I have been thinking a lot about the great Lutheran theologian Robert W. Jenson since hearing the news of his death on Tuesday night. Over the past forty years Jens influenced and formed my theological thinking more than any other single figure, even more than Thomas F. Torrance. I have long considered myself as a Jensonian of sorts. Not in the sense of embracing the kind of metaphysical speculation that Jens loved—I’ve never had that kind of mind and sensibility (Jens would have said I was too Anglican)—but certainly in the way that I preached and catechized. Perhaps I am still a Jensonian, only now in an Orthodox key.
I discovered the books of Robert Jenson in the late 70s while I was in seminary—specifically, The Triune Identity. I do not know how I came across it. I’m sure it was not assigned to us by our theology instructor. But when I read it, I was hooked. Here was a way of understanding the doctrine of the Trinity that made eminent sense to me. The purpose of the Trinity is to assert that the history of Jesus is God’s salvific history with us and therefore revelatory—indeed even constitutive—of God as he truly is in his eternal being. After Triune Identity I quickly consumed Lutheranism, Story and Promise, and Visible Words. I do not know how many times I have reread these books over the years. Jenson is a deep, creative, challenging thinker, with a unique aphoristic writing style. I found him, and still find him, simultaneously accessible and unfathomable. I know that the latter is largely due to the limitations of my very average intellect. From the beginning I knew that Jenson was a genius, in a different class from most theologians and scholars I have read. Few can match his erudition, depth, and insight.
At some point, either while I was in seminary or shortly thereafter, I began to write him with my questions. He always responded. Sadly, I have lost his letters. Sometime after I moved to Maryland in 1983, I made an appointment to see him at Gettysburg seminary. He was gracious but not particularly warm. I later came to realize that he felt uncomfortable in social situations. I know I felt intimidated. I had a bunch of questions for him, particularly on the unconditionality of the gospel. He patiently addressed them all and encouraged me to enter into the Master of Sacred Theology program at Gettysburg, which I subsequently did. Over the next few years I took two seminars with him. We met at his home. One seminar was devoted to Christology. I wrote a paper on the kenotic Christology of Charles Gore, which I read to the class. The second seminar was devoted to sacraments. I wrote a paper on the Eucharistic theology of Robert Isaac Wilberforce, which I also read to the class. That was the way Jens’s seminars worked. I also did a couple of independent study courses with him, but do not recall anything about them. In one of our private sessions, I mentioned to him that I could not makes heads or tails of Tom Torrance’s book Space, Time, and Incarnation. He smiled and said, “Neither can I.” That was a great relief. If Jens could not understand it, then maybe I wasn’t as dumb as I thought I was. Maybe.
Jenson taught me to always ask, what is the evangelical intent of a theological claim or teaching? What work is it doing? We need not be woodenly tied to the historical formulation of a given doctrine, as long as we apprehend the fundamental truth it is seeking to express, no matter how inadequately and partially. To do theology is to participate in the catholic tradition of conversation and debate. It is never sufficient to simply repeat dogmatic formulae. The gospel must always be proclaimed in the present.
After I had completed the course work for the S.T.M., he and I began to talk about my thesis. My memory here is pretty shaky. I think it was going to be on the doctrine of the Trinity or perhaps on the doctrine of justification by faith. Probably the former, given that I was developing a strong interest in feminist misconstruals of the doctrine. During this time he came to my parish, St Mark’s Church, and delivered an engaging Lenten address. I do not recall the topic. I remember a parishioner asking him why some congregations were spiritually lively and others were not. With a twinkle in his eye, he replied, “Double predestination.” I silently chuckled. But in 1988 Jens and his delightful wife Blanche moved to St Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. I was quite disappointed and abandoned the S.T.M. thesis. What was the point? I was only in the program in order to sit at the feet of one of the finest theologians in America. I was a parish priest and, despite occasional dreams of pursuing a Ph.D., I knew I would always be a parish priest.
I kept in touch with Jens after his move to St. Olaf’s. I wrote a couple of papers for scholarly publication. He graciously critiqued the drafts, and they in fact did eventually get published. In 1991 I and five other Episcopal priests authored a document that would eventually become known as the Baltimore Declaration. I do not recall if I asked him to comment on the early drafts, but he did sign the document after its release and arranged for its publication in his journal Pro Ecclesia. A year later he delivered a lecture, along with Stanley Hauerwas and Fr (now Archbishop) Joseph DiNoia, at a conference Fr William McKeachie and I organized in Baltimore. His lecture was entitled “The God of the Gospel.” Around this time I also edited a collection of essays on feminist language for divinity, Speaking the Christian God, and Jens agreed to write an essay (a provocative essay!) for the book: “The Father, He …”
Jens and his friend Carl Braaten started the Center for Evangelical and Catholic Theology, and they began to host annual conferences at St Olaf’s. I attended one or two of them. I particularly recall the 1994 conference, “Reclaiming the Bible for the Church.” I arrived a day early and was able to sit in on a round-table discussion with Brevard Childs. Needless to say, I didn’t say a word. I remember being surprised by how much agreement existed around the table on the canonical authority of the Septuagint. By this time Jens was moving beyond, though not abandoning, his commitment to the historical-critical method. His appreciation for the ecclesial reading of Scripture was deepening. At least that is my recollection.
In 1995 I moved to Charleston, South Carolina and became the rector of the Church of the Holy Communion. In 2001 a conference was held in Charleston, and Jens was invited to be one of the speakers. I immediately contacted him and asked him to preach at Holy Communion that Sunday. He agreed. His sermon was substantive, evangelical, powerful. Jenson took the preaching of the gospel very seriously. His theology flowed from his preaching of the Word. Later Christine and I took him and Blanche to lunch at Magnolia’s, my favorite restaurant in Charleston. That was the last time I would see him in person.
Jens and I continued to occasionally communicate after that, principally through email. In 2001 I sent him a draft of an essay I had been working on: “Eating Christ: Recovering the Language of Real Identification.” He liked it very much and accepted it for publication in Pro Ecclesia. I was thrilled and honored. In 2005 I called him on the phone. I was wrestling with whether to leave the Episcopal Church and was keen to talk to him about the contemporary Roman Catholic understanding of justification. He had been involved for many years in the Lutheran/Catholic dialogue. Jens had long held that the Reformation teaching on justification by faith was best understood as a meta-linguistic rule: always preach the gospel as unconditional good news. If this is what justification by faith really means, I asked him, do you see the Catholic position as excluding or denying the meta-linguistic rule? “No,” he replied. “If that was the only issue at hand, I would have no problem becoming Catholic.” (I subsequently received a similar response from George Lindbeck.) I suspected that would be his answer, but I needed to hear it nonetheless.
A year ago I was informed that Jens was suffering from Parkinson’s. I decided to write him and tell him how important he had been in my life and ministry. I also sent him a copy of a talk I had given in Wales on the gospel and apokatastasis. He replied: “That essay must have blown their minds.” And then he concluded his brief email with these words: “And if my stuff has been so important in your life, that is a great responsibility. We both must pray about that. Love, Jens.” That was my last communication from my doktorvator.
Robert W. Jenson taught me so very much. Most of all he taught me that there is nothing more important than to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in its evangelical radicality. I thank God for the privilege of being one of his many students. I thank God for his friendship and support. My debt to Jens is immense.
The Church catholic has lost a great theologian, preacher, and man of faith. Memory eternal!