Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Crisp and Gathercole on Jenson

I've been reading Oliver Crisp's God Incarnate and just finished his chapter on the pre-existence of Christ. He takes up a critique of Robert Jenson's view on the issue and takes aim at a few other issues along the way. Crisp's criticisms are predominantly logical or analytical in nature, thought he does make use of an article by Simon Gathercole. I also decided to read Gathercole's article, and his criticisms are predominantly exegetical in nature, but with a few logical criticisms as well. I'll try to provide the briefest of summaries.

First, Jenson accepts a pre-existent Christ, but denies the concept of logos asarkos, that is, that there was a time when the Logos, or Son of God, was without a body. In this he is mainly following Karl Barth, but for Jenson, the precise reason that logos asarkos is problematic is because he identifies the pre-incarnate Son with Israel of the Old Testament. Normally this would be non-controversial, since the NT witness speaks of Christ's presence with Israel explicitly. However, Jenson's definition of Christ's identification with Israel takes a strong sense of identity, that is, Christ isn't simply identified by Israel as His body, but with Israel as His body, i.e. Israel is Christ's body. Crisp uses the analogy of an author being known by a reference to his writing ("The Systematic Theology I, by which I mean the book authored by Robert Jenson") and an author being known with (that is, identical to) a reference ("The author who wrote the book Systematic Theology I, which is Robert Jenson). Under this strong definition of Christ's identification with Israel, Christ would have a body (Israel) prior to having a body (the incarnation). It should be noted that Crisp provides a much more nuanced explication of Jenson's view than I am here giving.

Second, and in order to extend Jenson's rejection of logos asarkos beyond Creation, Jenson's view of time and of God's divinity must be accounted for. Jenson wishes to reject the metaphysic that he believes is inherited from the ancient Greeks ("Olympian-Parminidean"), which dichotomizes and opposes time and eternity. He neither favors Aristotle's view of God within an infinite linear succession, nor Plato's extra temporal reality for God outside of time. Rather, in Jenson's view, God is neither outside of time, nor existent across time in a linear succession of moments. God is, rather, eschatologically determined. He exists as His own future, without being "past" or "present," but is rather like a narrative, where we can speak of before and after.

One of the most frustrating and puzzling aspects of reading Jenson's Systematic Theology I, for me personally, was his refusal to offer an adequate definition of time. He could gesture, he could say what time is not, but he could not present what I considered a coherent viewpoint. I say this because I wish for you readers to know that I am sympathetic to Crisp's account of Jenson, for he finds the same incoherence, though for slightly different reasons. For Jenson, God's life is akin to narrative, where we may use past, present, and future as descriptions, and these descriptions are identifiable with the persons of the Godhead--Father is past, Spirit is future, and Son is present. This is precisely where Gathercole takes issue with Jenson's account of God the Son, since Gathercole argues that Jenson's treatment NT passages concerning Christ's activity in the creation of the world does not do justice to the Biblical data under Jenson's formulation of the persons of the Godhead. Certainly we might say that Jenson's account is interesting as a characterological treatment of the Biblical data, which does speak often of God as the one "before," the Spirit as the testament of "what is to come," and the Son as the one who "now is," with everything weighted toward the eschatological consummation of the narrative. However, I think Gathercole is right that Jenson's emphasis is an overemphasis, and I also agree with Crisp that however artfully styled Jenson's formulations are, they don't clarify anything given to us from the previous witnesses within Christendom. In producing a "pure" metaphysic, Jenson has emptied our conception of time, the divine nature, and Christ's pre-existence of much needed perspicuity.

I haven't done justice to any of the parties in the debate here, other than to give a bit of the lay of the land, along with my own impressions. I'll just leave you with two reasons why my sympathies lay with Jenson's "correctors" than with Jenson.

First, there is Jenson's wholesale rejection of "Greek metaphysics." There has been plenty of ink spilled over the question first raised by Tertullian, "What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens," that is, what does the Biblical God and His revelation have to do with pagan learning? Tertullian's answer was similar to Jenson's--nothing at all! Others were more inclined to say with Origen--"they are essentially the same!" But I side with Augustine, who says that God has frequently given knowledge to those who fail to see Him or seek Him by it, and as Christians we can "plunder from the Egyptians" what is rightfully ours as God's people. The most basic illustration of this, to my mind, are the basic laws of logic (identity, excluded middle, contradiction). Aristotle codified them for the Western world, but surely these things are not Aristotle's possession, for they obtain before and beyond Aristotle's articulation of them. His recognition of the laws of logic do not entail wholesale adoption of his pagan metaphysics anymore than our agreement with Aristotle on any particular point of history or biology would. In this way, I think, Jenson errs in seeking to construct a new metaphysics from scratch.

Second, there is Jenson's description of time. I agree with him that Aristotle and Plato are both lacking. Gordon Clark made the same point in his lecture Time & Eternity. Plato only really offered a description ("Time is the moving image of eternity") that made for a clever aphorism, but not a philosophically defensible definition. Aristotle, according to Clark, wound up in a vicious circle, whereby time and motion were mutually defining without either being properly distinguished. Clark's solution, which he took from Augustine, was that time is a characteristic of created minds. Perceptive readers may sense a problem with respect to created objects that are not minds, but the objection presupposes a certain metaphysic of time and creation, which is not necessarily entailed by Augustine's definition of time. For example, one might propose an Edwardsian metaphysic, wherein creation is ideal, and our apprehension of it (given our finitude) is both derivative and successive and therefore characterized by "time," that is, our minds were not aware of object x, then became aware of object x, and then hold a memory of object x and apprehension 1, while continuing to gather new apprehensions at intervals 2, 3, 4, and so on. But the successive nature of our apprehension of creation does not itself define what is the nature of the objects of creation. I'm not committing myself to such a view, but only trying to show that Augustine's restriction of time to a characteristic of minds can be shown sensible and, therefore, defensible.

Edit: In glancing over this post again, it seems to give the impression that I think Jenson's efforts to be largely disappointing. I don't think that would be a fair expression of my view of Jenson's Systematic Theology. I don't agree with his metaphysics, his conception of time, his expression of the Trinity, and the details listed above, but I found a great deal of agreement and gained some insights I would not have in reading his work. It is easy to only deal with the "big things" with an individual like Jenson, who is attempting a lot. For that I respect his efforts and am thankful for his thoughts, even where we part ways.

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