Jenson on the Origin of Trinity as Doctrine

Reading Jenson, I came across this bit and thought it a particularly helpful glimpse of the development of Trinitarian teaching. I’d tried to gesture toward something of this sort in comments on an earlier post.

“Typical of the titles is ‘Lord.’ Initially the disciples’ unproblematic form of address for their rabbi, it was naturally resumed after the Resurrection. But now their Lord was enthroned at the Father’s right hand and was the giver of the Spirit. In these circumstances, the address could not but resonate with the Bible’s use of ‘Lord’ for God himself—to whom is one speaking when one says ‘Lord’ to the heavens? This resonance is itself the doctrine. Only when Greek theology appears as interlocutor will or need it be asked what kind of ‘being’—divine, human, or mediating—the risen Jesus must have to be truly addressed as Lord.”

Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology: The Triune God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 92.

14 Replies to “Jenson on the Origin of Trinity as Doctrine”

    1. If I can venture an answer to a question I perceive behind your question without being too presumptuous, I can assure you that Jenson takes Thomas’ statement that Jesus is “his God” with utter seriousness.

      The point here is more that neither Thomas nor any of the other disciples would have been concerned to think about either Jesus or about Jesus’ God in the categories of “being” common to Greek philosophy. Jenson is, in effect, arguing that Thomas’ statement is a perfect anticipation of Nicea, to which the category of “substance” is nevertheless totally foreign.

      Not sure that Jenson actually addresses Jn 20:28 directly.

  1. Just stopping by for a tick, Eric, but I don’t think Jenson’s right, especially according to the work of Larry Hurtado (NT prof at Edinburgh and a former colleague). Hurtado has shown quite convincingly that the early disciples, as Jews, needed, and sought for, a category in which to understand Jesus and didn’t have one handy: not “prophet,” not “angel,” not “theophany”–and so became binitarians on their way to becoming trinitarians. They did, that is, think about what they were doing (worshipping Jesus) in metaphysical ways, contra what I understand Jenson is suggesting.

    Or am I misunderstanding the point?

    1. Very glad to hear from you, Prof. Stackhouse!

      The extent to which you are missing Jenson’s point is precisely due to the lack of context I’ve provided for this quote. I don’t think that Jenson would have any trouble agreeing with Hurtado, and though I’m less sure in this direction, I don’t think that Hurtado would have major bones to pick with Jenson in this passage.

      “Greek theology”—by which Jenson means to indicate what most of the rest of us call “Greek philosophy”—is really the key to the passage. Jenson is simply arguing that the disciples’ attribution of divinity to Jesus, signified by their worship, would not likely have been in the categories of ousia. Nor would that ascription have been attended by the “Greek” worries about the problems such an ascription would have raised for the presumed simplicity, impassibility, and transcendence proper to divine ousia.

      Jenson is simply arguing here that the gospel (in large part determined by the practice of worshipping Jesus) had to enter another cultural milieu (namely, the one determined by Socrates’ friends and followers) before those were the kinds of questions that came to the fore. So while the disciples may have been worshipping Jesus in “metaphysical ways,” they were unlikely to be sitting around talking about the extent to which Jesus was meta phusikos.

      I hope that clarifies.

      1. Well, maybe, but the last sentence of Jenson’s you cite in particular seems to be unqualifiedly general. I’m pouncing because I am leery of anyone relegating Trinitarian thought and practice merely to a later, Hellenistic context rather than seeing it rooted in the early, Jewish church. Forgive me, then, if I am mistaking Jenson’s point.

        1. I appreciate the challenge, because I had taken Jenson to be pretty strong on this point, and it’s good for me to try to articulate it in a way that might satisfy those inclined to pounce on his distinction.

          As I read him, Jenson is trying to articulate precisely how trinitarian thought and practice are rooted in the early Jewish church, and what the particular shape of those trinitarian roots may be.

          The sentences immediately following the passage quoted in the post may be of some help:

          “It is a fully trinitarian logic that more generally determines the New Testament’s language. Its rule may be formulated [as follows]: when the specific relation to God opened by the gospel is thematic, God the Father and Christ and the Spirit all demand dramatically coordinating mention.”

          I don’t think that he would say (and I certainly wouldn’t say) that Trinitarian teaching is only a product of the gospel’s encounter with Hellenistic thought, as if Jesus’ disciples had a radically different view of Jesus’ relationship to/identity with the God he called “Father” from that of the later dogmatic tradition. But it is certainly the case that the dogmatic tradition that we have received is expressed in Hellenistic terms (e.g. Nicea’s “substance”), that are unlikely to have been the categories in which the disciples thought. Jenson gestures at the deep continuity between the two—despite conceptual differences—by pointing to the “trinitarian logic” of the NT.

  2. One more thing. I am not a theological nerd. Nor is Ryan Dueck. (LeRon definitely is, Paul sort of is, and Jamie likely is.) Ryan and I are Very Cool Guys Who Do Theology as Part of Being Very Cool. Nothing nerdy about that. Please adjust your characterizations accordingly.

    1. Now, if there’s one thing that I learned in Junior High, it’s that the people who go around telling everyone else precisely how cool they are, are exactly those people who are most safely classified among the nerds. 🙂

      So—with all due respect to both you and Ryan in your irrefragable hipness—unless you’re able to provide another witty play on “words” or something else that rhymes, I’m afraid that the categorization is going to stick.

      1. Ah, I see: You are labeling us in this defamatory way simply because you insist on a certain wordplay in your blog section titles and lack the imagination to avoid slander.

        I would venture “Wordsmiths” or “Key Words” or “Good Words.”

        Or even “Those Whose Shoelaces I Am Unfit to Untie”? All of those work for me.


        1. It’s not really any of my business, the emoticon suggests you’re not serious anyway, and you probably already know this, but: The word nerd has taken on an increasingly neutral, and for many positive, tone in recent years. Rather than suggesting social ineptness, it now merely suggests membership in a certain subculture, or collection of overlapping subcultures, ones that value competence over slickness of presentation. In fact, I’ve heard the description ‘not really a (theology/science/literature) nerd’ used pejoratively more often than not in recent years.

          1. Having spent some time with Prof. Stackhouse, I can assure you that the exchange above is thick with irony and sarcasm of the very driest variety. It’s hard to pick up the tone of his humor in writing, but it’s unmistakable to those who’ve seen it live.

  3. Jenson’s thought is actually quite helpful to a paper I’m putting together. I hope you will not mind if I cite it. Thank you for sharing.

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: