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Worst Theological Problem Meme

Ok, I’m going to see if I can get something started here that might be interesting. We all certainly have our favorite theologians, with whom we identify and on whom we draw for our theology. Now, of course none of us want to be uncritical readers, so we admit that our fav has “some” problems, of course. But usually when asked we come up with little surfacy things like “She doesn’t write clearly” or “He doesn’t develop this idea fully”, or “He didn’t embody his theology in his life,” etc. In other words our criticisms are often veiled compliments.

So here’s the challenge. Pick your favorite or most influential theologian. I know this will be hard, but just try to be as honest as you can and think of what theologian has really influenced your thought the most.

Then, write at least a solid paragraph about the most problematic aspects of their theology. And it has to be a real criticism that carries some weight. I’ll see what I can do to get us started, so here I go: Robert Jenson.

Jenson is one of my favorite theologians and his theology is very close to my own. I share his trinitarian and ecclesial instincts very closely. I think he is the most conceptually brilliant and substantive American dogmatic theologian since Jonathan Edwards. But he’s got some major problems. The first one that I would identify is his weak theology of the homoousion. Jenson, unlike Torrance, for example does not really discuss this central feature of orthodox trinitarian and Christological dogma. To be sure, he believes Jesus is fully God, but what this means for him, and how it relates to his understanding of the incarnation and preexistence of Jesus are open questions for Jenson. Secondly, I think Jenson is weak precisely where he is strong: ecclesiology. He is right, I think to closely connect Christ to his body, but he comes to close to collapsing Christ into the church. For him, the eucharistic body of Christ is the only body that the Risen Jesus has. The ascension plays no role in his thought whatsoever. Jenson comes at once perilously close to a complete identification of the church with the trinitarian Son, despite his insistence that the church does not become another hypostasis of the Trinitarian life. In the end he is left simply saying that the church does not become a fourth member of the Trinity, simply because he doesn’t wish to say it. Thirdly, I think again, Jenson is weak where he is the strongest, namely in his connection between the being of the Triune God and the narrative of Christ. For Jenson, the resurrection of Christ defines the being of God. He even states that the resurrection is God’s ousia. The question that is inevitably posed to Jenson is whether God “needs” the world to be himself. To this Jenson always responds, that he does not, but seems bereft of resources to show why this so. While I think Jenson is absolutely right to see such a close relationship between the narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the being of the Triune God, I think there must be a more adequate way of formulating our trinitarian doctrine to safeguard the transcendence of God, while never claiming that God somehow transcends or is other than Christ. All three of these problems seem to pose the question about whether or not Jenson is a theological liberal. The deep connection between God and the historical process, the loss of Jesus as a distinct personal subject over against the church (and with this, his hesitance toward the bodily resurrection) seem to all add up to some the key features of classic liberalism.

Ok, so, now we have begun. I now ask all you theo-bloggers out there to continue this meme and speak freely about your favorite theologian’s weaknesses. Who will join me?


  1. d. w. horstkoetter wrote:

    Well this is quite the poser. I’ve got to pick someone first, but I’ll definitely get back to this.

    Tuesday, April 3, 2007 at 12:14 am | Permalink
  2. kim fabricius wrote:

    Hi Halden,

    Great idea – and an incisive critique of Jenson. As a fourth point, you might mention his taste in sweaters, which suggests a thin theological aesthetics. :)

    Tuesday, April 3, 2007 at 2:07 am | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Kim, it’s because his aesthetics are compleltely musical, rather than visual! If God’s a great fugue, it doesn’t matter how you look!

    Tuesday, April 3, 2007 at 2:20 am | Permalink
  4. Deep Furrows wrote:

    you devil! My critique of Balthasar must wait until after Holy Week.

    Tuesday, April 3, 2007 at 2:26 am | Permalink
  5. daniel greeson wrote:

    I happen to like his sweater!

    Tuesday, April 3, 2007 at 2:28 am | Permalink
  6. Christopher Layton wrote:

    I think this is a great idea, and a great habit to be in. My critique of N.T. Wright (does he count as a theologian?) will also have to wait until after Holy Week.

    Tuesday, April 3, 2007 at 2:40 am | Permalink
  7. a. steward wrote:

    Halden, you are blogging at a furious pace! Two thunkers in a day!
    This is a great idea. In spite of the fact that the idea of a critique seems to imply at least some sort of comprehensive understanding of an authors work, and in spite of the fact that he is one of the easiest thinkers to speak wrongly about, I think I’m going to do mine on Kierkegaard, because I like him so much. But it, too, will have to wait. I didn’t do any homework over spring break.

    Tuesday, April 3, 2007 at 5:25 am | Permalink
  8. kim fabricius wrote:

    Well, there you go, Halden: a fourth critique: Why should the eschaton be all ears and no eyes? Why not a visio Dei as well as a heavenly choir? Jenson – his Jonathan Edwards is showing – should not be so iconoclastic!

    Tuesday, April 3, 2007 at 8:26 am | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    Actually, Jenson does bring in the motiff of the beatific vision quite explcitly in his chapters on eschatology. So, while he places the emphasis on the aural, I think the visual is there. I was just having myself a fun cheap shot! :)

    Tuesday, April 3, 2007 at 2:54 pm | Permalink
  10. Otis wrote:

    Is there a “hall of fame” for theologians? I suggest there should be.

    But where do we cross the line from theology (the expression of God) to philosophy (one’s definition of the universe and his or her’s definition of it)?

    In my own situation, my personal theology came as a function of “coming to Christ” when I was a sordid sinner at the age of 54. I am now 76!

    Here is an expression of that journey:

    Is this relevant to this discussion? If not I will humbly excuse myself from this blog.

    Tuesday, April 3, 2007 at 9:04 pm | Permalink
  11. kim fabricius wrote:

    Yeah, you’re right, Jenson spends several pages on the visio Dei – defending it by suggesting that “the hearing of the redeemed will itself be a seeing” – which I think priveleges the aural. But then Jenson comments that Edwards thinks of our eschatological seeing as “a sort of perpetual dance,” which is quite nice. I reckon the experience will be (to coin a phrase) “somapsychedelic”!

    And by the way, what of touch, taste, and smell? :)

    Tuesday, April 3, 2007 at 11:05 pm | Permalink
  12. David Scott Lewis wrote:

    IMHO, Marilyn McCord Adams is the most important theologian, especially with her latest treatise, Christ and Horrors.

    Bart Ehrman is a pain-in-the-butt, but he makes a lot of good points. So he might be the most problematic theologian — although calling him a “theologian” might be stretch.

    Wednesday, April 4, 2007 at 4:07 am | Permalink
  13. a. steward wrote:

    Hey, I never asked you what you thought of Jenson’s treatment of death in On Thinking the Human. It seems to me that he unneccessarily confines the object of our knowledge about death to simply “the final instant when life terminates,” rather than Arthur McGill’s expanded notion of death as “the losing of life, that wearing away which goes on all the time,” which is certainly observable by the one experiencing decrease in the capacities of life.

    Wednesday, April 4, 2007 at 5:13 pm | Permalink
  14. Halden wrote:


    I’d have to really look back at Jenson’s treatment of death in that book. The overarching theme I see in Jenson on death is that death is narrative closure. When I die my story is complete and “who I am” is determined for good or for ill. Only when I am dead is it absolutely settled who I am. Thus, with Jesus his death gives narrative closure to his life, defining him as the person he is. The resurrection, then means that this person, defined by his death as the “man for others” is the ultimate outcome of everything. Because Jesus has died, and thus been true to who he is as the Son of the Father, and has now been raised that destiny is certain and ever-alive.

    This, I think is a good insight that Jenson has into death. However, I think McGill’s point is right on the money as well. Thus, McGill is able to see death in a broader context of life-giving, which he ultimately sees in Christ. I think this is absolutely essential. It does seem that Jenson relegates death solely to the final termination of life, perhaps he needs to be broadened by McGill on this.

    Wednesday, April 4, 2007 at 5:40 pm | Permalink
  15. Derrick wrote:

    Like always Halden, great topic and great critique of Jenson (as you know, one of my favorites as well). But my absolute favorite (as you also know) is Pannenberg and so I thought I try to jab at him a little. But first I had a couple of critiques of Jenson that I thought I might add, because I dont quite have enough time to flesh out critiques of Pannenberg just yet:

    The first is Jenson’s conception of the identity between the Spirit (meaning the third person of the trinity, and not any “spirit”) and the future. I think this is a great idea…to a point. There is obviously a wealth of biblical data that links the two, and in the unfolding of Jenson’s peculiarly strong trinitarian logic, it makes perfect sense to locate particular functions (specifically of temporality) amongst the three, and so to identify the spirit with the futurum of Gods advent, his “eternal liveliness” as it were. The problem here appears in the logic of the priority of the future (and this is one that F. LeRon Shults also points out in his book Reforming the Doctrine of God, p.200-201) for the sake of brevity I will simpy cite Shults critique: “Jenson correlates the three persons of the Trinity with the three modes of time in a way that links the Spirit to the powr of the future, in contrast to the other two persons…the inconsistancy derives from Jenson’s linking of the Spirit in particular with Futurity; if God is ‘primally future’ and ‘to be God is to be the power of the future,’ then the Son and the Father are subordinate to the Spirit.” (p.200-201) Perhaps a better way to put it (with a nod both to Shults and to Pannenberg) is that each of the three persons are in different ways (specific to their actualities as persons) future to the other two. For Pannenberg’s concept, he actually wrote an essay on this for Jenson’s festschrift entitled “Time, Eternity, and the Trinitarian God.” Its a very interesting piece.

    A second brief critique is Jenson’s concept of death as the completion of the totality of a life. Now I again agree with this…to an extent. Pannenberg brings up two valid critiques, not specifically against Jenson, but they are nonetheless applicable. 1.) for anyone who has the patience to read Sarte’s morose and idiosyncratic Being and Nothingness (which I have only in part), Sarte critiques Heidegger’s concept of the Being-towards-death saying that death is the brokeness and interruption of life, not its completion. This is acquired by Pannenberg who notes that death in itself can only be a barrier to understanding, not a completion, unless it is subsumed under a higher principle (which is, not surprisingly, argued to be God). Death has nothing intrinsic in itself to accentuate a life if there is not a higher order of meaning. Of course, Jenson too argues that death only becomes understandable in relation to God. But he then falls more under a second critique due to the somewhat unspecific and unexplicit dealings with it: 2.) death is never the whole of life, because a life can never be self-contained or self-defined. Willhelm Dilthey understood that totality is necessary to explicate any given moment, but he then subsumed the concept of totality to be simply the totality of a human life, so that we again are pressed towards death as the ultimate definition of life (and hence we begin to see vague geneological ties between Dilthey and Heidegger)

    The problem is that if we as humans are exocentric or “ekstatic” in our very constitution, this means that the “whole” is not simply the “whole” brought by death, because “our” death is itself set within the greater context of the totality of history (and here, for those familiar with him, you can see my debt to Pannenberg). Indeed if death “means” only in relation to God, we are automatically directed to some provisional totality of history because God is surely the Lord of all things, and hence all things find their place only in relation to God (which is, of course, something Jenson vehemently affirms also). Hence “death,” while itself important, appears to take a more subsidiary role in the constitution of relationship, rather than the fairly primary role that Jenson gives it. Death “means” only because there is a horizon that extends beyond it. This is, again, something I think could be argued that Jenson himself holds (given his academic hat-tipping to Pannenberg’s theology in general), but I found his expositions of it to be weak or generally obfuscated, though there are many resources to reaquire this idea for Jenson, considering especially his repeated emphasis on the necessary ‘bracketing’ of time by eternity. He talks of this necessary extension in relation to Jesus resurrection, which indeed I think is brilliant, but in many instances it seems that Jenson has the idea that Jesus’ death defined ultimately “who” Jesus was, which it certainly (proleptically) did, but the proleptic character of the disclosure of Jesus’ identity is enunciated in such a way that we are almost led to envision the second coming as a mimetic replication of the character of the resurrection, so that the two related events are almost seen to not be two, but one. I think that this is also related to your critique of Jenson’s silence regarding the ascension and his resulting ecclessiological difficulties: Jesus’ character is certainly disclosed in death, and then verified in resurrection, but this identity provisionally ascertained and verified is again on the move toward the totality of history, which is, in part, represented in the ascension: Jesus is ‘other’ than the church because his personality is constantly renewed in relation to the Father through the Spirit, but yet is unified with the church because this constant refreshing, his “towardness” to the Father, is through the church He constitutes as its head.

    Anyway, those are my two cents regarding a critique of Jenson. Hopefully, like many others on this post, the critique of my specific thinker will come forth soon.

    Wednesday, April 4, 2007 at 8:45 pm | Permalink
  16. Halden wrote:

    Thanks, Derrick!

    If you want to write a post critiquing Pannenberg, please do so. I’ll be happy to post it as a guest post on the site here.

    Wednesday, April 4, 2007 at 9:46 pm | Permalink
  17. bobby grow wrote:

    Martin Luther.

    I don’t have time at the moment to provide critique.

    Thursday, April 5, 2007 at 6:15 pm | Permalink
  18. Derrick wrote:

    Well Halden, I would love to do the “guest post” thing, but I’m afraid due to my schedule in the immediate future I wouldn’t be able to assemble anything coherent or substantial enough to be worthy. So, in the interum, I decided to just post a couple initial observations that I may or may not flesh out in the future. This is devilishly hard because being a nerdy fanboy of Pannenberg, my first impulse is generally to defend him. Anyway, here it goes:

    Weaknesses in Pannenberg’s theology:

    1.) Interestingly enough, corresponding to your most recent post reviewing Alan Lewis’ terrific book, I am borrowing one of Lewis’ many critiques of Pannenberg: the logic of the retroactive significance of the resurrection. That the resurrection gives “retroactive signficance” to the prior life and death of Christ is, of course, something that Pannenberg has championed since the inception of his particular theological system. Indeed his first methodological book, Jesus: God and Man, is really a 400+ page unpacking of the basic logic behind the claim that Jesus is God the Son, the impetus of which Pannenberg finds in the Resurrection. Indeed, for Pannenberg, the Resurrection is the locus of Christianity due to its signficance, given its verification of Christ by God, and, especially in this early work, it really stands as the logical backbone for the validity of all Christian claims. The incisive critique of Lewis, one which I accept, is that despite Pannenberg’s painstaking and tireless exposition of the retroactive significance of the resurrection, he goes into almost no detail regarding a specifically “reconceptualized” metaphysical understanding of God in the death of the Son on the Cross. Now, of course, it could be argued (and I would to a certain extent) that this isn’t in fact a “lapse” in Pannneberg’s theology or logic, so much as it is a deficiency that arises as a product from Pannenberg’s systematization itself. So the moment of a critique of Lewis’ critique would have to be that the deficiency is there not because Pannenberg is inconsistant, but precisely because he is consistent in his understanding (something I would like to unfold more, but this isn’t the place to do it). At any rate, Pannneberg is nearly silent regarding what it means for the Son to die (at least along the lines that Lewis would have him take it). Pannenberg sees Christ’s death more in juxtaposition to the resurrection than as a potential metaphysical bounty, and indeed (again, due to the rigors of his system) he shies away from speaking, with Jungel and Hegel, of the death of “God” on the cross, which he terms a “reverse monophysitism.” (Systematic Theology vol.1:314) Again, this critique should ultimately also encompass an exposition of what Pannenberg sees ultimately occuring in the cross, which is the self-distinction of the Son from the Father, and so the beginnings of a trinitarian theology of self-giving. But what can ultimately be said is that Pannneberg is silent in an area that arguably could be the turning point of Christian metaphysics (which Lewis takes it to be).

    2.) You spoke of Jenson “being weakest where he is strongest,” and, liking the phrase, I decided to use it in regards to Pannenberg’s eschatology: he is indeed weakest where he is strongest. Pannenberg speaks of the “whole” of history illuminating the individual parts, so that the totality will give every finite thing its essence. Pannenberg’s understanding of “being,” or the “essence”-whatness of objects to be unfolding through the nexus of relationships in which they stand. That is to say that things are not “what they are” in isolation from their relation to other objects. Hence “time” and the unfolding of the relations themselves are not exterior to the essence of the objects, but are in fact the only thing proper to them. Ultimately to understand anything, Pannenberg surmises, there must be an ultimate “horizon” that is beyond the part/whole dialectic, and this is, understandably, “God.” God is the unifying unifier of history who gives it its totality and completion, which Pannenberg draws (arguably) pretty convicing parallels to apocalyptic expectations of Judaism and early Christianity: the wholeness of essence can be given to people and the world only at the end, when everything stands in relation to everything else because God has “arrived” and illuminated the whole. The weakness of this position is that Pannenberg seems to have a fairly static conception of what the eschaton will actually “be” for us. Pannenberg surely doesn’t want to eliminate the ultimate distinction between we finite humans and the “truly infinite” God, but he does indeed seem to imply that “all things” will be revealed at the end due to the wholeness of the totality of what is revealed. James K. A. Smith, calling this idea an “eschatological immediacy” of hermeneutics, critiques Pannenberg precisely at this point, noting that this “human” appears to be a “giant,” of the intellect and so precisely not a human at all (The Fall of Interpretation p.64). I think there is indeed ways to modify Pannenberg’s general conception, so that there is not a “static” totality, but what we might call an “authenticity” or “purity” to our continued ascent in knowledge. David Bentley Hart speaks of the continuing fulness of analogical/metaphorical language, that proceeds ever forward towards fuller understanding precisely in its numerous differentiations (Beauty of the Infinite, p.314) which is somewhat akin to the direction I would take Pannenberg.

    3.) My last critique will (hopefully) be brief, considering I have written more than I really intended so far. One of the most frequent complaints is that Pannenberg has not really conversed to any significant degree, with “post-modern” philosophy or theology. Some accuse him of being a foundationalist, while others accuse him of being a coherentist, and others dismiss him as a Hegelian (that one particularly irks me). F. LeRon Shults wrote an excellent book outlining a “post-foundationalist” model of epistemology and hermeneutics that I think does a great job of vindicating Pannenberg from most of these complaints. Nonetheless a weakness does arise simply because Pannenberg does not dialogue with the Derridas and the Foucoults of the “post-modern” enterprise. Whereas Pannenberg wants to argue, e.g., that anthropology is an incredibly important arena for theology to converse with, a lot of post-modernisms are now questioning the validity even of supposedly “secular” anthropological-philosophical enterprises, let alone individual theories. Indeed there is little to no interaction with the so called “yale” school notables (however innapropriate that name might be) Hans Frei and George Lindbeck, or any others. Pannenberg, unfortunately, just didn’t seem to take the “post-modern” situation as seriously as many would like, despite the fact that he is not as “modernist” as many would take him to be.

    Well I’m seriously out of time, so I’m going to have to stick to those three for the moment. I look forward to any comments/additions that anyone might have!

    Friday, April 6, 2007 at 12:01 am | Permalink
  19. Fred wrote:


    I’ve got something for Balthasar. It’s not exactly what you asked for, but I think it would be nice to post it here as a guest post and then cross-post it over at la nouvelle theologie (

    Would you like to see it?


    Tuesday, June 12, 2007 at 7:41 pm | Permalink
  20. Halden wrote:

    You bet! Send it to me at and I’ll post it.


    Tuesday, June 12, 2007 at 10:55 pm | Permalink
  21. d. w. horstkoetter wrote:

    This challenge exposes a weakness I have, for all the reading I have done, I have rarely focused on one person’s systematic theology. And this limits the choices I feel even somewhat confident enough to talk about. However, if I were to pick someone, it would be Jürgen Moltmann. Given that theology in some areas (most prominently seen in liberation theology) has shifted from a focus upon the believer/atheist dichotomy to the person/non-person, James Cone has made the point that many theologies have lost their relevancy insomuch as they address an old question. However, there is a motif within European-born theology that holds promise for continuous relevancy between old and new theology: the suffering and hopeful Christ. This is why I have chosen Moltmann (no matter how much Halden might dislike him. heh.). Moltmann seems to be able to bridge the gap between many aspects of liberal, liberation, and conservative theology, but still retain a Christocentrism and this strength of Moltmann is very important for me right now.

    The truth be told, I’d begun writing a rather lengthy response to this meme sometime ago, only to realize that I should read more to adequately critique and thus I kept putting this off. So now as I actually write this, in an effort to not come off crazy or extend beyond myself, I’ll attempt to level one solid of crititque that I have noticed myself, but have also been vocalized by others as well, particularly by some faculty here.

    Despite all that Moltmann has accomplished (helped revive Trinitarian work, helped revive eschatology, a great deal of thought on theodicy, a theology of Creation and even “opened up a veritable new chapter in theology, in which the suffering of God is almost a new orthodoxy” says Grenz and Olson in 20th Century Theology), Moltmann is not flawless – far from it.

    In my book the most difficult flaw to deal with, is the lack of method. Moltmann simply does not line out a hermeneutical method (although I hear he says that he will finally write one). I like his writing and understand it well enough, but as far as he approaches the Biblical text or theology as a whole, there is next to no information on method from what I have seen. In fact, this is also a gripe I have heard from a few professors here at Union. So for me, to access Moltmann’s conclusions, I sometimes have to construct my own arguement, an arguement that satisfies me and reaches his conclusion, because it just does not exist in his writings. With a lack of method, the rest of his writings seem to take on a whole other level of difficulty.

    For instance, Moltmann came by Union for a Q and A while giving lectures in the city. We were given the lectures ahead of time to read. Here is a section:

    The justice which Christ will bring about for all and everything is not the justice that establishes what is good and evil, and the retributive justice which rewards the good and punishes the wicked. It is God`s creative justice, which brings the victims justice and puts the perpetrators right. The victims of injustice and violence are first judged so that they may receive their rights. The perpetrators of evil will afterwards experience the justice that puts things to rights. They will thereby be transformed inasmuch as they will be redeemed only together with their victims. They will be saved through the crucified Christ, who comes to them together with their victims. They will `die` to their evil acts against their victims and the burden of their guilt in order to be born again to a new life together with their victims. Paul also expresses this with the image of the fire through which every human work is proved: `If any man`s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire` (1 Cor. 3.15). The image of the End-time `fire` is an image of the consuming love of God and not an image of the wrath of God. Everything which is, and has been, in contradiction to God will be burnt away, so that the person who is loved by God is saved, and everything which is, and has been, in accord with God in that person`s life is preserved.

    The purpose goal of erecting the victims and correcting the perpetrators is not reward and punishment but the victory of God`s creative justice over against all that is godless in heaven, on earth and under the earth. Victorious divine justice will not separate humankind into blessed and condemned at the end of the world, but will unite them for God`s great Day of Reconciliation on this earth. On this day all the tears will be wiped away from their eyes, the tears of suffering as well as the tears of remorse, for there will be no more suffering and pain nor crying (Rev 21, 4). The earth will than be cleaned up from the dirt of sin and death. The shadows of sin will disappear together with the night of death: “And death shall be no more”. Annihilated are the powers of annihilation.

    Now, I was curious as to how this plays out in light of the scriptural text, Matthew 25, specifically about the sheep and the goats. I asked him and he said we are misreading the text. Well of course we are reading the text differently, but the only answer he gave to the question was that we are both the sheep and the goats – we are at least one point in our life, the person in prison, the visitor and the one who does not visit. Alright, I got that, but how does this work with the surrounding text? I would love to arrive at his conclusion (and kinda do actually), but he has not voiced well his hermeneutical method. So, the only way I can reach some of his conclusions is by creating my own theology and determining my own method with some goal in mind. Right. ‘Cause thats easy, especially with all the other hermeneutical problems to consider. Sigh. So in the end, until he lines out his method, Moltmann in my book will be someone with great insights and a visionary, but not a very good theologian in the professional sense.

    Looking back, I did do a post on Hauerwas that might also apply to Halden’s challenge. While Hauerwas is technically an ethicist and not exactly systematic, he does collapse the categories of theology and ethics into one category and has covered a great deal of territory in his many writings. So I suppose the reader can take their pick between Moltmann’s lack of method, or Hauerwas’ faulty use of history.

    Wednesday, June 13, 2007 at 11:42 am | Permalink

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  1. Critiquing a favorite theologian « flying.farther on Tuesday, June 12, 2007 at 7:33 pm

    [...] Published June 12th, 2007 moltmann , meme This is a rather late response to halden’s meme – critique a favorite [...]

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