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REMEMBERING ROBERT W. JENSON (1930-2017)

by William Storrar

Members of the Center of Theological Inquiry will be saddened to learn of the death of Robert Jenson on September 5th, 2017. Jens, as he was affectionately known to all, served as the Senior Scholar for Research during the directorship of Dr. Wallace Alston. After retiring in 2004, he later returned at my invitation to work as a CTI member on his theological commentary on Ezekiel. During his time as Senior Scholar, he brought his brilliance as a theologian to bear on all aspects of the Center's research program: chairing meetings with the resident members to discuss their work in progress, enriched by his learned insights (and by his beloved wife Blanche's legendary hospitality); providing them with valued feedback on their draft writings; and advising Dr. Alston on the research groups that produced a series of multi-authored volumes, including his own characteristically succinct contributions. We offer our condolences to Blanche and family, and give thanks for one of the great theologians of our time. The funeral will be held on Saturday, September 16 at 3:00pm in Trinity Church, Princeton. 

William Storrar, Director

 

A Personal Remembrance of Robert W. Jenson
by R. Kendall Soulen

 “Storied” is a good word for Robert W. Jenson.  Not that “Jens” lived an especially adventurous life, even by the modest standards of professional theologians.  Blanche complained that all he ever wanted to do for summer vacation was sit on the beach and read Homer in Greek.  But the living he did do was wonderfully productive of stories, anecdotes, witticisms, and so on.  Friends, admirers, and, I suppose, a few detractors have long enjoyed swapping these like baseball trading cards.  He adopted the nickname “Jens” in part to preempt “Billy Bob” (“W.” standing for “William”).  Karl Barth allowed as how “the young American” understood his theology better than anyone else.  And, of course, there was the time that Prof. “X” said “y” at the seminar table, prompting Jens to turn red and shout “z!”  The equation has many solutions, but “z” was always a crystal clear and theologically profound proposition, whether one agreed with it or not.  Part of the fun is that despite the hippy hair and the sports car, there was the faintest whiff of the anti-social about Jens.  Blanche whispered in his ear frequently in public spaces, and the effect was always beneficial. 

In reality, Jens wasn’t anti-social.  He was a little shy.  And he wasn’t naturally pugnacious.  He just believed that that there was one story so good, so important, and so true that one had to be willing to stand up and fight for it. That story, of course, is the gospel, and it captured Jens’ imagination down to the bones (not all imaginations have bones, but Jens’ certainly did, along with muscles, nervous system, and a highly developed cerebellum).  Jens was a generative intellectual of the first order.  He wrote dozens of books, contributed to scores more, co-founded the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology with Carl Braaten, launched a premier theological journal, organized numerous ecumenical conferences, and much more besides.  But it was always perfectly evident to those who knew him that the center of gravity around which all this activity rotated was not Jens himself.  It was that friend of sinners, Jesus of Nazareth, and the God who raised him from the dead.  One sensed that if Jens’ personality was a bit angular, it was in part because the God of the gospel had bent it like that. 

I am not aware that Jens liked surprises very much, but he believed that God did.  He affirmed that God the Father and God the Son trusted the Holy Spirit so much that they were willing to let the eschaton be the Spirit’s surprise on them.  Be that as it may (and I have my doubts about that one), I know that he and Blanche treasured one surprise that occurred later in his career, namely, his affiliation with the Center of Theological Inquiry.  It is tempting to call the years that he, Wallace Alston, and Kathi Morley were at the helm of CTI a glorious surprise of the Spirit. I never heard him say that. But I believe that those of us who had the privilege of being a part of CTI during those years may be forgiven for doing so. Thanks be to God for the life and witness of Robert W. Jenson.

R. Kendall Soulen is a CTI member and Professor of Systematic Theology at Candler School of Theology, Emory University.