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.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Remythologizing Theology [7]

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 4, part 1

With Chapter 4, Vanhoozer begins to offer his own constructive proposals. The chapter itself is reasonably long, so I’ve decided to break my review of it into smaller chunks. What follows is my outline of Remythologizing Theology pages 181–198.

The remythologizing process attends to God’s self-revelation in Scripture. But this itself pushes us towards claims about the being of God. We must reflect on ‘what happens, who does it, and what these persons are like.’ (p. 183). So what sorts of persons are Father, Son and Holy Spirit? The answer, Vanhoozer surmises, lies in the possibility of moving from God’s acts to God’s being – and this is why we must attend to God’s self-revelation in Scripture if we are to know anything about God at all.

Thus Vanhoozer asks the question: ‘Can we by reasoning biblically find out God?’ (p. 187). The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a firm ‘yes’, but under certain provisos: that we recognise that our theology is informed by Scripture; that God is seen to accommodate divine revelation to human intellectual capacities; that the biblical mythos governs our interpretation of Scripture; that the incarnation is regarded as the prime instance of God’s self-revelation.

However, there are some things implied in the course of Vanhoozer’s reasoning that I’d like further explained. For example, God accommodates divine self-revelation to human intellectual capacities – and in Scripture, God is revealed both to be transcendent and immanent. God is the eternal sovereign over all things, but enters into created space–time to enjoy dialogical relations with God’s creatures. Given this, what do we do about those passages where God is presented as, say, repenting? Let me quote from Vanhoozer:

No one metaphor, or literary genre, is sufficient to govern our theological thinking about God. Does God really repent and change his mind or not? That depends on the extent to which God is “like” a human, and to determine this the reader requires analogical thinking – conceptual elaboration (metaphysics) – that is both generated and governed by the diverse forms of biblical discourse (mythos). This is precisely where attending to literary genre helps. The narrative that recounts God’s repentance is part of the same narrative that recounts God’s creation of the world. (p. 194).

(I’m assuming that Vanhoozer has Genesis 1–11 in mind.)

If I’m understanding Vanhoozer correctly, all he’s saying is that determining genre and context aids our interpretation of Scripture; but if that is all he’s saying here, I don’t see why this is anything different from what any good exegete would do with a text. Moreover, it doesn’t help me take the anthropopathism of divine repentance less ‘literally’ than another anthropopathism such as divine loving. Is Vanhoozer saying that because God is first presented in Genesis 1–11 as transcendent, that God’s repentance in Genesis 6 must be ‘more’ an anthropopathism than others? Or is he saying that because God’s act of creation and God’s act of repentance inhabit the same wider text, each should be regarded with equal status? It’s hard to tell precisely what Vanhoozer’s point is here.

In this section, Vanhoozer also looks at analogy. He observes that God’s being is revealed in and through Jesus’s own speech and action; this he labels the analogia dramatis. It’s clear to me that Vanhoozer sets the analogia dramatis over and against the more traditional analogia entis. (‘The celebrated analogy of being [analogia entis] posits a certain likeness between God and other beings despite the difference entailed by the Creator/creature distinction.’ – p. 196). Those theologians who adopt the analogia entis are effectively bottom-up reasoners: if creatures are regarded ‘good’, then it may be supposed that the One who created them is all-good. The danger here – and I suppose this was Karl Barth’s point – is that the danger of projectionism is ever-present. But Vanhoozer sees the analogia dramatis as affirming the opposite movement, that God, in effect, chooses the analogies by which God is self-revealed. So far, so good. This allows for the incarnation, which, as the analogia dramatis, is definitely a divinely chosen means of self-revelation and, indeed, self-communication that does not depend on human projectionism. But I’m not convinced that (a) the analogia dramatis and the analogia entis are of the same ‘analogical’ level (Vanhoozer himself recognises that the former is a tool that makes sense of God’s prior initiatives and acts, whereas the latter is a tool to make independent judgements about God); and that (b) the analogia dramatis sufficiently replaces the analogia entis – after all, if the analogia dramatis is shorthand for God’s acts in the incarnation of the Word, it surely doesn’t cover God’s self-revelation in human language. If anything, by employing the term analogia dramatis, it just seems that Vanhoozer is desperate to coin a term further to push his theodramatic ideas.

So how to sum up this opening section of Chapter 4? Vanhoozer’s argument was very stimulating and made me think a lot about the way we use language to describe God – or the way God uses human language to self-reveal. But I’m beginning to weary of Vanhoozer’s style. It’s a little too … well, prolix. And I’m beginning to wonder if his wordiness obscures rather than clarifies his positions. Or perhaps I’m just being unfair and need to read the rest of the chapter before making these sorts of judgements.

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