The Drama of Doctrine: Introduction

April 19, 2012 — Leave a comment


[This post is part of The Drama of Doctrine review series]

Kevin Vanhoozer’s The Drama of Doctrine has been around now for several years. I read through it back in the fall and was amazed primarily at Vanhoozer’s creativity in theological thinking. Creativity of course in the good sense, that is, in expression of doctrine, not in formulation of new doctrines. The book as a whole is a kind of “hermeneutics of theology,” standing somewhere between a book on hermeneutics as biblical interpretation and book that is just on straight theological method.

The genius (I think) of Vanhoozer’s work is its metaphorical development. Instead of just explaining how he thinks theology ought to be done, Vanhoozer employs the metaphor of “drama” to describe the nature of both doctrine itself and how it functions in the life of the church.

To really unpack what Vanhoozer is up to and how it might change the way you look at theology, we need a review series. This is one of those books where I don’t really want to just give overview and then a green light to look into getting it for yourself. This is a book where I want to interact a little more deeply, and apply some of the insights along the way into my own approach to theology and ministry.

So, here’s what we’re looking at for the upcoming posts in the series:

  • Part One: Drama
  • Part Two: The Script
  • Part Three: The Dramaturge
  • Part Four: The Performance

Before we get to those though, let’s look into Vanhoozer’s introduction to the book and see where he plans to take us.

To begin, Vanhoozer distinguishes his project from what George Lindback called a “cultural-linguistic” approach to theology:

The canonical-linguistic approach to be put forward in the present book has much in common with its cultural-linguist cousin. Both agree that meaning and truth are crucially related to language use; however, the canonical-linguistic approach maintains that the normative use is ultimately not that of ecclesial culture [which is what Lindbeck proposed] but of the biblical canon (16).

Vanhoozer wants to present his approach to theologians for its practical nature, its emphasis on wisdom, and its “creative retrieval of the principle of sola Scriptura” (16). Though there is some negative framing, one of the most frequent sentence starters in this book is “Canonical-linguistic theology (CLT) + verb…” Take for instance this example:

Canonical-linguistic theology attends to both the drama in the text – what God is doing in the world through Christ – and to the drama that continues in the church as God uses Scripture to address, edify, and confront its readers (17).

Part of me was tempted to keep track of how many sentences started like this or similar constructions. The point though is that Vanhoozer is persuaded that biblical interpretation, and therefore theology, is inherently dramatic. Much of the introduction is then dedicated to demonstrating this and setting the reader up for plot that will unfold in the rest of the book.

Referring to the title of the book, Vanhoozer says,

The drama of doctrine is about refining the dross of textual knowledge into the gold of Christian wisdom by putting one’s understanding of the Scriptures into practice…

We need to appropriate, embrace, even indwell doctrinal truth. The proper end of the drama of doctrine is wisdom: lived knowledge, a performance of truth (21).

As Vanhoozer sees it then, “doctrine is the bridge between the gospel as theo-drama and theology as gospel performance” (22). The Drama of Doctrine is “written for those who wish to be part of the on-going conversation concerning the nature and purpose of Christian doctrine and the future of theology after modernity” (25). At this impasse, Vanhoozer sees CLT as “a way beyond the debilitating stand-off between propositionalist and nonpropositionalist modes of conceiving revelation, Scripture, and theology” (26). This move leads to what Vanhoozer sees as a “catholic-evangelical orthodoxy”:

Catholic and evangelical belong together. To be precise “catholic” qualifies “evangelical.” The gospel designates a determinate word; catholicity, the scope of its reception. “Evangelical” is the central notion, but “catholic” adds a crucial antireductionist qualifier that prohibits any one reception of the gospel from becoming paramount (27).

Further on he adds:

In the theological counterpart to the cosmological drama, “evangelical,” with is insistence on “no other gospel,” refers to orthodoxy’s centripetal force, while “catholic” stands for orthodoxy’s centrifugal force: the church’s reception of the gospel over the centuries and across cultures (30).

He then sums up his aims for his proposal of “canonical-linguistic theology”:

The hoped for outcome of canonical-linguistic theology is nothing less than the missing link between right belief (orthodoxy) and wise practice (orthopraxy): right judgment (orthokrsis).

To get there, Vanhoozer’s going to have to take us on a dramatic journey in its own right. Hopefully this is a sufficient enough sketch to pique your interest. After wading through many of the issues attending modernism, postmodernism, and orthodox Christian theology, I find Vanhoozer’s proposal a very compelling way forward. I can’t guarantee I’ll be the best expositor of CLT, but my hope is that I can at least start a conversation about the substance of Vanhoozer’s book and possibly even some of its implications for practice.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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