Essay / Theology

Communicative Theism

A short post here before plunging into the next major topic in Kevin Vanhoozer’s 2010 book Remythologizing Theology (coming out in paperback this year, they say). That next major topic is how God speaks. But first a word about how Vanhoozer speaks.

Remythologizing Theology is a book about the doctrine of God, but it also extends into the doctrine about how God relates to the world. Vanhoozer’s main idea, on both fronts, is that God is communicative: he is communicative within the divine being, and his main posture towards all that is outside of him is also communicative.

But why call such a set of ideas a certain kind of theism? Why, that is, is this project described as “communicative theism” rather than “communicative theology” or “a doctrine of God which features the category of communication?” The main answer is simply, that’s how theologians talk these days. “Process theism” is opposed to “classical theism;” “freewill theism” morphs into the more aggressive “open theism” and gives way to a more generalized “relational theism;” a particular collaborative project broadcasts itself as “canonical theism,” or a very Trinity-focused doctrinal project may call itself “triune theism.”

Putting an adjective in front of the noun theism seems to suggest a certain comprehensiveness, as if to say “this is the way to believe in God.” It’s a package deal, a coordinated set of claims and judgments that hang together as a holistic account of God. As a result, we end up with a lot of different theisms in the marketplace of ideas, which is surely confusing to atheists if they are listening.

Since this is a guild book, a book written by an academic theologian for an audience of other academic theologians (though others are welcome to overhear the discussion), Vanhoozer makes use of the guild’s conventions and names his work a theism: communicative theism. But he is also characteristically self-aware about the language he is using, and pokes a little fun at it with the ubiquitous Vanhoozeresque pun and wordplay:

To proceed with bold and humble honesty to God is to charge with a theological light brigade: theisms to right of them, theisms to left of them, into the valley of ideological warfare, into the jaws of church historians and other academicians, ride the 144,000. (preface, xvi)

As it turns out, Vanhoozer’s account of theism under the categories of communication is in fact a pretty comprehensive undertaking. He keeps his attention focused on the doctrine of God and the God-world relation. But he leaves himself space to develop a few crucial lines of thought, in particular in the doctrine of salvation (soteriology).

Everything depends on how one understands the way in which human creatures take part in God’s communicative activity such that they actually receive God’s saving light, life, and love. Everything thus depends on getting the ontology of being-in-communion with God right, and this in turn depends on rightly interpreting what it means to be ‘partakers in the divine nature’ (2 Pet 1:4). (p. 271)

Because he is operating at the level of first theology, Vanhoozer is able to make theological decisions with ramifications for vast stretches of a theological system. His adjustment to recent developments in the doctrine of God has immediate implications for the doctrine of providence, for example. It really does look as if he’s got a unified take on the difference that communication would make for theism itself.

This is just a sketch of the systemic ramifications of the major course correction Vanhoozer introduces into the doctrine of God. But it is enough to show, once again, that he does not just barely cross over from prolegomena into the first doctrine, but has moved into the field of constructive theology with such a full grasp of the fundamentals that he must now hold himself back from spelling out an entire systematic theology of the communication of God. In this book, at least, he does hold himself back, leaving the communicative systematics implicit.

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