The God of The Gospel: Robert Jenson’s Trinitarian Theology

October 24, 2013 — Leave a comment

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Scott Swain is associate professor of systematic theology and academic dean at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando (technically Oviedo), which along with Willasprings Starbucks and my classroom is one of the three places I get stuff done.

The God of The Gospel: Robert Jenson’s Trinitarian Theology is Swain’s most recent book 1 and the most recent volume in IVP Academic’s Strategic Initiatives in Evangelical Theology series. Much like Keith Johnson’s volume in this series, Swain’s is an outgrowth of his doctoral dissertation. 2However, unlike Johnson’s, Swain’s work here is more than just a lightly revised version, but is actually a “completely new book, only distantly related to its ancestor dissertation” (7).

It does however still read much like a dissertation. Whether it was this, or just the general flow of the book, for some reason I just couldn’t get into this one. Robert Jenson is an important scholar in the field, especially when it comes to trinitarian theology. After reading this though, I’m not particularly interested in diving further into this thought. I tend to think the fault is mine, but it could just be the academic style the book is cast in.

In any case, two introductory chapters lay out for readers the project Swain is attempting. In the first, Swain explains his purpose, which is “to consider the relationship between God’s bring Father, Son, and Spirit and God’s evangelical self-determination to become our Father, through the Son, in the Spirit” (25). To pursue this, Jenson is the primary conversation partner. In this regard, this book is an exercise in “ressourcement – retrieving the riches of what the church has confessed about the being and attributes of the triune God on the basis of the Word of God” (27).

Chapter 2 focuses entirely on Barth, which is probably where my interest began to wane (because I’m not particularly interested in Barth, shocking I know). However, it’s necessary background though because Swain sees Jenson’s trinitarian theology as a kind of post-Barthian evangelical historicism. So, that means Jenson is coming in the wake of Barth, focused on the gospel as it unfolds in salvation history. Not only that, but Swain sees Jenson as pursuing theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS), which is currently all the rage (and unlike Barth, I am a fan of this).

The first main part of the book (after the above groundwork) is concerned with Jenson’s close reading of Scripture. First in the Old Testament (chapter 3), and then in the New (chapter 4). Finally, his trinitarian conclusions are sketched out in chapter that prominently features metanarratives and metaphysics (chapter 5). This is the meat of the book, and anyone looking for an entry point into Robert Jenson’s thought would do well to check out Swain’s exposition. In the span of 3 chapters, you’re getting a close reading of Jenson’s close reading of both Testaments, as well as an overview of his understanding of the Trinity. Though was particularly intrigued, it is an excellent resource to have on hand.

The second main part of the book is structured along trinitarian lines and is Swain helping readers to “consider how God’s self-determinating movement to relate to us, to identify with us, and to perfect us through fellowship with himself represents not the repudiation but the reliable expression of his trinitarian being” (144). Put differently, Swain wants to show how the actions of God in history do not undermine the integrity of God’s being as Trinity. The God of the Gospel is a Trinitarian God before and after he acts in history to save a people for himself. Toward this end, chapter 6 focuses on the Father determining to relate, chapter 7 the Son self-identifying with humanity, and chapter 8 the Spirit consummating our fellowship with God. The final chapter engages with Bruce McCormack, which is a must if you are going to talk about Barth extensively in the second chapter of the book as Swain did. Some brief concluding reflections in chapter 10 and the book comes to a landing.

Conclusion

This is an important book in an important series. Having said that though, I found I just wasn’t that interested in reading it, though I did finish it. I’ve tried to analyze why, but I think it just comes down to the writing style. A few years ago, I might have devoured it, but I think my patience with academic theology is waning. Swain is covering an important topic (trinitarian theology grounded in theological interpretation of Scripture) and interacting with two eminent theologians (Barth and Jenson). The end result just wasn’t a compelling read for me, and that could be because of the aforementioned theologians (and the way they talk), the writer (the way he talks about them), or the reader (my patience for wading through the material). Or it could be a combination of all three.

Because of that, I can only really recommend grabbing a copy of this book if you are a) a regular reader of academic theology and b) you want to learn more about Robert Jenson’s trinitarian theology. The first one is the key since it’ll provide the stamina you need. I knew on the front end that it would be more or less heavy slogging, so don’t consider this necessarily a critique. When a writer tells you that his book is either a touched up dissertation or a re-worked dissertation, that usually means the prose won’t just jump off the page, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I just found that in wading into the depths, I wasn’t all that interested in what I found down there. Other readers, particularly those interested in Barth or anyone who would be classified as “post-Barthian” might be enthralled. If that’s you, you might consider checking this volume out.


Scott R. Swain, The God of The Gospel: Robert Jenson’s Trinitarian TheologyDowners Grove, IL: IVP Academic, April 2013. 258 pp. Paperback, $34.00

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Thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy!

Nate

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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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