Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion and Authorship
ISBN 9780521470124 (hardback), price £75, $130.99.
by Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Cambridge University Press, 2010, 539pp
(Review series Part 6)
In this post I offer some concluding thoughts on Kevin Vanhoozer's Remythologizing Theology.
Far a start, it is interesting to see Vanhoozer's proposals on theological method as set out in The Drama of Doctrine, (WJK, 2005), put to work in the present volume. This is a work of "first theology" i.e. the doctrine of God. By "remythologizing theology", the author seeks to configure the doctrine in terms of the communicative action of the triune God. His being is in his communicative act. It is as Author of the world rather than First Cause that God relates to his creation, especially his human image bearers. This seen above all in the mythos or dramatic plot of the drama of redemption, where we see the truine God acting to communicate salvation to lost human beings.
Vanhoozer wishes to distinguish his vision of God from classical "perfect being" theology that, at least according to him, is not sufficiently attuned to the biblical theodrama. More seriously, he also criticizes modern "kenotic-perichoretic" theology for failing to take seriously what the Bible says concerning the Creator/creature distinction in its attempt at giving a more personalist and reciprocal account of God's relationship to the world. The God of remythologized theology is the sovereign-transcendent Creator and Redeemer, the one God who has revealed himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Only this communicating God can save us.
Vanhoozer offers an Augustinian or Calvinistic depiction of salvation, with a strong accent on the sovereign and effective grace of God. But he rightly emphasises that God does not ride roughshod over the human personality when he saves us from sin. The Father draws people to himself by the Spirit's effective ministry of the Word of Christ, by which the sinner is set free to respond to the gospel in repentance and faith.
Vanhoozer's stated aim in The Drama of Doctrine was to "make the pastoral lamb lie down with the theological lion" (p. xii). He emphasised that the purpose of doctrine is to enable the people of God to faithfully play their roles in the drama of redemption. However, Vanhoozer's sometimes wordy style is calculated to make many a "pastoral lamb" run a country mile. Calling your book Remythologizing Theology and using terms like "kenotic-perichoretic panentheism" is hardly calculated to appeal to many pastors, whose main concerns are to getting two sermons prepared for Sunday and finding enough time to visit the all the elderly and afflicted members of one's congregation. I know of a fellow-pastor who is no slouch when it comes to keeping up with his theological reading who has yet to finish anything that Vanhoozer has written. I wonder how many working ministers will actually pick up and read this book, which seems to have been written more theological students and professional theologians in mind? That is a shame because there are a lot things about this present work that will prove to be of great help to ministers. The section on The triune God and the people of God: a fellowship of suffering? in chapter 9 is excellent in demonstrating that you don't have to go down the road of open theism to have a pastorally sensitive theology of suffering. Indeed, Vanhoozer shows that open theism, with its talk of divine suffering offers cold comfort to a world broken by sin. What we need is not so much sympathy as salvation.
It is said that even Homer nods, meaning that the great epic poet sometimes made mistakes. The same goes for Vanhoozer the theodramatist. On page 417 he makes a Nestorian slip in describing Jesus as a "human person", only to return the Chalcedonian fold on page 425, making it clear that Jesus' personhood is "a function of the inter-Trinitarian relations". He quite correctly goes on to say that Christ's temporal experiences are not to be attributed to "an abstract human nature, nor to the divine nature, but rather to the divine person (viz. the Son) in his human mode of existence." He calls this the "third, remythologizing, way for which I am groping", as if something new were being proposed, but what he is saying here is in effect classic Chalcedonian Christology. Also, Vanhoozer seems to contradict himself when on page 433 he writes, "The reason why Jesus cannot be tempted (or God changed) is because Jesus is the truth". In the previous pages, the theologian rightly defended the impeccability of Christ, arguing that as a divine person with a human nature, our Lord could not sin. However, as Vanhoozer pointed out, this does not mean that Jesus could not be tempted (see Hebrews 2:18, 4:15), "The temptation was no sham, for it was precisely because Jesus resisted temptation that he could 'feel' its full force." (p. 432). I assume that the statement quoted on page 432 represents the theologian's view on this matter and that what he said on the next page was a mistake. At least, I find it difficult, if not impossible to reconcile the two statements.
Vanhoozer's basic standpoint is that of historic Reformed theology, but with special attention to the divine communicative action. In a way that is typical of the theologian's work, he has attempted to re-orientate theology towards the theodrama of biblical revelation. As such, Remythologizing Theology makes a fresh, compelling and valuable contribution to the doctrine of God. The critical interaction with open panentheism is welcome at a time when some Evangelicals (especially "post-Evangelicals" and Emergent types) seem to find such a view of God attractive. The book deserves to be read not only by theological students and theologians, but also by pastors who aspire to being pastor-theologians in order to be of better service to the people of God. But I suspect that given the price tag, many will have to wait until the work is published in paperback.
*Thanks to Cambridge University Press for the complimentary review copy of this book.