Home » Extras » Book Reviews » Jenson, Robert W.; On Thinking the Human: Resolutions of Difficult Notions ( Grand Rapids : Eerdmans, 2003)


Jenson, Robert W.; On Thinking the Human: Resolutions of Difficult Notions ( Grand Rapids : Eerdmans, 2003)


Canadian Evangelical Review, Fall 2003

Jenson, Robert W.; On Thinking the Human: Resolutions of Difficult Notions ( Grand Rapids : Eerdmans, 2003) Pp. xii + 86. $23.99 Can.


This brief book’s compression is unparalleled among recent, shorter offerings in theology. Readers of Jenson will not be surprised at this feature, since they have seen as much in his always-rigorous, representative work over several decades: God After God: The God of the Past and the Future as Seen in the Work of Karl Barth — 1969; then more recently America ‘s Theologian: A Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards — 1988; and more recently still, his two-volume, magisterial Systematic Theology — 1997, 1999.

At the same time, his characteristic compression does not issue in opacity; on the contrary it is lucid throughout, even as the most diligent readers will find themselves having to sit straighter in their study chair. For this book is no little challenge for the theological neophyte. It presupposes more-than-modest familiarity with the history of Christian thought, and, equally, considerable philosophical sophistication together with an appreciation of postmodernism.

Then who will profit from the book? Maturer thinkers who need to think in new patterns and with a new vocabulary most certainly will gain from it, along with any and all who by vocation or avocation are concerned with understanding the profundities of what is uniquely human: social scientists, philosophers, cultural historians, literary critics, and politicians (whose work, ultimately, is the trusteeship of what is publicly owned as the human good.) While not written for the theological beginner, the book could well drive such a person, after the pattern of Jenson’s beloved Luther, to a despair that to be relieved only through delving into the cited works, mountain peaks in thought, among which Jenson moves with accomplished ease. Regardless of where a chapter begins or what paths it pursues, it “comes home” invariably where all humankind can alone be “at home”: participation by grace in the innermost life of the Triune God. Plainly the doctrine of God (i.e., the doctrine of the Trinity) is the ad quo and the ad quem of all Jenson’s thought. This fact alone is noteworthy, for in today’s “therapy culture” even theological texts concerned with “thinking the human” are expected to be, and lamentably too often are, religionized glosses of the social sciences. Jenson, however, insists that what it is to be a human being can be known only with reference to the Triune God; and for this reason, any reflection on “difficult notions” pertaining to the human must be reflection ultimately on who God is in himself eternally — which is to say, who and what we are in relation to him, since God has not willed to be God without us.

The book begins with “Thinking Death” and concludes with “Thinking Love. In between are four more chapters, “Thinking…Consciousness, Freedom, Reality, Wickedness.” Each chapter takes one (or several) theologian and philosopher as interlocutor. Thereafter it investigates the topic at hand by viewing it from several angles, always in conversation with philosopher, theologian, assorted assessors of culture, and Jenson’s own evaluation of contemporary social trends. (He is not afraid, for instance, to liken “our eugenics by mass execution” to those of the Nazis. He has in mind, of course, the cavalier deployment of abortion.)

Perhaps the best way that a reviewer can introduce the book is to acquaint the reader with the substance and style of any one chapter. “Thinking Wickedness” was begun the Monday following the terrorist attack on New York City. Denying all facile notions of “moral equivalence” (suffering engendered elsewhere through American foreign policy legitimates the sort of slaughter of “9/11”), Jenson nonetheless acknowledges that human wickedness, however cursorily discussed or denied in shallow pulpits of modernity, has been and deserves to be a matter worthy of theological diligence. He reaches back to the work of Michael Illyricus Flacius, the Gnesio-Lutheran excoriated by the Philipists (intellectual descendants of Melanchthon;) Flacius insisted that fallen human nature is substantially wicked. The Philipists pointed out, of course, that if this were the case then “people” would not be so much fallen as obliterated; redemption would be impossible; and the Incarnation could never have occurred. At the same time, Jenson is unhappy with the Philipists’ wording in the Formula of Concord (Lutheranism’s classical doctrinal statement) that in the wake of the Fall humans are sinners only “accidentally” rather than “substantially” (Concord herein using these terms with utmost Aristotelian precision, since “accidental” leaves our sinnership too remote from who we are, all humankind now “Teflon-coated.”) Next he probes the matter of individual identity, its adherents presupposing that identity has to do with what is “in us” rather than with our relationship to what is outside us. From here he makes a big step (but not a leap) to a discussion of ontological contingency, humans, of course, always possessed of contingent being only. Then he points out that substance, strictly speaking, is substance only if it perdures through time and beyond time, since temporality renders finite substance inherently impossible. (His footnote “reminds” readers that the only serious theological error he finds in Thomas Aquinas is perhaps the latter’s failure to probe eternity/time sufficiently critically.) Next he expands his previous assertion on how we are identical with ourselves not in virtue of what is within us but rather in virtue of what (Who) we are within; for in truth we are within the “within-ness” of the inherently triune life of Father, Son and Spirit. Finally he argues with exquisitely nuanced progression how it is that only when the triune community and all created community are finally one will there be resolved that human wickedness which is more than accidental (despite “therapeutic” protestation) yet cannot be “substantial,” as Flacius’s opponents knew.

In an era when so very much theology appears to have forgotten that theology is to be about God, this book is sustained witness to Jenson’s preoccupation with the doctrine of God — which preoccupation, the reader will conclude, arises just because nothing less than God fills the horizon of Jenson’s thought and life.


Victor Shepherd       Tyndale University College & Seminary