Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Remythologizing Theology by Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Review Part 2)

Panentheism, or God (not) Transcendent

Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion and Authorship
by Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Cambridge University Press, 2010, 539pp
(Review series Part 2)

Vanhoozer does not reject classical theism out of hand. He wishes to retool the tradition to make it more attentive to the biblical theodrama. But there are some contemporary understandings of God that he finds altogether more problematic. He gives a thoughtful critique of open theism, or “open panentheism” as he calls it. Panentheism attempts to offer a more personal account of God’s relationship to the world, but it robs God of his sovereign lordship and fails to do justice to the Creator/creature distinction. Also, in the thinking of panentheists such as Jurgren Moltmann, the imminent Trinity (God as he is in himself) is collapsed into the economic Trinity (God as he is for us).

In classic orthodox theology, perichoresis denotes the mutual indwelling of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the godhead. Moltmann makes perichoresis a model of how God relates to the world in a state of mutual action and interaction. The self-emptying of Christ at the incarnation, where the divine Son took a human nature becomes a model of God’s kenotic relationship with the world. Accordingly, creation entailed an act of divine self-emptying in which God limited his infinite knowledge and power in order to make space for the autonomy of the creature. God’s very being is determined by his relationship to the world. His love for the world made him vulnerable to suffering when human beings rejected a lovingly reciprocal relationship with their Maker.

As Vanhoozer points out, panentheism surrenders the transcendence of God and places illegitimate limits on his sovereign freedom. Neither perichoresis or kenosis may be used as models of how God relates to the world in general terms. The former is unique to the imminent Trinity and the latter is unique to the incarnation of Christ. God is the transcendent Lord, totally sovereign in all his works and ways. God's love for the world cannot be depicted in reciprocal, perichoretic language. Such a construction forgets that God is independent of his creatures and that he loves this fallen world in self-giving freedom. His is a love that effects salvation and consummates communion, rather than a love that helplessly suffers rejection and disappointment. In so far as human beings share in the perichoretic fellowship of the Trinity, they do so, not simply as creatures, but as saved sinners, (John 14:10, 20-21). The biblical idea of kenosis (Philippians 2:5-8) is a singularity that belongs solely to the incarnation of the Son, who took a human nature to save the world from sin and death. Kenosis cannot be broadened out and used as a key to understanding God’s relationship to his creation as an act of divine self-emptying.

Ironically, in reducing God to his relationship to the world in the name of a more personalist account of Creator/creature engagement, panentheism has succeeded in compromising the divine personhood. Persons cannot be reduced to their relationships with others. Relationships do not constitute persons, rather persons have relationships. God's personhood is not constituted by his relationship to the creation. His triune personhood existed and found its full expression in the perichoretic communion between Father, Son and Holy Spirit before ever the world was made.

The panentheism found in writers such as Moltmann is haunted by Feurbach’s ghost. Panentheists have re-imagined God in terms better suited to the spirit of the age, with its profound dislike of authority and control. They have succeeded in making a god in their own image, stressing interdependence over transcendence and the autonomy of the creature over the sovereignty of God.

Vanhoozer has exposed some of the fundamental flaws in open theism and panentheism. At a time when such views of God are attracting support amongst Evangelicals (like Clark Pinnock and Steve Chalke), we should pay careful attention to his quietly devastating critique of kenotic-perichoretic relational theology.

The subject of Vanhoozer's remythologized theology is not the product of human projection, but divine self-revelation. He is the Lord God Almighty, one true and living God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The triune God whose being is in his communicating is the focus of the next section of this remarkable work.


Jon said...

Someone like Moltmann would say that it's only because of divine transcendence that God can be immanent...

He'd also have a problem with the 'buffer zone' (Robert Jenson's term though) in simply offsetting kenosis within the humanity of JC...

I'd like to read Vanhoozer here - sounds like an interesting read.

Exiled Preacher said...

Yes, Vanhoozer also criticizes Jenson's "fateful move of collapsing the immiment to the economic Trinity" (p. 109).

Anonymous said...

Moltmann would reply by quoting Rahner's rule, "The economic Trinity Is the immanent Trinity." In other words, God as God presents himself to us is the real God. We don't get a mask. God in God's inner relations is not a different God than is shown to us in the cross, the empty tomb, and the sending of the Spirit.

If Jesus Christ is the true revelation of God then the idea of an immanent Trinity that is somehow different from the economic Trinity is false--and leads to descriptions of God's character that are in conflict with Father revealed by the faithful Son Jesus Christ.

I also think Vanhoozer is wrong about the threat to God's sovereign freedom for, as Barth showed, God's freedom is always freedom FOR His creation, especially FOR the humans He redeemed on Golgotha. Vanhoozer's problem is that he begins (as much theology from Augustine onward does) with a model of sovereignty that is taken from the actions of an empire, king or other worldly ruler--dictatorial, capricious, "power over." Moltmann (and the open theists) may not have everything right, but they rightly see the dangers of such a model. When they turn from it to look afresh at Scripture they see a model of sovereignty that is exercised through "power with," that is like the sovereign care of a loving parent for a child--but not a patriarchal paterfamilias, but a nurturing parent.

While Moltmann is hardly beyond critique and continued reflection is good for the health of the church, I think the problems that Moltmann (and the open theists in different ways) are responding to are problems caused by the classic Augustinian position and never faced thoroughly.

Exiled Preacher said...

Vanhoozer engages in some critical discussion of Rahner's rule. Why not read what he has to say for yourself?

Willie Bell said...

I can't wait till I can get my hands on this book. It sound very good. But I have to admit by just reading this review, his critique of Moltmann and others doesn't sound very compelling. But I must not judge before I actually read! Thanks for these reviews!

Exiled Preacher said...

In this part of the review I'm trying to summarise and appraise Vanhoozer's arguments on open theism that are developed over the space almost 180 pages. I'm sure you'll find the real thing more satisfying than my aperitif.