Can These Bones Live?

I just finished reading Robert Jenson’s new book, A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live? (Oxford University Press, 2016). The book has its origins in a series of lectures that Jenson gave in the spring of 2008 to undergraduate students at Princeton University in a religious studies course.jenson

Jenson follows a standard sequence of topics in Christian theology: God, Trinity, creation, humanity, sin, salvation, and church. As Adam Eitel—the one who transcribed and edited Jenson’s lectures—writes in the introduction, “The course’s leitmotiv and organizing principle was somewhat less traditional. As the title suggests, the course framed the whole of Christian theology as a response to to the question posed to Ezekiel: ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ (Ezekiel 37:3)” (2).

The metaphor refers to two matters: First, can “the story the God lives with his people…continue?…[Second,] is the Christian faith itself a pile of dead and dried up bones? Is Christian theology dead?” (2). Jenson doesn’t answer these questions directly until the last chapter, but, as to be expected, the answer is yes. He writes,

Christian theology and the practices of the church must relearn how to display the church’s or the faith’s own interior plausibility—not drawing on anything outside of itself—as was done in the centuries before Constantine…In my judgment, theology responds best [to the challenge of Modernity] by trusting in the gospel’s own interior rationality [as Karl Barth did]…One point guard in the endeavor might be Wolfhart Pannenberg, who has elaborated an entire system of metaphysics…on the principle that traditional metaphysics draws its vision of what is from what has been, whereas a distinctly Christian metaphysics must draw its vision from what will be. (113-115, italics original)

Jenson’s book in short (115 pages), making it a good introduction to his theology, but it’s not just bones; there’s meat. He presents other provocative ideas like the one above: three, triune dramatic personae in the Old Testament (49-50); personal identity before essential identity (67);  Edwardsian view of original sin vs. Augustinian view (76-77); and Hans Urs von Balthasar’s view of atonement (85-87). Most significantly, it’s an edifying read. Jenson reminds one of God’s promise to make bones live, which he has done and continues to do through the Word made flesh—Jesus Christ.