Robert Jenson was my closest friend and collaborator for sixty years. We first met when we were both students at Luther Seminary in St. Paul in the early 1950s, though we did not become friends until we were both graduate students at Heidelberg University in 1957. We met virtually every week during that one year, with our spouses, Blanche and LaVonne, eating and drinking together, while coming to terms with the great theological minds and issues of that era: Bultmann’s demythologizing, Barth’s dogmatics, Bonhoeffer’s letters from prison, Tillich’s systematics, Ebeling’s hermeneutics, Rahner’s neo-Thomism, the Lundensian theology of Aulén and Nygren, and the revival of confessional Lutheran theology undertaken by Peter Brunner and Edmund Schlink at Heidelberg University. That year we also met Wolfhart Pannenberg, who at that time was head of a circle conceiving a new theology of “revelation as history,” beyond Barth and Bultmann.
After receiving his doctorate from Heidelberg with a dissertation on Karl Barth’s theology of election (with Peter Brunner serving as his doctor-father), Robert Jenson returned to the United States to join the faculty of religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. There he began his career as a professor of Christian theology and a prolific author of theological books (around thirty) and hundreds of articles and editorials in various journals and magazines. He taught for the next 38 years in Lutheran institutions: at Luther College; as dean and tutor of Lutheran students at Mansfield College in Oxford; at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg; and at St. Olaf College. While at Oxford, Jenson encountered the strengths of Anglicanism, which, unlike most other Protestant denominations, had retained theological and liturgical elements of the great catholic tradition of western Christianity. This encounter prepared Jenson to play a prominent role as a Lutheran representative in ecumenical dialogues with Anglicans and Roman Catholics.
In 1991, Robert and Blanche Jenson joined me and my wife, LaVonne, in founding the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology in Northfield, Minnesota. The mission of the Center reflected Jenson’s ecumenical vision for the reunited church of the future. This vision calls for faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, obedience to the texts of Holy Scripture, and commitment to the dogmatic, liturgical, and ethical teachings of the Great Tradition. In the present state of the divided church, Jenson believed that the more Lutheran we were, the more ecumenical would be our practices. As Lutherans, we preferred to be called “evangelical catholics.” For one of the Center’s publications, Jenson proposed the title, The Catholicity of the Reformation.
Jenson’s ecumenical journey broadened immensely when he entered the world inhabited and presided over by Richard John Neuhaus, the founding editor of First Things. They became good friends and conversation partners. Jenson was an avid reader of the journal, a frequent contributor, and a member of its advisory council. At the passing of Neuhaus, Jenson wrote: “He was beyond any doubt the premier public theologian of his time.” As I write this memoir, many eulogies are appearing on the internet in praise of Robert Jenson, some calling him America’s greatest theologian since Jonathan Edwards, others the greatest systematic theologian of the post–World War II era. I would add that Jenson is by all odds the greatest ever American Lutheran theologian. His theology has already become the happy hunting ground for graduate students seeking a suitable topic for a doctoral dissertation. How many have already been written, and in what languages, I do not know.
Whatever deserved encomia we may write or read about Robert Jenson, none of it would be fitting without our adding that his beloved wife, Blanche, made it all possible. Jenson dedicated his magnum opus, the two-volume Systematic Theology, to his wife, in these words: “GENETRICI THEOLOGIAE MEAE OMNIAE BLANCHE AMATISSIMAE.”
Carl E. Braaten is emeritus professor of systematic theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and co-founder of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology.
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