Wednesday 6 June 2007

Kevin Vanhoozer: The Drama of Doctrine

Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: WJKP, 2005), 488 pp.

A guest-review by Byron Smith

What is the place of doctrine in following Jesus? Is it a human construction that distorts the Bible? Or a luxury of decadent, introspective Christianity substituting for practical action? Neither, claims Vanhoozer in The Drama of Doctrine; doctrine is precisely what relates the Scriptures to our individual and corporate obedience. In doing so, he aims to reclaim doctrine as energetic, energising and ecumenical in an age that sees it as dull, distracting and divisive.

Taking his cue from the world of theatre, he proceeds at some length to develop the metaphor of drama in four directions: drama, script, dramaturge and performance. First, adopting and adapting work by Balthasar, he recasts salvation history as a divine comedy, a “theo-drama” in which God is protagonist and Jesus the pivotal climax. Of course, like all good plays, this one has five acts: Creation, Israel, Jesus, Church, and Eschaton

Second, having oriented us to the (theo-)drama, we meet the authoritative script: the Bible. Vanhoozer agrees with Lindbeck’s desire to move beyond a narrow pre-critical cognitive theology of fundamentalism and an equally reductionist liberal experiential-expressivism. For Lindbeck, the cultural-linguistic turn in twentieth century western thought means that biblical hermeneutics (and thus theology) must be grounded in the practices of the ecclesial interpretive community. Yet there is a dangerous circularity in which the Bible read through the lens of contemporary church life can only affirm that very life; the church becomes unreformable and the externality, the potentially critical otherness of God’s voice in Scripture, is silenced. Therefore, while loath to lose the hermeneutical insight linking reading to community praxis, Vanhoozer argues for authorised canonical practices that guide our reading and help avoid the solipsism of fundamentalism. Thus, he retrieves the possibility and actuality of error in and by the church (p. 233), yet without thereby cutting loose hermeneutics from tradition. And so, instead of Lindbeck’s postliberal cultural-linguistic theology, Vanhoozer introduces a postconservative canonical-linguistic one.

Third: enter playwright, stage left. Just as in the larger theo-drama, the climactic third act of the book sees the author join the action. Unlike the primary performance, however, this is no divine hero-saviour come to set all things right, but merely a theologian. The function of the theologian is instead that of the little-known dramaturge, mediator between script and director. The theologian as dramaturge is a resource for the company, helping the director in ensuring the script is understood and applied with creative faithfulness, neither parroting nor forgetting previous acts and scenes of the theo-drama.

Fourth, the contemporary performance itself takes the spotlight. Again, Vanhoozer shares Lindbeck’s concern for the regulative function of doctrine but wants to base this primarily on canon, not church. More than a collection of true statements about God, doctrine orients performers towards apt action. Here, his ubiquitous (and by this stage more than slightly stretched) metaphor comes into its own in foregrounding the instrumental rather than intrinsic value of the Bible and theology. The goal of both script and direction is to serve the drama: “script and performance are equally necessary, though not equally authoritative. Biblical script without ecclesial performance is empty; ecclesial performance without biblical script is blind” (p. 362). The authority lies with script (Bible); the teleology with performance (praxis); the mediation with direction (theology).

These insights and benefits notwithstanding, apprehension remains concerning Vanhoozer’s almost allegorical application of a single metaphor to explain a whole company of concepts. Has theatre become the master key to all theology? Like a Shakespearean company with more roles than players, the same faces appear in different guises. God is the playwright, the executive director, and the protagonist (pp. 64, 243). While a robust trinitarian theology may take this in its three-legged stride, the Bible also (somewhat disconcertingly) makes three appearances: as the authorised memory of the original theo-drama, as an actor in the ongoing performance (pp. 35, 48), and as script for that performance (pp. 115-241). Christians are alternatively audience then actors, mirroring God’s move from actor to audience (p. 37). Part of the confusion is comprehensible when one keeps in mind that there are two performances: the primary theo-drama in five Acts, and a multiplicity of secondary local shows that comprise Act Four (p. 252).

Even so, the characterisation of the Bible remains unresolved. The Bible as “script” works well in discussions of authority in Part Two, yet becomes cumbersome and is virtually denied by the idea of “improvisation” in Part Three (pp. 307, 335). The “script” doesn’t have all the lines for Act Four (the life of the church) and so its authority is of a particular kind: setting the dramatis personae, plot line, and ultimate resolution in Act Five, as well as exemplifying previous faithful improvisations (p. 344). The Bible as actor also seems to be a category error (p. 48), unless it is always understood as a shorthand for God’s agency through Scripture as instrument.

Although it may seem masochistic to accuse such a voluminous volume of sins of omission, the treatment of Scripture’s relationship to Christ also lacks much recognition of the theo-dramatically relative role of Scripture: “The only Christ we have is the Christ of the Scriptures” (p. 46, emphasis added). Although it is true that even the apostles had “the Christ of the [OT] Scriptures,” they also had the Christ of the flesh. Vanhoozer’s reluctance to get his hands too dirty in the history of canonical formation (pp. 142-43) is echoed in the lack of a detailed theo-dramatic account of how God communicated prior to the completion of the canon.

Those criticisms aside, his theological treatment of Scripture remains a highlight of this approach. Central to Vanhoozer’s project in Part Two is the claim that sola scriptura is not so much principle as practice (pp. 115, 141, 153). Crucially, this Reformation battle cry was not answering “how many sources should one use in doing theology?” but “where can we find the supreme norm by which to measure Christian deeds and Christian doctrine?” (p. 232). The sufficiency of Scripture is material, rather than formal (p. 156). Vanhoozer’s rich and nuanced account is thus able to acknowledge that tradition and church are valuable, even indispensable aids in the interpretive process, without compromising the irreplaceable and unaugmentable centrality of the Bible in our knowledge of and obedience towards God.

Similarly, his recognition of the dangers of generic reductionism is refreshing. Each genre has its own voice, its own factual precisions, its own irreducible input to the diverse unity of God’s scriptural communicative act. The canon has “an eschatological completeness, differentiated wholeness and plural unity” (p. 275). As with canon, so with theology: what no single genre can assert (a unique and exclusive possession of the entire truth), no tradition can demand; what each genre can enjoy (a unique and necessary contribution to the apprehension of God’s being and acts), each truly Christian tradition must be granted.

Of course, Vanhoozer is not the first theorist to earn an intellectual living making a spectacle of the dramatic metaphor in our mise en scène. His novelty lies in attiring the task of doctrine in this fashionable dress. His eclectic and multi-disciplinary interlocutors enrich his contribution to each of the many academic conversations he joins. However, as already noted, this breadth can occasionally leave him looking sloppy or naïve. For instance, in his epistemological discussion (pp. 265-305), he mistakenly assumes that foundationalism entails infallibilism, and he misapprehends the purpose of the web metaphor and so commits a category error in comparing it to his map metaphor (p. 297). Unfortunately, even his specifically theological epistemology confuses the effects of sin with (good) creaturely limitations on our knowledge, and, in doing so, obscures the hermeneutics of suspicion behind the hermeneutics of finitude. Human fallenness does not lead to fallibilism as he claims, but to a healthy suspicion of our ability to hide selfish motives, even from our own consciousness.

When all’s said and done, Vanhoozer’s (over)long performance is sometimes sloppy, often inspiring, always stimulating. The stars that shine most brightly are the indispensability of canonical authority, the urgency of contemporary obedience, the responsibility of conceptual creativity, and the possibility of dogmatic relevancy. Four stars.

Note: Byron has also posted a longer version of this review on his own blog.


byron smith said...

Thanks Ben for posting this.

Unfortunately, I'll be away for the next week or so and thus won't be able to respond to any comments. Hope you all enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

Excellent review, Byron - very helpful and entertaining.

Guy Davies said...

Excellent, incisive review. But does this mean, Ben, that you won't be doing one of your own?

Shane said...

Is anybody best friends forever with VanHoozer to solicit his response?

Ben Myers said...

G'day Guy -- no, I won't be posting a separate review of my own. But don't worry: I think Byron's review is much more insightful than mine would have been!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this great review. I also found the shifting metaphors a bit hard to follow after a while, and I agree that one of the best parts of the book is the idea of scriptural authority as church practice.

Anonymous said...

An excellent review of an important work -- thanks, Byron.

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