Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Remythologizing Theology by Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Review Part 4)

Divine communicative sovereignty and human freedom

Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion and Authorship
by Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Cambridge University Press, 2010, 539pp
(Review series Part 4)

One of the big issues for Christian theology is the relationship between the sovereignty of God and human freedom. If God is indeed sovereign and everything that happens is according to his eternal purpose, how can human beings be regarded as free actors in his world? The problem is exacerbated if God is regarded primarily as the First Cause and his relationship to the creation is construed primarily in terms of cause and effect. When applied to human beings it can sound as if humans are little more than cogs in the machine of the world. This is where Vanhoozer’s communicative theism comes in. For him, God is not so much the First Cause, as the Author of creation. His relationship with the world is personal and communicative, not simply causal. He enters into a dialogical relationship with human beings. But this does not mean the God and humans are equal dialogue partners. God is the sovereign Creator and we are his creatures. He writes the script in which we live, move and have our being. Yet as those who bear the image of God, human beings are capable of entering into genuine dialogue with their Maker. As the Author of our being and life, God does not coercively override the freedom of his human image bearers. Rather, our freedom to be human is only perfected in communion with the triune Lord God. Human freedom in this context is not the freedom of self-determination, but the freedom to say “Yes” to the divine address, Psalm 27:8.

But what happens when the dialogical relationship between God and human beings is disrupted because of sin? In the ultimate act of divine communicative action, the Author entered the theatre of the world and became a man to bring us back to himself. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. God communicates his light, life and love to sinners through Jesus Christ. It is  Jesus the Son who sets us free from sin so that communion with God may be restored. However, not everyone receives the Word and accepts the salvation he accomplished, John 1:11. The Holy Spirit enables us to receive Jesus Christ by making the Holy Scriptures that testify to him internally persuasive. Again, this is not an act of coercion, but liberation.

The Author completes heroes, not be forcing them into a mold, but by releasing them so that they freely respond to the word that simultaneously constitutes them. The purpose of the gospel is to persuade, yes, but in persuasion is truth, goodness, and beauty. The Author’s word is furthermore a liberating word that sets the captive free (Gal 5:1). Accordingly, where and when the Spirit ministers this word, there will be freedom indeed: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). (p. 366).
This involves more than the Spirit simply addressing the persuasive words of Scripture to the human mind. Due to the noetic effects of sin, the mind is closed to the truth of the gospel and heart is hardened against the Lord. Which brings us to a discussion of the effective call as an expression of the communicative action of God. The effective call is to be distinguished from the general call of the gospel. As its name suggests, this call actually effects something, namely that God calls the sinner to salvation in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, John 6:44-45. But the language of effect should not be understood as an act of causation on God's part that rides roughshod over the human personality. In the text just cited the Father draws his people to Christ by teaching them. Those who learn from the Father come to Jesus. The effective call is not an act of divine manipulation, but the effective communication of grace,

The effectual call is the Spirit’s ministering the word in such a way that hearers freely and willingly answer God by responding with faith. Remember Lydia: “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14). God’s calling is his restoring and reorienting those spiritual and cognitive capacities taken captive to an unclean spiritual and cognitive environment. (P. 374-375)
Those who have been effectively called to faith in Christ by the Spirit’s ministry of the Word are free to enjoy dialogical communion with God. Prayer is the human response to God’s prior word of grace and salvation. Through prayer the believer gladly consents to the will of God in which there is perfect liberty. What we pray for must be determined by the Scriptures, “In praying the Scriptures, we pray as Christ taught us, in Christ’s name, with Christ’s body, for Christ’s coming.” (p. 385). In answer to their scriptural prayers God conforms his people to the image of Christ by the communicative presence of the Holy Spirit.

In his attempt to develop an account of divine sovereignty and human freedom that is based on the communicative action of the triune God, Vanhoozer has avoided depicting human beings as mere puppets in the hand of an omnipotent deity. Neither is it the case that God is robbed of his sovereignty in order to make space for human freedom. God is indeed all-powerful and absolutely sovereign, but his power is not coercive or manipulative. He enters into a dialogical relationship with human beings in order to perfect human freedom in communion with himself. Where sin has disrupted that communion, Vanhoozer envisages salvation in thoroughly Augustinian fashion. God saves by effectively calling the sinner to union with Christ through the Spirit’s infallibly persuasive witness to the word of the gospel. Rather than the sovereignty of God compromising human freedom, according to Scripture it is only through the sovereign grace of God that sin-enslaved human beings can be truly made free. (See Westminster Confession of Faith 10:1, here).

In the final part of this review series I plan to have a look at Vanhoozer's proposals on divine impassibility and wrap the series up with some concluding thoughts on Remythologizing Theology.


Anonymous said...

It seems like Vanhoozer has some helpful things to say here. I'm not sure though, that reformed theology can ever be freed from the characterization that human beings are merely puppets in the hand of God, until it is willing to abandon the idea that the fall was a product of God's determinative will. It seems to me that whatever else is said, it is this distinctive that most contributes to the "puppetmaster" characterization. Do you think?

Guy Davies said...

don't think that's right. Vanhoozer gives attention to this matter in Chapter 7, where he discusses the question, "Does God author evil?". He suggests a multiperspectival approach,

"The Bible distinguishes at least three 'agent perspectives' on the theodramatic action. Sometimes a biblical author will focus on human action, at other times on demonic forces, but at all times and in all places they all communicate, at least indirectly, the overarching agency of the Author".(p. 348)

E.g. Genesis 50:20, where Joseph's brothers meant to do him evil, but God meant it for good. So with the fall. Demonic and human agents meant it for evil. But God meant it for good, for the greater display of his glory in salvation and judgement.