September 5 marked the passing of the Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson. Widely regarded as the leading American theologian of his generation, and perhaps, as some maintain, the greatest American theologian since Jonathan Edwards, Jenson was a leading influence in advocating for a theological renewal of the church that was, at one and the same time, profoundly evangelical and catholic.
A tribute from his close friend and frequent collaborator Carl Braaten can be found here. Both theologians and aspiring preachers will be interested to read the thoughtfully-crafted and Gospel-infused sermon preached by Victor Lee Austin at Robert Jenson’s funeral, available here.
The distinctiveness of Jenson’s evangelical catholic voice is on display in a short, but important, essay, he penned in 1993, entitled, “How the World Lost Its Story.” In the essay, Jenson observes:
“Protestantism has been modernity’s specific form of Christianity. Protestantism supposed that addressees of the gospel already inhabited the narratable world in which stories like the gospel could
be believed, and that we therefore could dismantle the gospel’s own liturgical world, which earlier times of the Church had created. Protestantism has from the beginning supposed that the real action is in the world, and that what happens “in church” can only be preparation to get back out into reality. This was always a wrong judgment—indeed a remarkable piece of naivete—but the blunder is understandable and in the modern world Protestantism could, just barely, get away with it. In a post-modern world, those days are gone forever.”
The common loss of a narratable world in the West presents the church with a significant missional challenge. In the face of these significant questions, Jenson suggests the answer is apparent. He observes, “The obvious answer is that if the Church does not find her hearers antecedently inhabiting a narratable world, then the Church must herself be that world.”
The theologian of God’s future has now entered into that future. May the people of God embrace the evangelical summons to catholicity he has left before us.