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, 15 May 2012

Remythologizing Theology [13]

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 8

Recognising that Scripture portrays God responding to and interacting with creatures, Vanhoozer is curious: ‘Does God suffer change as a result of his dialogical interaction with the world?’ (p. 388, emphasis original). Thus the central conversation here seeks to unpack the meaning of divine suffering or divine (im)passibility. Can God be said to suffer or change in any meaningful way?

Vanhoozer doesn’t offer a clear definition of divine impassibility at this point in this chapter, but seems pleased to accept standard accounts of such as denoting God’s inability to be affected by anything ‘outside’ God; that is, God cannot and does not experience a change in God’s nature, will, knowledge or emotions, because God is constant. And so, once more, the question must be asked: Does the world affect God in any way? Is God impassible or passible? Can God be moved to respond to God’s creatures?

To lay a foundation for his response to these questions, Vanhoozer explores the possibility that God has emotions – a possibility apparently sanctioned by Scripture, which describes God as loving, being angry, being jealous, and so on. Vanhoozer is drawn to Robert C. Roberts’s account of emotions as concern-based construals. This means that:

  1. emotions are intentional states – they have objects;
  2. emotions are more than beliefs about something – emotions are connected to particular perceptions or construals about something, and are so specifically about an object within a narrative framework; and
  3. emotions are construals infused with value – a given emotion is tied to the person personally involved and invested in a given situation.

‘An emotion,’ writes Vanhoozer, ‘is therefore a concern-based construal that perceives an object as having a certain import.’ (p. 411). And, significantly, this means that a person need not be a slave to his or her emotions; emotions can also be motivations to act in certain ways.

Lest all this sound too abstract, consider how this account of emotions makes some sense of God’s self-revelation that God is a jealous God (Exodus 20:5). Vanhoozer argues that Roberts’s theories can be extended so that divine emotions may be reconceived as ‘covenantal concern-based theodramatic construals’ (p. 414, emphasis original). Almost all of God’s emotions arise within the covenantal framework depicted within the biblical narrative (Vanhoozer doesn’t say what emotions don’t arise within this framework, unless he’s thinking of the divine repentance of Genesis 6, which precedes the Mosaic covenant), and so any understanding of divine jealousy needs to take this covenantal framework into account. Thus Vanhoozer argues:

The way forward is to see God’s jealousy as a concern-imbued cognition of something with theodramatic import: specifically, divine jealousy is God’s concern that Israel not turn the drama of redemption into a tragedy by attaching herself to an unworthy rival. (p. 415, emphasis original).

So the biblical ascription of jealousy to God is not inappropriate; the term does depict reality; but God’s jealousy isn’t a feeling as such but rather is God’s concern-based construal of Israel’s possible idolatry.

This leads Vanhoozer to speculate about the extent to which Jesus’s emotions, passions and sufferings impact God. Much of Vanhoozer’s discussion here assumes the validity of the concept of the communicatio idiomatum, the communication of properties or attributes. And so, concerning Jesus’s suffering on the cross, Vanhoozer can say:

Who then suffers on the cross? The second person of the Trinity (“God wept”). In what manner does he experience this suffering? As man (“Jesus wept” [Jn. 11:35]). (p. 424).

And can God know human suffering in and through the Son? Vanhoozer suggests:

From the [incarnate] Son’s high priesthood – his having been ‘made like his brothers in every respect’ (Heb. 2:17) – we may infer that God the Son has personal acquaintance with every human bodily and spiritual anguish and can therefore extrapolate from this own experience to that of others. (p. 424).

So how should we understand the impact of Jesus’s sufferings on God’s being? Vanhoozer concludes:

  1. The Son became human to rid us of our sufferings, not merely to identify with them.
  2. The cross was part of God’s plan for the world – it was not ‘a belated “response”’ (p. 429) to sin’s entrance into the world.
  3. The Son was obedient unto death – this is crucial, for Jesus willingly enters into suffering and death. He is not a victim.
  4. In all his sufferings, Jesus remains sovereign and shows us what God is like.

Vanhoozer also argues that the teaching of Jesus’s sinlessness helps us to understand God’s impassibility at this point. He suggests that Jesus’s sinlessness was a matter of inevitability, given Jesus’s identity:

The temptation [of Jesus] was no sham, for it is precisely because Jesus resisted temptation that he could ‘feel’ its full force. He was impeccable yet subject to real temptation the way an invincible army is subject to real attack. This is precisely the point of the parallel between impeccability and impassibility: as Jesus feels the force of temptation though without sinning, so God feels the force of human suffering without himself suffering change in his being, will, or knowledge. (p. 432, emphasis original).

And now, at the chapter’s end, Vanhoozer offers a clear definition of divine impassibility:

Divine impassibility means not that God is unfeeling … but that God is never overcome or overwhelmed by these feelings such that he ‘forgets’ his covenant, or who he is as covenant Lord. (pp. 432–433).

Thus God’s impassibility is effectively the trustworthiness of God.

What are we to make of all this? First of all, I should confess that I found this eighth chapter both a little disjointed and intellectually exhilarating! The chapter is disjointed in so far as I didn’t see how certain sections flowed into others; some of the links (or what I presume are links) between sections appear quite loose to me, such as when Vanhoozer suddenly introduces impeccability into the conversation. (This isn’t to say that I found it unhelpful to introduce impeccability, just that its introduction into the argument could have been smoother.) Also, at times I lost track of Vanhoozer’s focus: Was it God’s being? God’s emotions? Or, on account of divine simplicity, are these to be equated? Despite all this, the chapter remains intellectually exhilarating because – well, to be honest, I usually find discussions of Christology intellectually exhilarating! This isn’t to say that I agree with Vanhoozer on all points: I do not believe, for example, that we can speak of the inevitability of Jesus’s sinlessness, as, against Vanhoozer, I do think that this would diminish the status of Jesus’s temptations as genuine temptations, and reduce the reliance on the Holy Spirit of the incarnate Son (there’s very little, if anything, said about the Spirit in this chapter). Moreover, the parallel between Jesus’s impeccability and God’s impassibility seems forced, precisely because in this context, the former is most definitely a Christological category and the latter is, it seems to me, a doctrine about the being of God. Or, to express it differently, impeccability concerns what it means to be human; impassibility concerns what it means to be divine.

There are many good points in this chapter, too. While it took me a while to appreciate it, I find useful Vanhoozer’s appropriation of Robert Roberts’s insights. As far as Scripture is concerned, whatever is meant by God’s emotions – anger, jealousy, and so on – needs to be understood within God’s covenantal framework. Speaking of these emotions as abstractly applied to God will not help us develop a ‘better’ or more truthful doctrine of God. Also helpful is Vanhoozer’s insistence that Jesus is not simply a victim in the scheme of redemption, that Jesus goes willingly to the cross; it highlights Jesus’s faithfulness, and so the depths of faithfulness to which any human may respond to God’s call.

Two more chapters to go…

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