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.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Remythologizing Theology [10]

"Late again, eh, Spirit?"
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 5

In Chapter 4, Vanhoozer considered the communicative nature of (divine) being; here, in Chapter 5, he analyses the communicative agency of the three divine persons. I can say now that I found this chapter of Remythologizing Theology to be the most interesting and engaging one so far.

Vanhoozer’s first concern is to define as clearly as possible the relation between the immanent and economic Trinities, and all from within the framework of communicative agency. On this account, God in se is the communication and communion between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This means that while there is one divine nature, one God, there are three agents who, in their own particular ways, speak. ‘The one God,’ Vanhoozer writes, ‘who exists as self-communicative activity does so in three subsistent relations.’ (p. 246). God is the divine drama; God is the dialogue between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thus Vanhoozer can argue:

God is the Father addressing the Son, the Son responding to the Father, and the Spirit overhearing. Indeed, the Spirit has a distinct personal identity precisely as the witness of, and then participant in, the communication that exists between the Father and the Son. (p. 246).

To summarize: the three persons are distinct communicative agents that share a common communicative agency. (p. 247, emphasis original).

But what do the three persons communicate? God ad intra communicates light, life and love between Father, Son and Spirit; and God ad extra communicates Godself (revelation) and the possibility of creaturely participation or sharing in God (redemption). All this communication centres on Jesus, the Word spoken by the Father through the breath that is the Spirit. Why? It’s because participating in God’s being (or being-in-communicative-agency, as Vanhoozer inelegantly puts it) is not about participating ‘in a Platonic Greek universal but in a Pauline Jewish particular’ (p. 279): the history of Jesus Christ himself. And this means, in turn, that participation in God isn’t a matter of unconsciously participating in God in a panentheistic sense (‘in him we live and move and have our being’), but of actively participating in the person of Jesus – and, more specifically, his sonship by adoption through the Spirit’s agency.

As I’ve noted already, this is the most engaging chapter so far. But it’s not flawless. For example, when Vanhoozer states that God is dialogue, I’m concerned that the concept of dialogue could be seen to precede the existence of the three persons. Saying that God is the dialogue between Father, Son and Holy Spirit surely implies that there is a fourth entity in the ‘Trinity’, or that the three communicative agents can be reduced to dialogue. Also, I can’t help but suspect that there’s a marginalisation of the Spirit in Vanhoozer’s construal of trinitarian relations. It might just be a curiosity of syntax, but when Vanhoozer comments that the Spirit is ‘the witness of, and then participant in, the communication that exists between the Father and the Son’, I wonder what force is given to the and then. Isn’t it possible that presented here is a primary conversation between Father and Son that the Spirit overhears (Vanhoozer does use the imagery of eavesdropping) and then enters the conversation? Doesn’t this imply that there are two conversations, or a two-stage conversation, in which the Spirit isn’t initially a full conversationalist; or, to put it differently, the Spirit is invited to participate in the conversation between Father and Son and so becomes a participant in the conversation that is God?

These criticisms aside, Vanhoozer does well to outline the differences between general, panentheistic participation in God and the specific participation in Jesus entailed by the drama of redemption. This chapter is a delight to read, even though I’m now harbouring suspicions that the communicative theistic framework that Vanhoozer employs is now beginning to hinder rather than help his case. I’m not doubting the importance or prevalence of ‘communication’ imagery in the biblical mythos, but I do wonder if Vanhoozer is making too much of it, such that he is recasting more traditional theological terminology simply for the sake of his approach.

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