Into the Thicket: Nelson's Guide to Jüngel

The work of esteemed systematic theologian Eberhard Jüngel does not make for light reading; indeed, as R. David Nelson notes in his fine primer, much of the German Lutheran thinker's works have yet to be translated into English, and even those that have require patience and perseverance of their readers. Anglophone students should be grateful for what we do have, though, as Nelson notes, the translated works typically miss the nuances of the author's puns and witticisms.

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Jüngel: A Guide for the Perplexed, By R. David Nelson (London: T&T Clark, 2020).

Another factor that makes Jüngel's corpus daunting is its broad, interdisciplinary character, in works ranging from sermons and address, to biblical theology and hermeneutics, to systematics. Nelson's approach is straightforwardly textual rather than thematic: After a brief overview of Jüngel's life and career, Nelson offers brief synopses of four major monographs and eleven paradigmatic essays that illustrate the breadth and depth of the German thinker's vision, his ecumenical and ecclesial interests, and to a certain extent, his limitations. Nelson thankfully avoids the temptation to name some core concept or central theme as animating and structuring Jüngel's work as a whole -- whether that might be, say, the doctrine of justification, a dynamic Trinitarian ontology, or a modified existentialist anthropology, just to name several possible candidates for such an ur-concept.

Another blind alley Nelson avoids -- and this is a particular virtue of this deceptively sort volume -- is succumbing to a genealogical reduction of this complex and subtle thinker's work: It simply won't do to interpret Jüngel as some distillation of his theological "influences" -- that is, any of the major figures he engages, especially Barth, Bultmann, Ebeling, Luther, Hegel, and Heidegger. A quick glance at the index of authors cited puts helps to put that delusion to rest. What's more, this decidedly Protestant thinker has been intensively engaged in ecumenical discussions with post-Vatican II Roman Catholic thought, especially the work of Karl Rahner. Any good theologian's work is more than the sum total of predecessors along some branches of an intellectual family tree. The more fruitful approach, Nelson claims, is to situate Jüngel as an interlocutor within an intricate web of theological discourse that unfolded in the second half of the 20th century. In other words, the thinker's work must be both contextually situated and wrestled with on its own terms. Theology, like all intellectual work, is conversational; one goal of situating Jüngel vis-à-vis predecessors, teachers, and peers is to tease out "what was in the air" -- or as I might put it, the ethos -- of the theological discourses within which Jüngel moved from his student days to his mature work.

One of the few caveats I have in commending Nelson's book is that it, too, is somewhat dense and requires patience; its ideal intended reader, I think, would be a student, teacher, or academic researcher who has some background in 20th century theology. A reader interesting in learning more of the German theologian might supplement Nelson's book with John Webster's Eberhard Jüngel: An Introduction to His Theology (Cambridge, 1986) (though a limitation of that work is that it was published amid Jüngel's career and preceded important developments, such as his contributions to ecumenical discussions on justification).

This is not a hagiography: Nelson, an author and editor of Lutheran Forum, tags some of his own criticisms of Jüngel, but those are mostly muted in this largely expository survey. Nelson writes, "One of my goals in this guide is to dispel the notion that Jüngel is too hard to understand and in any case hardly worth the effort" (p. 2). This book offers many helpful entry points for new readers to begin engaging Jüngel for themselves.

Jüngel (b. 1934) studied in universities in Germany and Switzerland, including formative stints with thinkers who bridged the disciplines of biblical hermeneutics and dogmatics -- Heinrich Vogel, Karl Barth, and Ernst Fuchs. As Nelson shows, the young theologian was formed by the political situation of post-war Germany, particularly the trauma of partition, as he began his career as a lecturer at the Hochschule in East Berlin. Perhaps his academic and personal experiences under the repressive, Stalinlist-dominated German Democratic Republic helped to seed and animate one of his main theological preoccupations -- Christian freedom -- which he explores in an early essay on "The Freedom of Theology." Nelson writes:

In the essay he endeavors to show how the liberating truth of the gospel impacts the nature and tasks of theology at every point. Of particular note, Jüngel argues that the mark of freedom affords the theologian the courage to faithfully think, speak, write, act, and hope (p. 12).

The monographs Nelson discusses include Paulus und Jesus (1962), Jüngel's untranslated doctoral dissertation; God's Being is in Becoming (ET 1976), a "paraphrase" of Barth's doctrine of the Trinity; God as the Mystery of the World (ET 1983), a theological response to modern atheism; and Justification -- the Heart of the Christian Faith (ET 2001), Jüngel's final major monograph, a contribution to (or perhaps intervention into) Roman Catholic and Lutheran ecumenical dialogues on this core doctrine. One common way of reading Jüngel's constructive work is to see him as trying to mediate between Barth's dynamic theological ontology and Bultmann's hermeneutical emphasis on faith as it impinges upon and determines the believer's concrete existence.

The eleven essays summarized in the book range across such topics as analogy, theological anthropology, and the historical Jesus. Because of the somewhat eclectic and occasional character of these diverse writings, Nelson claims that Jüngel's work epitomizes what Barth labelled as "irregular dogmatics"; this is not a sleight, but points to a theology that is more concerned to answer the pressing questions of its multiple contexts than to offer a comprehensive theological system. Though Jüngel's work remains heavy sledding, perhaps this very irregularity might help it speak to the tasks of theological construction in a postmodern world.

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