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.