I am grateful to Cambridge University Press for the review copy.
In Chapter 2, Vanhoozer explores theological approaches to conceptualising the God–world relation: so-called ‘classical theism’ and the variations on the God-theme that a number of modern (and postmodern?) theologians have proposed.
It’s often claimed that classical theism is essentially a corruption of ‘pure’ biblical teaching because it arose from theology that borrowed too heavily from Greco-Roman philosophy. The influence of such philosophy has especially inspired – and not in a good way – the idea that God is impassible, that God cannot respond or be affected by anything that happens in the created order. Consequently, God is disconnected from the world. And the wider claim here – that classical theism is A Bad Thing for Theology – has become the new orthodoxy.
Surprisingly to me, Vanhoozer doesn’t think that classical theism is A Bad Thing for Theology. (I say ‘surprisingly’, simply because I thought that Vanhoozer would distance himself from classical theism. How wrong I was!) He argues that, far from allowing Greco-Roman philosophy unduly to influence them, Patristic, medieval and Reformation theologians in fact sought to do justice to God’s self-revelation in Scripture:
Greek philosophy affirmed ‘that which is,’ but church theology affirmed ‘he who is’ and discovered ‘who he is’ and ‘what he is like’ thanks to ‘what he has done’ in Israel and in Jesus Christ. The God of what we may call biblical-theological classical theism is neither indifferent nor apathetic but ‘with us’ and ‘for us.’ (p. 93).
So if Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas and Calvin aren’t the problem, who is? René Descartes. While it is true, for example, that theologians such as Anselm often thought about God in the abstract (God is that than which nothing greater can be thought), the thought wasn’t so abstract that it was entirely abstracted from the liturgical life of the Church. Abstract thinking about God still concerned itself with the God self-revealed in the biblical mythos. But with Descartes, such thinking about God was severed from the biblical mythos in order to provide a foundation for philosophical thought about the existence of the human person. Thus Descartes depicts God as a supremely perfect being, a generic deity that has little to do with the triune God of Scripture.
Vanhoozer’s wider point is that the self-presentation of God in Scripture is what counts for building a doctrine of God. Perfect being theology tends to maximise human attributes to the ultimate degree; but an understanding of God based on God’s self-revelation or self-presentation in Scripture allows us to form concepts of God that function as icons, permitting us to peer into the presence of God without equating those concepts with the divine. And we must never forget, Vanhoozer continues, that God’s self-presentation is also made known in the cross of Jesus, on which God gives Godself to be known in a particular way. In short, while it is desirable to seek a metaphysics of the divine being, such a metaphysics has to be informed by God’s words and actions as accounted for in Scripture.
In the remainder of the chapter, Vanhoozer outlines the recent rediscovery of trinitarian theology and the growing prioritising of relationality. He points out that if, as Scripture implies, God is to be known as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then this is not merely an appearance, but the way that God truly is as God. According to Rahner’s Rule, if God reveals Godself to be triune in the economy of salvation, that God reveals that Godself is triune immanently. But if this is so, the divine ontology is surely best accounted for in terms of act, person and relation rather than in terms of substance. It is possible – probable, even – that God’s being is constituted by the relationships between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
This second chapter is an interesting read, and I’ve found myself revising some of my own views on classical theism. What Vanhoozer argues about Descartes makes a lot of sense to me, though I can’t help but wonder if there was enough in classical theism to make possible the emergence of Enlightenment theism. Vanhoozer also discusses open theism and (process-) panentheism in some depth in this chapter; I’ve chosen not to go into detail on these, as it seems to me that Vanhoozer had pretty much made his main point already about how to conceive of God. But these sections are definitely worth reading.