Sunday, August 19, 2018

Writing theology before blogging?

I am introducing myself to the theology of Robert W. Jenson. He is seriously cool and I should have begun reading him years ago. He writes so clearly (unlike another modern theologian I dipped into recently) and yet with such profoundness that he must be read slowly (as advised by my friend and commenter here, Bryden Black).

But I have come across something he has written which (arguably) is written BB (Before Blogging).

In Systematic Theology Vol 1 The Triune God Oxford: OUP, 1997, p. 39, he writes:

"In one way, a reader is therefore more free - it may seem, indeed, omnipotent - over against a text than is a listener over against a speaker. A speaker is there to defend his or her intention against my interpretation. Once discourse has become text, it lacks this defense."

That was in 1997. In 2018 a blogger can post a text and can choose to defend it in the comments section. Or not!


Unknown said...

In part because Robert Jenson was deeply influenced by his experience of the CoE during his Oxford years, the trajectory of his thought is not Reformed, but Lutheran, and even at ppints American Lutheran. Although his writing is usually pellucidly clear-- David Bentley Hart does warn that some of Jens's sentences could detonate if roughly handled!-- some of the moves that he makes are easier to see if one has read a Lutheran critique of Reformed (eg Carl Braaten, Principles of Lutheran Theology).


Bryden Black said...

Delighted to hear you are getting stuck into Robert Jenson, Peter. Sounds like you are enjoying it too - not surprising; he is truly remarkable. I can imagine, however, some of your readers of ADU being a tad gob-smacked by the prospect of two volumes of Systematic Theology. Let alone 12 volumes of his major mentor and dialogue partner, Karl Barth! Never fear folks! May I offer you all another truly delightful possibility:

R W Jenson, A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live? Transcribed, edited, and introduced by Adam Eitel. Oxford University Press, 2016. It’s a small book, easily fits into one’s side pocket, and is easy to read in a colloquial style, given they were live lectures. Enjoy!

For others, who wish to chase up BW’s reference to DBH, may I recommend too:

David Bentley Hart, “The Angel at the Ford of Jabbok: On the Theology of Robert Jenson.” In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments, 156–169. Eerdmans, 2009. The choice of Jacob/Israel’s encounter is most apt, given DBH’s own wrestling with Jenson: an enthusiastic Eastern Orthodox person trying to come to terms with a giant of the Western Tradition, who is revamping that very Tradition most creatively; that meeting surely leaves one with a limp (BW’s ref again!); and leaves one too “worshiping on one’s supporting staff” before Yahweh, the faithful God of Israel, and Father of the Promised Messiah, who shares life-giving Holy Spirit with His People, arrabōn of His very own Future, assured for humans (Eph 1:13-14, 2 Cor 1:22).

Father Ron Smith said...

My reading recommendation? 'The Body's Grace by Dr. Rowan Williams. This book is down to earth and entirely understandable.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

"O God, you have taken to yourself the Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of your incarnate Son: Grant that we. who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her the glory of your eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. who lives and reigns with you, in the unity pf the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen." BCP TEC 1979.

Speaking of bodies, grace, and being down to earth or elsewhere, Father Ron, what collect, preface, antiphon, etc did SMAA pray for 15th August?


Unknown said...

Robert Jenson's Story and Promise may be the most understandable theological book in English.


Father Ron Smith said...

Dear Bowman, our first Collect in the NZPB, for the 15th August is very similar to that quoted by you, above. However, there is a second Collect provided which says this:

"Jesus, your birth is wonderful and your mother is the most beloved woman of all time. Help us all who believe in you to honour each other equally, whatever our gender, whatever our ability, whatever our social state may be".

Thought you might find that interesting. (SMAA used the first one).

Unknown said...

Thank you so much, Father Ron.

Like St Mary of Bethany, SMAA has chosen the better part.


Bryden Black said...

1. It’s kind of ironic to have an address/article of the academic Rowan Williams mentioned on a thread re Robert Jenson, when the latter’s review of the former’s publication ahead of his subsequent election to the See of Canterbury, On Christian Theology (Blackwell, 2000), raised justifiably serious caveats. Herewith the key extracts; the entire review may be found at Pro Ecclesia XI/3 2002, pp.367-9.

Two features of Williams’ meta-theology especially trouble me.
First. As the essays succeed each other, the bishop’s fear of closure begins to seem far too obsessive to be truly helpful in the life of faith. The confession into which teaching is supposed to lead us begins, after all, “I believe...”, not “I wonder about....” Is it really the chief proper use of dogma and other theology “to keep the essential questions alive”, (p.92) indefinitely to sustain puzzlement? Should dogmas and other theologoumena serve mostly to remind us of the problems they pretend to resolve? God is indeed a mystery, but between honour for the biblical God’s specific mystery and the kind of endless semi-Socratic dialectic Williams often seems to commend, there is, I would have thought, some considerable difference.
No doubt argument and perplexity are permanent in the church’s thinking, and no doubt this is a good and necessary thing; so that stirring up stagnant conviction must indeed be one task of theology. But, e.g., the phrase just cited, “to keep the essential questions alive”, occurs in an exposition of “the doctrine of Incarnation”, (pp.79-92) and the fathers of Chalcedon and 2nd Constantinople themselves certainly thought they were settling certain essential questions, in such fashion that conflict about them should not thereafter legitimately trouble the church. Their answers, of course, posed further and again difficult questions, but to say that this also was a good thing - as I do - is a different point than the one Williams presses - or anyway I think it is. Apophatic thinkers though they were, the fathers of the christological councils - to stay with that instance - did not suppose that the purpose of their formulations was to keep alive the debates that brought them to the meetings.

Bryden Black said...

Williams is a notable scholar of theological history, who commands long stretches of the tradition far better than do I, and his knowledge flows easily and rewardingly in this volume; but I cannot but think that his appeals to tradition are sometimes more to what he wishes the Fathers and medievals had been up to than to anything that would have occurred to these teachers themselves. Martin Luther famously maintained against Erasmus that it belongs to the very holiness of the Spirit to deal in assertiones, and at least in some contexts of discourse most of the church’s teachers have been of the same opinion - I know, of course, that Luther is not on Oxford’s or Cambridge’s more recent lists of authorities. ...
... Finally, perhaps an underling cause of my disappointments can be identified. Toward the end of the volume, and toward the end of another in itself marvellously creative and fruitful essay, “Incarnation and the Renewal of Community”, we encounter a set of rhetorical questions, put forward to “give us pause” about the Anglican “incarnational consensus” and - it develops - about the traditional doctrine of incarnation, with its flat-out assertion that in Christ God and the man are simply one hypostasis. “How can the specific agony of Jesus be God’s doorway into all human suffering without losing its historical distinctness? How can the identifying of Jesus with God’s Word avoid presenting the human Jesus as a static icon of the divine...?” etc (p.235, emphasis in the original). These challenges, of course, have force only if God is not historically specific, if “the divine” is in fact static. So here is Lessing’s garstige Grabe [ugly ditch] yet again, the supposed chasm between history and “the divine” with which German theology of the 19th and early 20th centuries struggled - and which under other terminology was the source of the ancient christological heresies. Williams’ obedience to the axiom that time and eternity are mutually exclusive is such as to lead him to some remarkable assertions: e.g., that the centre of Jesus proclamation is that God’s action is simply “undetermined by ours” (p.249). This, of one who taught us to petition even for the advent of God’s own Kingdom?

Bryden Black said...

Thus there do seem to be some assertiones underlying Williams’ Wittgensteinian manoeuvres, and these make a familiar sort of neo-Protestant proposal, at least to partly German-schooled ears. This is not altogether a bad thing: there is much to be learned from such theology. But as a general prescription for theology now to be done, neo-Protestant principles surely come a bit late. Of course, Anglican theology in general tends to be anachronistic in this way, having missed out the uproar of the 20s and 30s. What is disappointing - at least to this reviewer - is that Rowan Williams turns out to be so typical. [review extract ends]

Jenson’s first problematic feature certainly appeals to any Williams the academic, who might raise good, speculative questions for the academy to ponder. Yet for Williams the Churchman, whose confession is properly based on divine revelation, which in its turn is the responsibility of the Church to steward and profess and witness to (1 John 1:1-4, Ephesians), one surely does wonder how the two might co-exist. Jenson has put his finger right on it at this point!

Then his second problematic feature might initially sound rather academic [for who has pondered quite like a Robert Jenson the significance of divine temporality and our own time within history?!]. Yet it has massive implications for good church folk in their pews and/or closets (Matt 6:6) when they do that most basic of things - pray - as Jenson points out. For the crux is this: good, sound theology is always about people’s Christian practices in the end. And sadly in our day there is a real dearth of good theology for folk in the pews ...

Lastly; Bowman, you are right to highlight Jenson’s Story and Promise: A Brief Theology of the Gospel about Jesus (Fortress, 1973). Yet again, I sense my earlier referencing of A Theology in Outline offers a wonderful, fuller partner - with many an echo to the earlier text. For as Jenson himself says: “I wanted [my listeners, and now readers] to taste a bit of Christian theology, that unaccustomed food, in hopes that they might find it savory.” It gives one an itinerary for the journey of faith seeking understanding, given the current situation Western Christians in the Church find themselves in. And Jenson does this superbly now for the 21st C and its acute challenges for disciples of Jesus.

Bryden Black said...

I wonder, Ron, whether you have come across John Richardson’s extensive review of The Body’s Grace? He makes a number of good points, with important consequences. Let us know what you think.

Unknown said...


At the outset of the last twelvemonth, I began thinking carefully about the conditions for convert-led growth where the Protestant mainline is in decline. That Topic, Synodicalism, celibacy, and a complex of terrtorial innovations* have been useful sites for thinking about some recurring tensions between the heart-felt expectations of the converted and the nurtured. At the end of that year-- in the Byzantine ordo, the year-- there are hypotheses, one of which bears mention in a thread on Jenson (or, had that happened, the NPP & post-NPP, etc)-- convert-led growth in maturing churches is associated with a shift from *means of grace* to *spiritual direction* as the paradigm for a soul's relation to the Body. The converted do not necessarily neglect the means of grace-- there is a range-- but the core of what converting mainliners seek is more native to *spiritual direction*. Hypotheses, of course, are meant to be debated, tested, and modified.

To a reader of Jenson, this quickly poses a question that he himself anticipated, but did not explicitly answer in these terms-- to what extent can one apply his *ontology of the Word* in the paradigm of *spiritual direction*?

His Anglican readers, especially if clergy, delight in his Lutheran construction of a Presence of grace more veritable than anything of which the Reformed** can dream. A Reformational high churchman who visits Wittenburg need not swim the Tiber to find real Presence, real church order, real tradition, real bishops, etc. (One really wishes that upstart evangelicals and their Tractarian dissidents in the C19 CoE had read much more Luther and Chemnitz. Both instead trsnsmitted a weak Reformed** psychologism just where we want God With Us in the world.) But in keeping with a Lutheran insistence against all *schwarmerei* that this Word is always embodied and just so external to the heart, Jenson (like eg Wright, Campbell et al) seems, at least at first reading, to leave little scope for the identification of Christ with the introspected states or thoughts of most spiritual direction. Indeed, a reader understandably attuned to Jenson's reliance on Barth can find a flat assumption that in the *analogy of faith* saving grace always diverts one's gaze from the self to the Word, so that you can never meet God within yourself. Jerusalem is never Varanasi.

When then is going on in spiritual direction? When, on Athos, I went straight from the morning's liturgy to a *geronta* who asked me what was on my mind, after sleeping on the ptevious day's liturgy, reading, and assigned prayers, were we attending to the Word or distracted from the Word?

An attractive and traditional answer is that we were attending to the Holy Spirit's work in and through the Son's presence in the hours since our last meeting. From that perspective, the Luthersn blast against all *schwarmerei* medieval, modern, and post-modern is really a clarification of the perichoresis of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Indeed, one might cite Jenson's classic "Whatever Became Of The Holy Spirit?" in support of that answer and in explanation of its strangeness to some ears. Barth himself emphasises that the humanity of the Son makes the new humanity of the rest of us intelligible.

Insofar as this is at least a good answer, it suggests that Jenson's system, although devised for the paradigm of *means of grace*, is also applicable to that of *spiritual direction*. In the long run, that could be very consequential where the latter supports convert-led growth.


Unknown said...

* Territorial innovations. There are several disruptions of the Church's traditional geography, eg--

abandonment of parishes (congregations) for cathedrals
(mega-churches, chain churches);

disappearing parishes and dioceses (eg Bradford, Canterbury, CoE);

overlapping canonical jurisdictions of the same church (eg Anglicans and Russian Orthodox in North America);

adoption of the house church as a structural unit of something larger;

** Reformed. Exceptions exist, but they prove the rule.

The Mercersburg Theology seems to many to have been better argued than that of the contemporary Oxford Movement, but even Reformed-ish Anglicans have never heard of it, and the confessional Reformed have long preferred the Princeton theology to it. The House of Torrance has likewise championed a theology capable of a rich sacramentology-- Thomas F. even proposed bishops to the Church of Scotland!-- but again, Reformed-ish Anglicans seem scarcely aware of it, and the few Reformed who are (eg NZ's Myk Habets and Douglas Campbell) are ignored by their confessional brethren.

Conversely, the boundary case of Wesleyan Methodism shows that even a small difference from the Reformed can elevate churchmanship.


Unknown said...


Robert Jenson, and say N T Wright, Thomas Merton, Dallas Willard, Ana Marie Rizzuto, and Richard Rohr all react against the anti-metaphysics of Western modernity. Jenson revised metaphysics in the light of dogma; Wright invokes the implicit metaphysic of Second Temple Judaism; Merton turns from Dewey to Thomism to Existentialism to the *philosophia perennis*; Willard was a phenomenologist; Rizzuto is a psychoanalyst, Rohr fuses Franciscan thought with the *philosophia perennis." Figures like all four do, or should, influence contemporary spititual direction, but despite some striking family resemblances these philosophical orientations could be difficult to accommodate in a single body of practice for Christian spiritual direction.


Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Bowman
That is a lot to digest!
How do we digest that and keep a tight focus on the simplicity of Jesus' own spiritual direction to us (e.g. the Beatitudes)?

Unknown said...

Peter, you beg a most excellent question! Some might say that they are just trying to be saved so that they can go to heaven when they die.

But yes, desire for that "tight focus..." drives other people to spiritual direction for supportive prayer, counsel, and discernment to help them "sense Jesus more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly day by day." For the directee, I think that is much easier than mastering a set of old denominational distinctives. Directors indeed have some thinking to do, and training for spiritual directors is fast being institutionslised-- at Theology House too?-- to help them to do it.


Unknown said...

Postscript-- I commented in Brydenese, more or less, because I did not expect anyone but Bryden to care about most of it.

If any others are curious, however, I will be happy to paraphrase, define, exemplify, and otherwise translate.

Commenting from my phone's touchscreen, my orthography is often heterograph. I regret any annoyance this occasions the reader.


Bryden Black said...

To think Bowman there is a dialect called “Brydenese” reminds me of Wittgenstein’s remarks about there being no such thing as a ‘private language’! That’s re ‘style’ ... ;-)

As for the content of your comment. I am also reminded of that late piece of Karl Barth’s, written in response to the eventual publication of his early Göttingen lectures on Schleiermacher, and termed literally Nachwort or “Afterword”, more presumptuously entitled “Concluding Unscientific Postscript on Schleiermacher” (Barth’s words). That is, if indeed this PS was Barth’s final ruminations about his dearest yet deadliest theological ‘foe’, then what ARE we to make of those four formulations of two most basic questions towards the end?

What if indeed EVERYTHING Barth had written might in the end be reformulated via the Third Article of the Creed, in the mode of theology written in the guise of the Holy Spirit?! And if “in the Spirit”, then also (perhaps) your own “To Whom It May Concern” carefully embraces a whole lot more dear folk than you/they realize!

For naturally, via this reformulation of Barth’s at the end of his life, wherein is at all the divergence between “means of grace” and “spiritual direction”???! For any objectivity that pertains to the former is but at the inspiration of the Spirit Himself, whose “wheresoever-he-listeth” promptings are but the raw material of the latter, deep within the subjectivity of any believer. Catch my drift?! Or shall I call upon that Giant whose Festival it is today:

“Tu autem eras interior intimo meo et superior summo meo = But you were more inward than my most inward part/closer to me than I am to myself and higher than the highest element within me.” Augustine’s Confessions, translated by Henry Chadwick (3.6.11), page 43.

And once one gets/we get caught up (again?) in that dear Latin father’s call to “praise” (1.1.1) at all at all, any silly divide between human subject and divine Object is itself rent asunder, and “perichoretic” Communion is well on the way ... Indeed, one does “wonder” about our divisions and boundaries when we are both ‘forced’ to consider and yet also ‘thirst to explore’ the One Whose Personae have preveniently “enveloped” (Jenson) themselves around any and all human persons, such is the Divine Grace.

That is, finally, any due drilling down in the ways you suggest will only encounter their respective flip-side, I fancy, such is the sheer nature of any due Christian spiritual theology in the end. But that too is based upon even the slightest appreciation of our God being Trinitarian; any vagueness about THAT and perhaps we should both just send folk back to the start of Barth’s work and CD I.i, rather than the end!!!

Unknown said...

"Most of those who need catechesis to prepare for life in the church are already members and suppose themselves already qualified for her life. During the time in which the church and the culture are separating but not separated, this ambiguity cannot be avoided or denied. Much of the late modern church has dealt with the ambiguity by capitulating to it, by mitigating the church's liturgy, morality, and theology to accommodate 'seekers' and incompetent members. That way lies apostasy from the faith, which in broad stretches of Western Protestantism has already occurred. However it is to be managed in times of uncertain boundaries, the church must not dilute or estrange her sacramental culture but instead train would-be believers in its forms, not dispense with God's torah but instead reform would-be believers' moral structure, not succumb to theological relativism but teach would-be believers the doctrine of the Trinity."

Robert W. Jenson. Systematic Theology, II. p 305.