Can-o-Worms: Robert Jenson and the Resurrection

As usual I have opened a can-o-worms with my posts on Robert Jenson’s doctrine of resurrection—I say “as usual” in the sense that often over the years I’ve touched upon a variety of controversial issues. So I have been processing all of this out in the open allowing you all to provide me feedback—if you will—and this opening has garnered response from learned people; particularly on Facebook (through contacts there). But let’s be clear, just as is the case for anyone, we all must come to our own convictions and conclusions based upon a best faith effort; that’s the effort I am attempting to put forth in regard to understanding Jenson’s doctrine of resurrection.

I received a copy of an essay/chapter a friend of mine, Oliver Crisp, contributed to the recently released volume The Promise of Robert W. Jenson’s Theology: Constructive Engagements. As Divine Providence would have it Oliver’s chapter just happens to be on the very issue that has been causing me some angst—let’s not be too overwrought, whether or not Jenson did affirm the actual and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ has no long term bearing on what I actually believe relative to the bodily resurrection of Christ as attested to by the Apostolic witness. Nevertheless, insofar as we are beholden—as people of the truth—to represent each other in a more accurate way, it is important to do due diligence in representing the theology of Jenson vis-à-vis resurrection.

I have actually been getting it from both barrels; as is the case in the theological endeavor there are of course competing angles from, it seems, infinite sides of a position or doctrine. Jenson, just as any theologian worth their salt, has presented us with no cause for small polarization; in other words, his offering, theologically, has the potential to divide—I’d expect nothing less from any sober attempt to divulge the implications and inklings produced by the reality of the God of the Gospel, of Jesus Christ. I have been presenting one line in regard to Jenson, that his presentation on the resurrection comes from a Bultmann-inspired angle; one of demythologizing in light of the “modern progress” and scientific age we currently inhabit. One push back I’ve received on this front from someone who has done their PhD work on Jenson went like this (this is from Facebook interaction, I won’t share the name of the interlocutor since I’m not sure he wants me to):

Jenson isn’t saying that the body of Christ remains dead. He is saying that bodily resurrection is a new body, not a resuscitated old one. I don’t know how one could bracket off the sacramental question. His entire understanding of what a body is is central to his interpretation of the resurrection; ie, objective availability. To say that Jesus’ body could have remained in the tomb is to say that it is no longer the way he is available. One needn’t agree with this interpretation, but it isn’t accurate to suggest that Jenson’s interpretation of the resurrection is subjective or beholden to demythologization. I think there’s much to say about the fact that the old body is the object of resurrection, and therefore that it must be related to the risen body. That’s a valid critical question of Jenson’s theology. But I think what you’ve said in this thread misfires a bit.[1]

TheologianJ, just to reiterate says this: “Jenson isn’t saying that the body of Christ remains dead. He is saying that bodily resurrection is a new body, not a resuscitated old one”; and this: “To say that Jesus’ body could have remained in the tomb is to say that it is no longer the way he is available.” There are many thought experiments taking place in all of this; particularly by Robert Jenson. TheologianJ, in his attempt to represent Jenson more accurately, wants to emphasize that for Jenson there is an asymmetrical relationship between the pre-resurrection and crucified body of Jesus, and the post-resurrection and glorified risen body of Christ. And to get this point across, as TheologianJ rehearses Jenson’s point, the hypothetical of a body remaining in the tomb, even after Jesus resurrected, is the idea that presses into the mystery that actually took place at the resurrection. Yet, the image, maybe strangely, that is conjured in my mind as I reflect upon TheologianJ’s words here, is to think of a caterpillar and butterfly; as if the pre-resurrection body of Christ is the caterpillar and the post resurrection body the butterfly; as if when Jesus resurrects he sluffs off the old body (as if a shell or husk), and assumes the new body that has an inextricable relation to the old ‘carrier-body’, but nonetheless is a brand new body of a different sort. Even though this analogy breaks down, especially on the biblical front, at least at some levels, it does have some purchase to it in regard to noting the miracle that the resurrection body entails and the discordant yet concordant relation that remains present between the old and the new.

Okay, I can accept some of this. But I don’t think this line of thought is neither necessary nor required. As I noted in response to another interlocutor on Facebook, the way I’m approaching this is from a pre-modern/pre-Copernican way of viewing the resurrection—like from a cosmology that simply accepts that what Scripture says about the resurrection simply maps onto what actually is the primal reality of all creation (i.e. without reference to modern scientific theories in regard to cosmogony and cosmology). Jenson, on the other hand, feels compelled to work his thinking in and from under the pressures presented by the modern scientific world; a post-Copernican world. This is why I will remain at disparate odds with Jenson. But there is some irony, because even as Jenson is attempting to work his theological project into the modern 21st century world (late 20th century as he wrote his Systematic Theology) he re-mystifies how he thinks resurrection through his Lutheran antecedents found in Swabian Cosmic Christology and in his stylized mode of sacramental theology.

Let me back off the idea that Bultmann is the primary point of departure for Jenson. But let me maintain that I still think that what Jenson is doing is a kind of de-mystifying and then re-mystification of what the resurrection of Jesus Christ entails; so in this sense I think we can at the very least, insofar as both Bultmann and Jenson are modern theologians (to one degree or another), come to the conclusion that while Jenson’s project of “evangelizing the cosmology of the Christ” is distinct, in his own ways from Bultmann’s, there remains an incidental over-lap between the two insofar as they are indeed working intentionally from modern soundings and categories. Note Jenson:

Copernicus’ new cosmology undid this accommodation. The Copernican universe is homogeneous; no part of it can be more suited for God’s dwelling than any other. It can map no topologically delineated heaven. There is in a Copernican universe no plausible accommodation for the risen Christ’s body; and, indeed, within any modern cosmology, the assertion that the body is upper there some place must rightly provoke mocking proposals to search for it with more powerful telescopes, or suggestions that perhaps it is hiding on the “other side” of a black hole. But if there is no place for Jesus’ risen body, how is it a body at all? For John Calvin was surely right: “. . . this is the eternal truth of any body, that it is contained in its place.”

The disappearance of heaven from the accepted topography of the universe has had powerful and destructive impact on the actual theology of believers. It is safe to say that most modern believers, whatever doctrine they may formally espouse, actually envision the risen Christ as not embodied, as a pure “spirit,” or perhaps as embodied in a a [sic] very thinned-out fashion, as—not to be too fine about it—a spook. A body requires its place, and we find it hard to think of any place for this one.[2]

We cannot go back, or maybe we can, according to Jenson. Here it becomes apparent the type of world Jenson believes we must do theology in; the world that has been bequeathed to us as moderns and now post-moderns. He immediately (following the quote I just shared from him) anticipates that folks, like me, might simply fall back to a traditional pre-Copernican position on thinking resurrection and body-place in the heavenlies. He says that’s not advisable, and that even reversion to the past, prior to Copernicus, as far back as the 9th century, we have Christian thinkers attempting to understand how the bodily presence of God in Christ, in the continued reality of the incarnation in the resurrected body, relates to the world of time-space. This is where he refers, and turns his focus to the Swabian theologians, post-Copernicus, who he thinks provides him with the kind of pregnant theological resource to fund his own incarnational theology of sacrament and how the body of God in Christ continues to be mediated to humanity in the “body” of the broken bread and red juice.[3]

I will say that Jenson is a complex; aren’t we all. He is a modern theologian attempting to think modernly about a reality that transcends all analogies and human categories of wit. His modern impulses, or at least the way he self-consciously owns those, drives him to say things about the “empty tomb” and the resurrected body of Jesus Christ that I wouldn’t say in the way he does. I think this is the rub for me, and will continue to be when I read Jenson. I still can learn from him, but I’d rather learn from people like Thomas Torrance, Karl Barth, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Maximus the Confessor, Athanasius, Irenaeus et al. Jenson looks back and listens to the past too, but his impulses are his own (which of course makes some sort of sense if you think about it). I don’t want to misrepresent Jenson, I’m just thinking all of this out-loud; bear that in mind as you not only read these posts on Jenson, but on every single post I have ever written or will write here at The Evangelical Calvinist. Pax Vobiscum


[1] TheologianJ, Anonymous Facebook Source, accessed 11-14-2017.

[2] Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 1: The Triune God(Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 202.

[3] Ibid., 202-03.