Taking the V/W-T out for a spin

July 26th, 2017 by

In a rare treat during our seminars this past year, we were able to have presentations by two scholars whose work has been in conversation with one another. Kevin J. Vanhoozer of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (whom some have referred to as a theological rock star) spoke with us on the nature of God’s love. But his entrance into the conversation was to engage with the influential work of one of our other speakers, Thomas Jay Oord (check out Chris Woznicki’s blog post on that session). Vanhoozer’s constructive project, so far as I understand it, is to present a dogmatic account of God’s love by way of a retrieval by John Webster (of blessed memory) of Thomas Aquinas’ denial of a “real relation” (that’s a technical term) between God and the world. One way Vanhoozer highlights the Websterian-Thomist account is by contrasting it with Oord’s interdisciplinary theological account of God’s love that accepts a real relation between God and cosmos (indeed not just a real relation, but a necessary real relation…this gets into some of the stuff Chris discusses in his post).

Let me offer just a few highlights from Vanhoozer’s constructive project. One theme that Vanhoozer gleans from Webster is the notion that methodologically one ought to start with thinking about how God is in Godself and only later about God in relation to creatures. Putting “theology proper” methodologically first leads Webster/Vanhoozer (Webhoozer? Vanster? V/W?) to conclude that, since God has perfect life in Godself, there is no incompleteness in God independent of creation. On the V/W model (not this one), God’s love is fully manifested within God’s Trinitarian life. Contrarily, for Oord’s God, there must be some target of God’s love outside Godself, hence the necessity of creation. That God is perfect in and of Godself leads the V/W model to show itself harmonious with a Classical Theist mainstay, namely, the ontological difference between God and creation. Here the V/W model comes with a special trim (again, not this), “T” for a Thomist emphasis. I am not sure Vanhoozer intends to say that Webster bought the whole Thomist package (maybe it was just a lease). But the V/W-T includes the idea that creation is really (i.e., ontologically) related to God; but God is only conceptually related to creation.

Now, what are my two cents? Well, I certainly think that Christians want to hold that “God loves the world” and that involves some kind of relation between God and the world (since “love” seems to operate as a kind of relative term in that sentence). But there might be many ways one could flesh this out. One could say that God is distinct from and does not act in the world. Take this as a deistic sort of picture. But the painter of this picture usually doesn’t care to paint God as loving. One could hold that God’s love entails a process/pantheistic/panenthesistic picture of God, where God is not district from and does act in the world. Or one might even take the extreme view that God is not distinct from and does not (or cannot) act in the world because of God’s love for the freedom of creation (Oord’s view might be characterized this way). But to sketch a via media by which God is distinct from the world, yet also acts in the world, is the picture most Classical Theists and orthodox Christians want to paint. However, finding the right conceptual paintbrush has proven pretty tricky. Does the V/W-T do the job? Well, I’d give it a test drive, but I’d personally like to see a bit more direct interaction with Aquinas or the Medieval Scholastics, whence this distinction springs. This is a pretty complicated paintbrush, and I worry it might either be the painting of a picture by way of a Rube Goldberg machine or simply ad hoc.

Nevertheless, the conversation about how God loves the world is an important one to have. And if you love these conversations (see what I did there?), stay tuned! We are in the process of putting together an edited volume that will include Vanhoozer’s paper and a new response from Oord.

James M. Arcadi is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Analytic Theology Project at Fuller Theological Seminary and a Templeton Research Fellow in the Jewish Philosophical Theology Project at the Herzl Institue. He completed his PhD in Theology and Religious Studies from the University of Bristol where he focused on a philosophical explication of the doctrine of the Eucharist.

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