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Theology with a future

Last April I received a phone call. Jens had been to the doctor. Cancer. After some hard conversations, a decision was made. He was 87, already quite weak, surgery was not an option. He was sent home to die. It could be months, it could be a week. So, again, we went.

As we walked to the house, we talked about what we could say to encourage him. We were brought upstairs to see him. He was very weak. We told him what we had been doing. One of us, not me, soon had to address a group of incoming theology students and asked: “I have to answer the question, ‘Why we study theology.’ Jens, what should I say to them?” Jens had said little up to this point; the pain meds were doing their thing. But, with this question, he sat up a little and said, “Well, I think the answer to that question is actually quite simple. We do theology because God is.”

While this statement has beautiful completeness to it, the story is not over. Something essential is yet missing.

If you knew Jens, you know Blanche, his wife. They frequently attended academic conferences together—a rare, brave act in the academic world. Jens repeatedly stated that Blanche should be named co-author of all of his books, since every page, every sentence was the result of her critical eye.

In his analysis of postmodern nihilism, Jens wrote that in the postmodern ethos, promises are “inauthentic,” they simply cannot be made, because to promise is to commit to a future, and thus to a story that has a telos. But this is the very thing that our present world denies.

Jens wrote that we now lived in a world in which “the impossibility of promises is … our daily experience. And in this matter, we have a paradigm case, in which the whole situation is instantly manifest and which I need only name. There is a human promise that is the closest possible creaturely approach to unconditional divine promise, and that is therefore throughout Scripture the chosen analog of divine promise: the marital promise of faithfulness unto death.”

Without Blanche there would be no Jens. The two of them exemplified what it means to be co-workers for the gospel. Jens said again and again that Blanche was “the mother of all my theology.” So, I close with a message for Blanche who mourns the loss of her beloved husband: Know that the story you and Jens wove has a future; we want you to know that you are the grandparents of our theology.

Matthew J. Aragon Bruce is visiting associate lecturer of theology at Wheaton College.

November
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Christianity Today
Because God Is: A Tribute to Robert W. Jenson (1930-2017)