Tag Archives: christian life

Books to Introduce Christian Theology: Robert Jenson’s “A Theology in Outline”

I’m beginning a multi-part series that functions as a running evaluation of books that are suitable as introductory guides to Christian theological reflection. Each book I’ll review is aimed at a beginner level audience with little background in theology, and so, could be utilized in a small group, mentoring, or individual exploratory setting. The goal of this series is to discern which books can help different types of people begin reflecting on their faith, their commitments, and how Christianity might relate to the whole of their life.

Robert Jenson, A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live?, ed. Adam Eitel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 152 pp, $27.95. (link to purchase)

Robert Jenson, a preeminent Lutheran theologian and former student of Karl Barth, has produced a fascinating little introduction to Christian theology. This book, A Theology in Outline, is a transcribed and edited version of lectures he gave to undergraduates as a visiting professor at Princeton University in 2008. Comprised of nine chapters plus an introduction, Jenson addresses most of the central loci of Christian theological reflection: Israel, Jesus, the Trinity, Creation, Imago Dei, Atonement, and Ecclesiology. Due to its style, however, the book is far from a dry exercise in academic theology; on the contrary, the chapters largely retain a lecture-like vibe and the tone is equal parts apologetic and conversational. Apologetic, because he appears to be trying to convince students of the relevance of Christian thinking (more on that in a second); conversational, because Jenson’s presentation of the topics always remains quite accessible without a significant amount of watering down the content.

jensonInterestingly, and I believe helpfully, Jenson frames his entire enterprise here as a response to the question posed to Ezekiel: “Can these bones live?” In short, Jenson’s book aims to discover whether Christian theology, the bones in this analogy, retains its relevance and life-giving power in our contemporary situation. This framework for the entire book works well both as a starting point for the myriad of scriptural themes and references throughout the chapters and as an orientation that takes seriously the challenge facing theology today – as well as the skeptic’s charge that theology is just a pile of dead bones, irrelevant for our world, or perhaps even for the Christian life.

To illustrate these features, we can consider briefly his chapter on the Trinity. With his characteristic wit, Jenson skillfully charts the emerging Christian religion’s missionary situation with regard to the competing understandings of God between Israel, the new Church, and the Greek worldview. He continues by describing the scriptural impetus for naming God as three yet lays out the difficulty this would have encountered within an ancient Jewish or Greek worldview, at least on the face of it. By then describing the conciliar consensus around the Trinity in the centuries after Christ, Jenson portrays both the simplicity of the Trinity as well as the various negotiations of worldviews and understandings of the divine that led to its more precise formulation and acceptance. In the midst of this discussion, Jenson never loses sight of the doctrine’s relevance to the Christian life as a means to reflect on the salvation history that we, even today, find ourselves within. The same sort of concerns are taken up in the chapters on other topics.

None of the topics are presented in an overly biased fashion, and one certainly does not get the feeling that Jenson is trying to force his version of the faith upon anyone. He masterfully navigates the main issues at hand in each of the doctrines and he does a good job presenting both an outline of what Christians have believed about the topic in the past, as well as the various options open to the believer today. More significantly, Jenson is always sure to relate each doctrine to its implications upon a Christian form of living. For instance, his chapter on the Church ponders what it might mean for the Church to be holy, and what sort of relation this might imply to the broader culture.

The book ends with a discussion of Christianity’s place within a competing system of worldviews (for lack of a better word) that mark out contemporary life. He is confident in theology’s ability to counteract nihilism and provide a compelling alternative for what makes for a life well-lived in the face of its challenge. These bones, that is Christian theology, can live, Jenson argues. That is, as long as it remains faithful to the cornerstone of its existence – Jesus Christ.

As you may sense, this book does require a bit of intellectual engagement and the ability to understand sometimes complex concepts both historical and theoretical in nature. For that reason, it is best as an introduction to theology for college-aged and older, educated Christians with a desire to think critically about their beliefs, especially as to how they all fit together and result in a semi-coherent picture of our relationship to God and each other. I certainly think this is one of the best introductions out there – one which you would do well to utilize when attempting to introduce Christian theology to those with a desire to explore their faith.

Living the Intellectual Life as a Christian

I’m usually quite weary of people who try to proclaim what the Christian life looks like because sometimes it doesn’t leave open the opportunity for different sorts of people to exercise their gifts based upon their own unique capacities. Of course, there are things that all Christians should care about and live out, like loving others, caring for those in need, advocating for peace and reconciliation, etc. Yet, these things look differently for different people, and I am afraid that lumping everyone into the same pool has contributed to this false dichotomy in Christian’s lives where there are certain things they do as Christians and other things they do as normal everyday people. In other words, we have often separated our actions that we do specifically out of our faith from those actions that we do as part of our jobs, to make a living, our hobbies, all of these which don’t really originate from being a Christian, but from other sources. Instead of falling prey to this distinction between Christian and not specifically Christian parts of our lives, I would like to offer a vision of what a Christian life might look like, in principle, for those of us in intellectual professions, or who just love learning, knowledge, and using our minds to think about and solve problems in our spare time.

I have a feeling that some of my readers might immediately think I’m speaking only to theologians or pastors but this is far from the case. I’m speaking to all of us who work in knowledge-based professions (e.g. insurance workers, businesspersons, workers in STEM fields, teachers, etc.), and basically anyone who, even if it isn’t based around their official profession, loves reading and learning (whether specifically Christian books or not) as a hobby. In all of these areas of life I just described, the main element is deploying knowledge in different capacities. For the teacher it is more obvious as they inspire their students to think and learn, but even in STEM professions, workers think about problems and provide solutions that hopefully make a difference or help people lead better lives. In short, it’s likely that most of us fall into the category that I have in mind for the audience of this post.

What might be the specific vices and virtues pertaining to the intellectual life, as Christians? How should we think about our tasks as our calling, vocation, or exercising our gifts? What types of Christian ethical commitments should we emphasize as we do our work? And more generally, how can we best use our intellect to love God and others?

I’m sure all of us have heard the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). It was occasioned by someone asking Jesus the question, “Who is my neighbor?” While Jesus used the opportunity to highlight the importance of neighborly love toward one’s enemies (the Samaritan!), I think there is a broader application here even if we all have a special duty to love those considered our enemies. For intellectuals, our neighbors are those who stand in need of the truth, or those in need of the fruits of our intellect. Many of our actions should be directed toward this end, to properly love our neighbors with our intellect, to provide them with helpful knowledge, and to spread this love to them in the fruits of our intellectual labor.

It’s tempting to isolate our intellectual pursuits from the world and its needs, but a specifically Christian intellectual should use her or his intellect to make the world a better place. What are the needs of your community? God endowed us with unique gifts that we should put to the service of helping others. Again, this is not limited to working in a food bank, organizing a non-profit, or volunteering to provide shelter to the homeless. While these are part of the Christian life in general, in addition to these, intellectuals can use their minds to do similar things. Are there people you know who could benefit from a healthier understanding of God? Are there people you know who could flourish if only they knew basic economic principles? Are there parents you know who stand in need of knowledge about how to raise their kids in ways that promote their own wellbeing? Does the company you work for need to function more effectively? Are there problems that you could use your intellect to solve? If so, then you have tasks ahead of you, and performing them is partly your act of love for your neighbor. As intellectuals, we love others by providing them with the knowledge they need to live a good life.

The view from my favorite study spot.

The view from my favorite study spot.

In my own life as a student of theology, I try to use theological principles to solve problems we face here in everyday life, and I read those who have done similar things before me. It is part of my duty as a Christian theological student to help others learn about God, to lift up the church, and to love others by providing them with knowledge of the gospel that will make all of our lives better. I’m far from getting a grip on this thing, but maybe the specifics of my own life might help you discern where to direct the efforts of your own life, in your perhaps very different circumstances.

What might be some virtues proper to intellectuals? In my opinion, studiousness should be at the absolute top of the list. Your intellect will not help others unless you are determined to make use of it. Concretely, this might involve an audit of how you use your time, where you direct your attention to, and realizing all that you have yet to learn. The opposites of studiousness are negligence and vain curiosity. We are morally negligent when we do not use our intellect to the best of our abilities to help others and love them. We may also fall into morally destitute ground when we continually seek to know things just out of a self-centered curiosity. Again, an intellect is of no use unless it is used to love God and our neighbors. It cannot be our goal, no matter how tempting for some of us, to merely know as much as we can. We must learn to be studious with the way we deploy our knowledge in our work, so that the often strenuous efforts we put forth to learn things does not go to waste or ends up serving no one else besides ourselves.

On this same theme, it is extraordinary important for the Christian intellectual to work hard. Whenever they are devoting themselves to study, learning, or solving a problem, they should give it their most intense effort. Whatever we do (in our case, study, thinking, and learning), we should do it with all of our strength, as if we were doing it for Christ. There’s an old saying regarding our use of time: “Whoever knows the value of time always has enough; not being able to lengthen it, they intensify its value; and first of all, they do nothing to shorten it.” This might require us to defend our “study time” from distractions, and interruptions. We are doing part of the work of the Kingdom; we should do it with all of our might. This type of study forms part of our charity to others. Even if semi-isolated in this type of work, it is our charity toward others as we think to solve the problems others face or to learn what others need to know.

Study, the time it takes to learn something that you can put to use, can also be the intellectual’s specific act of prayer if it is devoted to God. If God is the source of all truth, then for the intellectual, they live a continuously sacramental life whenever they discover truths in their particular area of interest or expertise. God is, if you will, “incarnated” in each truth we find along the way. Each truth allows us to know God just that little bit more than we did before – and likewise for others when we share knowledge and use it to help others. Nevertheless, one ought to question their practices if their study distracts them from the more normal forms of devotion to God like worship, studying our scriptures, or even if it distracts them from serving others in a broader sense – like attending to the poor, oppressed, and promoting reconciliation.

We should constantly ask God for the grace we need to motivate our intellect and to continue our work even when it seems like we are getting nowhere. Another means of grace God has provided to the intellectual is the ability to make contact with the minds of the greatest scientists, theologians, pastors, teachers, and engineers (among others) through the writings they have left behind. This grace, of understanding the lives and work of those intellectuals who have come before us, pushes us to be our best selves and is often the source of much of our learning. This is why reading great books is so important for the intellectual, whatever they might be in one’s specific field. God has given us the opportunity to look back on those who have faithfully lived out their calling as intellectuals before us.

Some of the other more important virtues for the intellectual are constancy, patience, and perseverance. Our task will not always be easy, and we will face temptations along the way, but we can all learn to use our intellect for the betterment of others. We always have the opportunity to pray to God for strength when we are weak. In my own, albeit limited, experience, sloth, or laziness, is the largest barrier the Christian intellectual must overcome. It is too easy to go through the motions and be content with being mediocre at our tasks. Instead, we should try to always be the best we can be; in this, we love others better. In this area, one of my favorite quotes has become this dandy from Leonardo da Vinci. At the end of his life, after his efforts had been pushed to their max, he wrote: “My capacity is exhausted. Whatever deficiencies remain, may God and my neighbor forgive me.”

May God give us the grace we need to use our intellect to make the world a little bit better than it would have been without us.