I am grateful to Cambridge University Press for the review copy.
Chapter 4, part 2
In this post, I cover Remythologizing Theology pages 198–222. Among other things, Vanhoozer explains why he’s advocating a post-Barthian Thomism.
It’s clear that Vanhoozer sees God as a communicative agent: a speaker, an author, a being-in-communicative-act. And he situates himself within the Barthian tradition that defines the divine being in terms of agency. But Vanhoozer also has a misgiving:
Why must we equate God’s being-in-act exclusively with God’s revelation in Jesus Christ when the Bible depicts God as in-act at other points of the biblical narrative as well? (p. 203).
Vanhoozer is surely right. A focus on Jesus as the height of God’s revelation is meet and right, but not to the detriment of the biblical mythos and witness. In fact, Vanhoozer goes on to argue that even God’s action in Christ cannot be understood aright without first an understanding of God’s action in Israel:
The point is that the fullness of the divine life is on display in the life of Jesus as rendered by the biblical narrative and other forms of discourse. The mythos reveals the divine substance. Yet Jesus’ story neither begins nor makes sense apart from the broader canvas of God’s prior speech and activity in the history of Israel.… God’s speech in Jesus Christ may be definitive, but it presupposes prior divine communicative action. (p. 215.)
I cannot disagree with Vanhoozer here. And this leads to his comments about adopting a post-Barthian Thomism. With Barth, Vanhoozer argues that an ontology of God must be a posteriori, after the fact or event of Jesus Christ; it is Jesus who shows us who God is. But with Aquinas, we must accept that being is not static substance but dynamic act. And so, like Barth and Aquinas, Vanhoozer seeks to co-opt metaphysical categories to support a theo-ontology defined primarily by God’s communicative action in the world and in Scripture:
Hence the biblical mythos remythologizes metaphysics itself, resisting, overcoming, and recasting our conceptions of what God must be like as supreme being. (p. 221).
As far as I’m concerned, Vanhoozer doesn’t say anything too controversial or contestable in these pages. But I’m a little frustrated that he takes so long to say what he says. It seems he makes the same point two or three times. That said, the wider discussion is not without merit. He makes some good points, for example, about divine presence (although I’m not entirely sure why he mentions divine presence when he does):
God’s presence is thus in the first instance personal, agential, and communicative rather than merely spatial, substantive, or metaphysical. (p. 206).
And, discussing the question about whether or not God literally speaks, he also notes that the act of speaking does not necessarily assume the existence of vocal chords to be real, for
The core concept in action [speech is an action] is not bodily movement but bringing about a change in the world – directly or indirectly – by an act of will, decision, or intention. (p. 210).
So even though God does not speak as we do, God still literally speaks, for God performs communicative acts. I’m not fully convinced that action does not entail some kind of bodily movement – how can one will, decide or intend change in the world without their being some kind of physical or bodily movement somewhere? – but it’s an interesting idea with which Vanhoozer’s playing. His main point here is fine, though: that if God does not speak, God does not covenant.