I am grateful to Cambridge University Press for the review copy.
In Chapter 1 of Remythologizing Theology, Vanhoozer outlined the issues raised by the notion of divine communicative action for the doctrine of God, a concept of the God–world relation, and how Scripture should be interpreted. Chapter 2 was a sustained exploration of the God–world relation through the eyes of classical theism and relational theism/panentheism. Now, in Chapter 3, Vanhoozer attends to the various complications he finds inherent within the relational theist/panentheist paradigm, which he labels ‘kenotic-perichoretic theism’.
One problem is that the notion of relationality is ambiguous; relations can be spatial, logical, temporal, and so on. So when kenotic-perichoretic theists prioritise the concept of relationality, in what sense are they employing it? (Interestingly, I say the same kind of thing in Providence Made Flesh about the notion of causality: it’s too ambiguous a term to be used with any conceptual precision when it comes to the doctrine of providence.) And further complicating matters is the possibility that relationality has simply replaced substance as a controlling concept, without any evidence that it frees us to think more deeply and accurately about God. Moreover, it will not do simply to focus on relations, especially when it comes to discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity. ‘Father’, ‘Son’ and ‘Spirit’ are both proper personal names and the names of relations between each of the persons of the Trinity; a concentration on relations does not do justice to the doctrine of the Trinity. Vanhoozer also notes that Scripture doesn’t focus on relations as such, but on the triune God’s communicative actions. The Father and the Son, for example, are both ‘persons-in-communicative-relation’. (p. 148). Thus we must think about God as both three persons-in-relatedness (substance ontology) and three persons-in-distinctness (relational ontology). And it is the fact that God is triune, that God’s very being is a dynamic communion, that ultimately distinguishes God from the world.
But if this is forgotten, a new danger threatens to present itself: ‘illegitimate Trinitarian transfer’ (a riff on James Barr’s ‘illegitimate totality transfer’). Basically, kenotic-perichoretic theism is fond of using the concept of perichoresis to describe the God–world relation. However, to do so suggests that the world is thought of as playing a significant part in constituting the divine identity. Against this, Scripture depicts the God–world relation in terms of covenant, not in terms of perichoresis; this latter term was employed specifically to portray the inter-relationship between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; and it is, says Vanhoozer, illegitimate to transfer this concept from one area of theology (trinitarian relations) to another (the God–world relation). As long as perichoresis is applied illegitimately to the God–world relation, it will always be difficult for kenotic-perichoretic theism to do justice to the mythos presented in Scripture, which instead shows God entering into covenantal relations (and not perichoretic relations) with the world. Indeed, it will always be difficult for kenotic-perichoretic theists to avoid projecting ideas of human relationships onto God’s being. And the only adequate antidote to such diseased theology is to focus on Jesus, who is the self-revelation of God made flesh. The en in panentheism, says Vanhoozer, is just too general.
So much for the perichoretic element in kenotic-perichoretic theism; what about the kenotic side of things? This approach to theology implies that God must limit Godself or lose something in order to have a genuinely loving relationship with the world. But again, the christological element is forgotten in favour of generalities. In Christology, kenosis isn’t about Jesus losing or setting aside something (i.e. his divinity); it’s about the eternal Son of God taking human flesh and the stuff of creation to himself. And so kenosis is a specifically christological concept that is illegitimately transferred to the God–world relation. When this happens, God must surrender Godself to the world and be affected by it in order to be genuinely loving. There needs to be a parity of loving mutuality and reciprocity, which assumes that God and the world are of the same ontological level. (I don’t think this contradicts my basic stance that in God’s economy, God acts or operates on the creaturely level.) But classical theism’s approach to love – that for God to love means that God gives Godself for the well-being of another – is no less loving, and has the advantage that it is not susceptible to therapeutic notions of love that render God not an agent but an empath.
It is clear that Vanhoozer thinks that classical theism holds more promise than kenotic-perichoretic theisms such as panentheism. But it is also clear that he wants to sail into new theological waters:
The way forward, beyond relational theism or panentheism and back to something more like classical theism, is to think through God’s love, and being, in terms of neither impersonal causality nor person mutuality alone but rather in terms of communicative and self-communicative action. (pp. 176–177).
It is now time for Vanhoozer to offer his own constructive proposals.