The Freedom of God

A Study in the Pneumatology of Robert Jenson

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James Daryn Henry
  • New York, NY: 
    Lexington Books
    , May
     338 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


After having recently partaken of that peculiar 21st-century ritual known as “binge-watching,” my head is plagued with superheroes and villains, clearly demarcated and yet irrevocably bound to each other in a plot that is only complete when one hero is victor. It’s a pleasant disruption of this antagonistic universe to read James Daryn Henry’s monograph on pneumatology, The Freedom of God, which is free from the inflated conflicts of “goodies versus baddies.” This is a book that certainly knows what it wants to say and the implications, but it’s written with a balanced voice and an openness to multiple perspectives that is truly irenic.

This is especially welcome in the burgeoning world of Robert Jenson studies. At its best, Jenson’s own work displays this irenic spirit, though he did not shy away from polemics when necessary. Jenson’s authorial voice aside, Jenson scholarship has tended to be quite polemical. A significant virtue of Henry’s work is his carefully articulated method of triangulation (drawing on Bernard Lonergan), which is committed from the outset to mutual enrichment through dialogue.

Almost two-thirds of the volume is dedicated to exposition of Jenson’s pneumatology, and the book has no peers in this regard in terms of either care or exhaustiveness. But the argument even in these chapters should interest more than just Jenson scholars, for Henry’s driving question is how to relate today’s global impression of the Spirit with the classical account of the Spirit’s trinitarian role. Jenson is Henry’s dialogue partner because Henry perceives genuine contributions in Jenson’s work that aid today’s church is thinking through this relationship.           

The fruit this interpretation of Jenson bears for pneumatology is an understanding of the Spirit as liberating and as freedom, both for God’s intratrinitarian life and for creatures. Within the trinitarian relations, this means supplementing the persons’ identities as relations of origin—which roots the triune distinctions purely in the Father as the font of divinity—with the pneumatological relations of goal. Employing complex and thorough comparisons between the classical relations of origin and the pneumatological supplement, Henry shows how each program deploys pneumatological images and biblical sources. This provides the reader not only with a clearer sense of Henry’s reasons for advancing his particular claims, but more importantly a wealth of resources for continuing work on pneumatology.

Finally, the third part of the book brings these contributions into refining dialogue with “classical theology,” “modern theology,” and “liberation theology,” by testing and enriching the book’s proposals through direct contact with theologians and movements in the broader Christian heritage. In these chapters, Henry develops some criticisms of Jenson’s overall project, thereby homing in on what should be received and what corrected. In terms of the constructive aims of the book these chapters are immensely rich and satisfying. In terms of the treatment of Jenson, they are less compelling.

For instance, it is crucial for interpreting Jenson to question his “historicism” and identification of the immanent and economic Trinity (Rahner’s Rule). But Henry’s discussion here proceeds with no direct citations of Jenson, even though he concludes that Jenson is problematically entangled in a strict deployment of Rahner’s Rule. It is true that Jenson affirms the rule, which he admits in an autobiographical essay. Unfortunately, even after spending fourteen pages tracing the varieties of the rule and surrounding debates (in which Jenson is not an explicit participant), Henry fails to adequately demonstrate what Jenson himself is actually up to in affirming the rule.

And while Henry is careful to defend Jenson against Francesca Murphy’s charge of “cinematic modalism” (and Henry is in his best form here), at other times he seems to accept others’ critical interpretations at face value. Significant here is his seeming acceptance of Scott Swain’s criticisms, according to whom Jenson makes God dependent on creation and fails to affirm the simplicity and fullness of God’s being. Swain’s own criticisms are at times based on demonstrably inaccurate readings of key passages in Jenson. Henry would have done well to provide his own arguments and citations to support his use of Swain.

Although I think the book is weak at a couple of points in its interpretation of Jenson, its overwhelming strengths more than compensate. Although it is subtitled “a study in the pneumatology of Robert Jenson,” the book is actually best read as a constructive contribution to pneumatology in its own right. It presents a powerful case for charitable “triangulating” theology, and reading it would bear fruit for anyone working on pneumatology or trinitarian theology. While it might be useful for undergraduates, especially in light of Henry’s habit of taking excursions into all sorts of multifaceted debates in modern theology, the dense writing style would likely prove prohibitive. It will certainly be an important book for graduate students and academic theologians.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jonathan M. Platter is a doctoral candidate in Christian Theology at University of Cambridge, UK.

Date of Review: 
August 28, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James Daryn Henry is Visiting Scholar in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.


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