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God After God: Jenson After Barth, Part #2

I stated my basic contention in the last post. It was simply this, Robert 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. Therefore, in this post I will demonstrate that Jenson’s definition of “being,” as conditioned by his understanding of the analogia entis, has laid the groundwork in order to thoroughly temporalize the Triune God, to the extent that an a se God does not, nor can He, stand apart from His creation.

Understanding the Being of God Grammatically

For Jenson, the traditional definition of God as “invisible, timelessly present, something – analogous – to – a person” will no longer due(sic).”[1] According to Jenson, these are useless descriptions at best being more philosophical than Biblical.[2] So, Jenson sets out to establish a working definition of the traditional concept of being which has “become an inextricable determinant of the actual Christian doctrine of God.”[3]

For Jenson, this inadequate definition of being as understood by philosophy and adopted by traditional theology is threefold. First, being is immunity to time.[4] For Jenson, this is the traditional theological concept of timelessness, and, as he points out, this is more Greek than Biblical. Second, what truly is, is form (eidos).[5] A form, as defined by Plato, is a pattern that must be immune to time and therefore, is. This form, according to Greek philosophy, is a human being, a tree, or a god. This too is inadequate and part of the traditional concept of being. Third, form or eidos is the shape that the mind’s eye sees.[6] Compatible with his first two points Jenson observes that a being that is immune to time and possesses form must “appear in the present tense of the consciousness without inner reference to the past or future, as objects in space appear to sight.”[7] This, according to Jenson, is the traditional concept of being.

But for Jenson this philosophical definition of being is not suitable for a post-enlightenment, post-Kantian culture, nor does traditional theology help matters by simply filling the concept of being with different (i.e. Biblical) content.[8] So, Jenson asks, “What kind of being does God have as the one God?”[9] For Jenson, this question is crucial to his whole theological enterprise.

But before we can answer a question about the being of God we must ask another, namely, what is being? Jenson postulates that in metaphysical discourse, of which the Creator creature distinction is the first axiom, we may only use the concept of “being” analogously.[10] “Which is to say,” affirms Jenson, “that being itself must be such as to compel analogous use of language when evoking it, that “God is” and “this creature is” are irreducibly at once incomparable and comparable facts.”[11] As a result, Jenson has redefined the analogia entis making it an irreducibly grammatical construction. Thus, “being” is now to be interpreted by hearing rather than seeing.[12]

Only after having Jenson’s definition of being may we now ask; what kind of being does God have as the one God? Jenson gives a fourfold answer. First, God is an event.[13] According to Jenson, God is not “being” in the traditional sense; He is a concrete act. But it is not enough to say that God is Actus purus.[14] God must be a particular event; He must be Actus Purus et singularis.[15] Here Jenson follows Barth and concedes to Kant. According to Barth, Kant was right. We can have no access to God through intuition, reason, or theoretical categories. Therefore, how do we bring geschichte into meaningful relationship with historie? Barth’s answer to Kant was that we must not think of God in passive categories, but rather we must think of him in terms of event. God is, according to Jenson, the event that enters historie.

Second, Jenson says that, God is a person.[16] This raises the obvious question, if God is a person how can he not be “being” in the traditional sense that Jenson repudiates? It is important to notice that in order to answer this question Jenson modifies the definition of “person” offered by Boethius. Whereas Boethius defined person as an individual entity endowed with intellect Jenson says that to be a person is to be one with whom other persons can converse.[17] Thus, we might safely say that Jenson equates personhood with the ability to communicate.

Third, Jenson also posits that God is a decision.[18] For Jenson, who is simply following Barth at this point, “God’s freedom is that of a subject, of a person.”[19] Consequently, God is the subject who determines His own nature.[20] God is the act of His own decision.[21] In other words, God could have been other than who He is.[22]

Finally, and not surprisingly, Jenson says that God is a conversation.[23] For Jenson, this is the logical conclusion of the preceding items, including his understanding of the analogia entis. Again for Jenson, to be a person is to converse with another. Therefore, God, as free event, reveals Himself in his free decision to converse with His creation.

It is precisely at this point that Jenson believes he is taking Barth’s thought to its final conclusion. What is more, this understanding of God is consistent with Jenson’s view of being. God is the free event of conversation. Therefore, the divine is reduced to an irreducibly grammatical construction. Therefore, to say “God is” is to say, “language is.” Jenson says it like this, “God is the communication that creates our communication.”[24]

It is important to note that in God after God Jenson sees promising beginnings in Barth’s theology, per a reconstructed analogy of being.[25] However, Barth failed to destroy the traditional notion of analogy as it pertains to our understanding of God’s eternity.[26] Barth had only hinted at the importance of language but had maintained an analogy of image rather than destroying it altogether.

According to Jenson, in order for a theological revolution to take place “we will have to understand the radicalness of God’s temporality as a certain pattern of that temporality itself.”[27] Which means claims Jenson, new ways of understanding the continuities of God’s reality and work in time must be posited. And for Jenson it is “fairly clear what categories offer themselves: communication, utterance, and language. We will learn to understand God as an hermeneutic event, as a Word.”[28] Thus, we are provided with the context of Jenson’s claim in his own treatment of systematic theology that, “language is the possibility of historical being.”[29]

The Being of God as Narrative

We are thus brought back to the question, what is God? According to Jenson’s revolutionary understanding of the analogia entis and his four point description of God

culminating with God as conversation, Jenson makes the assertion that, “God himself is identified by and with the particular plotted sequence of events that make the narrative of Israel and her Christ.”[30] In other words, God is not identified by the events of Exodus and resurrection, but rather with those linguistic and grammatical events.[31]

Reciprocally, Jenson affirms, “the Scriptural narrative is thus itself Israel’s sole construal of the Lord’s self-identity.”[32] Perhaps one more instance will serve to solidify the point that Jenson has thoroughly identified God with the narrative of Scripture and that the narrative is our sole construal of the Lord’s self-identity. He writes, “God…is identified by the narrative of which his word by his prophets and our answering prayer make the dialogue.”[33] “Thus,” Jenson concludes, “the Lord is not only in fact identifiable by certain temporal events but is apprehended as himself temporally identifiable.”[34] That is too say, according to Jenson, “blatantly temporal events belong to his very deity.”[35]

At this point it seems rather obvious that Jenson has at least sought to temporalize God’s existence in and through the use of language as a new and irreducibly grammatical way of understanding the being of God. But even so, Jenson is unwilling to give up an archetypal ectypal distinction. What is more, the problems that inhere with his development seem to be equally plain to him.[36] As a result, he employs a cultural – linguistic view of language in order to establish not only his revolutionized notion of the analogia entis, but also an archetype ectype distinction. How he accomplishes this is for our next post.


[1] Jenson, God after God, 124.

[2] Ibid., 124n.3.

[3] Jenson, ST 1, 207.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 210.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 211.

[9] Ibid., 221.

[10] Jenson, ST II, 37. Jenson conceives this as a radical departure from Barth. Jenson says, “In the classical doctrine of analogy, the fundamental resemblance between God and creatures is that God is Being and creatures are beings” And according to Jenson, Barth’s “fundamental objection to the classical doctrine of the analogy of God and the world is that as the correspondence between them it puts being – in – general where Jesus Christ belongs” (Jenson, God after God, 77). Thus, Barth apparently maintained a somewhat traditional understanding of being but shifted it from theology to Christology. Such a move was not sufficient for Jenson (Cf. God after God, 85, 179).

[11] Jenson, ST II, 37.

[12] Jenson, ST 1, 210.

[13] Ibid., 222.

[14] Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1, 264.

[15] Ibid., Cf., Jenson, ST 1, 221.

[16] Jenson, ST 1, 222.

[17] Ibid., 117.

[18] Ibid., 222.

[19] Jenson, God after God, 126 (emphasis his).

[20] Ibid., 127.

[21] Jenson, ST 1, 140.

[22] Jenson, ST II, 27. Jenson is quick to point out that it is speculation to ask what this “other than” aspect could have been, Cf., ST 1, 65.

[23] Jenson, ST 1, 223.

[24] Jenson, God after God, 190.

[25] Ibid., 155.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid. 155 –156.

[29] Jenson, ST 1, 223. Cf. God after God, 190.

[30] Jenson, ST 1, 60.

[31] Ibid., 59.

[32] Ibid., 64.

[33] Ibid., 80.

[34] Ibid., 49 (emphasis his).

[35] Ibid.

[36] Even though Jenson does not view timelessness and temporality as categories of the archetype and ectype distinction he is unable to fully extricate himself from their implications (Cf. Jenson, ST 1, 99).


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