Thursday, July 16, 2009

Blogging Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology: Volume 1, Part III: "The Triune Character," Chs. 13-14

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 13: "The Being of the One God"

I. Receiving the Being Tradition

"Being" is not a biblical concept, but because the gospel came to be within the Greco-Roman world, the Greeks' theological presuppositions and problems became those the gospel had to interpret, and now those same issues unavoidably belong to the Christian tradition. What is to be? What is being? According to the Greeks, being is equivalent to divinity, and human beings, although in their sharing of being are of the same sort as the deities, are nevertheless derivative because their being is not perfectly timeless, impassible, deathless. Perfectly to be is to persist indefinitely, neither coming nor going; this is "form" (eidos), which accordingly is seen, albeit with the mind's eye.

II. Dealing With Being

One possibility in response to the inherited question of being, generally taken by Eastern Orthodoxy, is "to disengage God from some implications of this acceptation" (p. 211); another, taken by "late-modern Western theology" as well as by Rabbinic Judaism, is simply to "disallow its application to God," thus construing God as "nonbeing." The former places God outside the question itself and the latter leads ineluctably towards an ontology of violence; therefore the answer must be to take the inherited tradition, reshape and refashion it according to the gospel, and thence produce a Christian understanding of "what it is for God to be" (p. 212). This path will rightly reject the implicit Greek teachings that there is no distinction between creature and Creator, and that deity exists to secure us against (for such divinity exists itself as utterly impassible vis-a-vis) the contingencies of time. The primary teachers from the tradition here will be Thomas Aquinas and Gregory of Nyssa.

III. Existence and Essence in God

Thomas took Aristotle's teaching on being and form and reformulated it not only to allow for immaterial form that is not divine (such as created angels), but to separate essence (what something is) and existence (that something is). Only in God are essence and existence one: what God is means God is; for God to be God must be. And there is no other of whom this is true. The one God's being is his essence; yet this God is triune. How to work this out?

IV. God's Eternity as Temporal Infinity

Gregory of Nyssa took the metaphysics of being and reinterpreted them through a trinitarian lens. What does it mean to say that the triune God is? First, it is the mutual life of Father, Son, and Spirit that is the referent for the predicate "God." To speak of the existence of the triune God is to speak of an ongoingness of a life between persons. And, second, it is not any other(s) but the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit whose life this is, the three whose identities with and among one another have been sketched elsewhere in the work. Finally, the divine nature or ousia is infinite: "God's act of being is constrained by no form other than itself" (p. 215). The infinity of the gospel's God, however, is not the atemporal changelessness of the Greek understanding of eternity. The triune God's limitlessness is precisely his temporal infinity: not contrary to or outside of time, but as unbounded timeliness, faithfulness to all ages, hesed for all generations, creator of and participant in history's time just because he is himself, as the infinite God, a participant in his own history, his own sort of time. The triune God does not merely endure impassibly and unchangeably in a fixed point called eternity; this God has a source (the Father) and a telos (the Spirit) whose reconciled present is the Son -- and this life, this temporal infinity, is God. "God is not eternal in that he adamantly remains as he began, but in that he always creatively opens to what he will be; not in that he hangs on, but in that he gives and receives; not in that he perfectly persists, but in that he perfectly anticipates" (p. 217). Even to the death, and beyond, God is faithful.

V. The Temporal Infinity of the Eternal Triune Love

God's temporal infinity is precisely because he is triune. The Spirit is God rushing toward us from his good future, yet only as the infinite liveliness of the Son whose bounded human life is the Logos of the Father, whose intention is "a specific loving consciousness" (p. 220). Again, the triune life is a drama: "The Father is the 'whence' of God's life; the Spirit is the 'whither' of God's life; and we may even say that the Son is that life's specious present" (p. 219). The love that is this life is the resolution of the antimony of hope, the tension brought by the question of what happens when the hope promised by the Spirit's coming future -- the kingdom of God -- is in fact fulfilled. Infinite love, endlessly sought and found and sought again, is "itself openness to unbounded possibility." And because God is love, because God's eternity is love, it is therefore also personal.

VI. God: Event, Person, Decision, Conversation

Now for summation. The one God is an event: he is not fixed, bound, monadic, uneventful; he is a life, a history, a narrative, a drama. "God is what happens between Jesus and his Father in their Spirit" (p. 221). The one God is a person: because this drama is one of faithfulness, there is perfect coherence in the personal story that is the life of the one God in three persons. Therefore the language proper to personality is not foreign or ridiculous when applied to God: feeling emotions, changing his mind, acting and refraining, responding to other persons, making and fulfilling promises. Such personal attributes are then "ontological perfections, not deficiencies," and to that extent and in that truth "unabashed petitionary prayer is the one decisively appropriate creaturely act over against the true God" (p. 222). The one God is a decision: following Barth and explication in previous chapters, God's eternal decision in Jesus of Nazareth, the Logos become flesh, indisputably determines for himself and for us who and what sort of God this is. And finally, the one God is a conversation: as seen in Genesis, God creates by speech; as seen in John, Jesus is the Word spoken by God and the Word who is God. God is the conversation between and among and to himself, not as a singular monad but as a community of identities, a life together in infinitely loving conversation. It follows that the church, however highly it prizes the virtue of silence, must always be a place of bold and daring and gifted speech.

VII. Omitting the Attributes

God's "attributes" are notably missing from this work by intent, because no special sectioned-off place is appropriate to their housing, but rather they come forth necessarily in the speaking of the gospel here and there; and so their presence is scattered throughout and not gathered together in one place of this work.


"The biblical God's eternity is his temporal infinity. Any eternity is some transcendence of temporal limits, but the biblical God's eternity is not the simple contradiction of time. What he transcends is not the having of beginnings and goals and reconciliations, but any personal limitation in having them. What he transcends is any limit imposed on what can he be by what has been, except the limits of his personal self-identity, and any limit imposed on his action by the availability of time. The true God is not eternal because he lacks time, but because he takes time. ...

"The eternity of Israel's God is his faithfulness. He is not eternal in that he secures himself from time, but in that he is faithful to his commitments within time. At the great turning, Israel's God is eternal in that he is faithful to the death, and then yet again faithful." (p. 217)

Further Thoughts & Questions...

This chapter is one of the richest in the entire work (having now finished Volume 2), primarily due to Jenson's profound conceptual suggestion of how to understand God's eternity. I know that many would disagree in principle, and others like David Bentley Hart disagree by hard argumentation, but it seems to me that whether his particulars are correct or his explication is clear, Jenson is on to something. The God narrated in and by the Bible simply will not accord with the god of the philosophers. Not by his character or being or other such abstractions, but merely in the way he is, in the fact of his being narrated, in his interactions with his creatures, in his doing this or changing that or fulfilling or negating prior commitments -- if we come to each and every biblical passage ready to say, "Well, when God says x, we know that he already knows y will happen; therefore x cannot have meant what it sounds like it would mean because that is not what God could have meant..." we effectively chop our own interpretive and theological legs out from beneath us. Not that we should come to the text simplistically; but, as Brueggemann would urge us, we must accept the text as it stands. And the life and person that God is seems to interact with his creatures in time in a way that is both drastically simpler and incomparably more complex than we usually allow. Robert Jenson helps us to see this through what he calls God's temporal infinity, and if that were his only contribution, it would be an extraordinary one.

Chapter 14: "Our Place in God"

I. The Roominess of God

That God is entails that he is knowable. But what does it mean to know God? It first demands remembering (as well as repairing history's disastrous forgetting) that God is, on the one hand, truly other than us, and on the other hand, triune and therefore personal. God's knowability has been described in the tradition by four "transcendentals," and the three of which that have not been explored so far will be done so now: truth, goodness, and beauty (though put another way, because God is knowable as and through these descriptors: knowable, enjoyable, lovable). To the extent that these describe the triune life, is it possible for others to participate, to join, this life without thereby adding "another" identity, thereby creating a growing pantheon of gods? "God can indeed, if he chooses, accommodate other persons in his life without distorting that life. God, to state it as boldly as possible, is roomy" (p. 226). God can do this because the only true and fixed identities of God are those called Father, Son, and Spirit, exactly in their relation to one another through begetting, proceeding, and mutual love. When God does make space in his life for others in time, this is the act of creation.

II. The Knowability of God

God is knowable first because, in the triune relations, he knows himself. Creatures know God not because of their immense (or even given) cognitive powers, but because God takes them into himself and thus into his own knowledge of himself. And we needn't look for this God or try to find him in order to know him, because he has introduced himself to us: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt." The actuality of God's knowability is found in the story of this God's life with his people; therefore to know God is to belong to God's people, the church. In the saying and enacting of the gospel together, God is known: the church is welcomed into the triune discourse, and participates in it! Our conversation with this knowable God demands a body in order to be subject and object to each other, and vice versa, and a body there is: "the body born of Mary and risen into the church and its sacraments" (p. 229). This is the one to whom the Father looks as Son, with whom we are included, with and as whom we are enlivened by the Holy Spirit, who then gives us the words to speak and the life to live as ones belonging to the divine life.

III. The Vision of God

This work has emphasized the speaking of the gospel over against the tradition's emphasis on vision and seeing; yet is "there also appearing and seeing in God?" (p. 229). The answered affirmative must be eschatological, for we will see God the risen Christ only in the consummation of the kingdom, just as God sees himself in the human Son, the Word made flesh.

IV. The Goodness of God

The moral content of God's address begins in his own life between Father, Son, and Spirit, and is then given to creatures for their own benefit: worship of the true God, righteous community, faithfulness to life. God's goodness then comes to us through his commandments, nowhere better seen than in Israel's canonical witness of Deuteronomy. This goodness is both who God is and what God does, which are the same: "God is good because he does good. He is lovable because he is loved" (p. 232). God's goodness, and not our own, however, is that in which the church places its trust for salvation.

V. The Hiddenness of God

God is not simply "there," available as an object for us to grab hold of, to know on our own terms, a finite thing in our control. God is hidden, but it is precisely in his availability to the world, in his manifest presence, that he is hidden. God's hiddenness is his refusal to be bound by our projections onto him, by our human idolatries; God's hiddenness is his slipperiness in our hands, for whenever we think either that we have him pinned down or that he has turned his face away forever, there he is, vibrant and alive and delivering yet again -- yet no more "ours" for the having than before. We never know what he is or will be up to, for he is beyond us, out ahead but prior to, on the move and creatively infinite. Thus God is hidden in that, even having been perfected in the new creation, we will never tire of him, never cease in our going on to more and more glorious knowledge of him; but also in that he comes to us centrally and definitively as an executed body on a cross, bloody and disfigured. This will forever be a scandal to us, and therefore our hope is faith in this one seen and known yet confounding and hidden.

VI. The Beauty of God

God's beauty is the harmony that is the life of Father, Son, and Spirit, the infinite musicality of the personae dei. "Accordingly, our enjoyment of God is that we are taken into the triune singing" (p. 235), and the worship and life of the church must and does, therefore, by plan and by spontaneity, explode into beauty reflective of the glory of God. "God, we may thus say, is a melody. And as there are three singers who take each their part, a further specification suggests itself: the melody is fugued. ... God is a great fugue. There is nothing so capacious as a fugue" (p. 236).


"God's beauty is the actual living exchange between Father, Son, and Spirit, as this exchange is perfect simply as exchange, as it sings. The harmony of Father, Son, and Spirit, the triune perichoresis, transcends its character as goodness because it has no purpose beyond itself, being itself God. And the harmony of a discourse thus taken for itself and for the sake of itself, is its beauty, its aesthetic entity." (p. 235)

More Thoughts & Questions...

It is possible -- I haven't read many responses that aren't appreciative, or even exulting, toward the work -- that some may object to Jenson's relatively meager account of the "way" God is, his attributes or content; but for the most part, I have enjoyed the fact that he allows the story of the gospel, and therefore the story of the church's working out of who God is, to contain implicitly who God is and what he is like -- especially if we believe that God is what he does. In this chapter particularly I found Jenson's discussion of God's knowability and hiddenness to be a great resource for conceiving of how and why we know God without God ceasing to be God.

Finally, ending the first volume by calling God a "fugue" seems fitting and essential: an endlessly open metaphor that, while he expands upon it in surprising ways in the next volume, remains there for us, on the page, awaiting interpretation but more importantly calling for doxology. For to know that God is a fugue is to want to join the melody.

[Image courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art.]

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