The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology

"There is no more searching test of a theology than to submit it to dramatic handling; nothing so glaringly exposes inconsistencies in a character, a story, or a philosophy as to put it upon the stage and allow it to speak for itself. Any theology that will stand the rigorous pulling and hauling of the dramatist is pretty tough in its texture...I can only affirm that at no point have I yet found artistic truth and theological truth at variance." --Dorothy Sayers

When a theologian sets out to write or speak concerning theology (and the same is true of any person or any discipline, though in varying degrees), he does not have the luxury of a timeless, disembodied, or un-contextualized existence. He lives and performs his task from within not from without. He is, in other words, a creature and not the Creator. This is ultimately an affirmation of the theologians' humanity; that he, like all other people, is inextricably attached to time and place. Not surprisingly then, the work of the theologian is unavoidably dated. Though this seems ridiculously obvious, I'm afraid its significance for the discipline of theology is often overlooked (or, if we're speaking with regard to postmodernity, often overemphasized).

All theology, then, in the sense described above is historical theology. It is theology performed and carried out in history, bearing the mark of its own historical context. If this proposition needs defense, one would not have to look very far into church history to survey the effect of culture upon theological development. Consider briefly the affect of Roman roads, persecution and martyrdom, heresy, the "conversion" of Constantine, the fall of Rome, the Black Plague, the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, the invention of the printing press, Darwinianism, Secular Humanism, etc. It would be difficult to provide a negative answer to any of the considerations posed above or the thousands of other cultural/historical questions that could be raised.

This being as it may, theologians will assume (either consciously or subconsciously) the culture in their theology. This means that the relationship between Scripture's teaching and their own historical situation will end up influencing their theology, for good or for ill.

Theologians disagree, however, as to what sort of relationship theology ought to share with that of culture. It's an age old question, but one that has become increasingly tenuous with the passing of modernity, or as some would argue, the maturing of modernity into postmodernity. Should we accommodate the assumptions or beliefs of our culture into our theology and revise our theology accordingly? Should our theology be as free as possible from culture, understanding culture to be a hindrance to theological formulation and understanding?

In his work The Drama of Doctrine, Vanhoozer attempts to map an approach to theology that engages with postmodernity by negotiating what territory Christian theology might share in common with postmodernity. It is, as he outlines in another essay, a posture of "disputation."[1] For according to Vanhoozer, postmodernity provides us an opportunity to establish new convergences and coalitions in Christian theology. The divide between what C.S. Lewis referred to as "The of rigid systems whether skeptical or dogmatic" and "the Southerners...boneless souls who doors stand open day and night to every visitant, whether Maenad or Mystagogue" might now be brought into alliance.[2] Spoken plainly, the once rationalist-romantic separation, often characterized by the formers' emphasis of the objective and the latters' emphasis of the subjective, is no longer a suitable division according to Vanhoozer. These categories simply do not adequately account for what we see taking place around us.

So, building and yet at the same time diverging from George Lindbeck's The Nature of Doctrine, Vanhoozer attempts to set forth a "...postconservative, canonical-linguistic theology and a directive theory of doctrine" (Drama, xiii). In carrying out this task, Vanhoozer hopes to awaken the church from its doctrinal slumber and, at the same time, set the church free from its "mishandling" and "misunderstanding" of the nature and purpose of doctrine.

Doctrine, according to Vanhoozer, should no longer be viewed as divisive or as an impediment to love and unity but as a vital tool in directing the Church into the venture of living wisely to the glory of God. As he mentions at the outset, "Christian doctrine directs us in the way of truth and life and is therefore no less than a prescription for reality" (Drama, xii).

Vanhoozer's approach to theology is one of synthesis through metaphor. In fact, doctrine's role is always considered in conjunction with ecclesial practice and is conceived in and through the metaphor of drama--thus, the title. According to Vanhoozer, the metaphor of drama is able to avoid the extremes of the "traditional-cognitive" (think: Charles Hodge) and the "experiential-expressive" (think: Friedrich Schleiermacher) since the metaphor is large enough to account for both without capitulating in either direction (Drama 87-88). Vanhoozer's sympathy with George Lindbeck's thesis and objective in The Nature of Doctrine should not be missed, though he clearly attempts to distinguish himself from Lindbeck in his shift from "cultural-linguistic" to "canonical-linguistic."

The Script:

In case you're wondering, the canonical-linguistic approach to theology upholds Scripture as "the supreme norm for Christian doctrine" (Drama, 113). However, Vanhoozer's explanation of Scripture as a "supreme norm" is not epistemic (as many would argue) but sapiential. Scripture is, in other words, the medium through which direction for one's performance in the drama of redemption is provided. The normative function of Scripture for Vanhoozer is to be understood in terms of its dramatic direction.

As is implied in the definition of Scripture's normative role above, Scripture and tradition are brought into close relationship in Vanhoozer's proposal. They are distinguishable from one another, but in the end, neither can free itself from the other--nor should we desire that they be free from one another. Indeed, many if not most of the exegetical nightmares of the twentieth century can be contributed to the desire to separate Scripture from tradition unjustifiably, "...exegesis without tradition--apart from participation in the history of a text's reception--is impossible. On this view, there really is no choice between the Bible or tradition; rather, the only relevant question is, whose tradition?" (Drama 113).

With that said, Vanhoozer is very careful to distinguish tradition's role as ministerial and not magisterial; tradition as deriving its authority from the Word, not visa versa. Vanhoozer insists that the text be read in a "certain canonical-way and in a canonical context." Canonical meaning, then, is first and primarily determined by God's use of the text. "Scripture is divine communicative action, a divine canonical practice, before it is a practice of the church" (Drama, 114). To speak in this manner, Vanhoozer seeks to preserve and pass on the "dominical and apostolic practices embodied and preserved in the canonical Scriptures" (Drama, 121).

The Dramaturge:

In the third section, Vanhoozer describes the role of the dramaturge, a term unfamiliar to many no doubt. A dramaturge assists or guides the director and the company in how best to understand and produce the script into a faithful production. In this sense, the dramaturge helps to fill in, or better, inform the unavoidable gap between the script and its performance. He does this by forming constructive ideas as to how the two relate.

Vanhoozer attempts to clear the fog in a short paragraph regarding the identification and relationship of the director, assistant director, and the dramaturge. "It is best to identify the Holy Spirit with the principle director of the church. Pastors, elders, and other church leaders, are at best assistant-play directors. Where, then, does this leave the theologian? Not in the director's chair but in the interstices between the director, playwright, and audience--to be precise, in the role of the dramaturge, the adviser to the director and the company alike" (Drama, 244). From Vanhoozer's own description, it is obvious that the dramaturge's attention will be centered on putting the Script into performance, assisting the director in communication, in how best to express the play's ideas, in ways the play might be adapted to particular contexts or audiences, etc. This role Vanhoozer conceives as best performed by the theologian. It is a role requiring understanding of the script, awareness of past performances, ability to write program notes, to follow up with post-production discussion, to assist students and communities in other performances, to lecture and publish insights regarding the script and production, etc.

As you can see, the above description assumes that previous performances will not simply be repeated (no matter how good they may be), but the same drama will be attempted "...with different actors, on a different stage, and new scenery" (Drama, 240). A well-trained dramaturge, according to Vanhoozer, will help provide a sense of the whole and give shape to the unity of the drama while preserving the distinctiveness of any particular performance. It is, as Vanhoozer quips, "a play seeking understanding" (Drama, 246).

The Performance:

The final section attempts to bring all that has been said regarding Scripture and theology to fruition in the life of the Christian, demonstrating the covenant and its climax. The Script, according to Vanhoozer, is hollow without ecclesial performance, while attempting ecclesial performance apart from the Script is blind and doomed to compromise. "Doctrine serves the church by unfolding the canonical logic of the theo-drama and by offering dramaturgical direction as to how Christians today may participate in and continue the evangelical action in new situations" (Drama, 362).

Following the lead of Constantin Stanislavski, Vanhoozer envisions a thoroughly Christian approach to acting--performance that is honest and not hypocritical. Here Vanhoozer places significant trust in the imagination in relation to the Script and one's role in the performance. To accomplish an honest performance, the actor must inhabit the role; what the Method School approach refers to as substantiating the truth. How does an actor embody or inhabit a role? By asking a question: what would I do if I were a certain character? Clearly Vanhoozer's reliance on the imagination's ability to communicate empathy between the actor and his role is key to true performance. The question posed above is but a means to assist the actor in filling out the details of the character's life and circumstances, a way of helping the actor identify with the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of the character. In Vanhoozer's words, "One needs to imagine the whole picture, Stanislavski believed, in order to act truthfully. An actor cannot even walk into a room truthfully until you know who you are, where you came from, what room you are entering, who lives in the house, and a mass of other given circumstances that must influence your action" (Drama, 377).

As you might suspect, this performance is not a one-man show. An individual's role in the drama is understood in terms of the Church, the corporate body of Christ. We can only "participate fittingly" when we as individuals recreated in Christ "...become part of the larger body 'of Christ'" (Drama, 400). Said another way, personal identity and participation is tied to one's place in the covenant community. The Church is the company, the corporate identity in which the actors are gathered together to be directed by the script. Thus, the Church is the theater through which individual actors are placed into the drama of redemption. In parallel with creation as the "theater of God's glory," (i.e. Calvin), Vanhoozer understands the church to be the "theater of the gospel," performing its drama on a grand assortment of cultural stages throughout the world (Drama, 401).

Drawing this out a bit, Vanhoozer argues that fitting participation in its corporate dimension is most poignant in worship, particularly liturgy. Like a guide, liturgy aids us in seeing, tasting, imagining, and the living out of the drama of redemption, for it is in the liturgy that the church experiences and celebrates "the reality of the already/not yet presence of Christ in our midst" (Drama, 410).

Possible Advances and Contributions:

The metaphor of drama proves to be profoundly three-dimensional, capable of exploring the nuances and the complexities of the relationship between distinguishable but interdependent aspects of Christian theology. The Drama of Doctrine is a model with regards to this point and a sign, I hope, of what others theologians may attempt to do in the future.

This contribution, of course, has much to do with Vanhoozer's approach to theology and his elucidation of the dramatic metaphor more than possibly anything else. One often gets the feeling in reading The Drama of Doctrine that the metaphor does all the work (not to short change Vanhoozer's effort in the least!). Like many postmodern theologians, Vanhoozer values the unique ability of metaphors and other figures of speech to communicate determinatively without being reductionistic--a point that George Lakoff and Janet Soskice have spoken extensively about.

Not surprisingly, then, the metaphor of drama provides a myriad of different perspectives or vantage points from which to view the contours of Christian doctrine as it relates to the Christian life. Throughout the course of the book, Vanhoozer consistently passes between doctrine and practice, distinguishing their function but insisting on their "together-ness" when it comes to living. He can do this, at least in part, because of the convictions he holds regarding epistemology, theological method, and the goal of theology--all of which he makes plain in the course of the book.

The move from narrative to drama is a promising one. Drama contains narrative but includes the element of embodiment, or we might say, incarnation. It seems that both Milan Kundera and Iris Murdoch have made tremendous strides in showing how narrative can be equally "dramatic" or incarnational (though neither uses or would use such language). In reading Vanhoozer's work, it seems more consistent to speak of "participation" when employing the metaphor of drama, since movement is an inherent quality in drama.

Concerns, Absences, and Critiques:

The contributions above do not come without a price. For in "limiting" the theological emphasis to the metaphorical, namely, the relationships between distinct doctrines of Christian theology and the point at which distinct doctrines trespass upon one another, Vanhoozer forfeits much of the specificity and particularity with which Scripture often speaks regarding doctrine and practice. Presumably doctrines are not to be isolated from the whole, nor would it be easy (possible?) to isolate such particulars since interconnectedness is an inherent quality of the dramatic metaphor. This is a weakness I perceive, which, I suspect, is more of a commentary on the metaphorical approach to theology than anything else.

The single greatest weakness of The Drama of Doctrine is its scant (and highly selective) use of Scripture. So much attention and energy was expended in laying out the metaphor and its continuity or discontinuity with postmodern philosophical concerns, that little time or space was left for a thoroughgoing connection with Scripture. I hope more work will be done to bridge this gap in the future--either by Vanhoozer or someone else.

Vanhoozer also, it seems, needs to prove that there is sufficient "script" authority for his employing of the metaphor of drama. I recognize, however, that such a question may be off-center in Vanhoozer's scheme, since script authority is wrapped up or indelibly tied to performance. This critique coincides with the first concern regarding the isolating of particular doctrines.

The lack of redemptive-historical content was also surprising. Though The Drama of Doctrine attempts to bridge the discipline of Biblical theology with that of systematic theology, the parallels are often only vaguely or superficially drawn. Again, it is possible that this critique is outside the scope of this initial work. If so, this is only to pinpoint what work should be done in the years ahead.

Along this line, it is somewhat surprising that Vanhoozer entirely bypasses the language of inerancy in his work. This does not mean he denies the doctrine outright, though it is hard to imagine how he might maintain the doctrine as classically defined since the terminology and assumptions behind his argument are of a different quality altogether. My guess is inerancy does not easily lend itself to the dramatic metaphor and was not given treatment because of this. The best I can say is that drama is now a mystery, and the audience holds their breath in anticipation...

Final Analysis:

Vanhoozer's tremendous ability for noticing and elucidating parallels and points of intersection in theology is greatly encouraging. This ability is reinforced and helped along by his wide range of knowledge from a vast number of theological, philosophical, cultural, and literary traditions. The Drama of Doctrine is a work of interdisciplinary prowess, and it is better for it. Indeed, if the level of scholarship shown in this work is any indication of the health of conservative (or post-conservative) evangelicalism, the future is bright.

This ability is his greatest strength and, however, his greatest weakness. For in seeing and imaging the theological forest, he runs the risk of obscuring the theological tree. Stated differently, the dramatic metaphor is a deeply complex vision of the grand scheme of things but a seemingly unsuccessful metaphor in simply stating "the iotas" of theology--a point recently noted by John Frame, another great "triangulator."[3] This complexity would seem to easily lend itself to confusion, raising as many questions as answers. I would expect that in the years ahead a more detailed dramatic treatment of the finer points of theology will be given. In other words, "break a leg."

In closing, this is a work which provides conservative theologians with a new lens to see what they've always seen; and thus, provides us an opportunity to know the same things differently--to take a different seat at the same table and enjoy what beauties might be glimpsed from such a vantage point. Aside from the shortcomings noted, this is a work we can benefit from and be profoundly thankful for.

Kevin Vanhoozer - Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005 
Review by Nate Shurden, M.Div Student at Reformed Theological Seminary  

[1] See "Pilgrim's Digress: Christian Thinking on and about the Post/Modern Way" in Christianity and the Postmodern Turn, ed. by Myron B. Penner (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005)

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim's Regress in The Collected Works of C.S. Lewis (New York: Inspirational Press, 1996) 159

[3] Always Reforming: Explorations in Systematic Theology, ed. by A.T. McGowan (Leicester, England: IVP 2006)