Thursday, 3 November 2011

Robert W. Jenson, Lutheran Slogans: Use and Abuse


A guest-review by Steve Wright

This year I spent Reformation Day with Robert Jenson’s latest book: Lutheran Slogans: Use and Abuse (sample chapter here). At only eighty pages, I had expected to spend an hour with it. But like his previous publication with the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, A Large Catechism, it took me longer to read than expected because of the urgent need to pray or giggle.

My wife commented that these ten slogans sound like “Protestant slogans”. She may be right. The exception is finitum capax infiniti, which is “exclusively Lutheran... because nobody else has agreed with it” (p. 55).

The subtitle is misleading. Jenson frequently gestures to the ambiguity or confusion of certain slogans, not simply to their “use” or “abuse”. This ambiguity is sometimes terminal (as seems to be the case for sola Scriptura). Slogans, we are told, are a necessary shorthand that emerges over time to signify a complex of propositions and practises. Despite the word’s stigma, slogans have a positive function. The problem with slogans is that they tend to develop a certain independence as they age, becoming untethered and paddling to foreign shores.

An example of this untethering is the frequent attempts by some Lutheran theologians to categorise all reality under the rubrics “law” or “gospel”. Jenson argues that it should be clear that this use of “gospel” has drifted from the story of Jesus. What was a history is now a generalised concept. Reframing the dialectic as “death” and “resurrection” does not help. Death and resurrection are not a dialectical pair, but moments in the history of Christ’s life (pp. 35-36).

This book is delightful for many reasons. Jenson takes almost every opportunity afforded him to disagree with Melanchthon. Although on one occasion he finds himself required begrudgingly to give Melanchthon his “partial due” for identifying the Spirit with the gift the Spirit brings (p. 46).

Jenson has been described as the perfecter of the footnote; clearly this was a reference to the dynamic perfection of the East. Like our Lord’s wine, he has brought out his finest well after the guests have gotten a little tipsy from his systematics. Whether he is confessing his enduring awe for Augustine, comparing the proliferation of trendy religion in the second century with California, or denying that Lutherans have ever taught anything that could be called consubstantiation, his footnotes always delight. He even works in a reference to a theology blog (sorry Ben, not this one).

Throughout Jenson maintains his career-long argument that the object of theology must be “God himself in his own visibility and disgrace” (p.39). That is, Christ destroyed on the cross and raised again. Though internalised through faith, we will always encounter this God through an external Word. So much for subjective faith. Faith is “a strange kind of knowledge, more like a dark cloud around its object than a bright transparency.” If we look inward to find Christ “we will only enter a cloud of unknowing” (p. 20).

What then, must we do to keep theological slogans moored? If the only legitimate use of slogans is when they are tethered to God in Christ, then the imperative is clear. We must immerse ourselves in the narrative of the triune God. We are to “fill the church with Scripture” (p. 80). 

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