Theology after the Death of God

Paul R. Hinlicky on Robert W. Jenson


The theology of Robert W. Jenson signals epochal change. An American Lutheran who studied under Peter Brunner and Karl Barth and engaged also with the theology of Rudolf Bultmann, Jenson (1930-2017) was an heir of the last great flowering of German Protestant theology. With his life-long comrade-in-arms, Carl Braaten, he brought the rediscovery of apocalyptic eschatology to bear on the American scene as an alternative to the “death of God” theology of the 1960s. Indeed, he saw the “death of God” working itself out in the theological collapse of mainline Protestantism, which perception catalyzed an “ecumenical conversion” that governed his thought through his magnum opus, Systematic Theology (1997-99).

The Promise of Robert W. Jenson’s Theology: Constructive Engagements. Edited by Stephen John Wright and Chris E. W. Green. Fortress Press, 2017. $79.

The present collection of essays is an attempt to think in light of the cultural changes signaled by Jenson’s work. As the editors indicate in their brief introduction, what proves particularly compelling about the book’s “engagements” is that it does not present a series of merely “academic” studies in the minutiae of Jenson’s theology, though there certainly would be call for that. Rather for this time when “a civilizational era has passed” it presents a variety of ways across the ecumenical spectrum in which theologians find stimulation in Jenson’s program of “revisionist metaphysics,” whether in development thereof or in differentiation therefrom. To be sure, there is variation here in the depth of engagement with Jenson’s theology. For the most part, however, authors engage concretely and incisively with Jenson’s work, so that most essays are insightful with respect to the gravamen of Jenson’s oeuvre and interesting for the ways in which that stimulus can be developed, criticized, revised, or even rejected.

Jenson’s brief afterward is equally intriguing. After customary expressions of gratitude with acknowledgements of “lacunae” in his work, Jenson observes that the broadly ranged cast of contributors here assembled indicates some success in his effort to write theology for the ecumenical church. Yet he finds it remarkable that neither Catholics nor North American Lutherans appear among the authors, remarking, “The first is perhaps inevitable, for several reasons. But while I seem to be more easily seen as a ‘Lutheran theologian’ than I am happy with, there has been very little of either approval or criticism from my colleagues of that persuasion. Why is that? Just wondering.”

While the absence of Catholics, I venture, signals unrequited love, it is perhaps this latter qualification, “North American Lutheran,” that explains why the editor sought me out to review this collection. My “Luther(an)ism” is well-known, yet for a further reason I hope to be up to the task. As contributor Kendall Soulen remarks, I wrote a systematic theology “in a Jensonian spirit,” though he goes on to note a not insignificant Trinitarian divergence from this theologian whom I admired above all peers and took as a model.

Credentials thus supplied, I want to say a word about the review. It will best serve the reader if we proceed as follows. First, I will describe with commentary the major engagements in the volume as succinctly as intelligibility allows; this will give the reader a sense of the scope of Jenson’s influence with its possibilities or problems for “academic” theology in the coming generation. The general appreciation, even approbation, of Jenson’s special contributions will be more than evident from this survey. I will then turn to some of the more controversial and difficult matters in Jenson’s theology as noted along the way in order to assess Jenson’s project and its continuing salience in the present culture I call “post-Christendom.”


Stephen John Wright leads off with an insightful description of Jenson’s approach to human language about God in theology as making precise, hence knowledgeable, the perichoretic mystery which God is when God is specifically identified as the Father who makes the Son known by the Spirit’s advent in the gospel. This approach is opposed to predominant theological strategies today as in the past, which assume that theological language succeeds instead when it points to the blank screen beyond the human projections and appropriations of God in historical discourse – to “God beyond God,” as Tillich put it. But Jenson, in typically acerbic fashion, accounts such success as vacuous, such “mystery” as “muddle.” Wright neatly points out how in Jenson’s genealogy this vacuity—this unwitting “reification of a no-thing,” as I am wont to say—stands behind the modern experience of the death of God. Examining especially Jenson’s early works, Wright contends that the nihilism that Nietzsche discussed laid bare for Jenson “the natural theology of our times.” The vacuous deity of traditional Christian Platonism has indeed died culturally; that is the epochal change signaling the civilizational era that has passed away. Wright insightfully shows, moreover, how this controversial contention connects for Jenson with the painful problem of theodicy.

It is noteworthy in regard to this Nietzschean point of departure for Jenson’s theology that there are, intentionally or not, “Deleuzian” echoes throughout Eugene Rodgers’ brief for a Christology of creation (which would be nature seen in Luther’s light of grace). Rodgers wants to resist the Cartesian-Kantian dualism of modernity and affirm non-human things with their own vitalities; indeed he wants to relocate human beings in the physics and ecology of things, seeing, however, that it is only in the light of Christ that this deep embodiment in nature may be preserved from the nihilistic implications feared by traditional Christian Platonists, and making instead nature the site of sanctification. Rodger’s sharp rejection in any case of “creationism,” affirming natural selection, marks a fork in the road that cannot be coherently taken by the philosophia perennis with its endemic essentialism and tendency towards emanationism.

Kristin Graff-Kallevåg offers a clarifying discussion of this postmodern location of Jenson’s theology, a theme echoed by others. She accomplishes this by way of lucid exposition of philosopher Jean-François Lyotard’s post-modernity thesis. Lyotard’s influential diagnosis has reference in the first place to the collapse of the secular metanarratives of post-Christendom European culture, specifically those of liberal capitalism and Marxism-Leninism (to which one might add, especially at present, resurgent fascism). To be sure, the critique also applies to the antecedent exitusreditus worldview of classical Christendom (from whom the moderns inherited the metanarrative habit of thought). Lyotard’s critique, however, was aimed at the Enlightenment’s claim to occupy the Tribunal of Reason: any putative truth extending beyond a specific location in time and space aims at universality, and so inevitably aspires to hegemony, if not totality. While Graff-Kallevåg regards the contemporary social processes of pluralization and individualization as inevitable, but also as perpetually erosive of universal claims to truth, Jenson’s account of the Eucharistic liturgy as the narrative event of the God of the Gospel provides a significant resource for faith-formation within the West’s post-modern reversion to de facto polytheism.

Peter Leithart writes against shallow criticisms of Jenson which betray ignorance of how profoundly formed by scripture his theology is: “Scripture plays a generative as well as a regulative role in [Jenson’s] theology.” Leithart’s contention is borne out by the contribution of Telford Work, which examines Jenson’s hermeneutic in his Brazos commentary on Ezekiel. While neither Leithart nor Work are always satisfied with Jenson’s exegetical performances, they recognize the seriousness and rigor of his effort to interpret what the biblical text actually says. Figural or typlogical interpretation is for Jenson a Christological interpretation of what the text says literally for the current church, which resists the dissolution of the text into vagaries of contextualist appropriation when such contexts are other than the church, ecumenically construed. So Leithart sees Jenson’s refusal of any strong distinction between the immanent and economic Trinity on the grounds of the truthfulness of God in his self-revelation, even if this prima facie reading of the gospel narrative leads in the direction of a “social” Trinity. Similarly, Leithart sees that creation for Jenson is not the fixation of a natural stage once upon a past time on which a subsequent human history of salvation would play out; rather, for Jenson, following the canonical Genesis-to-Revelation narrative, creation is the history from origin to eschaton when read in the perspective of the being-in-Christ which is the ecumenical church.

Work expresses admiration for Jenson’s unblinking treatment of the divine warrior theology which saturates the book of Ezekiel, even though this is a scandal to contemporary sensibilities. And he rightly points out how Jenson’s narrative logic of “dramatic coherence” overcomes the binary choices (“the contradictions”) offered by an “academic” mode of interpretation, according to which the Bible is a treasure chest of propositional truths to be ransacked; the golden nuggets thus discovered must then undergo systematic smelting and reforging into alien conceptual schemes at the hands of theologians all too eager for the task. What Leithart says critically, however, could hold for Work as well: the only “really important line of criticism” is whether Jenson actually does “what he says he is doing, providing a revisionary metaphysics that enables us to say of God what Scripture says.”

The essay by Peter Ochs is valuable for drawing out the kind of “post-liberal” logic that would fit with “dramatic coherence.” He focuses on the logic immanent to a region or a particular form of life. The theologian’s task here is to describe the implicit patterns of reasoning that actually exist in scriptural communities, not only to achieve methodological clarity but indeed chiefly for diagnostic and reparative purposes. A major difficulty, however, arises from the hegemony of Aristotelian logic as a normative doctrine. The binary choice Aristotelian logic gives for any proposition is that it must be true or false. But this logical binarism is not true to life; in fact, it is violently imposed upon messy life, especially the messy forms of life fostered by scriptural traditions with their immanent ways of reasoning. Here the choices would be true or false or probable or uncertain. The deep reason for this expansion of the logical options is the historicity of reason: knowledge is not the relation of a (timeless) subject to a (timeless) object, as Kant imagined for modernity, but rather, as the pragmatists saw, a relation of finite subjects with their temporal objects to a specific audience, a form of life navigating the changes and chances of life. Ochs finds this triadic logic implicit in Jenson’s theology, and challenges those who would continue his project to develop it further.

Kendall Soulen argues that Jenson’s theology is consistently “post-supersessionist,” and this is certainly correct, corresponding to Jenson’s consciously “post-modern,” “post-liberal,” that is to say, “post-Holocaust” historical location. Soulen acknowledges the “fertility” of Jenson’s reframing of Trinitarian doctrine for his own theological work in developing a Christian theology not predicated on the obsolescence of Israel’s living witness to the Lord. The claim is justified because in Jenson’s appropriation of the Cappadocian distinction between nature and person, nature per se is nothing real; it is persons or things which really exist, which in turn can be conceptually categorized in various ways according to classes of characteristics and possibilities, whether human or divine or anything else. Thus the claim that “the Father is the font of the deity”; in place of the topic “On the One God,” accordingly, Jenson pioneered the topic “Patrology.”

Soulen follows Jenson in this; his dissent from Jenson’s formulation of patrology is immanent. His wider argument, which we haven’t space to explore here, is that biblically there are several patterns of divine naming which are non-identical repetitions of the same, and that the first of these patterns is the irrevocable witness and hence calling of Israel, the Shema’s testimony to the Tetragrammaton as naming the One who is Lord of all. So the first and proper name of God is not the Father, as Jenson holds, but the Lord; thus far Soulen’s dissent, though he is quick to continue that in a second pattern of naming God this same Lord is revealed as the Father of the Son on whom the Spirit rests.

Steven R. Holmes makes a clarifying contribution dissecting the Christological genealogy to which Jenson frequently recurs. This is one aspect of Jenson’s theology that seems especially “Lutheran”—though only with the proviso that “Lutheranism” is an internally conflicted tradition. Accordingly Holmes locates Jenson in the ranks of those innovative nineteenth- and twentieth-century Lutheran thinkers who argued that the antecedent scholastic tradition in Lutheranism drew back from the radical implications of Luther’s Christ a patre derelictus (“abandoned by the Father”). Holmes sees Jenson as the consistent passibilist in contemporary theology: God suffers, as Jenson frequently affirmed. Just so, however, Holmes calls into question Jenson’s minority report with its antecedent claimed in the ubiquitism or omnipresence of Christ’s body according to Johannes Brenz. He shows that it is not—as per Jenson—the immutability/impassibility axiom of traditional theology as such that prevented not only Brenz’s opponent in this early Lutheran controversy, Martin Chemnitz, but also Brenz himself from ascribing suffering to God; rather the common reticence derives from the asymmetrical relationship of the divine Son to His assumed humanity in the patristic doctrine of the hypostatic union. This is surely right; going back to Luther’s anti-Nestorianism, the case was for the unity of person, never for a symmetrical and reciprocal exchange of divine and human properties unmediated by the personal mission of the incarnate Son. Impressive as this historical correction seems, however, Holmes’ case amounts only to the dogmatic objection to a confusion of natures, contrary to faith, involved in any generic assertion of divine suffering. But the historical objection misses its contemporary target, insofar as it overlooks a crucial point for Jenson: the one hypostasis of the divine and incarnate Son is both agent and patient of the Incarnation. That is, Jesus is that “one of the Trinity who suffered,” as the fifth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople, 553 C.E.) clarified the teaching of the fourth (Chalcedon, 451 C.E.).

Oliver Crisp asks Jenson: What happened to the body? The reference is to the empty tomb and to Jenson’s apparent ambivalence in answering that rather basic question. To be sure, Crisp recognizes the profound problems involved here, and sees why Jenson tries to reframe the question in a way that liberates the answer from a pre-Copernican cosmology. Like Holmes, Crisp sees how the ubiquitist Christology of Brenz is taken up by Jenson as a resource to overcome the substance ontology associated with the traditional “two natures doctrine” in that the omnipresent creator God is ever near to creatures; there is consequently no distance between them to be bridged, as if otherwise the transcendent God was by nature in heaven above, while creatures by nature dwell below on the musty earth. Consequently, for Jenson there can only be different “styles” of divine presence, as for example in his Lutheran tradition the experience of absence is taken as in reality a divine “hiding.”

In any case, Crisp wants to know just how Jenson avoids something like a doctrine of impanation, according to which the divine Son of God, who once upon a time metaphysically owned the body designated Jesus of Nazareth, now makes himself available by metaphysically owning the Eucharistic loaf, making it His present body. Does this not imply that the Son of God has multiple bodies in multiple incarnations? Presumably Jenson would resist the implication, though he does not provide any account of the “stylistic” difference between the divine Son’s corporal presence in the historical Jesus of Nazareth and in the Blessed Sacrament. Thus the question of continuity (or not) between the body crucified, dead and buried in the tomb, and the Eucharistic bread cries out for clarification. While Jenson opines that the tomb was empty, he also assures us that the Eucharistic availability of Christ does not depend on it. Thus he seems to avoid affirmation of the “numerical sameness” of the body of Jesus and the body of Christ – a curiously Nestorian turn for a theologian claiming roots in Luther’s Christology.

Crisp’s own solution is suggestive. He argues that on Easter morn the body of Jesus was “translated” to a future point of space-time that corresponds to the promised eschaton. In this way, I would comment, his argument could account for one “style” of divine presence (hidden “under the light of nature”) during the days of Jesus of Nazareth up through the cry of dereliction, and another kind (manifest to faith “in the light of grace”) in the Eucharistic action-and-reception of the risen Jesus who was crucified for us, while distinguishing both from a final presence (manifest to sight “in the light of glory”). Luther’s three lights of nature, grace, and glory could in this way provide the missing (or silently presupposed?) account of varying “styles of presence” in Jenson’s theology.

The volume’s final contribution by Joseph Mangina on the atonement zeroes in on Jenson’s central and for many perplexing claim that in the cross-and-resurrection of Jesus, the Father decides what kind of God he will be, specifically, in relation to a creation that has fallen short of the intended glory. Jenson in this way seeks to preserve the drama of the event and yet, given his commitment to the identity of the economic and immanent Trinity, this must mean that the eternal divine decision temporally occurs on Easter morn, vindicating the Jesus shrouded with our sin and death as nevertheless the Father’s beloved Son. So what kind of teaching on the Atonement do we have here?

Mangina rightly notes Jenson’s unhappiness with “static” theories which absolutize aspects of the salvation event and so isolate them from their dramatic coherence with other aspects. The point in all of the various “theories” of atonement is rather that the cross of Jesus is the turning point in the drama of God’s resolve to be constant and faithful to a fickle and faithless creation. All the same, Mangina rightly underscores a definite reticence in Jenson regarding the motif of satisfaction of the divine wrath. In accord with this reserve towards the traditional Protestant emphasis on penal substitution he suggests that recapitulation better captures what Jenson is trying to say: Jesus’ life of self-offering, culminating in his death, fulfills squandered human nature as believers are thereby reconnected as members of the ecclesial body to this Head. Having said that, Mangina still wants to rescue the blood of Jesus, both literally and figuratively, as the scriptural gloss on the specific love of Jesus, whereby recipients are, as Jenson teaches, reconciled to the future to which the Spirit leads.


For almost a millennium since the rise of “academic” theology in the West and through many and various permutations, theologians have taken scripture as an authoritative (qua divinely revealed) though messy (qua humanly mediated) deposit of truths. “Academic” theology arose to bring scientific method to bear on the latter chaos—target of serious objections from Jews, Muslims, and the philosophers—and so produce a coherence of thought worthy of the dignity of the Perfect Being. The system thus produced has been thought to provide the Christian “worldview.” If however creation is not biblically a fixed cosmos analogizing timeless deity, but a history with an apocalyptic denouement, and if just this perception instigates the need for “revisionary” metaphysics in order to read the Genesis-to-Revelation canon as “dramatically coherent,” then Jenson’s profoundest significance for the past, present, and future of the “academic” discipline is that he overthrows it.

While in a concession to conventional usage he named his magnum opus a “systematic theology,” I submit that the hermeneutical suppositions involved regarding scripture and its relations to Jews, Muslims, and the philosophers are so subversive of the hermeneutics of “academic” theology (as just sketched) that the discipline morphs into what I call the “critical dogmatics” of the Beloved Community: “… the communal life of the Creator Trinity as a multiplicity of consubtantial hypostases joined in harmonious, conversational oneness of world-making as [imaged by] liturgical askēsis in unconditional hospitality for the other,” as Daniela Augustine neatly captures the kernel of Jenson’s metaphysical revisionism.

Such “dogmatics” is and must be critical in the sense that theology ceases to take for granted the partisan obiter dicta of rival fundamentalisms and instead becomes deliberative, even “rabbinic,” as well as intentionally ecumenical. Ochs captures this “post-academic” modus operandi beautifully:

The apostles’ understanding of the resurrection is part of the gospel, which means that the activity of interpretation is internal to Christianity’s scriptural source. This interpretation is an activity of reasoning, enacted within and for a particular community of reader-practitioners. The scriptural source is therefore not a static set of propositions but a historically specific process of reasoning, speaking to the human community as an exhortation to understand and act in the world in a new way. The prototype for this process is the inner communication among the three persons of God. The human community imitates this process throughout history in the way that it receives, interprets, enacts, and thus restates the gospel message.

What would it take to continue Jenson’s project in this way? Our discussion has lifted up at least two issues.

First, there is the missiological matter of owning up to the contemporary “death of God” in post-Christendom as the “natural theology of our times” with its connection to the “insoluble” problem of theodicy, particularly after the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews (and with America’s increasing recognition of its own genocidal episodes). Jenson once told me in this connection that he had read and reread Luther’s de servo arbitrio countless times, and he pointed me there to understand his differentiated position on “natural theology.” What Jenson thereby indicated was the teaching on theodicy in Luther’s concluding discussion of the three lights of nature, grace, and glory, where the fulfilled promise of the resurrection glory provides the only possible justification of God – the one promised and given by God! Consequently we read here that in the light of mere nature, in Luther’s words, “if you regard and follow the judgment of human reason, you are forced to say, either that there is no God, or that God is unjust.” It was Nietzsche, unstintingly and without recourse to Luther’s further lights of grace and glory, who drew this conclusion for emergent post-modernity. Jenson, following Barth, in this way consented to Nietzsche’s caustic critique of the liberal Protestantism of the nineteenth century as nothing but a moralistic and sanctimonious “Platonism for the people.” Jenson’s entire theological project is premised on this Nietzschean-Lutheran “atheism” with respect to Perfect Being Theology. To believe God is to disbelieve the idols, even this most storied idol of the passing epoch of Christendom.

Second, if Christ’s saving mediation is best understood not as a cosmological bridging of the gap between perfect deity and imperfect creatures, but rather as the execution of the divine decision mercifully to bear with the failed creature and bring to perfection its communion with the saving God, the question remains how precisely the “style” of God’s presence in the light of nature is differentiated from God’s presence in the light of grace. Here, as Holmes rightly points out, the supposed help from Brenz fails: “[I]f Christ is as bodily present in the sandwich on my desk as he is in the Eucharistic bread, nothing at all has been gained” by ubiquitism. Indeed, as Luther had himself originally and emphatically distinguished: “It is one thing for God to be present, and another for him to be present for you.” What Holmes does not point out, however, is that Chemnitz articulated ubivolipraesens (“being present where willed”) as counter-notion to ubiquitism, indicating the one divine person who makes himself available corporally as he wills, not then by any naturalistic necessity of a symmetrical and reciprocal exchange of properties, divine and human, working as if on automatic. Thus in his Supper the one divine-human Christ is present specifically and concretely as personally promised.

To sustain this counter to ubiquitism requires a correlative move which may in fact better accord with Jenson’s overall contention for strong Trinitarian personalism which sees the “unity” of the Three as the “great fugue … the sheer musicality of the divine perichoresis,” as Daniela Augustine has it. The corollary corresponds with Holmes’ observation that for Chemnitz “natures” are nothing but abstractions, concepts which have no reality in themselves. This deep break with Platonic essentialism (Christologically motivated by the notion of the anhypostatic humanity of Christ) ought to be extended, in my view, against strong doctrines of divine simplicity which pretend to a metaphysical insight into the necessary existence of the essentially perfect Being. This rejection of strong simplicity does not eliminate the doctrine of simplicity but revises it to serve, rather than undermine, Trinitarianism. Jenson accomplished this revision by an inversion, as Leithart sees: “Turning Thomas around, [Jenson] argues that if God’s essence is existence, then existence—the concrete divine communion of Father, Son, and Spirit—must be God’s essence.” Whether or not a mere inversion of Thomas suffices here, Jenson would instruct us thereby to adore the “precise” mystery of perichoresis, as I would put it: the eternal act of God’s being is the Father’s generation of the Son on whom He breaths his Spirit so that in the Spirit the Son, with us now in union, returns praise to the Father. As strong simplicity advocates will rightly point out, this “precise” mystery stretches things past the breaking point; it is difficult to call such divine tri-unity “simple” in an absolute sense. But the Jensonian alternative to nostalgia in contemporary theology depends on this breach as also it depends on another hermeneutic for theology than that of the “academy.”

Paul R. Hinlicky is Tise Professor at Roanoke College in Virginia and a docent of the Protestant Theological Faculty of Comenius University in Bratislava. He is author of Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology from Luther through LeibnizLuther and the Beloved CommunityDivine Complexity: The Rise of Creedal ChristianityBefore Auschwitz: What Christian Theology Must Learn from the Rise of Nazism, and (with Brent Adkins) Rethinking Philosophy and Theology with Deleuze: A New Cartography. A systematic theology, Beloved Community: Critical Dogmatics after Christendom, was published in 2015. In 2016 he published two books, Divine Simplicity: Christ the Crisis of Metaphysics and Between Humanist Philosophy and Apocalyptic Theology: The Twentieth Century Journey of Samuel Stefan Osusky. He is senior co-editor of the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Martin Luther.

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