Why Read Robert Jenson?
A guest post from Lincoln Harvey
So, why read Robert Jenson?
If this is a question you’re asking, it probably means you haven’t yet read him. And if you haven’t yet read him, you most definitely should. Here’s why.
Jenson’s theology will likely blow your mind. This is a theologian who addresses all the usual topics, but directs them towards a most unusual end: the evangelisation of our metaphysics. Put otherwise, Jenson wants to baptize the way we think, and not by a mere sprinkling but by full immersion into the story of Jesus. In short, Jenson thinks theologians need to take Jesus of Nazareth more seriously than we do.
Obviously, any theologian who helps their reader focus on Jesus should be added to our ‘must-read’ list. The downside is that grappling with Jenson requires a lot of hard work. Reading him can feel like you’ve pressed Ctrl-Alt-Delete. You’re effectively rebooting – more-like re-wiring – your own mind so that your understanding of reality is ultimately determined by that strange event in a garden tomb just outside Jerusalem, where the once dead Jesus was raised to new life.
Jenson thinks the resurrection is much odder than we tend to imagine. It not only determines the benevolent future of the creature, but also constitutes the very identity of the God who died and yet forever lives. In other words, Easter is the way in which God eternally does God – or to put that in Jenson’s terms: “the human person Jesus is ‘one of the Trinity’ [and] that compels me to say that if Jesus had not risen the Christian God would not be, rather than the other way around.”
As this quote indicates, Jenson’s theology is all about Jesus. “Mary’s boy and Pilate’s victim” is the second person of the Trinity, and not in the run-of-the-mill sense of being somehow related to an eternal Son. Jesus simply is the eternal one, forever enfleshed. And to make sense of this claim, Jenson bends our theological assumptions around the Easter event. He thereby overturns cherished norms as he evangelizes our conception of time, eternity, space, infinity, creation, redemption and the like, and in the process drastically reconfigures our underlying certainties about the sort of being God must possess. In short, Jenson’s God will surprise us.
Of course, if most theologians undertook such an ambitious project, I doubt the results would be worth reading. There’s something quite reckless in deconstructing and reconstructing the entire theological tradition. Yet Jenson somehow manages to pull it off. A borderline genius, pretty much a polymath, and with a turn of phrase that often startles, Jenson compels his readers to worship, driving us to petition afresh the eternal God in awestruck praise and wonder. Whether or not you agree with Jenson’s proposal, this is surely the end to which every theologian should aspire. Christian orthodoxy is about right worship, as the etymology suggests.
With all this said, I think I’m still making it sound too easy to read Jenson. But it really isn’t. He always packs a punch, with his aphoristic-style of prose cramming complex dogmatic revisions into a succinct turn of phrase which only makes sense within his broader redefinition of terms. Jenson is therefore easy to misunderstand, and all too often is. But if we allow his handling of the gospel to reconfigure our traditional theological concepts, then the life, death and resurrection of Jesus can take on a new – and yet strangely recognisable – form as we glimpse how Jesus of Nazareth is eternally one of the Trinity. That’s why I hope my beginner’s guide will help its readers get to grips with Jenson’s revisionary work, drawing them into his gospel-shaped metaphysics and enabling us all to see just how astonishing the God of the gospel is.
Jesus in the Trinity: A Beginner's Guide to the Theology of Robert Jenson is available to preorder at a special launch discount. Click here for more information.
Revd Dr Lincoln Harvey is Assistant Dean and Lecturer in Systematic Theology at St Mellitus College, London.