We aren’t saying what Augustine said

In East-West discussions on original and actual sin, it’s sometimes assumed that the West holds to Augustine’s view.  Augustine worked off of the following translation of Romans 5:12,

in quo omnes peccaverunt

which is translated,

“in whom all sinned.”

Eastern Orthodox correctly point out that is wrong.  The Greek reads

eph ho pantes hemarton

Hoekema suggests the idiom eph ho should be translated “because” or “since.”  We still have the problem of identifying the connection between our pre-temporal sinning in Adam and Adam’s sin; nevertheless, Scripture seems to affirm it.  The problem remaining is that those who haven’t yet lived are said “to have sinned.”

Letham’s Westminster Assembly

With this volume Letham has established himself as the leading English-speaking Reformed theologian.


Letham gives the basic Reformed understanding of Scripture.


It’s there, albeit in a mild form.  Letham notes that William Bridge, George Gillespie, and John Knox received (or claimed they did; or others claimed they did) prophetic revelation.  Letham is quick to point out this is only “providential” illumination of Scripture (127).  Letham is correct that the Assembly felt no need to deal with this issue (nor would they have affirmed it), but other studies clearly demonstrate that the Scottish Reformation (both in its First and Second phases) saw manifestation of prophetic gifts beyond that of simply “illuminating” Scripture.  When Cargill and Cameron prophcied the deaths of certain (specific) wicked men, they weren’t merely “applying” the general sense of Scripture.  If “prophecy” means illumination, then every pastor is a prophet!  In which case prophecy is still valid today, but nobody reasons that way.

Part of the Reformed world’s problem here is the presupposition that every prophetic utterance necessarily carries the full binding of God with it.   In another place Wayne Grudem shows that is simply not the case.

God the Holy Trinity

Without passions…

Letham is aware that a hard division on God’s not having passions must take into account the fact that the Incarnation brought into true union with humanity.  Jesus experiences human thoughts, human emotions, etc (162).  Letham is certainly on the correct path, but the problem is much deeper (and this isn’t a slam against Reformed Christology;  all Christological traditions hailing from the Chalcedonian definition must face this problem:  does our definition of what it means to be a person today include self-reflection?  If it does, then we are on the road to Nestorianism. If it doesn’t, is it really coherent to speak of person anymore?)

Letham gives a competent discussion on Creation, though one that will annoy many.  He admits, contra many Klineans, that the divines likely held to six solar days, yet he points out that the more pertinent goal was to reject Augustine’s view of instantaneous creation.  Further, what we must also admit, no matter where we land on this discussion, is that the divines did presuppose a geocentric cosmology which saw theology in spatial terms.  Indeed, one wonders if George Walker even knew that the world is spherical (Letham 191 n.50).

Christ and covenant


  • Makes the Klinean meritorious reading strained.
  • CoW, while perhaps the correct reading, is not necessary to maintain Reformed theology.  It was developed over time and if Kline’s reading is correct, then huge swathes of Reformed theology would have proved defective before Westminster (233).

Covenant of Redemption?

Letham highlights a number of problems.  While he doesn’t note the problem of person, if person does not include mind (which is usually subsumed under nature), then does it make sense to speak of three individuals who all share the same mind making an agreement?  I’m not saying it is a wrong idea, and the CoR certainly preserves a few key values, but it does have problems.


Great section on assurance and he places these (sometimes) painful discussions in their pastoral context, which context is often lost on critics of Reformed assurance.  For the record, I agree with Goodwin pace Owen on the Spirit’s sealing.

Law, Liberty, Church and Eschatology

Great section on Law and Liberty–and he avoids getting involved in the painful theonomy disputes.  Letham shows how the RPW should be read and interpreted in light of the Laudian imprisonment and persecution of Reformed believers.  On another note, he points out how the Presbyterians really failed on clinching and continuing the “liberty of conscience” victory it justly won.   I will elaborate:

Did the Solemn League and Covenant bind the consciences of those who didn’t vow it?  Said another way, was Cromwell later on obligated to establish Presbyterian government?  If he was, how does this square with what (Covenanter) Samuel Rutherford said, “It is in our power to vow, but not in the church’s power to command us to vow” (quoted in Letham 299)?  Maybe the two points don’t contradict each other, but the tension is certainly strained.

And it appears the Presbyterians couldn’t maintain this tension.  They chose to deal with the tyrant Charles I and supported (to their fatal regret later) the pervert Charles II.  Cromwell’s victory at Dunbar is fully justified.


This isn’t a commentary on the Confession.  It is a theological exploration of the historical circumstances behind it.  Letham’s scholarship is judicious, measured, and quite frankly awe-inspiring.

Notes on Hegel

Taylor frames his book in order of several of Hegel’s main works. He does an excellent job outlining difficult terminology and highlighting key points which will serve as hermeneutical loci later.

Front Cover

Self-Positing Spirit

This introduces Hegel’s “identity of difference and identity.” Starting slowly, following Taylor, here is what I think he means. Hegel is trying to overcome the Kantian duality. Hegel wants to overcome this with his notion of “overcoming oppositions.” Therefore, identity cannot sustain itself on its own, but posits an opposition, but also a particularly intimate one (80). In short, Hegel married modern expression with Aristotle’s self-realizing form (81).

Following this was Hegel’s other point: the subject, and all his functions, however spiritual, were necessarily embodied (82-83).

The Contradiction Arises

Contrary to mindless right-wing bloggers, Hegel did not form the “dialectic” in the following way: we posit a thesis (traditional community), then we negate it (cultural marxism), which allows for the “synthesis” (our pre-planned solution all along). Here is what Hegel actually meant: there is reality, but the very structure of reality already contains a contradiction. The subject then must overcome that contradiction.

Taylor notes, “In order to be at all as a conscious being, the subject must be embodied in life; but in order to realize the perfection of consciousness it must fight and overcome the natural bent of life as a limit. The conditions of its existence are in conflict with the demands of its perfection (86).

Taylor has much more to say but that will suffice for now. Of course, I radically disagree with Hegel’s conclusions. That does not mean Hegel is value-less. On the contrary, one can see key Augustinian and Origenist points in his outlook.

Taylor seems to structure his discussion of Hegel along the following lines: Phenomenology of Geist is a sort of preparatory stage for the Logic. At the end of the last discussion, Hegel said that Spirit (Geist) comes to know himself, and that finite spirits are the vehicles of this self-knowledge. This is partly why Hegel says that Geist must be embodied.

We start off with an inadequate notion of the standard involved; but we also have some basicaly correct notions of what the standard must meet. However, we see the inadequacy of both when we try to realize it. Obviously, Hegel is simply following Plato on this point.

What if we are just arbitrarily positing some standard of knowledge? No big deal, for upon reflection we will find out that said standard is likely faulty and we will have to “re-think it.” When we re-think it we get closer to the truth. Thus, “the test of knowledge is also its standard” (136).

Hegel ends this discussion with the suggestion that consciousness inevitably posits self-conscious, which will be taken up in the next chapter.

I’m skipping the section on “self-consciousness” because I really didn’t understand it.

One thing I do appreciate about Hegel is that his worldview really is unified. His discussions on “ontology” (the study of essence) are directly connected to his politics and views on religion (and to show how “real-life” this really is: when Karl Marx read Hegel he kept a few elements but mainly despised the man and his system. He negated Hegel–pun intended. Following his negation, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao took this negation of Hegel and murdered 200 million people. Philosophy really does matter).

In the Formation of Spirit Taylor notes that Hegel idealized the ancient Greek polis: he saw a complete unity between citizen and society (171). Unfortunately (or inevitably) this had to break down. Spirit cannot become universal if it is confined to the walls of one particular city. This is an important, if somewhat abstract point. I will develop it further in my final reflections on Hegel.

Taylor remarks, somewhat side-tracking the discussion, that sin is necessary for salvation in Hegel’s view (174). Of course, as a Christian this is completely unacceptable, but it also shows my appreciation for Hegel. Hegel can be seen as the consistent high-point of a certain strand of Western thought. We saw the same type of thinking in Origen (for God to be Lord, there must be something for him to be Lord “over”).
Essentially, what Hegel is saying is that men feel a basic attitude of alienation–their substance lies outside them and they can only overcome it by overcoming their particularity (donum superadditum? 179). Unfortunately, that is what Hegel calls a “contradiction.”

This part of Hegel’s Phenomenology is dealing heavily with social life, which I will cover in greater detail in the chapters on politics.

This next section of the book, and presumably the logical outflowing of Hegel’s thought, deals with “manifest religion.” I really don’t want to spend a lot of time on this, partly because it is the most atrocious aspect of Hegel’s thought, and partly because I want to get to the politics. However, Hegel is nothing if not consistent, and it is important to see how one section implies the next (which is exactly how his later Logic is set up). And as always, even when wrong Hegel has some excellent insights on the human dynamic.

Building on Hegel’s premise that God/Geist/Spirit, which is the ultimate reality, must be embodied in history, it follows that one must ask in what manner is it embodied? One of the most fundamental modes, Hegel posits, is in religion (197). Briefly stated, Hegel sees each epoch in human history as manifesting religion, but always in a contradictory way. The Greeks were able to apprehend “the universal,” but they could only do so in a finite and limited way (and thus the infinite/finite contradiction). This contradiction is not a bad thing, though, for it opened up the possibility of the Christian religion (with a detour through the Hebrews). Hegel sees the ultimate religious expression in the Incarnation.

What do we make of this?

Like anything Hegel says, much of the surface-level language is quite good, but once you get beyond that you see the truly bizarre theology. Hegel has a strong emphasis on community and will say that is where the true Christian expression is found. From our perspective, this sounds a lot like saying Christ is found in the church, and that is true. Unfortunately, Hegel was not using that in the same way we are.

At this point in the narrative we are beginning the discussion of Hegel’s two-volume Logic. While this is the hardest of his works to understand (and I certainly don’t understand them beyond a fourth-grade level), it will be easy to discuss them. His main points are clear and tied together.

A Dialectic of Categories

When one is studying reality, Hegel says, one can start anywhere in the system, for each facet is ultimately tied together (226). If we start with “Being” then our method will proceed dialectically. What he means by that is the very structure of reality has a contradiction, and in overcoming that contradiction Being moves forth to something else. Throughout the whole of this discussion, Hegel is starting from Kant and reworking the system along problems he sees in Kant.

To avoid confusion, and to silence the right-wing conspiracy bloggers, Hegel’s idea of contradiction is this: he has a two-pronged argument, the first showing that a given category is indispensable, the second showing that it leads to a characterization of reality which is somehow impossible or incoherent (228).

In developing the above contradiction, Hegel assumes the Plotinian dialectic: a Something can only be defined by referent to another with which it is contrasted (236).

Hegel says a lot more on these topics, but I will not. Throughout Taylor’s analysis he reveals interstesting facets of Hegel’s thought, showing him to be a true heir of Augustine and Plotinus. We’ll discuss these topics later. The next discussion, Lord willing, will focus on the Essence.


Most right-wing bloggers think that Hegel’s view is the Illuminati finding its ultimate expression in world-government. Actually, what Hegel means is that communities become vehicles of the “Spirit.” This can (and has) been taken in numerous ways. I see it as communities organically expressing a common spirit, common values (see Augustine, City of God Book 19.4).

Hegel is trying to overcome the dilemma that social life poses: per man’s subjective life the important thing is freedom of spirit. However, man also lives in community and the norms of the community often bind his freedom of spirit (it is to Hegel’s credit that he recognized this problem generations before Nietszche and the existentialists).

Hegel suggests the form man must attain is a social form (366). It is important to note that what Hegel means by “state” is much different than what Anglo-Americans mean by it. Hegel means the “politically organized community” (387). Let’s explore these few sentences for a moment. Throughout his philosophy Hegel warns against “abstractions,” by which he means taking an entity outside its network of relations. With regard to politics, if abstraction is bad then it necessarily follows that man’s telos is in a community. Man comes into the world already in a network of relations.

Reason and History

Given Hegel’s commitment about the fulfillment of spirit, it follows that communities grow. As seen above, Hegel’s applies to history the problem of self-fulfillment. How does man realize the fulfillment of the Idea?

Jews: realization that God is pure, subjective Spirit. Ends up negating finite reality.

Greek: opposite of Jewish mentality. Harmonizes God with “natural expression.” Ends up with idolatry. Greek polis is pariochial. Each state his its own God. A universal realization of spirit is thus impossible. Men were identified with Greek state. Democracy natural expression. There is a necessary contradiction within the Greek polis: only represents a part of finite reality.

Romans: Origin of the idea as “Person,” bearer of “abstract right” (397).

Christianity: the finite subject and absolute spirit can be reconciled. The task of history is to make this reconciliation public–this is the Church.

Germans: they were to take it to the next stage.

The rest of European history is a working out these processes, a transformation of institutions. It is hear that we see feudalism, etc. At this point we need to correct a mistake about Hegel: Hegel is not saying that world history climaxes with Prussian Germany. There is no sensible way he could have believed that. Germany was weak and defeated when he wrote (it would have been interesting and perhaps more perceptive to say that Russia was the bearer of the World Spirit). Nonetheless, as Hegel notes and as his critics routinely miss, history did take an interesting turn in the 19th century and the force of ideas does not simply stop because the historian wants them to stop.

The Foundations of the Modern State

Monarchy as the Representative Individual: consistent with his earlier points, Hegel notes that there must be some way for the individual to retain his subjective right, yet at the same time freely and fully identify with the community (Staat). This happens by way of monarchy. Beneath the monarchy are Estates, who mediate the King to the people. Nowhere does Hegel mean representation according to our usage today. The King does not “represent” the will of the people, but through his kingly majesty allows the people to identify (399).

The French Revolution: Political Terror

Hegel defines it as “absolute, unlimited freedom.” Complete freedom means that outcome should be decided by me. Of course, since I am in society it is not decided by me alone. Therefore, complete freedom is decided by the strongest individual.

Charles Taylor is embarrassed by Hegel’s rejection of the principles of the French Revolution. I think the reason is that if Hegel is right and one should view the Modern Narrative as a continuation of the French Revolution, then the only moral alternative is to reject said narrative. He notes (if not likes) Hegel’s challenge to modernity: the modern ideology of equality and of total participation leads to a homogenization of society. This shakes men loose from their traditional communities but cannot replace them as a focus of identity” (414).

Translation: all natural societies organically flow from a unified belief system/ethnos (cf. Augustine, City of God, 19.4). Modernity is the negation of this. Without this unified system of belief, men cannot “connect” to one another. Thus, no real community. Thus, no real unity and society is held together by force (ala Hegel on Rome) and terror (ala Hegel on France).

Modernity is nominalism of politics.

Hegel’s conclusion, which Taylor rejects, is a rationalized monarchy. Hegel was a monarchist but he was not a traditionalist, and for that reason he was not a conservative. He agreed with the older conservatives that society must be founded on authority, estates, and a strong monarch; Hegel, however, based these spheres, not on divine right or tradition, but on reason. In this sense Hegel stands firmly in the Enlightenment.

According to Hegel France is utterly lost in terms of a political future. England is better, but she is not far behind in spiritual rot, for England (like America today) is run riot with an excess on particular rights. And in this chaos of individualism, special interest groups backed by powerful elites have taken control (like America today).

Taylor notes that for Hegel,

“The only force which could cure this would be a strong monarchy like those late medieval kings which forced through the barons the rights of the universal. But the English have crucially weakened their monarchy; it is powerless before Parliament which is the cockpit of private interests (454).

I first found this line of reasoning from Fr. Raphael Johnson’s take on Russian history. I guess Johnson got it from Hegel himself since he wrote his Master’s thesis on Hegel.

Taylor continues to the conclusion,

Hence the vehicle by which rational constitution could best be introduced and made real was a powerful modernizing monarchy…Hegel had hopes for the future based on the climate of his times. Germany had been shocked into reform by the Napoleonic conquest. It consisted of societies founded on law in which principles of rational Enlightenment had already gone some way and seemed bound to go further. It had a Protestant political culture and hence could achieve a rational constitution unlike the benighted peoples of Latin Europe, and it was not too far gone in rot like England. It held to the monarchical principle and the monarchs retained some real power unlike England, and yet the societies were law societies (454-455).

This paragraph warrants some reflection:

  • Although I am a traditionalist, and Hegel is not, I agree that a modernizing monarchy is much preferred than unreflected claims to “Throne and Altar.” Many monarchists today naively think that “restoring a king” will return the land to justice. Ironically, this tends to lead to the same problems that Republican government leads: you have the vision of a few determining the fate of the whole. Rather, a strong monarch who enforces Republican structures in the land, arising from the will of the ethnos (shades of Johann Herder), existing primarily to reign in the excesses of the free market, is one who is both authoritarian yet the people are still free.
  • while we are at it, I actually encourage one to read the thoughtful positions by N. T. Wright and Oliver O’Donovan on monarchy. However, most Protestant political forces have been confessedly thoroughly anti-monarchist, and it is no surprise there are few Protestant Monarchies left. Happily, though, there are examples of good, Protestant monarchies.


In many ways Taylor’s book is essential. One has to know how Hegel is using terminology and Taylor is a reliable guide in that regard. Taylor cannot square himself with Hegel’s politics, though, since Hegel is a rejection (negation?) of modernity.

On why I am opposed to magic ontologies

You might expect me to say, “Because God condemns sorcery.”  That is true.  Or you might expect me to say, “Burning incense to the Queen of Heaven is a sin.”  That is true.  But that is not what I am talking about.  I was in some fascinating Facebook discussions about Greek thought.  Here is a summary of my points:

I do not think there is a dichotomy between Hebrew and non-Hebrew languages. In that sense I agree with Barr’s critique. However, Greek though, influenced by Egyptian magic (Plato studied in Egypt), does have differences with the structures behind the “Hebrew way of life.”

We will say it another way–and this is where Augustine is very helpful, if very wrong: when I ascend up the chain of being, do I gain more being inversely with corporeality?

But if you read Ps. Dionysius and others, one knows God by beginning with abstract concepts of Deity and then rises up the chain of being by negating those concepts. Plotinus, Nyssa, Origen, Evagrius and others are very clear on this. Jesus, on the other hand, descends to us and takes flesh and knowing him we know God.

Footnote: in the eschaton are we going to drink wine on Yahweh’s mountain or achieve hyperousia and contemplate the Empyrean Forms?

when I say thought patterns I mean the way the human brain forms ideas. They most certainly saw the world differently, which might be why God called for war against Hellenism in Zechariah 9.

John Henry Cardinal Newman summarizing the anchoretic life (which is Hellenism applied). 
“Surely the idea of an apostle, ummarried, pure in fast and nakedness, and at length a martyr, is a higher idea tha
n that of one of the old Israelites, sitting under his vine and fig-tree, full of temporal goods, surrounded by his sons and grandsons” (Newman, Loss and Gain).

This is chain-of-being ethics in all of its terrible purity. There is a line in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time where wolves will stop what they are doing, even sacrifice the whole pack, to kill a Myrdraal (think goblin bad guy). That’s sort of how I feel about chain of being ontology.

And it is by no means a Greek thing. I have long maintained that the Greeks–Plato–borrowed from Egyptian magic religion. ANd you can find similar horrors in other Eastern religions.

Once you accept chain-of-being as the normative paradigm for getting our thoughts about God, and we see this same paradigm in other religions (and hermetic traditions), then it doens’ tmake any sense to say, “Well, our’s is different.”

I realize it looks like I am equating neo-Platonic magic with all of Hellenism. Allow me to clarify. I see a continuity between neo-Platonism and earlier Hellenisms. Almost all (all?) hold to an ontology of overcoming estrangement. Secondly, neo-Platonism is simply the apex and most beautiful finale of Hellenistic thought. (When the last Magus, Iamblichus, died, NeoPlatonism and Hermeticism (basically the same thing) went underground until the Templars. This lines up with Justinian’s closing the academies and Damasius’s getting back at him by pretending to be Dionysius the Aeropogatie. I pick on NeoPlatonism because most ancient Christian thinkers drew upon some variety of it.

And by the way: I have read DEEPLY into the ancient hermetic, magical, and neo-platonic traditions from a historical standpoint. You can line up Origen and Trismegestus on ontology and it is basically the same thing. I want to consider myself in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets (no, I don’t predict the future). As a result I violently hate all forms of magic. PM me if you want more details. I don’t want to go into it in public.

Where Augustine actually gets it right

I am not a big Augustine fan.   I think most of his  treatises are painful and tedious.  Despite the loud protestations from the East that he simply does philosophy and doesn’t represent the Tradition, the fact is he shares the same worldview of “Overcoming Estrangement: vis-a-vis the body.

I am currently reading his Anti-Pelagian writings and it is refreshingly different.  For the most part he sticks to exegesis and exalts the clear promise of God to mankind in Christ Jesus.

Ruskin’s Economics

Six years ago I came across John Ruskin via James K. A. Smith.   As an individual and a thinker, Ruskin is not someone you want to emulate.   Abandoning any coherent form of Christianity by the end of his life, and unable to connect his aesthetics with his ethics (he adored pre-Raphaelite paintings, but when he saw pubic hair on his bride’s genitalia for the first time, he freaked out;  they later annulled the marriage for obvious reasons), you don’t want to be like Ruskin.  On the other hand, correctly saw what was wrong with society.  Further, he connected the alternative to earlier Christian visions.  His failure of nerve was he couldn’t bring his project forward in a new context where the baggage of “throne and altar” was no longer attached (or maybe it was, since he wrote around Vatican I).

Christian thinkers today are beginning to carry this forward, but not necessarily in the best way.  John Milbank shows promise, but is susceptible to the standard Catholic critique of him:  he hates liberal modernity but is not quite clear what to put in its place (similar to Reformed political ethics today).  On the other hand, given Roman Catholic economics, it’s not quite clear how Catholic thinkers can 1) value individual liberty in light of Vatican I, and in which spirit later Popes labeled Americanism a heresy, 2) not reduce to pure socialism (since Aquinas said you could take your neighbor’s stuff if you really need it).

James K. A. Smith’s Reformed vision, such that it is, is not entirely better.   Many of Smith’s applications are downright wacky, and I am suspicious of any “worldview-speak” at this point.  Still, we at least have the material on which to build something.

John Ruskin gives us a vision of life that is strangely united: how do a few essays about art, architecture, and economic reform relate to one another? Indeed, much of Unto this Last seems disjointed—and not all essays are of equal worth; some are quite dated and others are just weird. Notwithstanding, rays of light break through and give us an alternative way of being and community.


Ruskin uses current (19th century) capitalism as his foil and “bad guy.” This will cause many free-marketers to bristle. Not without reason will they consider Ruskin a “socialist.” However, one must also consider that the days of the Industrial Revolution were quite grim. Whatever benefits it provided—and we cannot minimize the eventual breakthroughs in wealth—it was brutal and harsh. However, in reading Ruskin, we find this is not the worst criticism he throws at capitalism. It is not the fact that capitalism destroyed lives and introduced 16 hour workdays to the children. Rather, it was only the symptoms of a greater disease: Western world at this time had a view of reality that was violent and pragmatic, an ontology of violence if you will. Unfortunately, this is the weaker part of the book. Many of Ruskin’s proposals—uniform wage among other things—will strike the reader as bizarre, at best. Fortunately, I think Ruskin’s vision can be redeemed.

The following will be part Ruskin’s proposals and partly my own reconstruction of Ruskin’s thought. Ruskin proposes a Gothic society. Whether or not he truly understood it, Ruskin’s vision is not too different from Augustine’s in City of God book 19.4 and certainly echoes much of Plato’s thought in The Republic. Ruskin notes that a society’s architecture reflects its moral vision (233-234, 237). A Gothic society is one that arises out of a pure national faith and domestic virtue (239). This sounds like fascism, doesn’t it? That’s not what Ruskin has in mind. Following St Augustine, who reasoned that a society is one that shares its common objects and commonly loves its Object. Therefore, a pure national faith is nothing other than a society worshipping Christ and reflecting it, among other things, in its architecture.

Of importance, and what I will explore in the next few posts, is Ruskin’s definition of wealth:  possession of value by the valiant.

Other points:  expand Milbank’s essay on Ruling and Sharing, which solves the socialism/welfare debate.

God as Fugue: The Musical Theology of Robert Jenson (1)

Jenson, Robert W.  Systematic Theology vol 1.  Oxford University Press.

Robert W. Jenson’s systematic theology is refreshingly different from standard models.   Loosely drawing upon older medieval and early Reformational loci, Jenson gives us a succinct yet profound model for presenting theology.  True, Jenson does cover the standard loci (norms of authority, God, Christology, etc), but Jensons’s theology, either unlike others or more explicitly than others, operates from a common theme.  Jensons’s theme is “the identity of God.”  The way Jenson works this theme is similar to a musical fugue.  As he introduces his theme, he allows it to take upon itself different connotations with each repetition, ending in a stunning climax.

Norms of Authority

    Jenson’s approach here is very interesting.  He doesn’t simply say, “The Baahhbul alone is our authority.”  Perhaps we may fault him on that, but neither does he open himself up to immediate counters to that position.  He recognizes the inevitability of tradition in the Church’s identity, but he raises a question from that that few do:  it was tradition itself in the mid-2nd century that necessitated a formal canon.   The implication: tradition, whatever its specific liturgical content may have been, was no longer adequate to the Church’s life by itself.

    Jenson adds yet another key to this piece:  the Spirit’s life in the church (26ff).  Such a move sounds a lot like Eastern Orthodoxy, and it does incorporate a lot of Orthodoxy’s strengths on this point, but Jenson takes it to a different (and utterly more biblical) conclusion:  the Spirit’s presence is the in-breaking of the Kingdom, which opens God’s future to God’s people.  A Spirit-founded church is a future-moving church.

Jensons’s theme, accordingly, is “the identity of God.” The practice of theology, then, is “speaking this identity,” which is speaking the gospel.  Jenson defines the gospel as “Jesus of Nazareth, the one who….is risen from the dead.”

What is God’s identity?  Classical theology will say “3 Persons/1 Essence.” This is of course true, but the twilight of classical ontology and the current earthquakes from nihilism force clarification upon the theologian.  This is the Church’s opportunity.  Jenson identifies God as “The One who brought Israel out of Egypt” (44, quoting Exodus 20:2).  The New Testament expands this identity as “The One who raised Jesus from the dead.”  God is the one who rescued the Israelite from the dead.  It is important to see that God is identified by his events (59).  Jenson that follows with several profound meditations on the nature of idolatry.

The music is not yet finished.  We have easily established the Father’s identity.  We have hinted at (though not fully developed) a connection between the Father’s identity and that of his Son, the Resurrected Israelite.  We must now see how these two “connect” in identity without losing their differences, and the role of the Spirit in that connection.

God’s identity is told by his story.  In identifying God, we have a dramatis dei personae, “characters of the divine drama” (75).  Exegetes have since come to the conclusion that “Son” is often a title for Israel. Yet Israel as a fallen nation cannot live up to that sonship.  Another Israelite, God’s Son in a different sense, is with and by whom God is identified.   “He is God himself as a participant in Israel’s story” (76).  This leads naturally to an extended discussion of the Servant passages.  Jenson, contrary to many evangelicals, does not say that the “Servant” is simply code for “Jesus.”  He allows the Servant narratives to unfold and in the unfolding we see “Suddenly, the Servant is an individual within Israel” (80).  Giving his prophetic speech, rising from the dead, and ushering in eschatological peace, the Church could not help but identify this servant with the Son of David from Nazareth.  The next persona in the drama is the Spirit of the Lord.  Jenson does not at this point explicate the Spirit’s role-identity.

How are they One Being?

Jenson notes that classical pagan ontology identified “god” by metaphysical predicates.  Deity is a quality that can be participated in by degrees.  To bridge any gap, pagan metaphysicians would invoke relatively divine-human figures to mediate that deity.  From this standpoint, Jenson explains the work of the early Christian apologists until Origen and the role of Logos-theology.

Logos had a two-fold meaning:  the sense the world makes and the expression of that sense (96).  This allowed Justin Martyr to say that the Logos enthietos is eternal relative to God’s being (although there was some equivocation as to his timelessness)  but the Logos prophorikos is temporal relative to God’s creating act (97).   Besides obvious problems, Justin’s theology could not explain why there should only be one mediator between the divine realm and the temporal one, and not many like in Gnosticism and Paganism.

Origen sharpened this problematic.  In Jenson’s beautiful description, Origen “conceived of the work of Father, Son, and Spirit as a sort of inverted stepped cone: the Father gives being to all creatures, the Son opens  the knowledge of God to creatures capable of knowledge, and the Spirit performs the purification” (98).  Origen perfected and avoided Justin’s starker problems by exploiting a favorite image of classical antiquity:  the image.  A statue of painting is not its archetype but neither is it not its archetype.  “Being an image of something is a distinct mode of being” (98).  This allowed antiquity (and early Christians) to posit a descending hierarchy of images.

Anticipating Hegel (!), Origen, using this imagic model, can say, “In that God knows himself, there subsists God as the object this knowledge; and in that this knowledge is expressed with divine perfection, God-as-his-own-object in an actual other than God himself” (99).  Despite its beauty and profundity, Origen’s problematic was unstable.  Beginning from the presuppositions of pagan metaphysics, Origen could not avoid the question “How divine was the Logos, on a spectrum of being of sheer divine and sheer temporality?”  Any answer disrupts the inherent subordinationism.  Scripture, however, asks different questions:  Creator or creature?  Origen really couldn’t answer this question, either. Not surprisingly, the Arian crisis soon exploded this problematic.

Discussions of Arianism, Nicea, and Athanasius are well-known, so this section of the essay will be brief.  What is important to note is that key terms are beginning to be sharpened.  Ousia in early Nicea is what a thing is; hypostasis is the differentiation of it.

Despite the Nicene-Constantinople victory, we must note what they did not accomplish.  As Jenson notes, “The Cappadocians acknowledged only relations of origin as constitutive of the divine life.  Thus, the eschatological character was suppressed” (108).

How does God’s reality present itself in history?  Following Pannenberg (Systematiche Theologie, 3:333-347, quoted in Jenson 109n. 132) Jenson gives an interesting musing that “It is exactly in that Jesus or his Father or the Spirit refers absolutely from himself to one of the others as the One God that he is in a specific way a perfect correlate to that other, and so himself God within and of the history plotted by these referrals.”  Jenson will later clinch this argument by sharpening Gregory of Nyssa’s:  the term God for Gregory refers to the mutual action of the divine energies, to the perichoretic divine life” (214).  This being of God is not a something (and thus we avoid Heidegger’s destruction of classical ontology), but a palpable going-on…God is primally hypostatic: to be God the Father, or God the Son or God the Spirit, does not require that there antecedently be something one could call ‘God’” (214, 215; and thus we avoid Tillich’s critique of a quaternity).

Jenson’s discussion of Christology necessarily leads to a rather unique locus in his system:  Patrology.  This seems odd, since Patrology itself is not an ultimate norm for doing theology and authority.  True, but Patrology does function as a grammar of how to do theology, illustrating key moves and problems.   Those who ignore Patrology will find themselves unable to explain key problems in Christian theology.

Before we continue the discussion on Patrology, and in keeping with our musical theme, we should not Jenson’s masterful handling of the Holy Spirit and the Filioque debate.   It must be admitted that conservative American evangelicals have failed miserably on this point.  If I could think of harsher language, I would use it.  Jenson begins by noting the problems in Augustine’s formulation:  exactly how is one of the three specifically “spirit?”  If hypostases are identified by relations of origin (Father-Son), we have a further problem, since no relation appears in the name “Holy Spirit” (147).  Jenson then mentions Lossky’s poewrful argument against the West:  by positing the Father and Son as a single cause of the Spirit, the West has muted the hypostatic characteristics of both Father and Son.

How can we respond?  Before responding, we should briefly note the Eastern position.  The Father is the sole monarchy of the Godhead, but this isn’t subordinationist because “terms such as procession and origine are but inappropriate expressions for a reality alien to all becoming, all process, all beginning” (Lossky, A l’image et a la ressemblance de Dieu, 78, quoted in Jenson, 152).  Jenson remarks: “This is a vision of God as frozen as any we have encountered, and a new evacuation of Trinitarianism.  The trinitarian propositions in their Eastern use fail to describe the Father’s subordinating of the Son and the Spirit, we discover, only because they do not describe any action at all (Jenson, 152).

Lossky’s problem points back to Gregory Palamas.  Palamas employs the Cappadocians, but with a subtle difference.  The Saints participate in the divine energies, which are the divine life, but not in the divine ousia, deity sheerly as such.  The problem, though, is that the Cappadocians were a lot more flexible than Palamas.   Their use of the term ousia (Basil probably excepted) does not suggest anything other than the divine life.   Here is the problem for Palamas:

“It is one thing to say that abstract deity is itself always the same quality, as the Cappadocians did; it is quite another to say that deity taken as God himself is a static essence.  Ironically, Orthodoxy is here driven to a bluntly modalist doctrine:  God himself is above the biblical narrative, which applies only to his energies (153).  Perhaps most disastrously, Orthodoxy has a tendency to “reify the energies, the moments of the divine life, and at least in the case of the Spirit, the energies replace the person in the historical actuality of salvation” (157).

So what is Jenson’s solution?  By way of clarification, he explains Hegel’s famous “I-thou/Master-slave” analogy.  If you and I are to be free for one another, each of us must be both subject and object in our discourse.  If I am present, I am a subject whom you have as my object.  But if I am not an object for you as subject, if I somehow evade that, I enslave you.  I am not reciprocally available to you (155).

How then, can this mutual availability happen?  How is an I-Thou relationship possible without becoming a struggle for power?  (Jenson notes with humor that postmodernism carried out this program under a tutelage of horror!)  Jenson, in perhaps an unacknowledged Augustinian strain,notes, “there is freely given love…a third party in the meeting of ‘I’ and ‘Thou.   Thus, if you and I are to be free for one another, someone must be our liberator (okay, granted this isn’t the best term–JA)…If I am to be your object and you mine, so that we may be subjects for each other, there has to be one for whom we are both objects, and whose intention for us is our love for each other.  The theological conclusion is obvious.

Still, it does not fully answer the Filioque debate, at least not here. Jenson tentatively works toward a Western answer.   The debate over the Filioque is misplaced.  If God is indeed the God of the future, and we see Cappadocian hints of an ever-forward moving futurity in God, then does it not make more sense to see the better question as “The Spirit is the End and Goal of all God’s ways”?  East and West debate over the beginning Archimedean point when they should be discussing the divine goal as the Spirit’s Archimedean point” (157).  Quoting Pannenberg again, “The fault of the Filioque is that the true Augustinian insight that the Spirit is the fellowship of the Son and Father ‘was formulated in terms of relations of origin’” (Pannenberg, I: 347, quoted in Jenson, 157 n. 67).

Jenson has an interesting, yet ultimately unsatisfying chapter on the atonement.   He accepts many of the criticisms of Anselm:  strictly speaking, on Anselm’s view there is no need for the Resurrection.  Upon the death of Christ the transaction is complete.   Theology, unfortunately, remains incomplete.  Even more pointedly, “The New Testament speaks of God’s action to reconcile us to himself, and nowhere of God’s being reconciled to us” (186).  The problem, however, with these subjective critiques of Anselm, and the theories they represent, fail to say how Jesus’s death accomplished anything specific.

After a brief and interesting discussion of the Christus Victor model, Jenson proposes a liturgical understanding of the atonement:  the church’s primal way of understanding the atonement is that we live this narrative (189).  “We rehearse the Word-event in our lives.”  I am not exactly sure how he describes his proposal.  He gives an interesting outline of public liturgies during Passion week and ends with an admittedly interesting suggestion:

“If a theological proposition is one that says, ‘To be saying the gospel, let us say F rather than G,’ and if the gospel is spoken in language and by more embodied sorts of signs, by sacrament and sacrifice, then we must expect theology to take the form of ritual rubrics” (190).

This isn’t wrong, per se, and I can attest to the power of liturgy in my own life, but one suspects that Jenson himself isn’t entirely free from the critique he offered of subjective models:  precisely what happened on the cross?  He answers it was Israel’s denouement of her Scriptures” (183).  Very good and well said, but what does that have to do with me?

We must wait for the Resurrection for the answer to that question.  He asserts that it accomplishes our reconciliation to God.  With this we agree, but we suspect Scripture has said much more.

Jenson concludes his book with summary chapters on Spirit, Jesus, and the Being of the One God, incorporating much critical scholarship and noting the strengths and weaknesses of each approach.


Astute readers will notice some similarities between Jenson’s approach and that of David Bentley Hart. Both theologians write musically. There are some differences, to be sure.   Hart, for the most part, accepts classical ontology;  Jenson does not.   Jenson, further, is sympathetic to those in the Reformed tradition (see his spirited defense of Jonathan Edwards).  Hart’s vitriol towards Calvinism is well-known.  Most importantly, perhaps, is that Jenson can write in a coherent and readable (if sometimes dense) manner.  Hart cannot.

Appendix:  God and the Future

Our God is different from the Pagan gods because he is not afraid of “time.”  God’s acting in salvation for his people is an acting in time, “not defending against the future, but securing it” (67).  Gregory of Nyssa was on the verge of completely dismantling classical metaphysics hold on God-doctrine.  Identifying the divine ousia as infinity, Gregory took it a step forward and identified it as temporal infinity, a future-oriented infinity (infinity qua infinity would dissipate into nothingness, the temptation of absolute models of simplicity).  According to Jenson, “The Arians err defining God as having no beginning, when they should define God as having no end” (216).  In Jenson’s succint pjhrase, “The Father is the whence of the divine life; The Spirit is the whither, and the Son the specious present” (218-219).  The way in which the whence and the whither are one, the way in which the Triune God is eternal, is by the events in Jesus’s death and resurrection” (219).