Wednesday 27 July 2005

Speaking matter-of-factly about God: Robert W. Jenson

Robert W. Jenson is one of the best theologians in the world today, and he may well be one of the finest theological thinkers that America has produced. Among his earlier, sadly neglected books is the hermeneutical work The Knowledge of Things Hoped For: The Sense of Theological Discourse (1969). Jenson concludes this book with a series of practical “exhortations” about how to speak of God (pp. 234-240).

Here is his first exhortation: “let us talk of God matter-of-factly.” First of all, this means that we should avoid all talk of God as a spatially or metaphysically distant being—a God who is “out there” somewhere, or who is an immanent “ground” or “principle” of reality.

It also means that we should avoid a certain “christocentric” way of talking about God, in which “Jesus” becomes a supernatural being with no worldly matter-of-factness—like a pious but friendly ghost. An example of such a supernatural “Jesus,” Jenson notes, is the “the spooky ‘Jesus’ who hangs about bothering people at their work” (or, we might add, the “Jesus” invoked by trendy “WWJD” slogans).

What then does it mean to speak matter-of-factly about God? Here is Jenson’s suggestion: “Our utterances containing ‘God’ must all be, at least implicitly, informative statements about the man Jesus of Nazareth and what he has done and will do.” And this means that we should take historical research seriously, so that we “say about ‘Jesus’ only that to which historical research into the life of the man by that name could be in some way relevant.”

The point of all this is that God himself is a matter-of-fact being. He is not “out there” somewhere beyond the clouds; nor is he “in here” somewhere as a principle of goodwill; nor is he “with me” as a supernatural poltergeist. Rather God is the one who has acted in the man Jesus of Nazareth. God has identified his own being with the historical event of Jesus. And this means that we both can and must speak matter-of-factly about God—precisely by speaking of the man Jesus.

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