Saturday, August 28, 2010

Vanhoozer V - Don't Forget the Oneliners

Besides other things, we’ve been asking if the Bible itself is a theological book, or simply raw data to which we come with our theory-laden agendas. Both in The Drama of Doctrine, and now in Remythologizing Theology, Vanhoozer strongly conveys the impression that is characteristic of the modern theological mood, that in regard to the theologian’s relation to Scripture, the theologian always has the initiative. In The Drama of Doctrine, there are various proposals, the Hodge-Henry hypothesis, of Christian doctrine as exclusively cognitive, the George Lindbeck alternative of doctrine as the establishing of the identity of the Christian community, and Vanhoozer’s own proposal, somewhere in between, of doctrine as dramatic direction. In the new book there is modern panentheism, in which what God does is indistinct from what he is, there is the perichoretic, symmetrical Trinitarian model of divine human relations, and there is Vanhoozer’s own proposal, somewhere in between, of God as communicative agent.

But we have seen that it is impossible for the modern theologian to retain the initiative in a fully consistent fashion. For example, according to Vanhoozer what we need is an account of God as engaging in triune communicative agency. But how has that small word ‘triune’ slipped in? Triune, trinitarian? The trinity, is that a theory too? Or is the teaching of Scripture clearly and indelibly Trinitarian? Does the Bible teach the trinity, or not? The answer is obvious. The theologian cannot start from scratch not only because there is a history of theology that we inherit, but also because the Bible itself presents us with a theology.

At one place (footnote 488) Vanhoozer notes that he has not said much in his proposals about God as the creator and sustainer of the universe, citing 1 Cor.8.6. This may suggest that his remythologizing project is based on somewhat selective biblical data. But it is not so much the question of being selective. It is that by focussing on God’s communication by conversational speech he skews its importance. The biblical data which I have called ‘one-liners’ is not more of the same, but quite different in how it informs of who God is and what he is like. The omission from his list of communicative acts – poetry, song, parable, apocalyptic, story and argument - of statement, or assertion, is significant, as is his omission of the dominical and apostolic discourse which takes the form of doctrine+application.

In The Drama of Doctrine, though Vanhoozer inveighs against de-dramatized theology, he also acknowledges the presence in Scripture of what he calls creedal language. In my view, one reason why the later book is an advance on the earlier one is that more recognition is given to the creedal language of Scripture than earlier. But still not enough. His present proposal is meant to provide a theological framework in which doctrine as dramatical direction is understood, but it still goes nowhere near enough to acknowledging and giving importance to the fact that the Bible is full of what I have called‘one liners’. One liners are short statements about God, or even parenthetical clauses,that, although they first occur on some particular occasion, in some context, nevertheless transcend that occasion and context. They are statements which, even when they are de-dramatised, express permanent truths about God, truths which transcend both actions of the divine drama and conversations between God and man.

A sample of one-liners

Here is a sample of twenty-one of these one-liners about God himself, taken at random from the scores that are to be found in Scripture.

Deut 32.40 – ‘As I live forever….’

Rev. 1.8 - ‘I am the Alpha and Omega…who is and who was and who is to come the Almighty’.

I Tim 6.15 – ‘The blessed and only sovereign, the King of kings, and Lord of lords’.

Job 11. 7 – ‘Can you find out the limit of the Almighty?’

Is. 40.13 – ‘Who has measured the Spirit of the Lord, or what man shows him his counsel?’

Eph. 3.10 – ‘the manifold wisdom of God’

Job 28.24 – ‘He looks to the ends of the each and sees everything under the heavens’

Acts 15.17 – ‘The Lord makes these things known of old’

I Sam. 16.7 – ‘The Lord looks on the heart’

Ps. 94.10-11 – ‘He who teaches man knowledge – the Lord – knows the thoughts of man, that they are a breath’.

Rom. 3.30 - ‘God is one’

Heb 13.8 – ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever’

Ps. 16.2 – ‘You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you’.

Matt. 5.48 – ‘Your heavenly Father is perfect’

II Pet. 3.8 – ‘With the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day’

Rom. 16.27 – ‘the only wise God’

I Sam 2.2. – ‘there is none holy as the Lord’

I Thess. 1.9 - ‘the living and true God’

I John.5.20 – ‘that we may know him who is true, and we are in him who is true’

John 5.26 – ‘The Father has life in himself’

John 4. 24 – ‘God is spirit’

Only twenty-one, out of many hundreds, taken at random. These have to do mainly with the life, and power, and steadfastness, and energy and uniqueness of God. They are by no means generalisations drawn from the mighty acts of God, but many record what God is in himself. They tell us about the being or nature or essence of God. Of course, others could be added to our list, having to do with his Trinitarian nature. All these ‘one liners’ are creedal statements, or statements that have creedal implications, which though they first occur in part of what Vanhoozer calls the mythos, may be abstracted from that context and re-issued, time and again, in other contexts. For they are permanent, permanently true statements about God, as God himself is permanent. They help to provide us with the biblical doctrine of God, and so to provide the permanent theological context in which a Christian theologian must work, which he must emphasise, and which he must not infringe.

Not only that, the one-liners also provide the theological scaffolding of the mighty acts of God, reminding us, by their frequent and also incidental occurrence in Scripture, of the character of the so-called ‘director’ of the drama.

The Pastorals

Let us look at this in a different way. One of the most significant groups of writings in the New Testament are Paul’s pastoral epistles. One might think, on Vanhoozer’s schema, that coming towards the end of the NT canon they would provide guidance for all those ministers whose function it is, according to Vanhoozer, to portray the drama of redemption and to initiate new players into how to be participants in it. But not a bit of it.

For our purposes here, two features of these writings stand out. First, what is said about the job of ministers. The letters express Paul’s expectations for the rising generation of ministers of the Gospel. They are to be primarily and principally, teachers. (I Tim. 1.3-8,3.3, 3.9, 4.2, 4.10, 4.13, 4.16, 5.17, 6.3 . 2 Tim. 1.13, 2.2, 2.14, 2.23, 2.28, 3.10, 3.14, 4.2-3. Titus 1.9, 2.1, 2.7, 2.15, 3.8.)

Second, the letters also contain their own share of one liners:

I Timothy

‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1.15)

‘To the king of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever’ (1.17)

‘God our Saviour, who desires all people to be saved’ (2. 3-4)

‘For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus’ (2.5)

‘For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving’. (4.4)

‘…the living God, who is the Saviour of all people, especially of those who believe’ (4.10)

‘…God, who gives life to all things’ (6.13)

‘..the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in inapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see’ (6.16)

II Timothy

‘….the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace. (1.8-9)

‘But God’s firm foundation…(2.19}

‘All Scripture is breathed out by God….’(3.16)

‘…of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead…’ (4.1)

‘…the Lord stood by me and strengthened me…’(4.17)


‘….God, who never lies, promised before the ages began’ (1.2)

And in addition there is this beautiful epitome of the gospel so admired by John Newton:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, teaching us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and so purify for himself a people for his own possession, who are zealous of good works. (2.11-12)

While there is movement in this direction in some of the assertions of Remythologizing Theology, a movement in a creedal direction, I am still not convinced that Vanhoozer has got it.