Sunday, August 01, 2010

Vanhoozer IV - The Personal and the Mechanical

If the positions taken up by the modern theologians that Kevin Vanhoozer cites and discusses in Remythologizing Theology are where the bar is set, then he has certainly succeeded in clearing it. But he is still enmeshed in that culture, particularly in the idea that the language of remythologized Christian theology must be personal in a sense that is (if not the expression of a symmetrical relationship) then certainly conversational, dialogical. (see Ch.6 esp.) He gives prominence to Abraham’s prayer for Sodom, and the Lord speaking with Moses face to face. Vanhoozer shows a praiseworthy concern to safeguard God’s sovereignty (491) and recognises and emphasises that the Creator-creature relationship is asymmetrical. All this is to be welcomed. But it remains unclear (as we saw from the discussion of effectual calling in the last post) what asymmetry comes to, how God retains hi authorial agency while nevertheless in dialogue. Whatever the phenomenology of conversion, it is essential to the Augustinian and Reformed view of divine grace that in regeneration the soul is passive. So there has to be a way of thinking about this in which the choices are more than ‘either communicative or manipulative’. (494) However described, there is a passive moment, one in which the soul, being helpless to produce its own life, is acted upon. You must be born again.

Personal Communication

No sane Christian theologian doubts that the language of the faith, the language of the Bible, is that of the personal creator and redeemer, who has revealed himself in Christ. God speaks, as Vanhoozer emphasises. But he is not simply a talker. He also acts in ways other than speaking. And the speaking tells us the significance of the non-verbal action. Whoever thought that the primary cause of all that happens was impersonal? After all, it is God himself who is the primary cause of all that comes about in his creation. As we saw, a sign that Vanhoozer has not shaken himself free of the hyper-personal character of modern theology is that, along with the current theological culture that he cites, he presents us with the same false dilemma: either personal relationship or impersonal, mechanical causality. He thinks that personal language must supplant the language of impersonal and mechanical causality. But the alternative that is presented, the idea that God deals with persons in an impersonal or mechanical manner, is a figment. There is no dilemma to be faced, for there is a third alternative, and the resulting trilemma can be handled. But this is not a piece of abstract reasoning. For we noted in an earlier post that (to put the point gently) it is also unclear that by stressing the personal character of divine action (as he understands this) Vanhoozer can really aid our understanding of effectual calling, without also invoking causal notions of a distinctly asymmetrical kind.

We have looked at Vanhoozer’s treatment of effectual calling and noted its inadequacies as a statement of the Reformed doctrine. While he claims that remythologizing ‘scrutinizes language about causality in order to bring out a communicative sense to which the church has not sufficiently attended’ (28), the reverse is the case. So long as he restricts God’s relation to the world to primarily that of communicative agency of a conversational kind he cannot do justice to the passivity of the soul in regeneration. It is impossible to do so. The church has noted this, but Vanhoozer is in danger of forgetting it. This failure arises because his account ignores non-conversational elements of divine communication given to us in the Biblical revelation.


In the previous post we noted the language of Thomas Aquinas. But no significant theologian employs the idea of divine communication and the word ‘communicate’ more than does Jonathan Edwards. It is everywhere in his writings. As for example, here, taken from his Observations on the Trinity:

God’s determining to glorify and communicate Himself must be conceived of as flowing from God’s nature; or we must look upon God from the infinite fullness and goodness of His nature as naturally disposed to cause the beams of His glory to shine forth.

Does this suggest impersonality, mere mechanism? Clearly not. The Edwardsean idea of communication is much broader than Vanhoozer’s, including creating, sustaining and redeeming of the world, and God’s revealing of himself in diverse ways. Nevertheless, this variety of communication is personal through and through.

Besides thinking of important theologians, we can think of basic theological matters. The creation itself, for example. Does Vanhoozer think that unformed and eternal matter is eternally present, ready to cooperate with the Creator? Clearly not. In creation, was there any cooperation from the human race? ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding’. (Job 38.4) However, there was, Vanhoozer thinks, a struggle, so that creation is a drama too, though this seems dubious, a Greek idea playing a cameo part in the divine drama. (36-7) Think of other events, such as God’s covenant with Abram. Was this bilateral, a done deal between partners? Did Abram negotiate its terms? Certainly, by faith, he cooperated. He acquiesced and obeyed. By faith he obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.

Or let us think of the pivotal act of the Christian drama, the Incarnation. Any reader of the biblical narrative is struck by the sensitive and gracious way in which Mary is addressed by the Angel Gabriel, who speaks to her as the highly favoured one, words which caused her perplexity at what the greeting might imply. This perplexity and fear were no doubt both calmed and then further aroused by Gabriel’s words of reassurance. But in regard to the momentous event that was to take place, the conception of the Mediator in her womb, Gabriel did not seek her cooperation. Mary was not pregnant because she consented to be. Note the unconditional language: ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, therefore the child to be born will be called ‘holy’ – the Son of God’. (Lk 1. 30f.) Was she caused to be pregnant? Obviously so. Was this mechanical, impersonal causation? Obviously not. Was it rape? The question answers itself.

Was her consent sought? Not in any obvious way. Nevertheless Mary was the divine choice, the one who was highly favoured. As a result, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. (Matt.1.18) Her soul magnified the Lord and she rejoiced in God her Saviour, noting his might, and his holiness, and mercy, and strength, his scattering of the proud, his bringing down of the mighty, his exalting of the humble, his filling of the hungry, his sending away of the rich and his helping Israel, keeping faith with his covenant with Abraham. It makes little sense to suppose that Mary’s words ‘let it be to me according to your word’ expressed her free acceptance of the angel’s word (as Vanhoozer suggests (335)). Rather it was her submission to the unconditional purpose of the Lord that had just then been announced to her by the angel.

Even if we restrict our attention to the divine spoken word, there is more to it than ‘diverse forms of discourse that not only report the action but also carry it forward’. (29) Vanhoozer here refers to the Lord’s spoken commentary on his mighty acts, communicating their significance to us, and his speech acts, where his speaking is his acting in some particular way. Just as Vanhoozer’s theological net misses important cases of communication that are not verbal, so it also misses cases of divine verbal communication which tell us not so much what God does in the theodrama, as what God is and is like. I refer to these as ‘one-liners’. The Vanhoozer net misses the one liners. I shall try to show the significance of this in the final post.