Scripture interrupts the religious desire to deify the world, according to Robert W. Jenson. Where antique religions looked to the semi-divine stars in holy awe, the author of Genesis 1 wrote with “deliberate impiety: ‘Gods nothing! Energy sources that God hung up there!’”
Jenson wryly concludes, “From here to Galileo is a matter of details.”Robert W. Jenson, A Religion Against Itself, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1967), 22. For Jenson, the Christian doctrine of creation follows the lead of scripture to undermine our more fantastic accounts of the world.
Jenson (1930-2017) was one of America’s most vibrant and creative systematic theologians. Educated at Luther College, Luther Seminary, and the University of Heidelberg, his mature theology was relentlessly ecumenical, regularly straying from the borders of his own Lutheran ecclesial identity. Jenson wrote his doctoral dissertation in Heidelberg and Basel, overseen by his doktorvater, Peter Brunner, and in consultation with the subject of his study, Karl Barth.
Jenson learned from Barth the struggle that theology must undertake to avoid fantasy. The theologian does not build conceptual ladders up to the heavens, but attends to God’s revelation in Christ—an insight that proved agreeable to his Lutheran Christianity. Jenson’s early work on BarthJenson positions the doctrine of creation to fend off two false images of created reality: mechanism and cosmos. raised all the questions that feed into a doctrine of creation: the relation of theology to modernity, the God/world relation, the relation of time and eternity, and so on.
Jenson positions the doctrine of creation to fend off two false images of created reality: mechanism and cosmos. God does not create a self-contained reality, whether imagined as a finely tuned machine that chugs along according to its own internal laws, or a grand cosmos filled with a wondrous spectrum of beings all tending towards transcendence. Both accounts misconstrue the biblical account of creation by failing to account for providence and God’s positive relation to creation. Against the pressure to adopt modern reductionism or to recapitulate antique ontological hierarchy, Jenson proposes something simultaneously more biblical and more fanciful: God creates a history.
Science, Modernity, and Theology
Jenson learns how to approach modernity from Barth and Jonathan Edwards. Barth and Edwards chart a path through modernity, and not around it. The reader will find little nostalgia for premodern life in Jenson. Jenson willingly and wilfully borrows from the great philosophers of the European establishment, though never simply adopting their methods. Few theologians would attempt to subordinate thinkers as grandiose as Hegel and Kant to their own projects, but Jenson seems to do just that, relishing any moment when he can use their thought against their own purposes.
This posture towards modernity sees Jenson openly accepting of the insights of science for theological reflection. He freely speculates on the emergence of life, describes Adam and Eve as the first hominids to pray, and completely rethinks the doctrine of the ascension in light of the fact that heaven cannot be “up there” somewhere. Jenson’s approach to the sciences is revealed in his judgement of the liberal arts: they are of value because they “complicate us open” (quoting Joseph Sittler). Speaking at Luther College 50 years after the dramas of his early teaching career,A regrettable early episode saw a division occur between the faculty and administration over a number of issues centring on Jenson, including his openness towards students about evolution. His resignation was refused by the administration, prompting numerous colleagues to offer theirs in protest. Jenson denied that theology should retreat from open engagement with the liberal arts: “Each can open the other to new possibilities of its own power”.
Such engagement is not without risk. Science has its own explanatory integrity. What theology ought not to do, according to Jenson, is attempt to fit itself within the story of reality told by science. Jenson briefly considers three options for the narrative configuration of science and theology.
It is first tempting to construe the two as competing metanarratives, each conflicting with the other in their depiction of the same realities ofWhat theology ought not to do, according to Jenson, is attempt to fit itself within the story of reality told by science. historical life. We can locate here the origins of the modern religious crisis. Is the rainbow a sign of God’s providential care, or merely refracted and dispersed light?
Should this configuration prove dissatisfactory, we could demarcate territories for either discipline. Science can provide epistemological rule over the birds and the seas and theology will regard the private soul and personal spiritual destiny. For two centuries, Jenson laments, Christianity has ceded ground to the sciences supposing that the two narratives were incommensurable, and therefore could only be allowed to live in peace through the compromise of divorce.
The third option would see science take her place within the story of reality told by theology. Let science tell its story as a play of immanent causes and realities, a partial image of the world God oversees. Such a relation would allow a “meaningful” scientific narrative to emerge, one that does not presume comprehensive description of reality, but that works within God’s story.
Jenson advocates this final option.
Arising within God’s Story
Hans Urs von Balthasar once remarked that the goal of the entire Christian life is to be awakened to the truth that we are not God.Hans Urs von Balthasar, Heart of the World, trans. Erasmo S. Leiva, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1954), 32. In the perilous task of theological ontology, Christian theologians have attempted to rouse themselves to this reality. Jenson admires the speculative boldness of the early Christians who threw off the hierarchical platonic ontologies in an attempt to take seriously scripture’s presentation of reality.
The ontology of the Bible allows only two kinds of being: the Creator of all and the creatures made. Most basically, we may say that “the Creator is one who does something, and . . . creatures areThe ontology of the Bible allows only two kinds of being: the Creator of all and the creatures made. what he does.”Robert W. Jenson, “Creator and Creature”, International Journal of Systematic Theology 4:2 (2002), 217. This relation cannot be reduced, Jenson reasons, to other conceptual pairings such as infinite and finite or immanent and transcendent. Such pairings are useful, but only because they gather their meaning from the fundamental relation of the Creator to creatures.
Jenson argues that “in scripture itself, the difference between the Creator and his creatures is not laid out conceptually at all, but rather narratively.”Ibid., 219. The two do not form a neat conceptual—or even dialectical—pair that can be described through various adjectival pairings. Theology evokes the relation of God to creation only by commenting upon the story of scripture.
That scripture’s way of describing creation runs through narrative is an idea that Jenson finds endlessly provocative. Speaking of Genesis, Jenson argues that there is no reason why “a poem about hearing creation cannot be serious ontology.”Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997-99), 2:157. God speaks creatures into being, and we arise as the creatures God narrates. In this, Jenson finds a mandate to avoid all ahistorical attempts to account for creation. God, he proposes, creates a history.
Few prove as important for Jenson’s doctrine of creation as Jonathan Edwards. Jenson discovered Edwards mid-way through his career. Essentially a figure of the Enlightenment, Jenson admired Edwards’ use of Locke and Newton to new ends. Newton’s mathematical description of physical motion made possible the description of the world as a play of purely immanent causes. With Newton and the Enlightenment, the old Aristotelian causes began to drop away until only efficient causality was left. A world imagined as animated solely by immanent efficient causality would be something like a machine.
Jenson found himself drawn to Edwards’ particular method of denying mechanism. Rather than rejecting Newton, Edwards put Newton to metaphysical use. The problem, after all,The Creator God of the Christian gospel relates to the world through covenants and promises, expressing intention not just that stuff should exist, but that it should be caught up in the dramatic turns of history. was not with science’s description of motion, but the metaphysical implications that people chose to draw from that description. Edwards diagnosed an unexamined conflation of Newton’s “bodies” with “substance”, understood as the “supposed hidden, intrinsically potent subject of . . . overt attributes and actions.”Robert W. Jenson, America’s Theologian (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 25. If bodies are substances in this sense, then the mechanism metaphor has purchase, but Edwards set out to deny that bodies had either intrinsic subsistence or potency. God alone, according to this stipulation, could be substance. As there are no “little self-sufficient agencies beside God, natural entities are not godlets, and therefore the world harmony is not self-contained.”Ibid., 26. Perhaps anticipating Heidegger, Edwards asks after the Being of beings.
In adapting Edwards’ insights into his own system, Jenson further points to the ahistorical character of a mechanistic universe. The basic character of such an account of creation would be the sheer “thereness” of creation, with no thought as to intention and direction. Building a theology of creation from the Creator/creature distinction, however, does not accord us the liberty to think of the world as sheer factual matter. Rather, the Creator God of the Christian gospel relates to the world through covenants and promises, expressing intention not just that stuff should exist, but that it should be caught up in the dramatic turns of history.
Like the mechanism metaphor, the antique depiction of creation as a “cosmos” sometimes picked up by theologians suggests that God’s creative act instigates, but does not guide, the direction of the world. “The world God creates is not a thing, a ‘cosmos,’ but rather is a history. . . The call of Abraham, the Exodus, the Crucifixion and Resurrection and the final Judgment are not events within a creation that is as such ahistorical; they are events of the history that is created.”Jenson, Systematic Theology, 2:14.
The Spirit of History
Denying mechanism and cosmos in this way calls into question the notion of “divine intervention” in history. The metaphor of intervention is predicated upon the idea that the universe is self-contained, and would otherwise simply run its course. As Jenson observes, the standard accounts that employ these metaphors struggle to make sense of God’s moves throughout history. Under the conditions of materialism, the direction that history actualizes out of the various possibilities available to it can be only either determined or random. Refusing both of these options, Jenson argues that history’s sojourn demonstrates a freedom and “spontaneity” identified with the work of the Spirit. God has no need of intervening in history, like a mechanic tuning an engine, since creation has no direction of travel apart from the freedom of the Spirit’s agency. Lest anyone think that Jenson posits here a “God of the gaps”, he clarifies, “We have not located the liberating agency of Christ’s SpiritWith Augustine, Jenson treats time as a creature; like all creatures, time belongs to the providential care of God. in regions supposedly not covered by scientific description ; what is attributed to the Spirit is a universal feature of the world precisely as scientifically described.”Ibid., 2:43. Emphasis in original.
Through this pneumatology, Jenson appears to be evoking a depiction of the God-world relation somewhat akin to Thomas’ distinction between primary and secondary causality. It makes sense to pray, Jenson argues, because the “scientifically accountable actual course of events can and so must theologically be understood as a history occurring within God’s Freedom.”Ibid., 2:44. Divine responses to prayer are not “interventions” that break or suspend the laws of the material universe, since those laws have no reality or direction apart from the free act of the Spirit.
Jenson distances this view from panentheism, since the “in/out” distinction has been rejected by the apprehension that “God wills to know a world, and this world rather than some other; thus the world is willed reality and God is reality that does not need to be willed.”Robert W. Jenson, On Thinking the Human (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 52. It would thus be inappropriate to measure God’s relation to creation by distance or direction.
Has Jenson, then, summoned God into time by appealing to the Spirit in this way? Here we find Jenson’s most novel and radical departure from the tradition. Jenson refuses to define eternity as timelessness, avoiding equivocation in this act. As indicated earlier, Jenson grounds all distinctions between God and us on the fundamental distinction between Creator and creature. Thomas’ doctrine of analogy functions only because of the reality of this unique distinction. Time itself, Jenson proposes, must be analogous. Given analogy, we can describe God’s relation to time positively, and not by sheer negation. Moreover, analogy upholds the fundamental distinction between Creator and creature, avoiding melodramatic claims of God’s susceptibility to the travails of history. With Augustine, Jenson treats time as a creature; like all creatures, time belongs to the providential care of God. Providence, here, signals God’s intimate presence to all of time—past, present, and future.
Few interpretations of Jenson have paid due attention to his doctrine of creation. Many of his more adventurous Christological experiments are worked out in relation to the central claims put forward here. There is much more that could be said about Jenson’s doctrine of creation, but instead I’ll finish with some notes pertaining to science and modernity.
What Jenson admires about Edwards in particular is that his rejection of a mechanistic universe did not signal a retreat into an anterior classical universe, but a striking out into new speculation about a modern scientific universe. Edwards’ venturesome theology showed that the problems thrown up by science frequently rearticulate problems already internal to theology.
By locating the disagreement between science and theology within metaphysics, Jenson frees up both to their own tasks. “Each can open the other to new possibilities of its own power.” Jenson resists modernity by way of modernity. Theologians have little call to quibble with science’s descriptive account of creation, but theology’s task may By locating the disagreement between science & theology within metaphysics, Jenson frees up both to their own tasks.lie in interrogating the accompanying metaphysics. By shelving the metaphors of mechanism and intervention, Jenson evokes a different metaphysical landscape on which to imagine the relation of science to theology: history. Such an account opens up space for thinking providence.
We have no reason to suppose that the question of providence will not become more urgent in the church in coming years, as petitionary prayer and charism become increasingly central to the growing forms of Christianity in the global church. Few theologies seem equipped to account for answered prayer. Prayer, Jenson has regularly suggested, must be understood as involvement in providence. But what does one expect when praying for Suzie to recover from her illness? Nothing more, Jenson seems to suggest, than that God be the God of history, the narrator of our common tale. Under these conditions, we can no longer think of intervention. After all, narrators don’t intervene in stories, they tell them. An answered prayer could be only a moment of the Spirit’s freedom in the movements of God’s history, whatever a scientist might see.