Speaking to the Living: A Review of Theology in the Democracy of the Dead

November 21, 2019
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Title: Theology in the Democracy of the Dead: A Dialogue with the Living Tradition
Author: Matt Jensen
Publisher: Baker Academic
Publishing Date: October 15, 2019
Pages: 352 (Paperback)
ISBN: 978-0801049439

In teaching theology, one of my abiding concerns is not just that students gain a clearer understanding of the grammar of the Christian faith, but that they meet the manifold figures along the way who have shaped their thinking unbeknownst to them. Most theology students have an inkling of what they mean when they say that Jesus has saved them, but do not know that their understanding of salvation has roots in the works and influence of a John Calvin or a Jonathan Edwards, or that their understanding of the church is far more distant from the earliest Christians, from an Irenaeus or a Clement of Alexandria, than they imagine. I’ve spent a great deal of time puzzling over this, having spent the last decade in seminary education: how is it that key voices such as the ones presented by Matt Jenson in Theology in the Democracy of the Dead could be so unknown?

Jenson’s book is a dialogue with the past, not intended to offer new readings or applications of the panoply of Christian thinkers, but to introduce them to a new generation. He does so by attending to their context, their contributions, and occasionally, their perceived defects, but the intent of the book is straightforward: to hear eleven giants of Christian theology on their own terms. Beginning with Irenaeus of the Lyon in the 2nd century, and culminating with Karl Barth in the 20th century, Jenson offers introductions to prominent figures from the Christian tradition, highlighting one of their major contributions to the Christian life. In keeping with the focus on introducing major figures, then, the topics which emerge through these figures is dictated not by the loci of systematic theology, but by the figures themselves. From Irenaues, we learn a theology of Scripture, and from Calvin, the relation between God as creator and God as Father; from Jonathan Edwards, we are introduced to the relation between the Holy Spirit and felt piety; from Denys the Areopagite, we gain the ability to think of both what God is and what God is not. The exegetical skill and attention to context which Jenson displays throughout the book makes it exceptionally well-suited to reintroduce a generation of students to their vaguely known ancestors. In his selection of themes for each figure there is little overlap, such as to avoid duplication of loci when they emerge, and to provide as broad an introduction to the Christian heritage and Christian life as possible.

The overarching question which faces any work like Jenson’s—raised by the inclusion of Denys over, say, a contemporary figure such as James Cone or a different medieval figure like Julian of Norwich—is the question which brings us back around to why these figures are broadly unknown to the average churchgoer: who counts as a major voice and why? The figures in Jenson’s work are those who have, over time, been canonized in one way or another—some formally as saints, and others informally as the major formative voices of Christian history. However, what appears as inevitability now was in fact not always the case. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, for example, was not influential until decades after its authorship, and the Aeropagite likewise only became influential in the centuries after his works’ discovery. Similarly, Aquinas was minimized for centuries before his 19th century renaissance.

To return then to the comment which animated this review: part of the reason that modern Christians remain unaware of their own heritage is that while the theologians of Jenson’s work are indispensable for understanding the history of Christianity, the trajectory which they establish feels too fixed. The line which runs from Irenaeus to Anselm to Calvin to Barth is in truth a story of change and flexibility, not one of inevitability; an Aquinas can be rescued from diminishment and be restored to favor. So, if modern Christians do not resonate with the specific foci—or with the specific valences of the foci presented from the figures of this book—the impression might be had that either the modern Christian should change, or that the history should be left as history. This is not to take away from the fine work which Jenson has done, but works like this—and truly, any work which anthologizes—runs this risk: that this is the history, and if it doesn’t resonate with you, it can simply remain history. The problem is that their accomplishments are already part of the modern story, both in their influence over what the faith has become and in what the modern world seeks to not be.

The thing about tradition is that it endlessly invites valuation of what it contains, because, for better or worse, it is already a part of our own believing. The question is not one of disavowing, then, a Calvin or a Luther, but including alongside them the figures which would speak to not only our past but our future as well. It is the resourcing of the tradition which allows us to see it not as our past, but our present. Some of these are in Jenson’s volume, and we hear them afresh to our benefit, but some of them lie between the pages, at the edges, and even live among us now. The question is not whether tradition or not, but whether Christians can understand themselves as living within a tradition which they have been shaped by and which they can recognize as their own now.

About the Author
  • Myles Werntz is Director of Baptist Studies and Associate Professor of Theology at Abilene Christian University, where he directs the Baptist Studies Center in the Graduate School of Theology. He is the author and editor of five books in theology and ethics, and writes broadly on Christian ethics of war and peace, immigration, ecclesiology, and discipleship.

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