About Providence, Divine Action and the Church

In this blog, Terry J. Wright posts thoughts and shares research on the Christian doctrine of providence. This doctrine testifies to God’s provision for all things through creation’s high priest, the man Christ Jesus. However, the precise meaning and manner of this provision is a perpetually open question, and this blog is a forum for discussion of the many issues relating to providence and the place of the Church within God’s action.

Saturday, 31 December 2011

Remythologizing Theology [4]

Genesis 6:5-12
Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship. Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)

I am grateful to Cambridge University Press for the review copy.

Chapter 1, part 2

The list of texts that Vanhoozer analyses (see here) raise issues in three areas: the nature of God, the God–world relation, and the theological interpretation of the Bible. In the remainder of Chapter 1, Vanhoozer aims to identify the issues.

First, God is presented in Scripture as having an active voice. More clearly, this means that God actually does things with words – promising, calling, commanding, forgiving, and so on. God’s speaking is not the same as human speaking, for God does not need a body or vocal chords to act through speech; the terms ‘speaker’ and ‘agent’ should be applied analogically to God. That said, it must be possible to ascribe genuine communicative agency and authorship to God.

Next, Vanhoozer tackles anthropomorphism, a specific form of metaphor. Anthropomorphism throws up a series of problems when reading Scripture: Why, for example, are texts referring to God’s body parts considered anthropomorphic, but not texts testifying to God’s love or mercy? Is there a difference between anthropomorphic conception and anthropomorphic expression? Do we apply anthropomorphic language to God, or does God employ anthropomorphic language to reveal God? And does the fact that humanity is made in the image of God mean that such language is not anthropomorphic but theomorphic? Whatever answers we give to these sorts of questions, Vanhoozer is surely correct when he writes, ‘Either we dismiss anthropomorphic language as a mere figure of speech or we ask what it is saying about God.’ (p. 62).

This leads to Vanhoozer’s brief discussion of the Creator–creature distinction. Vanhoozer is clear that he regards this an extremely important issue, for it ‘affect[s] one’s conception of divine authorship and [has] a knock-on effect everywhere else in theology as well.’ (p. 65). Given his theodramatic concerns, Vanhoozer notes that authors and their characters or creatures are of different ontologies – and so the Creator–creature distinction, along with the proper employment of anthropomorphism, functions to safeguard against the conflation of the author with the characters, the human with the divine, and so protects against idolatry.

But the Creator–creature distinction is not a division, an unbridgeable chasm, for created history is a drama in which both the divine and the created (that is, it seems, humanity alone) have speaking roles. This approach suggests that it is unwise to define God primarily in terms of being, because the God who speaks is the God who speaks first and foremost to Israel in covenant relationship. Thus the Bible depicts God in terms not of being, but in terms of a relationality based on doing, on making a covenant with Israel and humanity through Jesus Christ. Vanhoozer writes,

The plot of the divine drama of Scripture turns on divine covenant initiatives and human covenantal responses, and the conflict arises from complications that impede the consummation of the promised union.… Remythologizing theology means elaborating the Creator–creature relation in terms of not general but special ontology, namely, in terms of God’s covenantal self-determinations and the subsequent missions of the Son and Spirit. (p. 69).

Despite this focus on the covenant relationship between God and humanity outlined in Scripture, Vanhoozer is still concerned to address the matter of the economic and immanent Trinity: How do we move from the narrative description of God’s action to a description of God’s being? And this in turn raises the issue of time and eternity: How can an eternal God interact with creatures of space and time? Or, given God’s dialogical interaction with humanity, what can be said about God and God’s relation to time? Vanhoozer hints that he believes answers to these sorts of questions centre on persons in dialogue and not bodies in motion, an idea that discussions about timelessness and eternity often hold to be central.

Finally, if God may be said to have an active voice, there is a sense in which God also has a passive voice. Is God ever acted on or moved from outside? How do we interpret a text such as Genesis 6:6? Is it possible that humans are emotional beings because God is an emotional being? The idea of ‘divine communicative passibility’ is an issue that, as we have already seen, will form an underlying current throughout Remythologizing Theology.

According to Vanhoozer, these seven issues need to be addressed if a properly biblical theo-ontology is to be advanced. We need to consider both the God self-designated ‘I am who I am’ (Exodus 3:14) with the God of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the crucified God. Thus a theodramatic metaphysics ‘begins with the speech and acts of God, inquiring what God must be to have said and done that.’ (p. 79, original emphasis). And the reading of Scripture must play an important part in the formation of a theodramatic metaphysics, for God has commandeered human language in order to reveal the divine. As we read and so interpret Scripture, we ourselves participate in the biblical mythos.

In Chapter 1, Vanhoozer has sought only to outline the issues raised by the biblical presentation of divine communicative action (and passibility). Nonetheless, he has provided hints of the direction he aims to travel. I am especially interested in how he will develop his theodramatic metaphysics along the lines of action rather than being. Given my own conviction that the doctrine of providence needs to take the biblical narrative more seriously, I am hoping that there will be much in what he writes to inspire me.

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