This morning is our honor to be speaking with Dr. Robert Jensen. Dr. Robert Jensen is a leading American Lutheran and ecumenical theologian. He began teaching and writing mostly philosophy, switching definitely into theology during his tenure at Oxford University. Since then, he has worked as a systematic theologian in the service of the church. His work has spanned the limits of the discipline from explorations in the theology of culture and in theological political theory to strictly dogmatic expositions. Some of Dr. Jensen's most well known works include the triune identity God according to the Gospel, which we'll be discussing today, and his multi volume, systematic theology. He has also recently published conversations with poppy about God, where he and his eight year old granddaughter trade questions about God sharing their unscripted, spontaneous talks about everything from the meaning of the Trinity, to what God looks like. Dr. Jensen, thank you so much for being with us today.
Well, it's my honor.
To begin with, would you be willing to tell us about your original vision for the Center for Catholic and evangelical theology that you started at St. Olaf College?
Well, you know, we thought there were two of us who founded it jointly, Carl Bratton, and me. And in fact, you should say it was two couples, jointly, Carla Lavonne, Broughton, Blanche and Robert Jensen. And we carry the burden of the work for a long time. Now we have an audience of retired from another people are doing it. The vision was to provide a center and a publication center for conferences, publications and such. That would be Catholic in the sense of supporting the long tradition of the church and liturgy and dogmatics. And evangelicalism, a sense of the mission of the church dedicated to that. And to many of the things which American evangelicalism has pursued. We think we succeeded pretty well actually, the thing is still going. And it's still Catholic and evangelical. And it has conferences and publishers proclaim the journal is flourishing. Although we could always use more subscriptions, if anybody's interested.
As far as ecumenical projects go in the EV angelical. World, this center for Catholic and evangelical theology was one of the earlier initiatives. What what gave rise to this initial vision? Where did you get the idea from?
From the Ecumenical Movement, in which angelical did participate more than one is commonly thought. Now that has come at hard times, of course, the gulf between Catholicism and the angelical world, and then even the mainline Protestant world has widened. And mainline Protestants who denominations who carry the movement to begin with mostly are coming apart themselves and, and have more internal affairs to worry about and they do ecumenical one
Sir, I may ask you about your book, The Triune identity, in the first part of your book, The Triune identity, God according to the Gospel, you argue that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is in fact, God's proper name. What are some of the immediate implications of this thesis?
Well, in the first place, simply that he has a name. He is He is a personal entity, and a specific one. Now, in the world of religion, generally, that's not the case, the gods shifted than it is between themselves, whether you call it Zeus, or Jupiter doesn't matter. But God had the Christian God, the God of the gospel, has a name. And that's, that's decisive. Hello. Your Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the name of God to which we are to baptize. Well, then we can substitute, say Redeemer, or creator, redeemer and sanctifier like some people have wanted to do, that's another that's another ecumenical consequence.
How is it that you came across this discovery? What was the moment for you that solidified this, this insight?
I do not know where the original impetus came from. But from the beginning of my theological work, I have been dedicated to trying to hear and articulate how the Christian gospel is a message that the church is entrusted with and that creates the church. How that in fact talks about God as over against the ways in which we might it like we talked about. And when you, when you do that you end up talking about the Trinity. So you have a triune identity, which God are we talking about? We're talking about the one who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In the preface of your book, you write, quote, The doctrine of the Trinity is no one doctrine or homogeneous set of doctrines, such as, for example, the Anselmi, and doctrine of the Atonement. There are several kinds of Trinitarian discourse, each of which functions differently within the church's effort to identify it's God. What are these different kinds of Trinitarian discourse of which you speak?
Well, for the first place, they are levels. Look, if Christ had returned him, and he was first expected to, we would have simply had the church talking about the works of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that will in the end of the matter. As soon however, as the history of the gospel develops, is through the church continued. And you encounter the theologians of the Mediterranean world, who had a whole different grasp of God, they had questions, skeptical ones. Like what sort of God is this? Is he? Is he supposed to be personal or impersonal? How does it happen? The Father and Son and Spirit are one God? What's the difference between them? How are they related? These questions came up and produce an academic field of theology of the Trinity, which is a whole different kettle of fish. Or, again, when I'm asked about the doctrine of the Trinity, my first answer is simply do you understand how to pray the Lord's Prayer? People usually say yes. And I say, Well, look, this is addressed to God the Father. We are permitted to say it because we're piggybacking on Christ, this course was with God the Son, and it's in their common spirit, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That's all you need to understand. If you know how to pray the Holy Lord's Prayer, you do, in fact, grasp the doctrines of the Trinity, even though you may have never heard of the academic doctrines, or the dogmas.
I teach at Moody Bible Institute, a conservative evangelical school, and one of the context that the doctrine of the Trinity Trinity perennially comes up in it in my teaching. In my classroom, is we discussed the doctrine of the Trinity. Is it scripturally founded? Or is it a development of tradition? Is the authority behind the doctrine of the Trinity scripture or tradition? If you were to face this question, in my classroom, what would be your tag? How would you respond to that?
Well, in the first place, I would kind of challenge the distinction between scripture and tradition. That's an ancient tradition. It's an ancient distinction. But I don't think it should carry very much weight. After all, the canon of Scripture is a piece of tradition. And the tradition, on the other hand, is aimed at preserving the message of the scriptures. If the church again, if the church had not been compelled to continue in history, they would simply have been scripture a period. But the church is a tradition, it is guaranteed the gates of hell, so not really, the church. So we have some confidence in that tradition. And I don't find a hard and fast line between found in the Gospel of the doctrine of the Trinity in tradition or in Scripture.
For some evangelicals, the first four Ecumenical Councils have a unique authority. Perhaps the remaining quote, Ecumenical Councils are of less value to these evangelicalism, but the first four are of a very special significance, in your interpretation, are are the first four Ecumenical Councils unique in some way.
They're not unique exactly, but they do carry a heavier weight of authority than the remaining ones. Just in practice, that's the case. If you look around in the in the mainline tradition of the Church, which is what I belong to, actually, you'll find the first before Ecumenical Councils, site and more often, and then the remainder as maybe good or bad. I'm not sure which it is, but I don't think that that's unique of angelical ism.
If I can press just a little bit on that, we're about to discuss your chapter on a one being with the father in which you develop to trace the development of Trinitarian theology. But if I can just rephrase that last question, how is it the Trinitarian theology developed in these first four Ecumenical Councils? And was there a unique authority to that? What is the justification for this special status of the first four Ecumenical Councils that you've alluded to, and which I stand corrected is much broader, of course than than evangelicalism.
Well, I'm not sure there's anything more to that than itself tradition. The West, you know, in the east, all seven are equally authoritative. In the West, theoretically, all seven have an authority that practically speaking, the fourth, first four have dominated, and I'm not sure there's any more justification than just that.
In your chapter entitled, of one being with the Father, you traced the development of Trinitarian theology from the apostolic mission in the first century to the Council of Cal seed and 451. And you describe the confrontation between the Jewish Christian vision of God and the Greek or Hellenic vision of God. How is this confrontation between Jewish Christianity and Hellenism, how was this confrontation shaped the development of Trinitarian theology?
In the Western world, absolutely. Trinitarian theology has developed as a conversation for the times, these will sometimes bulimic between the theology traditionally represented by Plato and Aristotle, and the impetus of the Christian gospel. That's what it's been about, you know, the, the Nicene formula of one being of the Father, there's that word being, you won't find it in scripture. But they had to deal with it. And how many beings, there's just one.
From my perspective, as a historical theologian, rather than a systematic theologian, when I read your proposal, I immediately think of a dolphin Harnack. And his history of dogma, how he describes how this seed of the gospel or pure Christianity is implanted on Greek soil and becomes this dogmatic expression of Trinitarian theology? Are you an essential agreement with Carnac? Or is your portrait fundamentally different?
My portrait is much the same, except that I value things oppositely I don't think that what was going on was the perversion of the Gospel by Greek thought, but, but the, the correction of Greek thought by the gospel. So the fathers did was not adapt. Greek thought the gospels were Greek thought they adapted Greek thought to the Gospel, which is, which is an opposite moment.
And the to begin school and these later, 19th and 20th century, German historians, from which Harnack is drawing is he as he develops his own thesis, is this also sort of a source of inspiration for your own research?
Ah, yes, look. Olson anyway, cannot ignore the 19th century. It's an 18th century theology springs from Kant, who was a Lutheran Schleiermacher, who was not theoretically a Lutheran, but practically speaking, it was close to them. And Hegel, who thought he was a Lutheran theologian, however misguided he may have been. So, does these people have shaping rule for my thinking? Yes. Now, that doesn't mean I agree with them, but they, they have to come up.
If I can ask just one further clarification here. And is this model of Trinitarian theology that you've developed and that you stand for? Is that in fundamental disagreement with with the vision of Christian theology, and I'll just drop a name here, I'm not confident if that's the right, the right model, but perhaps John Webster's view of, of Trinitarian theology as being the engine in and of itself that drives Christian theology, that this wasn't an appropriation of Hellenism, or any other particular philosophical school, but that it is the philosophy itself. It is the theology itself that defines Christianity. Are those two visions of theology, in disagreement or in fundamental harmony? I think they're in fundamental harmony. Would you be willing to expand on that? Please help me understand.
Well, the basic drive of my theology is to take with absolute seriousness, the first half of a book, which I have not read, the God of the gospel. How does the gospel in fact talk about God? Now, that's what John is up to. And he may describe the dialectic between this drive and the counter theologies that the gospel has encountered in history. You may describe that dialectic differently than I do. But I think that basically, we're pretty we harmony.
What are the direct ecumenical applications of this Trinitarian theology?
Well, I try to be an ecumenical theologian. Insofar as humanly possible. And that's all of course, very limited. I try to speak as if the church were one in a situation where the church is, in fact divided. And nobody can jump over his own shadow. So everybody recognizes that I'm aloof, and I try to conceal the fact sometimes, but I fail to do so. ecumenical. There is a deposited in the ecumenical documents, the dialogues of the last decades. There is an enormous body a really quite remarkable theology. Because much of which I'm in complete agreement. I don't know how much influence on that I may have had, I think some but not much, probably. But there's an enormous body of theology. Now the problem is that very little of that has been actually formally adopted by the churches. And even if it had been, we'd still be stuck because we were divided by other matters. Used to be said, you know, that dogma divides and practice unites. At present time is the other way around. doctrine in the practice divides.
What are the steps forward for the Ecumenical Movement today? My assistant may have communicated that I was a graduate assistant for Avery Cardinal Dulles, a man whom I think probably you met and knew what is the way forward for for this next generation of a humanist?
I don't know. You know, Cardinal Ratzinger before he became Pope said several times, one time in an interview with me that we will really have to create a special intervention of the spirit to break through the blockades, which existed between the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox churches and the Western Protestant churches. And I'm afraid we have come to that exact point. If somebody wanted to appoint me to another ecumenical dialogue, which is very unlikely at my age, but supposedly did I'm not sure if I would think it worthwhile to accept the appointment. I think we're the waiting game at the moment. And since the Western Church is clearly being reduced to a small minority in the Western world, that may be the way the Holy Spirit is working to compel us to, to find our unity.
Sir, if I can ask just a couple more questions here. And then the first question I'd like to ask is, you are one of the editors for the Brazos theological commentary on the Bible series. This is actually a question from Scott Swain that he wanted me to ask you, would you be willing to share your your original vision for that project and whether this series has in fact, produced the the result that you were hoping for?
Well, the original vision was the vision of rusty vino are, you know, who then sort of gathered his friends and relations together as an editorial Council. Now, we were all paid for one thing, and that is our allegiance to the Nicene Creed, which is the basic Trinitarian creed. And I share that vision. But it wasn't, it wasn't by impetus, it was rusty Vinos. To write for the Razzles commentary, you have to be two things. One, you have not to belong to the society of biblical literature. You have to be either an historian or a systematic theologian. And to you have to really accept the authority of the Nicene Creed i as to how that has worked out. It has worked out most. Okay. Some volumes, which I'm not going to mention, are less useful, I think, than others. But by and large, I think the writers have succeeded in following the vision. So you have people talking about a critical theory if is a critical theory that the writers know this commentary series follow the critical theory of the Nicene Creed.
There's been quite some talk recently of the, quote, theological interpretation of Scripture as as an independent hermeneutic as its own system of interpreting the text. Was this crafting this vision for the theological interpretation of Scripture? Was that part of the original purpose of this commentary series?
Yeah, it was We wanted people to take seriously the theological tradition. First name, the first Ecumenical Councils, if you like, specifically the Nicene Creed, and make that be the theoretical structure within which to read the scriptures.
We Was there any particular practitioner in church history? Who exemplified this vision that you were trying to cast? Who really interpreted scripture exactly as you in a way that you would like theologically, theologically, yes, in a way that you would like to
compel a name to figures who may surprise you with Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther. Look, Thomas, was engaged in a continuing dialogue with what he called the philosopher Aristotle. And he made in the process made Aristotle say hundreds of things that Aristotle would have thought was complete nonsense. He, he subverted Aristotle, he took them over, uses categories. But the drive was scripture, you know, the great systematic theology of the Summa Taillow. Gay, he regarded that as a preparatory work for writing commentaries. And that's how it worked out.
Tell me how you see Martin Luther fitting into this vision.
Let me give you an example. In his Genesis commentary, the standard there's two ways of translating the word the logos, you can translate with verbal or Sermo. All the tradition translated it was very much in the Latin Bible, the Old Testament. He deliberately said no, it's not that it's thermal. It isn't a God thinks the world into being it's a speaks the world into being rather deliberately subverts Aristotle at a at a key point. He picks up Aristotle's doctrine that the mind is a pure potentiality. Divine becomes what it what it perceives. But then he says, The philosophers say that the mind is an eye. I say that the mind has an ear, we become what we hear. And that's how we are justified, we hear the Gospel, this message of righteousness and holiness. And that hearing itself, shapes us, informs us, makes us righteous and holy.
If I can ask one final question, sir, and that is, despite the tremendous diversity in the church that we see around the world today, what is it that gives the church her essential unity?
The Gospel were eliminated in the in the Augsburg confession, it says, where the gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments, right the administering the church is present. I have no problem with that definition.
And so what is the gospel,
the message of salvation, the work of God and the Old Testament in Israel and graced?
Dr. Robert Jensen, it has been our pleasure to have you on the phone today and thank you so much for your willingness to speak with us.
Again, I say it's my pleasure. I thank you for the invitation.