The norms of theological judgment

donovanpaintingI recently mentioned having not read a Protestant theologian for several years now. James Loder comes to mind as the only brief exception. I finally decided to pick up Protestants again and chose Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson as my re-entry point. Wow.

I’m ashamed to confess having put off Jenson this long. He’s been on my shelf for, God forgive me, years. I’ve read works by others about Jenson. But when it comes to getting into Jenson himself, well, I just kept deferring to other things—Maximus, Bulgakov, Hart, Desmond, (and Fr. Aidan!). So here I am in Vol. 1 of Jenson’s SysTheo (The Triune God). I’ll get around to a response when I recover, if I recover. However, I sense a “response” to Jenson would reduce me to just taking inventory of what’s left of my own beliefs after Jenson got through with me and whatever reasons I have for holding on to what I hold on to.

Jenson is Senior Scholar for Research at the Center for Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey, has taught for decades (various schools), is author of more than twenty books, and has edited that many more at least. I believe it was Jenson who wrote of David Bentley Hart that “Hart will never use one phrase when twenty will do.” Those who know Hart will agree. Jenson, on the other hand, is frustratingly terse and efficient. Frustrating because you want more of him, not because you need more of him to grasp his point. There’s no need to ramble on. Just insight after insight. I disagree (I think) with some of his key thoughts, but he argues them so well I find myself sometimes wishing they were true.

In the second chapter (“The Norms of Theological Judgment”) of his SysTheo’s first volume, he gets into the question of the canon and its authority, as well as dogma, tradition, and the question of magisterium. I’m an Evangelical, but I’ve suspected sola scriptura of being woefully inadequate for years, and describe my own evolving position here (sensus communis, about which, I don’t mind saying, I felt much better after reading Jenson’s thoughts). I liked much of what Jenson says in this second chapter and would like to reproduce a few it its paragraphs for your consideration:

It is the mission of the church to speak the gospel, to the world in the proclamation and to God in appeal and adoration. Theology is the hermeneutic of this work. Theology must therefore have norms by which to make the judgment, “This is/is not the gospel.”

…[the church] would have to make arrangements for carrying the self-identity so constituted into a future of her own, for perpetuating the apostolic tradition; that is, she would have to deliberate institutions that would be constitutive of her life…Catholic theology is tempted to take these developments as unproblematic, Protestant theology to take them as illegitimate. Both temptations must be resisted, since the “early catholic” developments are plainly very problematic over against the life of the apostolic period, and yet are just as plainly necessary to there now being any church at all.

…We will first and most lengthily consider the canon of Scripture. That we so proceed does not reflect the foundational order of the church’s norms; without antecedent ministry and creed, there would not have been this book, and without the continuous liturgy of the church, there would have been no occasion for creed or ministry. Rather, our order reflects ecumenical consensus that once a canon of Scripture is in place, it has authority also over against any particular dogmatic proposal, magisterial responsum, or apparently mandatory liturgical order, if our perplexity becomes so extreme as to need such authority. That is, canonical Scripture is—in the language of the Reformation—the norma normans non normata, the norm with no norm over it, although other norms establish it in this position and, as we will see, are necessary to its function in it.

…It was the historical and already conflicted church that gathered and winnowed documentary relics of apostolic proclamation. The canon of Scripture, that is, a list of writings together with the instruction, “Take all these writings and non other as standard documents of the apostolic witness,” is thus a dogmatic decision of the church. If we will allow no final authority to churchly dogma, or to the organs by which the church can enunciate dogma, there can be no canon of Scripture. The slogan sola scriptura, if by that is meant “apart from creed, teaching office, or authoritative liturgy,” is an oxymoron.

…Scripture as canon is the norma non normata of gospel-speaking and not directly of faith in the gospel or of theology about the gospel. The object and so criterion of faith is not Scripture as a collection of writings but God in his living word of the gospel. And theology uses Scripture as a norm of the proclamation and prayer theology serves, that is, as a norm of something other than itself; thus Scripture becomes theology’s own norm only mediately.


Scripture indeed becomes faith’s normative object in its liturgical use or when the reading or study of Scripture otherwise becomes living proclamation or adoration. When Scripture appears in such power, its authority is that of proclamation and sacrament and prayer generally: it is the authority of God’s own presence in his word, to create and nurture faith

…But when Scripture appears in this immediate authority, it is removed from the sorts of mundane analysis theology must execute to use Scripture in making its judgments. It is therefore necessary to distinguish between Scripture’s authority as living word of God and its authority as a norm in the church’s theological effort to speak that living word.

…There is no mandate to reproduce all apostolic theologoumena. Indeed, they are not guaranteed to be especially felicitous; we turn to the apostolic church not for the certainly best thought-out instances of gospel-speaking but for unchallengeable instances. Theology is thinking what to say to be saying the gospel. Like every intellectual enterprise, this demands its own appropriate practices of thought. Since the gospel is whatever the apostles said to say “Jesus is risen,” apostolic reflective activity also—however profoundly or superficially done—must have been the right sort of thing to be doing.

Thus it is not that Paul thought through the gospel better than, say, Irenaeus; the matter is in fact debatable. And having named Paul, we have named one of the few New Testament writers who, so far as the documents show, could compete in precision and profundity with many saints and thinkers who have come after. The New Testament witnesses are not necessarily the deepest or most critical or creative speakers of the gospel; they are the ones we must suppose did not simply do something else. That some of the New Testament writers were also genial thinkers is a bonus.

…If now we ask who is to defend a biblical text against its churchly interpreters—perhaps by pointing out facts about it—the final answer is that the Spirit must do so. But at the lower level maintained in these prolegomena, the needed insight is that there is no one to defend the text against the association of its interpreters except the community of those same interpreters, that is, the church as church over against the church as a certain number of conjoined persons. All texts finally need an interpreter that is no particular interpreter or even all particular interpreters added or averaged together, that is to say, all texts need a true community as interpreter; in the church, Scripture has just such a defender.

But if the church as community is to defend the text against the interpreting of the church’s associated members, the church must have a voice with which to speak for herself to her own members. Biblical authority—and mutais mutandis ritual and dogmatic authority—are therefore not possible apart from a voice for the church as community speaking to the church as association, that is, in the church’s own language, apart from a teaching office, a magisterium. To affirm this, we need not yet commit ourselves about a mandated or appropriate location of teaching authority.

The single entity of the church-community, to which appeal is here made, is both synchronic and diachronic in its unicity, but it is the latter than is now our concern. Through the teaching office, the church speaks as one diachronically communal reality and is guarded in this unity precisely by so speaking; therefore the teaching office must itself be essentially characterized by diachronic unity. In the church’s traditional language, this is called “succession”: those are to teach who make one community with former teachers.

There is an obvious problem here. It is the teaching office that speaks dogma, that speaks theologically for the church to its own members. Every proposal of dogma, like every proposal of theology generally, must be tested against Scripture and existing dogma. But we now see that it is, again, the teaching office by which Scripture and dogmatic texts can assert themselves. Here is a circle that obviously could set the teaching office adrift to define the gospel as whatever pleases its momentary holders. Sensitivity to this threat has notoriously made Protestantism uneasy with the posit of an authoritative magisterium. Yet now we see that a teaching office is necessary if Scripture or dogma are themselves to exercise authority.

We have again arrived at a limit of prolegomenal description. The magisterium can be the necessary enunciator of the gospel’s diachronic identity rather than a threat to it, can be the defense of Scripture and existing dogma rather than a danger to them, only if the circularity of the magisterium’s role marks the freedom of a charism, if the teaching office is an instrument of God the Spirit.

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