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Swain, Scott R.
The God of the Gospel. Robert Jenson’s Trinitarian Theology.
Downers Growe: InterVarsity Press 2013. 258 S. = Strategic Initiatives in Evangelical Theology. Kart. US$ 38,00. ISBN 978-0-8308-3904-9.
David Andrew Gilland
The stream of secondary literature on Robert Jenson’s theology has been surprisingly slow in coming, though it is sure to come, and Scott R. Swain has done an admirable job in his attempt to provide a catalyst for pushing forward the existing conversation. S. does this in a heavily revised and supplemented version of his doctoral dissertation, originally written under the supervision of Kevin Vanhoozer at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, in which he discusses not only the theological background and key elements of Jenson’s thought, but also offers a programmatic response.
In the introductory two chapters, S. places Jenson’s theologizing within the context of »theology after Barth«, casting the former’s work as a response to problems uncovered, raised and/or not cleared up by the latter. The primary concern here is what the relationship between God’s trinitarian being and God’s covenantal self-determination in time says about the integrity of God’s being and our knowledge of God. Jenson’s solution to the problem is that God must be »identified by and with the evangelical events whereby he becomes our God« (73). In order to pull this off, in S.’s reading, Jenson is required to develop a »revisionary metaphysics« (26). Rightly acknowledging the fundamentally biblical character of Jenson’s revisionary reckoning with the God of the Gospel, S. begins by un?packing Jenson’s trinitarian theology in sequential chapters on di-vine identity in the Old and then the New Testament. This is fol-lowed by a summary chapter on Jenson’s trinitarian theology as a whole. In the second main section of the book, S. provides his own constructive response to Jenson’s trinitarian theology, which, ra-ther than being a pointed deconstruction of Jenson’s efforts, offers a constructive response indebted to the practice of »ressourcement« (27). This entails an unequivocal endorsement of the analogy of being, and particularly the divine attributes of simplicity, immutability and eternity, as well as a »traditional« construal of divine processions and missions. In a separate chapter immediately prior to the book’s conclusion, S. rightly compares Jenson’s theological concerns to those of Bruce McCormack, describing both as representatives of what S. calls »evangelical historicism«. Here, both Jenson and McCormack are identified as giving more or less »historicist« solutions to the problem, Jenson’s being Lutheran and eschatological, whereas McCormack’s are Reformed and protological. The conclusion then caps off what is an altogether lucid and thematically coherent presentation of what are clearly some of the primary concerns for a substantial portion of contemporary Anglophone theology.
In total, it’s clear that S. identifies a number of the key themes driving Jenson’s theological thought and carries out an intelligent analysis of those themes. S. further develops a constructive account of a »traditional« trinitarian theology to demonstrate that it is suitable for the task, and argues that revisions such as Jenson’s, while being theologically stimulating, still miss the mark in terms of the relation between God and Gospel.
Despite the book’s many strengths and overall theological competence, there are a number of issues that deserve critical response. First, S. contextualizes Jenson’s theology against the backdrop of »theology after Barth«. While this indeed makes chronological sense, Jenson’s theology, especially after Knowledge of Things Hoped For, everywhere betrays that he is interacting with questions about the possibility of God talk raised by analytical philosophy, a point which S. does not appear to consider in any detail. Whereas Jenson’s mature systematic theology, particularly his focus on God’s trinitarian identity, is rightly seen as taking its departure from themes found in Barth, much of the conceptual material does come from Jenson’s engagements elsewhere. A related point is that S. does not materially engage with Jenson’s attempt to work in a responsible and theologically appropriate manner with higher biblical criticism, though he’s clearly aware that Jenson does this. In turn, in his constructive response to Jenson, S. indeed provides a wealth of biblical material to support his argument, but assumes that this material can be quite unproblematically brought in to provide support for »traditional« concepts like divine simplicity, immutability and eternity. Thus, while S.’s attention to the internal theological workings in Jenson’s thought is indeed impressive and coherent, his lack of material engagement with Jenson’s soundings in ana-lytic philosophy and biblical criticism cause both his analysis and constructive response to suffer. This is also apparent in S.’s failure to attend to Jenson’s significant contributions to ecumenical theol-ogy, which rely on largely the same conceptual and exegetical ma-terial as his take on the God of the Gospel. Reading Jenson’s (or Pannenberg’s or Moltmann’s or Jüngel’s) theology predominantly as an episode in trinitarian »theology after Barth« is not sufficient for acknowledging the range of factors, especially the exegetical, conceptual and ethical ones motivating this work.
Second, a recurring feature of S.’s critique of Jenson turns on the notion of resourcement. According to S., despite his biblically driven concerns and intellectual achievements, Jenson is ultimately an innovator who would have done better to have gone about »mining the tradition« for answers to his questions, instead of developing a revisionist metaphysics and challenging that same tradition. The weight of S.’s critique therefore falls far heavier on whether Jenson has kept to something called »the tradition« rather than whether his conceptions of personhood, relationality, dramatic coherence, divine identity, etc. are coherent and integrally biblical or not – though S. clearly thinks they are not. One might respond to this in saying that if the tradition actually does contain a decisive set of metaphysical propositions about God that one ought to uphold against all possible doubt over any given length of time, then Robert Jenson is surely a revisionist. If, however, faithfulness to the tradi-tion, including the right and necessary activity of ressourcement (in S.’s use of the term) is something more like a set of practices that involve doing theology from, with and towards Scripture, »the tradition«, reason and the best knowledge available at the time, then how is Jenson in his time any different from Thomas Aquinas in his? Jenson’s theology is full of conceptual engagement with the Chris?tian intellectual tradition, not to mention the Western intellectual tradition as a whole. How, then, is Jenson not a prime example of ressourcement, unless what can and should be resourced is already determined in advance by a set of predetermined criteria? Thomas’ theology, on which S. heavily relies, was in its time scandalously close to being on the wrong side of the tradition, and it only happened over the course of time that Thomas can be said to have become constitutive of the tradition – and this notwithstanding the fact that there have always been Franciscan theologians, among others, with something contrary to say about that. S. does, admittedly, explicitly disavow repristination (234), but at times his employment of ressourcement appears to be dangerously close to just that.
In the end, it’s clear that S.’s theological perspective simply does not acknowledge the exegetical, theological and conceptual problems around which Jenson’s theological work circles. While this does not in any way prevent S.’s work from being a valuable resource on Jenson, it does make it an even better introduction into another way of theological thinking. All of those with an interest in contemporary Anglophone theology should read this book.