Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Oliver Crisp on Robert Jenson

The other day I mentioned Oliver D. Crisp’s new critique of Robert W. Jenson: “Robert Jenson on the Pre-Existence of Christ,” Modern Theology 23:1 (2007), 27-45.

Oliver Crisp is an impressive young British scholar, and he’s emerging as a significant new voice in the contemporary theological conversation. He’s a very fine interpreter of American theologians like Jonathan Edwards and W. G. T. Shedd, and he has been doing some important work on the doctrine of sin.

So it’s a shame I can’t be more positive about his new paper on Jenson. In this paper, Crisp’s argument is (in a nutshell) that Jenson’s thought is incoherent. His recurring criticism is: “I cannot make sense of what Jenson says” (p. 44).

The main problem with this critique, in my view, is that it lacks imagination. Crisp has his own set of classical doctrinal and metaphysical categories, which differ pretty radically from the categories of Jenson’s own thought. And when Jenson’s ideas cannot be interpreted in the light of these ready-made categories, Crisp simply protests that Jenson doesn’t make sense. For example, one of Jenson’s central themes – that ontology is structured eschatologically and narratively – is said to be senseless: “it seems intuitively obvious that no being that is temporal can constitute its own past and present from its future. This just makes no sense” (p. 42).

Certainly this is one way of critiquing a writer; but it’s not a very interesting way, since such a critique has not yet made the necessary imaginative effort of entering into the writer’s own thought, in order to critique that thought from within.

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