(Above is a thumb-nail of the Big Orange, Kevin Vanhoozer's The Drama of Doctrine, which both precedes and animates Remythologizing Theology, the book in focus in these posts. Confused? Read on.)
There are undoubtedly some excellent features in Vanhoozer’s theological proposals. To begin with, take the central motif - the God who acts and speaks. Christians confess that God has acted and still speaks in Scripture, telling the reader the abiding significance of his actions. And then there are a number of theological emphases that this carries with it – such as the importance of Scripture itself, the upholding of divine freedom, and the asymmetry of the Creator/creature distinction, and of his intention to uphold a strong account of divine grace.
The question is, even with all these emphases in play, can one construct satisfactory Christian theology by means of remythologized theology? This boils down to two sorts of questions, it seems to me. The first is whether the Bible, as it stands, is a theological document, and in what sense. Is God’s word theological? Is the word of God in a position to remind the theologian of some theological strand or element that he is overlooking, or to caution him over his excesses? Or is it simply raw data, to be manipulated and ‘modelled’ at will? This is the issue between the first-order, the data of theology, and the second -order, the theology itself. If theology is alreadythere, in Scripture, then the difference is between theology and the reading of Scripture is not one of kind, only one of degree. And the second is whether, granted that Scripture is in some sense a theological book, is the Vanhoozerian theme of the God who speaks and who acts sufficiently rich and clear to enable the development of a satisfactory Christian theology from it?
I shall briefly try to test these questions by looking at what Vanhoozer says about divine calling, the effective, empowering, gracious call of God to sinners. This is another point at which the author clearly wishes to strike a Reformed, Augustinian emphasis. in the call God speaks, and speaks efficaciously, he utters the call that brings a response. There is a wide variety of biblical data which together give us a doctrine of effectual calling. And then there is a rich history of discussion of the concept, particularly in Reformed theology. Here is some of what Vanhoozer says.
Vanhoozer’s overall project is to replace theologies of causal agency characteristic, he believes, of classical theism, with a theology of divine convincing presence, a matter of God’s and human kind’s aymmetrical interpersonal interaction (367-8). He wishes to replace generalities about mechanical causation with specifics about divine personal action is Karl Barth’s ‘stroke of genius’, and Vanhoozer willingly takes his cue from it. (370) In this he follows the ‘personalist’ turn in modern theology which he outlines in Part I of his book.
Initially, it may seem surprising that the author treats effectual calling as an aspect of divine providence. Yet the calling of men and women occurs in the providential order, God’s government of his world. More especially, calling involves people, as providence more generally involves God’s interacting with those made in his image. At all events, God’s call of people by grace serves Vanhoozer’s expository and exploratory purposes well – a clear case of God speaking and acting, and of men and women entering into dialogue with him. In this instance, of God acting as he opened Lydia’s heart (Acts 16.14), the case that the author focusses his attention on.
The author is unconvinced by Calvin’s (and, more generally, by the Reformed tradition’s) view that in effectual calling it is the Spirit that ‘causes the preached Word to dwell in their hearts’. (Inst. III.24.2) This is because for something to be a personal communication, on the modern personalist view of things, it has to be expressed in person - to – person relation. That is, it has to involve both divine and human persons exclusively at the level of conscious intention-forming and willing, and only at that level. So the divine calling is heard by those called, and they learn, and respond, or (alas) they fail to respond. ‘Is the grace that changes human hearts thus a matter of energy or information? It is both’. (373) The effectual call is a divine speech-act that has both illocutionary and perlocutionary force. It is effectual because of the self-communicative power of the triune God. ‘The effectual call is a sovereign summons to participate in the light and life of the triune God.’ (373) So the effectual call represents a distinct communicative causality, ‘one that moreover lies at the core of the theodramatic action, where infinite and finite freedom meet.’(373) It is causal, then, but not mechanically causal. (It is a pity that the author does not help his reader more at this point by spelling out the difference in clear terms) The Spirit has perlocutionary power, that is, the power to bring it about that the story of Jesus is received with its intended significance. Or does it? It is a 'sovereign summons'. The sign ‘Beware of the Dog’ is a warning, summoning us to take avoiding action. But it only has perlocutionary force for me if, understanding it as a warning, I take it seriously, and I am thereby warned, and actually do take avoiding action. So the theological alternatives (as far as providence is concerned, and more generally) are: a response that is free and willing, as against one that is brought about mechanically, coercively. Naturally, faced with such a choice, Vanhoozer opts for freedom and willingness.
Who can deny that a free and willing response must be part of the effectual call? Here I do not wish to go where Vanhoozer himself does not venture. If it is free and willing, why doe the story of Jesus have perlocutionary force for some and not for others? I can well imagine that he may be irritated by these dichotomies, urging us to mature beyond their binary character.
That apart, what he has given us may be part of an account of the effectual call, but can it be the whole of it? Do we not have to know (from a place other than the narrative) the state that Lydia was in? If she is dead in trespass and in sins, facing the wrong way, in rebellion and repudiation of God, then before she can enter into dialogue with God through his word, she has to want to do this. On the Vanhoozerian interpretation, Luke’s account is back to front. According to remythologized theology Luke should have said, ‘who attended to things spoken of by Paul, and the Lord opened her heart’. But Luke in fact says ‘whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended to the things….’ Being opened, (in our terms, being made willing, wanting to hear), her heart then attended to the apostolic message about Jesus the Saviour. As regards regeneration and conversion, Reformed theology has insisted on two things. First, that there is a moment of passivity in regeneration, when new life is given, light to those in darkness, life for the dead. Hence 'regeneration'. Second, that such a granting of life is wholly along the grain of the personality of the one who is give that life. Is this monergic causation? Yes. Is it mechanical? Certainly not. Is it mysterious? Yes it is. This suggests that the grid of Vanhoozer’s theodramatic, speech-active, remythologized theology does not have the right shape.
The trouble is, the grid is not appropriately shaped to receive the variety of biblical data. Sir Arthur Eddington famously quipped ’What my net cannot catch isn’t fish’, and that’s what is seriously adrift with Vanhoozer’s new proposal. His net misses important fish. Consider first some of the language of Scripture relating to the effectual call:
A new heart will I give them, and I will write my law into their hearts.
The God who said let there be light has shined in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ
We are spiritually dead in trespasses and sins
The seed of new life needs to be implanted
We need the new birth through the mysterious and sovereign work of the Spirit.
It is essential to the Augustinian and Reformed view of divine grace that in regeneration the soul is passive. The passivity of death leads, through grace, to the activity of new life. So there has to be a way of thinking about this in which the choices presented by the grid are more than ‘either communicative or manipulative’. However described, there is a passive moment, one in which the soul, being helpless to produce its own life, is acted upon.
The data of Scripture regarding the effectual call include that the Lord will give a new heart to people who are dead in trespasses and in sins, shining in hearts to give them the light of the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Surely these are not mere metaphors, Biblical raw data manipulable by the theological modeller, but they are already theologically loaded, carrying unavoidable theological implications.
Besides, presenting us with the dichotomies: either personal and so not manipulable. And: coercive and so not personal, looks like a failure in imagination. The slapping of a newborn baby, ensuring a first sharp intake of breath: is that personal or mechanical? Dragging a body from the freezing lake and giving it the kiss of life. What sort of a relation is that? And think of some cases of conversion. Was Saul’s conversion ‘free and voluntary’? And then think of some of the complications and nuances over that word ‘free’ and its relation ‘voluntary’.
Such data are missed because Vanhoozer’s net is of a shape and size only to pick up instances of interpersonal dialogue, and so monergistic data slip through and cannot be regarded as relevant for formulating a biblical doctrine of the effectual call. To refer to an intellectual procedure that I think that Vanhoozer does not much like when used as a theological tool, but which is inevitable, his new proposal gives us a bad induction of the biblical data. And this is because the beliefs that he brings to the data are so obviously theory-laden.
Part of the aim of achieving a degree of systematic theological understanding of conversion, say, is to achieve the integration of the various elements of the Scriptural presentation, both the personal and the impersonal, the conscious and the unconscious, the merely logically separable and the temporally separable. These accounts will include, of course, reports of conversion in Scripture, such as those of Lydia and of Saul, part of its narrative. But then we also need to take account of data of other areas of revelation about the effect of sin in the darkening and corrupting of the human mind and will, and with the work of the Holy Spirit in applying the fruits of Christ’s redemption, and so on.
A Final Question
All this biblical evidence points to the divine effectual call of a sinner being something deeply mysterious. It most certainly cannot be ‘demystified’ (Vanhoozer’s word) by thinking of the entire business along the lines of a well-led academic seminar in which some of the participants eventually come to adopt the Professor’s point of view. Some who have thought about the new birth have seen it not as a divinely-conducted conversation but as a radical turnaround for those who are not on speaking terms.
Is Christian theology intended to de-mystify? To an extent, yes, to the extent that it shows that what may be prima facie contradictory in the biblical data is not so, and instead is consistent, and to conceptualise it in a way that is both consistent and faithful to Scripture. But the success or otherwise of that theological endeavour is determined by the character of the data, not by the urge to de-mystify.