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An Interview with Robert Jenson

Pretty interesting interview with Robert Jenson that was originally published in the Christian Century in 2007. It’s been made available for free here. A few of the questions and responses are particularly interesting, regarding ecumenism, the church of the global south, theology and politics, and the question of Christ and culture:

What do you hope for and what do you foresee regarding the ecumenical movement?

I foresee continued stagnation — abstracting of course from an uncovenanted intervention of the Spirit. The ecumenical movement is not very interesting if it is simply an apparatus for practical comity and joint political agitation; its heart must be concern for what ecumenists have called “faith and order,” that is, for the theological and structural divisions that prevent fellowship at the Lord’s table, and for the possibilities of overcoming them.

Of that concern there are now few stirrings outside professional ranks; indeed, people find it hard to imagine what enthusiasm there once was in congregations and educational institutions.

That Faith and Order ecumenism is dead in the water has for some time been widely recognized. Out of that recognition, scores of American church leaders five years ago endorsed an initiative to hold a “second Oberlin.” The Faith and Order movement in North America had been kindled by a 1957 conference at Oberlin College, mostly of mainline Protestants; the hope was that a similar but more broadly based conference might rekindle the movement. An independent foundation was created to carry the effort, since it was apparent that for many reasons the National Council of Churches could not. In January of this year, the foundation’s incorporating directors formally terminated the venture. It was undone by mainline Protestantism’s present indifference to and distraction from the whole matter, by evangelicalism’s unconcern about separation at the Lord’s table, and by deliberate obstruction from within the established ecumenical apparatus.

To be sure, this pessimistic assessment indeed abstracts from the unpredictable work of the Spirit. When Pope Benedict XVI was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he said on several much-quoted occasions that further major ecumenical progress depended on a new “depth of faith” worked by a new initiative of the Spirit. That can happen at any time and is what we should pray for — and prayer is the most optimistic act a creature can perform.

What do you think will be the theological impact of global Christianity’s geographic shift away from Europe and North America and to the Southern Hemisphere and Asia? And of the rising influence of Pentecostal churches and the relative waning of churches in the historic confessional traditions?

I think that is unpredictable. As an intrinsically missionary faith, Christianity repeatedly invades geographically or historically new turf — and it never finds that turf religiously unoccupied. In the ensuing conversation and argument, Christianity will discover both agreements with the antecedent religion and necessary disagreements. As the missionary partner, Christianity will change in some ways, whether the other does or not: it will have to address new questions and configurations of thought, and weigh liturgical and cultural practices to be adopted, adapted or rejected. A form of the church will emerge which may look and sound very different from previous forms — as different, say, as a late-fourth-century Eucharist in Alexandria from a first-century breaking of bread in Jerusalem.

Some have thought they could so securely identify a general and repeated pattern of religious history as to predict the outcome of a particular contestation of this sort. I am tempted to such hubris but try to resist it. It is in any case too soon, in my view, to know in what ways the churches of Africa or India or China will be specifically African or Indian or Chinese a century or so from now.

Accounts of theological and political disputes in this country often pit the religious right against mainline or liberal Protestantism. How would you describe the main features of the American religious landscape and where would you locate yourself?

Contrasting liberal or left with conservative or right yields, in my view, a map of very limited utility. For my own part, I have been labeled both ways, depending on who was disapproving of me.

At least theologically, there are two effective divisions between American Christians, One is between those for whom the gospel is itself the norm of all truth and the person of Christ therefore the founding metaphysical fact, and those for whom some other agenda or “theory” is the overriding norm. The other is between those who use “justification by faith” — or in the especially aggravated case of Lutherans, the “law and gospel” distinction — to fund their antinomianism, and those appalled by this. The language in which I have described the alternatives will doubtless betray on which side of each division I find myself.

Churches on the left and right often see themselves in opposition to the dominant culture — whether they are opposing abortion rights on one side or opposing U.S. foreign policy on the other. Is Richard Niebuhr’s description of “Christ against culture” still a helpful way to speak about the church’s political stance with regard to the world?

I have long thought that Niebuhr’s book, for all its individual insights, was based on a false setting of the question. Whatever preposition you put between Christ and culture, its mere presence there marks and enforces the supposition that Christ and culture are entities different in kind. But it is of course only the risen Christ who can now have a relation to a culture, and this living Christ’s body is the church. And the church — with its scriptures, odd rituals and peculiar forms of government — is plainly itself a culture.

Therefore the real question is always about the relation of the church culture to some other culture with which the church’s mission involves it at a time and place. And I do not think the relation can be the same in every case. During the time of “Christendom,” the culture of the church and the culture of the West were barely distinguishable. I do not think this “Constantinian settlement” was avoidable. When the empire said, “Come over and help us hold civilization together,” should the bishops have just refused?

As to Christendom’s consequences for faith, some were beneficial and some were malign, as is usual with great historical configurations. During the present collapse of Christendom and its replacement by an antinomian and would-be pagan culture, confrontation must of course be more the style.

7 Comments

  1. Hill wrote:

    His bit about the two effective divisions among American Christians is great.

    Monday, April 6, 2009 at 1:37 pm | Permalink
  2. Bobby Grow wrote:

    This was good . . .

    Monday, April 6, 2009 at 3:00 pm | Permalink
  3. Derek wrote:

    Thanks for this Halden! I have a Theology of Culture course this summer, and i will keep this article in mind.

    ~d

    Monday, April 6, 2009 at 10:21 pm | Permalink
  4. Derek wrote:

    Also, if a shameless plug is okay, i just wrote a brief post on H. Richard Niebuhr on my blog, if anyone is interested.

    Monday, April 6, 2009 at 10:24 pm | Permalink
  5. mike d wrote:

    “One is between those for whom the gospel is itself the norm of all truth and the person of Christ therefore the founding metaphysical fact, and those for whom some other agenda or “theory” is the overriding norm.”

    I see this sort of thing said but I have to confess that I don’t understand it. Who is Jenson aiming at here? Is “theory” in this sense referring to biblicists? What is “theory” meant here? Having a conceptual framework of Jesus? Can you believe that “the gospel is itself the norm of all truth” without a conception of it? These are real questions here, someone enlighten me. What is the evil that Jenson is pointing me away from?

    Tuesday, April 7, 2009 at 10:09 am | Permalink
  6. Derrick wrote:

    Mike,

    It seems pretty vague but if Jenson’s Systematic Theology, and some of his other books (e.g. Triune Identity, The Unbaptized God) are of any help in defining this statement this type of rhetoric is often used by Jenson regarding e.g. those who want to propound metaphysical timelessness, or God’s impassibility, or really any metaphysical theory that seems to have been (at least according to Jenson) derived from a general concept of religion, existence, or morality that is then used to analyze or bracket out portions or the whole of the Biblical narrative (for instance in the first volume of his systematic theology this type of argument is used against Schliermacher and to a smaller extent Pannenberg, the first for subsuming Christianity under a broader concept of religion, and the latter for perhaps succumbing to what Jenson sees as a ‘timeless’ Greek philosophical definition of God’s eternity, rather than what Jenson sees as the biblical concept of a more dynamic, temporal infinity). Anyway it seems at least plausible that general idea is what Jenson is talking about here and is in some sense just an admonition to “be more biblical” with our thinking (whether or not that is plausible of course is a different question)

    Anyway that was just my thought on it, hope it helped in some way.

    Tuesday, April 7, 2009 at 12:00 pm | Permalink
  7. mike d wrote:

    Thanks Derrick. I wonder how much value that dichotomy has beyond the academy though. Is that really one of the major divisions in the American Church?

    I admit that I’ve not read Jenson beyond a few essays though so I’m probably not catching the force of his words here.

    Wednesday, April 8, 2009 at 4:36 am | Permalink

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    [...] has posted selections to an interview with Jenson.  Good [...]

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