Robert Jenson
Robert Jenson

Though I’ve had it for a while, I’ve just picked up the first volume of Robert Jenson’s systematic theology, The Triune God. I’ve long appreciated Jenson’s writing, but I particularly appreciate the way he begins this endeavor. It would be easy to find myself quoting way too much of this text, but I wanted to share some from the prologue.

Publishing a system of theology is an irremediably hubristic enterprise (p. vii).

Awesome (and quite true) first line.

Theology is the church’s enterprise of thought, and the only church conceivably in question is the unique and unitary church of the creeds. Therefore theology may be impossible in the situation of a divided church, its proper agent not being extant–unless, of course, one is willing to say that a particular confessional or jurisdictional body simply is the one church. To live as the church in the situation of a divided church–if this can happen at all–must at least mean that we confess we live in radical self-contradiction. Also theology must make this double contradiction at and by every step of its way.

We commonly speak of such things as “Roman Catholic” or “Baptist” or “Lutheran” theology. Such labels can be used in a harmless historically descriptive sense, as one can say that “Orthodox theology” tends to a Cyrillean Christology. They may be used in a somewhat more ominous descriptive sense, as someone might say that “Reformed theology” cannot accept certain ways of asserting papal primacy. But a theologian who described her or his own work as “Lutheran” of “Reformed” or whatever such, and meant by that label to identify the church the work was to serve, would either deny the name of church to all bit his or her own allegiance, or desecrate the theological enterprise.

It is sharpened recognition of such stark alternatives that has driven a characteristic form of modern ecumenism, the search for healing of churchly divisions by theological “convergence.” The dialogues and the convergence-theology they practice have achieved marvels. But it is becoming clear that reestablishment of ecclesial fellowship between East and West and within the West across the divisions begun at the Reformation will not occur by any straightforward continuation of these efforts. It increasingly appears that no degree of theological convergence can by itself suffice to reestablish communion once broken. An act of God is needed.

Nor need this be a pessimistic prediction. The church must regard waiting as the most creative of activities, since she apprehends fullness of being only in the coming Kingdom. And God may act tomorrow. In the meantime, it is a great blessing specifically to theology that we need not wait for the church to be undivided to do theology for and even of the undivided church. For theology itself is a form of the waiting we must practice. (p. viii)