Drama of Doctrine: Vanhoozer Responds

The following is a response by Kevin Vanhoozer to my review of his book The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology. It is Kevin’s and my joint hope that this interchange may contribute to better understanding in the service of evangelical theology and the fruitful collaboration of biblical studies and systematic theology.

Dear Andreas,

I suppose the most important thing to say at present, in the post-Beckwith era, is that I am hardly on the road to Rome! In fact, one of my chief purposes was to rehabilitate the principle of sola Scriptura in an environment that is far from conducive to it. To the extent that I am successful, I think I also strengthen the strong right exegetical arm of OT and NT biblical scholars like yourself.

A few comments:

1. Lindbeck’s work was an “occasion” for my book, but neither he nor Balthasar were inspirations. I had already begun thinking in theodramatic terms before I found Balthasar, and on material questions we differ quite often. To be honest, the most important motivation of the book was to offer evangelicals a “third way” which was distinct from propositionalism and from the postconservativism of Grenz and Franke. I wondered whether or not I should employ that term, but then I remembered Luther’s comment: “Why should the devil have all the good tunes?”

2. I am critical only of cognitive-propositionalism to the extent that it is reductionistic, that it, when it ignores either the special contribution of the Bible’s literary forms or the needs of the present pastoral context. I’m not entirely reactionary; I actually was seeking to build on the best of Henry tempered by the best of Bernard Ramm.

3. On the role of the dramaturge, two things: (a) the biblical scholar clearly has input here in getting the text right; (b) there is no reason why the pastor cannot also be a dramaturge. In fact, I imply as much in the conclusion. Giving sapiential sermons is the pastor’s prime directive, and it consists in giving sound direction—understanding—to the congregation.

4. My “theory” of language consists merely in acknowledging language as discourse—something someone says to someone in some way about something—and in recognizing that speaking is a form of doing. I actually prefer to speak of communicative acts, in part to distinguish myself from the technicalities of speech act theory (itself a divided philosophical house).

5. Your summary is fair for the most part, with one glaring exception: I do not call for a “hermeneutic of pneumatic reception” but criticize it: “To suggest that the way the church receives the word determines what God is saying and doing in the Bible is to wreak havoc with the economy of divine discourse” (p. 193). If you re-read that section (189–93) I think you’ll see that I’m describing Performance II interpretation only to distance myself from it.

6. It’s interesting that I get criticized both for imposing a Reformed theological grid and for being too ecumenical! Which is it?

7. I’m under no illusion that I have not ironed out all the wrinkles (or exegetical implications) of my position. It was intended as a programmatic vision statement (it actually began as a clarion call at a conference at Regent College where I went head-to-head with Stan Grenz). I am still hopeful that others will come on board and help me to address the “technical” issues.

8. I see what you mean with regard to my comment about “cultural imperialism” and Acts 15. In fact, what I meant to say was that the Jerusalem Council agreed not to impose Jewish requirements on Gentile Christians—in short, they refrained from imposing Jewish “culture” (religious culture) on the Gentiles. But I think the point you mention—that they are acknowledging the work of the Spirit outside the boundaries of the old covenant—is in fact the main point.

9. On biblical theology: my use of Gundry’s unpublished paper should be seen in conjunction with the point and reference I make to his published work on p. 355 n. 156. Of course, he is not the only person to make such points, but he was my first and most important mentor, so I do have a tendency to dialogue with him. Would you say that there is only one Christology in the NT, by the way? It seems to me that the Evangelists do not all identify Jesus as the Christ with the same recipe. I think their descriptions are compatible with one another, but I do not think that they can, or should, be reduced to a single model. This may be the nub of our most important difference (see #15 below), and it is a rich one: who would have thought that the NT scholar would be defending unity and coherence against the systematician who seeks justice for the many?!

10. I have no problem with the more traditional ways of relating the OT and NT, but to consider them would have called for another book. The approach I wanted to suggest in The Drama of Doctrine was that the NT is an improvisation (in the technical sense that I present in the book) on the OT. But I agree with you that more could, and should, be said.

11. I continue to think that the theodramatic model works very well, not least because I’m not sure it’s only a model! The gospel literally has do to with the speech and acts of God and with the way we participate (respond) to them. As far as my collapsing the actor/audience distinction, this is a very common practice if you read about the theory of interactive theater. In collapsing the distinction, then, I’m actually on the cutting edge of drama theory. For the record, I do think the pastor is ideally both actor and dramaturge as well, but I also see pastors and theologians as special actors who also have special vocations (e.g., directing).

12. It is indeed interesting to speculate about the biblical support for the key metaphor of the dramaturge. But the same, I suppose, could be asked with regard to the systematic theologian! Where does one see that (me!) modeled in Scripture: the prophets? the evangelists? Paul?

13. Carl Henry said the right thing at the right time. I acknowledge that. But I also happen to know that he did not think that the literary forms of the Bible were theologically significant, because he told me so to my face! He said that they had nothing whatsoever to contribute as far as the Bible’s truth was concerned. I disagreed then, and I still do … I did make an effort, however, to say that Henry was not the villain (see 267–68)!

14. On why theologians should not go looking for timeless truth: I would rather say that theologians should be on the lookout for time-full truth—for truths that are true at all times. Christianity is incarnational; the truth of Jesus Christ may be embodied at all times, but not at no-time. So I affirm universal truth, but want to nuance “universal” so that it is eminently temporal, not non-temporal. I wonder if a non-temporal truth can even be applied or brought to bear on our time-bound human reality. I think it’s clear that I affirm propositional truth; that’s why I’m attacked by liberals and postliberals and Grenzian postconservatives!

15. Your most weighty concern: I take this seriously, and you have framed it well. The challenge for me is to affirm plurality (which I think is biblical) but not pluralism (which I think is not biblical). In other words, I see real diversity (not contradiction!) in Scripture, but I do not think that this need lead to an anything-goes relativism. I agree with Bakhtin: some truths take more than one voice (read “conceptual scheme”) to be articulated. I would say the same thing about metaphors with regard to the saving significance of Jesus’ cross.

Having said that, I’m not happy with Joel Green’s “kaleidoscopic” view of the atonement, because on his view it sounds as though one perspective is as good as another. The Reformed theologian in me wants to privilege one perspective; the “catholic” evangelical in me wants to acknowledge that more than one perspective is needed to have a full articulation of canonical truth.

My position is not logically fallacious unless one imports the prior assumption that biblical truth is coherent in the (narrow) sense that it can be given what I call “epic” formulation in a single conceptual scheme. My own working assumption is that biblical truth has a dialogical coherence and a dialogical unity. I know this is strange for a systematic theologian to say, but I feel I must say it in order to remain biblical: “Here I stand, I can do no other!”

I disagree that my position is that of Bauer’s and Ehrman’s. I am holding up as authoritative not the plurality in the early church but precisely the theological plurality in the canon itself. We evangelicals need to continue this important discussion, both biblical scholars and theologians. My ultimate goal, after all, is to be biblical. But the question I have been pursuing for years is “What exactly does it mean to be biblical?” I too affirm the ultimate coherence and unity of biblical truth, but I feel constrained to qualify it as a “plural unity.” Elsewhere I have called it a “Pentecostal plurality.” To my mind, only such an acknowledgement can save us from succumbing to interpretative pride, which is the belief that only my way of looking at the Scriptures is the right one. Here I want to raise a question of my own concerning baptism: is it possible that on some doctrinal points the Bible may be underdetermined?

In conclusion, I think we both want to affirm the Bible’s multi-perspectival truth. Ironically, the key difference between us may lie not in our estimate concerning the genre not of Scripture but of systematic theology. But this, I have to confess, is something I am still very much working through…

Thanks again for your fair read and stimulating questions!

Yours in Christ,

Discover more from Biblical Foundations

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.