Rest in peace: Robert W. Jenson (1930–2017)
I first read Robert Jenson in the summer of 2009, following the first year of my Master of Divinity studies at Emory University, on a sort of whim. I had been introduced to him through an essay by Stanley Hauerwas, originally published in a festschrift for Jenson but republished in the 2004 collection of Hauerwas's essays called A Better Hope. Oddly, I had the impression that Hauerwas didn't like Jenson, but at a second glance, I realized his great admiration for him, so I not only read through Jenson's whole two-volume systematics that summer, but I blogged through it, too—in extensive detail. In fact, it was the first systematic theology I ever read.
Eight years later, and I am a systematic theologian. Fancy that.
Jenson passed away yesterday, having been born 87 years earlier, one year after the great stock market crash of 1929. He lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, Roe v. Wade, the rise and fall of the Religious Right, the fall of the Soviet Union, September 11, 2001, the election of the first African-American U.S. President, and much more. He also lived through, and in many ways embodied, a startling number of international, ecclesial, and academic theological trends: ecumenism; doctrinal criticism; analytic philosophy of language; Heidegerrian anti-metaphysics; French Deconstructionism; the initially negative then positive reception of Barth in the English-speaking world; the shift away from systematics to theological methodology (and back again!); post–Vatican II ecclesiology; "death of God" theology; process theology; liberation theologies (black, feminist, and Latin American); virtue ethics; theological interpretation of Scripture; and much more.
Jenson studied under Peter Brunner in Heidelberg and eventually spent time in Basel with Barth, on whose theology he wrote his dissertation, which generated two books in his early career. He was impossibly prolific, publishing hundreds of essays and articles as well as more than 25 books over more than 55 years.
Initially an activist, Jenson and his wife Blanche—to whom he was married for more than 60 years, and whom he credited as co-author of all his books, indeed, "genetrici theologiae meae omniae"—marched and protested and spoke in the 1960s against the Vietnam War and for civil rights for African-Americans. His politics was forever altered, however, in 1973 with Roe v. Wade. As he wrote later, he assumed that those who had marched alongside him and his fellow Christians would draw a logical connection from protection of the vulnerable in Vietnam and the oppressed in America to the defenseless in the womb; but that was not to be. Ever after, his politics was divided, and without representation in American governance: as he said in a recent interview, he found he could vote for neither Republicans nor Democrats, for one worshiped an idol called "the free market" and the other worshiped an idol called "autonomous choice," and both idols were inimical to a Christian vision of the common good.
In 1997 and 1999, ostensibly as the crown and conclusion to 70 years' work in the theological academy, Jenson published his two-volume Systematic Theology, arguably the most read, renowned, and perhaps even controversial systematic proposal in the last three decades. There his lifelong interests came together in concise, readable, propulsive form: the triune God, the incarnate Jesus, the theological tradition, the nihilism of modernity, the hope of the gospel, and the work of the Spirit in the unitary church of the creeds. Even if you find yourself disagreeing with every word of it, it is worth your time. As my brother once told me, he wasn't sure what he thought about the book when he finished the last page, but more important, he felt compelled to get on his knees and worship the Trinity. Surely that is the final goal of every theological system; surely nothing could make Jenson more pleased.
Happily, those of us who loved and benefited from Jenson's work were blessed with nearly two more decades of output from his mind and pen following the systematics. Some of this work was his most playful and provocative; it also included two biblical commentaries, on the Song of Songs and Ezekiel. There are treasures not to be overlooked in those lovely works.
If Hauerwas was my gateway to theology as a world, Jenson was my guide, my Virgil. I didn't know the names of Irenaeus and Origin and Cyril and Nyssa and Damascene and Radbertus and Anselm and Bonaventure before him; or at least, I had no idea what they had to say. And I certainly hadn't considered putting Luther and Edwards and Schleiermacher and Barth together in the way he did. Perhaps most of all, I didn't know what systematic theology could be, the intellectual heights that it could reach and that it necessarily demanded, or the way in which it could be conducted as an exercise in spiritual, moral, and mental delight: bold, wry, unflinching, assertive, open-handed, open-ended, argumentative, humble, urgent, sober, at peace. Jenson knew more than most that theology is simultaneously the most and the least serious of tasks. It is of the utmost importance because what it concerns is the deepest and most central of all realities: God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the creator, sustainer, and savior of all. But self-seriousness is a mistake precisely because of that all-encompassing subject matter: God is in charge, and we are not; God, not we, will keep the gates of hell from prevailing against the church; God alone will steward the truth of the gospel, which we do indeed have, but only as we have been given it, and which we understand only through a glass darkly. Jenson knew, in other words, that in his theology he got some things, even some big things, wrong. And he could rest easy, like his teacher Barth, because God's grace reaches even to theologians. Although it is true that the church's teachers will be judged more harshly than others, the judgment of God is grace, and it goes all the way down.
God's grace has now been consummated in this one individual, God's servant and theologian Robert. He is at rest with the saints in the infinite life of God—the God he called, with a wink in his eye, both "roomy" and "chatty." May his rest be as full of talk as his life was on this earth, as eloquent and various as the eternal conversation of Jesus with his Father in their Spirit. And, God be praised, may he be raised to new and imperishable life on the last day, as he so faithfully desired and bore witness to in his work in this world. May that work give glory to God, and may it remind the church militant of the God of the gospel and the life we have been promised in Jesus, the life we can taste even now, the life of the world to come.