review :: robert jenson on six difficult notions

by Eric Daryl Meyer

Robert Jenson’s On Thinking the Human: Resolutions of Difficult Notions [1] is, at 86 pages, a deceptively short book for the depth it contains. Yet even given the density of its insight, the text itself is not laboriously terse or overwrought. The concept of the book is simple: take six concepts concerning human experience about which thought is notoriously contradictory, intractably ambiguous, or frought with persistent dispute, and consider each by transporting the conversation from one that is thought “in” the human experience, to one that is thought outside being-human. The outside perspective from which these concepts receive critical light is, time and again, that of the relation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as one God.  

After this introduction, the volume’s subtitle is strikingly ambitious, if not arrogant, but Jenson does not shy from the task of “resolving.” And in this, Jenson hopes to be no less arrogant than the New Testament itself (85), which is to say sufficiently confident to assert his belief that the universe can only “be thought” coherently in obedience to the Trinity. Indeed, by the denouement of each of the six chapters he has worked his way to a resolution. I am reading Robert Jenson for the first time, and am enormously impressed. It may be naïvely provincial affection for a fellow Lutheran with Barthian sensibilities, but both his statements of the “difficult notions” and his “resolutions” are strikingly elegant.
For example, in the initial chapter concerning death. Jenson points out that we seem to be incapable of thinking our own death without imagining some continuation of consciousness in darkness, sleep, or nothingness—but that continuation is precisely what death excludes. There is no perspective from which one’s own state of being-dead might be observed. After making the connection between this nothingness and the nothingness of the universe’s non-existence, Jenson turns to consider the Father’s perspective on the Son’s death by crucifixion. In the divine thinking of that death, we find the possibility that our deaths too might be thought, and in Christ, we might be thought through nothingness into life. 

Other “difficult notions” resolved include consciousness, freedom, reality, wickedness, and love.

My greatest concentration of disagreements with Jenson came, for me, in the chapter on wickedness. Interacting with Aristotle, Jenson questions whether human sinfulness is an accident or substance of human nature. In other words, is it fair game to speak of a “wicked person” or ought we only speak of “persons acting wickedly”? Jenson spends several pages in defense of Flacius, a Lutheran who argued that original sin is the whole nature (i.e. substance) of the unredeemed person. Against Flacius, the Lutheran tradition insisted that sin is an accident of fallen humanity (albeit a very grave one) and not its substance. Flacius’ view grates against all my theological sensibilities. No human being is unambiguously good or evil, and the notion that humans might be differentiated along those lines is always disastrous—leading to everything from pharasaism to genocide. 

Ultimately, Jenson resolves the issue by demonstrating the limitations of Aristotle’s distinction (expanding what is essentially a timeless picture into the greater complexity of a narrative), and argues after all, that human beings participate in both good and evil, and that these forces shape our very being. The tenor of this conclusion reveals the interaction with Flacius as an attack on what Jenson sees as the late-modern minimizing of evil as something solvable by socio-economic reconfiguration, therapy, or meditation. As much as I might agree with Jenson on these points, I also hear Flacius’ voice with some regularity these days; many of our brothers and sisters can point to the people who are wicked all the way down—and I do not think they need any encouragement. Questions put to this confidence, even if they are late modern liberal sorts of questions, are to be welcomed rather than silenced. I should repeat myself to be clear, I agree wholeheartedly with Jenson’s conclusion in this chapter, but we arrived at the same point from different directions. 

For all that, Jenson is clear, uses no more space than necessary, and deals with monumental issues with insight, wit, and creativity. I look forward to working through the rest of his work. Jenson’s book is a phenomenal piece of writing, one that merits emulation as much as careful reading.


[1] Jenson, Robert W. On Thinking the Human: Resolutions of Difficult Notions. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003.