Jenson notoriously claims that God is not only identified by the events of Exodus and Resurrection but identified with them (Systematic Theology: Volume 1: The Triune God, 59). This has led some to question whether he really believes in the Creator-creature distinction, something that he has called a fundamental axiom of Christian theology. I have to believe that Jenson wouldn’t violate a fundamental axiom in the “conceptual move” that he describes as one on which “the whole argument of the work depends,” and I’ve tried to make sense of his “by” and “with.” Here is another stab.
In his first direct justification of the move in the Systematic Theology, Jenson’s motivations are straightforward: He wants to head off idolatry. As usual, his analysis begins from “normal religion:
In normal religion, “where deity reveals itself is not where it is.” The revealing event or word is a “clue to God” but is not God. But this disjunction between a god and his revelation opens a gap that is the space for idolatry: “the space normal religion leaves between revelation and deity itself is exactly the space across which we make our idolatrous projections. The religious impulse is never satisfied with anything short of deity itself. Thus the revelations of normal religion, which are not deity but only point to us, become the mere occasions and triggers of the religious quest, of a journey to what lies behind them.” In this quest, we “necessarily project deity to our own affirmation or compensation” (59-60). Jenson notes that “The revelation to Israel and the church calls this quest idolatry, the first and fundamental sin” (60).
To this point, Jenson’s argument is analogous to Barth’s assault on modalism: Modalism tries to bypass the revelation of God as Father, Son, and Spirit to get to the true, undifferentiated deity who shows himself under these masks. For Barth, there is no back door; God’s face is God Himself in His revelation. Likewise, Jenson says that “identification with” is necessary to close off that back-door approach to God. We confront God directly in Exodus and Resurrection, the whole “plotted sequence of events that make the narrative of Israel and her Christ” (60). Exodus and Resurrection are not signs; we don’t take them off on our quest to find the living God and test whether the God we happen upon conforms to the symbols. God comes directly to humanity, in real time, and shows Himself. No back door.
Where Jenson differs from Barth, and where Jenson becomes controversial and confusing, is in the way he describes where God confronts us. Barth would say that there’s no back door because God Himself comes to us in the incarnate Son Jesus. He is the unsurpassable revelation of God; He is wholly identified with God. Jenson is Christocentric, but when he speaks of what is identified with God, he speaks of “the particular plotted sequence of events that make the narrative of Israel and her Christ” – rather than directly of the Person of the incarnate Son. He speaks of a storyline that stretches back to Abraham’s call and is fulfilled in the coming of the Son.
We might put it this way: Jenson thinks that God shows Himself in Christ, but defines Christ not in terms of the incarnate Person as such, but in terms of the story that identifies Christ. Or, to indulge some Jensonspeak, we may imagine such a conversation: Where does God show Himself? In Christ; God wholly identifies Himself with that Person. Who is this Christ to whom you refer? He is the one raised from the dead by the Father, who first brought Israel out of Egypt. God wholly identifies Himself with that Person who is Himself identified by this particular plotted sequence of events. Or, more strongly: God wholly identifies Himself with that Person who is Himself identified with this particular sequence of events.
I suspect too that the by and with distinction sets up the broad sweep of Jenson’s Systematics. In the same context where he elaborate the distinction, he says that “The primal systematic function of trinitarian theology is to identify the theos in ‘theology’” (60). This doesn’t simply mean, I suppose, the sort of identification for which Jenson is famous – theology exists to distinguish the Triune God from the rival claimants to deity that populate the world. That, but also: The purpose of systematic theology is to define what “deity” itself means. And when Jenson finally gets around to this, late in his book, he says that “the one God is an event” (221), and specifically (following Barth) “the active relation of the triune persons” and this event takes place “among us” as the cross and resurrection of Jesus.The event that God is happens to the triune persons, so that God’s being is “what happens between Jesus and his Father in their Spirit.” And the event that God is happens in the world, so that “God is what happens to Jesus and the world.” Jenson qualifies: “God might have been the God he is without this world to happen to,” but that is a limiting concept, a counterfactual that we can do no more than assert.
So, God is identified with these events because the event that He Himself is happens in time as Exodus and Resurrection.