A curse of recent theology has been the cult of the virtuoso theologian, the creative mind who recasts the field, the Schleiermachers and Barths of the discipline, Promethean figures who blaze the path others are to follow. Much academic work in modern theology seems less the study of God or of the Christian message about God, and more the study of the creativity of great theologians.Compare a footnote to an essay in a recent collection by Jenson. Regarding "such . . . theologoumena as Luther's christological founding of sacrament," Jenson's "Systematic Theology does not attempt to rehabilitate but simply receives with rejoicing" (Theology as Revisionary Metaphysics: Essays on God and Creation (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), p. 69n.2).
When Pannenberg broke onto the scene in the 1960s, he was treated as the new candidate for these laurels, the latest thing from Germany, the land of giants. His program of a thoroughgoing interpretation of the Christian message under the rubrics of history and eschatology looked like another interpretive tour de force, another exercise in killing the Oedipal father (or fathers, in the form of Barth and Bultmann) so that the children are free to pursue their own projects. The actual shape of Pannenberg’s achievement has been somewhat different. The quasi-scholastic tone points at least to a different intent, a more humble subjection to the subject matter.
Nevertheless, the manner of the virtuoso has never quite disappeared, no more than it disappeared from the work of Barth. The unique interpretive vision rooted in eschatology continues to color all that is said. As a friend has noted, what Pannenberg will not do is outline the tradition on a theological topic and then simply conclude that the tradition got it right and move on. The subject needs to be reshaped by the unique perspective of the system, like the pianist who insists that somehow, somewhere, her own unique interpretation must shine through.
"Receives with rejoicing": this is an apt characterization for an intellectual habit on recurrent display in Jenson's work, most of all in his systematics. He simply quotes or adverts to some great theologian—Origen, Irenaeus, Basil, Augustine, Thomas, Luther, Edwards, Barth—regarding a theological question, affirms his agreement, and assumes its truth in what he goes on to say. This accounts for the economy of some of his argumentation, but more important, it models a posture to the tradition that resists the virtuosic-systematic impulse to revise and reshape everything received, no matter how laudable or exemplary. As such it is a habit for contemporary theologians to consider imitating.