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God After God: Jenson After Barth, Part #4

In our last post we left two questions begging to be asked. First, how can Jenson talk about ontological truth statements in Scripture? Second, how is he able to identify God as ontologically equivalent with the word of Scripture? Today we take up Jenson’s answers to these questions.

In the cultural–linguistic model of language Jenson has found an explanatory model.[1] There are two crucial concepts that attend the cultural-linguistic model of language that are useful for understanding Jenson’s thought. The first attending idea is the theory of “intrasystemic consistency.”[2] This category deals with the functional coherence of a given system. Unlike the idealist who defines coherence as the intelligent and consistent integration of any fact with all other facts; the cultural–linguistic model speaks in terms of systems. Thus, the internal consistency of a system is the meaning of coherence.

The second notion that must be taken into account is that of ontological truth statements.[3] According to the cultural-linguistic model, these statements deal with the truth of correspondence. Whereas, philosophically such a notion usually has to do with the correspondence of the idea I have in my mind to what is “out there;” however, for the cultural-linguistic model it has more to do with understanding one’s own system among many others. Correspondence, then, is not an attribute that any one system can itself possess.[4]

So, how can these concepts help us to understand Jenson’s view of God as ontologically present in a mere Scriptural witness, while at the same time remaining unknowable? Jenson claims to adopt the cultural-linguistic model of intrasystemic consistency because it is found in Scripture.[5] There is, says Jenson, a “theology of culture” that permeates Scripture. So, according to Jenson, “every culture is a religion and the body of every religion is a culture;” the religion of Israel is no exception.[6]

Furthermore, according to Jenson, this intrasystemic consistency is known as dramatic coherence.[7] Thus, after a grammatical and cultural discussion of words like “god” and “eternity” Jenson says, “We summarize this chapter so far: the God to be interpreted in this work is the God identified by the biblical narrative.”[8] The point is clear. Jenson is defining the system in which his theology is to be situated. He is dealing with the God of the biblical narrative. Jenson is not dealing with the Canaanite idols or the expressions of the divine found in Buddhism; instead, he is interpreting the God found in the system of the Biblical narrative.[9]

Having established the system in which he will converse, Jenson can now begin to use ontological truth statements. Since according to the cultural-linguistic model an intrasystemic true statement may be ontologically false in a system that lacks the appropriate concepts and categories of reference, but situated in its respective system as part of the system, the statement is now ontologically true.[10] Thus, it is possible according to a cultural-linguistic model of language for Jenson to posit an ontic equality between God and the narrative of Scripture, which is exactly what he does.[11]

However, these ontic statements need not correspond to what is beyond their own system. In his, The Nature of Doctrine, Lindbeck writes,

The ontological truth of religious utterances, like their intrasystematic truth, is different as well as similar to what holds in other realms of discourse. Their correspondence to reality in the view we are expounding is not an attribute that they have when considered in and of themselves, but is only a function of their role in constituting a form of life, a way of being in the world…[12]

Therefore, when Jenson talks about the narrative of Scripture being ontologically identifiable with God he is only being consistent with his own system as he sees it. That is not to say that the language corresponds with a being that stands over against the narrative. Nor are we to think that the grammatical logic of the narrative will correspond to anything beyond the system itself. Rather, we must simply and only think of these statements in the Scripture as having ontological status within the Biblical system as Jenson sees it.

To use the terminology of the cultural-linguistic model, these ontological truth statements merely express “a form of life, a way of being in the world.” This view is consistent with Jenson’s own understanding of Christian narrative in that insofar as “theological propositions are factual propositions, they be logically and epistemically homogeneous with propositions of first—level proclamation and prayer, as is ‘God is love.’”[13] Thus, ontological truth statements, according to a cultural-linguistic view, are simply statements that produce intrasystemic consistency in both the thought and life of the community.

Yet, the question remains; can these ontological truth statements provide any cognitive knowledge concerning God? Again, the answer must be, no. Our language cannot communicate anything cognitive about God. The event of God’s act cannot be known through intuition, reason, or theoretical categories. God does not adapt himself to our cognitive efforts.[14] So then, the ontological truth statements about God in Scripture are simply and only statements that will enable a community to function and communicate consistently with one another.

The nagging question at this point is; has Jenson really gone beyond Barth? Jenson is certainly bolder in his assertions linking eternity and time, but has he really achieved a consummation between the two? At this point his theology appears no more threatening than that of Barth. After all, he still maintains a distinction between God and creation that can only be penetrated by an unknowable act, while at the same time, adopting a cultural-linguistic view of Scripture that enables the community to make ontological truth statements without the burden of correspondence. Therefore, we must now consider the person of Jesus Christ. According to Jenson, He is the epitome of God’s temporality and to Him we will turn in the next post.

 

[1] Jenson, ST 1, 18 n43.

[2] George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1984), 64.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 65

[5] Jenson, ST 1, 51.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. 55.

[8] Ibid., 57.

[9] Ibid., 55—56.

[10] Lindbeck, 65.

[11] Jenson, ST 1, 59.

[12] Lindbeck, 65.

[13] Jenson, ST 1, 20.

[14] Ibid., 227.

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