Theology in the Democracy of the Dead

A Dialogue with the Living Tradition

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Matt Jenson
  • Ada, MI: 
    Baker Academic
    , October
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Theology in the Democracy of the Dead: A Dialogue with the Living Tradition by Matt Jenson is a conversation with and a commendation of eleven theologians, who together span nineteen centuries of Christian thought. Jenson’s proximate object is to give these dead men (and all of them are men) a charitable hearing in the ongoing conversation of Christian theology, to allow them a vote in our counsels—a vote that indeed may be overridden but is enriching nonetheless (1–2). There is also a remote object. The book is “an invitation to apprenticeship” (2) through which Jenson hopes to give the reader a glimpse over the shoulders of these theologians at work, so that we might learn to speak better of God by their examples.

The book comprises a brief introduction followed by eleven chapters, each of which focuses upon one of the following figures: Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Karl Barth. Each chapter includes some biographical details, but the bulk of the chapter is taken up with a particular theme or grouping of themes which are central to the thought of that theologian. Jenson is skillful in his selection of themes, which are communicated clearly and in such a way that provides a vantage point for understanding the rest of each theologian’s writings. Jenson is attentive to detail without losing sight of the whole. His interpretations are invariably charitable, but he is at certain points critical of several figures but without slipping into polemic against them or their contemporary admirers.

A few chapters stand out. Jenson’s treatment of Athanasius is well done and focuses, unsurprisingly, on Athanasius’s christology. We would expect, in an introductory work, attention given to de Incarnatione de Verbi Dei (c. 320-335), but Jenson goes beyond this well-known text to provide greater breadth and texture to his reading of Athanasius. In the course of his treatment of Athanasius, Jenson addresses such theological ideas as divine impassibility (42–46) and eternal generation (51–55), doing so judiciously and in dialogue with the contemporary debate over these notions.

The chapter on Thomas Aquinas is excellent. If Aquinas’ writings are measured in yards, the secondary literature is measured in miles, and so it is no easy thing to summarize or introduce Aquinas. Jenson, however, discerns much of the core of Aquinas’ thought, focusing on Aquinas’ understanding of God (134–139, 141–145), causality (145–149), and grace (154–161). Perhaps wisely, Jenson limits his engagement with the secondary literature to the most essential treatments of Aquinas. A minor flaw is that his coverage of Aquinas prioritizes the Summa Theologiae too much. Jenson, whether out of deference to Aquinas or fear of contemporary Thomists, refrains from criticism of Aquinas in the course of the chapter.

The best chapter deals with Karl Barth, of whom Jenson is especially knowledgeable. As with Aquinas, Barth’s corpus—and the writings of Barth’s commentators and followers—is great and difficult to master. Jenson provides the much-needed 19th-century context for Barth’s thought and skillfully traces Barth’s development from his time as a pastor through the Barmen declaration as well as his labors with Charlotte von Kirschbaum on the Church Dogmatics. The backbone of Jenson’s narrative is Barth’s slow movement from the great chasm between God and humankind posited in Der Römerbrief (279–284) to Barth’s emphasis the “humanity of God” at the end of his life (303–304). Jenson also provides a helpful summary of Barth’s complicated understanding of election (291–297).

The strengths of the book are Jenson’s charitable reading of the figures, his discerning selection of themes, and his skill as a writer. There are some weaknesses. First and most obvious, Jenson includes no women in his democracy of the dead. He provides an apology for this in the introduction, arguing that few women wrote “formal theology” until very recently (3–4). But what is “formal theology”? Jenson leaves this crucial term curiously undefined, except that he says it is not “mystical or devotional theology” (4). It is obvious, however, that Irenaeus, Athanasius, and Augustine, and perhaps also Luther, wrote little or nothing that could be called “formal theology.” Indeed, much of the focus in the chapter on Augustine is with his Confessions, a work that is better categorized as “mystical or devotional” than as “formal theology.” Given that this criterion “formal theology” excludes too much and explains too little, and given that Jenson does not really hew to it, why could Teresa of Avila, for example, not have been treated? Including her would certainly not be an attempt to “include certain second-tier theologians out of a desire to rewrite or redress this sinful history [of sexism in theology]” (4). After all, as a doctor of the Catholic Church, Teresa could hardly be called a “second-tier theologian.” Moreover, her inclusion would have avoided another problem, which is that only Protestant theologians are treated after Aquinas.

A final critique: The book lives up to its proximate aim of giving the dead a hearing, but it is less successful in its attempt to give the reader a sense of how these theologians did their work. Jenson, as we might expect of an instructor within a great books program, has exquisite understanding of the product of their theologizing—the written text. But of the performance of theology, of the labor of it, he provides only scattered and casual indications throughout. We are given a fine glimpse of the final product of these laborers, but Jenson does not really provide a vantage point from which to peer over their shoulders.

Even so, the merits of the book outweigh these defects. The book will prove most useful for instructors of upper-level undergraduate or seminary students who wish to introduce their students to one of these theologians with a text that is both accessible and fruitful for conversation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew B. Hale is a doctoral candidate at the Catholic University of America.

Date of Review: 
July 11, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matt Jenson is Associate Professor of theology in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University in La Mirada, California.