Kent tells me that John Webster once described another notable theologian as a swashbuckler, who swings into an orderly room, waves his sword around, before diving off the ship, leaving everyone else to wonder: “What just happened?” In a brilliantly insightful podcast with Lincoln Harvey, the same swashbuckling theologian is described as getting things wrong almost all the time, “but for all the right reasons.”
Who is this disruptive and, potentially, off-base theologian? None other than the late Robert Jenson.
I’ve not read enough Jenson to say he is almost always wrong. But I have read enough to admire the way he turns things about in ways unexpected and fresh, and with a determination never to let theology become less than it ought to be. This is on full display in the book reviewed below.
In the recently published The Triune Story (thanks for the copy OUP!), Brad East collects nearly three dozen of Jenson’s essays on Holy Scripture, spanning from 1976 to 2014. Jenson is one of the most significant theologians in the past several decades, with highly acclaimed works in doctrinal theology, including a two-volume systematic. Yet, he found his way into exegetical publications, notably with two commentaries (Ezekiel and Song of Songs) as well as Canon and Creed in the WJK Interpretation series. This volume gives readers a glimpse into the development of Jenson’s own thinking on the nature of Scripture, its interpretation, and its role within the community of faith.
Take the doctrine of inspiration, for example. East includes three essays concerned with that doctrine specifically, each revealing the twenty-year progression of a brilliant mind on a tricky topic.
In the first essay, we see Jenson attempting to utilize a doctrine of inspiration to combat “hermeneutical nihilism,” that is, the concept that a text’s meaning is whatever the reader gives it. In the late 1980s, Jenson arrives at a doctrine that primarily says the “spirit” of the text is the Spirit of the Christian community prayerfully reading the text together. Not an uncommon theologically liberal approach to the doctrine.
A decade and a half later, Jenson approaches the doctrine again. This time, he offers an autobiographical note. Early in his career, he admits, he avoided inspiration terminology because of its use in his own upbringing and because he saw it serving little purpose other than to confirm the authority of the Bible. Here, we see him pushing beyond (but not away from) situating the doctrine within ecclesiology. This time around, Jenson criticizes the old doctrine for not being sufficiently christological. If “the Logos is Jesus,” he says, then “hearkening to the Word in the Old Testament, one should always be listening for the self-identification and for the intonations and rhetoric of the Gospels’ Protagonist” (p. 125). So, the Spirit’s inspiration invites one to consider christological or “churchly” readings as the “original” meaning. This is a christological and pneumatological basis for theological interpretation of Scripture, which Jenson would employ in his commentaries.
And then eight years later, he comes at inspiration head on once again, this time for a series of lectures ultimately published as a tract for his denomination. This is the most elaborate essay: over thirty pages of deep theological reflection, drawing together themes from across his career. Jenson articulates a Trinitarian account of inspiration that resists simplistic notions of God overriding human free will, arguing rather that the Holy Spirit inspires by uniting the human to the word in such a love that the inspired author simply knows what the Word would have them say. This is a long way from the short and surprisingly undogmatic essay from 1989.
In an interview with Christian Century, Jenson observed a shift in biblical studies. He says,
“When I began to study, the historical-critical way of reading scripture—and indeed of reading the documents of the tradition—reigned alone. It has finally become apparent that historical-critical reading of scripture simply cannot sustain spiritual life, and efforts are under way to recapture the figural reading of the older tradition. The question is: can this be done without jettisoning the benefits of historical-critical work? I think it can.”Christian Century, May 2, 2006
East has compiled essays that show Jenson himself was not passive in this shift from the reign of historical-critical to a retrieval of theological exegesis. As one of the most respected theologians of his generation, his own writing on the Bible has pushed the conversation forward in ways creative and provocative. In some sense, I think his sword waving is a bit more akin to the Protestant reformers, who were willing to shake things up if it meant a deeper faithfulness to the Gospel.
Anyone who takes up these essays will not set them aside without a challenge, both spiritual and intellectual, to read Scripture with greater care, and with greater openness to the inbreaking of the Triune God whose story the Bible reveals.
Click here to purchase The Triune Story, published by Oxford University Press.