Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Drama of Doctrine

So what have I been doing with the time I haven't blogged? I've been wearing my pencil lead out underlining and making notes in a volume that Scot McKnight has already declared "the best book on Scripture for the new century" - Kevin Vanhoozer's The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology. Vanhoozer makes a compelling case that theatrical drama provides a helpful model for conceiving of the nature of Scripture, theology, doctrine, and Christian life. Following N. T. Wright's division of redemptive history into a drama of five "acts," Vanhoozer says that the canonical texts compose an authoritative script that not only recounts the "theo-dramatic" action of the past but also serves as a means by which God is still acting, calling people to participate in the theo-drama and directing the performance of the church which lives between Acts IV and V. He writes in the book's preface:

This book sets forth new metaphors for theology (dramaturgy), Scripture (the script), theological understanding (performance), the church (the company), and the pastor (director). It argues that doctrine, far from being unrelated to life, serves the church by directing its members in the project of wise living, to the glory of God. It sets out to convince ministers and laypeople alike not to dismiss doctrine as irrelevant, and to encourage theologians not to neglect the needs of the church. It aims to make the pastoral lamb lie down with the theological lion. Its goal is to refute, once and for all, the all-too-common dichotomy between doctrine and real life. Christian doctrine directs us in the way of truth and life and is therefore no less than a prescription for reality (xii).
The rift between so-called "academic" and "practical" theology has long been a burr under my saddle so to say that I'm enthusiastic about this kind of thinking is a gross understatement. In the paragraph preceding the one I just quoted, Vanhoozer states that doctrine is vital to the church's well-being and witness. "The problem," he writes, "is not with doctrine per se but with a picture of doctrine, or perhaps several pictures, that have held us captive." What he has in mind is the picture of the Bible as a deposit of revealed truths or assertions about states of affairs. According to this view, theology's primary goal is to abstract and arrange these propositions in a logically consistent system. But this is flawed for a number of reasons. First, this approach is reductionistic in that it recognizes only one of the many things that authors and speakers do with words. Referring or informing is only one of language's many uses. God does more in and through the Bible than impart information. He promises, commands, warns, comforts, etc. Scripture is revelatory, but is more than revelation. Privileging assertions over other linguistic practices entices us to focus on the intellect at the expense of our other faculties and on theorizing at the expense of practice.

Propositionalism also runs roughshod over the variety of canonical literary forms:

The main defect of propositionalism is that it reduces the variety of speech actions in the canon to one type: the assertion. This results in a monologic conception of theology, and of truth. To think of theology as a monologue, even a truthful monologue, is to reduce theo-drama -- in which the dialogical action is carried by a number of voices -- to mere theory. Neither the theo-drama nor the canonical script can be reduced to propositions and theories without significant loss. Doing justice to the biblical text ultimately requires a different kind of exegetical scientia, one that goes beyond propositionalism without, however, leaving propositions behind (266).
Vanhoozer, then, is not denying the propositional content of Scripture. He's simply calling us to recognize that there is more than meets the eye (and the heart) than assertions. He proposes a postpropositionalist hermeneutic where the prefix post- means "beyond," not "against." Faithful interpretation, according to Vanhoozer's proposal model, is not merely a matter of sound exegesis and conceptualizing. Conceiving of the Bible as script means that our understanding of it is ultimately demonstrated by our following its direction in contemporary situations:

"Faith seeking understanding" involves both coming to appreciate the meaning of the script and knowing how to perform it in new contexts. Hence theology is both an exegetical scientia [disciplined knowledge] that is faithful to the canonical text and a practical sapientia [practical wisdom] that is fitting to the present cultural context. The ultimate goal of theology is to foster creative understanding -- the ability to improvise what to say and do as disciples of Jesus Christ in ways that are at once faithful yet fitting to their subject matter and setting. The church continues to perform the same text in different contexts, despite the difference of centuries, cultures, and conceptual schemes, by "improvising" with a canonical script (32).
Reading The Drama of Doctrine reminds me of another passage I marked in another sizable tome -- Calvin's Institutes:
Doctrine is not an affair of the tongue, but of the life; is not apprehended by the intellect and memory merely, like other branches of learning; but is received only when it possesses the whole soul, and finds its seat and habitation in the inmost recesses of the heart....To doctrine in which our religion is contained, we have given the first place, since by it our salvation commences; but it must be transfused into the breast, and pass into the conduct, and so transform us into itself, as not to prove unfruitful (III. VI. 4.).
Don't let the cost or mass of this book stand in the way of your reading it. It's worth the price and physical exercise is good for you.

Lord willing, tomorrow I'll be attending a discussion Dr. Vanhoozer will be leading for pastors and church planters, sponsored by the Great Lakes District Church Planting Office of the Evangelical Free Church. I'm looking forward to hearing more about how he envisions his model of theology playing out in pastoral ministry. If you're in the area of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, the event will be held in A. T. Olson Chapel between 3 and 5 p.m.


YnottonY said...

What a remarkable way to approach biblical interpretation! I like the idea of scripture as script in the theo-drama. Fantastic post Keith! Thanks.

KP said...

You're welcome, Tony. I commented to Annie just yesterday, "I think Tony would really like this book." I'm eager for you to get it so we can discuss it.

YnottonY said...

I just bought the book from CBD for $22 ;-) Annie bought a copy from ecampus using I usually hunt for the best prices at AddAll I look forward to reading it eventually.