Robert Jenson, one of the top American theologians of the 20th century, died this week at 87.
Jenson made lasting contributions to Lutheran, ecumenical, systematic, and Trinitarian theology, and was known for the breadth and originality of his scholarship.
Tributes call him “the greatest American theologian since Jonathan Edwards,” “one of America’s most important theologians,” “America’s … most creative systematic theologian,” and a “theologian’s theologian.” [CT’s tribute “tells the story of a human being who infected those around him with a love for Jesus Christ.”]
His work “contributed to the revival of systematic theology in the English speaking world,” Scott Swain, president of Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, told CT.
Robert P. George considered him among the “most brilliant and creative Christian theologians of the post-World War II period.”
“His understanding of Christianity as both a ‘story’ and a ‘promise’ opened a rich vein of inquiry into the relationship between the Christian church in its sacramental, liturgical, and other internal aspects, on the one hand, and the Christian Church in its mission to heal and sanctify the world external to it, on the other,” the Princeton University law professor said.
Jenson influenced a generation of scholars by promoting ecclesial theology through his books such as The Triune Identity and Systematic Theology, Swain noted, as well as his leadership of the Research Institute in Systematic Theology at King’s College London, the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Thought, and the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Biola University’s Fred Sanders, a fellow Trinity scholar, admired Jenson’s boldness and focus on Christ:
Robert Jenson's theology was a series of bravura performances, each one daring his readers and himself to take the resurrection of Jesus Christ in earnest for good this time. He wrote theology with a sustained urgency, driven by a sense that, contrary to conventional wisdom, we are in drastic trouble requiring radical help. He identified God by Jesus; rebooted classical ontology using Jesus; renarrated the story of the world around Jesus.
Somehow for Jenson this entailed being more thoroughly Lutheran and more thoroughly ecumenical—simultaneously. Where Jenson erred, he erred so generously, publicly, and consistently that to grasp his point and argue with him about it was to grow wiser by giant leaps.
Jenson’s career began at Luther College in the late 1940s. He went on to attend Luther Seminary, where he worked as the assistant for renowned orthodox Lutheran theologian Herman Preus.
While in seminary, Jenson also met and married Blanche Rockne, who would become his greatest theological collaborator. After seminary, Jenson began teaching in the department of religion and philosophy at his alma mater, then moved to Heidelberg, Germany, to work on his dissertation on Karl Barth’s doctrine of election.
Jenson met the German theologian Wolfhart Pannenburg and fellow Lutheran scholar Carl Braaten (who later joined him to cofound the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Thought). He also met the philosophers Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer while studying in Heidelberg.
After completing his dissertation in Basel, with Barth’s approval, Jenson returned to Luther College to resume his post in the department of religion and philosophy, where faculty were concerned about his acceptance of evolution and his appreciation of textual criticism, theologically liberal positions at the time. Jenson remained at Luther College, though a number of faculty members in the religion and biology departments resigned en masse.
He encountered Anglicanism during a three-year stint at Mansfield College at Oxford University and became interested in ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Protestants—a project that he would continue to be involved with for the rest of his life.
He went on to teach at Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg, where he taught systematic theology from the late 60’s to the late 80’s, his longest teaching stint. Jenson then took up a position at St. Olaf College from 1988 to 1998 before serving as a senior research scholar at the Center for Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey, a post he retired from in 2007. He remained an emeritus scholar with the center until his death.
Jenson believed that “to be authentic, theology must be written for the undivided church that the Spirit will surely someday grant.” True to his word, Jenson was consistently involved in ecumenical dialogue throughout his career. He was appointed to the first round of the Lutheran-Episcopal ecumenical dialogue in 1968, and, while at St. Olaf cofounded the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology with Braaten.
“He was a theologian’s theologian with a pastoral heart and a subtle missiological eye. He was one of the great ecumenists of our time, one with deep convictions; we don’t often associate the two,” wrote Mockingbird’s Scott Jones.“We think of the former as watering down particularity of belief in order to go along to get along. The latter we might admire but don’t invite them into the ecumenical sandbox for fear that they don’t play well with others.”
In addition to his focus on ecumenism, Jenson’s work on the Trinity has been highly influential. His 1982 book The Triune Identity: God According to the Gospel, describes the Trinity as the proper name of God. According to Alister McGrath, for Jenson, “the doctrine of the Trinity thus identifies and names the Christian God—but identifies and names this God in a manner consistent with the biblical witness.”
This way of understanding the Trinity, based in a deep familiarity with the patristic theologians known as the Cappadocian Fathers, had a deep impact on the direction of Trinitarian theology in the late 20th century.
Eastern Orthodox philosophical theologian David Bentley Hart further describes that this view of the Trinity also means that for Jenson, “the event of our salvation in Christ and the event of God’s life as Trinity are simply one and the same; what occurs in Jesus of Nazareth is in some sense the story of God becoming the God He is, within which story we are also included—for love’s sake.”
Thus for Jenson, salvation was not simply a heavenly reward or exoneration for sin, it was “nothing less than being joined to the living God by the mediation of the God-man Himself, brought into living contact with the transfiguring glory of the divine nature, made indeed partakers of the divine nature itself (2 Peter 1:4) and co-heirs of the Kingdom of God.”
This understanding of God and salvation, and the fastidious consistency to which Jenson held to it, meant that often he traveled into territory other theologians feared to tread. The implications of these views led Jenson to deny divine impassibility, and to suggest that in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, God not only overcomes death for mankind, but also for himself.
This was, in part, a response to the prevailing “death of God” theology of the late 20th century. But its wide-ranging implications have made Jenson’s work the subject of much criticism and refutation over the years.
Nevertheless, even Jenson’s critics and opponents often admit his influence and the value of his theological work.
For instance, Hart, who describes himself as in “profound disagreement” with Jenson’s theology, would also still count himself “an admirer” of Jenson’s. According to Hart, “theologians of every stripe should praise him for enunciating a Trinitarian theology with whose biblical shape—that is to say, specifically, his reading of Scripture as Trinitarian throughout—it is impossible to take issue.”
Jenson watched his Lutheran tradition evolve over the decades, writing in his “theological autobiography” (quoted here by Sanders):
Members of my generation of midwestern Lutherans went to theological graduate school in unprecedented numbers, and returned determined to liberate midwestern Lutheranism from its ethnic ghetto…. We—and of course other very differently intentioned agitators—succeeded all too well. With unbelievable rapidity, Lutheranism in this country went from isolation to being just another “mainline” Protestant denomination. This experience of unintended consequences is always present as a caution in my thinking.
Jenson’s book, A Theology in Outline, was named one of CT’s most-anticipated releases of 2016.
During the final years of his life, he belonged to Trinity Church, an Episcopalian congregation in Princeton, New Jersey.