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God After God: Jenson After Barth, Part #3

By now it should be understood by the reader that for Jenson, God is the act of utterance.[1] For Jenson, as I argued in my last post, God is to be identified by and as wholly temporalized in the narrative of Scripture. However, in a seemingly contradictory move, Jenson also believes that to reduce God to a set of propositions is to devolve “into the biblicisms of modernity.”[2] Following Barth, Jenson dismisses the notion that to simply adopt Biblical language is adequate to apprehend God.[3] God is ineffable.[4] Thus, before we can understand Jenson’s view of Scripture we must understand how the God who is to be identified by the narrative of Scripture is known in and from the narrative. Only then may we know the functional place of Scripture within the life of the church.

Therefore, how can we speak about the veracity of man’s knowledge of God? Can man know God cognitively? According to Jenson, “God’s knowability is not a dispositional property.”[5] Defining what he means by “dispositional property” Jenson explains, “That is, it is not his possession of qualities that adapt him to satisfy some exterior effort, in this case our cognitive effort.”[6]

Clearly, for Jenson, cognitive knowledge of God is impossible. In fact, says Jenson, our union with God “transcends the mind’s natural ‘cognitive capacity.’”[7] So, how does man come to know God? How does God pierce historie in order to make Himself known? For Jenson, the answer is simple; God reveals Himself.[8]

However, it is a matter of primary importance to remember how God is said to reveal Himself. According to Jenson, the way in which God discloses Himself is in act. For Jenson, this is a primary theological category. God is free event. In fact, God must be taken “as invariant through the event.”[9] He is not the gift that the event brings; He is the event. In other words, God reveals His whole self in the event of His act.

But what is the event of God’s self-revelation? According to Jenson, it is conversation. Furthermore, Jenson argues that this self-revealing act of conversation is the narrative of Scripture. He writes,

At several places in this chapter and before, a conceptual move has been made from the biblical God’s self-identification by events in time to his identification with those events; moreover, it will by now be apparent that the whole argument of the work depends on this move. In each case in which it has been made, it has been conceptually secured in that context. But it is now possible, and high time, to justify it directly.

Were God identified by Israel’s Exodus or Jesus’ resurrection, without being identified with them, the identification would be a revelation ontologically other than God himself. The revealing events would be our clues to God, but would not be God. And this, of course, is the normal pattern of religion: where the deity reveals itself is not where it is.[10]

Two important points stand out in these lines. First, the revealing events of Scripture are the act of God. They are the event of God’s self-revelation in utterance. Second, these events ontologically identify the person of God. They do not point to God; rather the narrative acts are God. Therefore, initially it appears that Jenson has gone beyond Barth in claiming that the act of God can be identified. After all, Barth claims that,

When on the basis of His revelation we always understand God as event, as act and as life, we have not in any way identified Him with a sum or content of event, act, or life generally. We can never expect to know generally what event or act or life is, in order from that point to conclude and assert that God is He to whom this is all proper in an unimaginable and incomprehensible fullness and completeness. When we know God as event, act and life, we have to admit that generally and apart from Him we do not know what this is.[11]

Thus, Barth maintains that even the act of God is unknowable. And so, for Barth, Scripture is only a witness to God’s act. Therefore, it would be untenable to suggest that Scripture could claim an ontic status with regard to the being of God.

So, has Jenson gone beyond Barth at this point? We must remember that, according to Jenson, Barth was not fully able to extricate himself from the material doctrine of being. Thus, for Barth the fundamental resemblance between God and creatures is that God is Being and creatures are beings. However, Jenson says that the analogous use of language is what constitutes the analogy of being making it an irreducibly grammatical construction. Therefore, God and the Biblical narrative are ontologically one.

However, this move by Jenson seems to lock him into three positions that he is unwilling to endorse. First, to posit an ontic equality between God and Scripture sanctions the “biblicism of modernity” that Jenson has previously repudiated. Second, an ontic equality between God and Scripture suggests that we can have cognitive knowledge about God. This is something that Jenson denies because the event of communication cannot occupy cognitive categories because it is an event that “transcends natural cognitive capacity.” Moreover, to claim that we can say, “God is good” is to posit something about the very nature of God. But if God is by definition a free act that can chose His own nature, then it is impossible for us to say that God is “anything” other than free decision. Any other claim goes beyond our ability to know.

So, how does Jenson answer this apparent problem? It is true that for Jenson, God is free utterance. He is communication. However, God is the word to which all other words respond.[12] He is not necessarily our word. He does not depend on a prior word or language.[13] In other words, God is the word that stands apart from the word of Scripture, whether in English or Swahili. God’s word remains hidden as it were behind the word of Scripture. Thus, a dual conversation takes place. According to Jenson, God is conversation and man is conversation but their conversations do not correspond at any given point, nor can they, for such a correspondence would entail an epistemological correspondence that Jenson wants to deny.

Therefore, the word of Scripture is a witness to God’s word and serves as a vehicle for encounter, but Scripture is not His word. Scripture must become His word—event.[14] Thus, Jenson is able to maintain a distinction between God as his own word and the word of Scripture. But the question that begs to be asked is how can Jenson talk about ontological truth statements in Scripture? How is he able to identify God as ontologically equivalent with the word of Scripture? We will take up these questions in the next post.

 

[1] Jenson, God after God, 190.

[2] Jenson, ST 1, 29.

[3] Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1, 195.

[4] Ibid., 190.

[5] Jenson, ST 1, 227. Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics II. 1, 205, “But is God really an object of human cognition? Is an object of human cognition God? No postulate, however necessary, can compel this to be true.”

[6] Jenson, ST 1, 227.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 124.

[9] Ibid., 50.

[10] Ibid., 59.

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

[12] Jenson, God after God, 190.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Jenson, ST 1, 28.

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