Reading Scripture, Remythologizing Love

God is Love

I recently picked up a copy of Kevin Vanhoozer’s Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship. As an amateur reader, I’m not qualified to comment at length about his argument (I’m also barely 1/3 of the way through). Vanhoozer’s remythologizing is actually a response against certain strands of liberal theology, which “demythologize” God, debunking the idea that God is some supernatural being “out there.” To quote Rudolf Bultmann: “The question of God and the question of myself are identical.” Thus, liberal theology collapses the God/world distinction. In contrast to the demythologizers, Vanhoozer starts with the fact that God speaks. God is a God who communicates to us and says things about Himself. But Vanhoozer is not only serious about what God says, but also about how God says what He says.

At least, that’s what I’ve gathered so far (my apologies if you stumbled onto this blog expecting a review/critique of Vanhoozer’s work).

Well, all that heavy theologizing got me thinking about the relationship between God’s Word and my main area of service (youth group). In particular, I wonder whether the conscience of our upcoming youth takes its cues from culture or from the sound doctrine of Scripture. There is evidence, I think, that we’ve been lulled into thinking about God on our terms, rather than thinking about ourselves on His terms.

Take, for example, the way we talk about God’s love. As a volunteer in my church’s youth group (myself being a graduate of evangelical youth culture), I have seen how middle-school, high-school, even college age students latch onto the idea of love as the preferred way of thinking about, talking about, and relating to God. God loves us, we say, and we ought to love God back. Love is the catch-all term. No doubt, “God is Love,” as 1 John 4:16 says. Unfortunately, I fear that our concept of love is derived not from Scripture, but from our favorite worship song/band, Christian book, or (even worse) pop culture. Instead of seeking to understand the covenant-keeping love proclaimed in the Word, we content ourselves with speaking of God’s love in romantically-driven, politically-correct, or moralistic terms.

  • Romantically-driven: For example, how many of our favorite worship songs might as well be love songs? It’s a problem when replacing every occurrence of “God” or “Jesus” with your girlfriend’s/boyfriend’s name doesn’t really make a difference in the song.
  • Politically-correct: When we, in the name of love, condone lifestyles (not just homosexuality, mind you, but also, say, premarital sex) that are clearly prohibited in Scripture, we can be sure that our concept of love comes more from culture rather than from Christ.
  • Moralistic: Too often, our practice of Christianity amounts to being “nice” to each other so that we can all be “happy.”

This will not do. To quote Vanhoozer (quoting another author), “Projecting even our best thoughts about love falls short of the divine reality: ‘When we equate God simply with anything that is true, good, or beautiful, then it is those things which define God, rather than God who defines them’ ” (176). We must not make God in our own image, constructing a bigger version – an idol – of ourselves. Romantic love blown up to superhuman proportions is not the love of God. This is to commit the mistake of the Greeks, whose gods were merely humans, super-sized. It is to demythologize God, collapsing the distinction between Creator and creature.

Humans are prone to idolatry. To counteract this tendency, our patterns of thought must always be renewed by Scripture. Vanhoozer puts it well (161-2):

The solution is to focus on the form of Jesus Christ. While human individuals and societies image God inconsistently, the person of Jesus – and this includes his way of relating to others – is the “image of the invisible God” (Cor 1:15). The New Testament fills out with specific content what would otherwise remain abstract, identifying the image that Jesus makes visible with “true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24; cf. Col 3:10-15). Even these notions need to be “earthed,” and we do this by identifying them with the concrete pattern of action, reaction, and interaction that characterizes the life of Jesus. That means attending to the Biblical mythos that renders his identity.

To understand God’s love rightly, we must look at Jesus Christ, and this means paying attention to what God has said in the Bible. Again, this is not the Jesus of pop culture, the buddy Jesus, or anyone other than the Jesus attested to and revealed in Scripture. Vanhoozer takes God’s speaking seriously, and so should we. To speak truly of God, we must allow His way of speaking of Himself to shape our way of speaking of Him.

This is not to say that worship songs or other secondary sources are unhelpful. These should serve a ministerial (pointing us towards God) rather than a magisterial (defining God for us) function. Songs extolling God’s love will lead us into the heart of worship only if our knowledge of His love is constantly being informed and renewed by Scripture. There is no true worship without an understanding of His Word.

So I’ll end this post where Vanhoozer begins his book – with God speaking in the Scriptures. Working through Vanhoozer’s Remythologizing has reminded me of the importance of reading the Bible and reading it well. “All Scripture is God-breathed” and has the power to change the way we live, think, and act. That’s something we all need to hear. May God have mercy on us, for unless He first speaks to us, our best thoughts will still fall short of His glory.

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