Robert W. Jenson and the Eschatological Christ

Theology as Revisionary Metaphysics—not only does the title well describe this collection of essays, but it also describes that which interests most theologians today about the theology of Robert W. Jenson. He is known as a thinker who sought to reenvision metaphysics from the perspective of the gospel: How must absolute reality be, what must contingent reality be, if Jesus Christ is crucified and risen? This was an abiding theme of Jenson’s intellectual work throughout his ministry as theologian and preacher, beginning with Alpha and Omega and God After God and concluding with Theology in Outline. I readily embraced Jenson’s metaphysical project as a young priest, not because I knew anything about metaphysics (I did not!), but because it appeared to support the kind of Christological and narrative preaching that I wanted to do. No one has ever accused me of having a deep philosophical mind; but I did and hopefully still have a passion for the gospel. Over the past fifteen years, however, I have developed a fresh appreciation of more traditional construals of divinity, with the consequence that I no longer find Jens’s revisionary metaphysics as compelling as I once did. One might think that this change would affect the way that I preach, yet it hasn’t. Nor has it led to a diminishment in my respect and love for his theology. How odd is that? Perhaps not as odd as it might first seem. What drew me initially to Jenson were not his reformulations of divine eternity, impassibility, and immutability but his unequivocal affirmation of the gospel as liberating announcement. What I want to do in this series of articles, therefore, is to revisit Jenson’s early reflections on the gospel. These reflections have so profoundly informed my understanding of the good news of Jesus Christ that if one day someone were to convince me that Jenson (and along with him Martin Luther, Karl Barth, and T. F. Torrance) is wrong about the gratuity of salvation in Jesus Christ, then my apprehension of myself as a Christian believer and priest would be undone.

Jenson begins his 1973 mini-systematics, Story and Promise, with this passage:

Since shortly after the execution of Jesus the Nazarene, a certain communication has passed through history and through the world. A few in each generation have told the story of this Jesus, and of his people Israel, as a message of destiny—of the destiny, indeed, of each new set of speakers and hearers. This story, its messengers have claimed, is the encompassing plot of all men’s stories; it promises the outcome of the entire human enterprise and of each man’s involvement in it. Let me try a premature summary formulation of the story and its promise, at some risk of ambiguity: “There has lived a man wholly for others, all the way to death; and he has risen, so that his self-giving will finally triumph.” (p. 1)

A story and a promise, a story with a promise, a story that is promise—the gospel is something more than the communication of certain facts about a person who lived 2,000 years ago. It certainly includes “facts,” for Jesus was a man who lived and died in human history, but from the beginning these facts have been presented in a particular way—specifically, contends Jenson’s, as eschatological pledge for the future of humanity. Jesus is alive, risen into the futurity of God, and his salvific will must finally determine the outcome of history, worldly and cosmic. As the Church ecumenically confesses: “he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead.”

In the above quotation Jenson describes Christ as a human being who lived fully and completely for others. This way of speaking—“the man for others”—can be traced back to Bonhoeffer. I gather it was a popular way of talking about Christ back in the sixties and seventies. I’ve never particularly liked the expression and have never used it in my preaching. To my ears it makes Jesus sound like a great humanitarian, and that, of course, is light-years away from Jenson’s intent. It’s easy enough, though, to rephrase: the life of Jesus was perfectly determined by love—by love of God, whom he addressed as “Father,” and by love of his brethren, for whose sake he embraced crucifixion in obedience to his Father’s atoning will.

The young Jenson’s understanding of the historical Jesus was formed by his immersion in German “second quest” scholarship—think especially Ernst Käsemann and Günther Bornkamm. I do not know how well acquainted Jenson was with the “third quest” of historical Jesus scholarship—he would have found helpful support in the works of E. P. Sanders, N. T. Wright, and John P. Meier—but he appears to have consistently maintained over the years the view of the Nazarene as eschatological prophet:

Jesus the Nazarene was a wandering preacher, a semi-rabbi. He went from place to place proclaiming the coming of the “Kingdom of God.” “Kingdom of God” was a summary name for the fulfillment of all the promises which Israel’s history with Jahve had left with her. With John “the Baptist,” prophets were, surprisingly, again on the scene; also Jesus was a sort of prophet. He said: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Turn your lives around, and trust the good news.” (p.35: cf. Dale Allison, “The Eschatology of Jesus“)

Of course, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and John the Baptist might also be described as eschatological prophets, so what was the difference? All prophets before Jesus urgently called Israel to repentance. Many spoke of a coming age. “The time is short. The judgment of God is at hand. The kingdom is almost upon us. Change your lives now, before it is too late. If you do, you will partake of the goodness and blessings of the reign of God; if you do not, you will know only tribulation and condemnation.” The prophetic summons posits a temporal space for conversion: repent now … before it is too late. Jesus also spoke this way; but the difference, suggests Jenson, was the way he said it:

Although what Jesus said about the Kingdom was not new, there was something new in the way he said it. The normal, law-like, pattern of utterance and life posits a span of time between my present and whatever future I am concerned with: the “then …” clause poses a future possibility, and the “if …” clause establishes a space of controllable time in which to take care of the indicated conditions. The “if …” clause posits a sort of expanded present, a space protected from the uncertainty of the future, in which I can do what I need, if I choose. So the standard way of meeting also the prophetic announcement of the coming Kingdom had been—and is—to put it five or five hundred years in the future, or five seconds, and take the interval as the time to get ready.

The interval can be used for postponement. “Repent,” said the prophets; “Next year we will indeed,” said most of the people. But it can also be used for frantic preparations, for the “works of the Law.” This was the pattern of the Pharisees, a lay movement that had developed the religion of the Law to a consistency and sincerity nearly past our conceiving. They made a life’s work of looking for conditions of the Kingdom and fulfilling them.

Jesus so spoke the Kingdom at the existence of his hearers as to short-circuit both responses, as to take away the space of time between the moment of their hearing him and the future he promised. He left them no time to get ready; instead he made the Kingdom the decisive reality for the decisions and hopes and fears which were the then-and-there of their lives. When men heard Jesus’ call to the Kingdom, they either were thereby called into its citizenship, or found they had already rejected it. They either found that all other values defined themselves by the hope of the Kingdom (“they left all and followed him” [Matt 5:11]), or that they had already chosen to prefer other things (“and he went sadly away, for he had many possessions” [Mark 10:17-31]). (pp. 36-37)

By word and action, Jesus brought the Kingdom of God into the life of Israel as an immediate reality, anticipated yet still to be realized. There was no longer any time in which one might either prepare for or ignore its coming, no time in which to repent or not to repent. The Kingdom is dawning, made manifest in the Son of Man. As Jenson puts it: “Jesus took away from his hearers the possibility of neutralizing God’s futurity, of mitigating its threat and challenge by cutting out a time of their autonomous own in which to plan and prepare for it, and so getting it—even a little bit—into present control” (p. 38). Why is it, the people ask, that the disciples of John and the Pharisees fast but yours do not? “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” Jesus replies (Mark 2:19). The wedding feast is already under way. All are bade to rejoice and celebrate. Come, join the festivities! Social and religious status is irrelevant. Whether Pharisee or publican, priest or whore, rich or poor, none are at advantage or disadvantage. “Zacchae′us, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5). Jesus scandalized the religious elites by eating with tax collectors and sinners. He proclaimed the Kingdom unconditionally and embodied it as gift. There was no longer any time in which to fulfill “if … then …” clauses. There was only the present and decisive moment of Eschaton.

When the question is, “Will life achieve a meaning at all?” everyone heard from Jesus the same promise and was tempted to the same abnegation. We will all achieve our selves in spite of ourselves. … Jesus did not merely proclaim to the poor, the publicans, and the sinners that in God’s future they would be new men, he treated them then and there as the new men they would be. His message had nothing in it of “pie in the sky by and by.” … We regulate our relations with our fellows by what they have been; if a teenager is hooked on dope, we do not encourage our children to make him a friend. Jesus did the opposite: he brought his fellows into his life not in terms of what they had been, but of what they would be. And not in terms of what it could be predicted they would be, on the basis of a “little bit of good in everyone” or of what he planned to reform them to, but in terms of what they could be only by God’s miracle. He enacted God’s future as his brothers’ own present. (pp. 38-39)

Such was the prodigality of the love of the Nazarene, and it was precisely this love that led him to his death. But why should we believe that his love has anything to do with us today?

(Go to “Gospel the Paschal Hope”)

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5 Responses to Robert W. Jenson and the Eschatological Christ

  1. Robert Fortuin says:

    Fr. Aidan,

    Would you provide an outline of Jenson’s “revisionary metaphysics” and how these conflict with traditional construals of divinity?


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