A Theology in Outline

Can These Bones Live?

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Robert W. Jenson
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     2016.
     152 pages.
     $27.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190214593.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The title of this book signals the author’s modest intent right from the outset: to provide an outline or savory “taste” of theology, an itinerary of sorts for venturing into theological territory rather than a hefty, exhaustive exposition of standard theological loci. In this relatively short book we find the distillation of lectures originally given as part of an undergraduate course at Princeton University. The off-the-cuff flavor of being originally addressed to a live audience comes through occasionally in humorous self-deprecating comments on the way to the delivery of a key point. The author’s lucid writing style, coupled with his flair for rendering formidable concepts more accessible through relatable illustrations, offers an enticing entrée into such daunting theological themes as the Trinity, creation, the image of God, sin and salvation.

One of the most intriguing features of this foray into the theological landscape is the way Jenson uses the question posed by God to the prophet in Ezekiel 37—“Can these dry bones live?”—to frame the contents of his presentation here. As Jenson sees it, this question is not merely confined to the vapid context of Israel’s exilic years but also poses a challenge to Christian theology itself. When Israel hit rock bottom languishing in Babylonian exile, had all hope of their continuing identity as God’s people been forever expunged? Did their story as God’s people come to a grinding, irredeemable halt? When Jesus’s sudden, brutal execution dashed the rising hopes of his growing band of followers, did death win? Is Christian theology itself rendered mute by nihilistic challenges to the very viability of faith’s truth claims in the face of postmodern assumptions that decry the very notion of absolutes and universal metanarratives?

The whole theological endeavor, according to Jenson, can be construed as a response to that question, a response which points ultimately to the resurrection of Jesus.

The relational categories in which each theological theme is explicated derive organically from the strongly Trinitarian undercurrent of Jenson’s perspective. Rather than construing theology as dry, abstract propositions to be unpacked, Jenson constantly points the reader to the centrality of an overarching redemptive story as theology’s wellspring, of Israel’s remembrance of its history of being addressed by God and summoned to respond. The give-and-take of personal conversation, of calling and responding, lends a vibrancy to the concept of creation as the act of the Creator calling the world into being. Israel is called into being to become God’s people, beginning with God’s call to Abraham and later to Moses. Human beings as image-bearers of God are called to participate in communion with God and one another. Sin is the willful refusal to hear the call, cutting off the conversation, conspiring against community, rupturing the relationship. Salvation as the healing and enlivening of the “dry bones” of our sinful humanity becomes an existential reality as we are drawn up into God’s drama by participating by faith in Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.

The placement of the chapter on “Jesus and Resurrection” after the chapter “Israel” but before the chapters “The Triune God” and “Creation,”  while departing from the usual ordering of systematic theological themes, fits with Jenson’s theological disposition in presenting resurrection as the answer to the question of  Ezekiel 37: can the “dead bones” of Israel (and humanity) live again? In order to make sense of that answer, we need to start with Jesus, Jenson insists. Jesus is the place where the Gospel message earthed itself. But because we can’t understand Jesus properly without understanding the God of Israel, the chapter on “Israel” needed to precede the one on Jesus. 

Particularly fascinating is Jenson’s penchant for generating questions and using them as springboards for delving further into a theme. The chapter on “The Image of God” was especially illuminating. In attempting to answer the question of what it means to be human beings made in God’s image, Jenson propels the reader through a series of probing questions to ponder the relationship between human nature/essence and personal identity as particular persons. Is there even such a thing as human nature? Which comes first: understanding oneself as one instance of a class (“human beings”) who share a set of characteristics in common?  Or beginning with personal identity (I exist as this particular person, who also happens to have shared traits with others of the same class?). Such a discussion goes tantalizingly above and beyond the usual textbook treatment of the doctrine of human beings.

One curious idiosyncrasy appeared on three occasions when Jenson referred to the German philosopher Heidegger. Each time he prefaced the reference to Heidegger with a negative adjective. Hence, the reader would be introduced to some Heideggerian idea espoused by “that greatest and most wicked philosopher…” (33) or “that wicked twentieth-century philosopher” (53), or “that greatest and most evil philosopher of the twentieth century—Martin Heidegger.” (109). This was especially curious inasmuch as there were other persons referenced throughout the book with whom the author had obvious disagreements but to whose name those stridently negative adjectives were not appended, though Heidegger’s well-known affiliation with Nazism and his support for Hitler could well have prompted such documented disdain.

While other typical systematic theology topics such as sanctification, providence, and eschatology were largely absent from this treatment, the author can hardly be faulted for such omissions when by his own admission this book is clearly intended to be a “taste” of theology, not a tome. Brevity must not be mistaken for banality. There are more than enough theological treats to savor here. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jeannine Michele Graham is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at George Fox University.

Date of Review: 
August 23, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert W. Jenson was most recently Senior Scholar for Research at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton. He has taught Christian theology at Luther College, Gettysburg Seminary, St. Olaf College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. He is the author of the landmark, two volume work Systematic Theology, (OUP 1997, 1999).

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