On the peccability of the Church

On the peccability of the Church

A. Lesslie Newbigin

The Catholic is right in insisting that the continuity of the Church is God’s will. He is wrong when he suggests that the doing of that will is the condition of our standing in His grace. As for the individual, so also for the Church, there is only one way to be justified, and it is to say, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’

from The Household of God, (SCM, 1957), 86.

B. Bruce Marshall

The unity of the church is a unity among sinners; the continuing reality of sin in the lives of all the church’s members has no bearing on the church’s unity. The currently much-debated question whether the church itself, like all the individuals in it, can be regarded as simul iustus et peccator should also, I think, be answered in the negative. That is, the church as a whole, as a community, cannot be conceived of as a sinful individual (or perhaps several such individuals) over against Christ. What makes the church to be, and so to be one (that is, to be an individual) is the very unity of being, knowledge, and love by which the triune God is one, into which human beings are drawn by the missions of the Son and the Spirit, so creating the church. Apart from the missions of Christ and the Spirit and the divine unity that is their gift to the church, the church is not an individual at all, and a fortiori not an individual “over against” Christ and the Spirit. Thus, it seems that while everyone in the church is an individual “over against” Christ, the church itself is not. Apart from or over against the missions of Christ and the Spirit, the church lacks that unity specific to it and constitutive of its reality as church; it is simply a collection of individuals and not the community for which Jesus prays in John 17. So if the church turns out, visibly and empirically, to be divided, this does not show (according to the stringent logic of John 17) that the church is a sinful individual over against Christ—it shows rather that the bond uniting Christ to the Father is broken, and thus that the triune God does not exist.

from “The Disunity of the Church and the Credibility of the Gospel,” Theology Today, vol. 50, (1993): 85-6.

C. Robert Jenson

Can simul iustus et peccator apply to the church? Luther called the church magna peccatrix, the “greatest sinner” and some Lutherans have taken this as a cue to apply the simul not only to the believers who make up the church, individually or all together, but to the church as she is a singular agent. The ecumenical protest this generates is surely justified. The church as the mother of all believers is not personally sinful nor has she ever been, however many sins may have been committed by her members in her name. Ecclesia iusta et peccatrix just does not fit the situation. The peccator I still am after baptism is precisely my “old man,” my pre-baptismal self, reaching from that past needing to be thrust back again and again. There was a time, however brief, between my birth and my new birth at baptism, and this fact remains as the base of the old man’s excursions. But the church had no such time antecedent to her birth as the body of Christ. There never was an “old church” which might emerge and need to be killed again. What then of Luther’s magna peccatrix? Whatever Luther may have had in mind, the phrase can serve if taken as a christological slogan. The church is the great communal sinner in that she is the body of that Christ who “was made to be sin for us.” Christ is the magnus peccator, not because he was once a sinner but because precisely as one “without sin” he could take all history’s sin as his burden. Just so his church as his body, his available presence in the world, is the world’s great sinner not because she has any sins of her personal own but because Christ’s body of course is laden with his burden.

from Lutheran Slogans: Use and Abuse, (ALPB, 2011): 73-4.

Robert Jenson on metanarratives

Robert Jenson on metanarratives

A. from Canon and Creed, (Westminster John Knox, 2010), 120.

We must summon the audacity to say that modernity’s scientific/metaphysical metanarrative — at the moment told by astrophysicists and neo-Darwinians — is not the encompassing story within which all other accounts of reality must establish their places, or be discredited by failing to find one. It is instead a rather brutal abstraction from reality. The abstraction has proved to be magnificent in its intellectual power and practical benefits. Nevertheless, by these disciplines’ methodological eschewal of teleology, they prevent themselves from describing what actually is. As pop scientists urge over and over, the tale told by Scripture and creed finds no comfortable place within modernity’s metanarrative. It is time for the church simply to reply: this is certainly the case, and the reason it is the case is that the tale told by Scripture is too comprehensive to find place within so drastically curtailed a vision of the facts. Indeed the gospel story cannot fit within any other would-be meta-narrative because it is itself the only true metanarrative—or it is altogether false.

B. from “Scripture’s Authority in the Church,” in The Art of Reading Scripture, (Eerdmans, 2003), 34, 37.

Scripture’s story is not a part of some larger narrative; it is itself the larger narrative of which all other true narratives are parts. Biblical exegesis is reading sides and prop lists and so forth for the drama that God and his universe are now living together. Do not when reading Scripture try to figure out how what you are reading fits into some larger story; there is no larger story. Try instead to figure out how American history or scientists’ predictions of the universe’s future course or the travail of a family in your congregation fit into Scripture’s story.

The Bible opens into a world of its own and that, however surprising and upsetting the discovery, that is the real world.

Robert Jenson on Adam and Eve

Robert Jenson on Adam and Eve

“Who then were Adam and Eve? They were the first hominid group that in whatever form of religion or language used some expression that we might translate ‘God,’ as a vocative. Theology need not share the anxious effort to stipulate morphological marks that distinguish prehumans from humans in the evolutionary succession. If there is no ontological difference between us and our hominid progenitors, the effort is pointless; if there is, the division may not coincide with the establishment of our species. […]

“Who were Adam and Eve? They were the first hominid group who by ritual action were embodied before God, made personally available to him. Theology need not join debates about whether, for example, the cave paintings were attempts to control the hunt or were thanksgiving for the hunt, were ‘magic’ or ‘religion.’ The painters were human, as we may know simply from the fact of their ritual. And so they were presumably fallen, and therefore with their rites did indeed try to bind the contingency of the future, to do magic. But by the very act of giving visibility to wishes directed beyond themselves, they nevertheless in fact gave up control and worshipped. […]

“We … are compelled to posit a ‘fall’ of humankind, occurring within created time. Hominids who do not yet invoke God cannot sin. But so soon as members of the human community are on the scene, they in fact do; this is the lamentable puzzle of the matter. The story told in the third chapter of Genesis is not a myth; it does not describe what always and never happens. It describes the historical first happening of what thereafter always happens; moreover, had it not happened with the first humans it could not have happened at all, since then the first humans would have been omitted from an ‘encompassing deed of the human race.’

“We may one last time pose the question: Who were Adam and Eve? And in this context the answer must be: the first community of our biological ancestors who disobeyed God’s command.”

from Systematic Theology, Vol. II, The Works of God, (OUP, 1999), 59, 60-61, 150.

Robert Jenson on scripture

Robert Jenson on scripture

The churches most faithful to Scripture are not those that legislate the most honorific propositions about Scripture, or even those that most diligently scrutinize proposed theologumena for their concordance with it, but those that most often and thoughtfully actually read and hear it.

from “The Religious Power of Scripture,” The Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol. 52, No. 1, (1999): 90.

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. […] 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.

from Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 The Triune God, (OUP, 1997), 32. [this quote speaks only to scripture’s status as a norm for theological inquiry, which, it may need pointing out, does not comprehend the scope of scripture’s diverse vocations. It isn’t only theologians who consult scripture, but also liturgists, evangelists, pastors, artists, the saints (the list could go on), all of whom find in scripture a co-laborer.]

Churchly interpretation of Scripture is not interpretation that obeys some preferred procedure, that, e.g., prefers redaction criticism to form criticism or vice versa, or eschews critical methods altogether, or follows any similar prescription. Churchly interpretation of Scripture is interpretation done in course of activities specific to the church: missionary preaching, liturgy, homiletics, catechetics, endurance of suffering, governance, care of souls, works of charity, etc. And there is no way to list in advance what roles Scripture may play in these different enterprises and their changing historical situations.

from “The Religious Power of Scripture,” 95.

Bibliography of Jenson on scripture …


  • “On the Problem(s) of Scriptural Authority,” Interpretation 31, (1977): 237-50.
  • “Can a Text Defend Itself? An Essay de Inspiratione Scripturae,” dialog 28, (1989): 251-56.
  • “Simplistic Thoughts about the Authority of Scripture,” Word and World, (1992): 181-90.
  • “Hermeneutics and the Life of the Church,” in Reclaiming the Bible for the Church, Eds. Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson, (Eerdmans, 1995), 89-106.
  • “The Religious Power of Scripture,” Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol. 52, No. 1, (1999)
  • “Scripture’s Authority in the Church,” in The Art of Reading Scripture, Eds., Ellen Davis and Richard Hays, (Eerdmans, 2003), 27-37
  • “Identity, Jesus, and Exegesis,” in Seeking the Identity of Jesus: A Pilgrimage, Eds., Beverly Gaventa and Richard Hays, (Eerdmans, 2008), 43-59.


  • Systematic Theology, 2 Vol. (OUP, 1997, 1999), Ch. 2 & 29
  • Song of Songs, (Westminster John Knox, 2005)
  • Ezekiel, (Brazos, 2009)
  • Canon and Creed, (Westminster John Knox, 2010)
  • On the Inspiration of Scripture, (American Lutheran Publication Bureau, 2012)

Robert Jenson on the gospel

Robert Jenson on the gospel

“The purpose that constitutes and distinguishes the church and in service of which the church needs to think is maintenance of a particular message, called ‘the gospel’.”

from Systematic Theology: The Triune God, Vol 1, (OUP, 1997), 4.

 “The gospel” is the telling of Jesus’ story — as the decisive event in the life-stories of teller and hearers. The gospel tells of Jesus’ death and reputed resurrection — and claims therein to recount the crisis and resolution of the story I am now living.”

from “Proclamation without Metaphysics,” dialog 1, (1962), 22.

“The gospel, rightly spoken, involves no ifs, ands, buts, or maybes of any sort. It does not say, “If you do your best to live a good life, God will fulfill that life,” or, “If you fight on the right side of the great issues of your time…,” or, “If you repent…,” or, “If you believe. …” It does not even say, “If you want to do good/repent/believe,” or, “If you are sorry for not wanting to do good/repent/believe. …” The gospel says, “Because the Crucified lives as Lord, your destiny is good.”

from Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and its Confessional Writings, with Eric Gritsch, (Fortress Press, 1976), 42.

See also Robert Jenson on defining theology

Robert Jenson on predestination

Robert Jenson on predestination

“No even distantly Christian thought can avoid a doctrine of predestination. Fear of the doctrine is merely — or profoundly — fear of God. Nor can this fear validly argue, as it regularly does, that it is human freedom that must be defended against the notion of a truly final God. For the absoluteness of God’s will is in no way inconsistent with the reality of our freedom. On the contrary, if we think of God and ourselves as competitors for control of our mutual affairs, so that to whatever extent God determines my destiny I do not, then increased assignment of determination to God must indeed mean lessened freedom for me. But the very point of the doctrine of predestination is to deny any such competition, any such appearance of God and creatures on the same level of decision. Precisely because God is absolute, we are in no competition with God’s freedom to choose — and just so God’s absolute freedom does not diminish our creaturely freedom. Medieval theologians worked this point out with beautiful precision and subtlety. Whatever God wills, they said, must indeed happen, and exactly as God wills it. Thus, if God wills some things to happen as acts of free choice, they will happen, and happen in that way.”

from Christian Dogmatics, Vol II, (Fortress Press, 1984), 135-6.

Robert Jenson on philosophy

Robert Jenson on philosophy

“We usually refer to the work of Greece’s theologians with their own name for it, ‘philosophy.’ We have thereupon been led to think this must be a different kind of intellectual activity than theology, to which theology perhaps may appeal for foundational purposes or against which theology must perhaps defend itself. But this is a historical illusion; Greek philosophy was simply the theology of the historically particular Olympian-Parmenidean religion, later shared with the wider Mediterranean cultic world. […]

“The secular mood by which some forms of ‘philosophy’ contrast with Christian theology and that tempts us to take them for a different kind of thinking is simply a character of Olympian religion itself, which pursued a divinity purged of mystery. Insofar as Western philosophy is not now reduced to the pure study of logic, it is still in fact theology, Christian or Olympian-Parmenidean. Theologians must indeed converse with the philosophers, but only because and insofar as both are engaged in the same sort of enterprise.”

from Systematic Theology: The Triune God, Vol. 1, (OUP, 1997), 9-10.