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The Drama of Doctrine: A Review

Clearly, Kevin Vanhoozer’s book The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Westminster John Knox, 2005) is not for the faint-hearted. It is a hermeneutical tour de force with ample Latin terms pressed into service (scientia, sapientia, habitus, theoria, technē, phronesis, et al., et al., ad nauseam; how about including a Glossary in any future editions?) and Vanhoozerian wordsmithing galore. Vanhoozer’s main sources of inspiration for his volume are two: (1) George Lindbeck and his 1984 The Nature of Doctrine; and (2) Hans Urs von Balthasar and his 5-volume Theo-drama. From the former he borrows part of his title, and develops his canonical-linguistic approach (see p. 294 for a helpful comparison and contrast between Lindbeck’s cultural-linguistic approach and his own); from the latter he takes the reigning metaphor of his volume, that of doctrine as drama (though Balthsadar nowhere offers an account of doctrine in dramatic terms, p. 84).

Vanhoozer bases his proposal on a particular theory of language which is indebted to speech act theory (Wittgenstein, Searle, etc.). He is very critical of a (cognitive-) propositional(ist) theology that reduces biblical revelations to propositions (Hodge, Henry, etc.; pp. 266–72, 276–91). In contrast, Vanhoozer proposes a theology that is postconservative (neither postliberal as Lindbeck nor conservative like Henry) and postfoundationalist (privileging neither propositional truth abstracted from the diverse literary genres of Scripture nor certain types of procedure for generating knowledge that abstract the knower from the process, p. 292)—a theology that is genre-sensitive, or, as Vanhoozer calls it, canonical-linguistic (personally, I do not think it wise for Vanhoozer to use the term “postconservative,” because it is sure to send the wrong signals to some might otherwise be open to considering his proposals).

The Players

Here is Vanhoozer’s theological cast:

The playwright: God

The drama: The history of redemption (Part One)

The script: The canon of Scripture (Part Two)

The dramaturge: Theologians (Part Three)

The director: The Holy Spirit, and pastors under him

The actors: All believers (Part Four)

According to Vanhoozer, the task of the theologian, as the dramaturge, is both manifold and vital. He seeks to help the players and the audience (collapsed into one in Vanhoozer’s proposal) to make sense of the script; he selects the proper edition or translation of the play (text criticism, translation); he researches the play to keep it historically accurate (historical background research); he thinks about the playwright’s intention (authorial intent); studies the play’s production history (the history of interpretation); and collaborates with the director on a compelling and coherent interpretation, paying attention to both detail and larger themes (p. 244). In all this, the dramaturge “works the drama” and serves as the liaison between playwright and director.

In essence, so Vanhoozer, it is the task of the theologian to supply believers with “direction for fitting participation in the drama of redemption” (as doctrine is defined on p. 102). The ultimate goal is not the study of Scripture, but rather action—participation in the covenantal theo-drama. As Vanhoozer puts it, alluding to the lame man in Jesus’ day, we must “take our script and walk” (p. 115). That script, in turn, is the canon, because the church must ensure that what gets passed on (tradition) are the dominical and apostolic practices embodied and preserved in the canonical Scriptures (pp. 120–22). In this Vanhoozer calls for canonical direction, not canonical control; the canon’s power lies not in the power of the church, but in the power of truth. (See in this regard Vanhoozer’s essay in a volume I edited, Whatever Happened to Truth?) The focus should not merely be on our beliefs, but on our performance. In fact, the focus should not be on our performance, but on God’s preceding performance, or, better still, on Scripture’s record of God’s covenantal performance and the way in which it serves as a script directing our contemporary performance (my emphasis and summary).

In short, Vanhoozer calls for a hermeneutic of pneumatic reception (p. 189). Helpfully, but not originally, Vanhoozer holds up perception as a sapiential virtue. (Schlatter, for example, proposed such a “hermeneutic of perception” almost a century ago.) Citing Martha Nussbaum, Vanhoozer says proper perception with regard to Scripture involves moral insight. We must cultivate perceptiveness and responsiveness, understood as developing an ability to read a situation and to single out what is relevant. Clearly, this is infinitely more adequate that the wooden mechanisms of principlization or that of distilling timeless, transcultural principles by some cut-and-dried mechanism as application is typically treated in a previous generation of hermeneutics textbooks.

Reformed Theology

To anticipate possible objections, some may say that Vanhoozer in this volume seeks to impose a Covenant-Reformed theological grid onto Scripture and to validate his theological system by fashioning a hermeneutic around it. Another criticism that might be lodged against his project is that, like N. T. Wright, Vanhoozer is a master of the grand synthesis, but not always equally adept in navigating more technical details. With regard to historical theology: Is Vanhoozer’s use of Tertullian on pp. 61–62 apropos when he says Tertullian raised the question of the interpreter’s qualifications? With regard to biblical studies: Is it adequate to say that the early church in Acts 15 sought to “renounce cultural imperialism”? (Or were the early Christians seeking to interpret the significance of relevant scriptural passages and adjudicate recent Spirit-initiated events with regard to Gentile inclusion in the Christian church?) With regard to biblical theology: In the discussion of “theological plenitude” (i.e. diversity in Scripture), is it adequate to use an unpublished paper by Robert Gundry as one’s major (only) source (p. 274), and to say that with regard to Jesus’ question “But who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15), “Matthew, writing for a Jewish audience, gives one answer; Luke gives another, more appropriate for Gentiles,” and then quickly move on to another topic? Do not both Matthew and Luke say that Jesus is the Messiah? Regarding the relationship between the Testaments: In what sense can it be said that the Old and the New Testaments are in “dialogue” with one another (pp. 290–91)? Vanhoozer devotes one paragraph to this, but much is left unsaid, and nothing is said about more conventional ways of construing the OT-NT relationship in terms of typology, prediction-fulfillment, and the like.

The Theatrical Set of Metaphors

Another observation might be that at times the theatrical set of metaphors does not seem to fit very well and may need adjusting. To give but one example, in most plays actors perform, while the audience watches; in Vanhoozer’s proposal the audience is doing the performing and thus combining both functions into one. One wonders in this regard if there is not room, even in light of the priesthood of the believer, for special “actors” such as gifted, appointed office-holders called “pastor-teachers.”

Also, in the doctoral seminar I am teaching in which Vanhoozer’s book is one of the required texts, a fascinating discussion ensued when one student queried where one can find biblical support for Vanhoozer’s dramaturge. Someone proposed Ezra as an early prototype, or wise men who advised OT kings; another set forth Philip the evangelist who helped the Ethiopian understand what he read (cited by Vanhoozer on pp. 116–17); yet another suggested NT scribes such as Matthew the evangelist, who brought out of their exegetical storehouse treasures both old and new (Matt. 13:52); or Paul, whose letters and apostolic ministry transcended local church ministry. (A not-so-serious proposal suggested the apocryphal “Epistle of Kevin” as a possible source for the Vanhoozerian dramaturge.)

Another question that was raised pertains to Vanhoozer’s separation between dramaturge and director: What of the possibility of dramaturge-directors? Could a pastor’s role not be that of dramaturge as well as director? One thinks of contemporary examples such as John Piper or Tom Wright in this regard, men of God who serve both in the academic arena and in local church ministry.

Vanhoozer’s Critique of Carl F. H. Henry

To turn to another possible concern: How fair is Vanhoozer to Henry whom he charges, in effect, with rationalism, reductionism, system-building, prooftexting, if not by name, at least by implication? Was Henry (and others like him) really as oblivious to the different genres of Scripture as Vanhoozer seems to suggest? It seems that, according to Vanhoozer, Henry’s main fault was that he did not start with Vanhoozer’s theory of language (or is this being unfair to Vanhoozer?), and that he operated within the framework of modernism rather than, as Vanhoozer does, that of postmodernism. But is it fair to fault someone for failing to contextualize his theology with regard to postmodernism prior to the advent of this movement? What is more, it may be reductionistic to limit biblical revelation strictly to propositions, but it certainly is not illegitimate to look for propositional content in Scripture (here Vanhoozer would agree, of course, but his charge of reductionism is repeated so incessantly that Henry is made to look like the villain more than he may deserve).

If theology is ultimately about God (which it is), and if God transcends culture and human history (which he does), then why would it be so bad for a theologian to look for timeless truths with regard to that time-and-culture-transcending God? Also, Jesus frequently interprets parables or issues pronouncements using propositional language (e.g., Mark 4:13–20), and Paul likewise presents the gospel in propositional form (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:3–4). Surely Henry does not need me to rehabilitate him, nor do I wish to completely exonerate him from some of the legitimate aspects of Vanhoozer’s critique (which I affirm), but my caution is to resist the temptation to elevate one’s proposal by caricaturing the life work of another.

Vanhoozer’s Ecumenical Proposal

I have saved my most serious concern for the end. It relates to what one might call the “ecumenical dimension” of Vanhoozer’s proposal. Specifically, Vanhoozer argues that “the plurality on the level of canon may call for an equivalent plurality on the level of interpretative traditions” (p. 275). Even more boldly (no more “may’s” here), Vanhoozer follows up: “The nonreductive evangelical catholic orthodoxy advocated in the present work is itself an attempt to preserve both the diversity and the integrity of a theological dialogue already canonized in Scripture” (pp. 275–76; emphasis original). Thus, Vanhoozer argues, the church would be a poorer place if there were no Mennonites or Lutherans or Greek Orthodox, or if everyone were to interpret Scripture the way he (Vanhoozer) does.

While certainly humble, in my opinion, at least, this view is also dangerous as well as logically fallacious, primarily because Vanhoozer here seems to fail to understand the nature of scriptural diversity. In fact, underlying scriptural diversity (rightly understood) there is theological coherence, unity, and clarity, and the various voices of the biblical authors contribute different, yet complementary and mutually non-contradictory aspects to the overall presentation of Scripture on any given topic. Again, to give but one example, the Bible does not teach both infant and believer’s baptism, or it would be contradictory and errant. Rightly interpreted (though, of course, people may legitimately disagree what in this or other cases constitutes right interpretation), Scripture is not diverse on this and many other issues, but it provides one coherent, univocal, albeit multi-perspectival, message. (On the issue of baptism, see the recent volume edited by Tom Schreiner and Shawn Wright, Believer’s Baptism.)

So when Vanhoozer makes the canonical diversity as he understands and defines it the model for diversity in the church today, he in my view mixes apples and oranges and uses diversity in two different senses. For this reason, arguably, the diversity found in Scripture is not a proper model for a contemporary ecumenism including Mennonites and Greek Orthodox. Using the canon to warrant such confessional and denominational diversification is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of canonical diversity. I am afraid Vanhoozer’s argument here is no different in logic than that of Bart Ehrman, equally questionable, that, as Walter Bauer suggested, doctrinal diversity was the rule of the day in the early church, and so doctrinal diversity (pluralism) should be the preferred model today. (Ehrman’s thesis has been ably critiqued by Craig Blaising in his ETS presidential address, published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society.) Here, it appears, Vanhoozer is close to focusing on the ecclesial interpretive community, as Lindbeck does, rather than on the canon, especially since his effort to ground his focus on the former in the latter is unconvincing.

Developmental Understanding of Doctrine

Other concerns (which to develop is not possible due to space constraints here) may be a developmental understanding of doctrine that seems in some ways closer to Roman Catholic theology than the Protestant understanding of sola Scriptura (though see p. 114; see also the discussions on pp. 123–24 and 141) and at times unduly broad definitions of terms, such as when exegesis is defined as involving the merging of literary forms “into forms of life, so that seeing as translates into experiencing as” and even “into being as” (p. 285; somewhat more narrowly, p. 151).


These possible, and in some cases actual, concerns notwithstanding, I am a declared Vanhoozer fan. Who says Systematic theology must be boring? Vanhoozer is always incisive, cutting-edge, and often provocative. Particularly helpful is his conception of the task of theology as approaching texts on several levels: historical, literary, theological (p. 275); his distinction of aspectival realism from perspectivism (postmodernism; p. 288); and his proposal that the theo-dramatic reality is independent of what we say and think about it (though how does this square with the Bonhoeffer quote on p. 115?). Vanhoozer’s theological and hermeneutical project is sure to engage non-evangelicals and evangelicals alike for years to come, as he continues to wield his prolific pen and challenges Christian theologians to contextualize their approach to biblical interpretation in the postmodern context in which we increasingly find ourselves, and for this I am profoundly grateful.

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