Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Remythologizing Theology: An interview with Kevin Vanhoozer

GD: Hello Kevin Vanhoozer and welcome back to Exiled Preacher.

KV: Seems like I was just here. I like what you’ve done with the place.

GD: Thanks. Your new book is entitled Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion and Authorship (Cambridge University Press, 2010, 560pp, UK here, US here). In personal correspondence you described Remythologizing Theology as your first real work of theology. What does that say about your earlier writings?

KV: It says that I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time dealing with questions pertaining to theological method and hermeneutics. While it may have been necessary, that work was merely a warm-up: an overture to the real opera. I don’t want to exaggerate. I have written “real” theology here and there, though this is my first book to talk primarily about God rather than about talk of God.

GD: What is your main aim in this book?

KV: For years I’ve felt that the doctrine of God was a relatively weak spot in evangelical theology. Then open theism happened and my suspicions were confirmed. One major aim, then, is to provide a retooling of classical theism that takes into account the concerns of open theists – in particular, the integrity of God’s loving relationship to the world – while simultaneously maintaining what I take to be the correct Reformed emphasis on divine sovereignty. Another aim is to scrutinize the oft-heard claim in contemporary theology that God’s love entails divine suffering.

GD: What do you mean by "remythologizing theology"?’

KV: I don’t mean “mythologizing again”! “Remythologizing” pertains first and foremost not to myth but “mythos,” Aristotle’s term for dramatic plot. I’m using “remythologizing” as a contrast term to Bultmann’s demythologizing. Where Bultmann fails to take seriously either the Bible’s depictions of God’s acts or the Bible as the product of God’s authorship, remythologizing starts: with God as one who speaks and acts, the latter often by way of speaking.

Remythologizing is a proposal for “first theology,” a way of thinking God and Scripture together. Specifically, it views God’s being on the basis of God’s acts, especially his communicative acts. God is as God does, and God does as God says. Remythologizing theology is all about speaking well of God on the basis of God’s own speech. To remythologize theology is to set forth the ontology of the one who speaks in Scripture, the one whom Scripture is also about.

GD: What is the status of Holy Scripture in "remythologized" theology?

KV: My doctrine of Scripture remains much as it has been: the Bible is triune discourse, a product of divine authorship and hence a form of divine action. What sets remythologizing apart from some other approaches is that it seeks to take into account the significance of the Bible’s literary forms, each of which is a distinct form of God’s communicative action.

Think of remythologizing as a form of biblical reasoning, a way of thinking about the subject matter of Scripture along the grain of the various forms of biblical discourse that present it. This means attending not only to the content, but also to the way in which the divine author employs a number of different human voices and forms of discourse to communicate it.

GD: In some treatments of the doctrine of God, the doctrine of the Trinity is tagged onto the end after extensive discussion of the divine being and attributes. What place does the doctrine of the Trinity have in the present work?

KV: The central place, both literally and symbolically. Chapter five is right in the middle of the book and is entitled “God in three persons: the one who lights and lives in love.” I argue that God is everywhere and at all times fully himself. The triune life – communicative activity oriented to communion – is fully realized in the immanent Trinity before it is actualized in the economic Trinity. God in time corresponds to who God is in eternity. I’m not, of course, the first to argue this. However, what is new is the focus on the Father, Son, and Spirit as distinct communicative agents who nevertheless share a common communicative agency.

GD: Barth famously taught that God's being is in his act. Here you set out the elements of a new "theodramatic metaphysic" where God's being is in his communicative act. Please explain.

KV: Theodramatic metaphysics is the attempt to formulate a comprehensive set of categories (i.e., metaphysics) for understanding what God has said and done (i.e., theodrama) to create and renew all things in Christ through the Spirit. Because God is real and not merely a story, biblical interpreters who would speak well of God must go beyond exegesis to ontology. If we are to understand who, and what, we are talking about when we use the term “God,” we have to say something about God’s being. For God is a real being. What is real makes a difference in the world because it can act on its own. Only God can act on his own for only God has life in himself; everything else depends upon God’s sustaining word and breath to remain in existence.

Remythologizing speaks of God on the basis of God’s own speech and action, the stuff of theodrama. What we can, and must, say of God is that he is the one who creates, commands, consoles, etc. by speaking. God makes himself known and shares his life largely through speech acts like promising, instructing, forgiving, and exhorting, as well as through his corporeal discourse – the Word made flesh – Jesus Christ. If we let Scripture guide our thinking, then we must say that God’s triune being is in his communicative activity. We derive our understanding of the divine attributes not by analyzing the idea of infinite perfection but by describing and detailing the predicates and perfections of God’s communicative activity.

GD: Traditional theism has often described God's relationship to the world in terms of causality, with God as the First Cause or the Unmoved Mover. However, you propose that God's interaction with the world is best understood in terms of divine communicative action. Why the shift in emphasis?

KV: At this point in our time and culture, modern science has pretty much co-opted the language of causality. Consequently, even theologians who should know better sometimes speak of God’s causality as if it were on the same level as other creaturely causes. This is not how Thomas Aquinas, Calvin, or others in the tradition would have understood it. Nevertheless, open theists and panentheists have used this confusion to their advantage to attack classical theism. How, they wonder, can God be in a genuine loving relationship with creatures if he causes all things, including the motions of people’s hearts? Further, if God causes all things, must he not be responsible for evil as well as good?

I use the term “communicate” in a very broad sense, not merely in the sense “to transmit information,” but “to make common” or “share.” The most important thing that God communicates is himself: his light (truth), life (energy), and love (relationship). Whereas the end of causation is coercion, the end of communication is communion. The category of communicative action opens up new possibilities for theism and adheres more closely to the categories of Scripture itself.

GD: Where does your theodramatic approach leave the oft discussed relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom?

KV: Von Balthasar depicts theodrama as the interaction of infinite and finite freedom. My contribution is to think through this interaction in communicative terms. God is not like other communicative agents, of course. For God is the “Author” of the world who retains his authorial rights even as he enters into the story as a character. God’s sovereign interventions are in fact often interjections – calls, for example – that are efficacious but nor coercive. Here the paradigm is Calvin’s notion of the effectual call: God does not manipulate but sovereignly – which is to say, authorially – consummates his characters without manipulating them. On the contrary, the divine Author works according to our natures, via word and Spirit.

God authors answerable agents. Divine authorship thus names an asymmetrical communicative relation: a dialogical (i.e., covenantal) unity within an even greater dialogical difference (i.e., creation ex nihilo). I devote an important section to reworking the doctrine of providence, and Austin Farrer’s idea of the “causal joint,” in properly communicative terms. God’s speech is efficacious and brings about change in the world precisely by non-coercively bringing about understandings in human hearts and minds. What happened to Lydia is paradigmatic: “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14).

GD: What do the words of the subtitle, Divine Action, Passion and Authorship, say about your attitude towards the impassibility of God? Isn't he a being "without body, parts or passions"?

KV: The sub-title alone does not make a statement but announces a theme. The question of God’s suffering – that is, his ability to be affected by human creatures – is a red thread that runs throughout the book. If Nicholas Wolterstorff is right in comparing classical theism to a seamless garment where one loose thread spells the unraveling of the whole, then divine impassibility makes for an excellent case study.

Remytholgizing Theology is a minority opposition report on the “new orthodoxy” of divine suffering. While I want to take the biblical depictions of God’s dialogical interaction with human beings seriously, I don’t want to pull God down to the creaturely level. The challenge, then, is to specify to what the biblical descriptions of God’s emotions actually refer. There is not much on the meaning of divine emotions in the history of theology. Classical theists tend to take this language as anthropomorphic; open theists tend to take it literally. I had to resist the temptation simply to choose one side rather than the other. The prior question is: what is a divine emotion? I do provide an answer, but the water in that pool is a bit too deep to dive into here.

GD: In The Drama of Doctrine, you suggest that the task of the theologian is to act as a "dramaturge" who will help pastors to faithfully interpret and teach the biblical script to the people of God. How might pastors benefit from Remythologizing Theology?

KV: The first responsibility of pastors and theologians is to speak well of God. This means, minimally, avoiding idolatry. It also means speaking in a way that corresponds to Scripture and yields understanding, including understanding about God’s being, identity, and reality. My book helps answer the all-important question question: what must God be if God speaks and acts as the Bible depicts him as doing?

To understand God as a triune communicative agent has implications for understanding oneself, the Christian life, and the church as well. God calls us into being and communicates his light, life, and love so that we can communicate them to others. The pastor is a minister of God’s word – which means the whole panoply of God’s communicative acts – thereby helping the church to become answerable to God, able to communicate in all that we say and do what the Father is saying and doing in the Son through the Spirit. Theology assists pastors to know God so that they in turn may communicate the light, life, and love of God poured out for the world in Jesus Christ.

GD: Remythologizing Theology is published by Cambridge University Press and is currently only available in hardback. When will a more affordable paperback edition be published?

KV: I’m very sorry a paperback edition was not printed simultaneously. I did ask (and complain)! If all goes well – by which I mean, if enough people save their pennies and purchase the hardback – a paperback should appear in eighteen months, sometime in the summer of 2011. If I have indeed spoken well of God, it should still be worth reading even then.
GD: Thanks for dropping by for this conversation. I'm still saving my pennies!


Kyle Essary said...

Wow, I've really gotta save pennies...maybe I can get all of my family members to go together and buy this for my birthday. This looks outstanding!

Guy Davies said...

I hope you've got a large and wealthy family!

kessia reyne said...

A belated thanks for this, a very helpful interview :)