A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live?

May 11, 2016 — Leave a comment


Have you ever wondered what it might be like to take an intro to theology class with Robert Jenson? To be honest the thought hadn’t crossed my mind before I requested a review copy of his latest book A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live? I was just curious about how it was as an introductory text. What it contains though are lightly edited transcripts from a class he taught at Princeton.

By “lightly edited,” I think we’re talking mainly about readability. At least that’s what I’m guessing when Jenson has a mild lapse and calls David the first king of Israel (21) and the transcript editor, Adam Eitel, left it in there. Beyond that, I didn’t pick up on any substantial issues. It is very conversational, because, well, it’s Jenson, or Jens as his friends apparently call him (19), just talking to you about theology.

Other than making my way through Scott Swain’s book, I don’t have much previous contact with Jenson (so I can’t really call him Jens). After reading this, I’m mildly curious to explore more. If that curiosity ramps up a bit, I can always use the exhaustive bibliography (117-134) to get me started. If you’re curious, this is probably a great place to start. It’s Jenson for beginners without being simplistic. He covers the nature of theology, the story of Israel and Jesus, the Trinity, creation, imago die, sin, salvation, and church. Not much in the way of eschatology, but you do get a chapter on the future of theology in a postmodern world.

This book could be comfortably read in a weekend, but you’d probably spend most of the next week pondering some of the many insights Jenson touches on. One that particularly struck me was his thoughts on Satan:

The existence of a tempter (i.e., Satan, the Devil, Lucifer, the Old Serpent, etc.) is an ongoing conviction not just of Christianity but also of Judaism. And this reflects more than anything else a common experience: there does seem to be somebody out there laughing at us. I was very skeptical about the existence of Satan until I made that observation. The disasters that happen could just be disasters, but we seem to be mocked by them. And that is the main title of Satan throughout the tradition; he is the Mocker, the one out there laughing at us. I do not imagine many of you will have run into C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters [note: he is talking to undergrads at Princeton. Sad right?]. That is the best satanology of the modern period (60).

Several things stick out here. One is that this has a ring of truth to it, when it comes to personal experience. The other is that it gives you an idea about Jenson’s thinking when it comes to the Old Testament (which you also get in an earlier chapter where he recounts Israel’s history). Lastly (though we could go on), here is premier theologian of the 20th/21st centuries recommending imaginative fiction as instructive for a subject in theology.

One final note, this is a smaller book than I anticipated. It also has small font, so the word count is not tremendously reduced. However, I was expecting a standard sized book. Not a huge deal, but serves a good reminder to check the product dimensions every now and then on Amazon. This is not quite “pocket size,” but it’s little. But, as you can see, it packs a punch on insights, and if you’re a student of theology, it’s worth checking out.

Robert W. Jenson, A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live? Transcribed, edited, and introduced by Adam Eitel. New York: Oxford University Press, April 2016. 152 pp. Hardcover, $27.95.

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Thanks to Oxford University Press for the review copy!


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I’m an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let’s connect!

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