United Lutheran Seminary marked the death of Robert W. Jenson September 5th with sadness and deep thanksgiving for his two decades of service to the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, a predecessor institution.
Jenson led a career of teaching and research that energized wide ranging Lutheran and ecumenical audiences, but anchored a generation of pastors and church leaders while serving on the faculty from 1968 to 1988.
United Lutheran Seminary President Theresa F. Latini said that “For a significant swath of alums, Robert Jenson was and is an iconic figure and a key energizing intellectual force for a generation of theologians, pastors, and church leaders.”
During the two decades he spend at Gettysburg, he served on Lutheran-Episcopal dialogue team from 1968 and was later attached to the Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue. Among his many books Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings (written with Eric Gritsch) and Visible Words anchored a new emphasis on and influence of systematic theology. Jenson’s influence on sacramental theology and practices was extensive in the latter half of 20th Century Lutheranism. To that end, and in reaction to a church statement on communion practices in the 1970’s, he participated in early communion of young baptized Christians, a practice the Seminary at Gettysburg had already adopted and, although controversial at the time, soon became the practice across the church.
With his friend, Carl Braaten, he served as a founding editor of Dialog: A Journal of Theology. After leaving Gettysburg, Jenson and Braaten founded the conservative Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology in 1991. The center organized numerous ecumenical conferences, and began publishing a journal Pro Ecclesia.
To faculty colleague and historian Gerald Christianson, his “theology was not conservative (his social/ethical positions frequently were), but respectful of the tradition; nor was it ‘modern’ in the sense of following Whitehead or the 20th century moderns, but stressing the approach of Barth on the dynamic of the Word and the contrast between the gospel and religion.” Christianson added, “I learned a great deal from him.”
Born August 2, 1930, Jenson was educated at Luther College, Decorah, IA, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN, the University of Minnesota, the University of Heidelberg (Dr. Theol.), and the University of Basel, SW. He was ordained in 1955 in the American Lutheran Church, and became rostered in the Lutheran Church in America in 1968.
Late in his career he completed work on his magnum opus, the two-volume Systematic Theology (1997–99), which has since been widely regarded as one of the most important and creative recent works of systematic theology. In a review of this work, Wolfhart Pannenberg described Jenson as “one of the most original and knowledgeable theologians of our time.”
President Emeritus Michael Cooper-White reflected on Jenson’s place in theological education: “Generations of us students at Gettysburg Seminary (now United Lutheran Seminary) were privileged to sit at the feet of this preeminent Lutheran theologian of the 20th century. Jens’ indefatigable and unrelenting insistence on proclaiming God’s gospel of unconditional love will continue to reverberate even though his prolific pen has been put down and his provocative voice will no longer be heard among us.”
Jenson’s funeral is scheduled for 3pm Saturday, September 16, 2017 at Trinity Church (Episcopal), 33 Mercer Street, Princeton, NJ. Memorial contributions should go to the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology. Please make out the check to CCET and send it to this address: CCET C/o Immanuel Lutheran Church, 122 East 88th Street, New York, NY 10128.