church must celebrate crucifixion and resurrection together as a community in and through the reading of Scripture, prayer, and the Lord's Supper, and only in so doing embodies and enacts in its life together the meaning of the reconciliation wrought in the cross of Christ. This mandated regular event is of course sacramental.

VI. The Sacrificial Victory of the Death of Jesus

Jesus' death "is what it cost the Father to be in fact" -- and not just in theory -- "the loving and merciful Father of the human persons that in fact exist" (p. 191). Jesus' inclusion of his enemies in forgiving prayer means that to raise up Jesus is to raise up with him those included in his prayer. The Spirit's anticipatory resting on Jesus in his entire ministry retains the bond of love between Father and Son even in the abandonment of Jesus to his death. This death was sacrificial in the holistic sense of "sacrifice": not a mere propitiatory offering, but a prayer both spoken and embodied, an offering to God that is one's entire self. The execution of Jesus by the authorities is just such a sacrifice, bound up together with every spoken word and action in his life, an offering of the life that is Jesus of Nazareth; and the resurrection is the inclusive act to bring in, to make room for, the community gathered around Jesus in the triune life of Father, Son, Spirit. Finally, Jesus' victory in the cross was not mythic or somehow "deeper" than the actual historical events of the Gospel narrative, just because his victory was exactly in contest with the identifiable political and religious powers of Rome and Jerusalem, and their alliance with the same demonic evil that fled before Jesus' power all his life. The resurrection "determined" Jesus to be the Son of God, vindicated at last over against all rival claimants and actors.


"If the Christology of our earlier chapter is right, then we must understand the Crucifixion, precisely as Jesus' human doing and suffering, as itself an event in God's triune life. Its reconciling efficacy, most fundamentally and baldly stated, is that this is the event in God that settles what sort of God he is over against fallen creation. Just so the Crucifixion -- given the Resurrection -- settles also our situation as creatures.

"The Crucifixion put it up to the Father: Would he stand to this alleged Son? To this candidate to be his own self-identifying Word? Would he be a God who, for example, hosts publicans and sinners, who justifies the ungodly? The Resurrection was the Father's Yes. We may say: the Resurrection settled that the Crucifixion's sort of God is indeed the one God; the Crucifixion settled what sort of God it is who establishes his deity by the Resurrection. Or: the Crucifixion settled who and what God is; the Resurrection settled that this God is. And just so the Crucifixion settled also who and what we are, if we are anything determinate." (p. 189)

Further Thoughts & Questions...

The strengths of this chapter are manifold: a refocused emphasis on the centrality of the resurrection in early Christian proclamation; a refusal to back away from the stark, unruly narrative of the Gospels; a clear explication of the way the New Testament interprets the passion through the lens of Israel's Scripture; a lack of endorsement for one post-canonical atonement theory over another. All commendable in their own right.

But I have to say, this chapter is probably the most perplexing in a couple of places where Jenson lands. First, as N.T. Wright has written elsewhere, to construe the passion narrative as an event in the inner life of the Trinity, as opposed to later narratives or theories instead of or "behind" the Gospel accounts, is only to offer another narrative alien to the Gospels! The triune interpretation may be theologically true or edifying, but it is almost certainly not what the Gospel narratives are concretely describing.

Second, the way that Jenson construes the Father "abandoning" the Son to death, why the community is accepted by the Father in Jesus, and the role of the Spirit in retaining the bond of love between them, sounds perilously close to positing a God torn in all sorts of different directions: a Father angrily handing over Jesus and only grudgingly accepting those Jesus wants forgiven, all the while doing so only because the Spirit is (coercively?) connecting the two in (some kind of) love. I am all the more perplexed because Jenson's handling of these complex issues is so deft elsewhere in the work, but alternately confusing and even off-putting here.

This is a chapter I would like to go on further to explore critically rather than devotionally.

Chapter 12: "Resurrection"

I. Appearances and the Empty Tomb

The resurrection is "the predicate of the gospel" (p. 194). The disheartened and scattered disciples come to believe, days after their master was crucified and buried, that he is somehow yet alive. Two apostolic forms of witness come to us in the New Testament: appearances of the risen Jesus to those who knew him before, and finding the tomb where he was laid dead empty of any body. The former was and must be prior to and primary before the latter; thus theology must take up the question of what difference the appearances make versus simply finding the tomb empty.

II. What Were the Appearances?

The resurrection appearances were not visions in the sense of subjectively personal sightings that were merely inward experiences. Paul uses the language of God revealing, thus connecting the experience ontologically with Israel's prior apocalyptic prophets, "the fulfilling future of creation as it already now comes to the Father in the Spirit and as God therefore can, if he will, show it to us" (p. 196). This was not merely a private glimpse into the future, however, but a present appearing of a "known, actual personality" (p. 197), and thus was different in some way. Jesus did not return merely to take up the same space and time he did before, but by the power of the eschatological Spirit came forward from "God's final future" -- "an inhabitant of the age to come" -- to reveal himself to his followers. The ascension, whatever else it means, was the final of these (sorts of) appearances.

III. What Jesus' Resurrection Means

The meaning of Jesus' being alive again is that he is a free agent with us, for "the decisive difference between a living person and a dead one is that the former can surprise us as the latter cannot" (p. 198). Yet we know the identity of Jesus because his life, and thus the kind of God God is, is settled as "the life lived from Mary's womb to Golgotha" (p. 200), and therefore this is a freedom characterized by the free love of the alive Jesus. Is there, then, categorical proof of this person's new aliveness after having died? No, and theologically decisively so, for at this very point faith is called for. The one on the cross is the one raised to new, imperishable life not only because we do or must believe, but because this is the self-presentation of the unity of one God. And so the risen Son, living "in the glory of God," lives in the triune life that is heaven just because it is the future Kingdom "enacted and available as a stretch of this world's history" (p. 201).

IV. The Body of the Risen Jesus

Jesus' resurrection is bodily, and thus his body must occupy a place. Previously this was not a problem, but recent cosmological learning problematizes any notion of Jesus' risen body simply having "ascended" "up" into "heaven." Where is the place Jesus' body now occupies? Here Jenson extensively discusses the challenge of Johannes Brenz and his followers in Reformation Swabia made to any simplistic spiritualized understanding of Jesus' present "placement." But it is difficult to see in Brenz's explanation any notion of a "body" at all; turning instead to the New Testament, "the only body of Christ to which Paul ever actually refers is not an entity in this heaven but the Eucharist's loaf and cup and the church assembled around them" (p. 204). This is so because for Paul a "body" is the availability of a person to others and thus also an object for them. The church is then the availability of the risen Christ to others and to itself insofar as the church is gathered around and constituted by the bread and the wine by which the same Christ is offered to the community. This is not mere metaphor because the sacrament and the people truly are Christ's availability to the world, embodied in the life and worship of the church. The question of the empty tomb will be left for the quote below.


"The organism that was Jesus' availability -- that was his body -- until he was killed would have as a corpse continued to be an availability of this person, of the kind that tombs and bodies of the dead always are. It would have been precisely a relic, such as the saints of all religions have. Something other than sacrament and church would have located the Lord for us, would have provided a direction for devotion; and that devotion would have been to a saint, and so would have been something other than faith and obedience to a living Lord. The tomb, we may therefore very cautiously judge, had to be empty after the Resurrection for the Resurrection to be what it is. We can, of course, say nothing at all about what anyone would have seen who was in the tomb between the burial and the first appearances. If the tomb marked by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is indeed where Christ lay, then it is empty not by inadvertence but as the Temple of Israel was empty." (p. 206)

Further Thoughts & Questions...

Like other parts of the work, this chapter is both brilliant and demands further thought. Like Halden, it is concerning to collapse the risen Jesus into the church such that the church quite nearly becomes "a fourth member of the Trinity." More importantly, what are we to do with those parts of the New Testament that explicitly envision Jesus with the Father "at his right hand," to come from there in glory and power? What to do with the actual ascension? with Jesus himself exalted at this moment, not merely present in church and sacrament? Regardless, the chapter as a whole presents a powerful corrective in miniature of the modern church's largely resurrection-less, or resurrection-lite, faith. Without a doubt, we need to hear it.

[Images courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art.]

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