review :: robert jenson on six difficult notions

Robert Jenson’s On Thinking the Human: Resolutions of Difficult Notions [1] is, at 86 pages, a deceptively short book for the depth it contains. Yet even given the density of its insight, the text itself is not laboriously terse or overwrought. The concept of the book is simple: take six concepts concerning human experience about which thought is notoriously contradictory, intractably ambiguous, or frought with persistent dispute, and consider each by transporting the conversation from one that is thought “in” the human experience, to one that is thought outside being-human. The outside perspective from which these concepts receive critical light is, time and again, that of the relation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as one God.  

After this introduction, the volume’s subtitle is strikingly ambitious, if not arrogant, but Jenson does not shy from the task of “resolving.” And in this, Jenson hopes to be no less arrogant than the New Testament itself (85), which is to say sufficiently confident to assert his belief that the universe can only “be thought” coherently in obedience to the Trinity. Indeed, by the denouement of each of the six chapters he has worked his way to a resolution. I am reading Robert Jenson for the first time, and am enormously impressed. It may be naïvely provincial affection for a fellow Lutheran with Barthian sensibilities, but both his statements of the “difficult notions” and his “resolutions” are strikingly elegant.
For example, in the initial chapter concerning death. Jenson points out that we seem to be incapable of thinking our own death without imagining some continuation of consciousness in darkness, sleep, or nothingness—but that continuation is precisely what death excludes. There is no perspective from which one’s own state of being-dead might be observed. After making the connection between this nothingness and the nothingness of the universe’s non-existence, Jenson turns to consider the Father’s perspective on the Son’s death by crucifixion. In the divine thinking of that death, we find the possibility that our deaths too might be thought, and in Christ, we might be thought through nothingness into life. 

Other “difficult notions” resolved include consciousness, freedom, reality, wickedness, and love.

My greatest concentration of disagreements with Jenson came, for me, in the chapter on wickedness. Interacting with Aristotle, Jenson questions whether human sinfulness is an accident or substance of human nature. In other words, is it fair game to speak of a “wicked person” or ought we only speak of “persons acting wickedly”? Jenson spends several pages in defense of Flacius, a Lutheran who argued that original sin is the whole nature (i.e. substance) of the unredeemed person. Against Flacius, the Lutheran tradition insisted that sin is an accident of fallen humanity (albeit a very grave one) and not its substance. Flacius’ view grates against all my theological sensibilities. No human being is unambiguously good or evil, and the notion that humans might be differentiated along those lines is always disastrous—leading to everything from pharasaism to genocide. 

Ultimately, Jenson resolves the issue by demonstrating the limitations of Aristotle’s distinction (expanding what is essentially a timeless picture into the greater complexity of a narrative), and argues after all, that human beings participate in both good and evil, and that these forces shape our very being. The tenor of this conclusion reveals the interaction with Flacius as an attack on what Jenson sees as the late-modern minimizing of evil as something solvable by socio-economic reconfiguration, therapy, or meditation. As much as I might agree with Jenson on these points, I also hear Flacius’ voice with some regularity these days; many of our brothers and sisters can point to the people who are wicked all the way down—and I do not think they need any encouragement. Questions put to this confidence, even if they are late modern liberal sorts of questions, are to be welcomed rather than silenced. I should repeat myself to be clear, I agree wholeheartedly with Jenson’s conclusion in this chapter, but we arrived at the same point from different directions. 

For all that, Jenson is clear, uses no more space than necessary, and deals with monumental issues with insight, wit, and creativity. I look forward to working through the rest of his work. Jenson’s book is a phenomenal piece of writing, one that merits emulation as much as careful reading.


[1] Jenson, Robert W. On Thinking the Human: Resolutions of Difficult Notions. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003.

2 Replies to “review :: robert jenson on six difficult notions”

  1. Eric, I thank you for mining these theological nuggets for us. They rattle around in my brain throughout the day especially as I make my 2 hr and 20 min commute to the park. I’m not around theological types much in this small little town and don’t have the opportunity to think or talk with anyone on these terms. Theology is one of those areas that seem to invite anyone who wants to jump in where the tolerance of those who have made a study of it all for many years holds patient.

    It took me a while to figure out the just of what you posted, so bear with me, for as you know I’m learning as I go here and having some fun playing with the terms, barely understanding them, however. So please forgive me as I try to understand and poke around some as an unqualified observer of those who work this stuff for a living.

    So…from this qualified position I offer the following thoughts:

    The question occurs to me, if human sinfulness is a substance of human nature, then how can benefit of redemption occur – that is, spiritually speaking, a return to the original created order of Eden? Flacius apparently qualifies his position characterizing the sin of the unredeemed as a substance of human nature. There seems to be a contradiction of terms here which maybe I don’t understand sufficiently. How can a claim be made of human sinfulness as substance of human nature and then offer the idea of redemption without human sinfulness being an accident of human nature?

    If I understand correctly, both Jensen and Flacius argue from the position that human nature is fundamentally sinful. I’m not sure, however, if they take this precept as far to hold that human nature is sinful from the original Edenic order allowing room for redemption, or a return back to perfection. Further, how can God create a sinful human nature? (A rhetorical question.) Maybe I just don’t get it and need some help understanding these matter some, since I haven’t read a word that either one has written and in no way want to pretend so.

    Just to finish my own gyrations on this, the idea of redemption, as I read it from my dictionary of Christianity theology, was not derived from abstract philosophical thought, but from the Hebrew way of thinking in concrete terms. Maybe the contradiction of terms noted above comes from a mix in the way of thinking and that’s where logic thought breaks down.

    From this perspective, it appears that if human sinfulness is a substance of human nature then redemption becomes more a concern of what good people DO rather than the spiritual transformation of receiving the atoning act of propitiation offered by Christ. In other words, a return to the perfection of the original created order is possible when human sinfulness is an accident of human nature. However, when sinfulness is considered a substance of humanity there seems to be no potential for redemption – as a return to what was good as declared by the spoken word of God.

    If you have any idea of what I’m getting at I’d appreciate your kind hearted consideration of what I’ve posted, purely as a layman who doesn’t mind trying on a few different ways of thinking, and maybe adopting some of it.

    Hope all goes well. Oh yes…a pint works really good at times as a lubricate of the Socratic Method.

    It will be a pretty busy one for us getting our jobs done with Sandy, Karen’s sister here now, and my brothter Tim and his family from Sacto joining us for a few days for Thanksgiving. Ali will be coming up for a few days too. Should be lots of fun. Take care. Have a good week. Willy.

  2. Willy,

    Thank you so much for the extensive comments. And for taking the time to try to decipher what I wrote in the post. In an attempt to keep the review from growing too long, I likely used words that obscured what I was trying to say, rather than make them clearer.

    To leap back in, Flacius argued that there is no such thing as just being human. The nature of being human is always defined by something outside of ourselves. So, in the original creation Adam and Eve were created in the image of God. Their nature, according to Flacius, was grounded in their likeness to God.

    In the fall, however, the nature of being-human changed, so that being human is defined by sinfulness. Human beings “are now by Satan’s trick so inverted that they are actually an image of Satan.” For Flacius, after the fall sin is the substance of human beings. Sin isn’t merely a substance in fallen human beings (something that could potentially be removed without obliterating the person), but is the substance of fallen human beings—what they are made of.

    Subsequently, in redemption, human nature (for those whom Christ calls) is changed again, so that human beings are the image of Christ. In their baptism, Christians die and are born to a new life (a new substance) in Christ.

    In the end, Jenson argues (and I am grateful!) that Flacius got it wrong because he was thinking in the wrong categories. By trying to think of “the substance” of a human being as something that is self-contained and whole-in-itself, he runs into trouble. Jenson thinks that the mental pictures that Flacius’ thought is using lead him astray because they fail to take into account both time and relationships.

    I imagine that Flacius is imagining human beings like lumps sitting on a table, he looks at a lump, pokes it, smells it, and tries to discern whether this lump is made of cheese or silly putty or earwax. So Flacius looks at human beings and tries to discern what they are made of (spiritually speaking of course), God’s image, sin, or Christ.

    The mistake is that this presumes that one can “really see” a human being apart from all her relationships to others, to God, to herself, all of which change through time. Jenson ends by arguing that our “substance”, which quickly becomes an unhelpful term, is held in tension in all sorts of relationships. So we are creatures, sons, daughters, friends, fathers, citizens, lovers, etc., and you and I are each the composite of all those relationships. Those relationships change through time, as do you and I.

    Jenson’s model for this “identity-in-relationship” is, of course, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who are together one God. We can’t think of the Father without the Son, because the Father is not the Father without the Son, and neither is the Son without the Father. Their identities are held in common.

    This means that when some of our relationships are sinful, or contain sin, then we really are (substantially) sinful. But that is never the whole story, because sin is never the only relationship we have. We are never ALL sin. Each of us are more complex than that—a mix of good and bad!

    I am thankful for Jenson’s conclusion, but frustrated that he gave Flacius such a favorable consideration on his way there.

    At any rate, thank you for the questions and for giving me the opportunity to think through the argument again—I’ll remember it much better now!

    Say hello to the family! You may be glad to know that these words were typed with the assistance of my new striped shirt (which I like very much!), but unfortunately without the assistance of a frosty pint… I still have work to do today!

    God’s peace to you,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: