Blogging toward Sunday

September 4, 2007

The church’s hymnody too readily assumes that the potter-clay imagery
in scripture is only about God exerting unilateral power and God’s
people being passive. Consider “Have Thine Own Way Lord” (p. 382 in the
Methodist Hymnal), or the chorus I grew up with in England: “You are
the potter/I am the clay/Help me to be willing/To let you have your
way.”

I’d humbly like to suggest that this refrain is far from the whole picture.

The
biblical references to clay find the clay answering the potter:
“Remember that you fashioned me like clay; and will you turn me to dust
again?” (Job 10:9); “Does the clay say to the one who fashions it,
‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’” (Isa. 45:9)? In
Jeremiah 18 it is the very resistance and responsiveness of the clay
that matters.

The Bible depicts God’s relationship with people
as a genuine relationship because it is responsive. How people respond
to God matters to God, and affects how God responds to people. The
divine relationship is analogous to human relationships—which are
necessarily mutual and developing (or else withering away). But
theologians resist such anthropomorphisms: does this mean God changes?
Is God somehow conditioned by his creatures? Jeremiah 18 leads us into
treacherous territory: to explore the nature of God’s impassibility
(and the once-declared heresy of passibility).

But the very
manner in which God speaks to his people through prophets is
intrinsically relational. Thanks to Brueggemann in particular, the
church is waking up to the fact that Old Testament prophetic language
is not neutral or merely descriptive (“Jack loves Jill”) but
expressive, engaging, committing—always seeking to evoke a response (“I
love you”). Precisely because the language seeks a response, its
outworking will depend on the nature of that response. An announcement
of coming disaster, for example, implicitly seeks a response that will
enable the disaster to be averted. This complicates the whole notion of
the fulfillment of prophecy.

Here in Jeremiah 18:1-12, we find
the paradigmatic explanation. The early verses offer the background
picture familiar from our hymnody: the potter has total mastery over
clay. But the imagery allows for depicting sovereignty and flexibility.
Phew. God’s plans do not function like blueprints—whereby one mistake
ruins everything. When things go wrong there is scope for new
initiative and re-creation. God re-cycles! I think in terms of my own
attempts at pottery: the vase whose sides collapsed while still on the
wheel, splaying outwards fan-like to become an ashtray my mother still
treasures. Or the jug that lost a handle and became a vase.

God
does not disregard people’s behavior and responsiveness; God can and
does change God’s mind! However, the changeable dimension of God’s
action is not unpredictable or random. God’s changeability applies
constantly, making it possible both to gain divine favor and also to
lose it. The potter responds to what the clay presents according to a
moral, relational framework. Karl Barth called this the “holy
mutability of God.” Quoting from Church Dogmatics (II:1, 496), “His
constancy consists in the fact that He is always the same in every
change. . . .But His consistency is not as it were mathematical. . .
.He is the living God. . . .He possesses a mobility and elasticity
which is no less divine that His perseverance.”

Does this
relational responsiveness restrict God’s sovereignty? I think not,
although the point is deliberately paradoxical. Amidst imagery that
emphasizes God’s supreme power (v. 6) we find an explication of the
“restrictions” according to which God acts (vv.7-10). God does not
vacillate—nor does he need to “repent of some beastly purpose and
behave like any fair-minded liberal” (Robin Lane Fox, The Unauthorized Version,
p. 331). This text leads us beyond simple equations of power and
powerlessness. We need to grasp God’s bilateral relational sovereignty.
This potter does not function arbitrarily: there is far too much
investment in the clay for that. Rather, God responds to the moral or
immoral actions of people.