I am grateful to Cambridge University Press for the review copy.
It appears that Vanhoozer’s finally winding up the various loose threads that have dangled throughout Remythologizing Theology. So here, he looks at the issue of divine compassion, arguing along the way that a remythologized theology reconceives divine impassibility in terms of divine patience and enduring love.
Vanhoozer notes that many today assume that God’s love has to be kenotic or self-emptying to be genuine love. God has to make Godself vulnerable to creatures for the sake of genuine relation. However, for Vanhoozer, this suggests that suffering must be a necessary part of creation, as God cannot show compassion unless it is somehow intrinsic to the relation between God and creatures. Moreover, on this view, compassion kenotically understood means that God’s compassion is no more than divine commiseration.
Conversely, Scripture depicts God as the covenant Lord of Israel, and Israel as the covenant servant. Within this framework, and because God is Lord, God’s compassion is active and kyriotic (another Vanhoozer neologism?); it is a commanding compassion that doesn’t simply share in the sufferer’s situation but acts to transform it as God communicates the divine life to others. Thus God’s covenant love is impassible, because nothing can change or affect it.
But why does God apparently delay in dealing with suffering? Why is God often silent? It’s certainly not because God is helpless or sloth, says Vanhoozer. Rather, it’s because God is patient and does things in God’s own time. God’s patience is an expression of God’s constancy, as God waits for the human heart to turn to God. In effect, God’s patience and silence opens space for creatures’ own communicative actions; it’s a manifestation of grace, granting people time to enter into the life of God. And by doing this, people share in the sufferings of Christ and thus learn to emulate God by patiently enduring sufferings themselves.
I don’t really have any significant comment to make about Vanhoozer’s take on divine impassibility and compassion here, other than to say that I find some of the theology on display a little too neat: Is an affirmation of divine patience really an answer to why people suffer, a genuine consolation to those who do? But Vanhoozer’s comment that we share in Christ’s sufferings and so imitate God by patiently enduring suffering is something to ponder.