The work of Professor Kevin Vanhoozer of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School is well known and highly regarded. Those who have an opportunity to dip into this major contribution from his pen will immediately understand why. His depth of engagement with a wide range of authors, his creative synthesis of biblical, theological and philosophical insights, his penetration through to the core substantial issues and his determined faithfulness to the word which the living and speaking God has given us, are all on display in this important book.
The title is deliberately provocative. ‘Remythologizing’ suggests a turning back of the clock before the contribution of Bultmann and the liberal theological agenda which dismissed so much of what is depicted in the Bible in their search for a symbolic or existential meaning for modern human beings. Yet Vanhoozer is adamant: ‘Remythologizing is not a “fall back into myth” but a spring forward into metaphysics’ (p. 27). It is true that he exposes the limitations of the project associated with Feuerbach and Bultmann, though it is clear he has read those with whom he disagrees with a great deal of sympathy. Yet he doesn’t simply return to an older ‘classical theism’ either, as if the concerns of Bultmann had never been expressed or the Protestant recovery of the doctrine of the Trinity associated with Barth had never happened.
The first of the three parts of the book opens up a survey of the landscape that provides the biblical ground and demonstrates the theological value of what he calls ‘triune communicative theism’ (p. 37). He briefly touches upon a succession of key moments in the unfolding biblical narrative where ‘the economy of triune communicative interaction’ is most clearly on display (Gen 1:1–3; 18:22–33; Exod 3:13–15; 33:7–17; 34:5–7; Job 38:1–4; Hos 11:8–9; Mark 15:33–4, 37; John 1:14; 12:27–30; Rom 8:15–6; Heb 1:1–3) and then draws out important conceptual implications (the active voice of God, anthropomorphism, the Creator-creature distinction, the covenant Lord-servant relation, the economic and immanent trinity, time and eternity). He explores a range of major theological approaches, including the Trinitarian turn and such things as ‘open theism’, while along the way raising serious questions about ‘the Hellenization thesis’ associated with Harnack and others. He characterises the new orthodoxy of the early twenty-first century as a ‘kenotic-perichoretic relational version of theism and panentheism’ in which (1) the divine persons are seen in not substantival but relational terms; (2) God’s love for the world is seen as perichoretic relationality; and (3) God’s suffering is seen as a necessary consequence of his kenotic relatedness (p. 140).
Vanhoozer’s own creative proposal comes in the second part and makes use of the insights he has gained over the past three decades, most particularly associated with speech-act theory and a performance model of theological method. ‘The way forward’, he writes, ‘beyond relational theism or panentheism and back to something more like classical theism, is to think through God’s love, and being, in terms of neither impersonal causality nor personal mutuality alone but rather in terms of communicative and self-communicative action, God’s sharing his own life with what is other than (“outside”) himself’ (pp. 176–77). Here a robust trinitarianism comes together with communicative theory to provide refreshing insights into God’s being in act and his attributes. The latter are to be construed as ‘schemas of communicative action’ (p. 275). It is in this context that a richly stimulating discussion of divine simplicity is to be found.
The third part of the book explores the God-world relation in the light of all that has come before. Here there is a brief foray into the problem of evil and the reality of human freedom as well as one of the most illuminating contemporary treatments of divine impassibility. The very last sentence of the book stimulates us to think further: ‘Only the communicating God can help’ (p. 504).
This is without doubt a very important book. It is not easy. So much is being said and so much is informing what is being said that this book cannot simply be skim-read and then put down. I have made extensive use of it repeatedly in graduate classes on the doctrine of God over the past five years. Each time I return to it with an even greater appreciation of Vanhoozer’s achievement. The points at which I remain unconvinced are all inconsequential. You will need to set aside some undistracted time to give this book the careful attention it requires and deserves. This reviewer is convinced it is well worth the effort.