The Determination of the Church’s Witness as the Ground of Theology for the Church and the World: A Reflection Prompted by Robert Jenson

Theology is as Barth would intone early on in his Göttingen Dogmatics, Deus dixit ‘God has spoken.’ In other words, theology, genuinely Christian theology cannot be done from a prethought framework that comes as a prius to God’s speaking to us first. If so, if this was indeed the Christian theological way then how could we ever determine whether or not we were actually hearing from God rather than men and women? This is an important point that I’m afraid much of the theological endeavor has failed to appreciate; not that it hasn’t appreciated it in principle, but I don’t think it has attended to this type of reception-from-God nature of theology that real Christian theology must attend to and be determined by. In other words, so much of the theological task through the centuries, the type that has been done in and from the church, I would contend, has been underdetermined by the church’s reality in Jesus Christ; and instead has focused too much on the mediatorial nature of the church; thus getting lost in its own self-referential and traditioned ways rather than actually doing theology in intentional terms such that the Lord of the Church is both the object and subject of the theologian’s grammar and articulation. Yes, the theologian, in the best of cases, speaks for and to the church, for her edification, but this can only be done as it works from and attempts to elucidate the good news it has received and continues to receive as it reflects upon the Word of God not only written but proclaimed ever afresh anew. Robert Jenson says it this way:

The characterization of theology as reflection internal to the attempt to speak gospel must therefore be amplified. We do not in any unmediated way have this gospel that we are to speak; we have it only as we receive it. To state the full case we must therefore say that theology is reflection internal to the act of tradition, to the turn from hearing something to speaking it. Theology is an act of interpretation: it begins with a received word and issues in a new word essentially related to the old word. Theology’s question is always: In that we have heard and seen such-and-such discourse as gospel, what shall we now say and do that gospel may again be spoken?[1]

We don’t presume that we could ever speak the Gospel, or think it out loud with all its effervescent realities in face outwith our location and situadedness within the church; it’s just that the church itself, depository as she is, has an instrumental function. The church is made up of a thousand voices, that only have gravitas and foundation as it repeats for each and successive period, in the lingua franca of her admirers, what gives her first and last orientation; an orientation that comes from, over and again the fact that God has spoken, and that he speaks. The church operates in such a way that she goes on mission, starting in Jerusalem and going as far as Samaria and Timbuktu; she seeks to bear witness to the Gospel reality, the always already determinate reality of the church, as she exegetes and translates the depth dimension of the Gospel as that is given as gracious gift through the womb of Mary.

As Jenson underscores, there is a continuity between the ‘old word’ and the ‘new word’; and I would want to suggest that this continuity is sustained because the old word and the new word are always and only circumscribed by the first and last Word of God, Jesus Christ. As the church seeks to speak the new word from the old word we have the freedom, because he who the Son has set free is free indeed, to imagine creative grammars that seek to ‘amplify’ the Word given in the broken body and shed blood of the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. This is the gift the church has, as it seeks to do theology only after God has spoken, we have the gift of prophecy which is the spirit of Christ to speak the evangel in gracious ways wherein those we speak to will have manifest ways and endless tributaries to imagine a way from the Way that explicates what it means that Jesus is supreme; that all things have been reconciled by his shed blood, and given new life from his dead body born again as the firstborn from the dead.

Even as I am writing this post I can only really conclude that the process the church has been invited to, of being sanctified from glory to glory, as she seeks to get lost not in the substructures of the church, but instead in the effulgent reality of the Church’s Head and primary Voice, is a doxological act. The act of speaking the old words in new words from the Word is an inherently worshipful endeavor consisting of seeking Christ first, his righteousness and then all these other words will be given to us to speak in concert with the words already spoken before. We will, as genuine Christian theologians, continue to speak these words, upon their reception by the Spirit, not without the past words but with and from them as they have found their fresh and vivacious grammarizations from the plenitude of the first and last Word spoken in the eternal Logos, the Son of God, Jesus Christ. If the church collapses that voice into her own voice, conflates the two without distinction, we will no longer genuinely be bearing witness to the Church’s reality, but instead we will sadly only be found to be bearing witness to ourselves; there’s nothing truly doxological about that.

“What shall we now say and do that the gospel may be spoken?” We must attend deeply to the voice of God in Jesus Christ. Meditate on the rivulets the Gospel opens in the sanctuaries of our hearts and minds, and allow the Spirit to kindle anew and afresh the songs, hymns and spiritual songs that repose in and from the heart of God in Jesus Christ. As we participate in the interpenetration of God’s Triune life, from the anchor of our souls in Jesus Christ, we might come to know how we ought to respond to Jenson’s question.


[1] Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology: Volume 1: The Triune God (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 14.


2 thoughts on “The Determination of the Church’s Witness as the Ground of Theology for the Church and the World: A Reflection Prompted by Robert Jenson

  1. Pingback: The Determination of the Church’s Witness as the Ground of Theology for the Church and the World: A Reflection Prompted by Robert Jenson — The Evangelical Calvinist | Talmidimblogging

  2. Bobby,

    Here’s something that I have been chewing on for a while and I think it bears some continuity with the points you are making:

    The apocalyptic witness of the Church as described in Revelation along with Jesus’ commission for his disciples to be witnesses in Matthew and Acts needs to be paradigmatic not only in theological inquiry but in the entire life of the Church. The foundational call of the Christian is as witness, and this is the bedrock under which all dogmatics, preaching, ministry, and service is to be conducted by the people of God. If theology is not, at the end of the day, conducted as faithful testimony to Jesus, it is a gross misappropriation of the discipline.


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