God Happens: The Timeliness of the Triune God

By Peters, Ted. | The Christian Century, April 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

God Happens: The Timeliness of the Triune God


Peters, Ted., The Christian Century


Does God need to wear a wristwatch, or glance at a clock now and then? If God is eternal, and if God holds all events together simultaneously, does it matter to God that we experience events sequentially? Do openness, contingency and freedom in temporal affairs have any effect on God's eternity?

These sound like ancient questions, the kind we would expect from theologians in the Roman and Byzantine eras. Yet we ask them again in our own time for three reasons. First, those who believe in God dislike thinking of God as uninvolved in the temporal world. Second, our scientific understanding of reality is drenched in time. Third, attempts to identify the God of Israel as witnessed to in the resurrection of Jesus Christ must take God's involvement in temporal history as essential to the divine reality.

That the eternal God can be affected by--even more, can be identified by--temporal events is the thesis of the first volume of Robert W. Jenson's Systematic Theology. Jenson, who teaches at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, codirects with Carl Braaten the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology. He also coedits its journal, Pro Ecclesia. In 1984 he and Braaten edited Christian Dogmatics, a two-volume systematic theology that was for a decade a standard text in Lutheran seminaries.

"God is what happens between Jesus and his Father in their Spirit," Jenson declares. This makes God an event, not a being. Jenson is not talking about religious subjectivity, nor about the human proclivity for drawing pictures of a likable deity. Nor is he talking about the utterly transcendent mystery of philosophers and mystics, the divine that allegedly lives in a far-off eternity uncontaminated by the ordinariness of time and space. The God who raised Jesus from the dead is the subject of this book.

Jenson belongs to the new trinitarianism. He shares a conceptual agenda with Eberhard Jungel, Jurgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Duane Larson (who has succeeded Jenson at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg) and the late Catherine Mowry LaCugna. The new trinitarians begin with the principles of the two Karls, Barth and Rahner. Barth's principle is that Christians do not seek card-carrying membership in a larger club of monotheists. What is revealed about God in the Jesus Christ event identifies something about God that is not reducible to generic belief as found in other religions or in the philosophy of religion. God is so free as to be able to define divinity, and in the temporal event of Jesus Christ God has included humanity in that eternal self-definition.

Rahner's rule is that the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity, and vice versa. This means that God's external relations to the world provide the very arena in which God's internal relations take place. That is, historical events such as Jesus praying to the Father or the Father abandoning the crucified Jesus to death constitute the very relations of the first two persons of the Trinity; they do not merely mirror in time some other relations taking place in a separated eternity.

According to Jenson's historical retrieval, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and the Cappadocian theologians of the Eastern church accurately understood and articulated the differential relations within trinitarian life, whereas Augustine did not. In fact, Augustine betrayed the Nicene insight by retreating to the Greek notion that God is ultimately simple and, as eternally simple, unable to engage authentically with us in time. So we must choose, says Jenson, and he chooses the Eastern path and rejects the Augustinian.

Nicea teaches dogmatically: the true God needs, and the

gospel provides, no semidivine mediator of access to him,

for the gospel proclaims a God who is not in fact distant,

whose deity is identified with a person of our history ...

Any pattern of thought that in any way abstracts God

"himself' from this person, from his death or his career or

his birth or his family or his Jewishness or his maleness

or his teaching or the particular intercession and rule he

as risen now exercises, has, according to Nicea, no place

in the church.

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