God Happens: The Timeliness of the Triune God

by Ted Peters

Ted Peters was professor of systematic theology at Pacific Lutheran Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union in 1993 when this article was written. He is the author of God—The World’s Future (Fortress).

This article appeared in The Christian Century, April 1, 1998, pp. 342-344. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


God is not God apart from the story of Israel, the story of Jesus and the story of the church. God is an event, says Jenson. “God is what happens between Jesus and his Father in their Spirit.”

Does God need to wear a wristwatch, or glance at a clock now and then? If God is eternal, and if God holds all events together simultaneously, does it matter to God that we experience events sequentially? Do openness, contingency and freedom in temporal affairs have any effect on God’s eternity?

These sound like ancient questions, the kind we would expect from theologians in the Roman and Byzantine eras. Yet we ask them again in our own time for three reasons. First, those who believe in God dislike thinking of God as uninvolved in the temporal world. Second, our scientific understanding of reality is drenched in time. Third, attempts to identify the God of Israel as witnessed to in the resurrection of Jesus Christ must take God’s involvement in temporal history as essential to the divine reality.

That the eternal God can be affected by—even more, can be identified by—temporal events is the thesis of the first volume of Robert W. Jenson’s Systematic Theology. Jenson, who teaches at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, codirects with Carl Braaten the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology. He also coedits its journal, Pro Ecclesia. In 1984 he and Braaten edited Christian Dogmatics, a two-volume systematic theology that was for a decade a standard text in Lutheran seminaries.

"God is what happens between Jesus and his Father in their Spirit," Jenson declares. This makes God an event, not a being. Jenson is not talking about religious subjectivity, nor about the human proclivity for drawing pictures of a likable deity. Nor is he talking about the utterly transcendent mystery of philosophers and mystics, the divine that allegedly lives in a far-off eternity uncontaminated by the ordinariness of time and space. The God who raised Jesus from the dead is the subject of this book.

Jenson belongs to the new trinitarianism. He shares a conceptual agenda with Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Duane Larson (who has succeeded Jenson at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg) and the late Catherine Mowry LaCugna. The new trinitarians begin with the principles of the two Karls, Barth and Rahner. Barth’s principle is that Christians do not seek card-carrying membership in a larger club of monotheists. What is revealed about God in the Jesus Christ event identifies something about God that is not reducible to generic belief as found in other religions or in the philosophy of religion. God is so free as to be able to define divinity, and in the temporal event of Jesus Christ God has included humanity in that eternal self-definition.

Rahner’s rule is that the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity, and vice versa. This means that God’s external relations to the world provide the very arena in which God’s internal relations take place. That is, historical events such as Jesus praying to the Father or the Father abandoning the crucified Jesus to death constitute the very relations of the first two persons of the Trinity; they do not merely mirror in time some other relations taking place in a separated eternity.

According to Jenson’s historical retrieval, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and the Cappadocian theologians of the Eastern church accurately understood and articulated the differential relations within trinitarian life, whereas Augustine did not. In fact, Augustine betrayed the Nicene insight by retreating to the Greek notion that God is ultimately simple and, as eternally simple, unable to engage authentically with us in time. So we must choose, says Jenson, and he chooses the Eastern path and rejects the Augustinian.

Nicea teaches dogmatically: the true God needs, and the gospel provides, no semidivine mediator of access to him, for the gospel proclaims a God who is not in fact distant, whose deity is identified with a person of our history.. . Any pattern of thought that in any way abstracts God "himself’ from this person, from his death or his career or his birth or his family or his Jewishness or his maleness or his teaching or the particular intercession and rule he as risen now exercises, has, according to Nicea, no place in the church.

Jenson’s emphasis on the historical particularity of God’s identity makes him a narrative theologian with an attitude. God’s story takes on an ontological status—that is, the story of Jesus of Nazareth and the story of the Holy Spirit’s presence in the church belong to the very being of God. God is not God without this story. What identifies God as Trinity is not some abstract debate regarding how three can be one or one can be three. Rather, God is Trinity because this historical involvement as Son and as Spirit belongs essentially to the life of the one God.

What Jenson does with the Trinity he redoes with Christology. He is impatient with the lackluster thinking at Chalcedon in 451 that gave us a Son with two natures, making the divine nature immune to the suffering of the human nature. By distinguishing the eternal logos from the temporal Jesus, the Chalcedonians once again sought to protect an impassible God from being contaminated with the world. But the gospel message tells of a God who is contaminated with the world.

To get the point across, Jenson builds community right into the definition of divine and human nature. "What is surely required is to recognize that ‘humanity’ and... ‘deity’ must be communal concepts. That Christ has the divine nature means that he is one of the three whose mutuality is the divine life, who live the history that is God. That Christ has human nature means that he is one of the many whose mutuality is human life, who live the history that humanity is."

Rather than identify a disembodied atemporal logos with the second person of the Trinity, Jenson insists it is Jesus. "Jesus’ human action and presence is without mitigation God’s action and presence." And because the second and even the third person of the Trinity are open to definition through time and history, God is communal. "God can indeed, if he chooses, accommodate other persons in his life without distorting that life. God, to state it as boldly as possible, is roomy.

Understanding God as "roomy" can lead us down two paths, one irenic and the other acerbic. Following the irenic path, the notion that historical relationality is internal to God’s life is quite compatible with feminist trinitarianism, especially as articulated by LaCugna. It also places this form of trinitarianism into conversation with process theologians such as Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki and Joseph Bracken who embrace a metaphysics of internal relatedness in all things. In addition, it opens trinitarian thought to new thinking in the field of theology and natural science, wherein the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics and the second law of thermodynamics are prompting investigations into the concept of time built into natural processes.

With regard to this last item—temporality in physical cosmology—theologians who want to incorporate time into the divine life have a major intellectual hurdle to jump, namely, eschatology. We are no longer fighting the ancient battle of Hebrew linear vs. Greek cyclical time. The cyclical view was founded on earth consciousness: the cycles of day and night, summer and winter, moon and menstruation and such. The cycles, though real, have been subsumed by contemporary cosmology into a more inclusive space consciousness. Cycles are seen as a small chapter in the big-bang story of the universe, which on a macro scale is traveling in a single temporal direction from past toward future.

What of the future? The physical cosmologists project two scenarios: freeze or fry. The universe as a whole, due to the second law of thermodynamics, popularly known as entropy, may freeze as the original heat of the big bang dissipates and every physical thing becomes devoid of energy. Or, if more matter exists in the universe than we currently perceive, the force of gravity may stop the expansion process at some point and compel a recontraction, a sucking of all the galaxies, stars and planets back into a very dense and hot singularity.

According to neither scenario do scientists project the advent of what theologians call the "kingdom of God" or the "new creation." To provide an appropriate eschatology, theologians who take temporality seriously must decide on interventionist or noninterventionist understandings of divine action. Robert Jenson is strong on eschatology, but we will have to await later volumes of his Systematic Theology to see how he jumps this hurdle.

Jenson also opens the gate to a more acerbic path. He takes strong stands against idolatry—that is, against the universal religious inclination to paint pictures of a god in eternity that look like what we want to be in history. Feuerbach was right about human nature, believes Jenson; we really do project our mundane wishes onto the transcendent. Consequently, we close our ears and eyes to revelations from the true God. This view makes Jenson less than friendly to certain trajectories in contemporary theology, such as the projecting of goddess images or the revival of paganism.

How will this vigorous trinitarianism play out in interreligious dialogue or, more pointedly, in dialogue or more pointedly, in dialogue with the emerging school of theologians who think of themselves as pluralists? Religious pluralists—known sometimes as "inclusivists"—recognize the plurality of religious traditions and the plurality of doctrines of the divine, yet posit that at some hidden or transcendent level they all refer to the same ultimate reality. This is a way of imputing integrity to every religious tradition by affirming truth in every religious claim. It also functions to de-establish Christendom by undermining truth claims regarding the uniqueness or divinity of Jesus Christ. In the process, however, the historical particularities of differing commitments to the various gods are washed into the deliberately vague sea of the eternal: the limit, the mystery, the one God, or the ultimate. Christians in particular have been asked to join an alleged new Copernican revolution—that is, they are being asked to give up on the historical particularity of God’s presence in Jesus Christ in order to embrace a de-Christized doctrine of God that better fits the supra-Christian understanding of the eternal God who transcends, yet is present in, the other religions of the world.

It would seem at first that the type of trinitarianism advocated by Jenson is at odds with this revolution. Such things as time, history and particularity are so necessary to identifying God—the God of Israel who is the one true God—that a systematic disregard of this temporal particularity on behalf of a supraparticular ultimate reality that only some call "God" would be impossible. Either the God of Israel, who engaged in the events we have heard reported, such as the raising of Jesus from the dead, is the true God, or he is not. To remove these historical events from the divine identity would be tantamount to a denial of truth.

Yet, we might ask, is there another, more irenic approach? Might we add other historical events to divine identity, events not reported in the biblical testimony? If so, what would count to give them credibility? If not, why not?

I would like to see Jenson address such questions. In the meantime, we need to think about time. God takes time just to be the God that God is and will be.