The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology

Kevin J. Vanhoozer Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville August 2, 2005

Vanhoozer served eight years as senior lecturer in theology at the University of Edinburgh before becoming research professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. As “one of the most significant voices of our generation” according to Alister McGrath, Vanhoozer has authored and edited a number of books before this acclaimed volume.

Vanhoozer keynotes this book with his concern over doctrine’s “strange disappearance in the church.” He notes that “there is no place for doctrine in the exegetical inn” (p. 20). The problem, he suggests, is that doctrine has been presented as lifeless and irrelevant in the preceding century, a time when postmodern philosophers took a significant cultural-linguistic turn from “objective theory” to the embodiment of interpretation in practice. “Sound doctrine is suffering from confusion about its nature, from disagreement concerning the locus of its authority, and above all from its captivity to a debilitating dichotomy between theory and practice” (p. 3). So “it is precisely out of a concern for the contemporary situation of the church that this book is written” (p. 23).

In an era of epochal changes Vanhoozer takes his cue from George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1984), which proposed a “postliberal” position that grounded theological meaning in ecclesial traditions. Consequently “tradition, it would seem, effectively trumps Scripture” (p. 12). So Vanhoozer proposes a new paradigm for understanding theology based on drama as his structural metaphor. The various aspects of theater are his hermeneutical lens through which he seeks to understand the wisdom of theology for contemporary settings. He summarizes the result as follows: “The present book sets forth a postconservative, canonical-linguistic theology and a directive theory of doctrine that roots theology more firmly in Scripture while preserving Lindbeck’s emphasis on practice” (p. xiii).

Vanhoozer argues that the gospel is the triune “theo-drama” of redemption, which is God’s “communicative action” in Jesus Christ. This language resonates throughout the book. It means that “doctrine proceeds from an authoritative script and gives direction as to how individuals and the church can perform fittingly in the drama” (p. 78). “Life is divine-human interactive theater,” he emphasizes, “and theology involves both what God has said and done for the world and what we must say and do in grateful response” (pp. 37–38; cf. 46–48, 65–66). Sound doctrine must be “lived knowledge,” a performance of “the way, truth, and life in the church” (p. 21). “Theo-drama” involves relationships in which Christians perform truthful propositions (beliefs), experiences (feelings), and narratives (actions) to reflect God’s comprehensive revelation in Christ (p. 110).

Vanhoozer suggests that theo-dramatic theology will bridge two “ugly ditches” in the church. One ditch separates theory from practice, and the other separates exegesis from theology. “The great irony of modern biblical studies, however, is that doctrinal considerations have been excluded from any significant role in the exegetical task, thus preventing exegetes from fully engaging with the primary subject matter of the biblical texts: the word of God” (p. 20).

God’s drama of redemption consists of five acts. The first act is creation, the setting for everything that follows. Act 2 is God’s election, rejection, and restoration of Israel. The third and definitive act is the first advent of Christ and His accomplishment of the gospel. Act 4, the burden of the book, begins with Christ’s resurrection and the coming of the Spirit to create the church. The final act is the conclusion of the eschaton with the church “poised between memory and hope” (p. 3). The drama proceeds with five “core convictions” about Jesus, the Trinity, the Scriptures, the sacraments, and continuity of the people of God (p. 132).

Theo-dramatic doctrine must be both “evangelical” and “catholic.” Vanhoozer maintains that “the core ‘evangelical’ conviction is that God has spoken and acted in Jesus Christ, and that God speaks and acts in the canonical Scriptures that testify to him” (p. 26). However, theology must be “catholic” as well, meaning “the whole people of God, spread out over space, across cultures, and through time” (p. 27). This emphasis is important for creative, nonreductive emphases later in the book.

In part 2 Vanhoozer raises the question, What is the role of the Bible in theo-drama? The canonical Scriptures are “the church’s script, the authorized version of the theo-drama, the constitution of the church, and the locus of authority when it comes to doctrinal direction for the church’s fitting participation in the ongoing drama” (p. 239). He states that the Scriptures are “the supreme norm for Christian doctrine” and the “guardrails of tradition” (p. 113). As such, they “arbitrate conflicting views as to what God is like” (p. 6).

The Bible governs canonical practices because it is the Word of God (pp. 63, 150). “Whose play is it?” Vanhoozer asks, “God’s. Why does it matter? . . . . One is either in God’s play or in a drama of one’s own making” (p. 183). Therefore “divine authority ultimately belongs to God alone . . . . The canon is the locus for God’s communicative action—past, present, and future—the divinely approved means by which God exercises his authority in, and over, the church” (p. 124; cf. 97, 177, 279). “Jesus Christ is the content of the Scriptural witness, the one who interprets the Old Testament witness, and the one who commissions the New Testament witness. Accordingly, Jesus is both the material and the formal principle of the canon: Its substance and its hermeneutic” (p. 195).

The Scriptures confront God’s people with their need for faith and obedience. The Spirit is the dramatist who authors the script and directs the church’s performance (pp. 102, 179). He “keeps the Word, who is Christ, the one who keeps ministering that Word to us” (p. 202). Inspiration is the Spirit’s prompting human authors “to say just what the divine playwright intended” (p. 227). Illumination is His “bringing about understanding of Scripture among present-day readers” (p. 226) or making the communicative acts of the text efficacious (p. 67).

In this perspective the Bible is a “covenant document” rather than a propositional handbook about truth claims as objective realities (pp. 5, 71, 132, 199, 301). As a covenantal document, the Bible is a performative act of the triune God that promotes Christian piety and practice (pp. 63–64, 70, 100). It is the living vehicle of the Word and the Spirit (p. 114). Sola scriptura, accordingly, is Spirit-enabled participation in the Christological practices of Scripture (pp. 22, 197, 212, 231–37). It is “less textbook than playbook . . . . for understanding the divine drama and for continuing participation in it” (p. 145).

How are Christians to understand the language of divine theater (part 3)? At a crucial juncture of the book Vanhoozer proposes six criteria that enable a diverse church to participate fittingly in the canonically prescribed drama of redemption. The first three—postpropositional, postconservative, postfoundational—address theology as exegetical scientia (chap. 9). They enliven canonical practices and prevent the Scriptures from becoming “a source of data for a theoretical science” (p. 219). The second triad—prosaic, phronetic, prophetic—has special reference to the contemporary situation and to theology as a practical source of wisdom (p. 240). “The drama of doctrine is about refining the dross of textual knowledge into the gold of Christian wisdom,” using imagination and improvisation to make good theological judgments about Christological practices (pp. 21, 30, 278–81).

How do the Scriptures and tradition compare in the divine drama? The author argues that they are inseparable. On the one hand tradition (lower case) is the historically connected life, language, beliefs, and practices of the church that preserve the Word of God through time and space (p. 155). On the other hand Tradition (upper case) is the work of the Spirit that ministers the words of Jesus, the words about Jesus, and the Word which is Jesus across generations and cultures (pp. 191, 208).

A third emphasis in the book is on the performance of doctrine in the church (part 4). The author summarizes this final section of the book as “life bent on performing the Scriptures that attest to the covenant and its climax, the person and work of Jesus Christ” (p. 361). The church is “the theater of the gospel,” which is to render—to translate, represent, and give back—the saving Word of God in the power of the Spirit (pp. 418–19).

The Bible and its theology draw the people of God into communicative action for the sake of communion (pp. 16, 35, 107–8, 424). Indeed performance is the connecting link that holds canonical script, doctrine, and church practices together (pp. 74, 184). The corporate performance of the church features the sacraments, which are the crucial communicative actions of the theo-drama.

An assessment of The Drama of Doctrine must begin with appreciation for its numerous strengths. With extraordinary erudition, Vanhoozer has demonstrated how the humanities can enrich theological studies and perhaps alleviate the undeniable decline of doctrine in a postmodern setting. He surveys leading linguistic philosophers, literary critics, and theologians, and in doing so he is consistently gracious and even-handed. His command of the history of doctrine is exemplary. He presents a high view of God’s Word, Trinitarian doctrines, and the importance of the church’s mission in the world. The author gives his readers fresh insights into selected Scriptures like Philip’s Gaza road experience (pp. 116–20) and the Atonement (chap. 12). His emphasis on the practical involvement of all believers in gospel ministry is important, and his insistence on the “catholicity” of the church reflects sensitivity to contemporary and cross-cultural ministries.

A superficial reading of the book will give the impression that it is merely a recasting of confessional doctrine in theatrical terms. However, the book is more than its structural metaphor. Vanhoozer seeks to recapture doctrine’s prestige in public discourse by shifting the church’s hermeneutical paradigm. He claims that “the core” of his book is “a fresh proposal concerning the nature of doctrine. . . . The drama of doctrine involves both propositions and practices, each of which has legitimate claim to the epithet ‘true’ ” (p. 78). His “new proposal concerning the nature of doctrine” (p. 35) recalls Calvin’s use of creation as a theatrum mundi. The use of visible metaphors for God’s revelation was already common in the Middle Ages. Furthermore Vanhoozer uses the covenant lawsuit (pp. 21–25) and Hosea (p. 51) as biblical precedents for his theatrical grid.

The author acknowledges objections to the metaphor, which has been characterized as the “mask” of “play-acting,” suggesting hypopcrisy. His answer is that biblical theater calls believers to portray their true identity in Christ rather than a sinful, social façade. “While sin encourages hypocrisy, doctrine fosters authenticity” (p. 369). He acknowledges “that few today would associate the apostle [Paul] with the theater” (p. 414), but he insists that all Christians should be characterized by Christ’s reconciling work on the cross (p. 380; chap. 12).

An additional concern is the impression that the “cultural-linguistic turn” is the paradigm shift that exposed doctrine’s anemia (pp. 9, 142, 146). “The great discovery of twentieth-century philosophy of language, however, is precisely the speech-act. After a century or so of detailed analysis of sense, predication, and reference, Anglo-American philosophers discovered the ‘illocution,’ namely, the notion that we do something in speaking” (p. 63). And “the recovery of narrative by theologians in the 1980s rightly redirected attention to the way in which Scripture depicts the identity of God . . . and shapes Christian identity” (p. 48). These discoveries, he maintains, give opportunity to reassess doctrine in a scientific world that flounders on issues of meaning (pp. 1–2). One can agree that the linguistic developments were significant and that “real life and meaning” must be grounded in one’s identity in Christ (pp. 2, 375–78). On the other hand technologically advanced societies are not “flummoxed with regard to the question of life’s meaning” (p. 1). If meaning is “an affair of context” (p. 311), then people need to use their one chance at life with gusto. Thus one sees passionate attempts to win competitions, endless celebrations of self-congratulatory “accomplishments,” and hedonistic escapes in fleshly gratifications. Multitudes do not seem to be disturbed that they are entertaining themselves to death. Obviously, a huge gulf exists between different concepts of meaning in life.

If modernism and science are as closely related as many scholars have claimed, then is the world as comprehensively “postmodern” as others have argued? The reviewer is less inclined to see neat paradigmatic shifts in a world that seems to be a boiling cauldron of “equally valid” options. This social potpourri has found its way into the church, which makes the challenge even more formidable than Vanhoozer suggests. In reading this book the reviewer found himself wishing that a chaotic world could be as comprehensible as the author’s presentation.

Vanhoozer’s position is a “middle ground” between a propositional tradition (Hegel, Hodge, and Henry; pp. 84–85, 265–68) and a praxiological tradition (Schleiermacher, Lindbeck, Frei; pp. 6–12, 167–76). While his argument for a mediating theo-drama is generally clear, his quest for a postconservative position leads him on two cloudy detours that obscure his theological destination.

First, the book suffers from the author’s penchant for prefixes and labels. “Post-” is the most obvious: modern, liberal, conservative, propositional, and foundational (e.g., chap. 9). One problem is that the prefix assumes a clear understanding of the prior position such as “post-propositionalism.” This in turn leads to disconcerting disclaimers and theo-dramatic redefinitions of commonly understood terms. He emphatically and repeatedly maintains that the variety of biblical genres supports “polyphonic” and “dialogic” truth and cannot be reduced to revelational data that “monologically” teaches doctrine. True, variety in the biblical literature should not be poured into a single mold, and one can appreciate Vanhoozer’s eloquence in reference to the dramatic aspects of the Scriptures. However, he admits “the gospel does inform: ‘He is risen.’ Without this propositional core, the church would be evacuated of its raison d’être” (p. 91; cf. p. 265). He claims, “The present work seeks neither to bury nor to praise the proposition but to reclaim it” (p. 88; cf. pp. 276–78). One wonders if his dramatization of the proposition may be reducing the entire Bible to drama, and if he has respected past scholars, who entered “theaters of martyrdom” on behalf of canonical truth. If his appeal is to make wise judgments (e.g., pp. 30, 340–44), then he is writing for a sizeable company of believers worldwide, who are already trying to serve faithfully against formidable opponents.

A second example of Vanhoozer’s propensity for prefixes occurs with the “locution” of the linguistic turn: il-, pre-, and inter- (e.g., pp. 63–68). The problem with these technical terms is not disclaimer but discernment. Readers with training in linguistic philosophy will appreciate the author’s expertise and insight. His linguistic theology is worthy of serious consideration. However, will many readers who want to revitalize doctrine appreciate the “meaning potential” (p. 352) of triune illocutions?

“This book is written for those who wish to be part of the ongoing conversation concerning the nature and purpose of Christian doctrine and the future of theology after modernity. It is written for those theologians (and this includes pastors and laypersons) who have not yet lost interest in theology” (p. 25). His style assumes a learned readership. The book will be too “conservative” for “postliberals” and too “liberal” for propositional foundationalists. However, it contains a treasury of information and is an exemplar of theological method with its balanced treatment of the biblical canon, ecclesial traditions, and Christian experience. It is a lengthy book with fine print and numerous footnotes. It has well-placed summaries and helpful italicized summary statements. The author should be commended for his desire to transpose truth into everyday life (pp. 310, 434), which is extensively developed in his more recent work, Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007). Even in that book students may struggle with his discussion of linguistic theory. In The Drama of Doctrine he has played the role of dramaturge for the contemporary church very well.

—J. Lanier Burns

July 1, 2009

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2009 vol. 166 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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