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Stephen N. Williams

A Theodramatic Metaphysic

Attending to the character of biblical testimony.

Only one adjective satisfies the demand for a snap response to a book which is (a) written by Kevin Vanhoozer and (b) registers at two pounds and four ounces on the kitchen scales: "Weighty." The author's creative use of speech-act theory and advancement of a canonical-linguistic interpretation of doctrine has made him deservedly influential on the contemporary theological scene, and this substantial volume on the doctrine of God will but extend that influence.

On reading the word "remythologizing," some will anticipate a theological project inspired by a letter written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which seemed to portend a remythologizing enterprise which he was himself never able to undertake. But Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion and Authorship has nothing to do with Bonhoeffer, although, as in his case, a contrast to "demythologizing" is intended. Vanhoozer holds that, in steering its course, theology must make an early decision to beware both of Bultmann's demythologizing and of Feuerbach's interpretation of theology as anthropology. Having so determined, in order thereafter to remain centered on the Bible, without letting these two out of sight, it should pursue its way by attending to the theodramatic character of biblical testimony. The form in which God's Word comes to us in Scripture is drama, of which God is the author and in which he is an actor, and theological reflection on God is not only well-advised, but actually bound, to be directed by this form, if we are to speak rightly and well of God.

To this reflective task Kevin Vanhoozer dedicates himself in this volume. If "authorship" and "theodrama" are the concepts or categories that immediately emerge from Scripture, "communicative agency" is the apt metaphysical rubric under which to elaborate them and further our thinking about God. "Remythologizing" amounts to an adumbration of this idea, in the conviction that it is no mere idea, but divine reality, that occupies us. "Mythos" refers to "all the ways in which diverse forms of biblical literature represent, and render, the divine drama"; remythologizing proposes as theologically normative the "christological content and canonical form" of Scripture and outlines, on its basis, a theodramatic metaphysic. The author proceeds by contrasting classical theism with the "kenotic-perichoretic relational ontotheology" which is its modern rival. He agrees that the latter enshrines theological concerns which must be taken positively on board and, late in the day, remarks on a point of convergence between it and his proposal. Yet, taken as a whole, he firmly rejects it and opts for a modified form of classical theism. Barth has led the way, with his Trinitarian and Christological concentration on God's being as act, but he is to be faulted for failing to do proper justice to the whole of Scripture. More to the present point, it is possible to mint a post-Barthian Thomism—and this is a possibility which Vanhoozer converts to actuality. What deserves criticism is not classical theism as it took shape in patristic, medieval, and post-Reformation thought (whatever modifications it may require) but "perfect being theology," represented in modern analytic theism, which substitutes an extra-biblical philosophical for a truly biblical mode of thought.

Vanhoozer tests his scheme in two areas: in relation to the question of divine-human interaction, and in relation to the question of divine suffering. His thesis, in relation to the first, is that we should allow, as Scripture does, for a genuine dialogical interaction between God and his human creatures and so deploy, in interpretation, the category of personal communication rather than a notion of divine causality which treats humans too impersonally and instrumentally. As communicative agent, God works by internal persuasion. However, in terms of classical debates between Reformed and non-Reformed theology, this does not entail abandoning belief in God's effectual calling. Operating with the correct theological categories may involve a modification of characteristically Reformed formulations, but not the surrender of the basic theological insight of that tradition. (One of the merits of Vanhoozer's discussion is not only its non-partisan quality and tone, but its refusal to be distracted by too narrow a theological agenda in relation to the Reformed/non-Reformed debate.)

The question of divine impassibility is described, perhaps rather surprisingly, as a litmus test for the author's proposal. Impassibility is grounded in the belief that "God does not suffer the effects of time or creaturely causation." In maintaining this with respect to God's suffering, the tradition has been right. But the implications of this are easily misunderstood. God possesses almighty affection, active and voluntary, not passive and involuntary. He cares, which care Scripture spells out particularly in terms of his covenant relationship with his people. If we understand emotions as "concern-based construals"—and the modern reaction to impassibility has unfortunately operated with a post-Enlightenment view of emotion, which couches the terms of the debate with classical theism in a form which do not justice to the latter—we can ascribe to God "thought-feels."

It seems both brutal and a betrayal of the point and spirit of this theodramatic theology to summarize in terse propositions proposals developed over more than 500 pages. Those familiar with Vanhoozer's work will know what to expect: a combination of biblical faithfulness with creative thinking; independence, but never arrogance, in judgment; constant, studious concern for the theologian's task, yet in a way that enables the writer to get on with and not be distracted from the material project in hand; breadth of reading and liveliness of style. Suspicious hermeneuts will wonder if these remarks are designed to preface a statement of disagreement with the theological substance of this volume. Well, this reviewer does not take himself so seriously as to think that his substantive judgment is a significant enough literary event to warrant a self-conscious build-up of this kind. Actually, I find the main thrust of Vanhoozer's thesis persuasive, certainly when God's economy is under consideration. What is said about authorship, theodrama, communicative agency, and dialogical interaction appears to me on track, and very helpful for the rest of us, so a single-sentence evaluation would be one of signal appreciation. My account conveys no idea of the fresh insights that emerge in the author's execution of his assignment or, for example, the significance of Mikhail Bakhtin's contribution in this volume, when it comes to the conceptualization and application (not the initial derivation) of theological insight.

The privileges of many years of friendship permit, rather than hinder, a supplementary expression of reservations about the thesis. Perhaps this can be contained within two areas. First, there is the move that the author makes from an account of God's economy to an account of his being-in-communicative agency. It seems to me that at least three things mark the former that do not mark the latter: (a) the verbal nature of God's communication; (b) its indirect nature, as emphasized by Vanhoozer; (c) its context in a sinful world that needs and receives reconciliation through Jesus Christ. (Vanhoozer will partially demur in regard to the first of these.) But none of these characterize God's inner life, and so the communicative form of that life is further removed from the communicative economy than Vanhoozer allows. And inferences about what communicative agency involves in that inner life—which he draws with care, anxious to avoid speculation—become more precarious than Vanhoozer supposes. Why exactly are they necessary? If I trust God's character and words as revealed and spoken to me in Christ and Scripture, to what extent do I need a theodramatic metaphysic that includes more than a minimal account of God's inner life? This is where, I think, Brunner was very close to the mark in his remarks on the doctrine of the Trinity, but Brunner has not been particularly lively on the theological scene for some time and, on this specific point, more or less unheeded, as far as I can tell. So I am not really persuaded of the analogia dramatis.

Second, a cluster of questions arises around Vanhoozer's treatment of divine impassibility, its merits notwithstanding. I mention three.

(a) Despite the undoubtedly impressive contribution of Cyril of Alexandria on this question and, granting the complexity of the metaphysical issues involved, I fail to see how Vanhoozer's position (shared with plenty of others) can be sustained, when he argues that the Son suffered in his person and human nature, but not in his divine nature. To be a divine person, by definition, is to be a bearer of the divine nature; a divine person is such precisely by virtue of possessing the nature that he possesses. In incarnation, the divine nature is given; it is the human that is assumed. How can a person suffer without suffering in the nature intrinsic to that person?

(b) I should want to emphasize more than does Vanhoozer the compassionate relation between God and humans (leaving aside, for a moment, the question of non-humans) outside the covenanted people of God. If our difference must be stated in one quick and summary sentence, I should say that we need to attend more than we often do to the fact that Abraham, prior to God's covenant with him, was already heir to the Noahic covenant, which links God's original creation with the redemptive calling of Abraham. Specifically Abraham was the descendant of Shem, whose post-diluvian history is launched under the terms of the post-diluvian covenant.

(c) It seems to me that it is possible to ascribe sorrow, and hence suffering, to God without ascribing change. I can imagine now what it would be like to lose a loved one in the future and anticipate the emotional grief; but I cannot do so perfectly, and my own death may come to pass before the death of the other. However, it is not hard to imagine the perfect eternal anticipation, on the part of a divine being, of a grief arising from human sin. There is no ground for sorrow in God's inner-Trinitarian relations, so divine suffering is not like divine love, but it may nevertheless be ascribed to him eternally in a way that is perhaps parallel to the way in which we have traditionally ascribed to God knowledge of that which is to come, even though creation is a free act and not an ontological necessity. Passibility would not entail mutability in this case. I am not pressing this as a substantive theological point—my short-term memory is not so bad that I have forgotten Brunner already—but, if we are engaging in metaphysics in the way in which Vanhoozer is doing, it seems to me that this is a possibility to consider.

It may appear that my reservations are ones that could apply to schemes other than Vanhoozer's and so do not apply distinctively to his project. That is true, but, if they have any substance, this entails that old questions or difficulties remain within a novel theological framework. It would be interesting to know whether the author would conclude that such reservations, in principle, devalue the theological advance that he has attempted, or whether he would say that, even in principle, he is not trying to solve theological problems just by virtue of theological-conceptual change.

In terms of the specficially evangelical heritage, it is interesting to ask to what extent Vanhoozer bears the mantle of Bernard Ramm, whether we are thinking of Barth or of communications theory. More broadly, readers of this volume will include both classical theists and relational panentheists who will consider that Vanhoozer has conceded too much to the other side. Amongst those same readers who will go on to write on and speak of the volume, one can only wish that they (we) might do so in the spirit of the author and with the same eagerness to be a hearer of the biblical Word and words. So thanks—again—Kevin.

Stephen N. Williams is professor of systematic theology at Union Theological College in Belfast. With Gordon McConville, he is the author of Joshua, a volume in the Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary series from Eerdmans.t box 1

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