THE American Lutheran theologian Robert W. Jenson (1930-2017) wrote trenchantly that “the first-century male Galilean Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, prophet and rabbi and healer, is one of the three whose life together is God.”
In this engaging and stylish study, Lincoln Harvey, tutor in Systematic Theology at St Mellitus College, provides a fine introduction to the broad sweep of Jenson’s theological thought. With the skill of an experienced teacher, he introduces themes that are later consolidated, deftly looped back to, and linked with others in a fast-paced and a challenging read. As a counsel of perfection, I would have welcomed the odd picture or diagram, and the omission of the odd jarring, jokey aside.
At the heart of Jenson’s critique of much theology is its commitment to what Harvey describes as “substance metaphysics”: the view of Greek philosophers, taken into the Christian tradition, of God’s abstract, eternal, and immutable being, who stands beyond Jesus’s historical reality. The truly Christian proclamation, he argues, is that Mary’s boy and Pilate’s victim “is fully one of the Trinity”. This “womby-tomby God”, as Harvey puts it in one of his less felicitous moments, is not a static being, but “pure act”, not timeless and unchanging, but pure contingency in who he wills himself to be.
Likewise, the central Christian event of Easter is not just a glimpse, as through a glass darkly, of the greater reality of who God truly is and always was. Rather, the resurrection is at the heart of what God is for ever. Christ is infinite not because he is pre-existing, but because his resurrection stretches history out into an eternal dimension.
A final chapter explores Jenson’s consequent take on what it means to be a Christian and belong to the Church. The challenge is not to try to find a stable bedrock for our religious life, but to re-commit ourselves to the particularity of where we are, to celebrate the “humdrum particularity of our own religious life”. A God who is utterly enmeshed in history calls us to turn towards the reality that we already inhabit.
Jenson’s voice, ably conveyed by Harvey, is a challenging and stimulating one, which helpfully stakes out a piece of theological territory. For this reviewer, strong reservations persist: that God may have used Greek philosophy to elucidate rather than obfuscate the witness of the biblical writers; that the Church has a reality greater than individual instantiations of it; and, most of all, that the eternal Word of the Father pre-existed the life of Jesus of Nazareth in the first century.
The Ven. Dr Edward Dowler is Archdeacon of Hastings in the diocese of Chichester.
Jesus in the Trinity: A beginner’s guide to the theology of Robert Jenson
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