A Guide for the Perplexed

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R. David Nelson
  • New York: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , November
     192 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The publication of this succinct, introductory text on Eberhard Jüngel, Jüngel: A Guide for the Perplexed, is very welcome. While the secondary literature on Jüngel has certainly increased since the publication of John Webster’s 1986 Eberhard Jüngel: An Introduction to his Theology (Cambridge University Press), the world of anglophone Jüngel studies remains small and, often, specialized. Although a number of his texts have been translated into English, there persists a reputation that only the intrepid engage with him, and if they do, they restrict themselves to parts rather than the whole. This reputation is not helped by the idea that his thought is difficult: for reasons ranging from its complexity to the thickness of his prose in both the original German and in translation.

This text intends to redress this, offering a way into a theologian whose thought is certainly “underappreciated and underexplored” (x). Providing a panoramic as well as introductory account of his life and thought, Nelson aims to accompany those who have encountered Jüngel and who find themselves, well, perplexed. He wishes to dispel several myths about Jüngel and the perceived difficulties of his oeuvre. Describing his thought as akin to the intricate, interconnected mechanism of a clock, the guiding thesis of this text is that, given the right tools and in the right context, Jüngel’s thought can be clearly understood and further applied to the concerns of modern, often anglophone, theology.

The text does not only seek to introduce, but also advances several arguments as to how Jüngel should be understood and contextualized. Most important is that Jüngel should be understood as an irregular dogmatician. Drawing on Karl Barth’s distinction, Nelson sees that Jüngel’s work should not be mined for clear, cohesive doctrinal statements. Jüngel eschews completeness for a certain theological freedom. Jüngel’s thought therefore engages with various theological loci that are often of their moment. It is interesting that Nelson draws on Barth to develop this, as another argument of the book is that Jüngel’s theological and philosophical genealogies are too often seen as determinative of aspects of his thought.

Instead of a genealogy, Nelson seeks to reconstruct, using Paul Griffith’s method in his primer (The Practice of Catholic Theology, Catholic University of America Press, 2016), the world of discourse and the concerns present within it throughout Jüngel’s intellectual development. I appreciate this care, and understand the risk of too severely systematizing Jüngel’s intellectual background and reducing his theology to dependency on figures such as Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, and Martin Heidegger. However, in a series of interviews Jüngel is open about who he is indebted to and what aspects of their thought he takes on or rejects. Nelson’s approach is helpful for exploring how Jüngel both conforms to and rejects the atmosphere at the time. It also allows for some evaluation of Jüngel’s desire to be somewhat removed from strains and stresses percolating in philosophy and theology in his time.

The book proceeds to outline Jüngel’s thought through four of his seven monographs and eleven of his numerous theological essays and reflections. It provides good, clear accounts of the main themes and arguments of the selected texts. This is a task in itself considering the breadth of Jüngel’s engagement with varying theological loci. The section on the essays is especially commendable in how it draws attention to Jüngel’s more creative and unusual engagements, such as his theological analysis of Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm shift, alongside the more doctrinal work. This enables Nelson to not only explicate Jüngel’s doctrinal statements but also move from these to more diverse subjects. These include sacramentality, theological anthropology, ecclesiology, and theology as a whole rather than realized in specific doctrines.

The text therefore aims to both consolidate previous scholarship and attempt a reappraisal. This is explicitly embarked on in the final chapter, which brings to the fore what had been undercurrents in the text. While it emphasizes again the intricate cog-like mechanisms of Jüngel’s thought, reflected on the cover, it notes positively that Jüngel’s thought fundamentally, in the manner of irregular dogmatics, is concerned with freedom: the freedom of the Christian (albeit the Lutheran kind) and of Christian theology. Jüngel’s work reminds his fellow Lutherans in Germany of the abiding significance of the Reformation, and the seriousness of doctrine. Nelson sees that Jüngel engages in a pattern of “retrieval without recapitulation” (italics in original, 126), a methodology that remains helpful to theological inquiry.

Negatively, however, Jüngel’s work is seen as narrow in its focus and uniform in its vision, not least through Jüngel’s lack of engagement in the developments in anglophone theology. For Nelson this risks Jüngel’s irrelevance: his thought cannot speak naturally to certain topical concerns. Another ambiguous aspect of Jüngel’s thought is his stress on interruption, which leaves Jüngel with an uneasy relationship with the world.

However, it is the argument that Nelson makes regarding both the freedom of Christian theology and Jüngel as an irregular dogmatician here that give me some pause with regards the critical evaluation. It is true that one does not get a systematic theology from Jüngel, and as Nelson notes, in many respects that is a positive aspect of his theology. There is a freedom in how theological reasoning can take place, and the sources from which it can be drawn. And perhaps the essential freedom of Jüngel’s theology is that it can take us in directions beyond the concerns of anglophone theology, and be a way in which to critique some of those directions.

Finally, it is a sign of the strength and potential of the field that this text is able to point to future applications of Jüngel’s work even while acknowledging its limitations and legislating between various debates. Although Nelson introduces some caveats, this text does underscore fulsomely that Eberhard Jüngel still “has much to say to us” (x).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Deborah Casewell is a Humboldt Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Bonn.

Date of Review: 
June 22, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

R. David Nelson is Senior Acquisitions editor for Baker Academic and Brazos Press, and editor of Lutheran Forum, USA.


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