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, 27 March 2012

Remythologizing Theology [11]

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 6

Having defined God in terms of communicative agency, Vanhoozer, in the third section of Remythologizing Theology, now goes on to explore what this means for the God–world relation. Chapter 6, the opening chapter of this section, attends to the idea of God as Author. Vanhoozer writes,

God is to our world, I submit, as an author is to the world of his or her text. More specifically, God is a dialogical author, and this in three respects. God authors the world (transcendence); God dialogues with the world (immanence); God authorially governs and cares for the world dialogically (triune providence). (pp. 298–299).

Speaking of God as Author – the analogia auctoris – maintains the infinite qualitative distinction between Creator and creature (on the assumption that God as Author brings the entire drama into being), and it also allows human beings to be ‘authors’ in their own right. On this account, God’s authorial speech and action do not compete with human authorial speech and action because they function at different levels:

God’s authorial speech both constitutes and consummates human characters, and this is not the contradiction but the basis of the human creature’s freedom and answerability. (p. 303, n. 26).

To acknowledge God as Author is also to admit the possibility that God writes Godself into the drama. Divine authorship is effectively the Father authoring creation and redemption in Christ and through the Spirit. But what kind of authorship does God exercise? Vanhoozer argues that God does not exercise monarchic authorship, where the author is fully in control of all the characters in the story. Here, the characters in the story function simply as mouthpieces for the author; they are not ‘free’; and monarchic authorship has its parallel in deterministic approaches to divine sovereignty, such as that commonly found in classical theism.

Thus a notion of democratic or polyphonic authorship is preferable, for characters are granted the space within such a framework to speak for themselves. But even polyphonic authorship can be subdivided into radical and dialogical polyphonic authorship. The former has its theological counterpart in panentheism and relational theism, in so far as the radicalness of this version of polyphonic authorship consists in the author’s self-limitation so that he or she becomes an equal player in the drama. But within dialogical polyphonic authorship – which Vanhoozer favours – there is an asymmetrical relationship between the author and the characters, but still genuine ‘freedom’ for the characters, who speak with their own voices and respond to situations in their own particular ways. Vanhoozer concludes,

Dialogical authorship represents a new way of conceiving the relation of divine authorship and sovereignty on the one hand and human freedom and responsibility on the other. (p. 334).

Why? Well, first of all, Vanhoozer argues that God’s authorial action posits human beings as secondary authors; human beings ‘exercise a secondary authorship, and hence genuine freedom.’ (p. 303). And the employment of ‘author’ imagery to humans is not inappropriate, because God addresses humans (Genesis 1:28). Vanhoozer writes,

What makes men and women “like God” has to do with their being spoken to and their capacity to speak back. (p 319, emphasis original).

Thus creatures – humans – are elected by God to engage in dialogical, covenantal relationship with God. On this account, humans are answerable to God for their actions, and personal identity is a matter of response to situations, to other creatures, and to God. ‘To be human,’ Vanhoozer writes, ‘is to be in dialogical act: to live is to participate in the give and take of question and answer, call and response.’ (p. 333). Given this, human freedom consists in freely responding to God, whether negatively or positively, although true human identity is fully formed only in the positive response.

Once more, Vanhoozer produces a thoughtful and stimulating argument, but I’m not convinced he has shaken the shackles of the framework of primary and secondary causation that seems to lurk in the background. The parallels between God as Author/primary cause and creatures (humans) as authors/secondary causes are surely not forced. Of course, Vanhoozer himself doesn’t appear to have a problem with that framework, but I do think that what he writes can be subject to similar criticisms. Just one example will suffice. Look again at this quotation:

[Human beings] exercise a secondary authorship, and hence genuine freedom. (p. 303, my emphasis).

The hence suggests that Vanhoozer believes genuine human freedom to stem from the fact that God allows humans to ‘exercise a secondary authorship’ – but I do not see the notion of genuine freedom to stem from this quite as obviously as does Vanhoozer. As far as I can tell, there’s nothing in the concept of ‘secondary authorship’ that entails genuine freedom. And if we understand genuine (human) freedom to consist in free response to God’s call on individual human lives, I am not entirely convinced that Vanhoozer does justice to the idea of humans as authors.

This leads to my next concern, that the account of providence implied in this chapter is very human-centred. While there’s no doubt that for Vanhoozer, God authors all that exists, the discussion of divine and human action in the context of dialogical polyphonic authorship restricts the doctrine of providence from expanding to cover the whole world. In a footnote at the end of the chapter, Vanhoozer suggests that God’s authorial action also impacts the world at large (e.g. Jesus performs speech acts [the calming of the storm, for example] demonstrating his sovereignty over nature), but says very little about it. And the idea that humans are like God because they can communicate with God seems to ignore the work done in recent years by Old Testament scholars that locate the image of God in the fact that humans function in a world-temple as the ‘idols’ that represent the divine presence. No doubt a large part of this implies communication, but, as it stands, Vanhoozer has not shown how the remainder of the world also plays a part in the drama that is created existence. His main concern seems to be how human identity can be fully realised in response to God’s communicative action. But this cannot be the main or only point of the doctrine of providence, and I hope that the next chapter(s) redress the balance.

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