God of the Gospel: a book review

Robert Jenson is one of the most creative contemporary systematic theologians.  However his trinitarian theology is only now starting to get the critical attention it deserves. Scott Swain, Associate professor of  systematic theology and academic dean at RTS, Orlando, has written an informative book on Jenson.  The God of the Gospel: Robert Jenson’s Trinitarian Theology summarizes Jenson’s understanding of the Trinity and offers Swain’s  assessment.

In his introduction, Swain gives the background  to the modern resurgence of Trinitatian theology and Barth’s framing of the question: Who is the God of the Gospel? According to Swain, theology after Barth seeks to answer to what extent an ‘evangelically responsible trinitarian theology’  requires revising of the church’s traditional doctrine of God(24)? Swain explicates Barth’s trinitarian theology in the Church Dogmatics and demonstrates the importance of divine election and divine incarnation in his theology, and the significance of wrestling with these doctrines in trinitarian theologies after Barth (32). For example, Barth’s contention that Jesus Christ is both object and subject in God’s election is picked up in Jenson’s theology. Likewise Barth’s determination to set the Trinity at the head of all dogmatics (34) and to root his understanding of the doctrine in revelation (35) provide a framework for which Jenson develops his narratival approach.

In part one, Swain examines Jenson’s theology in three chapters ( ch. 3-5).   Swain  explicates Jenson’s view of God’s identity in the Old Testament, New Testament and his metaphysical understanding of the Trinity.  According to Swain, “Jenson’s theology creatively and critically retrieves [the] tradition of expounding the doctrine of God by explicating the divine names revealed in Holy Scripture (79).”  Jenson roots his trinitarian theology in his theological interpretation of the exodus  (80).  The exodus becomes the paradigmatic way of describing God’s nature and saving action (which has implications for understanding of the gospel). Jenson says we know who God is by attending to historical relationship between YHWH and Israel. In other words, “YHWH’s relationship to his son Israel is a relationship internal to his identity and therefor constitutive of his identity(86).” God’s nature is given dramatic coherence as we attend (with Jenson) to the historical relation between God and his people described in scripture.  However Jenson sees the full resonance of this in turning to the New Testament and the evangelical events described in the gospels (the  Old Testament anticipates God’s final confrontation with death, Jesus is the example par excellence of the Triune God’s ). This isn’t to say that Jenson comes to scripture without any theological framework. Jenson affirms the theology of Nicea and the Nicene Creed. The creed provides a rule of faith, by which he  interprets the events of sacred history.

However, Jenson’s attention to the historic, narrative events in scripture, cause him to look askance at traditional articulations of the  doctrine of God. As Swain describes, Jenson repudiates notions of God’s timelessness, immutability, impassibility, etc., as evidence of Christian theology’s Hellenization.  Jenson seeks to develop his metaphysics from a historicist reading of Scripture, and in so doing takes aim at what he sees as the imposition of Greek categories on the doctrine of God in the Christian tradition (123-5).  This means he sees his theological task as purging Nicene trintarianism of depersonalized Hellenization (134).

In part two, Swain moves on from his descriptive task, to offering a critical assessment of Jenson’s theology. He does not offer a point by point critique of all that Jenson says; instead Swain gives a dogmatic account of: (1) how God wills to relate to us as Father, (2) God executes his will in history by becoming one of us through the incarnation of the Son and (3) how God consummates his eternal will in the fellowship of  the Holy Spirit (144).  Swain offers many cogent and salient points and demonstrates where Jenson’s dogmatic project leaves lingering questions.  For example,Jenson’s reading of the Christian tradition’s supposed Hellenization entirely fair.  Christian theology has appropriated Greek concepts and ideas critically (not to mention Jenson’s ideas of religion also flatten Greek religious ideas, making it far less ‘personal’ than it really was). Jenson’s theological revisionism also fails to hear the wisdom of the ages in describing divine simplicity, the aseity of God, etc.  In the final chapter in this section, Swain also offers his assessment of Bruce McCormack’s  historicist approach. As with Jenson he sees much that he is appreciative though ultimately unsatisfied by all of McCormack’s answers.

I have appreciated Jenson since  I was in seminary. I also appreciate his ecumenical work.  I feel like I have a better grasp of his theological project through reading Swain.  I also found I appreciated Swain’s own theological perspective. He proposes a project of evangelical ressourcement (in a Reformed key).  He disagrees with Jenson that hellenized sources wholly understood theology in terms of predicates instead of persons.  But his engagement with the theological tradition does not mean tossing concepts like  self-determination or narrative identity (hallmarks of Jenson’s theology). Swain describes his program of ressourcement as an “inclusive and enlarging adventure. It is never a matter of simple repetition or repristination but rather of tapping into a vital root, of communion of saints, all in the service of thinking and speaking faithfully about God in the present (234).” This vision of ressourcement seems fundamentally correct to me and Swain demonstrates that Jenson overstates his case against the theological tradition.

This is a good read for those who are interested in trinitarian theology and want to get a better grasp of Jenson’s theology.  I give this book four and a half stars. Laypersons who are uninitiated in the discussions of the trinity in the academy, will find this book too technical. Swain does a good job of describing Jenson’s theology and framing his argument, but he does simplify things too much for neophytes.  However, I found this a worthwhile read and it made me want to read more of Jenson’s works (not to mention Barth and McCormack).  Theological students will find this a useful guide to Jenson’s theology.

Thank you to InterVarsity Academic for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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