Faith as Eschatological Address: Jenson on Bultmann on faith

In his review of Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology, David Bentley Hart writes:

So, speaking for myself, I wish to say only that I find it impossible to have done with Jenson’s work, or to cease returning to it as a challenge to refine and clarify my own understanding of the gospel…. No one of my theological persuasion, I think, who engages Jenson’s thought in earnest can doubt that it is indeed the living God with whom he has come to grips: not some fabulous metaphysical phantom conjured out of Jenson’s fixations or fantasies, but a genuine attempt to describe the God of Scripture in the fullness of His historical presence and eternal identity.

Hart, perhaps one of America’s most erudite and well-learned theologians, is famous (in the little word of theology that is) for his robust and passionate defense of “classical theism”. Jenson on the other hand is well known for his thoroughgoing revision of classical metaphysics. What is interesting about Hart’s review is that despite his numerous disagreements, Hart still acknowledges that there can be no doubt Jenson’s thought and work is a true attempt to come to grips with the Living God. This is an important point. Christian theology, especially systematic theology, must never forget that the God we are talking about is not a “metaphysical phantom,” a datum of experience, or even an axiom of history/reason, but the living God. I want to flesh this out in more detail by turning to Jenson’s Systematic Theology and looking at the first half of his chapter on Jesus.

In his systematic, Jenson defines his project as “hermeneutic.” According to Jenson, the task of theology is always done from a “location within life” necessitating that past hearing turns to new speaking; this is hermeneutics. Theology’s question then is always, “In that we have heard and seen such-and-such discourse as gospel, what shall we now say and do that the gospel may again be spoken?” (14). Thus, theology is both traditioned and interpretation; it is always something that begins with a received word and issues a new word related to the old word. Here we must relate this to how Jenson understands the Gospel and faith.

According to Jenson, it has been a great benefit of 20th century theology that it has learned from scripture to think of the Logos not only as the rationality of God but also as God’s Speech, creating a new theological task. Here, Rudolph Bultmann has been of great benefit in recovering a biblical notion of the Word and what it means for Jesus to be a word (a word meaning Jesus himself as creative speech, utterance, event). The central notion posited and used by the Bultmann School to explicate what it means for Jesus to be the Word/a word was that of “word-event.” This term is meant to transcend the distinction between speech and event, doing away with the supposed ontological distinction within human history between utterance and mute events (as if these were two separate things, speech being simply descriptive of events). Instead, historical reality is constituted in the mutuality between speech and event because every utterance actually does something- it actually opens up a future of new possibilities, while within every historical event something “comes to word”- in every human event “new possibilities of bespeaking and understanding emerge.” (Ebeling, Das Wesen des christlichen Glaubens, 252).

This is important because what “came to word” in the word-event that is Jesus is faith itself. Meaning that Jesus did not just speak “innovatively” about faith, but in his command to ‘Believe!’ Jesus made faith as a way of existence possible and necessary. This, Jenson says, was Bultmann’s greatest systematic achievement- his correlation between faith and the actual proclamatory speaking of the gospel. Faith then is not a general trust in an entity called God, but what happens when the gospel is spoken and heard as an address that can only be God’s own speech (167).

As a word that addresses us, faith is an “eschatological address,” an address that opens up a future for us and (here the notion of word-event above does important work) actually creates what it speaks. It is important to note that the future that is “opened” is not a generic or unknown future (it is here that Bultmann goes astray according to Jenson) but is a future determined as fellowship with Jesus. Thus Jenson: “Jesus is the identity of the future opened by the Word of God” (171). Faith as “eschatological existence” (existence opened up to God’s future and coming) then is necessarily a “surrender of all security.” As my act, faith is a giving up of my “attained self” and a receiving of myself from God (Galatians 3:28). It is important to note that faith on this account is fundamentally receptive. As Jenson powerfully understands, “when I try to perform this act, I of course achieve the opposite, for I necessarily do it within my project of self-securing, even if in this case religiously” (167). In an evangelical/American context where faith so easily becomes a work of self-justification and security, Bultmann, following the Gospel of John, recognizes that a “person cannot free himself by his will, for just in such an act of will he would remain the man he was.” The only thing that has the power to free me is a proclamatory word spoken to me. This word according to Jenson and Bultmann challenges me to live from God’s future rather than from my possessed life, a possibility that is opened up in the event of hearing, as God himself actually happens to me (as I encounter the living and free Lord).

This brings us back to the start of this post: Christian theology, especially systematic theology, must always be a discourse about the living and free God. The Gospel then is not a matter of recounting and assenting to historical facts (though they are certainly important) nor a matter of religious self-projection a la Feuerbach/Freud, but a proclamation by God that undoes all security, frees me from myself, and opens me to the future of the Coming One determined as fellowship with Jesus.

Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part blog post. The second post will deal with the challenges this understanding of faith raises between history and eschatology, time and eternity.



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