One of the things I enjoy most about college ministry is that I’m often forced to think through whether I actually understand all the nerdy, academic theology I read. Exhibit A: Kevin Vanhoozer’s Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship is easily one of the top five most nerdy, theological texts I own. I’ve read it twice and constantly find myself coming back to it, even though it’s not something I’d teach a college Bible study through.
Case in point: just last week I happened to mention the text around one my college students and she immediately wanted to know what “remythologizing” was.
I mean, when someone asks you about Vanhoozer, what are you supposed to do? Ignore it?
That launched us into an hour-long discussion explaining the difference between systematic theology and biblical theology, Bultmann and demythologizing, the confluence of God, scripture, and hermeneutics that Vanhoozer calls “first theology” and so much more. (She asked very good questions.) In the middle of this crash course, I ended up talking through Vanhoozer’s “10 Theses on Remythologizing.”
Inspired by Lewis’ dictum that, if you can’t put it in common English, you probably don’t know it, I attempted to translate the theses into normal-person speak for my intelligent, but non-expert student.
Given that not many people have read this very important text yet–and it is very important text, one of the most important in the last 20 years, probably–I figured I’d attempt a command performance of the on the spot translation summary act I did for my student the other night, only in print, and maybe not as sloppy. Maybe. I’ll essentially be trying to translate Vanhoozer’s own elaborations on the theses, in plain(er), Rishmawy-language.
Ten Theses On Remythologizing
Briefly, in many ways Vanhoozer’s project is kind of a counter-point to Bultmann’s program of ‘demythologization’ that de-storifed (mythos is story) the Gospels into timeless existential truths. In contrast, Vanhoozer’s aim is to take seriously the shape and form of the story of Scripture as God’s own communication to us of Who he is, while also avoiding Feuerbach’s notion that all god-talk is simply human projections of our best attributes onto the screen of eternity. So Vanhoozer puts forward his own program of “remythologizing” that he initially summarizes in these ten theses.
One key term to know is “theodrama”, which simply smashes “theos” and “drama” together in order to speak of the divine actions in redemptive history (God doing stuff in the story of the Bible). When Vanhoozer says, “theodramatic”, it basically means “having to do with God doing and saying stuff in the Bible.”
The italicized quotations are his, and again, the rest is my attempt at translation:
1. “Remythologizing is not a “fall back into myth” but a spring forward into metaphysics.” (27) This is not about mythologizing the text, taking us back to all-too-human gods of myth, but taking seriously the mythos, the plot, of the biblical storyline to see what it reveals to us about the nature of God and the world. What must the God who acts in this story be like in order to do and say the kinds of things we see in the biblical narrative. To do that, we have to pay attention to the narrative very closely.
2. “Remythologizing means recovering the “who” of biblical discourse.” (28) At its heart, remythologizing is a project focused on the main character of the drama, God, who presents himself to us in the Scriptures through Word and Spirit. What attributes and characteristics does this God show himself to have in light of what he says about himself?
3. “Remythologizing means attending to the triune “who” of communicative action.” (28) Remythologizing is necessarily trinitarian theology because the one doing the saying in the narrative is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (or, Father, Word, & Breath). That will shape the way we understand God’s self-communication.
4. “Remythologizing conceives the God–world relation in primarily communicative rather than causal terms.” (28) Instead of more classical categories like ‘causality’, which has some more physicalist connotations, Vanhoozer wants to rethink God’s relation to the world on the analogy of communication. The God of Scripture is a speaking God who brings us the world into being through speech and saves it through his Word. That should shape the way we conceive things.
5. “Remythologizing means rethinking metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics alike in theodramatic terms.” (29) Instead of trying to shove the story of the Gospel into some pre-made grid like modern science, history, or secular metaphysics, Vanhoozer wants us to do things the other way around. Instead, the story of the Gospel is the criterion by which we judge all else. In fact, it generates its own metaphysical categories around God’s communication made flesh, Jesus Christ.
6. “Remythologizing means faith seeking, and demonstrating, theodramatic understanding through fitting participation in the triune communicative action.” (29) Theology is not a neutral affair. To understand God’s actions in Christ truly, there is an active element. I must be trying to situate myself within the story appropriately for this work to be properly undertaken. (This was a tough one.)
7. “Remythologizing means taking Christ, together with the Spirit-breathed canon that the living Word commissions, as the chief means of God’s self-presentation and communication.” (29) “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” ( Heb. 1:1–2). Remythologizing pays attention both to the grand story of Scripture and the Incarnation at the center, as well as the various genres, modes, and methods God has used within it to communicate himself to us. In fact, the Scriptures not only report God’s communication, but are, in fact, part of the action.
8. “Remythologizing is a form of biblical reasoning, a matter of thinking about the subject matter along the various forms of biblical discourse that present it.” (29) It’s not a matter of thinking or reading the Bible, but thoughtfully paying attention to the way the Bible teaches us to think. For instance, paying attention to the particular way a metaphor is used to communicate truth as opposed to a straightforward syllogism.
9. “Remythologizing means attending to biblical polyphony and recognizing the dialogical nature of theodramatic testimony and theological truth.” (30) God isn’t a boring communicator and the subject matter is too grand to be captured in simple fashion. Vanhoozer’s project is about paying attention to all the different ways and means, as well as angles (history, eschatology, ontology) and perspectives (divine, human, powers) from which the truth is communicated in order to “do justice” to the diverse voices in Scripture. Remythologizing shouldn’t result in flat theology.
10. “In sum, remythologizing is best defined in contrast to demythologizing as a type of first theology.” (30) First theology is how your doctrine of God, Scripture, and hermeneutics all play into one another. Remythologizing is Vanhoozer’s proposal for how that all should go together in light of the triune God’s communicating activity in the theodrama of Scripture.
Of course, Vanhoozer does much more than just put forward a methodology in this work. He shows you what he means by all of this in the process of doing some real theology involving close reading of texts, addressing issues in the doctrine of God in like the Creator/creature relationship as well as God’s impassibility, developing a doctrine of the Trinity along the lines of communicative categories, and bridging the gap between Thomism and Barthianism. Among other things.
The long and the short of it, though, is that remythologizing is a renewed program of thinking about God on the basis of what God has said and done in Jesus Christ and the Scriptures in the power of the Spirit. In many ways, it’s simply a retooling, a new articulation of a very old approach. Of course, as Pascal says, “Let no one say I have said nothing new; the arrangement of the material is new. In playing tennis both players play the same ball, but one plays it better.”
Vanhoozer plays the ball quite well in our postmodern context and theologians of all stripes would do well to learn from this master theological re-arranger.
Soli Deo Gloria