Archive for Robert Jenson

Chalcedon and Dramatic Unity

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on 16 March 2010 by Brendan

Reading in Alister McGrath’s wonderful anthology, The Christian Theology Reader, I came upon Leo the Great’s “Tome,” written in 449 and affixed in an appendix to the “Definition of Faith” produced by the Council in Chalcedon in 451. In his Systematic Theology, Vol. I, Jenson tears into this document, arguing that it dissolves the acting unity of Christ’s person. Perhaps because of the Tome’s inclusion as a hermeneutic key to Chalcedon, the Council failed to placate the drifting Oriental churches, which rejected the conciliar authority and broke with the churches of the empire.

Jenson acknowledges that Chalcedon marked a true conceptual advance for “connecting the Trinitarian and Christological discussion terminologically: as there is one divine nature in three hypostases, so in Christ there are divine and human natures in one hypostasis” (130). However, the true point of contention regarding the person of Jesus was how those natures subsisted in one person: Egyptian and Syrian (now known as the Monophysite, or “one-nature” churches) rejected Chalcedon because it seemed to dally dangerously with the Nestorian separation of the natures. As Jenson notes, Chalcedon is only unproblematic “if we don’t read it too closely”: the text carefully reaffirms Nicea’s affirmation of Jesus as “homoousion” with the Father; it reaffirm’s Ephesus’s rejection of Nestorius in designating Mary “Theotokos,” or “God-bearer.”

Nonetheless, just where it broke new theological ground, Chalcedon left things rather in a muddle: Jesus is “acknowledged in two natures, without confusion […] This distinction of natures is in no way abolished on account of this union.” That “distinction of natures” is a quote from Leo’s Tome, which elaborates the distinction further: “Each nature performs its proper function in communion with the other; the Word performs what pertains to the Word, the flesh what pertains to the flesh. The one is resplendent with miracles, the other submits to insults.”

Chalcedon is vague; Leo is indisputably problematic. Athanasius demonstrates the fundamental problem with attributing distinct agency to either of the natures, rather than to the single hypostasis. Writing of the miracles of Jesus in a letter (also included in McGrath’s anthology), he insists,

These are not events occurring without any connection, distinguished according to their quality, so that one class may be ascribed to the body, apart from the divinity, and the other to the divinity, apart from the body. They all occurred in such a way that they were joined together […] He spat in human fashion; but his spittle had divine power, for by it he restored sight to the eyes of the man blind from birth […] He cured by his mere will. Yet it was by extending his hand that he raised Peter’s mother-in-law when she had a fever (4.7).

His point is straightforward: Jesus as depicted in the Gospels is a dramatic unity; he is a single person (the traditional, though now somewhat misleading, translation of hypostasis). There is no clear-cut way in which to distinguish Jesus’ “divine” actions from his “human” actions, because some of his most dramatic demonstrations of divinity occurred in and through the most emphatically fleshly gestures, whether spitting, or breaking bread, or taking the hand of a little girl.

I’m certainly no authority on historical theology, but given what I know of Nestorianism, Leo’s argument strikes me as within a shade or two of that heresy.


Theory and praxis, or language game?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on 15 March 2010 by Brendan

Is theology, as Gustavo Gutierrez and the other liberationists have argued, simply “critical reflection on praxis”? Or, to play it in an Hegelian key, does the owl of Minerva really fly at dusk? This hard division between the “facts” of practical existence and critical reflection upon those facts masks a rather coarse foundationalism, which presumes to identify the fundamental, constitutive aspects of social and personal reality apart from any reflective discourse. Theology is not simply reflection upon “basic human principles.”

Now, Gutierrez is perfectly right to argue, “A privileged locus theologicus for understanding the faith will be the life, preaching, and historical commitment of the Church”: as Robert Jenson and many others have argued, a test for the soundness of any theological proposition is its ability to shed light upon the established liturgy of the Church – that is, upon the indispensable aspects of the Church’s communal practice, such as the Eucharist, baptism, the passing of peace, etc. However, Gutierrez insists that theology must “go beyond the visible boundaries of the Church”; he quotes Yves Congar: “the Church” must “deal with the real questions of the modern world.” Only this will save her from “narrowness.” Theology must reckon with the truths of the world; it must become open-minded.

This Marxist dualism of theory and praxis misses the many ways in which “critical reflection” is itself a practice, historically bound and embedded within the Church’s other social disciplines, as well as the many ways in which all praxis is itself theoretical, capable of being rendered as conversation, speech, and reasoning (if only latent and halting). As Wittgenstein wrote, “To describe a language is to describe a way of life.” We reason our way to action, and indeed we reason in and through our actions: theological reflection constitutes and bounds ecclesial practice, even as ecclesial practice in turn governs and disciplines and informs theological reflection. There is no privileged, foundational substrate of the real upon which theology might gain traction; there is only a welter of competing “language games,” each striving to narrate the world and re-narrate their competitors (though MacIntyre is right in arguing that one discourse can short-circuit its rival by offering novel formulations of seemingly insoluble problems).

Ascension, Eucharist, and the Body of Christ

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on 13 February 2010 by Brendan

Halden’s extended discussion of the body of Christ has prompted me to pen some much-delayed reflection on profitable intersections in my own reading regarding the Incarnation, Eucharist, and Church. I have been bothered for some time by an odd question: “After the ascension, where is Jesus’ body?” Within an Aristotelian cosmology, it made sense that Jesus would have ascended bodily to the heaven above the highest heaven, above the realm of the stars – but in Copernican space, we can say with some certainty that no such physical realm exists. Most Christians are content to spiritualize heaven, then, and to imagine Jesus as inhabiting no place, or perhaps a reality tailor-made for his waiting. This is probably a trivial question, but the answers to it suggested in their various ways by Robert Jenson and Graham Ward have some fascinating implications for how we understand the Eucharist and the Church. 

At the end of his Systematic Theology, Vol. I, Jenson includes a discussion of the resurrection and ascension, while Graham Ward’s Cities of God revolves around a lengthy discussion of “the manner in which the physical body, situated in the space opened by the continual displacement of Christ’s own body, maps on to other bodies and so constitutes the ecclesial and sacramental body of Christ” (205). I should note that Ward’s book was generally disappointing, for its determined obscurantism, its gleeful avoidance of practically any substantive discussion of cities, and its entirely unconvincing defense of homosexuality (which to my mind principally consisted in gnomic broadsides aimed at “the biopolitics of heterosexism” and the like). Nonetheless, Ward’s discussion of bodies and the Eucharist was quite helpful (it might be worthwhile to read just the middle section of the book). 

To begin where Jenson begins, then, we must ask not simply where Jesus is now, but even where he was in the days after the resurrection, when his glorified body was doing all the strange things it seems it could do (vanish, pass through walls, become unrecognizable, etc.).  Jenson writes that we should not properly understand him as present spatially on the earth: “If we ask where Jesus was—so to speak—resident during the days of the appearances, the immediately available answer is that he was in the heaven of the apocalypses, that is, in God’s final future, from which he showed himself—or the Spirit showed him—to the chosen” (197). Jenson is not suggesting that these appearances were somehow therefore “virtual,” in the sense of disembodied apparitions. Rather, Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances are eschatological, bodily in-breakings of God’s future into the sinful present. Jesus’ body is a bit of redeemed creation swirling in the wastes of fallen time.

After the ascension, however, this resurrected body becomes conceptually even more problematic: “A body requires its place, and we find it hard to think of any place for this one” (202). This is no matter of theological indifference: “The Incarnation given, what we call the humanity of Christ and the deity of Christ are only actual as one sole person, so that where the deity of the Son is, there must be Jesus’ humanity, unabridged as soul and body” (202). Otherwise, what do we mean when we say, “I know my Redeemer lives”? Do we mean simply that he lives somehow as the Logos asarkos, the fleshless or un-incarnate Word? Do we mean, in a surprising relapse into pure Platonism, that he lives simply as spirit or “soul”? If so, what was the point of the bodily Resurrection to begin with, if its product could be set aside so simply? 

Jenson, however, is not content with this befuddlement: “It is time for theology … to let what Paul meant by ‘body’ teach us also what to mean by ‘body’ … We must learn to say: the entity rightly called the body of Christ is whatever object it is that is Christ’s availability to us as subjects; by the promise of Christ, this object is the bread and cup and the gathering of the church around them. There is where creatures can locate him, to respond to his word to them” (205). 

In essence, Jenson argues that Jesus is still embodied, but only as the Church gathered around the Eucharist. This requires quite a radical revision of our notion of “body,” and Jenson unfortunately does not provide enough exploration on this theme. For that discussion, we must turn to Ward, who in explicating Gregory of Nyssa, argues, “Since the essence of things cannot be known, the displacement of their identity is endless. The poiotes become signs to be read by the intellect and yet their meaning is endlessly not deferred but protracted, extended out of the material order of this world and into what Gregory termed the aion” (90). The material order of finitude moves in God’s infinity; a thing’s “poiotes” (outworking, or outward form) is a continual act of extension and displacement, a stretching out into eternity: as Nyssa himself wrote in On the Soul and the Resurrection, “Every man is a nation,” a collection of ever-shifting personalities, beliefs, dispositions (and, we might add, of atoms).

This logic—by which the “spiritual,” or, as Jenson might put it, eschatological import of a physical sign imparts its significance—creates the conceptual space within which to make sense of Jesus’, “This is my body.” Ward argues, “These words perform the transposition … They set up a logic of radical reidentification. What had throughout the gospel story been an unstable body is now to be understood as an extendible body. For it is not that Jesus, at this point, stops being a physical presence. It is more as if this physical presence can expand itself to incorporate other bodies, like bread, and make them extensions of his own” (101). 

So far so good—but what does the “displaced body of Christ,” as Ward puts it, have to do with the Church? Since Paul, the Church has referred to herself as the “body of Christ,” (most obviously in 1 Cor. 12:13-ff., though also in 1 Cor. 3:16-17, where the subject of address is the Church as a whole). The web of significance here is draw quite tightly: Jesus’ body is the new Temple (Jn. 2:18-22), the tabernacle of God’s glory (Jn. 1:14), because the Spirit of God rest upon him (Jn. 1:32); so too, the Church is the temple of the Lord, and so in turn Jesus’ very body, because the Spirit of glory dwells in her: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s spirit dwells in you?” 

What enables that changing reference? Ward’s language of displacement, and Jenson’s language of eschatological in-breaking help to make sense of this conceptual shift, which is implicit even in John’s Gospel: in the Olivet Discourse, Jesus says, “If I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; But if I go, I will send him to you” (16:7). Nevertheless, that does not stop Jesus just moments later from praying, “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me” (17:22-23). In effect, it is the displacement of Jesus’ physical presence that allows the Church to be constituted as his body, as the spatial and temporal continuum by which he makes himself known to the world.

This reading makes sense of Ward’s reticence about the late medieval and counter-reformation enthusiasm for “real presence” as a theological rubric for interpreting the Eucharist. Indeed, he emphasizes that though the Latin “praesentia” is a crucial term both for the magisterial Reformation and for the Council of Trent, it nowhere appears in Aquinas’s discussion of the Eucharist (Ward 158), which rather centers on the bread and wine as “verum corpus Christi,” the “very body of Christ” (158). For Ward, to speak too eagerly of Christ’s presence in the bread and wine implies almost a magical reading of the Eucharist, as though the point were simply God’s miraculous overriding of nature to present himself as a spectacle to the gathered crowd.

By contrast, the biblical import of the Lord’s table seems to be first ecclesiological, and then, in second order, sacramental: we might speak of the elements as being transubstantiated because it is in its table fellowship that the Church is continually reconstituted as the presence of Christ in the world. Incidentally, that reasoning is only circular—in a chicken-and-egg sense of the Church’s constituting the elements that constitute it—if we dismiss the possibility of its being created ex nihilo by the gracious intervention of God in history. 

Thus, the most important referential question that we can ask about the Eucharist is not concerning place (“Where is the body of Christ?”), but concerning time: “When the risen Christ is made corporeally present by his Spirit in his Church at Table, has a foretaste of our redeemed future been made present to the world in fallen time?” Ward suggests,

The eucharist participates in a temporal plenitude that gathers up and rehearses the past, while drawing upon the futural expectations and significations of the act in the present. In the same way as the Last Supper is both an enactment of the Passover Meal and rehearsal for the sacrifice on Calvary; so the eucharist is both an enactment of the Last Supper (and therefore a figuring of the Passover), a participation in the atoning sacrifice of Calvary and a foretaste of the heavenly banquet at the eschatological wedding (171).

In our dramatically re-enacting the life of Christ and anticipating the life of the Kingdom, we become the life we rehearse; we are what we eat.

 So, if I—or Jenson, or Ward—am at all correct in my analysis, the question of Christ’s continuing bodily existence is not a matter of barren scholastic speculation (if there ever was such a thing outside the snobbery of modernist rationalism), but rather of the very nature of salvation itself: the absence of Jesus’ body makes space for us to be included within his person by the Spirit, and so to be (eschatologically, which is to say, by faith) transfigured signs for the continuing transfiguration of the world. If this is to happen at all, Scripture suggests, it must happen fundamentally at the Eucharist.

EDIT: I probably should clarify that when I say I was unpersuaded by Ward’s defense of homosexuality, I meant incontinent homosexuality, or gay marriage. For those who appreciate the difference and might have been offended, I apologize for the mistake.

Robert Jenson on the Trinity

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on 25 January 2010 by Brendan

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.