Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The play's the thing: Vanhoozer's Divine Comedy

The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005)
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 von Balthasar's Theo-drama, Vanhoozer 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 (which came first, the metaphor or the biblical theology, remains unspecified).*
*Indeed, it is difficult to either prove or disprove the effect of the theatrical allegory in providing an unacknowledged (even unconscious) ‘confirmation’ of certain details of his approach.

The triune hero performs a fully rounded part; the destructive dichotomy between divine actions and words is healed with the help of speech-act theory. God’s mighty actions communicate, and his words get things done.

Second, having oriented us to the (theo-)drama, we meet the authoritative script: the Bible. In constant dialogue with Lindbeck’s influential The Nature of Doctrine, 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.
*Two examples of such canonical, even dominical, practices are figurative readings of Scripture (pp. 220-24) and prayer to the Father (pp. 224-26).

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.** Performing this task requires both scientia (to read the script with disciplined understanding) and sapientia (to relate it practically to the mundane dramas of quotidian experience); each scores a full chapter.
*The director (or at least assistant director to the Holy Spirit) is the local pastor, mediating the script(ures) to his company of players.
**Faithfulness is thus dramatic fittingness: both to the primary theo-dramatic performance and to the contemporary context of a local production (pp. 256-63).

One example of theology’s sciential function is seeing the doctrine of Trinity as a dramatis personae, a crucial abbreviated guide for an understanding of the canonical script, yet itself arising authentically from a careful scriptural reading.

A key sapiential concept is ‘improvisation’, which, when undertaken by serious actors, is no arbitrary ad-libbing of lines for quick laughs, but a discipline of focussed memory and creative attention that seeks what new thing must be said or done in order to drive forward the action while remaining consistent with the drama thus far. Understood in this way, even God is an improviser: ‘The theo-drama itself develops largely through divine improvisation on a covenant theme…. God overaccepts even human blocking by incorporating it into the broader covenantal comedy.’ (pp. 340-41)

Fourth, the contemporary performance itself takes the spotlight. Again, he shares Lindbeck’s concern for the regulative function of doctrine but wants to based 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). Indeed, in yet another self-reflexive moment, Vanhoozer’s theological metaphor-making is at this point executing precisely the task of theology in his allegory: helping us see how the Bible can and must be lived out with creative faithfulness. To illustrate theology in service of praxis, he stages some scenes with the motifs of martyrdom and forgiveness under the direction of atonement.

For an encore, he places creeds, confessions and pastors as, respectively, masterpiece and regional theatre, and assistant directors (under the Holy Spirit): pp. 445-58.


Vanhoozer admits at the outset that the relationship between theologian and thespian has long been frosty, and many readers may feel uneasy about the trapdoors hidden in the floorboards of his metaphor. Before walking out too quickly, however, it’s worth taking a seat and perusing the benefits of admission.

All but the most unreformed modernists recognise the great explanatory power (and canonical basis) of narrative in theological reflection. Drama is a species of narrative, and so retains all its conceptual benefits (e.g. sequence, configuration, characterisation), while adding fruitful modifications, such as a synergy with speech-act theory and a greater potential to get ‘caught up in the action’ through a more permeable barrier between ‘text’ and responder (pp.48-49).

The concept of ‘speech-acts’ helps to disentangle knotty disputes about the relationship of Scripture and tradition through the distinction between locutions (the words used) and illocutions (the actions performed by those words: promising, warning, inviting, asserting). Merely replicating canonical locutions can (and in shifting cultural-linguistic contexts will) result in distorting God’s scriptural illocutions (pp. 126-28). It is the illocutions that tradition seeks to preserve and translate, though it is only these locutions that are authoritative guides to the illocutions (p. 74). The concept of illocution also reveals the limitations of locating our doctrine of Scripture simply under the heading of ‘revelation’, since God does more through it than merely reveal himself (pp. 45, 277).*
*While appreciating the intellectual yield of speech-act theory, some basic narratology would have sharpened his claim that the illocutions of Scripture are God’s (p. 67) by specifying which illocutions are the relevant ones (viz. those of the implied author, though not necessarily of the narrator or every character). Similarly, infelicitous claims about the addressees of Scripture (p. 67) could have also been avoided.

These dramatic (in both senses) benefits notwithstanding, apprehension remains concerning his almost allegorical application of a single metaphor to explain a whole company of concepts. Has theatre become the master key to all theology? He vigorously criticises directors who use a ‘production concept’ to usurp the communicative intent of the authorial script (p. 250); is he, to invoke the Bard, ‘hoist with his own petar[d]’?

Before we jeer this show with cries of ‘hypocrisy’, it is important to note four mitigating factors: (a) the frequency of non-theatrical metaphors and the pivotal roles they play in his cast of images;* (b) the acknowledgement of the necessity of other voices in the theological dialogue (p. 275); (c) the recognisably orthodox account of doctrinal touchstones it yields; and (d) his en route corrections and criticisms of the limitations of his selected metaphor. This final one is worth further comment. Sometimes he corrects one piece of the analogy with another: using ‘improvisation’ to supplement and correct potentially misleading aspects of treating Bible as script. At other times, he debunks commonly misunderstood theatrical realities: improvisation as arbitrary ad-libbing (pp.340-41). Occasionally, he even simply abandons implications of the metaphor: ‘Like other analogies, this one can be pressed too far. To insist that everything in drama must have a theological counterpart runs the risk of turning a simple analogy into a complex allegory.’ (p. 243)
*To spotlight a few: trial (pp. 21-24), epic/lyric (pp. 84-93), fittingness (pp. 108-10), ‘transposition’ (pp. 254), map (pp. 294-99), habits (pp. 374-77), and dieting to be spiritually ‘fit’ (pp. 374-80).

Perhaps it is pressing too far to criticise the implicit activism of the church, whose raison d’être as company of performers is construed in instrumental fashion to the detriment of its intrinsic value as redeemed community (p. 71). Perhaps not.

There is nonetheless a certain messiness to the metaphor as it is pushed and expanded in multiple directions. 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 (p. 35, 48), and as script for that performance (p. 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 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 somewhat 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.
*Indeed, much more could have been made of eschatology’s role in bringing a dead performance to life. The weight of the volume was retrospective.
**On this point, N. T. Wright is both Vanhoozer’s source and is clearer: “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?”, Vox Evangelica 21 (1991): 7-32.

The slight ambiguity raised by the frequent personification of Scripture as agentive is compounded by some undifferentiated linguistic parallelism between Christ and the Bible (p. 31, 35, 295). Of course, Scripture as a fourth hypostasis is denied (p. 227),* but John Webster’s careful account of Scripture as a sanctified divine servant is less prone to confusion on this matter (p. 293).
*Does anyone own up to that?

Although it may seem masochistic to accuse such a voluminous volume of sins of omission, the treatment of Scripture’s relationship to Christ also lacked 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.
*And what of the Christ of the pre-(proto?)-scriptural oral traditions?

Those criticisms aside, his theological treatment of Scripture remains a highlight of his approach. Central to his 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. The ‘logic of justification’ needn’t follow the ‘logic of discovery’ (p. 165).

Similarly, his recognition of the dangers of generic reductionism is refreshing (pp. 139, 215. 285). Each genre has its own voice (p. 270), its own factual precisions, ways of life and higher order illocutions (pp. 283-87), 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 (p. 275, 422).

This insight promotes his vision of a catholic-evangelical orthodoxy: keeping a definite theo-dramatic centre without denying the genuine and legitimate catholic diversity of contemporary and historic performance (p. 30). In this vision, doctrine divides the right things, rather than Christ’s body, and this, not because theological truth isn’t important, but precisely because it is (pp. 421-26).

Of course, Vanhoozer is not the first theorist to earn an intellectual living making a spectacle of this metaphor in our mise en scène. Even theologians, traditionally slowest off the mark in realising the backdrop has changed, have started rehearsing their lines in preparation for this ‘brave new world that has such people in’t’. Vanhoozer’s novelty lies in attiring the task of doctrine in this fashionable analogy. And not only dramatologists, but also a number of influential voices in contemporary thought make significant cameos: Bakhtin, Derrida, Gadamer, Nussbaum, Wittgenstein. Divers alarums: has he sold out to philosophical trends? Has his great learning driven his orthodoxy mad? This very dynamic is (in line with postmodern orthopraxis) reflected upon in the text. His response is that plundering this particular Egyptian trinket is justified as part of theology’s task of translation, or transposition, of the canonical melody into a contextual key. And of course, as one voice in a dialogue, his contribution suffers critical appreciation and correction.

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. In his epistemological discussion (pp. 265-305), he mistakenly assumes foundationalism entails infallibilism (pp. 292, 295), misapprehends the purpose of the web metaphor and so commits a category error in comparing it to his map metaphor (p. 297).* Similarly, his brief reference to photography shows little awareness that the ‘objective’ reputation of photos is as ripe for deconstruction as that of maps (p. 296). His discussion of ‘propositionalism’, presumes an atomistic semantics (pp. 266-78).
*These two metaphors illustrate answers to different questions. The map is an attempt to say something about how knowledge relates to ‘reality’; the web is a picture of how different parts of a worldview relate to each other. Thus, web should be contrasted to foundation, while map should be pitted against the early Wittgenstein’s (indeed Aristotle’s) idea of language ‘picturing’ reality.

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 (p. 303),* but to a healthy suspicion of our ability to hide selfish motives, even from our own consciousness.**
*Fallibilism is instead another epistemic implication of being created in embodied socio-cultural particularity. See James K. A. Smith, The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic (Downers Grove, Il.: IVP, 2000).
**For an excellent discussion of this theme, see Merold Westphal, Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism (New York: Fordham, 1998).


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 (or rather Christ's authority through the canon), the urgency of contemporary obedience, the responsibility of conceptual creativity and the possibility of dogmatic relevancy. Four stars.


cyberpastor said...

Love your work B. I read most of this book while trying to avoid writing up my dissertation and so didn't really pay it the attention it deserved. I really enjoyed the bits to which I did attend but got stuck on the notion of the pastor as director (albeit assistant.) Must the dynamics of the stage also determine church government? One director one pastor?

byron said...

Must the dynamics of the stage also determine church government? One director one pastor?
Yeah - this was one of those issues where it felt like the choice of metaphor subtly reinforced unexamined assumptions without further justification.

byron said...

Hey, if anyone knows how to do HTML footnotes, I'd love to learn.

Mikhaela said...

1. How fun! I read and was highly entertained/stimulated. I would like to think more about this - his vision of a catholic-evangelical orthodoxy: keeping a definite theo-dramatic centre without denying the genuine and legitimate catholic diversity of contemporary and historic performance - point, but I'm fairly sure that's because I've been reading Eco lately

2. Four stars for not posting in two parts; Hail Byron Smith, Champion Of Anti-Soundbite Culture!!! Some posts need flow...

3. Four stars??? Are you challenging Margaret & David to filmo v. theo battle???

David Mackinder said...

regarding footnotes in HTML, have a look at -- and play with -- Textile (

Cynthia Nielsen said...

Nice work, Byron. Thanks for taking the time to do this.

Best wishes,

peter j said...

quite frankly the word "dramaturge" sounds made up.

byron said...

Mik - 1. Thanks - what Eco have you been reading?
2. Some things need length. Other things need length but won't get read unless they're snappy.
3. Margaret and David: two stars.

David - thanks for the link.

Cynthia - no problem.

Pete - it is. Like all words.