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Robert Jenson: A Reader’s Guide

Lately I’ve been re-reading the works of Robert Jenson, as you all may have guessed from the overabundance of Jenson quotes that have appeared on this site lately.  Jenson remains, in my opinion the most important American theologian alive today, and perhaps the most important American theologian of the last century.  However, he is woefully under-read.  So, here is my advice on reading Jenson for those who are inclined to do so.

First,  the place to begin is with a small, older book of Jenson’s entitled Story and Promise: A Brief Theology of the Gospel About Jesus.  This book is less than 200 small pages, but every sentence is packed with dynamic theological insight.  All of the themes that will emerge in Jenson’s later work are here in nascent form (the temporal infinite of the Triune God, the centrality of the resurrection, the body of the ascended Jesus as embodied in the Eucharistic church, etc.).  The book is a bit hard to get these days, but if you can get it, do so.  And hopefully I’ll be able to get us at Wipf & Stock the chance to reprint it soon!

The next place to go is to Jenson’s superb book on the Trinity, The Triune Identity: God According to the Gospel.  This book pulls together Jenson’s key thoughts on the doctrine of God, including his revisionary metaphysics which he roots in the gospel of Christ’s resurrection from the dead.  This book is incredibly energetic and provocative.  There are few books on the Trinity that have totally shaken up my views on God as much as this one.

After reading these two books, anyone can probably read anything else in Jenson’s corpus they want and not feel too lost.  However, it would probably be good to tackle the first volume of Jenson’s Systematic Theology next.  This book fully articulates all of the themes of Jenson’s doctrine of God explicitly and masterfully.  I have never read another volume of systematic theology that I found so energizing, except perhaps from some sections of Barth and Balthasar’s works.  After volume one, you are more than ready to head into the second volume of Jenson’s systematic theology.  Here you will receive a thorough exposure to other aspects of Jesons’s thought, including his radical ecclesiology.

For more study on Jenson’s ecclesiology and sacramentology, his earlier book Visible Words: The Interpretation and Practice of Christian Sacraments is very helpful and thorough.  Finally, after having read all of the above, I would advise that then and only then one move on to Jenson’s small book, On Thinking the HumanThis little volume is anything but light reading.  In it Jenson tackles some of the essential philosophical questions about human personhood from a theological perspective.  The results are fascinating and extremely provocative.

If at his point you still haven’t had enough, you can always start accumulating the dozens of books that Jenson has edited with Carl Braaten, or read his delightful book, coauthored with his young granddaughter, Conversations with Poppi About GodAnd if you just haven’t had enough of Jenson’s systematic theology you can also read his extensive chapters in Christian Dogmatics, a collaborative work which Jenson and Braaten edited.  One of the notable parts of this collection is Jenson’s extensive treatment of the Holy Spirit, which is not equaled in his own systematics.

All in all, I think anyone interested in Christian theology will find reading Jenson a very rewarding experience.  I have been energized, provoked, and stimulated by him more than by any other living theologian.  Jenson ignites a fire in the theological imagination that is rapturous, deep, and ultimately fun.  Perhaps what I find most compelling about his work is the way in which it constantly seeks to be radically attuned to the gospel of the resurrection, allowing that gospel to shape the whole of theological inquiry.  Jenson has much to teach all of us who seek to do theology in the service of the gospel.

17 Comments

  1. Steve Martin wrote:

    Thanks, Halden. This is very helpful as I’ve long wanted to seriously tackle Jensen. I’ve read a little of his work, and much more of Colin Gunton… who referred to Jensen as “my teacher”. Do you have a take on the relationship of their ideas?

    Friday, June 6, 2008 at 12:12 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    I also started out reading Gunton, Steve. The relationship between Jenson’s ideas and Gunton’s is very complex. Jenson is certainly more radical than Gunton in terms of metaphysics, although Gunton’s last book published while he was alive Act and Being has some definite Jensonian themes.

    Sadly at the time of Gunton’s death Jenson and Gunton were working together on coming up with a common statement on Christology and the whole issue of the Logos Asarkos. If only they had finished it!

    Friday, June 6, 2008 at 12:24 pm | Permalink
  3. Ben George wrote:

    Just wanted to add a link to Jensons “Large Catechism” here. It’s a very short little book, but helpful in my work as a catechist.

    Friday, June 6, 2008 at 1:08 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Yes, it is a superb catechism. I really only went with the big stuff in my guide, but this too is important if you can get your hands on it.

    Friday, June 6, 2008 at 1:11 pm | Permalink
  5. Pontificator wrote:

    Remainder copies of Jenson’s *Story and Promise* are available from Sigler Press: http://www.siglerpress.com/ST.htm .

    Friday, June 6, 2008 at 1:40 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Wow, that’s great to know, Al!

    Friday, June 6, 2008 at 1:42 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Also, for anyone who has access to Pro Ecclesia, you will find a lot of good stuff by Jenson in there. I highly recommend it.

    Friday, June 6, 2008 at 1:49 pm | Permalink
  8. Hill wrote:

    The day that journal is available online will be a great day indeed. There are about 300 articles on my list to read that I’ve been too lazy to track down and photocopy from the library. I’d probably have to take a week off from work to catch up.

    Friday, June 6, 2008 at 3:07 pm | Permalink
  9. nathaniel drake carlson wrote:

    Jenson’s book on The Song of Songs is also great. Make sure to check that one out if you haven’t.

    Saturday, June 7, 2008 at 12:35 am | Permalink
  10. See also Jenson’s book Essays in Theology of Culture (1996), which is a collection of various essays. See also his contributions over the years to the King’s College London Research institute into Systematic Theology (Trinitarian Theology Today; The Doctrine of Creation; The Theology of Reconciliation; The Person of Christ), as well as his FD Maurice Lectures – ‘Christ as Culture’ published in the International Journal of Systematic Theology. Finally Gunton edited a collection of essays on Jenson in the book Trinity, Time and the Church (Eerdmans, 2000)

    Saturday, June 7, 2008 at 1:34 am | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    Yes, Jenson’s Essays in Theology of Culture are contain some very good stuff. And the “Christ as Culture” series published in IJST is just extraordinary.

    Saturday, June 7, 2008 at 2:28 am | Permalink
  12. I should have added that Sigler Press has several remainder Jenson titles, including Visible Words, Triune Identity, Unbaptized God, and Essays in Theology of Culture. One needs to look under both title and author.

    Saturday, June 7, 2008 at 1:24 pm | Permalink
  13. Brian wrote:

    Hi Halden,

    I’m curious regarding your take on the importance of deification in Jenson’s theology. He seems to be persuaded by the Finnish interpretation of Luther on justification. Any thoughts?

    Sunday, June 8, 2008 at 5:45 am | Permalink
  14. Halden wrote:

    Brian, Mannermaa and the Finnish school is definitely important to Jenson, though there are important differences, not least of which is the fact that Jenson has a robust pneumatology whereas Mannermaa scarcely even mentions the Spirit.

    The volume Union with Christ which is edited by Braaten and Jenson will probably answer your questions on this issue if you want to take a look at it. Jenson’s response to Mannermaa’s contribution is helpful for understanding just how Jenson engages this turn in Luther research.

    Sunday, June 8, 2008 at 10:24 am | Permalink
  15. Phil Sumpter wrote:

    Halden, at some point I’m going to have to get into Jenson, primarily as an attempt to understand the theological hermeneutics of Chids and Seitz. Could you recommend anything that he has written on the doctrine of scripture? Thanks in advance.

    Wednesday, June 11, 2008 at 2:23 am | Permalink
  16. Halden wrote:

    Jenson has written little on the doctrine of Scripture specifically. He does have an essay in Reclaiming the Bible for the Church (edited by him and Braaten) entitled “Hermeneutics and the Life of the Church” which may get at some of the stuff you’re looking for. Otherwise, I think its best to look at the relevant chapters in his ST1. Though he doesn’t devote much time to Scripture qua Scripture.

    Wednesday, June 11, 2008 at 10:33 am | Permalink
  17. Thanks for tipping me off to Story and Promise! I was not aware of this before, but am finding it to be a gem. I don’t know if you noticed, but it seems this blog post has had a concrete impact on the sales of this book. When I first read this post, I quickly snagged a copy over at Advanced Book Exchange for a mere 4 pounds, and there were several others for less than 10 pounds, but now on ABE’s there aren’t any copies under 161 pounds!!! And over at Alibris, the cheapest is 17.

    On another note, I’m surprised you didn’t mention his early work on Barth. It seems like Alpha and Omega is particularly important for understanding Jenson’s theology, not to mention that it is a provocative reading of Barth. I’m no Jenson expert (!), so I wonder if there is something I’m missing here…

    Thursday, June 12, 2008 at 6:21 am | Permalink

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    [...] Doerge offers some helpful advice on reading Robert Jenson. [BTW. I just received my copy of Jenson's A Large Catechism this week and [...]

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