Few theologians are doing more to revitalize theology in content and form than Kevin Vanhoozer. While I think I would recommend pretty much all of his books, his most recent Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of the Church’s Worship, Witness and Wisdom, might be the best for getting acquainted with his thought.
As a collection of essays, many of which began as oral presentations, you are able to get a “snapshot” of Vanhoozer in his element, but without necessarily committing to a sustained theological argument spanning several hundred pages. His Drama of Doctrine changed my life, but it’s not for the faint of heart. And in fact, this collection of essays is for people who want to see his theodramatic systematics at work without committing to reading his “Great Pumpkin.” While not necessarily a sustained argument, it at least indirectly offers a sustained plea for “incorporation the imagination into the work of theology as a sapiential systematics” (12).
Having established all this, Vanhoozer offers a formal introduction to his collection of essays, seeing the imagination as a helping provide the metaphors by which a holy nation lives. There, he explains that his “working hypothesis throughout this book is that the church needs a biblically formed, reformed and transformed imagination in order to live out a vital faith (44). He then explains that the chapters the follow are organized like an art exhibit. Because after all, what is a Vanhoozer book without a metaphor operating at the theoretical level? He continues explaining by saying,
The reader proceeds through a foyer and then through three galleries. Each gallery contains various biblical exhibits: essays that depict various scenes of the church’s worship, witness and wisdom. Each part of the book also includes a sermon – an exercise in faithfully imagining biblical truth (44).
The promenade begins in the foyer, where I discuss certain introductory matters of “prolegomena” – suggestions for imagining biblical authority and evangelicalism – including the importance of the imagination. The first gallery focuses on the church as a royal priesthood and examines scenes of the church’s worship. The second gallery looks at the church as a school of prophets and focuses on Christian witness. The third and final gallery visits scenes that dramatically test the church’s wisdom (44).
Vanhoozer suggests that these three galleries correspond to the three offices that characterized Israel’s life as holy nation and that apply the work of Christ. In other words, prophet, priest, and king. He then provides five unifying themes as we prepare to “view” these “scenes” (45-46):
- A common concern for the well-being and edification of the church
- A concern for what it means for the church to be biblical and for theology to be a species of biblical reasoning
- An assumption that the unity of the Bible is a function of the divine drama of redemption that it recounts, and of which it is an ingredient
- A concern to rehabilitate the evangelical imagination
- A common goal that doctrinal theology be eminently practical, ministering understanding and vision to head, heart and hand.
With all that in mind, the essays that follow are vintage Vanhoozer. Because most were originally oral addresses, they are fairly accessible, although as a writer, Vanhoozer is generally accessible anyway. Just consider it a bonus that these essays are stand alone and easily digestible, although still thought provoking and imagination stoking. As such, you can work though the book however you please, but I went through it chapter to chapter.
Considering both Vanhoozer’s importance, and the importance of the topics he continues to address, this book is worthy of your attention. Whether you’ve never read anything by him, or read everything by him, there is still something to gain from paying attention to his work here.
Kevin Vanhoozer, Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of the Church’s Worship, Witness and Wisdom. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, March 2016. 327 pp. Paperback, $20.00.
Visit the publisher’s page
Thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy!