A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live?
Robert W. Jenson
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016
152 pp. | $27.95
Princeton’s Bruce McCormack calls the Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson “the greatest living Protestant theologian in the English-speaking world.” Indeed (greatest or not), Jenson’s influence upon the contemporary theological landscape is uncontestable. And, whether one is sympathetic to his overall theological trajectory or not, there can be no question that Jenson’s work has continually advanced the discipline of systematic theology in significant ways. However, the barrier to engaging Jenson’s work has, heretofore, been high. For example, while deceivingly slim in size, his two-part systematic theology is nonetheless massive in terms of the weight, originality, sophistication, erudition, and difficulty of its content (click here for volume 1 and volume 2).
Considering the above, Jenson’s new monograph, recently published by Oxford University Press, is especially welcome. Compiled by Adam Eitel, A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live? is an edited transcript of an undergraduate course that Jenson taught at Princeton in 2008. The volume is thus culled from twenty-three lectures covering “a standard sequence of topics in Christian theology: God, Trinity, creation, humanity, sin, salvation, and church” (1). However, what was not so traditional about the lectures was their central motif, namely, a question sourced in Ezekiel 37:3: “Son of man, can these bones live?” By invoking this metaphor, Jenson sought to address two questions: number one, “whether the story that God lives with his people can continue,” and number two, “Is Christian theology dead?” (2).
At the culmination of this volume (after laboring to build toward an answer to the above two questions), Jenson returns to a notion that is essential to his larger two-volume work, namely, the idea that theology is, by definition, thinking well about speaking the gospel. In doing so, he waxes regarding our present situation, this side of modernity, and sums up how we got here: “If Christendom was a marriage between the gospel and Greco-Roman civilization, then we may regard Modernity as a long, drawn-out divorce” (105). And, on the other side of this dissolution, where we find ourselves now is within a culture shaped by nihilism. This is the world we live in. And it is the world we must learn to speak the gospel into. And, finally, for all of its curiosities, successfully delivering the gospel message is what Jenson’s theological program is all about.
In many ways, this monograph may be compared to Karl Barth’s Dogmatics In Outline, also an edited transcription of lectures built around a central motif (the Apostle’s Creed), supplying an entry point into interaction with a formidable theologian. That phrase “entry point” is key. Jenson’s A Theology in Outline is conversational, and, given the fact that the lectures published therein were originally prepared for an undergraduate audience, it is eminently accessible. Thus, in this volume, one can get a palatable taste of Jenson, both to see what all of the fuss is about, as well as to potentially whet one’s appetite for the full meal contained in his two-volume systematic theology. And, for that reason if none other, this present work is commended.
About Tim Harmon
Timothy G. Harmon is Assistant Director of the Th.M. Program at Western Seminary, and lead pastor at Northeast Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon. He is a graduate of Western Seminary (M.A.B.T.S. and Th.M.), and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in systematic theology.