On Being a Liturgical Theologian: The Place of Doxology, Aesthetics, and Narratology in Gospel Reflection: Thinking Along with Robert Jenson

Something I’ve come to realize about myself is that I am very attracted to the aesthetics of theology; or aesthetically driven theology. I say this because I think doxology and aesthetics, when it comes to theology, in my view, go hand-in-hand. We might not think about literary studies, per se, or narratology fitting into this way of conceiving of things, in regard to theology, but as a persistent Scripture reader I can see no other place in the economy of God’s Kingdom wherein aesthetics and doxology are given their greatest expression. I think this comes to pass relative to the way we approach Scripture; i.e. how do we read it? Do we read it dialogically and prayerfully; believing that the symbols of the text press on beyond themselves to their reality in the living and Triune God? If so, I think this is where the beauty and effulgence of the text of Scripture can become the Holy ground God has intended it to be for his church. Some might refer to this way of doing theology as liturgics; maybe at the end of the day I am a liturgical theologian then. What I do know is that getting caught up in the grandeur of God’s resplendent life as I meditate upon the living words of Scripture cause me to encounter a beauty and shalomness that is not of this world; even as it has penetrated this world in Christ.

Robert Jenson really captures, quite well, what I am referring to as he writes on the power and beauty of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He captures how the text itself within the context of the church reposing upon the Triune life of God, in itself, becomes the confessional and doxological basis from whence further theological programmatic and detail can be given. He touches upon how speech-act and the text of Scripture, and its nourishing reality is the basis, the cornerstone upon which the church can simply be the church of God in Christ. Let me share a little:

Let us then indeed begin afresh. And let us first recur to the Gospels’ narrative way of interpreting the cross. Freed by a more daring Christology than is usual in the West, we can say: the church’s primal way of understanding the Crucifixion is that we live this narrative, that we rehearse the canonical story, in the context of Scripture’s encompassing narrative and so that the rehearsing is a word-event in our own lives.

The Gospels tell a powerful and biblically integrated story of the Crucifixion; this story is just so the story of God’s act to bring us back to himself at his own cost, and of our being brought back. There is no other story behind or beyond it that is the real story of what God does to reconcile us, no story of mythic battles or of a deal between God and his Son or of our being moved to live reconciled lives. The Gospel’s passion narrative is the authentic and entire account of God’s reconciling action and our reconciliation, as events in his life and ours. Therefore what is first and principally required as the Crucifixion’s right interpretation is for us to tell the story to one another and to God as a story about him and about ourselves.

That is, what fundamentally must happen is that the passion narrative live in the church as the church’s account of herself and her God before God and the world. One is strongly tempted simply to say: what must above all happen, to understand reconciliation at Golgotha, is that the church recite the passion narrative—traditionally, according to St. John—in a Good Friday liturgy at which the Cross is contemplated, the Old Testament—Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22!—is heard, prayer is offered for Caiphas, Pilate, and their underlings, and the death is recited not only verbally but bodily, by distribution of the Lord’s body and blood. One is tempted to say: what fundamentally must happen in the church, as right interpretation of the Crucifixion, is that the traditional Good Friday liturgy, with its unique prayers and—as the English church called it—its “creeping to the cross,” be celebrated.

Crucifixion is the good that it is only dramatically together with the Resurrection. Therefore its Good Friday representation cannot stand by itself, but can be the church’s primary interpretation of the Crucifixion only in one service with celebration of the Resurrection. Crucifixion and Resurrection together are the church’s Pasch, her passing over from being no people to being God’s people, her rescue from alienation to fellowship, her reconciliation. Only as this is enacted in the church as one event is the Crucifixion understood. One is—again—strongly tempted to say: what must happen as the fundamental explanation of atonement is that the ancient single service of the Triduum, “the Three Days,” the continuous enactment of the Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection, covering Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Night, be celebrated.

Readers may take the above mandates as strange systematic theology. Are not these paragraphs instead “liturgics”—and romantic liturgics at that? But if a theological proposition is one that says, “To be saying the gospel, let us say F rather than G,” and if the gospel  is spoken in language and by more embodied sorts of signs, by sacrament and sacrifice, then we must expect theology sometimes to take the form of ritual rubrics, to take the form “To be saying the gospel, let us do F rather than G.” Our commendation of the Triduum simply happens to be the first appearance of such theology in this work.[1]

We can see Jenson, early on, riffing against the Covenantal schema of the pactum salutis (covenant of redemption) and other speculative frames for conceiving of the soteriological reality. And it is this, among other things, as noted, that I find attractive with reference to Jenson’s narratival, and yet aesthetically rich telling of what and who the Gospel entails.

The majority of Jenson’s book has been engaging with the history of ideas, patristic theology, medieval theology, modern and postmodern theology. It is in the section I just quoted from wherein Jenson is finally getting to where I’d hoped he get to; to a kind of post-metaphysical narrativialized telling of the Gospel account and what that implicates towards a theological touchstone for further ecclesiological and personal reflection. There is something about simply reading Scripture—and doing so realizing that you are a part of the communio sanctorum ‘communion of the saints’ in the centuries of the church—and allowing the repose of that and the reality that reposition draws us into as we encounter the living God in the face of Christ that is inexplicable. It’s not that we read the Bible nakedly, but that as we read it in and from its own reception in Christ and then in his body, the church, we come to realize that we are indeed part of the fullness of God that transcends our own immediate situations, but at the same time breaks into them and reorients them to their proper telos in the recreation of God in Jesus Christ; in the resurrection past, present, and to come fully unveiled with great angelic shout as Christ comes again. I am enamored by this type of theological engagement; one that is deeply Word based, understanding that the Word is living and active because the Word is Jesus Christ.

[1] Robert J. Jenson, Systematic Theology: Volume 1: The Triune God (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 189-90.