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Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine

Kevin J. Vanhoozer
Published by Westminster John Knox Press in 2014

Reviewed by Jonathan Huggins, Chaplain, Berry College

Kevin Vanhoozer is Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL. His 2006 book, The Drama of Doctrine, was a well-received articulation of Christian theology that made use of the theatre as a controlling metaphor. That work was written for academic theologians and their students. This new work, Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine, makes use of the same metaphor though this time it is written for the church. As Vanhoozer states, this work “uses a theatrical model to discuss the various ways in which doctrine shapes Christian understanding and forms disciples” (4). Vanhoozer has thought afresh through his earlier work and now provides “a full-fledged proposal for the role of theology in the church’s task of making disciples” (xv). In the Preface he writes,

[this book] sets forth a comprehensive vision of what the church is and what it should be doing; it argues that Christian doctrine is a vital aid to “doing church.” I discuss the mission of the church in theatrical terms that emphasize both the locality in which the church performs its faith and the doctrine that directs its performance. (xiv)

This is what the book is all about. The theatrical model is not totally original to Vanhoozer. Calvin reckoned the natural creation as “the theater of God’s glory.” Kierkegaard developed a theatrical analogy for worship, and Balthasar gave us Theo-drama: Theological Dramatic Theory. Many others, of course, have also made use of some “dramatic” understanding of the Bible. Vanhoozer, however, has further developed the model into an entire theological (and now ecclesiological) scheme. And I think it works.

As a master teacher, Vanhoozer sets the reader up for success in understanding his work from the very beginning. He states plainly exactly what he intends to say, as well as how he will say it. Though the content and ideas of the book are creative, Vanhoozer’s style is straightforward. He does not employ the kind of esoteric language that can lead readers into either abstraction or confusion. Rather, he states, and re-states, his points plainly. He wants readers to understand, and act. For instance, the Introduction summarizes all the key ideas that one will encounter in the book, so one knows what to look for. He summarizes that his book is about being biblical, about theology and church doctrine, about the gospel and life, about the reign of God and the church, about public theology and about reality. He also provides a synopsis of the book’s two main sections. All of this should prove tremendously helpful to readers who are encountering Vanhoozer’s language and ideas for the first time.

Part one focuses on unpacking the terms used in the book’s title and subtitle. Readers will recognize Vanhoozer’s play on Anselm’s historic words, “fides quaerens intellectum.” Vanhoozer argues that faith does not just seek understanding, it also speaks it. That is to say, faith communicates, by words and actions, “what is in Christ” (Vanhoozer’s recurring phrase). He writes, “Speaking Christian is a matter of faith speaking understanding, of theology articulated (17).” He believes that the language of drama helps Christians understand their roles as speakers and actors in God’s kingdom purposes. But believers cannot speak and act correctly (as true witnesses to the gospel and the Lord Jesus Christ) without knowing Christian doctrine (what the church believes, affirms, and preaches about God, Jesus, people, the world, and so on). So he takes pains to make clear that “the recovery of doctrine is essential to the task of discipleship, demonstrating understanding of God’s word by doing it. Doctrine is less theoretical than it is theatrical, a matter of doing – speaking and showing – what we have heard and understood (20).”

Part two, which makes up the majority of the book, goes into detail demonstrating how doctrine forms Christian disciples, individually and (most important) corporately. Crafting all of his argument around the theatrical model, he works through sections on the contemporary world, the triune drama of redemption, becoming like Christ (or “putting on Christ”), congregational life, worship (especially The Lord’s Supper), the church’s mission in, to, and for the world (faithful presence and action, enacted parables of the kingdom), eschatology, and bearing witness to the gospel. All the while, it is “doctrine (that) informs and directs the disciple’s witness, wisdom, and worship alike (232).” Vanhoozer works through most of the important ecclesial categories to demonstrate the coherence and helpfulness of his model for helping the church be a faithful church. And for Vanhoozer, that means a church that gives focused attention to the divine drama and the role of the church in the continuation of that drama. He writes, “the purpose of doctrine is to increase the disciple’s understanding of the theodrama in order rightly to participate in it (234).” The church is the theatre company full of actors, totally immersed in and ready to embody the divine drama on the stage of the world. The congregation will rehearse in worship and improvise in the world, all the while being true to her understanding of the inspired transcript of the Bible.

The book concludes with an appendix that seeks to answer objections to Vanhoozer’s theatrical model. He addresses both historical and contemporary objections. This section is not vital to the work as a whole. He makes a clear enough case for the model throughout the book. However, for those who might remain unconvinced, this section will prove helpful.

This book is tremendously insightful and will prove exceedingly useful for church leaders. It provides not only a coherent vision of theology, but also a compelling vision of the church and her mission. It is especially important for those who teach in the church to understand the church’s role in redemptive history, and to communicate that effectively to the congregation. It is also important for church leaders to recognize the necessity of doctrine when it comes to making disciples. Vanhoozer demonstrates that this is vital. The church simply will not know what it ought to be doing and saying if doctrine is not at the center of the church’s life. The model provided here should prove effective in communicating the church’s identity and tasks. Students of theology will also benefit from this work. Some might find this fresh articulation more accessible than his larger work, The Drama of Doctrine. Divinity students may also find it more relevant to being a theologically-informed pastor. Readers will learn a lot of theology along the way, even if one finds the theatrical model difficult to comprehend or apply. Vanhoozer is a seasoned, intelligent, and influential master-theologian. His works exhibit a richness of study and experience that are obvious, even if often dense and sophisticated (in the best sense of the word). I cannot but recommend the text to all serious pastors and teachers of divinity, even for those who might not embrace the theatrical model as a controlling framework.

Cite this article
Jonathan Huggins, “Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 45:1 , 91-93

Jonathan Huggins

Berry College
Jonathan Huggins is Chaplain and Adjunct Professor of Religion at Berry College.