Westminster Seminary California
Book Review: Remythologizing Theology by Kevin Vanhoozer
Book Review: Remythologizing Theology by Kevin Vanhoozer

Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship, Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). 

Human talk about God takes effort. God talking to us takes revelation. In this newest entry from Kevin Vanhoozer, the Wheaton professor guides his readers from God’s revelation in Scripture through the primacy of the Triune God as Author to the speaking back of humanity as Heroes, both fallen and Firstborn, faithless failures and faithful Christ.

Vanhoozer’s most recent foray into ‘theodrama’ (his term; referring to God’s speaking and acting) is split into several sections. After a general introduction outlining his intent to ‘remythologize’ theology, in the first part of the work Vanhoozer strikes at two schemes he believes characterize poor theology.

Both of these systems begin erroneously—what Vanhoozer labels as “classical theism” is more akin to Cartesian projections of perfection onto a divine being than revealed knowledge of the Triune God from Scripture (105). The second adversary (and the major foil to Vanhoozer’s proposal) arrives in the garb of panentheism, under Vanhoozer’s catchy title “kenotic-perichoretic relational ontotheology” (139ff). This phrase refers to the current trend among some theologians towards emphasizing the self-emptying (kenosis) and interpenetration of the Trinity in all actions of God (perichoresis), ending with a definition of love that is “mutual, reciprocal, and inclusive” (144). Vanhoozer’s analysis of the attraction of this relational model and his criticism of its flaws is not only trenchant, but also immensely helpful in light of its current prevalence. In the space of two chapters he attacks these rival claimants to divine action, with vivid one-liners such as “what is more mutual and reciprocal than ‘an eye for an eye’?” (173).

In the second section of Remythologizing Theology Vanhoozer begins the constructive phase of his argument, dissecting the need for Triune communication, not just God-talk. Vanhoozer then proceeds to some of his most provocative statements in the entire book, utilizing the insights of Soviet linguist Mikhail Bakhtin. In his attempt to articulate the thorny relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom, Vanhoozer takes Bakhtin’s division between the two Russian writers, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Bakhtin argument distinguishes between a Tolstoyan monologic Author and a Dostoevskyan polyphonic Author; in other words, between the great King ruling over his characters (as in Tolstoy’s typical epics) and a Presidential author who listens to his characters as serious dialogue partners (such as Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov).

What does Vanhoozer do with this literary distinction? In line with historic Reformed understandings of human will, he does not assert that God overrules human will, but works through and by it (Westminster Confession of Faith 5.2, 9.1). This forms the basis for Vanhoozer’s reliance on God as polyphonic author—an author who lets his characters speak back to him. As he states, human individuality is “more a matter of answerability (‘Here I am’) than of assertability (‘I think, therefore I am’); however, Vanhoozer does not strip God of his transcendence nor of his ability to intervene as ruler, creator, and provider of all (317, 319).

Finally, as his work reaches its climax, Vanhoozer descends from general discussion of “Triune communicative action” to working out the particulars, choosing theology proper and the attributes of God to display his proposal. For pastors this section is the most constructive of the entire project, as Vanhoozer defends the impassibility and impeccability of God with such phrases as “Divine patience is not a sign of helplessness but of grace. It is God’s gift of time” (463).

The overall effect of his work, though beneficial, is muted by two concerns. Vanhoozer’s proposal, significant as it is, requires a similarly substantial investment of time, money, and interest which places it strictly in the sphere of knowledgeable academics and theologians. Though this is likely intentional, it is unfortunate that Vanhoozer’s thoughts are limited in this way. The second danger of Vanhoozer’s recent book comes with his terminology—the seasoned reader, wearied by what at first glance appears to be yet another theological proposal created with strange idiosyncratic labels (theodrama, triune communicative action, etc), may become disenchanted with Vanhoozer. Perseverance is needed and desired for the reader to gain the myriad benefits from Vanhoozer.

In short, Remythologizing Theology gives a helpful understanding of the dangers of creating God in our own image (Vanhoozer’s “re-myth-izing” foe, represented by Ludwig Feuerbach) or of questioning whether God actually talks (Rudolf Bultmann’s demythologizing). For Vanhoozer, as for Christians, we speak because God spoke, we act because God acted, and we love because God loved us first.

Reviewed by
John Stovall
M. Div. student

1 / 16 / 2012