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God After God: Jenson After Barth, Part #1

When Karl Barth was once asked to comment on the reception of his theology in America, he noted that a bright young American scholar named Robert Jenson had rightly grasped and interpreted his dialectical theology.[1] Carl E. Braaten, Jenson’s long time friend and colleague, notes that since that time Jenson has always been a Barthian.[2] This is true with qualification. Though there are many similarities between the thought of Barth and Jenson, the comparative length of their systematics not withstanding, there are also many dissimilarities, not the least of which is their view of time and eternity. In the final analysis this too may need qualifying, especially if one adopts the view that Jenson’s theology is merely the logical outworking of Barth’s own thought.

According to Hunsinger, the distinction between God’s being as eternal and God’s being in relation to time and the world were, for Barth, a matter of immense importance even though he often failed to keep a clear distinction between the two.[3] Regarding this distinction Barth makes the following claim;

Eternity is God in the sense in which in Himself and in all things God is simultaneous, i.e., beginning and middle as well as end, without separation, distance, or contradiction. Eternity is not, then, an infinite extension of time both backwards and forwards. Time can have nothing to do with God.[4]

This distinction between the eternal Creator and creation is heightened even more when Barth claims that “eternity is God” whereas “time is God’s creation.”[5] Thus, according to Barth, created time can have nothing to do with God.

However, the confusion is introduced when Barth later makes the assertion that “God has time because and as he has eternity.”[6] This statement claiming that God possesses time “as he has eternity” clearly contradicts Barth’s earlier assertion that “time can have nothing to do with God.” The implications of these contradictory statements is monumental and has led Barthians like Hunsinger to take a defensive posture asserting that “although certain ambiguities and difficulties arise as a result, I do not think that they are finally insuperable.”[7]

Jenson is not sympathetic with regard to Hunsinger’s patchwork attitude toward Barth. In fact, Jenson seems to understand Barth’s apparent equivocation per eternity and time, as a failure to carry his own thought to its logical conclusion. Jenson did not share Barth’s reluctance to bring the Creator into univocal line with the creation. Much to the contrary, according to Jenson, “God is the temporalizing of the world.”[8] Again Jenson writes, “God’s eternity” is “temporal infinity.”[9]

Nevertheless, like Barth, Jenson is concerned to maintain a Creator creature distinction. Jenson writes in his second volume on systematics, “The first proposition: that God creates means there is other reality than God and that it is really other than me.”[10] Yet, if God is the temporality of the world, how can such a basic distinction between Creator and creation be credibly maintained?

It appears that on the one hand, Jenson wants to carry Barth’s theology forward in a logically consistent and constructive way so as to apprehend God as the temporality of the world.[11] However, on the other hand, Jenson wants to maintain an archetypal and ectypal distinction found in Barth that ultimately forbids a temporalizing of God, a distinction that ought to function as a corrective. Thus, Jenson seems only to make the “ambiguities and difficulties” that much more noticeable and insuperable.

However, Jenson would certainly object to having created such a problem. In fact, according to Jenson, this apparent difficulty merely drives us back to Jesus Christ.[12] For in Jesus Christ, “God ‘takes time,’ and in a most radical way: he becomes temporal, he makes our time the form of his eternity.”[13] But what does Jenson mean when he writes, “he (i.e. Christ) becomes temporal?” Moreover, how does such a statement affect his supposition that “God creates means there is other reality than God?” These and other questions appear to make Jenson’s Trinitarian theology just as insuperable as Barth’s Trinitarianism.

Therefore, my basic contention in this series will be that Jenson, adopting Barth’s theological notion of time and eternity and taking that understanding to its logical conclusion, has laid the theological groundwork for the destruction of the Creator creature distinction that he seeks to maintain. How this enterprise takes shape will be for next time.

 

[1] Colin E. Gunton ed., Trinity, Time, and Church: A Response to the Theology of Robert W. Jenson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000), 4.

[2] Ibid. Braaten adds that Jenson’s Barthianism has increasingly diminished due to interaction with Catholic and Orthodox theologians. However, a careful reading of Jenson’s Systematic Theology proves otherwise. Jenson embraces the theological actualism that is the macro-argument and basic presupposition of the Church Dogmatics (Cf. Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, The Triune God (NY: Oxford University Press, 1997), 65 and Robert W. Jenson, Sytematic Theology, vol. II, The Works of God (NY: Oxford University Press, 1999), 23.

[3] George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000), 197.

[4] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2004), 608.

[5] Ibid. Barth even goes so far as to say that, “eternity is the source of the deity of God in so far as this consists in his freedom, independence, and lordship” (610).

[6] Ibid. 201.

[7] Hunsinger, 197. According to Hunsinger this seeming contradiction is cleared up by understanding God’s eternity, as described by Barth, as the ground of creaturely time, cf. 201, 202.

[8] Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, eds., Christian Dogmatics: vol. 1 (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1984), 168.

[9] Jenson, ST 1, 217.

[10] Jenson, ST II, 5.

[11] Robert Jenson, God After God: The God of the Past and the God of the Future, Seen in the Work of Karl Barth (Indianapolis, IN: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1969), 156.

[12] Ibid., 129.

[13] Ibid., 128.

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