Robert W. Jenson on Time

Robert Jenson is a pioneer of the strong ecclesiology. He has put Israel in her proper place as the object of the election of God and established the trinity as the tool that keeps theology Christian. He is a champion of talk of temporality and exploring the notion that God has time for us. This has involved him in demythologising the modern notion that time is single, world-wide and culture-independent, and that time is forward, in a direction given by an orientation and cosmology never made explicit. Though the edge may be off the optimism, and we are now too sophisticated to use the word, the idea of progress is as constitutive of us now as it ever was. Time is not a concept that the West has amongst others, but rather the West is nothing more than the idea of time, is constituted by the set of mental-corporal bad habits that can conveniently be given this name.

Jenson on Time
in Colin E. Gunton (ed.)Trinity, Time and Church: A Response to the Theology of Robert W. Jenson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2000).

Robert Jenson is a pioneer of the strong ecclesiology. He has put Israel in her proper place as the object of the election of God and established the trinity as the tool that keeps theology Christian. He is a champion of talk of temporality and exploring the notion that God has time for us. This has involved him in demythologising the modern notion that time is single, world-wide and culture-independent, and that time is forward, in a direction given by an orientation and cosmology never made explicit. Though the edge may be off the optimism, and we are now too sophisticated to use the word, the idea of progress is as constitutive of us now as it ever was. Time is not a concept that the West has amongst others, but rather the West is nothing more than the idea of time, is constituted by the set of mental-corporal bad habits that can conveniently be given this name.
‘Vanquishing God’s Shadow’ is the subtitle of a book by Brian Ingraffia. God’s shadow is what time is, as time is nothing but time towards what or who else but God? When time as God’s shadow has been vanquished it becomes Man’s shadow, imago hominis, and man is not longer man with all the dignity of the creature of God, but ‘Man’ in capital letters, the incubus not under his own or any other control. Neither modern nor postmodern thought makes this distinction between man as creature, and under control, and man as under his own control, and therefore under no control. Inasmuch as the Man postmodern thinkers want to deconstruct is a usurper god, who stands in God’s place without being able to perform any of his functions, their project is worthwhile, though of course it is not one they can carry out. The order of man-in-God’s-place is a parasitic anti-order, and, no matter how reduced, no version of man can survive under it.
Time relates not to substance or quality, but to direction. It relates and therefore to relationship, that specific relationship which allows it to be time for one another. On the modern view we steadily increase our distance from the events of Jesus Christ, and leave the Church behind just as the Church left Israel. Robert Jenson insists however that Israel is not back there, but here; the actual presence of the Jewish people is the theological datum. Her survival is evidence of God’s faithfulness, and the guarantee of this re-definition of this time as the specific joint time of Israel and God, into which we are also called and gathered.
The history of the West is the history of the supplanting of the election of this people, the specific people of God’s choosing, with a generalised version of the same by which all are indifferently chosen, and the concept of God’s choosing abstracted to meaninglessness. When, in the seventeenth century, election was reduced to Providence, history became a flow in a single direction, a flow out of the past and away from it. But towards what does this time flow, and what space does it flow through? Without an answer here, we can hardly maintain time that is a single stream moving in one direction: it would simply be flux, flowing in all directions and no direction, which would make it as presocratic as postmodern. Platonism is a handy label for the idea that time flows from an origin with God, out to us, and that eventually this tide turns and flows back to him. But to speak theologically we must get rid of both these ideas, that time is flowing out of God to humanity, or that humanity is being borne from the human past towards the future where God is. We must not make the assumption that of past or future, one is more divine and the other more human.
If we refuse to acknowledge this people as the elect people we cannot make a coherent claim on the concept of time, without which there can also hardly be any concept of freedom. The idea of progress was the beginning of the reduction of the people of Israel to the idea of Israel, and the turning of the idea against Israel to oust her. According to the idea of progress we are borne along, forward. But this movement can be said to be forward only in relation to something other than ourselves. Indeed our movement can be described as such only retrospectively, inasmuch as God takes it to correspond to his movement to us. Only in relation to the intentions of this mover, in the sense of his determination towards meeting and agreement, can we think of our movement as forward, or time as single and unified.
God on the trinitarian conception is not only agent, but guarantor and host of the agency of many agents, and includes that action and hospitality God and Israel come to have for each other. Time could then serve to name the movement by which God and Israel grow into the room each has for the other.
We cannot talk about time without having to say whose time, or without this becoming talk about space, and then having to say whose space. This is the question Jenson asks and answers by talking about the eucharist and the location of Christ’s body. His argument is that, when it has comes to discussing the action of God, for centuries we have been content with the wrong metaphor, that of the Ptolemaic universe, in which we sit in the middle and God on the edge, as though it were us who gave him place, and on the ‘outside’ is where we place him. Jenson uses the sixteenth century Lutherans of Swabia to deconstruct this idea, which makes it so difficult to say how God is in heaven and is the bread on the altar, is both here and there, divided between two places. Is God divided by place, or is place not rather united and divided by God? But the world is not a container, and our concept of place that places God out, must therefore be said to wrong.
Yet, and here begins my attempt to go beyond Jenson, the concept of a ‘container’, and of the Ptolemaic world system, is not quite wrong. It is rather God who holds us in this place: it contains us, it does not exclude him. It means not that we are in an envelop of space evacuated by him, but in the place which is his place for us and in which he really can be with us. The fall was not a free fall through empty space, but was a falling and being caught and placed in a particular God-determined time and place, a soft place within which, though we are sin-damaged, sin is effectively limited by death and cannot make an end of us. Sin and death are theological, not publicly given, concepts. Death is not its own master, but is confined to this world-container, placed from the beginning by God, for God’s purposes. So within this death-delimited place of our falling and landing is the world which, because it is the world of God’s working, has enough give and flexibility in it to allow for us, and withstand the whole excess and deficiency that sin represents.
Jenson has been challenged on whether God must then establish himself against death, whether the resurrection is ontologically constitutive of the being of God. But this becomes a crisis only if we do not submit the concept of death to the proper process of interpretation. We should say that these concepts, death, murder and sin, are the exclusive fruit of Israel’s thoroughly theological, God-tutored understanding; they are what Israel has identified and turned away from, or even what Israel is the turning away from. Israel defines all the various paths of the divergent times of the world as non directions, as ‘death’, and defines death as what will never be. She is the new form of life which puts death away – not in a place outside, but in a no-place, no-hypostasis. The resurrection reveals sin is not constitutive. Death is then merely the name of the ‘goneness’ of what does not correspond to the creation of God, and Israel is the only one who can fully and correctly name it as such. Thus the concept ‘death’ is a prohibition of certain forms of non-life, and is the announcement and command of the freedom of God-and-Israel. The resurrection is not simply the reversing of the crucifixion, but is the transformation of the cross from our estimation of it to the Father’s estimation of it – as work, satisfaction and triumph, and thus as the reversing and bouleversement of our cosmology and orientation.
God is therefore in place – his own place – in more solid sense than we are. He is ‘here’, though this ‘here’ is not a here available to us – we cannot say where it is. We are entirely present to him, the function of his making and holding us to him; but we are neither properly present to each other, nor, other than by eucharistic epiclesis, using one particular name, is he accessible to us. In this world we so insouciantly take for our own, we are not yet what he determines we will be: of ourselves, we have neither time nor space for each other. We inhabit this territory not as an established human species but only as myriad competing organisms and forms of behaviour, beings as yet without means of occupying place or of being free in it. We are not yet in place such that we can return his place and praise to him – for we do not have the skill by which to co-constitute and articulate place, by taking it from him to share it with him. Yet these competing territories and forms of life will become – for they have no other telos by which they could resist becoming – humanity, the species that is free and that occupies and combines the single territory of heaven-and-earth.
We may not set on one side Israel the nation and on another Israel the Son. We must not distinguish the many generations of this people from Jesus Christ, the one instantiation of this people, who sits fully clothed in his flesh on the right hand of the Father, and by which this whole people stands before God, and is with God, holy and complete. A distinction between this One and this Many is not a distinction God allows. He sees ‘from the future’, and the future is what his seeing calls into place. His time is complete and perfect, and it both measures against this standard and works and transforms everything up to this standard. So we are in no position to declare that the people of Israel is not yet the work and presence of God, or to place Israel here with us as human and God somewhere else as divine. God is with the creature of his creation and the incarnation is the present and ongoing state of his being with his creature. God’s single and definitive assessment of the creation is the future he crafts for it.
Definitions of place and of time that contrast humanity and divinity are not adequately theological. These concepts must receive their reference from the work of the Creator who puts his creatures before him and is with them. They are a function of the doctrine of creation, which is about the course and destination of the world as the work of God. The creature is not in a position to tell God that God may not be with his creatures. Createdness or creatureliness may not determine the impossibility of the God-Man or decide that God may not be one creature amongst others. God has not acted in such a way as by his action to lose his freedom: his economy and work do not prejudice his being or his freedom, or his freedom for his creature.
We are placed by and contained within the Ptolemaic container of God’s working, and it is by this same working that this container is broken open. This container is the single work of God’s placing us before him, placed and closed by the crucifixion, and placed and opened by the resurrection. On this basis Jenson rightly maintains that God affirms his identity as Israel’s God against death, as this death brings to nothing the many alternative creations and projections of the gentiles, and so brings to nothing the threats to the oneness of the Creation of God. We could inelegantly say that ‘death’ is the being-brought-to-nothing of the alternative creations of the gentiles.
Jenson combines language and bodiliness into a single concept of ‘availability’, or being an object. Perhaps his concern is that Christ’s being in some specific (fleshly) character in one place would militate against his being in some other, necessarily lesser, because less-fleshly, place in any or all other places. He is determined that the answer to the question Where is Jesus now? also be the answer to the question of where our real being is arriving from. The new body of the resurrected Many must not be seen to be weakened or made ambiguous by a separate consideration of the fleshly body of Jesus post-tomb. Language is the ongoing activity of bodies’ ‘bodiment’ to each other and of each other, and an overdrawn distinction between body and language would be the return of a matter-spirit dichotomy, opening a gap between God and his work, between a statically conceived divinity and humanity each threatening to make the other redundant.
From the ascended Man in heaven the Spirit issues flesh to us, formatting us into the whole relatedness of the kingdom of God, in behaviour, in language and in place. Language is just something that flesh does; the whole idiom of bodily being is linguistic. Language is the event in which obedient speech becomes obedient practices and forms of life, actualised as human persons. The answer to the question of where our future being is, is not ‘Some way further in the direction in which we are headed’, but ‘In the hands of a craftsman’; for it is the Holy Spirit who has put the God-man here before us and formatted around him a place for the many who will join him. His ‘hereness’ is eucharistically made known and mediated to us not as presence, but as the to-us ongoing absence of the God-man. By his eucharistic exercise of us, the Spirit teaches us that ‘He is coming’, and therefore that ‘He is not here’; the Son is not in any place where he is accessible to us, but now immediately accessible to him, we come to take up his flesh in that same place the Son has with the Father.
The concepts of body and of place are more pliable than those of presence and absence. Place is not an absence in general, but a specific, informed absence, that relates to the specific body that is not there yet, and so it is also a readiness for it, the result of training and preparation. It is being in its place that makes a body irreducible, for every place is the work of the many bodies that open it up and give it its character. This Son is given this place by the Father: it is the place that has put him out of reach of our placing him.
It is never easy to get just the necessary amount of dualism into the right place, but trinitarian grammar does allow us to make occasional resort to two discourses at once. Since time is the occasioning of persons, it is plural, and does not always fit into a single account or unit of measurement. He is the end, and he works from the end. God has a time that is now perfect and complete, and he has a time that is now working perfection and completeness. He has the finished object, and finishing the object is what he is now doing. It is properly called time when it has come to fruition, which is when time itself produces time. Time thus means both the fullness of time, and the coming to be of that fullness; this fullness will be the situation when all persons are adequate to constitute time enough for each other.
The God-man is that specific language speaker who is placed by the Spirit at the right hand of the Father. He and the Father share a single speech and language. Just as this place of theirs is able to situate all places within it, this speech of theirs is able to transform all linguistic and bodily being into one conversation with themselves. No speech is capable of resisting the place held out for it by the conversion of God. The Spirit supplies the God-man to us as many ways of life and speech, and the Body of Christ takes delivery of them. The language that we learn from listening in at the eucharist, or which inveigles its way into us from there, is the already spoken and lived experience of the Father and Son. Though it is speech, it is not detachable from them; it is their presence-and-availability, one word for which is ‘flesh’. ‘What bodies really are, is availabilities that enable freedom. It is tempting to say that the space occupied by the bread and cup, and by the space-occupying aspects of the Church’s sacraments and life generally, is God’s place in his creation… saying this would redefine heaven christologically: heaven would exist only in that the incarnation occurs, only in that God incarnationally occupies space in his creation.’
The eucharist is that effect of the act and speech of Father and Son by which the various divergent trajectories that together we call ‘the world’ are interrupted and prevented from bringing the world to any end of its own. Though the world continually issues error-messages and attempts to close itself down, from the community gathered in this world by the eucharist, the Spirit speaks a continuous over-ride message. The eucharist re-situates all the language of the world, putting it in a new place in the conversation of God. The conversation of the world is returned, by the Holy Spirit, to the Father, and returned not just as language but as newly-become actuality. Language does not displace flesh, but is what flesh does. God’s word goes out from him as speech, but it comes home to him as the actualised being of his creatures.
I have suggested that talk about time is always talk about space, and we must not assume that the concepts of time and space are irretrievably lost to some sub-Christian cosmology that is never given a name, but that we can and should refer them to the gospel events for transformative reinterpretation. I have suggested that we can usefully distinguish space and place. I have impertinently suggested that the argument would be stronger if bodies are understood to be in places, and that as place is not synonymous with space, place is the work and effect of persons, and so is linguistically – and that means eucharistically – mediated. Israel is the guarantee of the future and eschatological re-definition of this time as the time of God and man, Jesus and his Church.