We will now turn to the theology of the American Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson (1928-present). Jenson has a very long publications record over many decades. Nevertheless, instead of describing each of his works in detail we will primarily focus on the ultimate synthesis of his thinking in his Systematic Theology (1997-1999). Examining this work will suffice insofar as Jenson thought has remained relatively consistent over the decades. Also, his treatment of the issue of atonement in his Systematic Theology constitutes one of the longer discussions of the subject present in his writings.
Much like Pannenberg’s theology, Jenson’s theology is focused on a quasi-Hegelian concept of divine self-actualization within the history of salvation. By contrast to the former though, Jenson emphasizes that theology is an inherently ecclesial task. That is to say, Jenson wishes to find the internal, ecumenical coherence of the historical proclamation of the Church with the foundational biblical narratives of redemption. As we might recall, Pannenberg is primarily concerned with the coherence of Christian truth claims with those of the wider human community. For Jenson, Christian theology operates within the communal narrative of the people of God, founded in the biblical history of Israel and the Church. The people of God engaged in the theological task are able to identify and explain the reality of the one God through their participation in his ongoing narrative. Foundational to this ongoing narrative is God’s self-definition and identification through the exodus of Israel from Egypt and the resurrection of Jesus.
Since for Jenson the structure of being is itself inherently narrative, the fullness of God’s being and life only possess their proper character from the standpoint of the total story of creation and salvation: “Since the Lord’s self-identity is constituted in dramatic coherence, it is established not from the beginning but from the end . . . .” For this reason: “The biblical God is not eternally himself in that he persistently instantiates a beginning in which he already is all he ever will be; he is eternally himself in that he unrestrictedly anticipates an end in which he will be all he ever could be.” Oliver Crisp describes concept of Jenson’s God thus: “It is rather as if God exists through time by projecting himself backward in time from his future to his past and present.” For this reason, the knowledge of the Triune God is properly discerned from the biblical narrative itself wherein God has actualized his being through projecting its reality backward from the fullness of its completion form present in the future eschaton.
The biblical God identifies himself with Israel to the extent that he becomes an actor within its ongoing historical drama. The Israel’s history under the old covenant already anticipated its eschatological fulfillment in Christ. Indeed, Christ was already present as the “narrative pattern in the history of Israel.” God chooses to be the God that he is by eternally willing himself to be the man Jesus. Therefore the pre-incarnate Christ is less defined as a hypostasis subsisting within the relations of timeless Triune life, and more as an eternal movement of God towards of the terminus of the earthly life of Jesus. This movement is determinative for the whole structure and coherence of the Triune being: “What in eternity precedes the Son’s birth to Mary is not an unincarnate state of the Son, but a pattern of movement within the event of Incarnation, the movement to incarnation, as itself a pattern of God’s triune life.”
In light of the fact that the movement towards Incarnation eternally defines the very being of the Son, it logically follows that the Son finds himself exhaustively defined by the narrative of Jesus’ earthly life. In Jenson’s theology, there is no room for the extra calvinisticum, or even (it would seem) for a logos asarkos existing for himself apart from any consideration of the Incarnation. In keeping with this theological proposal, Jenson follows Luther and the Swabian Lutherans of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in ardently supporting of the absolute omnipresence of Christ’s humanity. It nevertheless must be stressed that Jenson only affirms certain aspect of classical Lutheran Christology. In other areas he significantly deviates from the earlier tradition, as for example in his aforementioned in rejection of aseity of the Son apart from the Incarnation.
Moreover, Jenson’s Christological proposals are somewhat ironic insofar as it is his stated intention from the beginning of the work to create an ecumenically oriented theology. Contrary to his intention though, he has in respect to his Christology reproduced the accent of his particular tradition in an even more pronounced and less ecumenically-friendly form than many his co-religionists. Recognizing this point, his student Colin Gunton has suggested that he might consider drawing up a Christology along more ecumenical lines.