Faith Speaking Understanding, Performing the Drama of Doctrine by Kevin J. Vanhoozer

In 2005 highly regarded theologian Kevin Vanhoozer wrote an intense scholarly tome entitled The Drama of Doctrine. The present volume was written to make his unique approach to the understanding of Scripture, which he calls theodrama, more assessable to pastors and serious lay students of the Bible. But make no mistake; this work is a difficult read that only the adventurous should attempt, but if they do they will be rewarded for their effort. Vanhoozer’s thesis is that true discipleship cannot take place apart from theology, defined repeated as both knowing and doing truth (e.g. pp. xii, e, 20). He writes, “Desire for God without doctrine is blind, doctrine without desire is empty” (p. xiv). The uniqueness of Vanhoozer’s approach is the use of the theodramatic model (apparently gleaned from Kierkegaard — p. 18), which he believes articulates theology (by his definition) better than standard propositional, narrative or story methods (see Appendix). He summarizes the theodrama approach as such:

Drama is a shaped sequence of action, especially dialogical action, with a beginning, middle, and end. Performance is the realization or actualization of drama. Theater is the space-time performance by which persons present themselves – their being – to others: “Activity is the basic medium of theater. It is the only channel through which presentational ideas can be projected” (p.23).

Faith Speaking Understanding would have been a significantly smaller book had the author not attempted to define and defend the theodramatic model. Whether viewing Scripture through the grid of theodrama actually aids in the understanding of the author’s thesis is questionable. For me it imposed an external lens upon the biblical text that obscured theology rather than clarified it. Others have voiced similar concerns to which Vanhoozer devotes much attention and writes an appendix to specifically work through these concerns. Some might be helped by his approach and the author is obviously convinced that “the theater, alongside philosophy, ought to be one of theology’s bridesmaids. In particular, I am commending dramatization as a framework for understanding the nature and function of doctrine in the church” (pp. 242-243). Vanhoozer develops nine interrelated themes (pp. 4-9) in a two-part structure. Part 1, which comprises only the first two chapters, “sets out the contours of the theatrical model for thinking about doctrine and theology as well as [his] reasons for choosing it” (p. 9). Part 2 “is a constructive proposal for how doctrine functions in the church to make disciples…each chapter in part 2 sets forth one or more doctrines that indicate some aspect of what is in Christ.” (pp. 10-11).

Vanhoozer laments the diminishing role of theology in the church today and submits that the attempt to develop true disciples will be greatly handicapped as a result. Our culture, he believes, has moved from an Agrarian to an Industrial to a Service and now to an Experience economy (p. 57). Today every business, industry and philosophy promises life-transforming experiences but only the church can actually provide such transformation. The church offers what nothing else can and therefore we must be careful to proclaim to our world the theology that transforms, rather than merely echoing what the culture is saying.

Yet theology has fallen on hard times, is little appreciated at the moment and, as Vanhoozer cleverly says, “When doctrine dwindles, disciples can only limp” (p. 53). What is it that has caused this dwindling of doctrine? Drawing from the works of four scholars we learn that what matters to people today is a randomly defined form of “spirituality” – some feeling of intimacy, but not doctrine (Alan Wolfe), a replacement of biblical Christianity with Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (Christian Smith), the fact that many evangelicals are being shaped by sola cultura rather than sola scriptura (David Wells), and Harvey Cox (representing the liberal wing of Christianity) advocating the wholesale abandonment of theology and the embracing of “vibrant spirituality” (pp. 53-56). Cox agrees with Aldous Huxley’s variation on the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily faith, but deliver us from beliefs” (p. 56). Religion and spirituality is on the upswing globally, but confidence in doctrine is dying. The response to these forces in our society by the church has been largely capitulation – if we can’t beat them we will join them. Vanhoozer is arguing for the church to be counter-cultural by offering what only it can – the gospel and a relationship with Jesus Christ that is infused with doctrinal content. Rightly Vanhoozer sees the church’s mission as not attempting to Christianize society but to make disciples and present Christ (pp. 176, 182, 185, 225).

I found the author’s discussion of the number of acts that can be identified within the Christian theodrama, very interesting. After discussing N.T. Wright’s five acts, David Well’s five acts and Craig Bartholomew’s and Michael Goheen’s suggestions, he offers his own acts. They are creation, election of Israel, sending of the Son, sending of the Spirit/church and the return of the King. What is interesting is that, without mentioning the word dispensationalism, and he most likely would recoil at the suggestion that he is one, he and his companions are saying something very similar to what dispensationalists have been saying for years.

While there are portions of the Faith Speaking Understanding that the discerning reader might question, and while I am not a fan of the theodrama model and doubt that it will catch on due to its complications, I believe Vanhoozer is largely on the mark. I thoroughly agree when he writes,

What the church has to offer is not simply one more idea of the good, but rather an announcement that the good has actually been realized, and is being realized, and will be realized even more in Christ. The church knows—not because it is cleaver but because it has been told—where we come from, what we are, why we are here, and what our purpose is…There is nothing more authentic than being transformed into the image of Jesus Christ, the prototype of true humanity (p. 62).

Hopefully church leaders are listening.

(Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014) 278pp + xvii, paper $30

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher Southern View Chapel

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