Book | Systematic Theology by Robert Jenson

9780195086485Jenson, Robert W. Systematic Theology. Vol. 1. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

The Author

jensonAfter two decades of teaching at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Jenson moved in 1988 to the religion department of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. He was joined in Northfield by his friend Carl Braaten, and together they founded the conservative Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology[5] in 1991. The founding of this Center marked a new period of intensive ecumenical involvement for Jenson: with Braaten, he organized numerous ecumenical conferences, and began publishing the theological journal Pro Ecclesia.

Jenson continued to teach at St. Olaf College until 1998, when he retired and took up a position as Senior Scholar for Research at the Center for Theological Inquiry[6] in Princeton, New Jersey. Before leaving St. Olaf College, he completed work on his magnum opus, the two-volume Systematic Theology (1997–99), which has since been widely regarded as one of the most important and creative recent works of systematic theology. In a review of this work, Wolfhart Pannenberg described Jenson as “one of the most original and knowledgeable theologians of our time”.[7][1]


One danger created by the robust group is that they may go too far in two ways. First, the attempt to regain the economic Trinity has swung the pendulum too far to the point that God is lost in human history. Jenson, for example, does not say that God is revealed in history, he says that God is history. God is an event and the church is the event of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection incarnated in the eucharist and in dialogue with the world. This whole person/event is the historical movement that is propelled by God’s futurity.[2] This seems to eliminate God’s otherness to the point that we are left only with history as it is. Jenson’s only basis for talking about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the scriptural revelation, yet, if God is only the event of history, then on what basis is scripture authoritative revelation? Why does the Exodus story have redemptive value as God moving for redemption? How is it not simply a competing story in humanity’s attempt to make sense out of circumstances? Jenson is attempting to counteract Barth’s complete transcendence of God by jumping the gap. However, perhaps he goes too far into immanence and comes to the same conclusion.

The Holy Spirit

Perhaps the gap filler is the Trinitarian nature of God itself. Jenson’s comment on the role of the Holy Spirit is helpful at this point. He says, “if there is to be freely given love there must be a third party in the meeting of “I” and “Thou.” If you and I are to be free for one another, someone must be our liberator.”[3] The gap is caused by a bipartite stalemate that leaves us with a perpetual either/or scenario. The very essence of God as a tri-unity breaks up the possibility of a stalemate.

Jenson on Augustine

Jenson is bold in his critique of Augustine. He summarizes Augustine’s problem as the disconnect between the metaphysical impassibility of God conceived by the Greeks and the narrative of the gospel. Jenson says, “at this precise point, the Western tradition must simply be corrected…[a] reversal of Augustine’s misstep is vital.”[4] The real problem is how this misstep shaped the Western concept of person and self. Ultimately the Western concept of selfhood—rooted in Augustine’s Trinitarian definition of person—was a “self-enclosure. And personality is ontologically the possession of an individual, the ‘I.’”[5]



From The Identification of God

“Time is unmistakably the metaphysical horizon of specifically human life. All our self-understanding and action is ineluctably tensed; we can neither know nor act upon our world or ourselves without ‘will be,’ ‘was,’ and ‘is.’ Every human act moves from what was to what is to be: it is carried and filled by the intractable past yet intends free creation; it occurs at and as the juncture of memory and anticipation. Thus the substance of every specifically personal act is the particular way it rhymes past and future into lived present meaning. Just so human life is the ontological adventure that is the theme of all culture…

Human life is possible only if past and future are somehow bracketed by reality that reconciles them in present meaning, so that sequences of events have plot and can be narrated. Personal life posits an embrace around created time, to clasp its doings and sufferings in dramatic coherence.

Humanity calls such an embrace around time ‘eternity,’ as some functional translation of this word appears in any moral-religious language. In all that we do, we rely upon some or another way in which time’s discontinuities are believed to be transcended, that is, we posit and seek some or another eternity. If our seeking becomes thematic, we practice ‘religion.’”[6]

On Barth

“The revival of trinitarian theology in the later twentieth century was enable precisely by Karl Barth’s destruction of this pattern. Barth’s doctrine of Trinity is in most respects straightforwardly Western. But he describes the inner-divine triune self-unfolding not as the dialectics of a self-containing subject, but as the dialectics of a self-revealing subject. The root of trinitarianism, according to Barth, is that God’s self-revelation poses three questions—Who reveals himself? What happens to reveal him? and What is the outcome of this revelation?—and compels the same answer, ‘God,’ to all three, yet will not let us confuse the questions. God is not personal in that he is triunely self-sufficient; he is personal in that he triunely opens himself.”[7]

Jesus and Sacrament

No metaphor or ontological evasion should be intended. Sacrament and church are truly Christ’s body for us, because Christ himself takes these same thins for the object as which he is available to himself. For the proposition that the church is a human body of the risen Jesus to be ontically and straightforwardly true, all that is required is that Jesus indeed be the Logos of God, so that his self-understanding determines what is real.

The subject that the risen Christ is, is the subject who comes to word in the gospel. The object—the body—that the risen Christ is, is the body in the world to which this word calls our intention, the church around her sacraments. He needs no other body to be a risen man, body and soul. There is and needs to be no other place than the church for him to be embodied, nor in that other place any other entity to be the ‘real’ body of Christ. Heaven is where God takes space in his creation to be present to the whole of it; he does that in the church.”[8]

On being

“Being is knowability, of a kind that in greater or lesser degree secures us against the advent of the unknown future.”[9]

“The temporal infinity that opens before us and so embraces us as the triune God’s etenity is the inexhaustibility of one event. That event is the appropriation of all other events by the love actual as Jesus of Nazareth.”[10]

“First, the one God is an event; history occurs not only in him but as his being…

Second, the one God is a person…how can an event be a person? …The life of any person is both one event and many events…

Third, the one God is a decision.

Fourth, the one God is a conversation…The Christian eternity is not silence but discourse, and spiritual progress in the gospel does not take place by the progressive abandonment of speech.”[11]

On Creation

“We must venture thus far into the doctrine of creation, with propositions that can be justified only later. Whether or not we wish to call God’s ‘pure duration’ his uncreated ‘time,’ God as Father, Son, and Spirit can make room in himself for others, and the room that he makes is our created time. The opening of that room is the act of creation.”[12]

God is Fugue


[1] (accessed August 31, 2013)

[2] {Jenson, 1997 #411@221-222}

[3] {Jenson, 1997 #411@156}

[4] {Jenson, 1997 #411@113}

[5] {Jenson, 1997 #411@120}

[6] {Jenson, 1997 #411@55}

[7] {Jenson, 1997 #411@124}

[8] {Jenson, 1997 #411@206}

[9] {Jenson, 1997 #411@210}

[10] {Jenson, 1997 #411@221}

[11] {Jenson, 1997 #411@221-223}

[12] {Jenson, 1997 #411@226}