Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Blogging Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology: Introduction & Preface

I am presently in the midst of working my way through Robert Jenson's splendid two-volume Systematic Theology, which with each densely packed page is fulfilling every expectation I had for this thick, profound work. I found myself sharing Jenson's remarkable emphasis on and explication of the centrality of the doctrine of the Trinity with my wife the other night, and while I succeeded to some extent, my words eventually trailed off in a bout of lost language. I just didn't know how to repeat what I had read. But did that mean I hadn't understood what I had read?

As someone just beginning formally to enter the wide world of theology proper -- having spent five or so years previously, and essentially all of my church life unofficially before that, in the wild land of the text -- Jenson is the exact challenge I need to reshape and train my language and thinking. At the same time, I can't allow myself merely to read and move on, having checked off one work or author in a long laundry list after which I will have "arrived." If I don't actually have the time or opportunity to read every book twice or to take a semester-long class on every difficult topic I come across, I do have the ability to take the time to sort through some of the issues through this medium. After all, that's what a blog is for!

So I am going to attempt to blog my way through both volumes of Jenson's Systematic Theology. Apart from my own tendency toward excess verbiage, Jenson himself has a knack for the impenetrably dense, and undoubtedly his work will be studied and explored in volumes in the decades to come. For my purposes, I am going to take this opportunity -- following the lead of Ben Meyers in his wonderfully condensed "Church Dogmatics in a Week" -- intentionally to hone the necessary skills of compact clarity. Here is the structure I plan to follow.

Because, like the rest of his essays and books, Jenson separates his chapters by untitled roman numerals -- a kind of unhinting yet inviting theological narrative -- I will separate my own posts the same way. However, I will give each roman numeraled section a title so as to summarize what that section is about, and then I will do my best in a paragraph or less to explicate the section itself. Then at the end of each post -- after a favorite or revealing quote from the chapter -- I will conclude with questions to ponder, questions of my own regarding some topic or subject I had trouble with, and/or further summary of how the chapter worked as a whole. My goal is not only to help myself to grasp further what Jenson has to say, but to stimulate conversation and dialogue and thought from others, both those who have read the books and those who have not. Jenson is an especially potent conversation partner for readers of this blog who, like me, belong to a tradition that, while nominally trinitarian, does not exactly speak or teach explicitly on that or other subjects belonging to the church's history of developed dogmatic theology.

With that said, let's go ahead and start with the short preface to Volume 1: The Triune God (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

I. Why and For What Purpose is This System of Theology

Systematic theology is "an irremediably hubristic enterprise," yet it "seemed and seems like something" Jenson should do (vii). The work "is offered for whatever use" God and God's church may find in it in and for "the discourse of the Kingdom."

II. How Theology May Be Done in the Context of a Divided Church

The only church in view here is that of the creeds. Admittedly a church divided poses a stark contradiction in terms for the ecclesial practice of thought that is theology, yet "we confess we live in radical self-contradiction and that by every churchly act we contradict that contradiction" (vii). Therefore, in the midst of a church yet to be unified -- though "God may act tomorrow" (viii)! -- no theology belongs to one mere sect or partition of the universal church, and while the emphases of the following work (like any such work) will inevitably reveal the biases and convictions of both particularity and division, this work is offered for the one church.

III. The Cultural-Religious Context Diagnosed and Presupposed

All theology is contextual, and while the following work will not often refer explicitly to this context, it may be identified as the postmodern threat of nihilism: "both the innovations and the emphasizes conservations of the following system respond to questions posed to the church in a world religiously determined by the awaited advent of nothingness" (ix).

IV. The Plan or Method of the Following System

To some extent "method is arbitrary," but to the extent that it is not, Jenson's system will follow the two-part Catholic pattern of "first God, then his creations" (x). However, this is modified so as to include portions usually reserved for "humanity" -- Jesus, atonement, resurrection, etc. -- "drawn back into the doctrine of God." As well, vis-a-vis the first section, "the plan of the work is an attempt to transcend confessional habits."

V. Whence Translations Come

All non-biblical translations are Jenson's, all those from Scripture and unmarked from the New Revised Standard Version.

(Side note: Having recently read his introduction to his newly published commentary on Ezekiel in the Brazos Theological Commentary series, Jenson says there that he greatly prefers the Revised Standard Version, but accepts that the NRSV has gained predominant usage. I wonder: What about the RSV does he like better? And, given the fact that he clearly has no problem with being a theological and academic contrarian, why is his reason for using the NRSV its popularity?)


"Nor need this [lack of hope for ecumenism to reestablish divided communion] be a pessimistic prediction. The church must regard waiting as the most creative of activities, since she apprehends fullness of being only in the coming Kingdom. And God may act tomorrow. In the meantime, it is a great blessing specifically to theology that we need not wait for the church to be undivided to do theology for and even of the undivided church. For theology is itself a form of the waiting we must practice" (viii).

Further Thoughts & Questions...

Little to add here, other than to applaud Jenson's remarkable commitment to the life and witness of the church, and therefore the role and practice and purity of theology. Having already read through most of Volume 1, I can affirm in advance just how deep his loyalty is to the project of engaging, affirming, and exploring theological issues from all sides -- Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant alike. What a unique gift Robert Jenson is to the ongoing life, work, thought, and witness of God's people.

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