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, 1 May 2012

Remythologizing Theology [12]

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 7

God is the Author; but can the heroes of God’s play respond? Put differently, can humans genuinely respond to God, the divine author, freely and without coercion? That’s the heart of this seventh chapter.

Initially, Vanhoozer addresses the possibility that God, as author, authors evil. So, to use one of Vanhoozer’s examples, does God author both Pharaoh and harden Pharaoh’s heart? Vanhoozer argues that God constantly presents Godself to Pharaoh through Moses, but that God’s communicative agency at this point solicits a freely made negative response. Thus Pharaoh’s heart is hardened because he refuses to hear what God is saying to him through Moses. This seems feasible to me: God hardens Pharaoh’s heart by virtue of the fact that Pharaoh refuses to enter into dialogue with God. (I see a parallel in Galatians 3:2, where God’s message is said to elicit a particular [positive] response from the Galatians.)

But Vanhoozer complicates things by saying that God, through Moses, was merely presenting Pharaoh with information; thus God was not seeking to enter full communion with Pharaoh but rather was executing judgement on him. The Spirit is required if a message of information is truly to become a message of transformation. And, it seems, Vanhoozer accepts that God withheld the Spirit from Pharaoh. My reservation here is simply this: Had God imparted more than just information to Pharaoh; had God, by the Spirit, called Pharaoh into full communion; the chances are that Pharaoh’s heart wouldn’t have been hardened, and a less dramatic exodus could have been orchestrated. On Vanhoozer’s reading, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened because he didn’t enter into communion with God – a communion he was never offered.

Next, Vanhoozer asks if there are other authorial agents that have communicative influence on humans. Taking the example of Job, Vanhoozer observes that, in the text of Job itself, there are three perspectives on view: the divine, the satanic, and the human. It is the idea of plural perspectives that Vanhoozer picks up, because whenever a theodicy is constructed, it never fails to adopt a single perspective. Against this, says Vanhoozer, Scripture comments on the problem of evil in a variety of speech-acts – such as lament, exhortation, praise and consolation – to show that evil must be regarded from multiple perspectives.

That said, Scripture does point to the presence of evil in the so-called principalities and powers, structures originally created good but with a propensity for corruption. Under the influence of evil, these powers – such as governments – communicate a false or deceptive picture of reality into which God must speak truth. Thus, for Vanhoozer, the battle with the powers is situated primarily within human hearts and minds. Cue Jesus, God’s ultimate self-communication, in whom and by whom the powers fighting for permanent control over humanity are fought and defeated. God writes Godself into the play as a human actor, and the Spirit works to ensure that (certain?) people recognise this action.

At this point, Vanhoozer turns to a discussion of providence and prayer. Providence is God speaking to us; prayer is our speaking to God. There’s a curious understanding of primary causation as that which does not, against mainstream tradition, penetrate every level of creaturely existence. For Vanhoozer, it doesn’t seem to matter if God’s primary causation operates at, say, the biological level; all that matters is that such causation doesn’t have any influence at the level of human decision-making. (Does this mean that God causes cancer, but not my decision to have a cheese sandwich for lunch?) Vanhoozer’s point is that God works not through a causal joint, but through a communicative joint: God acts in and through people to transform them. More precisely, God’s Spirit works in people (though evidently not in Pharaoh!) so that they may gain an understanding of God’s (effectual) call and so accept it. Those who refuse to enter communion with God by responding positively to God’s call end up as God’s instruments. But presumably, people can only respond positively if God’s Spirit opens their hearts and minds. Logically, if a person hardens his or her heart against God by refusing to enter into communion with God, it’s because the Spirit hasn’t actually invited that person to participate. Do we not have here a restatement of a Calvinistic double predestination?

There’s another problem. I can accept what Vanhoozer says here as an interpretation of the way in which people respond positively to the gospel message; but if Vanhoozer wishes to extend this interpretation so that it works as a theory of divine action, how does it demonstrate God working within the rest of the world? Vanhoozer does say that Scripture’s interest is mainly in covenant history rather than world-occurrence, and that God works in the world mainly through humans; but this is far too anthropocentric for me.

This isn’t to say that Vanhoozer’s anthropocentricism entails disaster for the world (so to speak). Through prayer, humans (Christians?) are called to align their wills with the divine will and thus play a part in God’s providential action within the world. Thus the element of providence labelled concursus – arguably the most problematic element of providence – is now redefined as God calling humans to accompany God in God’s action, rather than vice versa. (I think someone may have suggested this back in 2001.)

There’s a lot of good stuff in this chapter. What I appreciate most is Vanhoozer’s understanding of the Spirit’s role in making communication efficacious (though John Calvin surely said all this before, and with fewer words). But I do have reservations about a lot of other things Vanhoozer holds. In addition to those I’ve already voiced, I want to say that communicative action appears only to apply between reasoning human subjects, which, it seems to me, leaves out many, many people who, for whatever reason, cannot reason. Rather than speaking of God’s communicating non-coercively ‘through reasoned discourse’ (p. 383), isn’t it better to speak of God communicating Godself to people; that is, of God communicating God’s loving presence to people (which, for many, will no doubt be received dialogically)? As it stands, Vanhoozer strikes me as favouring a very cerebral approach to things here.

To summarise, and to return to my opening question: It’s quite clear that, for Vanhoozer, humans can respond freely to the divine author. But I’m not convinced that Vanhoozer can avoid the criticisms usually levelled at Reformed teachings on divine sovereignty and human freedom.

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