The Word Words the World: Robert W. Jenson on Preaching

by Chris E.W. Green, Ph.D.

Preaching is Jesus happening to us.

For Robert Jenson, the life that the Father, Son, and Spirit share—that is, the “divine nature”—is lively and dramatic: “a going‐on, a sequentially palpable event, like a kiss or a train wreck.”1 God, in other words, is in Jenson’s theology a happening—indeed, the happening in which and from which all things unfold. Preaching is a primary way that that that happening happens for us, so that we “occur in the triune life”:

The gospel, spoken by one man to another, is Jesus’ word: his address of himself into a common world with us. The gospel is Jesus’ word because what it promises only he can rightly promise: the gospel promises that Jesus will give himself to us; it promises the total achievement and outcome of his deeds and sufferings as our benefit; it promises his love. If the gospel-promise is true, its occurrence is Jesus’ occurrence as a shaping participant in our world.2

Preaching, Jens insists, is quite literally God’s word. Not only a word about God, mind you. And not only a word from God. Preaching just is God, the living God, actually present and speaking “in the midst of the congregation.” The Triune God is eternally Wording in and through and around and upon our words given and received in preaching.

Preaching is participation in providence.

In Jenson’s theology, God is understood as a conversation, a delightful back-and-forth, and human beings are understood as participants in that conversation.3 We exist, Jenson says, just because God speaks about us and to us, inviting us to talk back to him, to speak up in the conversation. Given that that is so, preaching is no less a “participation in providence” than prayer is. If when we pray “we ask God to listen to our advice about how the world should go,”4 then when we preach God is working in our speaking to make the world go the way it should go. Preaching, to put it bluntly, is not a luxury; it is essential to Christ’s ongoing, Spirit-led care for and guidance of the world.

Preaching is God making love to us.

Jens rejects in no uncertain terms the familiar distinction between human love as needy eros and divine love as needless agape. This distinction simply cannot hold, he argues, because in Christ God has taken up as his own our neediness, our desire, and made it all good. The God of the Gospel, the God of the prophets and apostles, the God whose identify is realized in what happens with Jesus of Nazareth, manifestly wants and needs us—needlessly wants us and wants us without need. As Jens puts it in his astonishing Song of Song commentary,

No part of Scripture makes sense if our reading is controlled by the dogma that to be God is simply to be without passion, and the theological allegory solicited by the Song least of all. Indeed, in our present poem (Song 7:6-9) the Lord does not merely respond to his people’s passion for him, but has in himself an antecedent spring of longing for her; he is in himself passionate. He not only loves, but climbs the palm tree to grasp love, longing for what he will find…5

God, to be sure, is not at the mercy of what happens, never a victim of heavenly or earthly goings-on. God’s identity and character remain unchanged by whatever he freely undergoes, just as the Fathers said.6 Still, God is never apathetic. In spite of the fact that God does not suffer the fact that he suffers, God does indeed suffer—above all the pains of the lover.7

Following the logic of Jenson’s theology, we have to say that preaching must always be becoming prayer and that prayer must always be becoming preaching because God’s relation to the people of God is one of passionate and stimulating mutual admiration. Perhaps, then, this is the most distinctive and surprising aspect of Jenson’s theology of preaching: the sermon differs from a prayer just in that it is God’s wooing word for us and about us. In his own words: “The sermon is not to be the expression of our longings and praises to God, but of God’s longings and praises to us.”

Preaching performs unconditional promise.

“What happened to the world with Jesus,” Jenson argues, “was that at the end of the long history of Israel’s promises, a sheerly unconditional promise was said and became sayable in the world.”9 Jesus opened “a new and living way” through death into the unbounded, un­threat­ened life of God. Because Christ is risen, we know that nothing—or, better, not even nothing!—can keep him from keeping his word to us. Jens makes just this point in an Easter vigil sermon, the text of which he shared with me a few years before he died:

We have said it: Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! So what am I supposed to say now? That cry is all there is to say – about everything! About our lives and sorrows and hopes, about the destiny of the universe, about ancient and current and future human history. If that cry is true, then literally everything is utterly different than we would have thought. It is a sad thing for a preacher to come tagging after it with whatever little thoughts he or she may have put together. Tomorrow morning, at the first Thanksgiving after the Resurrection, preaching will be again in place. But tonight, at the very moment of the event….

The only hope I can see for preaching this night, is that adverb which appears when the cry is repeated: “He is risen. He is risen indeed.” Why do we need it? We need it because no sooner have we heard the tremendous claim—“Someone is risen! Death is beaten! Death is beaten, and by the friend of publicans and sinners! By our friend!”—and perhaps even begun to believe it—than we are undone by the sheer size of the thing. Between the address and the response, between the angelic “He is risen” and our responding “He is risen,” we already find it too much to handle, and need the reminder of that “indeed.” 

Again, preaching, in Jenson’ estimation, is not merely a report about or even an announce­ment of this unconditional promise. Preaching is a providential “speech-act,” the realizing of the Word by and in our speaking and our hearing. A sermon, in other words, does not merely say that Christ is risen; it enters into and makes available to others the reality of that risenness. In the sermon, the Word words the world, wooing it toward its fullest, gladdest, sexiest future.

Preaching serves the congregation only by serving the scriptures.

For Jens, preaching is authoritative and effective only insofar as the preacher serves the texts. “Real sermons,” he insists, “do not expound an idea or theme chosen by some individual, nor do they tell any story other than the story in or around the text.”10  Sermons become sermons—that is, they perform the gospel—only as the preacher struggles to find her own words for what she hears the Scriptures saying to the congregation. Just so, Jens argues, God gets said what God wants to say. It follows, then, that only those preachers who are bound to the Word can speak in ways that truly free their hearers.

Preaching, Jenson knows, is surpassingly difficult. Not only because we are speaking of God, and not also because we are speaking of God, but also because life is hard and “folk are not going to let us off with evasions.”11 Thankfully, all that matters is the effort, the readiness to risk the speaking. “Scripture exercises authority to create faith,” Jenson argues, precisely “when a hard text is laid on the preacher and he or she tries to say what it says, successfully or not.”12

To be clear, the preacher is not asked by God to do the impossible. Instead, he or she is asked to do all that he or she can do to bear witness to the gorgeousness and gravity of God.

Do we, the congregation, as we sit there, witness the preacher struggling to say what the text says and doing so whether or not he or she personally likes the text? If texts are not determined by a lectionary, do we witness the preacher sometimes choosing a text we know must be difficult for him or her? If we do—and, indeed, perhaps most impressively, if we witness the preacher trying yet failing—then we experience the authority of Scripture. It is not a question of the preacher’s or teacher’s success in saying what Scripture says; the observable effort is by itself the necessary hermeneutical principle.13

Preaching overturns common sense.

The world as we know it “works” on the condition of the threat of death and the fears that that threat generates in us. So, to preach Christ as the one risen from the dead is to say something that cuts against the grain of common sense and calls everything we think we know into question. So, as Jens reminds us, if the Gospel is true, we do not have to care about the way the world works—indeed, we must not! Jesus does not answer to reality, after all. Reality answers to him. What we need, therefore, is not moral or political “realism,” but faith, hope, and love. Not faith in or love for abstractions like “Christianity” or “faith” or “freedom” or “America” but faith in and love for Jesus—Joseph’s and Mary’s boy, Martha’s and Mary’s friend, Herod’s and Pilate’s victim:

It must be our apologetic and liturgical and homiletical task to reclaim such abstractions as “love” and “peace” and “empowerment” and so forth to their proper meaning as mere slogans for the concrete person of the risen Christ. A great deal of our preaching and teaching is exactly backwards. So, for example. The preacher will say that what a text from one of the Gospels, about a miracle or parable, “is really about is acceptance of people in all their diversity.” A true sermon would go just the other way: “What our talk of acceptance and diversity etc. is really trying to get at is Jesus…”14


Given that Jens believed “the proof of theology is in the preaching” and that “all true preaching is addressed to some particular congregation,”15 it is fitting, I think, to conclude with a couple of Jens’ own sermons, one of which was published near the beginning of Jens’ career and the other which has never been published, as least so far as I know. Together, each in its own way, these sermons bring to bear, I think, the emphases in his theology of preaching that I have just described—and more besides. 

This first sermon, published in 1967 at the end of Religion Against Itself, was given “some weeks after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.” The text was 1 Corinthians 15:20-22.

Perhaps enough time is now past to begin reflection on the event of John Kennedy’s assassination. I begin with personal reflection.

For me and for at least some others, the assassination was an interruption in our lives, a dead-end in life from which we too have had to make a kind of fresh start. Something terrible happened to us also—we had to have the caisson and the riderless horse and Charles de Gaulle to give form and stability to our disturbance. Otherwise we would not have contained it.

What was the disturbance? How are we to explain the urgency and totality of the shock?

I believe that John Kennedy, whatever reservations about his policies we may have had, symbolized hope. He was self-consciously of the post-World War II generation; he had broken with many of the old ideologies; he was committed to exactly those causes in which the future may be hidden. We hoped that whatever he would finally accom­plish, at least it would not be more only of the some old stuff. Perhaps we were deluded in hoping this. But we did.

And then in one instant all those possibilities hidden in him were canceled. Hope met death—and death triumphed.

The death of John Kennedy was, for some of us at least, a uniquely insistent revelation of the mystery of man. Man lives by hope—he lives by what he will do, will become, will create. He lives, if you will, by dreaming. And yet man the dreamer’s one certain future is death—which turns possibility into might-have-been. The paradox of possi­bil­ity and death is the paradox of man. The crumpled young Caesar was an image of that paradox almost too clear to be borne.

The sudden intrusion of that image was what stopped, for a time, our usual ways.

At some few times, one’s theology undergoes a drastic concentration. Under the impact of that image, my theology reduces to this: I am left with a demand inside that all this of our loving and fighting and thinking and suffering and eating and making not be in vain, that this magnificent but unfinished story of ours not just break off, that possibility be redeemed. And I am left with an inability to escape from what I have heard about Jesus of Nazareth. In his life this mystery of man seems to have received its final enactment. He preached the Kingdom of God, the day when all the possibility which flickers in our lives would be realized—and he was killed on account of it. And I am left with this claim I have heard, this news that has been brought—that he is risen—that the mystery of man, the mystery of possibility and death, is somehow a mystery of light and not of darkness, of hope and not of uselessness. And I am left with God—who is, then, simply the object of my demand and the speaker of that claim—and of whom we need know no more.

For the rest, perhaps we ought not be too easily comforted. When a man dies young, there is a whole human future which now only might have been—until the day when all might-have-beens will be opened to us as the true future of God and man. But that is not easy comfort. That is death and resurrection.

The second sermon, previously unpublished, was given on the Monday of some Holy Week. The assigned text for the day was Mark 11:12-26, which recounts the cursing of the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple.

Jesus entered Jerusalem on a Sunday, and the climactic events began on the Thurs­day. For the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, the Gospels provide a sampling of what he did in that meantime, and the lectionary provides a sampling from this sample. The lectionary provides also a sort of accompaniment, taken from Jeremiah’s great lament for Jerusalem, for Jerusalem was not merely the scene of Holy Week but was itself a sort of actor in the drama. For each of the three days, I will take the appointed reading from Mark as the main sermon text, and ask you to hold also the reading from Lamentations in some corner of your minds. The first reading from Mark includes too much for one sermon to handle; so I will concentrate on the central event, that we customarily call “the Cleansing of the Temple.”

The Temple was the center of Israel’s life for a thousand years. It was of course first built by Solomon. We should not think of Solomon’s Temple on the model of a church, as one big room for worship, with subsidiary rooms for other purposes. The Temple’s heart was not a space the people could gather in; it was a small, closed structure, the “Holy of Holies.” It was entered only on special occasions and only by one minister.

For hundreds of years this secret place housed the Ark of the Covenant, the chief sign and guarantee of God’s presence in Israel. The Ark was a box. In it were the tablets of the ten commandments, the great gift that the Lord had given Israel at Sinai. Where other nations would have had an image in such a box, or a collection of them, Israel had the record of God’s will for her life.

The Ark had accompanied Israel through her journey in the wilderness. Wherever the Ark in its tent were placed, there was the center around which journeying Israel gathered to worship. The Ark came to rest in Solomon’s Temple, in that Holiest Place.

Immediate to this most holy place was a courtyard for the altars of sacrifice and in general for the priestly ceremonies of Israel’s worship. And then there were courtyards for prayer and for teaching and even for just hanging out, and housing for the priests and Levites and a treasury and guard-rooms and indeed something like a city within the city. In the sixth century BC the Babylonians besieged and took Jerusalem, and destroyed the Temple.It was Jerusalem without her Temple that Jeremiah’s verses lamented. It was twice rebuilt, once after Babylon lost power to a more lenient empire, and then much more grandly by Herod the Great, a horrid man but a great builder. It was Herod’s Temple to which Jesus came on the Monday and the Tuesday and the Wednesday. Forty years or so after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Romans put down the great Jewish rebellion and razed also this Temple—and there has not been another rebuilding.

Jesus entered the Temple and found one of its courtyards full of commerce. There was reason for that. You could not contribute to the Temple with the money of the hated Romans, so there were banks to change Roman money for coins minted by the Temple itself. It was inconvenient for pilgrims from afar to bring sacrificial animals with them, so there was a market to provide them.And one must suppose that probably then as in similar places now there was a gift shop. Jesus drove them all out. One may wonder why. After all, their presence was a service, regulated by the Temple authorities. Nor were the merchants located in one big room with the altars and the singers, as if they were in that transept over there, bothering the services; there were proper arrangements for them. Still he drove them out. I am finally at the point—

For that should worry us. Unless your life is very different than mine, it is structured by just such accommodation between worshipping God and conducting the business of this world, as was represented by those profitable enterprises in the Temple. For us also, there is religion, and then there is business and politics and so on, and we mostly manage to adjust them to each other pretty well: a little bit of the world’s activities in our church life and sometimes a bit of our religion to sanctify the world’s activities.

There is no problem, of course, with managing the church’s necessary business well. But there is a problem with thinking of the church as if it were a business. And assuredly there is no problem with believers representing in the world the imperatives taught them by faith. But there is a problem using those imperatives to sanctify whatever is going on there anyway.

In the Holy of Holies had been the ten commandments, and even after the disappearance of the Ark it was the commandments that made the Most Holy Place holy. All the Temple’s sacrifices and prayers were directed toward the place where the Lord’s commandments were, or after the Babylonians, where they were remembered. In many older Anglican churches those same commandments are displayed over the table for communion, where just as in the Temple they establish the center of worship.

The commandments can do that, for old Israel and for us, because all the commandments are designed to enforce the first commandment, they are designed to direct our lives solely to the love and fear of God. And doing that, they are pretty–as we say now–exclusivist. They begin, “You shall worship no other gods.” Thus they make no allowance that other gods might not be so bad after all. And the so-called second table is a list of other things that those who would worship God must not do. We must not ever so turn our eyes from God to our own need as to even think of threatening another’s life for our own advantage. We must not ever so turn our eyes from God to our own desires as to enrich ourselves at another’s expense—perhaps charging, like the monopolists in the Temple, all the market will bear. We must constrain our bodily love to its Godly design of faithfulness. Wrapping it all up, in what amounts to a blanket indictment of our civilization, we must not be greedy, for greed for ourselves and dedication to the Lord are not compatible.

The folk who presided in the Temple and those who came there of course knew those commandments very well, indeed their interpretations of them were tougher than anything we could imagine. After all, those commandments were what they had come there to celebrate. But these people, like us, were practical, and had worked out the accommodations they needed. There was place in the Temple for the world’s regular sort of business. And there was place in the world’s politics and business for the Temple; as the arrangement was, control of the Temple was the chief prop of the Jewish elite’s power, and Temple contributions provided the funds for making little gifts to the Romans when certain accommodations needed to be made.

We are familiar with their thinking.

And Jesus drove out all that apparatus of accommodation. It should worry us. For the whole vast religious structure of America is a sort of blown-up version of what Jesus drove from the Temple.

Indeed it should so worry us that we come to see: our only hope is that he will do it again. The Lord whom we seek will again suddenly come to his Temple, to sort us out this time for good and all, to claim us exclusively for himself and end our accommodations. In Paul’s image, the Lord will one day burn out the hay and straw of our lives and leave only the gold and silver. He will burn out our accommodations with the world’s ways, and leave only the residue of our devotion to him, as dictated by those Commandments.

It is not promised to be painless. Since I so compromise love of God and what seem to me the necessities of life, since I so miserably fail to will God alone, he will drive out my self-concern and my little compromises with the world. So there will be—so to speak—two Robert Jensons, one now outside the Temple, standing there with all the wrecked tables and booths and calculators of my self-concern, and one standing before God in the New Jerusalem, with whatever little bit of true worship and fear and love for God there was ever in me.

And then the question will be: which Robert Jenson will I henceforth be? And then the Lord will say what he said about those who crucified him then: “Father, forgive him…”

When Jesus died, the veil of the Temple, the great tapestry that divided the Holy of Holies from the people, was torn apart. And the folk standing about could see the place where God dwelt. They patched the curtain up of course, but that lasted only for a few years, until there was no Holy Place to need a curtain.

In the New Jerusalem, there will be no Temple as the place where God is present, for as the Revelation says, God will just be there. And in that presence we will have no more divided minds, but will finally—as Martin Luther said in explaining the commandments—fear, love, and trust in God alone.



[1] Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology 1: The Triune God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 214.
[2] Robert Jenson, Story and Promise (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1973), 160.
[3] Here’s how he puts it in his Systematic Theology 2: The Works of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), [270]):“When the Gospels quote Jesus’ report of his sending by the Father and Jesus’ prayers to the Father, they cite exchanges in conversation by and in which God is God.”
[4] Jenson, Story and Promise, 135.
[5] Robert Jenson, Song of Songs (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2005), 77.
[6] In all this, Jenson is not, as often thought, denying or refuting the traditional doctrine of divine impassibility. He is, however, clarifying it and challenging the most common misunderstanding of that doctrine.
[7] “Don’t Thank Me, Thank the Holy Spirit”: A Conversation with Robert W., Jenson; Crackers and Grape Juice (May 4, 2017); available online:
[8] Robert Jenson, “Psalm 32” in The Triune Story: Collected Essays on Scripture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 26.
[9] Jenson, Story and Promise, 50.
[10] Robert Jenson, “Hermeneutics and the Life of the Church” in The Triune Story: Collected Essays on Scripture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 61.
[11] Jenson, “Hermeneutics and the Life of the Church,” 62.
[12] Robert Jenson, “On the Authorities of Scripture” in The Triune Story: Collected Essays on Scripture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 146.
[13] Robert Jenson, “Scripture’s Authority in the Church” in The Triune Story: Collected Essays on Scripture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 119. Emphasis original.
[14] Robert Jenson, “What is a Post Christian?” in Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson (eds.), The Strange New World of the Gospel: Re-evangelizing in the Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 31. Emphasis original.
[15] Robert Jenson, Religion Against Itself (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1967), 117-118.

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Chris Green is Professor of Public Theology at Southeastern University and Director of St Anthony Institute for Theology, Philosophy, and Liturgics. You can follow him on Substack and on his personal website. He is the author of several books, including Surprised by God and The End Is Music: A Companion to Robert W. Jenson’s Theology.

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1 Response to The Word Words the World: Robert W. Jenson on Preaching

  1. Blanche Jenson says:

    Thank you,Chris.


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