Robert W. Jenson

This afternoon I stumbled upon an article by David B. Hart, “The Lively God of Robert Jenson.”

Jenson was one of my professors at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg. In fact, when I was still a student at Loma Linda University, my professor, Paul Landa, knew I was interested in a Lutheran seminary and said this was the place I needed to go, to study with Jenson and Eric Gritsch. He shared with me their book, Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings. That was enough.

Over the course of my years at Gettysburg I took a number of courses with Jens: Lutheran Confessions, Systematic Theology, and Selected Theological Loci: The Doctrine of Creation. He was also one of the advisors of my thesis, together with Gerald Christianson and Eric Gritsch.

Looking back over the years (I graduated in 1989, nearly 25 years ago), Jenson has been without a doubt the theologian who has most influenced me. Partly so in ideas (any of my writings or sermons on the Trinity bears his stamp), and partly in method. That was what he emphasized in class, that systematic theology was not primarily a body of content to learn (not even a specific system), but was, rather, a way of thinking theologically, that one could only learn by being in the presence of a theologian as he did it.

I was intimidated by him, I must confess. Some of his ideas and ways of speaking seemed way above my head. I did not sit in the front row of the “Jenson Junkies.” I sat in the back, or in the middle of the pack. The comments of the rabble seemed  off, to me, and though I smiled at the way he condescendingly expressed his disdain for their crude ramblings, I said little–I guess I was afraid of being shot down. So what he got from me was mostly in the essays I wrote for his exams. He rarely handed them back. Only once did I receive his written comments, and that was in final remarks my last semester. He praised my exam, and remarked on occasional original insights, and said his continual disappointment was that I didn’t contribute these ideas more often in class. And he came up to me in the library–something he never did!–and again praised that essay. He had publicly praised me in class after the first exam I wrote for him. He read my answer to a question (without mentioning my name), and said I was the only one who got it. The question was, “In what way is the doctrine of the Trinity Biblical.” My answer began, “The doctrine of the Trinity is Biblical in that it conforms to the Biblical narrative about God and to the Biblically-mandated practice of baptism.” He read that and said, “He could have stopped right there, though he went on to elaborate. But he said more in that sentence than everybody else did in pages of babble.” He always struck me as shy and aloof, and if he was disappointed I didn’t speak up in class, my one disappointment was that he wasn’t more engaging with students, in the way of a Gobbel, or a Ridenhour, who hung out with us in the coffee shop.

Still, I say, he had an impact. He showed to me the absolute centrality of the doctrine of the Trinity for Christian thought, and showed me, as well, how it was thoroughly Biblical. I disagreed (and still disagree) with the way he collapsed the economic Trinity and the immanent Trinity in such a way that there is no Logos asarkos, but only “the man Jesus, the transcendence he addressed as Father, and their spirit as the spirit of the believing community.” But my writing and speaking about the Trinity bears the stamp of his mentorship, precisely in the fact that I start any discussion of the Trinity with “the man Jesus, the transcendence he addressed as Father, and their spirit as the spirit of the believing community,” and Jesus’ mandate to that community to baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

The theologians of the ecclesial community in which I was raised, and in which I find myself again, could learn much from him. They are ill-formed in historic Trinitarianism, and they are fearful of Creeds and Fathers, and this leads them into muddled thinking, such as ill-considered denial of “the eternal generation of the Son,” which results in an inevitable  lazy Tritheism. Theological thinking does not need to be easy, but it must be lucid, Jenson taught us, and he remains an excellent example of that.