In What Systematic Theology is About (the first chapter of his Systematic Theology), Robert Jenson’s prolegomenal work begins, unlike many of the allegedly more contemporary systematic theologies, by delineating the basic relationship of church and gospel. For Jenson, in order to understand theology in its most basic form, the theologian must understand his or her situatedness in the community called “the church”; and this specific context is one where God has acted, giving the gospel as a gift to the church, commanding her to its particular mission – namely, the “thinking internal to the task of speaking the gospel”. Ultimately, there is no church without the gospel, and vice versa.
Those prolegomena that do not acknowledge the situatedness of theologian and church Jenson calls “epistemologically pretentious”, and the fault lines of this epistemic problematic are found in modernity. According to Jenson, the early church theologians understood Greek philosophy as a competing theology to be debated (and seriously so) and ultimately rejected. Modernity, however, understands philosophy as having a foundational role in relation to theology; that is, every theological utterance must be epistemically justified via the contours of a neutral philosophical underpinning. Theology’s historical mistake in this situation lies in its acceptance of a dichotomy between “natural” and “revealed” knowledge of God; the former eventually gaining philosophical autonomy and an epistemic stranglehold over against the latter: “the prolegomena sooner or later turn against the legomena.”
Once the context has been set, the church is back to its mission: to see to the speaking of the gospel, and, historically, there are two fundamental modes of gospel-speaking: the one speculative (knowledge of God for its own sake) and the other practical (the mode of furthering the practice of gospel-speak). Historically, the former was the domain of Medieval theology, and the latter of the Reformers. When these two positions are properly balanced, and according to Jenson this only occurs amidst a biblically robust trinitarianism, then the church is finally able to become a witness to its founding event and the object of its theological reflection – the Resurrection.
If the task of the church is to speak-forth the gospel, then the question inevitably arises: Why then theologize? What is the need in thinking about the gospel if one’s duty is to simply speak? According to Jenson, this denotes the hermeneutic sphere of the theological enterprise. If the Christian life is marked by a reception of the gospel followed by its further transmission, then this act must include interpretation – there is translation from hearing to speaking. For Jenson, this hermeneutical stance is seen aright only when the gospel is understood as promise. Hermeneutically speaking, a “promise” is set over against a “law”; the latter being a simple command related to a given state of affairs, while the former contains internal to itself the material conditions necessary for the state of affairs to obtain. In short, the gospel is a promise, and not a law, because it is a revelation of God-self. It is because this revelation happens in the domain of human history that thinking, and therefore theology, is necessary.
Thus, the logical form of theological statements is stipulated: as both critical and possibly innovative – critical because its telos lies in its proper speaking of the gospel, and innovative because dogma (the set of irreversible doctrines) is formed through this process. As a result, for Jenson, theology is not the ever-growing set of propositions to which one must adhere, but an ongoing discussion and debate within the site of the church. In this way, theology achieves its grammatical character.
Unlike the logical positivists, and, to an extent, the postliberal school, the grammatical nature of theological language does not exclude it from delineating facts concerning extralinguistic entities. Theology is unabashedly metaphysical, for it unites these metaphysical-grammatical statements to that which is ineradicably material – most notably, God. Therefore, theological grammar is potentially prescriptive, whereas positivism essentially stops at the level of description.
Jenson admits that this setting of theology as a competitor over against philosophy advances the stakes quickly – theology must then be a universal hermeneutics – a metaphysics. The greatest exemplar of this method, for Jenson, is of course Karl Barth. The Church Dogmatics, contrary to much popular opinion, advances a metaphysics (although of the specifically Christological variety) that understands itself to be in the game of the interpretation of ultimate reality. For Jenson, this is theology’s end game.