The greatest American theologian since Jonathan Edwards died this week. His name was Robert Jenson. But to his friends he was “Jens.” Jenson wrote scores of books. His impact on Christian theology will be felt for generations to come. He was a theologian’s theologian with a pastoral heart and a subtle missiological eye. He was one of the great ecumenists of our time, one with deep convictions; we don’t often associate the two. We think of the former as watering down particularity of belief in order to go along to get along. The latter we might admire but don’t invite them into the ecumenical sandbox for fear that they don’t play well with others.

Part of Jenson’s genius and charism was the ability to deal with deep truths in a matter-of-fact way with brevity that was in no way superficial, ever. Take for instance what his friends called him: “Jens.” I’m re-reading his last book, A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live?, as part of a podcast series commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. In a 12-page chapter that summarizes the whole history of Israel, setting the stage for telling the story of Jesus and the meaning of the resurrection in the subsequent chapter, one which is 13-pages long, Jenson pauses at God’s address to Moses in and through the burning bush.

He points out how troubling God’s relationship to the children of Abraham seems given that he has been silent for so long in the face of so much suffering. Moses’ reticence to go back to Egypt because he heard a voice in a bush on fire tell him to do so seems reasonable. More so, maybe, when God tells him who is sending him. This is where Jenson’s midwestern plainspokenness and theological acumen meet to make theology deep, approachable, and earthy:

Moses objects that no one will pay any attention to him. His objection is followed by a profound question: “Who are you? Who exactly is it that I am talking with?” Notice that he has to ask! It is as though Israel were starting over again! “The people who I am going to now lead have a right to know who this god is,” says Moses. God answers with an evasion: “I will be who I will be.” Moses keeps on pressing, and finally he gets a Name.

I will not speak that Name out loud. It is firm Jewish tradition that only the high priest is to utter this name. And I think Christians should honor that tradition. So I will refer to “the Name,” which is by and large how rabbis avoid it. No one has the slightest idea what, if anything, it means or where it came from. That is to say: it is a pure, personal, proper name. Why am I named Robert? Well, because when my parents named me it was not fashionable to give children Norwegian names. Robert sounded like a good Anglo-Saxon name and it seemed to fit. All that my name functions as is a reminder. It enables you to address me. Now as a matter of fact, my friends do not use the name “Robert” anymore. They just say “Jens.” So if you want to be cozy with me, that is what you should say. Anyway, a name simply enables people to address each other. And that is the way the Name functions in Israel. It allows this people to address God.

Back to the story: after plagues and other things, the people escape by night and cross the boundary sea between Egypt and Sinai.

Those words, or some form of them, were originally spoken to a class of undergraduates, most of whom weren’t Christians, at Princeton University. They were part of what I presume was the last class Robert Jenson ever taught. My friend Adam Eitel helped organize the lectures into what would become Jenson’s last book. I actually had the privilege of talking with him and Adam last year as part of an interview for The Mockingcast. Before that, I had only had one conversation with Jenson, who from this point forward I will call “Jens,” because I think that’s how he would have wanted it. It was years ago. I was a new graduate student in theology and I wanted to interact with a living theological legend. I sat down with him, and I asked Jens some questions, which, looking back on, I think were silly. But his answers were profound.

Sitting in his office in the Center for Theological Inquiry, I stammered out questions about predestination, sin, suffering, and the problem of evil. He sat back in his office chair with wheels in his blue blazer, faded clergy shirt, and clerical collar, which was floppy, as if it were made from the kind of material your favorite comfy t-shirt is made of, and smiled at me. He explained to me in far less time than it took to ask my questions that the reason there was evil in the world was because God wanted a world with a history, and that any history always includes things like evil and suffering. I asked Jens, “But why do it that way?! With a history?” His response was instant: “Because he wanted to include you.” I left knowing I heard something profound, but not sure what or why. Outside of some conferences, and the podcast interview, that was the extent of my personal relationship with Jens.

I was a never a student of Jens formally, and I’m certainly not an expert where his thought is concerned, but his theology has shaped me, deeply, in more ways than I can probably say or of which I’m probably even aware. But for brevity’s sake (Jens seemed to love brevity when it was possible), I want to just point out a few things in his theology that are grace-infused and potential gospel molotov cocktails, if lit with the fire of the Spirit anytime, anywhere.

At the end of A Theology in Outline, Jens is addressing the challenges that the late modern/postmodern Christian church faces after the dissolution of the Christendom project. After a masterful few pages where he summarizes the history of the pre-Enlightenment Western Church, he moves on to pinpoint the problem of nihilism. He then concludes with a call to evangelize our metaphysics, pointing to the example of Karl Barth. Barth’s genius, he thought, was trying to think through reality in light of person of Jesus Christ, as opposed to fitting the story of Jesus into late modern stories of self-aggrandizement on the one hand and meaninglessness on the other. He ends with a hat tip to his friend Wolfart Pannenberg, another great late modern theologian:

In my judgment, theology responds best by trusting in the gospel’s own interior rationality, and then building its own metaphysics, its own vision of reality. This endeavor has been going on for some time actually. One point guard in the endeavor might be Wolfhart Pannenberg, who has elaborated an entire system of metaphysics (and indeed an entire philosophy of science to go with it) on the principle that traditional metaphysics draws its vision of what is from what has been, whereas a distinctively Christian metaphysics must draw its vision from what will be. Indeed, that is what we have been doing all along here in these lectures. We have taken the claims of Christian doctrine with absolute seriousness: that the creator of all things is triune, so that his life has a specific structure from which the structure of everything else follows, and that one of the Trinity, one of the three, is the resurrected Jewish Messiah, Jesus.

One of Jens’ greatest contributions to the Christian story is the way he thought about time. Karl Barth said that a Christianity which is not thoroughly eschatological is no Christianity at all. But he wasn’t talking about an escapist rapture-oriented take on the future, or a theological hope built on human effort. He was talking about a future where God was “all in all” in such a profound way that it totally reshaped the present and even the past. This is a vision of the future that reveals that before there was a present, or even a past, God is a slain lamb.

This has incredibly practical implications where the Gospel and everyday life are concerned. To put a finer point on things, as our own Paul Zahl points out in Grace In Practice:

The progress of soteriology, the old, old story that is the beginning point for the Christian drama in personal experience, is like a pencil that narrows rows to a fine point. The pencil narrows from its widest point, which is the atonement. The narrowing or refining of the idea comes within the operation of imputation. The final point of the pencil, the place where the writing actually takes place, is simul iustus et peccator (“at once righteousteous and sinful”)…Imputation is the dealing with people by which grace makes its impact. pact. Imputation, which is a new kind of naming, is the format of grace that is the word as heard. It is the agency of grace that disarms.

What makes this new-naming, world-changing reality possible? At the heart of it is something Paul Zahl points out in his exceedingly helpful book The First Christian. John the Baptist, cousin of Jesus, who seemed to function for Jesus as Schleiermacher did for Barth, or Erasmus for Luther, preached a message of “not yet but soon,” like many of his apocalyptic Jewish contemporaries. Jesus preached something different, something so different that it seemed to scandalize even John. The message of Jesus was not “not yet but soon.” It was “already, but not yet.” The kingdom is here, but there is more to come. You’re in it, even though you’re still on the way. You feel delivered but are still hoping for deliverance. In fact it’s being delivered by Jesus that created this new, unique longing for deliverance at the same time.

In one of his earlier books, Story and Promise, Jens points out how just about every human communicative act intends to offer an obligation or a promise:

On each occasion when you speak to me, you modify the world in which we live together; from my point of view, you intervene in my life’s situation. “Good morning,” you say. Or, “Have a smoke.” Therefore the fundamental question about any utterance is: What does it do for the one to whom it is addressed? One thing we can do for each other with words is make promises. The gospel is of this sort.

The meaningful world which we evoke as we speak is a world with a future. For, of course, the meaning of any event or thing must be future to it. Thus every utterance, in that it modifies our meaningful world, in some way poses a future. With something like “I love you,” it is obvious how the speaking of it opens an entirely new life for the hearer —even if he rejects the offer, his life will never be quite the same again. But also something at the other extreme, like a new physical hypothesis, opens both a new and possibly endless task of testing by experiment, and unpredictable possibilities of new experience of and orientation in the world. So our fundamental question about utterance can be re-formulated: How does a particular utterance pose a future to its hearer? Clearly, a promise poses a future in a very particular way: as gift.

All the rest of our communication, various as it is, shares one common character: it poses a future not as gift but as obligation. The whole network of our discourse and community, except insofar as it is promise, functions for each of us individually as demand. We share life in the demands which each of us, in his self-communication, is for all the rest of us: because you are trusting, I must be careful; because you are black, I—a white—must listen; because you smite me, I must turn the other cheek. Thus those who do not want to obligate others, and do not know how or do not dare to make promises, fall silent—from the anchorites of all religions to the “inarticulate” folk now multiplying among our most educated and sensitive.

At this point Jens brings Law/Gospel language to the foreground:

The theological tradition has used the label “law” for the web of our communication insofar as it has this character; for civil and criminal laws are a clear paradigm of the way in which non-promise words pose a future. “If you do such-and-such,” says the law, “then such-and-such will happen.” Such an utterance indeed poses a possible future, but also binds it to a prior condition, binds it, that is, to a past. Whether the possibility offered by the “then…” part is realized depends on the “if…” part, on what I do or do not do beforehand. And on this that I do or fail to do therefore falls the weight of the utterance; it is a demand on my performance.

Even abstractly, it is obvious that there could be utterances with an opposite pattern in time. A promise goes: “Because I will do such-and-such, you may await such-and-such.” The pattern is “because…, therefore…” the exact reverse of “if…, then…” Here a future is opened independent of any prior condition, independent of what the addressee of the promise may do or be beforehand. Indeed, we may say that whereas other communication makes the future depend on the past, a promise makes the past depend on the future, for it grants a future free from the past, and so allows us to appropriate also the past in a new way. This is the point of all the biblical and churchly talk about “forgiveness;” if we are accepted in spite of what we have been, we are thereby permitted to appropriate what we have been afresh, as the occasion and object of that acceptance.

At this point regardless of one’s religious convictions, it’s hard not to admit the persuasiveness of the case Jens makes. But here’s the rub: our promises are writing checks our finite selves can’t cash:

There is, however, something wrong with the promises we make to each other, which is perhaps why many are now so reluctant to make any. Our promises have hidden conditions. If any promise is apparently unconditional, it is the marriage promise: “for better or worse, for richer or poorer,” we say, explicitly denying all conditions. Yet I cannot really guarantee in advance that no act of my spouse could break my commitment. The fundamental condition in all our promises is death: I cannot be held to a promise if keeping it will kill me. Nor is this a selfish condition. If I am dead, what good am I to anyone, especially to the recipient of my promise? Only in destructive enterprises such as war is it otherwise. And yet, an implicit condition, even this one, means that a promise can turn into law just when it is most needed: just when my spouse does the one thing that threatens me so deeply that—even for her sake!—I must flee, is probably the moment she needs me most.

Only a promise which had death behind it could be unconditional. Only a promise made about and by one who had already died for the sake of his promise, could be irreversibly a promise. The narrative content of such a promise would be death and resurrection. We are back to “the gospel.”

The gospel is a promise, one that creates a future that frees us from the tyranny of broken, sinful, shameful and accusing pasts. It’s a promise received by faith that, on its good day, creates thanksgiving. I’m sad for the passing of Jens, but also thankful for him and the future hope which is both our unearned inheritance. I’m glad God chose a history that included both of us.

To hear to Robert Jenson’s interview on The Mockingcast, listen here (Episode 65).