Review of “A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live?”

Ah, the summer heat. Recently, Jessie and I made the move from Durham, NC to Nashville, TN. If you get on Interstate 40 in Durham heading west, then eight hours later you will find yourself in Nashville. They’re nearly equidistant from the equator, which means the heat in Nashville bears striking resemblance to the heat in Durham — but we wait all winter for this, right? I won’t complain! Between planting some veggies in buckets and working with my buddy Jon, I took respite from the heat and read Robert Jenson’s recently published A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live? (kindly forwarded to me for review by Oxford University Press).

Throughout my theological education, I had the opportunity to read a few essays by Jenson. His essay in The Art of Reading Scripture is still one of the most important pieces of writing I have ever read. But relative to the amount of writing he has done and his stature as one of America’s most significant Christian theologians, those few essays seemed inadequate. I wanted to learn more from him. The sheer volume of his work, however, made it difficult to find a good point of entry into his thinking. A Theology in Outline made the dive much easier.

This short book is a collection of lectures — transcribed and then slightly edited for the reader’s sake by Adam Eitel — that Robert Jenson gave to a Princeton undergraduate class in 2008. The course and now the book, as the subtitle implies, turns on the question “Can these bones live?” The question is a twofer. First, the question is about death. Does death win? This question was asked to the Jews of Ezekiel’s age and answered, we confess, in Jesus’ resurrection. The question’s second sense is for our church, the one flailing about between modernity and post-modernity. Does the church become a pile of bones, bled dry and collecting dust under the weight of nihilism? Or does the church and its theology still have life? The second sense is introduced in the first chapter and dealt with more heartily in the final chapter.

Between the first and the last chapter is engaging, humorous, and thoughtful theological discourse. The book does not contain the kind of depth that I know Jenson is capable of. The lack of depth is evidence for Jenson’s care with engaging those in his class who are not familiar with the world of theology. Whatever might be lacking in depth is made up for by the delightful insights scattered throughout each chapter.

One example of such an insight is Jenson’s characteristic wit in criticizing modern methods: “Personally, I am always more inclined to trust in an ancient people’s own account of themselves than what modern critical scholars may dream up as replacements for them” (p. 18).  This statement caused me to pause and wonder, Why do I so readily expect better answers from the modern person? And why do I feel so skeptical of the honesty of the ancient folks? Of course, I have asked these questions before. What Jenson’s comment revealed to me was just how deeply modern sensibilities are engrained within me — even despite my resistance.

Jenson’s approach to theology, and his answer to whether or not Christian theology is a pile of bones, fundamentally rejects letting something like modernity or post-modernity define our terms. “Theology responds best,” Jenson says, “by trusting in the gospel’s own interior rationality, and then building its own metaphysics, its own vision of reality” (p. 115). If theology is to have life, its life must come from the gospel. Theology’s cannot have its heart in the body of Christ and its brain in the body of modernity. Its heart and brain must dwell together. That is not to say that theology cannot accommodate culture and its movements. Instead, Jenson thinks theology, if it is not to become dry bones, must always be prior to such things.

Several doctrines and theological questions are explored, not resolved, within the book. We do not have the complete syllabus, but Eitel shares some of what was read in the course: “nearly all of Genesis, the Gospel of Mark, large portions of Acts and the epistles, as well as representative selections from Exodus, Job, and the prophets — not least Ezekiel. Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, Augustine’s Confessions, and Hildegard of Bingen’s Scivias, I-VI, as well as Luther’s On Christian Liberty and Jonathan Edwards’s The Nature of True Virtue were also read in full” (p. 2). They also read Bonhoeffer and von Balthasar. The range of thinkers who provided the backdrop for these lectures is indicative of Jenson’s theological approach. He does not readily tell us what to think, but gives us good reasons to keep thinking. Deeply influenced by the Scriptures, deeply formed by the Church’s theological traditions, and clear in his writing, Jenson’s lectures provide us with a model of how to do faithful theology.

A Theology in Outline is short and sweet. Perhaps it would be a worthwhile book to consider for a course introducing Christian theology or as a guide for small groups who long to explore theology more thoughtfully. In any case, it provided me with an excellent place to start into Jenson’s work and I am now more eager to continuing learning with him.

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