Robert Jenson on the Trinity

Aside from brief flings with Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer, reading Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology, Vol. I: The Triune God has been my first sustained encounter with Lutheran theology, and the experience has been altogether enjoyable. Jenson begins with some wonderfully ecumenical reflections on the task of theology (which “is the church’s enterprise of thought” when “the only church conceivably in question is the unique and unitary church of the creeds” (vii)) within a divided church, which must always on his view be sustained by an active faith in a God who “breaks down the dividing wall” (Eph. 2). For Jenson, “Theology’s question is always: In that we have heard and seen such-and-such discourse as gospel, what shall we now say and do that gospel may again be spoken?” (14) 

At its heart, Jenson’s whole project is animated by his devotion to a single thesis: the only God worthy of worship is the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. As Jenson puts it, “Any pattern of thought that in any way abstracts God ‘himself’ from this person, from his death or his career or his birth or his family or his Jewishness or his maleness or his teaching or the particular intercession and rule he as risen now exercises, has, according to Nicea, no place in the church” (103). Jesus is “very God from very God”: in him, all the fullness of the deity is manifest. To speak of God the Son is to speak of this man, and no other. 

In Jenson’s view, the Nicene theology (particularly as articulated by the Cappadocian fathers) overcame the twin temptations perennially facing Christian theology: modalism, which buffered God from time by positing a monadic identity beyond his manifestations in time, and subordinationism, which protected God from time by erecting a gulf between the true Deity and the created Son. However, argues Jenson, even after Nicea, the Church has continually failed rigorously to think out the logic of the temporality of God, a failure particularly evident in Augustine’s inability to grasp the distinction between the Cappodocian use of hypostasis and ousia to describe the being of God: hypostases are the identities or persons of Father, Son, and Spirit, each of which fully constitutes the ousia (being) of God within a set of “subsistent relations” (as Jenson observes, and as my own attempt to formulate this paragraph attests, the challenge of Trinitarian theology is largely the task of choosing the right prepositions). Jenson writes, 

The Augustinian supposition that there is no necessary connection between what differentiates the triune identities in God and the structure of God’s work in time bankrupts the doctrine of Trinity cognitively, for it detaches language about the triune identities from the only thing that made such language meaningful in the first place: the biblical narrative (111).

In aim and outline, Jenson thus far seems entirely orthodox; nonetheless, he is perhaps too genial in his rejection of the traditional perfections of God, particularly impassibility: most Christian thinkers have regarded God as transcendent of any potential for change, indeed of any interval that could constitute a lack or deficit in the boundlessness of his love. Jenson, however, regards this claim as a vestige of “Greek theology,” which “defined deity by immunity to time, by ‘impassibility’; offensively to this definition, the gospel identifies its God by temporal events of Exodus and Resurrection” (16).

However, God for Jenson is not merely identified by temporal events, but in some sense constituted by the whole temporal drama of creation, fall, and redemption:

Something like Barth’s teaching must be true: the goal of God’s path is just what does in fact do appear in Christ’s victory over them […]So also a mystery of suffering, of an interplay between created regularities and evil, must belong to the plot of God’s history with us” (73). 

A thorough argument against such a theological course is set out in David Hart’s excellent essay on Jenson, “The Lively God of Robert Jenson,” which has become something of a paradigm for me of the combination of warmth and critical distance appropriate to a book review. Hart’s essential argument (this time from The Beauty of the Infinite) is that if “God depends on creation to be God, and [so] creation exists by necessity,” then “God is robbed of his true transcendence and creation of its gratuity” (157). 

Admittedly, there is no simple, clear-cut way to speak of God’s transcendence without immediate qualification, for if it was on the Cross that God suffered as the decisive confrontation with the powers of the world for our rescue from sin, then, as Cyril of Alexandria put it in his First Letter to Nestorius, “the Word suffered impassibly.” And that is a mystery which no amount of reflection might exhaust.


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