I first met Robert Jenson in the fall of 2007, just after I had begun my doctoral studies at Princeton Theological Seminary. I had become friends with two other students, and one day one of us observed that a world-class theologian, whose books we were strongly encouraged to read, lived a mere half a block from the seminary.
“What if we just went over and talked with him,” one of us asked. “Would he want to talk to us?”
We contacted him and were given a set date and time to come to the Jenson home. So, we went. When our time was up, Jenson asked if we were available at this time every week. We answered yes. “You will come then at this time every week.” I’m still not sure if it was an interrogative or an imperative.
For five years we went to the Jenson home every week for what can only be described as an event, the unifying event of our theological formation. But there was nothing fancy about it. We sat in the Jensons’ living room doing theology.
I say “doing” intentionally. Jenson was never magisterial. From day one he treated us as equals. That prompted sheer terror at first. He did not come down to our level. We had to operate at his. We weren’t there to sit at his feet, we were there to do theology in communion with each other and with the saints, to argue and discuss and reflect on the Triune God and his doings with creation.
We did not have to agree with him. In fact, he sometimes nearly forced us to disagree! But we had to defend our claims, and he was quick to spot flaws. Nothing was free from criticism, most of all Jenson’s Systematic, which we read with him at our initiative rather than his. My copy is full of marginal notes where he remarked that he could have put this far better, or where something is lacking precision, or where he simply no longer agreed with what he’d written.
Reading the many tributes that the digital age quickly makes available, it is clear that “Jens,” as he insisted his friends called him, is regarded with unique esteem. The dust jackets of his books pop with accolades like “a master teacher, his books rightly carry the label of being classics,” “America’s perhaps most creative systematic theologian,” “the ‘best’ theologian in America,” and “the greatest living theologian in the English-speaking world.”
His impact may have extended well beyond the Midwestern, Norwegian pietism in which he was raised, but it ever remained part of Jens. He thought little of the praise he received and was always a little embarrassed by it. He did not care about acclaim, but the subject matter. So, instead of adding to the accolades, I want to tell the story of a human being who infected those around him with a love for Jesus Christ.
Rubbing shoulders with giants
Jens lived an active and productive life. A seminary and college professor over a period of nearly 50 years, he first taught at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, before moving to Oxford University, Gettysburg Seminary, and St. Olaf College. He then spent seven years as the director of the Center for Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey, before retiring in 2007.
He wrote and edited several dozen books, including a much-praised two-volume Systematic Theology, and over 100 articles and chapters. He was a pioneer in the ecumenical movement; he helped to spearhead the initial Episcopal-Lutheran dialogue, served the Catholic-Lutheran dialogue for over ten years, and, with his close friend Carl Braaten, founded The Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology and edited the Center’s influential ecumenical journal, Pro Ecclesia.