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Review of "A Theology in Outline" by Robert W. Jenson

Review of "A Theology in Outline" by Robert W. Jenson


A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live? by Robert W. Jenson, ed. Adam Eitel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 152 pp.

reviewed by Sarah Hinlicky Wilson

One encounters but rarely that exquisite simplicity which only a master of things immensely complex can produce. Such is this book. Robert W. Jenson has been a theological force to reckon with, in this country and abroad, within Lutheranism and without. His own masters have been the prophet Ezekiel, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, and Karl Barth, and it’s hard to get very far in his writings without stumbling across some Hegel. One of his foremost projects has been the revision of inherited Greek metaphysics according to the contrary account of reality offered by the holy Scriptures.

Thus you would not necessarily expect this man, elegant writer though he has always been, to be so accessible. And yet, in this last of his published books, we hear wisdom so finely distilled that it could equally serve as an introductory text for college freshman as a bracing refresher for pastors, a study text for a congregational group as a first encounter with the gospel for those who have never heard it.

This “theology in outline”—or, as Jenson prefers, according to his Preface, a “taste” of a “bit of Christian theology” (vii)—arose from the classroom, explaining in part its warm conversational tone. A class of fifty-plus registered students at Princeton University, to say nothing of all the auditors, gathered week by week in the spring of 2008 to hear Jenson expound the basics of the discipline of theology, while reading and discussing in small groups everything from Genesis to Hildegard of Bingen to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

(Side note of jealousy and regret: I was living in Princeton in the spring of 2008. I have no idea how I missed out on this and am all the more regretful about it now, having read the book—but I am correspondingly very grateful to Adam Eitel for assembling it for the likes of me and others who were not present.)

The chapters are “lightly polished verbatim” (3) transcribed from audio recordings, omitting only the back-and-forth between teachers and students, which, Eitel is keen to inform us, Jenson not only encouraged but demanded; he did not intend only to hand down information from on high. Yet even hearing only the handed-down part, the reader can detect the conversations waiting to spring out from between the lines.

After a first chapter answering “What Is Theology?” for a gathering that could not be presumed to be theology students or even Christians, Jenson begins his reasoning in and with the Christian faith in a very Jensonian place: Israel. Neither creation nor Jesus is the starting point, but the calling of a people by God to be His people, to be the ones who talk back—who pray—when He speaks to them. Jenson traces Israel’s journey from Abraham to the valley of dry bones beheld by the prophet Ezekiel (on whose book Jenson wrote a brilliant commentary), and this is what allows Jenson to make the transition to the next chapter, “Jesus and Resurrection.” Jesus, the risen one, is God’s answer to His own question of whether those bones can live.

A few chapters later, in discussing “Sin and Salvation,” Jenson makes the parallel observation that Jesus as the crucified one is the “fulfillment and completion” of the “rupture and alienation between humanity and God” (79), namely sin, expressed in Jesus’ cry of dereliction. (Though Jenson doesn’t identify the sources of this idea—indeed, it is a blessedly footnote-free little book—you will find it in, among others, II Corinthians 5, Galatians 3, and Luther’s Galatians commentary.)

Note the method here: not only choosing to start with Israel, but also choosing not to start with, say, an appeal to the human experience of things gone amiss. You need not feel personally wretched for the news about Jesus to make a claim on you; and if Jesus makes a claim on you, by definition so does Israel. What sin is, and therefore what salvation is, becomes clear and meaningful only in the wake of this startling business about God’s chosen dying and rising again.

Between Jesus and sin/salvation, Jenson spelunks deeper into Christian theology. The chapter on the triune God is undoubtedly the most comprehensible restatement in Jenson’s own terms of Who and What God is, as we are told by the life of Israel and the life of Jesus, and why it matters not to start with vague, Hellenistically-inherited, by now garbled cultural notions of what the divine is, that we then awkwardly try to fit the Holy Trinity into. (Which probably explains the host of terrible Trinity Sunday sermons year after year.)

And once we know better Who God is, we are able to begin to understand the only other category—all that is not God—which is to say, creation, and taking its place in and amidst creation, human beings or “the image of God.” Jenson models human personhood on triune personhood, which is to say being this person is logically prior to being a person—and this person is always one who is called by the three Persons Who are one God to join in a conversation that is life itself.

The final doctrinal chapter deals with “the Church,” organized (as is commonly the case) around the four Nicene characteristics of the church, with a fair bit of primary education about the ecumenical movement thrown in, presumably to a young audience that knows little to nothing of it, acknowledging the late arrival on the scene of ecclesiology as major locus of attention at all. But the discussion of “the holy” and its relationship to the body is certainly the most stirring part of this chapter.

At the end Jenson circles round to the seeds of doubt he has deliberately planted all along. There are no knock-down arguments here, no unassailable foundations, no self-evident axioms. He explicates what Christian faith believes and its plausible grounds for doing so, but grants that plausibility itself is something that changes over time. For a long time, the “marriage” (as he puts it) of scriptural faith with Hellenistic philosophy and Roman law was, if not perfectly easy, at least generally plausible. The Enlightenment and resulting Modernity was the long, drawn-out divorce. Jenson doesn’t seem too sad about the divorce itself; after all, as he took pains to point out over the course of his career, there is a fundamental irreconcilability between scriptural ways and Greek ways, and if Christians favor the latter they end up with an “unbaptized God.” But it’s also true that “separated ex-lovers often turn on each other” (107). In recoiling against now discarded Christianity (whether because of the ultimate implausibility of the philosophy that the church unfortunately married, or because of the bad behavior of the church itself, Jenson does not specify), Modernity has had nothing to take its place but nihilism. A nihilistic culture is not a nice place to live. No more than a valley of dry bones. But it is precisely in such places of desperation that the Lord God of Israel excels.

A final benefit of this little volume is a “Comprehensive Bibliography of Works by Robert W. Jenson.” If the book awakens a “taste” for Christian theology, then it undoubtedly will for more of Jenson’s insightful commentary on it, too. Though he has been summoned from this life, he is still preaching. Thanks be to God.

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