Book Review: The God of the Gospel

on Mar 23, 2018 in Book Reviews | 0 comments

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The God of the Gospel: Robert Jenson’s Trinitarian Theology

Swain, Scott R. The God of the Gospel: Robert Jenson’s Trinitarian Theology. Downers Grove: IVP Academic Press, 2013, 258 pp. $38.00

Reviewed by Brandon Watson



Scott Swain, Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, enters what has been a heated debate within Barth scholarship with his publication of The God of the Gospel. The debate has not only centered on the interpretation of Barth’s theology, but has shifted toward a constructive dialogue concerning the relationship between “God and the evangelical events whereby God becomes our God” (14). In other words, the discussion focuses on the relationship between God’s being apart from creation and God’s being with creation in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Swain engages this topic through the lens of Robert Jenson’s Trinitarian theology. Seeing deficiencies in Barth (chapters 1-2), Jenson (chapters 3-5) and McCormack (chapter 9), Swain attempts to build a constructive alternative. He does so by engaging figures such as “Irenaeus, Augustine, Lombard, Aquinas, and Bonaventure,” (233) among others (chapters 6-8). The central thesis of the book is to provide an account of God’s being ad extra that is one of “incomparable generosity” (232). Swain contends that both the “eschatological emphasis” (213) of Jenson and the “protological emphasis” (212) of McCormack’s doctrine of God, vis-à-vis Barth, lack the sufficient hermeneutics to discuss the nature of God’s relationship to the world that is wholly gratuitous. Thus, Swain pursues a theology of “ressourcement” to overcome the post-Enlightenment inadequacies of language to which all theologians after Barth have fallen prey (233-234).

In chapters 1 and 2, Swain not only introduces readers to the debate at hand, but also presents an entry point into Barth’s Trinitarian construction throughout specific sections of the Church Dogmatics. By outlining the development of Barth’s doctrine of God, Swain brings Jenson into the discussion as an example of a “Post-Barthian Evangelical Historicism.” By this, Swain means that Jenson, as an interpreter of Barth, seeks to correct what Barth discussed as primal history (God’s pre-temporal activity) and locate God’s self-determination in our history. The nature of the Triune God, according to Jenson, is expressed in the “eschatological nature of the gospel and of the Gospel’s God” (65). The eschatological feature of Jenson’s theology provides the orientation for the “narrative” character of the self-revelation of God. For Swain, the literary feature of narrative shows a theology which “represents God as the sort of God whose being takes its concrete form in a temporally ordered dramatic plot” (69, emphasis original).

Swain follows this narrative feature of Jenson’s theology in Part 1: “Robert Jenson on the Gospel’s God.” In chapters 3-4, Swain primarily uses volume 1 of Jenson’s Systematic Theology to better understand how God is identified within the narrative of history as presented by the Old and New Testaments. The grammar which seeks to describe the God made known in the Old Testament is the divine self-naming. Swain works through Jenson’s understanding of YHWH’s relationship to Israel, which points to the historical identification of God with humanity. For Jenson, the Old Testament does not depict the climax of the song of the “Israelite Servant” sung in Isaiah. Rather, in the New Testament, Jesus is the one who eschatologically answers the Old Testament cry. Jesus not only answers the cry, but fulfills “Israel’s son-relation to YHWH in the Spirit” (98). Swain then turns in chapter 5 to Jenson’s constructive work, which is based on Jenson’s reading of Scripture. He concludes with four aspects of Jenson’s Trinitarian understanding, namely, that the God of the Gospel is an event, a decision, a conversation and is personal (138-139).

In Part 2: “Toward a Catholic and Evangelical Account of the Gospel’s God,” Swain offers his own dogmatic reflection where he does not address Jenson “point by point,” but sketches “an alternative account” referencing Jenson along the way (144). Three chapters are devoted to the Father (Chapter 6), the Son (Chapter 7), and the Spirit (Chapter 8). The fourth chapter in this section, where Swain discusses McCormack’s work (Chapter 9), will be addressed below. Chapter 6 navigates the difficult landscape of divine simplicity, necessity, and contingency. Swain argues that the “free self-determination” of God to be the Father of the Son overflows to include the “elect in God’s eternal fatherly love for the Son” (162). Swain moves into a discussion of “Immanuel” in chapter 7 to explore the intricacies of the Word made flesh and God’s self-identification with humanity in the incarnation. He wants to maintain what he calls Jesus’ “metaphysically prevenient identity,” (169) as a way of safeguarding God’s self-sufficiency. For Swain, it is because God is self-sufficient that the mission of the incarnation can be undertaken in an economy of grace. After a discussion on what Swain ultimately determines to be a “false dilemma” between Greek metaphysics and the God of the Gospel, he summarizes what he labels “incarnational metaphysics.” The four conclusions are: 1) the Word made flesh is not one thing like other things; 2) in the transcendence of the Word, the Word is intimate with the world; 3) because of statements 1-2, the Word is able to become a creature; 4) the Word has a historical story climaxing in resurrection and ascension (188-189). Concluding the constructive section of the book, Swain articulates a doctrine of the Spirit where the Spirit’s work is eschatological as well as the present means by which humans enter the eternal fellowship of the Father and the Son (204).

This review will entertain two critiques—one regarding composition and the other regarding theological content. First, the flow of the book does not seem to cover the necessary ground to make a constructive argument. The reader begins by entering a debate over interpretation of Barth, moves into a study of Jenson’s “post-Barthian” Christology, then into Swain’s attempt at overcoming the pitfalls through “ressourcement.” The discussion of Bruce McCormack’s doctrine of God, while critical to the discussion this book wishes to enter, seems to be tacked on the end. It would have benefitted Swain to use Barth, Jenson, and McCormack as interlocutors throughout his theological formulation rather than providing summary sections of each. Then, Swain could have been explicit about his attempt at overcoming the seeming downfalls of Barthian interpretation through an appeal to a pre-modern, metaphysical articulation of the Trinity. It would have been helpful to see how the proposed methodology rises to the challenge of overcoming the critiques mentioned in Barth, Jenson, and McCormack through lengthy constructive engagement.

The second critique is focused on the theological content of Chapter 9, “Grace and Being.”[1] Swain does, in fact, inform the reader that there are lecture materials not in print that will require a “more intelligent response” (210) to McCormack’s doctrine of God. One wonders how Swain’s argumentation would account for these lectures, especially McCormack’s Kenneth Kantzer Lectures in 2011.[2] In these lectures, McCormack develops his most mature doctrine of God to date through a historical (lectures 1-2), biblical (lectures 3-4), and theological (lectures 5-7) re-formulation of traditional Christology. Clearly, there are sources every scholar wishes to engage with, but I think these lectures, both print and online, would have fine-tuned Swain’s engagement with McCormack.

Swain defends McCormack’s theology from common misunderstandings of modalism, Anti-Nicene Orthodoxy, and subordinationism (215-220) before asserting his own critiques of McCormack’s understanding of divine ontology. Swain weighs McCormack’s ontology against two standards: divine freedom and grace (223). After working through McCormack’s development in relation to God’s freedom, Swain argues that the ordering of the procession of creatures and the procession of the Son and Spirit from the Father necessitate “utter gratuity.” He asserts that McCormack’s construal lacks this distinctive ordering. He also claims that McCormack considers the procession of creatures as the ground for the procession of the Son and Spirit. Thus, Swain maintains that McCormack’s doctrine of God lacks the sufficient theological grammar to understand the covenant of grace. The goal of the covenant of grace, for Swain, should not be “begetting the Son and breathing the Spirit,” but “for bringing many sons and daughters into the antecedently perfect glory of the triune God” (226).

Swain’s assertion lies in what he calls the “distinction between two modes of deriving from God,” (citing Jenson, 225). By this, he seeks to distinguish the kind of deriving of the Word over and against creation. For McCormack, the procession of creatures is not the ground for God’s being ad extra, as Swain maintains.[3] By separating the origination of the Word from the derivation of created reality, Swain relies on a thesis he rejects on page 159 of a “God behind God.” However, in McCormack’s doctrine of God, the telos of God’s election is primarily Jesus Christ and secondarily human beings. Human beings are elect in Christ’s election; there is not one election of God to become incarnate and then a separate election of humanity. As God knows God’s self in the election of grace, God wills to be the Elect. The drama, for McCormack, is a one-act play; as God knows, God wills. The divine missions of God are the divine processions and the divine processions are the divine missions. It is not only, as Swain characterizes, that the economic Trinity is contained in the immanent Trinity—they are one and the same. To separate knowing and willing is to allow the telos and grace of election to be differentiated from the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. This separation continues in the trajectory of construing a God who is not fully revealed in Jesus Christ and gives way to metaphysical speculation.

The God of the Gospel is a good entry point into the discussion of divine ontology, especially that of Robert Jenson. Swain’s contribution adds to the ever-growing concern in contemporary theology about the nature of the God made known to us in Jesus Christ. Swain’s volume is most welcome in the continuing discussion of divine ontology. The book comes recommended to students who are beginning their theological studies as well as others interested in developments in the doctrine of God in Protestant theology after Barth.

Brandon Watson, MDiv/MACEF Student, Princeton Theological Seminary


[1] The chapter is no doubt labeled after Bruce McCormack’s essay “Grace and Being” in John Webster, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 92-110.

[2] Additionally, McCormack’s essay “Processions and Missions: Convergence between Thomas and Barth” may have provided theological content for further consideration. The essay was delivered at the annual Barth Conference in 2011 and later in print in Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth: An Unofficial Catholic-Protestant Dialogue (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013).

[3] Swain does not quote the entirety of McCormack’s statement, thus seems to misrepresent McCormack’s claim. The full quote reads: “The decision for the covenant of grace is the ground of God’s triunity and therefore of the eternal generation of the Son and the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and Son. In other words [this is where Swain picks up], the works of God ad intra (the Trinitarian processions) find their ground in the first of the works of God ad extra (viz., election).” Bruce McCormack, Orthodox and Modern (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 194. Swain attempts to claim the covenant of grace has one end, salvation. Why is the covenant of grace limited to the end of salvation? Why are all God’s activities, including God’s self-constitution in election, not defined by a covenant of grace? This would better align with what Barth calls the “election of grace,” which is concerned with “the choice of God, which preceding all His other choices, is fulfilled in His eternal willing of the existence of the man Jesus and of the people represented in Him” Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2, Geoffrey W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance, eds., (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957), 25.