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 Human. This 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 God. And 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.