Skip to content

Hart and Jenson: Locating the Disagreement

I’m currently re-reading David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite and am loving going back through this text again. This is truly a magnificent work of Christian theology that deserves extensive thoughtful engagement. After my initial reading of Hart’s book, I found myself giving a profoundly negative assessment thereto; however after letting the book sit and digest over the last year or so and now reading it again, I am finding it more and more joyous an experience.

Ultimately, I think that my own differences with Hart occur at the same theological locale that defines Hart’s argument with Robert Jenson. In the actual discussion of Jenson’s theology and Hart’s argument with him, the disagreement seems to be based on — as Hart says in the preface to the book — a different understanding of the economic and immanent trinities. Particularly there seems to a wide divergence over the issue of what Hart perceives as Jenson’s historicization of God’s being. For Hart it is essential to assert that creation is not necessary to God, that it adds nothing to God’s being, being a purely gratuitous gift of God which neither adds nor detracts from God’s plenitude. For Jenson, however, the revelation of God in Israel and Jesus requires us to identify God’s own self-definition by and as particular historical events, supremely the event of the resurrection which defines and indeed, constitutes God’s own eternal life. For Jenson, “If Jesus is not risen, this God simply is not.”

However, in the course of Hart’s book he makes claims that sound utterly Jensonian, from his musical ontology through which he describes the beatific vision to his Trinitarian theology of divine beauty, Hart and Jenson sound much more alike than unlike one another. The real locus of their disagreement, I suggest is located at the level of their respective theologies of time. Hart’s whole project, including his geneological assault on continental philosophy, is predicated on the positing of a primordial, protological harmony, an original peace that is definitive of creation. This original peace forms the ontological ground of Hart’s entire project. Violence is privatio boni, a secondary intrusion of negation into an ocean of beatific plenitude that the world, as creatio ex nihilo is imbued with. For Hart, it is all about origin. The key to his understanding of the Christian gospel, as a rhetoric of peace is grounded in the positing of an original ontological harmony, a protological ontology of serendipity.

For Jenson, by contrast, the Christian evangel is not primarily constituted by its appeal to an original created harmony, but rather by its proclamation of an irreducible future of eschatological abundance which is the outcome of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. For Jenson, the ontological ground of the Christian gospel does not reside in the past, as a primordial harmony to which we hope to be restored, but rather in the future which is an eschatological superabundance of resurrection life, overturning the world of sin and death in a dynamic confrontation between the powers of death and the life of the Triune God.

Hart’s magnificent Trinitarian aesthetics is grounded protologically; Jenson’s is grounded eschatologically. Herein, I think lies the true difference between the two thinkers. This is seen even in terms of how much attention they respectively give to the doctrines of creation and eschatology respectively. Jenson does not even begin to treat the doctrine of creation until the second volume of his Systematic Theology, only beginning to discuss it after establishing a doctrine of God that is radically determined by the resurrection and eschatology. Hart, by contrast, devotes over a hundred and fifty pages to establishing the doctrines of the analogia entis, divine apatheia, and a doctrine of creation and only then turns to salvation and eschatology, only devoting a mere 18 pages or so to eschatology when he does get there. And even in his discussion of eschatology, the first words thereof are that Christian eschatology affirms the goodness of created difference, again taking recourse back to Hart’s grounding principle of protological harmony.

My point in all this is not to attempt to adjudicate the disagreement between Hart and Jenson. On the whole I find Jenson’s theology to better conform to the ratio of the Christian gospel, which begins with the eschatological proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection then proceeds to retroactively read that overriding reality back into our understandings of God as Trinity and God’s creation. Hart seems to invert this scheme, moving instead from an original metaphysical vision of God and creation to an evaluation and incorporation of the significance of the resurrected Messiah. Ultimately, the difference really lies in the area of ontology: does the being of creation (and God?) take its form and ratio from an original protological harmony, or an irreducible future of superabundance? Or is some sort of third way possible as Jenson seems to hint in his review of Hart in Pro Ecclesia? How one answers that question will probably determine whether one finds Hart or Jenson more persuasive to one’s theological sensibilities.


  1. Chris Green wrote:

    “Hart’s magnificent Trinitarian aesthetics is grounded protologically; Jenson’s is grounded eschatologically.”

    Halden, I think you’ve put your finger on a key difference not only for Hart and Jenson, but for theologians en masse. And I to am leaning toward the eschatologially-constitutive.

    I’m currently reading Pannenberg’s Systematic and he seems to strike a via media, or at least attempt to. What do you make his project?

    Wednesday, July 23, 2008 at 9:37 am | Permalink
  2. Chris Green wrote:

    Sorry for the bold text. And the misspelling of “too.” I’m at work and in hurry. :-)

    Wednesday, July 23, 2008 at 9:38 am | Permalink
  3. Hill wrote:

    I’ve been doing exactly the same thing, rereading TBotI, with an eye towards many of the concerns I’ve encountered in reading your blog (and others connected to it). I’ve got some questions/comments for you that I hope to get around to typing up soon. One quick note: you mention several times that Hart’s project is grounded on an original protological harmony that is proper to creation. While a protological harmony may in fact be proper to creation, I think what Hart is actually saying is that the original protological harmony is in fact God himself in the replete and infinite actuality of his trinitarian life, prior to creation. I think this might be able to be extended in some sense to pre-lapsarian creation, but that’s somewhat more complicated. I think this subtle point may be important to some of these discussions.

    Wednesday, July 23, 2008 at 10:01 am | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Chris, I’m afraid I haven’t read enough Pannenberg to answer that question accurately. However I think you may be on to something there. Ben Myers would definitely be able to speak to that issue, though as he is a Pannenberg devote from way back.

    Hill, yes, indeed it is more complicated. And I think this has everything to do with the way in which the analogia entis functions in Hart’s project, which ties the primordial peace of creation to the eternal plenitude of the Trinitarian life in a crucial way.

    I remember in a forum at AAR a couple years ago, Hart said that his book was trying to unpack the ontology that was implied by the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, which to my mind indicates that a big part of what he is doing is offering a counternarrative to the ontology of violence that attends postmodern thought, especially Nietzsche. As such, I think Hart is making some pretty clear assertions about the fundamentally peaceful nature of creation.

    Wednesday, July 23, 2008 at 10:08 am | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    Hill, I just thought of how to express this better. For both Hart and Jenson the issue of God and creation are bound together. For Hart, the reality of creation as ontological peace is grounded in the analogia entis between God’s primordial peaceableness and creation’s original peace which is protological in nature. Creation is created as an analogue of the eternal peaceableness of the Trinity, and as such creation’s ontological status is protologically grounded in the doctrine of creation. Creation is what it is because it is created in the analogical image of the Trinity as, what Milbank calls “a sociality of harmonious difference.”

    For Jenson on the other hand, the being of creation as peace is grounded in God’s eschatological relation to the world as the one who comes in Christ, dying and rising, and thereby recreating the fallen world in an irreducible way. For both Hart and Jenson is it is God who is the ground of their ontology of creation, but for the respective protological and eschatological orientation still runs throughout. It is really a question of how the communion between the Triune God and the world is actualized and whether that should be thought of primarily as a protologically or an eschatologically-grounded reality.

    Wednesday, July 23, 2008 at 10:35 am | Permalink
  6. Orien wrote:

    I think you’ve nailed the difference. Very helpful. I am wondering how in fact the protologic of analogia entis, while it does seem to speak to the ontology of violence, addresses the epistemological violence of the knowledge of good and evil. If, as Hart has argued, the life of Christ is a recapitulation of the goodness of creation, is there a sustainable difference between pre-fall Adam and the humanity a la sermon on the mount? I just can’t seem to fit the eschatological vision of non-violence as a communal virtue into analogia entis. What’s more, I am not sure that I should be able to. Thoughts?

    Wednesday, July 23, 2008 at 10:56 am | Permalink
  7. Hill wrote:

    I’ll mail someone $5 if they can provide a copy of Jenson’s review of the book in Pro Ecclesia.

    Wednesday, July 23, 2008 at 11:03 am | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Email me your address and I’ll mail you a copy. But I may not be able to get it for a few weeks as the library that carries it is in Portland and I’m still in Eugene for a while longer this summer.

    Wednesday, July 23, 2008 at 11:05 am | Permalink
  9. Derrick wrote:

    Great analysis as always Halden! Im reading through TBotI right now and I can certainly see the differences. The strange part is that there are certain parts of Harts thought which hint that he is aware of the eschatological nature of reality. He writes “Both our being and our essence always exceed the moment of our existence, lying before us as gratuity and futurity, mediated to us in the splendid eros of our in fieri.” (p.244) but of course this is immediately tempered by earlier statements such as p.19 when Hart states that the distance opened up by beauty is found not only between oneself and the object of beauty, but that object and an infinite (future) horizon, which is he is quick to state (undoubtedly with specifically Hegel in mind, along with perhaps Rahner, Schliermacher, Pannenberg, and others) ‘by [an infinite horizon” I do not mean a kind of noetic ‘foregrasp’ an orientation toward a formless ‘infinite absolute,’” rather Hart draws our attention precisely to the protological thinking you just pointed out, namely “the object of attention, love, or awe is never definitively placed, but it is always serially consequent upon and open to an infinity of perspectives,” and a few pages later “In the beautiful…a purely serial infinity is implied–such as Hegel dreaded.” (p.25) The “serial” nature of the infinite seems to imply the infinitude of time is located in its endless sequentiality and verbose and unlimited supplementation of analogical forms (e.g. p.314) based upon the original protological beauty and distance contained in the Trinity before creation.

    As to Chris’ noting Pannenberg as something of a via media between Jenson and Harts positions (or more abstractly between the great protological/eschatological divide that is opening up the past couple years between theologians) I think this is a great observation. Of course like all via medias Pannenberg has a tendency to make both sides uneasy. On the one side Pannenberg has been chided by those with propensities toward protological thinking as making God constituted by His relationship to the world (see most recently John Coopers otherwise excellent book The God of the Philosophers for this critique); simultaneously e.g. Jenson critiques Pannenberg for not being radical enough (!) and for possible allowing an alien identification of God by a general concept of infinity that fits any candidate for deity slip into his reflection (Jensons Systematics vol. 1 p.218 esp. n.61) so obviously Pannenbergs via media is no easy sell, though I am convinced by it for the most part. (Christiaan Mostert as you know recently wrote a fantastic book on Pannenberg’s eschatological ontology which is certainly the best take on Pannenberg to date as far as his material theological conclusions).

    Anyway thanks as always for your thoughts Halden, Ill be seeing you soon back at Seminary!

    Wednesday, July 23, 2008 at 12:54 pm | Permalink
  10. Questioning wrote:

    Does Hart’s construal of the original peace of creation imply that this peace, or creation for that matter, was in any way complete prior to reaching the eschatological telos in Christ? Of course it is, for Hart, eternally complete in the infinite actuality of God. But he does not construe creation as much as beginning than as source in the sense that creation is always arriving from nothing. Indeed, creation names God’s relationship to the whole of history from beginning to end. As such his position does not exclude the possibility that the original peace of creation is not other than, but at least partially constituted by the End in Christ. Now, I think Halden is exactly right to say that the protological and eschatological names the difference between our two thinkers and that Hart does not put much effort into eschatology. However, I question whether Hart’s protological focus ought to be seen as over-against an eschatological view. Given his Eastern Orthodoxy it is likely that he sees the Incarnation as the creation’s perfectign whether or not sin had intervened and thus the eschatological may be construed as internal to his protological focus. Granted this is not explicit in the text, but given a thicker account of his take on creation ex nihilo as not only begninning but as source of the whole of (historical) being I think that the eschatological may possibly be construed as part of Hart’s original peace.



    Wednesday, July 23, 2008 at 2:28 pm | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    Good point, Ethan. The point you make is the Irenaean one. Creation is not created “complete” but “good” in that is destined for perfection. Colin Gunton pursues just such a theology of creation at length in his works. However, one of the other things I’ve noticed about Harts book in re-reading it is precisely the lack of such an Irenaean emphasis (though he does talk about recapitulation). It seems far more Augustinian, in focusing on the original peace of creation and its future restoration.

    Wednesday, July 23, 2008 at 2:34 pm | Permalink
  12. Tim F. wrote:

    Hi, Halden,

    I very much appreciate this post on Jenson and Hart–two of my favorites! It might have inspired a post for my blog in the very near future.

    A few thoughts:

    I wonder if we need to think more about what Jenson means by the future of God here. He is quite clear that nothing recedes or comes into being for God (Vol. 1: 217; Vol. 2. p. 35) and yet the “absolute” difference between past and future is not measurable (p. 218), but more like the past and future in a narrative. And then he says this language is much a matter of “linguistic choice.” Thus, we must tread carefully and thoughtfully, here and, I think, we will find some points of convergence even in their understandings of time.

    Jenson is not apriori opposed to the analogy of being as many think. He wants to make it more trinitarian, but he’s not outright against it. He even says that Barth misunderstood both Thomas and Pryzwara, and that McCormack gives Barth too much credit (Volume 1: 225, footnote 4). Furthermore, in footnote 36 in Volume 2 (p. 37) he says that “there is…not only analogical language but an analogia entis.” In general these pages in volume 2 (specifically pp. 35-38) and those I mentioned in volume 1 are worthy of our attention here as we discuss Hart and Jenson.

    I love Jenson, but he (and Barth and McCormack) makes me very nervous when he says that God is a decision (Vol. 1 222-23). Jenson does not explicitly posit God deciding to be trinity, but he does say that God being a single event logically entails that this event is a decision. I have not been able to figure out what this means in such a way that doesn’t posit an agent preceding the triune God deciding to be the triune God.



    Wednesday, July 23, 2008 at 2:40 pm | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    Tim, on your first point I think you may be right, though the radical difference will always remain that for Jenson there is a “whence” and a “whither” in God, whereas for Hart, I don’t think such a thing could ever be said.

    Secondly, you make a good point about Jenson’s openness to the analogia entis, though I don’t know if it makes a difference as far as the ontological differences between he and Hart go. In other words I think they deploy the analogia entis very differently and Hart wants it to do some heavy lifting that Jenson clearly does not try to get it to do.

    Third, I agree that the language of decision could be very difficult, because obviously any event of decision in our experience and conceptions is predicated on a preceding period of indecision. For Jenson, however, this sort of indecision or antecedence does not exist. Rather God is the event of his own decision, and eternally so. I think what Jenson means by all this is that God’s being-as-communion is not something that is necessary, but rather is free. Not in the sense that God could or could not have been the God that God is, but merely that God’s life is not determined by a necessity imposed on God from without.

    Wednesday, July 23, 2008 at 2:56 pm | Permalink
  14. Hill wrote:

    Ethan’s remarks mirror my own concerns about this preliminary interpretive framework. I think Hart is quite careful to point out that whatever we may know (or he may be saying) about an “original” peace is in fact only disclosed to us through the entirety of God’s salvific plan in Christ and his particular history. An immense body of theology regarding God and his relationship to created time stands behind Hart, and it is for this reason I “side” initially with him. While I find a lot of what Jenson has to say compelling, some of it, quite frankly, does not make sense. I think a careful reading of Hart’s explicit criticism of some of these points would be especially useful. It is not at all straightforward what it means for God’s being to be “historicized.” I’m not sure that is even a meaningful concept, much less, true. I think trying to read Hart in Jenson’s terms constrains him to certain metaphysical assertions he would not grant as true, namely and whole constellation of them relating to God and temporality.

    Wednesday, July 23, 2008 at 3:02 pm | Permalink
  15. Questioning wrote:


    Yes, I agree with your comments and concerns. I was hoping to show how Hart’s, and Aquinas’ for that matter, way of construing creation ex nihilo as more than simply the first instant, but as the originations of the whole of being, may include the eschatological as integral to the “original” created peace. But Hart would never, I think rightly, continence the contigency of created history determing the very Being/Nature of God.


    Two things. First, Hart may write of Christ’s recapitulation as restoration, but such language does not logically necessitate that the original peace is not always already oriented to and constituted by the Incarnate one and His eventual triumph. If history’s course is interrupted by the contigency of sin then the the original peace, as it marches to its constituting end in Christ, is disrupted. But then the Incarnation is not only the end of the original peace, but the healing of that sin which interrupted the, not yet complete, original peace.

    Second, as to Tim’s concern., I have heard Mccormack and those who follow him, as well as Jungel, and Jeson claim that since this “decision” is eternal, and thus not preceded by indecision, that there is no problem of divine voluntarism here. But the eternality of this decision does not hit at the logical force of the voluntarism challenge. This is not to say that the position is indefensible, but claiming that a decision is eternal does not dispel the worry that God is primarily will, and indeed that God’s triune nature is determined by a logically pior, not temporally prior, sheer will. So I ask you to address this question as focused on the logical relationship of will to Triune life instead of the temporal issue. Furthermore, has it always been the case that freedom was understood as over-against the necessities of a given nature, or is that a modern conern? (It seems the Fathers undestood freedom as the ability to act in accordance with the end of one’s nature, which, for God, is God’s own self.) At least in McCormack’s case he articulates this as a conern that God is freely sovereign even over God’s own Trinitarian nature. But this appears, at first blush, to take Occam’s voluntaristic concern over God’s “free will” over the good of creatures and projects it into the divine life itself. For the life of me I do not see how, no matter how eternal such an act of will is construed, that this is not only still voluntaristic but hyper voluntarust? I ask in genuine puzzlement here, not in a desire to win an argument. I simply want to understand what I have yet to perceive as addressed.





    Wednesday, July 23, 2008 at 6:53 pm | Permalink
  16. Hill wrote:

    I think the contingency of sin is an absolutely crucial point to this discussion, and I’m glad Ethan has brought that forth in more plain terms that I was able to muster.

    Wednesday, July 23, 2008 at 8:33 pm | Permalink
  17. JBH wrote:

    It seems that Jenson’s account is more Christocentric. How does the protological harmony relate to Christocentrism?

    Wednesday, July 23, 2008 at 8:44 pm | Permalink
  18. Hill wrote:

    If someone thinks Hart’s account isn’t “Christocentric” they either haven’t read the book, or didn’t understand it. It would be like missing the forest for the trees, unless you are looking for a Christocentrism at the expense of the Father and the Spirit, in which case, Jenson’s may be more Christocentric.

    Wednesday, July 23, 2008 at 9:15 pm | Permalink
  19. Halden wrote:

    That’s certainly not fair to Jenson. He has one of the most robust accounts of the Father and the Spirit ever articulated in contemporary theology.

    Wednesday, July 23, 2008 at 11:13 pm | Permalink
  20. Hill wrote:

    I’m sorry I didn’t actually mean to imply that. I was just being rhetorical. I should qualify the above statement as utter speculation.

    Thursday, July 24, 2008 at 12:14 am | Permalink
  21. This is very helpful Halden! Do you think this means Hart misreads Jenson when he criticizes him?

    Thursday, July 24, 2008 at 5:07 am | Permalink
  22. Questioning wrote:

    Of course Jenson’s works are more explicitly Christocentric, and “Biblical” for that matter, but I would argue that Hart’s protological focus is implicitly so as well on at least 2 points. First, Hart’s account of creation is irredicubly Trinitarain and thus in the order of knowledge and the order of being it is dependant upon Christology. Second, the Eternal Word, who is none other than Christ, is eternal prototype and determining end and recapitulation of the original created peace. Thus to speak of creation and its order is always already, at least implicitly, to speak of Christ as the eternal source of this peaceful order, as immanently constituting this order in his Incarnation, and as the epistemological touchstone by which we know creation to be an original peace.

    This is not to say that Hart would not be better served by more direct interaction with Scripture and attention to the Christological narratives therein. At this point Jenson’s writing is obviously preferable. But that does not decide the issue in itself, nor does it necessarily mean that Hart’s position might not better unpack the Christological-Trinitarian revelation to which Scripture witnesses in its metaphysical/logical implications.



    Thursday, July 24, 2008 at 6:11 am | Permalink
  23. Bruce wrote:

    Just brief thanks to you folk for opening up all these questions to a first time reader of TBotI and a partial reader of Jenson’s Systematic Theology. Having just had a week in hospital I have been loving the power of Hart’s writing and needed to hear these critical questions

    Tuesday, July 29, 2008 at 8:52 pm | Permalink
  24. James B. Bittner + wrote:

    Halden’s analysis has much to say for it. However, I would add the following:
    (1) For Jenson, the eschatological is never merely future, but the future PRESENT. He was fond of saying that “if anyone ever asks what the Last Judgement will be like, tell them to go to church on Sunday”, or that “The Gospel is the Last Judgement let out early” … after all, Christ is the first to be raised in the general resurrection of the dead.
    (2) The eschatological is present where Word & Sacrament are purely preached & rightly administered – i.e., where Christ is “really present.” This presence entails no less than the same problems raised Christologically in the early Church … problems engendered by the collision of the Gospel with Hellenic thinking. The effort to interpret the gospel in Hellenic categories (predominantly Platonic) led to the early heresies. These problems are no less salient today than they were then: Just as Jesus of Nazareth was an historical agent, so also the proclamation of the gospel and administration of the sacraments forms an integral, connected totality through time and space (manifested in “types” prior to what we now know as W&S).
    (3) The early heresies limit God’s freedom in the first place by limiting his capacitiy to enter death – impassibility preeminent among such boundaries. In the second place these philosophical heresies limit God’s freedom to transcend the immense power of death by raising Jesus from the grave: This act substantiates God as God, as triune God, manifesting a freedom and a love neither found nor conceivable anywhere else. It does so by breaking the barrier between non-being and being, positing being ex nihilo, as in creation, or, as Paul says, in baptism. This makes it necessary to know God in history, where He reveals Himself. Jenson underscores the necessity of the old slogan: that which is supra nos, nihil ad nos, as integral to the IDENTITY of the specifically BIBLICAL God. If not, then how we know or understand divinity prior to revelation, the latter will only domesticate and transform it into something else.
    (4) Which appears to be what Hart’s protological ontology seems to do: He seems to presuppose the usual catalogue of divine attributes characteristic of Hellenic divinity and insist that they cannot be violated (and impassibility seems pretty important among them). Moreover, this protological perspective also seems to insist that we have at least such knowledge of divinity prior to the creation and independently of it. … Shades of philosohical methodology … the very sorts of approach that got the early church all in a tizzy (over and over again) and continues to do so to this day. On this score, I do not see that Hart has understood Jenson at all.
    (5) Thus, Jenson’s theology calls for a radical critique of hellenic presupposition as well as for a RADICAL RECONSTRUCTION of the western philosophical project from a triune perspective: What “being” is, will be profoundly different if Jesus is indeed raised from the dead than it appears from the logical constructions of the great philosophical minds of our joint heritage. This difference is what we call CREATION by the Triune God, through the Word/Son as both the Johannine & Creedal formulations have it. This is what happens in the proclamation of the Gospel & administration of the sacraments … liturgy … hence the contemporaneity of trinitarian/christological problems.

    I think Hart’s mistake is not to have seen this in Jenson … nor in the simplest of Lutheranism (which is at the core of his theology) … “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible/Gospel tells me so.”

    Monday, February 9, 2009 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. [...] we proceed, however, we should note that Halden has attempted to locate the difference between Hart and Robert Jenson: the former is protological in orientation whereas the latter, [...]

Switch to our mobile site