Tag Archives: Robert Jenson

On the Role of Justification in Lutheran Theology

Today’s post is prompted by the following remark from the contemporary American Lutheran moral theologian Gilbert Meilaender.

However much some contemporary Lutherans have attempted to think of Lutheranism as a freestanding theological system, it can really be understood only as a correction within the Catholic tradition. It degenerates rapidly whenever its theologians attempt to build an entire system of Christian thought on ideas thought to be characteristically Lutheran (e.g., law/gospel, justification, paradox). [from The Freedom of a Christian (Brazos, 2006)]

Here are some questions Meilaender raises for me: what normative role should signature Lutheran doctrines like the law/gospel distinction or justification by faith alone play in Lutheran theology? That is, what sort of authority should they exercise? Additionally, to what extent is confessional Lutheran systematic theology just an elaboration of its doctrine of justification? Does justification in fact set the only proper point of departure for theological exposition, the limit of its scope, and the goal of its task?

The reason this is a live question for me is my standing regard for both Luther and Meilaender. I still believe Luther was right to teach that justification is an article by which “the church stands or falls.” At the same time I also think that Meilaender is on to something that’s not always so easy for Lutherans to acknowledge. This post, then, will attempt to preserve both of their insights.

It strikes me that the kind of logic that motivates a stricter deployment and emphasis of Lutheran distinctives can be observed in other theological disputes. (I’m not going to claim there’s a causal link, just a resemblance in logic.) I have in mind a question like the nature of scripture’s authority in theology. One proposal on this subject, that of the Protestant Reformers, was distilled through the slogan of Scripture Alone. Scripture, that is, on its own, without the supplementation of church tradition, was said to be a singular and sufficient norm of doctrine and practice. With so much I won’t take issue. The next step, however, gets trickier. And that’s because the notion of “lone norm” is still a bit ambiguous. For one, it can mean “sole source of knowledge” –- the only fund from which knowledge may be derived. Or it could mean “supreme canon” — the final measure of a proposal’s validity. This distinction between source and canon is crucial for this post, so I’m going to let Charles Wood belabor the point:

Canon does not mean source, and even though scripture may in fact always remain the primary source of our thought, its function as canon is not to supply all our ideas but to enable us to judge their adequacy, their likelihood of usefulness within the language and life of faith. [from An Invitation to Theological Study (Trinity Pr Intl, 1994), 102.]

With this distinction in place, here, then, is my suggestion. What’s objectionable about the practice of strict Lutherans – those Meilaender censures – is that they’ve opted for a “source” model of authority. In this understanding, the characteristic notions of Lutheran theology function as the controlling source of theological knowledge, analogous to the way some think scripture alone is supposed to fund theology. It’s precisely the shibboleths that are supposed to be the only spring from which the system is to be derived.

I wonder, though, to what extent a “canonical” approach to the authority of Lutheran constructs (see note 1 below) might forge a more promising path for Lutheran theology, and much for the same reason that I think it offers a superior conception of the relation between scripture and theology. (I inventory gestures toward something closer to what I imagine as theology’s canonical use of scripture here.) The first reason is this: a source model risks generating reductive and clichéd theology, which in the long run only threatens to limit theology’s imaginative reach, diminish its assimilative power, and discredit its capacity to sustain and train our intellectual appetites. These are flaws you should want to avoid! (At present I will forgo elaborating on my reasons for these allegations.)

A second reason is my suspicion that a source model actually works against itself, undermining one of the key lessons it’s meant to serve in this particular case. We can see this played out in the Lutheran / Reformed dispute over principles of worship. A distinction is drawn between the normative and the regulative principles of worship. The normative principle states that anything not prohibited in scripture regarding worship is permitted; and the regulative — the stricter of the two — that anything not prescribed is prohibited. The Lutherans opted for the former principle, and the Reformed the latter.

Here is a confessional Lutheran articulation of the normative principle of worship:

We believe, teach, and confess … that no church should condemn another because one has less or more external ceremonies not commanded by God than the other, if otherwise there is agreement among them in doctrine and all its articles, as also in the right use of the holy sacraments, according to the well-known saying: … Disagreement in fasting does not destroy agreement in faith. …

Accordingly, we reject and condemn as wrong and contrary to God’s Word when it is taught: … when these external ceremonies and adiaphora are abrogated in such a manner as though it were not free to the congregation of God to employ one or more in Christian liberty, according to its circumstances, as may be most useful at any time to the Church. [Ep-FC. 10.7, 12. (1577)]

And here is a confessional Reformed articulation of the regulative principle of worship.

The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures. [Westminster Confession of Faith 21.1 (1646)]

One concrete illustration of the fallout of this divergence is the Lutheran authorization and the Reformed prohibition of the use of images, vestments, and the like in worship.

When these two principles are juxtaposed to one another like this, their different emphases stand in sharper focus. I read the Lutheran principle as aiming to secure “Christian liberty” in worship. The Reformed, on the other hand, I read as aiming to secure “purity of liturgy.” (It’s not a coincidence, after all, that it was the Puritans who seized on this principle in their opposition to the Anglican church.)

Now to translate this digression back to the point at hand, the Reformed regulative principle is another example of a “single source” model of authority at work, insofar as the only permissible forms of worship must be derivable from scripture alone. For the purposes of theological discourse, this regulative principle would be well primed to serve theologians who are also chiefly concerned about preserving doctrinal purity and the succession of tradition. So in a theological use of the regulative principle it would be the distinctive categories of a tradition functioning as the source otherwise assigned to scripture in analogous disputes.

For theologians, however, who have truly imbibed the spirit of the Lutheran doctrine of justification, I would think they’d prize liberty over purity, as the Lutheran normative principle prioritizes it (though I’d immediately concede this will require continued thinking on my part). This is what I mean when I say that a source model of Lutheran theology risks undercutting the very lesson it’s meant to instill: if signature doctrines like justification are treated, not as canons of judgment, but as the sole permissible sources of theological exposition, we’ll only lose a measure of the liberty justification was meant to afford us in the first place.

If any of the above tracks, I hope enough ground has been cleared to permit us to affirm both that Luther is still right that no ecclesial theology should dare contradict or mute the doctrine of justification by faith, and that Meilaender is also right that we Lutherans are freer to exercise some more imagination than we might typically indulge ourselves.

If we’re at a loss trying to conceive what this sort of theology might look like, let me suggest that there are already instances of it in existence. We needn’t look any farther than, say, the two-volume Systematic Theology by Robert Jenson. There is a work that fundamentally affirms the confessional Lutheran law/gospel distinction, and yet is not slavishly driven by it materially, but can countenance at the same time a program of broader sympathies and a wider frame of reference.


(1) To be clear, in this sense of “canon” it refers not to the scope of the norm’s jurisdiction — Lutheranism’s identifying categories don’t share scripture’s status as an ecumenical or global norm but rather confessional and local — but to the manner in which its authority is exercised.

Robert Jenson comments on Ezekiel 22:30-31

The involvement – and indeed emotional involvement – of the Lord in his people’s history could hardly be more drastically pictured than here [22:30-31]. We find the Lord on both sides of Jerusalem’s walls: assaulting the city for its evils and seeking someone to fend off his own attack. We have earlier found the Lord both pouring out his wrath on Israel and taking no “pleasure in the death of the wicked” (18:23). But we have not before found him doing both at once; we have not before heard of the Lord’s internal conflict, of his hope for a savior from his own wrath.

from Ezekiel (Brazos, 2009), 188.

Miscellaneous Liturgical Reflections from Robert Jenson

A. The Liturgy and Embodiment

Why has the church always said we should absolve by putting hands on the head of the person being absolved? That sounds like a rather silly procedure, as if some kind of fluid flowed from one to the other — so now in Protestant churches we do not do it that way. Instead we confess everyone once just before the service and absolve them in a mass. And nobody feels forgiven: that this absolution is directed to me was the point of the hands of the priest on the penitent. Or why at a football game do we not sit down to cheer? Because you cannot cheer sitting down: the motion of the body is part of the act.

Liturgy, with its sitting, standing, parading, gesturing, and so forth, is the most comprehensive example of the way in which the body belongs to our communication with each other. Those who have been so misguided as to try to make the liturgy more personal and intense by eliminating the standings, sittings, paradings, crossings, and kneelings achieved, of course, the opposite result. It is exactly in these motionless liturgies, where we just sit for an hour and fifteen minutes, that it becomes impossible to experience rhetoric about “God” as in any way true about us. [43]

B. The Liturgy as Art

The liturgy is the church’s specific art form. Let me in this connection draw only one conclusion from this essay’s positions: the reality of the Spirit in worship, the spiritedness of the church’s praise and petition, is not another thing than the beauty of the church’s worship. Labor on the liturgy’s beauty is not accidental to labor on its authenticity, and what may be called liturgical aesthetics is a vital part of the doctrine of the Spirit.  [155]

from Essays in Theology of Culture (Eerdmans, 1995).

Readings on Robert Jenson

A Bibliography Bound to Grow

As the dissertations on Robert Jenson continue to roll-out (a happy circumstance!), I thought it might be worthwhile to start tracking the secondary literature already available on his work. Though there are numerous book chapters and journal articles engaging parts of Jenson’s theology, scattered throughout various sources, here I’m only interested in recording monographs. Here, then, in chronological order, is what I’m aware of at present (feel encouraged to point out omissions):

  • Colin Gunton, Ed. Trinity, Time, and Church: a Response to the Theology of Robert W. Jenson. (Eerdmans, 2000).
  • Russell D. Rook, Rhyming Hope and History: Theology and Culture in the Work of Robert Jenson. (Pickwick, 2012).
  • Scott R. Swain, The God of the Gospel: Robert Jenson’s Trinitarian Theology. (IVP Academic, 2013).
  • Stephen J. Wright, Dogmatic Aesthetics: A Theology of Beauty in Dialogue with Robert W. Jenson. (Fortress, 2014).
  • Andrew Nicol, Exodus and Resurrection: The God of Israel in the Theology of Robert W. Jenson. (Fortress, 2016).

Robert Jenson on the conclusion of our lives

We have called Jesus the “Son of God” or the “Revelation of God” or straight out “God” in order to say of him: What happened in his life is what is going to happen at the end of our stories. If “God” means “the one who will settle our fate,” then “Jesus is God” means “Jesus is the one who will settle our fate.” When we hear his story, we are told of the conclusion of our lives, we are told that utter self-giving of one man for another is what will finish and conclude our struggle or lack of struggle. When I get hooked on Jesus’ story, it is decided that “died for his enemies” will be the last line in my history.

from A Religion against Itself, (John Knox, 1967), 31.

Robert Jenson on resurrection

We must ask, What are we necessarily affirming about Jesus when we say that he, unexpectedly, lives? What is the basic difference between a living person and a dead one? And surely we must say: the decisive difference between a living person and a dead one is that the former can surprise us as the latter cannot. Socrates, although he remains dead, is still powerful. But if I am surprised by him, this is because of previously inadequate knowledge. Whereas if Jesus lives, he is an agent in my life, and one whom I must expect to act freely, whom I could know perfectly and yet not always anticipate. […]

That Jesus lives means that his love, perfected at the cross, is now active to surprise us. That Jesus lives means that there is a subject who has us as his objects, and who wills our good in a freedom beyond our predicting.

from Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, (OUP, 1997): 198-9.

On scripture’s role as theological authority

A. Robert Jenson

There is no mandate to reproduce all apostolic theologoumena. Indeed, they are not guaranteed to be especially felicitous; we turn to the apostolic church not for the certainly best thought-out instances of gospel-speaking but for unchallengeable instances. … apostolic reflective activity — however profoundly or superficially done — must have been the right sort of thing to be doing.

from Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 The Triune God, (OUP, 1997), 32.

B. David Kelsey

As its “authority,” scripture is “normative” for a proposal’s Christian aptness, not for its origin.

from Proving Doctrine, (Bloomsbury, 1999), 193.

C. John Webster

Scripture is not so much a source or norm of theology as its idiom.

from “Authority of Scripture,” Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, (Baker, 2005), 724.

D. Rowan Williams

Revelation is addressed not so much to a will called upon to submit as to an imagination called upon to ‘open itself.’

from “Trinity and Revelation,” Modern Theology vol 2, no 3, (1986): 209.

The New Testament is less a set of theological conclusions than a set of generative models for how to do Christian thinking.

from On Christian Theology, Oxford, Blackwell, 2000, 22.