The Drama of Doctrine: Review
Firstly, this book is not for the faint-hearted. Vanhoozer is a Reformed, Evangelical Professor at Wheaton College who writes at an academic rather than popular level, uses Latin almost ad infinitum (should that be ad nauseum?), and, not surprisingly for one who lectures in hermeneutics, (see his quite brilliant Is there a meaning in this text?), uses precise language which can make him rather verbose. So, at first glance, The Drama of Doctrine may appear to fall into the category of ‘Giraffe-food’ (ie over your head!), but I would encourage you not to be put off. Speaking personally, I found the effort invested – and it does take some effort - was fully rewarded and the book is very stimulating. Furthermore, many things Vanhoozer says resonate with us in NewFrontiers: He is strong on Biblical authority (hence his canonical-linguistic approach), strong on the church as the interpretive community and primary context for living out Scripture, strong on spiritual authority and leadership and so forth.
The basic premise of the book is a restatement of the importance of Christian doctrine, despite its growing neglect in the modern church, to quote Alan Wolfe:
“Evangelical churches lack doctrine because they want to attract new members. Mainline churches lack doctrine because they want to hold onto those declining numbers of members they have.”(xii)
Through a collection of dramatic metaphors Vanhoozer sets out to show that the gospel is not merely a set of propositional truths that require assent, but is a drama, a performance of words and actions by God, that demand a performance from us in response. Doctrine is therefore essential to determine whether we, as God’s people, are ‘performing truthfully.’ Christian dogma is not incidental but is
“a vital ingredient in the well-being of the church ... [since] it shows us who we are, why we are here, and what we are to do.”(xii-xiii)
Vanhoozer then frames God as Scriptwriter; the Holy Spirit as Director (Pastors are assistant directors); Scripture as script, Theologians as dramaturges (advisors as to correct interpretation and performance); the ‘catholic’ church as performing community and so on, exploring the various roles in some depth.
This dramatic framework is most helpful as a broad hermeneutical approach since it allows for the diverse genres found in Scripture, although we must be careful not to overstate the case. The Bible is certainly not a script in the usual sense of the word and we are not called to simply perform it. (cf 252) Among other things, the Bible is a record of how others have ‘performed’, which, depending upon a range of hermeneutical factors, may or may not be prescriptive for us. The idea of drama is helpful but the analogy could be pushed too far.
The concept of the theologian as dramaturge is particularly perceptive, as they realign and provoke us to ensure we are ‘performing the gospel truthfully’. For this reason, the theologian
“is responsible for knowing both the script and what Christians have said and done with it in different times and places… Though theologians are first and foremost apprentices of the canonical text, they must also be apprentices of church history.”
(349) (Now there’s a challenge!) Nevertheless, we must not think that theological reflection should take place before the performance (as Vanhoozer seems to imply) but is an ongoing process alongside it, shaping and developing it (eg Acts 15).
In short, The Drama of Doctrine is a fascinating and illuminating read, with some brilliant nuggets. The challenge is that they require considerable digging to find them!