Presence, Providence, and God’s People. A Brief Remark on the Complementary Theological Visions of Robert Jenson and Ephraim Radner.

Contributed by Paul Szobody

When Israel came out of Egypt,
the house of Jacob from a people of foreign tongue,
Judah became God’s sanctuary,
Israel his dominion
. (Ps 114:1-2, TNIV)

This text gives quite a striking assertion. This assertion is profoundly wrapped up in, and prefigures, the full revelation of God’s presence incarnate in his people as his missiological end. It does not merely affirm that God set up his sanctuary in the midst of Judah, nor does it state that his dominion or kingdom is over Israel, but that Judah is his sanctuary (physical tabernacle) and Israel his dominion (or kingdom). That is, the citizenship of the covenanted commonwealth, together, is collectively and corporately his dwelling and the place of his emanating, reigning, blessing (life-giving) presence. This is integrally related to the unfolding biblical theme of the divine “illusive presence” (to use Samuel Terrien’s expression) within humanity that culminates in John the revelator’s eschatological tabernacle composed of living stones of redeemed human beings from every people, tribe and tongue. Furthermore, it also ties together two important insights of two contemporary theologians who have signaled Israel’s history as God’s actual historical life and auto-revelation.

First, Robert Jenson has maintained at the core of his systematic theology that Israel’s narrative is God’s own self-identification in narrative form. That is, God reveals his own self to humanity with and by this particular story of a chosen people: its historical ebb and flow, prophetic events and words and witnesses – this story is God’s Spirit’s own script of what can be known of God. Jenson quotes Melanchthon as a starting point: God is known by his works. Of course this history of God’s works culminates in the evangelical narrative of the Son, the Gospel, as a recapitulation of Israel’s story. Christ is the full and final Word and Work of God, and, in the end, he is the only true Israel who keeps covenant and reveals in the fullest sense the identity of God in fleshed-out human history. In a lapidary echo of Jenson: the true God is the one who brought Israel out of Egypt and who raised his Son Jesus from the dead. Outside of this identification of the triune God, in terms of this historical bi-polar metanarrative, one knows not and has not the true God. For the living God and this story are inseparable.

Now, Ephraim Radner, using 17th and 18th century Jansenist understandings of providence, grace and figurism, takes a strikingly similar line of thought to an insightful, intensely interesting and fruitful development. Israel – her story, institutions, etc. – are by the shaping of providence the very figures of the life of God in Christ. To use Pauline language from Colossians, Israel’s collective life constitutes the shadow whose body is Christ. Howbeit, the church is his body. Profoundly then, Israel’s own historical life is shaped in proleptic reference to the church’s own historical experience. If we want to understand the church’s experience in time, we are to look for it – figured – in Israel’s own experience.

Let’s look at Radner’s thought in more detail. In this hermeneutical matrix, grace is understood, in its broader sense, as an historical force by which God shapes this human story with a teleological intention: he shapes it in intimate relation to himself, into the story that is Christ. The historical dispensation of grace works in human life by the Spirit in a specific form – cruciform. Thus pro-vidence sees ahead and provides the shaping force necessary so that all that constitutes Israel’s story figures the life of God that is Christ in time. Actual Gospel history, the life of Christ, is thus in the middle as a sort of mirror: it absorbs and fills the christic shapes of Israel’s history and then reflects its silhouette into the future of Christ’s body. In linear temporal fashion, the shadowed experience becomes the body’s life. The church “fills up the sufferings of Christ” as she sensibly experiences in the Spirit the shapes and sentiments of Christ’s own life in time. Radner reconstructs this historical vision on a reading both of Jansenius’s view of grace and the practical role of the various “states” of Christ’s earthly sojourn in human sanctification, as expounded by Pierre de Bérulle, founder of the Oratory and the so-called French School of spirituality.

Radner’s theological vision breathtakingly unites Old Testament theology, Christology, Pneumatology, Ecclesiology and Church History: the Spirit of grace works within the human nature of the historical church to form the corporate, sensual life that she is, that is, Christ in time. Through the historical center of the cross and by the means of the Spirit the church ful-fills the outlines of the story pre-figured in Israel’s corporate life, the life that is the physical existence of God in his people. In the specific Jansenist case, for example, Radner interprets the experience of convulsions (in so-called 18th century ‘second Jansenism’) as the Spirit expressing in the members of Christ Christ’s own sentiments in respect to error in his church, abuse of his members, political and theological corruption and profound division. God’s own self-expression is inextricably integrated into the life of his members: they are a living figure shaped by the historical figuration of Israel in Christ. That is, in his sanctuary and domain – where his glory emanates – is made to be spiritually, sensibly experienced the cruciform of Christ’s own life, a shape that appears foolish to the world. To go beyond Radner’s analysis, and to add a Pascalian nuance, the God of Israel hides himself among, and reveals himself by, the places and manners least suspected, if not distasteful, to haughty human pretension. So, as it was in the ebb and flow of Israel’s contorted history in an obscure corner of several world empires, so it is in the church’s own humbling experience in time.

In reference to both Robert Jenson’s as well as Ephraim Radner’s theological work, I find striking complementary methods and visions. Both are doing theology as it should be done: wrought to serve the church and her mission.

Nathanael Szobody

Husband, father, and working for Christ's kingdom in Chad.

Comment ( 1 )

  1. SH
    I'm interested in Jenson's God of Israel. Good to see this blog. Thank you.