A scene from the Leben der heiligen Altväter (1482)
Honest to God, a Voice from Heaven? Communicative Theism in Vanhoozer’s Remythologizing Theology
Southeastern Theological Review 4:1 (2013), 53-65
At the 2012 ETS national conference, Mark Bowald emceed a set of critical interactions with Kevin Vanhoozer’s major work on the doctrine of God, Remythologizing Theology. These essays, by John Franke, Steve Wellum, Oliver Crisp, and me, were published in The Southeastern Theological Review, along with a response from Vanhoozer. At the link below is a PDF of my essay, and Kevin’s response.
Kevin Vanhoozer’s recent book Remythologizing Theology begins beguilingly, with a voice coming down out of heaven. On the mountain of transfiguration, the voice of God testifies aloud to Jesus Christ, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 17:5). “We heard this voice borne from heaven,” reports the apostle Peter, “for we were with him on the holy mountain, and we have the prophetic word made more sure” (2 Pet. 1:17). There is much going on in the story of transfiguration, and in Peter’s interpretation of it. “Yet what stands out,” says Vanhoozer, “is the voice from heaven.”
Back in the 1960s when theology could make headlines by killing off its god every now and then, John A. T. Robinson published his provocative book Honest to God. “Our image of God must go,” said Bishop Robinson, scorning the mythological idea of God as a supernatural agent who intervenes in the world; a being like us, but bigger and higher up. There is no way for rational people living a modern world to continue thinking of God as a supernatural being living “up there” somewhere, or even “out there” somewhere. Mixing a lot of Tillich with a little late Bonhoeffer, Robinson called for modern man to recognize that there was no room for God in a scientific universe, except perhaps as the ground of being itself. Fortunately, Jesus brings a kind of message from this ground of being: “It is in making himself nothing, in his utter self-surrender to others in love, that he discloses and lays bare the Ground of man’s being as Love.” In fact, reflected Robinson, “assertions about God are in the last analysis assertions about Love.” That was 1963. What would the bishop say if he knew that nearly fifty years later, one of the most estimable theologians in the English-speaking world could, with a straight face and no ironic detachment, begin a major work of Christian doctrine with a voice from heaven? The God of Robinson was not even up in heaven, and if he were, he certainly would not be so rude as to speak from there.
And yet here is Vanhoozer’s big, interesting, intellectually serious book, with a quotation from God speaking in a voice from heaven, on the very first page. And from that opening gambit to the final sentence, “Only the communicating God can help” (RT, p. 504), the book is “all about voices –literal and metaphorical, biblical and theological, human and divine –and their ongoing interaction” (RT, p. xvii). Honest to God, this is a book about God speaking, and Christian theologians taking that voice seriously. But nothing is as simple as Bishop Robinson made it seem when he set up and knocked down his mythological straw god. The real voice of the real God from the real heaven is far more sophisticated than it seemed to some theologians at midcentury.
I would like to make three points. First, Kevin Vanhoozer has definitely moved on from method to matter with this book, and the matter is the doctrine of God. Not only is the matter the doctrine of God, but it turns out that something is the matter with the doctrine of God, and Vanhoozer writes to interrupt the flow of recent conversations. Second, this style of theology called remythologizing pays attention to Scripture in a powerful way, attending equally to what Scripture says and to how it says it. And third, none of this works without the doctrine of the Trinity, which turns out to be not just a doctrine announced by a voice from heaven, but our chance to overhear the conversation of the voices in heaven. Honest to God…