Monday 12 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.


Anonymous said...

although I likely agree with Crisp's category over Jenson's, I hearitly affirm your desire to see imaginitive and interesting engagements across diverse positions. My freshmen philosophy professor always chided us to understand a position from inside before we critique it.

Sadly, theological rhetoric (especially in the blogsphere) rarely has the patience to understand others before sending the apparent deathblow of critique. I find this a particularly typical problem of many Barthians (your own blog usually avoids this) who dismiss others on an apparent overreliance on either the experience or natural theology. However, often these other positions have developed after Barth and offer a more nuanced view. All that to say, I agree and hope your call can extend far and wide.

Anonymous said...

“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.”

First off, if it is intuitive it wouldn’t be obvious. I think.
And sure it makes sense. As with Kierkegaard, while we understand life backwards we can only live it forwards. A past that is constituted as a past can only be so constituted and understood in the present, and the present will only ever become present in the future. When I was a child I spoke like a child, but I didn’t know that when I was a child. But now, and in futures which have since become past, I have understood the constitution of my past differently and perhaps even teleologically. Who needs imagination when one has Guinness and a Guardian Angel who speaks to me of my future hope and guides my present faith.

Anonymous said...

The last comment is right: causation from the future does make sense (Aquinas thought so too).

It's controversial, but some physicists have argued for "backwards causation" as well - most recently Paul Davies, The Goldilocks Enigma: Why Is the Universe Just Right for Life? (2006).

Sam Charles Norton said...

"The 'third rate' critic attacks the original thinker on the basis of the rhetorical consequences of his thought and defends the status quo against the corrupting effects of the philosopher's rhetoric. 'Second rate' critics defend the same received wisdom by semantic analyses of the thinker which highlight ambiguities and vagueness in his terms and arguments. But 'first rate' critics delight in the originality of those they criticise...; they attack an optimal version of the philosopher's position--one in which the holes in the argument have been plugged or politely ignored."

(sorry, can't track down the original source of this quotation (which I originally got from Matt Kundert) but I love it)

::aaron g:: said...

I find out-of-hand dismissals so frustrating. I often come across them when Christians are “evaluating” John Dewey. Their logic is: my framework doesn’t fit his framework thus everything he says is crap.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it inevitable that you criticise someone else's position largely by pointing out where you disagree with it? Are there two different issues here: first, the stance anyone takes when arguing for his or her own position against another; and secondly, that it is possible to do this by or by not inhabiting the thought of the person being critiqued? To say that Crisp is unimaginative might be to fall into the same trap, that is, of criticising someone on the basis of not appreciating their position from their point of view.

Sorry - I'm not sure I've added anything here! Carry on!

Shane said...

@ anonymous,

Where do you find 'future' causality in Thomas Aquinas?

(Final causality is not 'future' causality b/c the mature tree is not causing the seed to sprout, the seed's own nature is to grow into the mature tree.)

@ Ben,

Reading with imagination is great. But it is a valid critique of a thinker to say: "there is no possible way that this position can be construed as anything other than nonsense."

Sure sometimes thinkers have different categories. But also sometimes thinkers have nonsensical categories.

I'll give an example. The way Bruce McCormack talks about 'act' being more primordial than 'being' seems confused. Not just because I usually think about 'act' and 'being' in aristotelian terms (since Aristotle sort of invented them). How can an act precede its being. In order for X to act (NB, I think McCormack means 'action', not 'actuality' here), must it not also 'be' at that same time?

If McCormack responded that I just wasn't reading with enough imagination, I would think he had made a very weak defense of his position. In what way can you imagine a thing acting that is not yet a being? I cannot imagine it, for just the same reason that I cannot imagine a square circle, namely because it is incoherent.

If he wants to change my opinion he has to give an account of what I cannot imagine and show me that I can imagine it after all. If he does this, then I am wrong. If he cannot do this, then he was bullshitting the whole time, because he can't imagine it either.


Ben Myers said...

In my view, a hermeneutic of charity should really be an axiom -- love, not aversion, is the path to understanding.

Eberhard Jüngel sums up this kind of hermeneutic in his wonderfully animated comment on the Greek philosophers: "Whoever did not learn to love those thinkers while studying them has no reason to fear what they thought. But he has even less right to denigrate their thought into the smallness of his own irritable antitheses. It is a lamentable thing that one must make Parmenides or Plato, not to speak of Aristotle, into a black backdrop against which one thinks one can let one's own flickering light shine a little.... The indispensable debate with the metaphysical tradition inaugurated by 'the Greeks' cannot take place in such a way that one does not even endeavor to think through the thoughts of this tradition" (God as the Mystery of the World, p. 212 n. 49).

W. Travis McMaken said...


Thanks for calling attention to this article. I have read some of Crisp's other stuff, specifically on Barth's universalism. He seems to have a tendency to work at a formal level, which could give him some trouble with Jenson's work. But, having not read the article in question, I can't say anything with any force.

Shane said...

Crisp's principle: "No being that is temporal can constitute its own past and present from its future."

The truth of Crisp's principle seems so straightforward and obvious to me that I really don't know how to argue for it. (Perhaps it has to be accepted as axiomatic on the basis of our intuitions, like the law of non-contradiction).

Now that Robert Jenson was my best friend in the whole world. Suppose I am the reader than whom none more sympathetic could be found. All of the good inclinations in the world wouldn't help me make sense of his denial of Crisp's principle because I simply cannot imagine it.

(NB that I am simply assuming Crisp's interpretation of Jenson is correct: namely that Jenson's theology of the pre-existence of Christ implies a denial of Crisp's principle. Whether Crisp's interpretation is correct or not does not really affect the point that I'm trying to make--namely that all the imagination and love in the world can't make nonsense sensible.)

If Jenson wants to persuade me to believe that his claim is true, then he needs to show, either that Crisp's principle is false (which, because it is so evident, must be thoroughly disproved) or that Jenson's own claims do not violate Crisp's principle.

You might need love to be a good interpreter, but you need cold, indifferent Logic to be a good thinker.

Shane said...

third paragraph above should read,

"Now imagine that . . . "

Brandon Jones said...

I have found his treatment of Shedd to be misguided too.

Anonymous said...


There is a difference between imagining and conceiving. One cannot imagine a mathematical point that has position but no size, but you can conceive of it.
You cannot imagine a first moment in time, because to do so you must be able to imagine a before and an after to that moment. And you can’t imagine time as always having been, a sort of infinite past, because if that was true then we would never be at this present point of time because we would have to travel through an infinite number of past points in time to reach it, and of course there wouldn’t be enough time for that.
Two people with exactly the same past ‘temporal experiences’ may, at some “future time”, construe their pasts differently. For meaning is not temporal. And temporal events have no being as such except insofar as they have been brought into being by being understood, by being rendered meaningful. And if you don’t believe that, try imagining the opposite.

Anonymous said...

@ Shane: you said:
Crisp's principle: "No being that is temporal can constitute its own past and present from its future."

The truth of Crisp's principle seems so straightforward and obvious to me that I really don't know how to argue for it. (Perhaps it has to be accepted as axiomatic on the basis of our intuitions, like the law of non-contradiction).

I can "deny" it by questioning whether there is any such thing as a purely temporal being. That is, if one takes Crisp's principle as an axiom, then one is talking about fictional constructs, not actual beings. I've added the word "purely" because I hold that no being is purely temporal (because, briefly, to be aware of time's passing requires the non-temporal, plus appeals to quantum physics and to some mystics).

Now, I don't expect you to simply accept what I am saying, but to point out that it is possible to question Crisp's principle.

Anonymous said...

Shane said: "you need cold, indifferent Logic to be a good thinker."

Are you sure about that? Have you read Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Whose Rationality? (1988)?

Anonymous said...

Ben, I can't agree with your line of critique here, which follows the lines of Jenson's usual sorry lament about his critics.

There's nothing wrong with an external critique, especially when Jenson's theological metaphysics is riddled with problems, when taken on its own terms.

In effect Jenson "historicizes" eternity by making it in some sense coterminus with created time. This is a Hegelanizing move, and it is, quite frankly, disastrous.

Jenson rejects the idea of the divine simplicity (as well as the divine aseity), and therefore the idea of an eternal Trinity in any strong sense. This gives his views an "Arian" cast in some elusive but discernible sense. Try as he might, Jenson simply cannot give a credible account of the Nicene homoousias.

Crisp and Gathercole are therefore correct to go after Jenson precisely on the point of "pre-existence."

Jenson simply cannot successfully deny the Arian proposition about the Son that "there was when he was not," because despite all the weasel words, that's exactly what Jenson contends.

George Hunsinger

Shane said...


To imagine is to form a mental image. To conceive is to form a concept. I suppose there are unimaginable concepts. (the trinity seems like a clearer instance to me.) But of course there are also false concepts, "square circle" is a grammatical expression but I deny that anyone can either imagine or conceive the existence of a square circle.

"T And temporal events have no being as such except insofar as they have been brought into being by being understood, by being rendered meaningful."

Nonsense. A tree falls in the woods if and only if there exists someone to bring it into being by understanding it? No.

You are speaking about our phenomenological experience of time, not time itself. My point has to do with what the phenomenologists would consider the 'vulgar' concept of time where 12:30 occurs after 12:00, etc. and not the psychological construal or social construction. Changes happen, even when they entirely escape the notice of human beings, and it is from change that time emerges (a before and an after the change).

@scott roberts

"to be aware of time's passing requires the non-temporal, plus appeals to quantum physics and to some mystics)."

i'm pretty sure I don't have to know any quantum physics or experience mystical ecstasies to observe the process of change going on around me. This seems like a case of invoking the inscrutable to explain the ordinary.

Also, I wasn't aware of anything other than God being non-temporal.


It's a turn of art. I happen to find logic beautiful. I merely mean a snarky little contrast between my position (the evil metaphysician) and the sweetness of saying something like "you know what we all really need to do is love people".

@George Hunsinger

I'm glad to see some professional theologians still think aseity and simplicity are important for formulating orthodox theology! Enough of this fashionable post-metaphysical nonsense.

Anonymous said...

Shane says….Nonsense. A tree falls in the woods if and only if there exists someone to bring it into being by understanding it? No.

Well yes in fact. “Tree”, “Falling” , Woods” are concepts, not temporal realities independent of the viewpoint that holds these concepts.
Try imagining what a tree is from the point of view of an atom of the tree. An atom doesn’t know that it belongs to a conglomeration of other atoms that constitutes a tree and not to a conglomeration that constitutes the earth the tree is rooted in, or a conglomeration that constitutes the air that surrounds the tree. The three conglomerations of earth, tree and air aren’t three separately existing realities, there is just one conglomeration of atoms. The three differentiations of earth, tree and air are brought into being by the conceptual understanding of the one who possesses a higher viewpoint. If there was no viewpoint there would be no “earth”, “tree” or “air.” Period

Shane says…but I deny that anyone can either imagine or conceive the existence of a square circle.

Yes I can and do conceive of a square circle and here is the definition:
A square circle is the set of all co-planer points equidistant from a given point called the centre, such that they form a shape with four equal sides and four corners that are all right angles.
And what’s more, it is a true conception. Why? Because it accurately communicates what I mean by a square circle.

As to conceiving the “existence” of a square circle. Well no, if you mean it in the same way that I cannot conceive the ‘existence’ of something that has position but no size, or of an existent line that has length but no width. But this is what is at issue. Your statement is like saying: I deny that anyone can always imagine what they conceive.

Shane says…You are speaking about our phenomenological experience of time, not time itself

Well you’ve lost me here. I can neither imagine nor conceive what the difference is.

Anonymous said...


You're missing my point. You said that you can't imagine how one can do without Crisp's principle. I indicated to you how I can do without it. My appeal to quantum physics and to what mystics say was just to indicate (in part) why I can do without Crisp's principle, that is, that that information is relevant to the question of whether or not we are strictly temporal beings. And, of course, you indeed do not need to know any of this information in order to be aware of time's passing, just like you do not need to be aware of electromagnetic theory in order to see, but if one wants to explore the metaphysics of time, it is not irrelevant, as electromagnetic theory is not irrelevant to exploring the processes of vision.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Shane. I appreciate your comment.

I'll tell you an important reason why I take divine simplicity and aseity seriously. They are, of course, important in their own right. I'm assuming that. But they're extremely important from an ecumenical standpoint as well. No possibility exists for the reunification of the churches if the official teachings of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are brushed aside.

The ideas of simplicity and aseity (among other things) are deeply rooted in the historic tradition of Nicene Christianity, as affirmed by Catholicism and Orthodoxy (not to mention the Reformation prior to the rise of Neo-Protestantism).

They cannot be dismissed without falling into a form of sectarianism. But that is exactly the fate, I'm afraid, of modern liberal academic theology, and its many progeny. For all its contributions, which I don't want to gainsay, modern liberal Protestantism -- even in an ecclesial form such as Jenson's theological Hegelianism with an eschatological, trinitarian twist -- is, from the standpoint of Nicene orthodoxy, finally a total non-starter.

If we take reunion seriously as an ecumenical imperative, academic liberal theology must unfortunately be judged as regressive. (Jenson's strong ecumenical interests, which I admire, are thus at cross purposes with his systematic theology.)

Brandon Jones said...

George-Thanks for your comments here. The tradition is rather modest in essentials, and I think you're right in placing divine aseity and simplicity among them.

Anonymous said...

Hi George,

Sorry to enter this conversation so late. And I hear - and agree with - what you are saying about the importance of the divine aseity and simplicity, (not least because they were glaring omissions from my recent "Ten Propositions on the Divine Perfections"!), particularly considering the ecumenical context.

But here's a question for you: What about the divine impassibility? As I know you know, the Roman Catholic Thomas Weinandy has recently reacted strongly against the post-Holocaust Protestant emphasis on the divine pathos (in Does God Suffer? [2000]), and the Orthodox David Bentley Hart (in The Beauty of the Infinite [2003]) is quite severe (not to say rude!) with Pannenberg and Jenson, and particularly with Moltmann (his "loose, rhapsodic, paraenetic expostulations") and Jüngel (his "liberal lashings of late romantic nihilism"). These Protestant giants are hardly liberals (pace what you say about Jenson). Is their critical take on the divine apatheia of Nicene orthodoxy also a non-starter? This is a genuine question, as I respect the intentio fidei of both sides on this one.

Shane said...


1st. Your position is that there is no such thing as trees, only atoms and human words.

My position is that 'Tree' designates a certain type of entity really existing in the world. Treeness is not only a concept but also a real thing which exists in multiple particular individual trees.

I think your position is wrong, but I won't show why here. Of course our natural intuition is that there are such things as trees, just because reality breaks down into natural kinds which are categorizable. To raise just one problem for you: there also seem to exist some entities not composed of atoms at all, such as circleness, democracy and God. If you allow that things like circleness, democracy and God exist, what is so strange about allowing something like 'treeness' which is strictly speaking separate for the matter of the tree to exist?

2nd. I'll pay you a hundred dollars to draw me a picture of a square circle. Let's agree on the precise definition of a square circle, because you don't quite have it yet. A square circle will be a set of coplanar points equidistant from one central point (circle) and having four right angles (square). You say that you can imagine such a thing, so please send me the picture (shane dot wilkins at student dot kuleuven dot be) and I'll send you a hundred dollars. You won't be able to do so, of course, because it is logically impossible. The concept of circleness precludes squareness.

3rd. The difference between the phenomenology of time perception and time itself is the difference between an object and the way that we perceive, structure and remember it.

One quick example from Freud. There was a girl, call her Sally, who gets sexually assaulted at the age of 8 in a clothing store. But she is too young to understand what is happening to her and so she represses the feelings of displeasure she gets from the experience. Then years later she goes back to the same clothing store and she remembers the experience and as an adult she is able to give meaning to the experience she had before and suddenly she is a rape victim.

t1 t2 t3
sally assaulted sally returns to store sally remembers being assaulted.

What happens in this situation is that the event at t1 only gets its meaning at t3. Thus the assault at t1 doesn't really happen to her then. It is only the event at t2, a later time, that the event at t1 gets its meaning. You could say Sally's experience at t2 'causes' her experience at t1, even though t2 occurs after t1, in the vulgar concept of time. ('cause' in quotes, because what we mean is 'causes sally to uncover her experience and suffer from it' which is a different sense of 'cause' than in 'the cue ball caused the eight to go in the pocket.')

The vulgar concept of time is that things change, but in one direction only. a tree falls in the woods and then there is time. A before when the tree was standing, a now while it falls and a future when it will hit the ground. 'Vulgar' time is the totality of the succession of these kinds of events . . . t1, t2, t3 . . . . Vulgar time would exist even if there were no people to count it. (just like things would still have fallen to the ground even if newton had not discovered gravity). This time comes from the structure of physical reality, not human construction.

@scott roberts

your original quote: "to be aware of time's passing requires the non-temporal, plus appeals to quantum physics and to some mystics"

I think mysticism and quantum physics both suffer from a quite devastating lack of evidence and argumentation. If a physicist manages to prove in a scientific way the existence of backwards causality, then i'll have to start changing my philosophy. But i don't think this is likely to be done for two reasons:

1. old fashioned forwards causality is a metaphysical rather than scientific notion and is not, therefore, scientifically provable. (It might be metaphysically provable.)

2. what could ever count as evidence that causation was going backwards?

Anonymous said...


To pursue this discussion further would require us to spend a lot of time to find agreement, or fail to do so, on a lot of vocabulary, and this isn't the place to do so. For example, I consider the word "proof" to only be useful in mathematics, which is to say that "metaphysical proof" is not something I consider achievable. The best one can aspire to, in my opinion, is plausibility.

So if you are interested in how someone (me) can do without Crisp's principle, see here
for somewhat more detailed argumentation on why I think that the ability to be aware of time's passing indicates that we are not strictly temporal beings, and how I use quantum physics and mysticism say to make this idea more plausible.

Anonymous said...

Dear Kim,

On Jenson, I don't want to overstate the sense in which he, in spite of everything, falls within the bounds of modern liberalism. But consider (a) the rationalistic tenor of his whole project, (b) his weak conception of homoousios, (c) his weak view of the atonement, and (d) his weak view of Christ’s bodily resurrection. Unfortunately it all adds up.

On impassibility. A large topic on which I can comment only briefly. The question must be: in what sense is God impassible and in what sense is he not?

Quick answer: he is impassible by nature but not by grace. There is nothing other than God which can condition God (who is perfectly blessed in himself) or cause him to suffer. Yet in sovereign freedom God can and does take suffering to himself in the person of the incarnate and crucified Son. God suffers our misery, sin and death without ceasing to be God.

There is no non-paradoxical way of saying this, as Cyril recognized: he suffered impassibly. Followed by Charles Wesley: And can it be, the Immortal dies! These statements are simply an extension of the Incarnation’s abiding mystery.

Shane said...

prof. Hunsinger,

If we believe that God is simple, how can we admit that Christ is impassible by nature and passible by grace, since this would admit into the divine two different principles, namely nature and grace?

If God is simple then his nature just is his grace. But one and the same thing cannot be impassible and passible in the same respect. Therefore if God's nature implies impassibility and his grace implies passibility then these two must be two genuinely different and incompossible things. If God has them both, then there is a duality in him, which is absurd.

I honestly have no idea how to resolve this difficulty. It has just occurred to me today. I'm sure it has occurred to someone else in the history of theology and has been answered satisfactorily, but I have not yet found anything relevant. I just wonder what your opinion would be.


Anonymous said...

Hi again, George,

To butt in on your conversation with Shane: perhaps the nature/grace distinction should be reframed in Chalcedonian terms: God in his divinity is impassible, God in his humanity is passible, and the two are concurrent in the one persona of Christ.

George, I won't argue with your four ticks against Jenson's theology. It is interesting that three of the four are Christological. And I just wonder if they don't have less to do with liberalism that with the postliberal turn to ecclesiology (at its most extreme in Radical Orthodoxy). With liberals, Christology tends to collapse into soteriology; but with Jenson, don't you think it collapses into ecclesiology, the totus Christus and all that?

Anonymous said...


1. Exactly right. With liberals the collapse is downwards, with a certain sort of catholic (a la Jenson) upwards. But whether up or down it's finally into an anthropological dimension (whether the individual’s interiority or the church). Which is why Barth saw convergences between Neoprotestantism and Catholicism (especially in I/1 & I/2), to the exasperation of the Catholics. But Barth was onto something, I think. What consistently sends Jenson off the tracks, as far as I can see, is his rationalistic bent.

2. I wouldn't want to stress the divinity and the humanity aspect too strongly on impassibility, because it could easily lead to Nestorianism. But within limits I take your point. It’s the hypostatic union and the communicatio idiomatum that bring the divine nature into a genuine participation -- real though ineffable as it may be -- in our misery, sin and death.


I think it's better to leave these matters stated in an antithetical form. I don't think we can make deductions from general propositions, as you seem to be doing. We need to be guided by actual events, as disclosed in revelation. It is just the case that God becomes human without ceasing to be God. It is entirely a matter of sovereign freedom. In and with the Incarnation, it is just the case that the impassible God suffers without ceasing to be impassible. The nature/grace distinction is found here at least as early as Cyril, who on this matter I am inclined to follow. We are looking at an inexpressible mystery.

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