In Memoriam: Robert W. Jenson (1930-2017)

One of the greatest living theologians, and in the opinion of many the greatest American theologian, Robert W. Jenson, died on September 5, 2017. After studying under Karl Barth while writing his dissertation on Barth’s theology of election, Jenson taught theology at Luther College, Mansfield College (Oxford), Lutheran Seminary, and St. Olaf College. In 1998, he retired from teaching and became Senior Scholar for Research at the Center for Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey. While at St. Olaf, Jenson collaborated with friend and colleague, Carl Braaten to establish the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, out of which the ecumenical journal of theology, Pro Ecclesia, developed. 

Jenson was the author of numerous books and articles, including Story and Promise: A Brief Theology of the Gospel about Jesus, Essays in Theology of Culture, and his two-volume magnum opus Systematic Theology. Known as a fearless and compelling theologian, Jenson was the sort of thinker with whom it was worth struggling even if you disagreed with nearly everything he said. David Bentley Hart remarked in an essay for First Things that Jenson was one of the most fascinating American theologians alive and that “even the most traditionalist of theologians—even those most implacably averse to the sort of approach to Trinitarian theology that Jenson’s thought represents—should be prepared not only to praise Jenson, but to submit their convictions to his interrogations.”

As a theologian, Jenson became deeply committed to the unity and reality of the Church, and its vocation to enact and rehearse through liturgy the universal story of salvation into which it has been grafted. In an article entitled “How the World Lost Its Story,” Jenson wrote: 

“For the ancient church, the walls of the place of Eucharist . . . enclosed a world. And the great drama of the Eucharist was the narrative life of that world. Nor was this a fictive world, for its drama is precisely the ‘real’ presence of all reality’s true author, elsewhere denied. The classic liturgical action of the church was not about anything else at all; it was itself the reality about which truth could be told.”

By way of tribute to Jenson’s life and work, MARS HILL AUDIO is releasing an archive interview with Robert Jenson from volume 20 of the Journal on why the life of the mind matters to the Church. In addition to this archive issue, we have included a newly-produced audio reprint of Jenson’s article “How the World Lost Its Story,” read by Ken Myers, which was originally printed in the October 1993 edition of First Things.

Listen to this special feature

Suggested Further Reading

Listeners interested in learning more about Robert Jenson may wish to read the following essays:

The Lively God of Robert Jenson by David Bentley Hart

Robert Jenson and the God of the Gospel by Paul R. Hinlicky

Remembering Jenson by Peter J. Leithart

In Memory and Anticipation of Robert W. Jenson by Matthew Burdette