Monday, January 8, 2018

Robert W. Jenson 1930-2017. . .

Robert Jenson was a large name in Lutheranism and still is.  His doctorate was from Heidelberg on the subject of Karl Barth’s theology of election (Peter Brunner serving as his doktor-vater).  Upon returning to the US, he joined the faculty of religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. Over the next 38 years he published about 30 theological books, hundreds of articles, and taught at Luther College; as dean and tutor of Lutheran students at Mansfield College in Oxford; at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg; and at St. Olaf College.  In 1991, he joined Carl Braaten in establishing the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology to reflect their ecumenical vision (Braaten's words) for the reunited church of the future. This vision calls for faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, obedience to the texts of Holy Scripture, and commitment to the dogmatic, liturgical, and ethical teachings of the Great Tradition.  I have a number of his books on my library shelf.

In remembrance of Jenson, I draw your attention to a First Things article he wrote 7 years ago:  How the World Lost Its Story.  A couple of paragraphs stand out to me.
Polemical point one: the story is not your story or my story or “his-story” or “her-story” or some neat story someone read or made up. The story of the sermon and of the hymns and of the processions and of the sacramental acts and of the readings is to be God’s story, the story of the Bible. Preachers are the greatest sinners here: the text already is and belongs to the one true story, it does need to be helped out in this respect. What is said and enacted in the church must be with the greatest exactitude and faithfulness and exclusivity the story of creation and redemption by the God of Israel and Father of the risen Christ. As we used to say: Period.
Jenson's words ought to continue to ring out in a world where the Church has lost the story, reshaped it to fit modern times, or rejected it as no longer factual or trustworthy.  It is not our story.  It is God's.  His story is by His design the story of Christ, whose incarnation, life, death, and resurrection are the only hope for a decaying and dying world.  Preaching today needs often to be reminded of this in a world pandering to our near sighted vision on today or our preoccupation with preference as if the only story that mattered was ours.  If the Church loses the story, the world is completely lost.  God has put us here, called us by His Spirit, washed and given us new birth in baptism, and spoken His eternal Word so that our voices, hands, and lives may reflect like mirrors His story of forgiveness, redemption, and hope.
Polemical point two: modern Christianity, i.e., Protestantism, has regularly substituted slogans for narrative, both in teaching and in liturgy. It has supposed that hearers already knew they had a story and even already knew its basic plot, so that all that needed to be done was to point up certain features of the story—that it is “justifying,” or “liberating,” or whatever. The supposition was always misguided, but sometimes the church got away with it. In the postmodern world, this sort of preaching and teaching and liturgical composition merely expresses the desperation of those who in their meaningless world can believe nothing but vaguely wish they could.
Lutherans are not above sloganeering.  We have our own sacred mantras of Law and Gospel, Word and Sacrament, means of grace, third use of the Law, etc. . . and, while useful, these cannot be bantered about in place of the Biblical Word that is both the core and substance of the liturgy as well as the proclamation of the Church.  When we abandon the story and leave it to slogans, we surrender our authentic voice to the kind of fake news and promises of which the world is rightfully so leery.   We presume that orthodoxy can be satisfied with the mere recitation of the code words of right praise and right teaching but truth demands not only the slogan but the Biblical vocabulary and the one story of Scripture.

Jenson at his best was a constant reminder of this.  The Gospel is His story, the ONE story of the Bible, and it's witness cannot be equated to slogans or preempted by causes.  It is the Word by which we live and the purpose for which we live.  Let me leave you with a bit more Jenson. . .
Modernity’s hope was in progress; the model of this hope was biblical hope in God as the Coming One, the Eschatos. Modernity cannot hope in the biblical God, founded as it is in a declaration of independence from him. Therefore, when hope in progress has been discredited, modernity has no resource either for renewing it or for acquiring any other sort of hope. The mere negation of faith in progress is sheer lack of hope; and hopelessness is the very definition of postmodernism. . .
If, in the post-modern world, a congregation or whatever wants to be “relevant,” its assemblies must be unabashedly events of shared apocalyptic vision. “Going to church” must be a journey to the place where we will behold our destiny, where we will see what is to come of us. Modernity’s version of Christianity—that is, Protestantism—has been shy of vision and apocalypse alike. Just so, its day is over. As before, I can see two aspects of the new mandate.

First and most obviously, preaching and teaching and hymns and prayers and processions and sacramental texts must no longer be shy about describing just what the gospel promises, what the Lord has in store. Will the city’s streets be paved with gold? Modernity’s preaching and teaching—and even its hymnody and sacramental texts—hastened to say, “Well, no, not really.” And having said that, it had no more to say. In modern Christianity’s discourse, the gospel’s eschatology died the death of a few quick qualifications.


John Joseph Flanagan said...

I am a simple Christian with a Bible on my night table, and one on the desk in my den. When we mention "polemics" and make the Gospel more complex than it was intended, we immediately exclude more people from grasping the simple truth, and we confuse more people than we enlighten. I am sure, if Rev Jensen was aligned with the Catholic reunification movement among some Lutherans, he likely had significant numbers of detractors in theological circles. I think the Bible is self sufficient, and there is no need to look back to Rome for some affirmation and unity. I believe Rev Jensen was traveling a wrong path if this is where his theology and polemics were taking him.

Anonymous said...

The Church is a room with a view into the eschaton. The Liturgy transports us into the heavenly habitations and proclaims in its unique language the narrative of hope that has long been wrung from the world at the hands of progressives who turned their affections to social justice and political advantage to the neglect of the true story that saves.