Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Vanhoozer II - Anything of Substance?

In this post we focus on what Kevin Vanhoozer has to say on the metaphysics of God. As we have seen, Remythologizing Theology is a metaphysical enterprise, having to do with the nature of the Director of the theodrama which is the Christian Gospel. The author is sympathetic with, but also critical of, modern Trinitarian panentheism. He offers various pertinent criticisms of it, for example that it does not do justice to the Creator-creature relationship, or to divine freedom. He also criticises the idea that in creation God withdraws by a kind of kenosis in order to make space for human freedom and for the establishing of divine-human relations that are themselves perichoretic, and so, symmetrical. Further, he considers the idea that God is nothing but relationships, relationships all the way down, as he expresses it. He rightly makes the point that for there to be relationships there must be relata, subjects in relation.

Nonetheless one significant thing that he takes from modern trinitarianism is the idea that divine relationships are personal and not causal, and that they are (as far as human beings are concerned) dialogical, that is, what I shall call two-way personal. In a later post we shall come to see the significance of that. But more importantly for us at this point, Vanhoozer first has to give an account of God, distinct from his creation, an account of the metaphysics of ‘divine communicative agency’. If this is not a variant of the modern panentheism that he critiques, then what exactly is it? God is more than a set of events or relationships, but what more? Who is God?

God is tripersonal with a shared divine essence. But what kind of a person, given that God does what Scripture says that he does? Particularly, given what God does in dialogue. One phrase Vanhoozer chooses to express his answer to the questions, who is God, and what is he like? is: ‘God is no other than he has revealed himself to be’. This is a variant of Barth’s ‘God’s being is in his act’ (220): alternatively, ‘God’s being is in his free, wise and loving communicative agency’.

From the fact that God dialogues with human beings we may infer at the very least that he has the capacity to communicate. From the Incarnation of the Word we may further conclude that God has the capacity to communicate himself. God’s presence is thus in the first instance personal, agential, and communicative rather than merely spatial, substantive or metaphysical. (205-6)

As Vanhoozer says, on this proposal any divine metaphysics or ontology must be ‘after the fact’.(217) That is, we can only discover God's character from what he says and does.

‘God in act’, ‘God’s being is in his free wise and loving communicative agency’. ‘God is no other than he has revealed himself to be’. At this point the sea fret begins to come ashore. We need carefully to reflect on these forms of expression. These words could be taken various ways. For example, they could mean that in what he communicates, God is genuine. He is not faking anything. There is no fa├žade. His communications have the backing of God himself, and in that sense are expressive of himself; they are not insincere, or hypocritical. This would be a moral thesis, about God’s character.He is as good as his word. Or they could mean that we know of God only via what he communicates, by its character and scale. This would be an epistemological thesis. The author occasionally flirts with this idea, saying that we know of God’s identity by what we identify regarding what he has done. Or they could mean that though God is distinct from his creation he exhaustively reveals himself in it. That is, when we establish what God had done, there is nothing over, nothing that God might have done but hasn't, for instance. But none of these suggestions would take us far enough to establish a metaphysical thesis about the being of God, which is what Vanhoozer is after. For these expressions to get us on the metaphysical path the 'is' in each case has to be the 'is' of identity. 'God is [nothing other than, he is identical with] his free, wise and loving communicative agency’. But then, so it seems, panentheism beckons, despite Vanhoozer's intention to wriggle free.

At this stage, we need to remember that it is not possible to make genuine metaphysical proposals simply by introducing novel phrases or neologisms. Such proposals require clarity, and they lay upon the proposer not only the obligation to be clear on what his proposal means, but also over what it does not mean. In rejecting classical theism because it is, in Vanhoozer’s judgement, impersonal, mechanical, and monologic, and in rejecting panentheism because (for example) it collapses what God does and what God is, what metaphysical option is this phrase ‘God is in his…..’ intending to identify? Something between classical theism and panentheism, presumably. But what?

One possibility is as follows. God is essentially Trinitarian, in a perichoretic relationship in which love is necessarily communicated among the persons. So God is essentially communicative. So he could not fail to communicate himself ad extra. That would be a metaphysical thesis of some interest. However, Thomas, though a ‘classical theist’ says something like this. He says that God must create (and so 'communicate') even though the character of what he creates is at his discretion. The Angelic Doctor puts it like this-

God, in willing his own goodness, wills things other than himself to be in so far as they participate in his goodness. But, since the divine goodness is infinite, it can be participated in infinite ways, and in ways other than it is participated in by the creatures that now exist. If, then, as a result of willing his own goodness, God necessarily willed the things that participate in it, it would follow that he would will the existence of an infinity of creatures participating in his goodness in an infinity of ways. This is patently false, because, if he willed them, they would be, since his will is the principle of being for things, as will be shown later on. Therefore, God does not necessarily will even the things that now exist. (Summa Contra Gentiles I.81.4)

Vanhoozer attempts to move a critical step further than this, however, by in effect arguing that since God‘s communicating is verbal, it is that of a speech agent, and his being is in his communicative agency, then whatever he creates must be a dialogue partner. As he puts it ‘the economic Trinity is a dramatic analogy (a being-in-temporal-act) of the light, life, and love that God is in himself (a being-in-eternal-act)’. (218, the author’s italics.)

Notice that at a critical point in the exposition unusual, newly-coined expressions are once again taking the place of clarity of expression and the presentation of argument. What is ‘a-being-in-eternal-act’, ‘a-being-in-temporal-act’? Goodness-knows-what-the-hyphens-are-meant-to-mean! As a rule, a fit of the hyphenics is a sure sign that something is adrift.

Besides the presence of this semantic mist of unknowing, there’s both a logical objection to such a proposal, and a theological objection, if (that is) these expressions are intended to be statements about what God is. The logical objection is: how can we conclude (contrary to what Thomas holds, for example) from what God in fact does, that his nature is such that he must do that? And the theological objection is: does the characterisation of God’s agency proposed by Vanhoozer, that his communicative agency must take the form of speech etc., not place unduly restrictive constraints upon God? Who are we to say what God could and could not have done? - Does Scripture warrant this restriction? Why cannot God communicate to us in ways other than speech? Although Vanhoozer's procedure is ‘after the fact’, is it not also somewhat prescriptive? (It is also seen to be extravagant, in that (Vanhoozer thinks) it requires the inanimate creation to be capable of being addressed by God and obeying him. And silence is also a form of speech. But we won’t go into that here.)

It seems that Vanhoozer reveals that he is beset by the same itch that afflicts the modern Trinitarians, to go beyond what either Scripture or logic warrant. Scripture tells us what God does and has done, but (by and large) it does not tell us what he could have done. It does not tell us that he must communicate though it does show us that he did in fact communicate. (In our next post we shall see that Scripture indicates that God communicates himself in other ways than in speech, ways that are not incidental to his purposes.) If God is ‘in’ what he says, and as a consequence he could not say other than he has said, then it is hard to resist the beckoning hand of panentheism. And far from such a concept of God being a recipe for free, interpersonal, non-causal, open-ended conversation between God and his intelligent creatures, it comes to look pretty deterministic, for God at least. He is fated to communicate, to unendingly chatter, to be a divine Mr Talkative.

So, does Vanhoozer's metaphysics of God have anything of substance? The somewhat unfortunate answer is, yes and no. Yes, because he clearly wishes to separate himself from the guild of modern panentheists, and to give due recognition to the Creator - creature distinction, for example. But the trouble is that in pursuing this goal, Vanhoozer has deprived himself of tools that would be useful, nay essential, in articulating the metaphysics of Christian theism. He badly needs to allow himself to use metaphysical modalities. What God must necessarily be and do, and what he may do. By restricting divine communication to what God has said and done via the one narrative that he has established - creation, redemption and consummation through Jesus Christ - he is carried inexorably by the rapids in the direction of panentheistic reductionism, despite his best efforts to swim upstream. He fails to note in this new book, what he failed to note in The Drama of Doctrine, that within the events of the one narrative, interspersed within it, and given more particularly in apostolic commentary on it, are dozens and dozens of general statements about who God is which do not entail God speaking. And dozens and dozens of statements about what God does which do not take the form of speech agency. So focussed is he on the one narrative and on the theodrama, and in the new book on the theology of the theodrama, that he fails to notice the significance of these data. We shall look at some of these in a later post.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is free – liberal, undeserved, and also (we must never forget) contingent. Not only does Vanhoozer need to recognise the necessities of God's nature, he also needs to see the contingencies of God's actions ad extra. It might not have been so; we might not have been so. God is free to act, but not free to act against his nature, and so on: such nuts and bolts of classical theism are left behind, and this indicates continuing unease with classical theism, and sympathy for modern panentheism.

In a later post we shall give attention to what I call ‘one liners’, statements in Scripture about what God is, necessarily is, and necessarily isn’t, without which Christian theology would be impoverished. And vital instances of God's non verbal communications. To pass over these data is, I believe, not the way to achieve an advance in our understanding of Christian theism, but to slip backwards. Aa a beginning, in the next post we shall consider what Vanhoozer's metaphysical net of divine speech agency fails to catch.