Participating in the Theater of Redemption: A Review of Kevin Vanhoozer’s “The Drama of Doctrine”

drama of doctrineIt was the 2nd century church father Tertullian who asked, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” Readers coming to Kevin Vanhoozer’s dense and immensely rewarding The Drama of Doctrine might initially voice a similar question: “What does Broadway have to do with Jerusalem?” In other words, what does the church have to learn about its task from the theater? I believe that Vanhoozer’s reply would likely be something along the lines of, “Actually, more than you might think.”

The core of Vanhoozer’s proposal consists in a series of striking theatrical metaphors for theology, Scripture, interpretation, the Church, and even the pastor (p.xii). For him, these metaphors are appropriate because the world of “faith seeking understanding” is itself dramatic. He explains, “At the heart of Christianity lies a series of divine words and divine acts that culminate in Jesus Christ… The gospel—God’s self-giving in his Son through the Spirit—is intrinsically dramatic” (p.17). As a theological metaphor, the theater can also help show “how we come to know things not simply by beholding and contemplating them but by indwelling and participating in them” (p.79).

The Drama of Doctrine is divided into four main parts (pp.31-33). In the first section, Vanhoozer sketches out his thesis: that doctrine and even the gospel itself can best be understood in theo-dramatic terms (nodding to the work of von Balthasar). He also explains his directive theory of doctrine, which is near to the heart of the book. In the second part, Vanhoozer seeks to find a more fruitful way of relating Scripture and tradition, leading to an attempt to rehabilitate the idea of Sola Scriptura for the postmodern world by understanding it to be more of a practice than a principle.

The third part of the book is where Vanhoozer fully lays out his conception of canonical-linguistic theology. In doing so, he also differentiates it from other similar approaches, like George Lindbeck’s cultural-linguistic approach. The final section of The Drama of Doctrine contains an extended discussion of the implications of Vanhoozer’s directive account of doctrine, looking at its importance in the life of both individuals and church communities (pp.31-33). With that overarching summary out of the way, I think it goes without saying that there’s a lot we could choose to stop and dig into. For our purposes, it will be enough to slow down and discuss a few of the points raised by Vanhoozer throughout the pages of The Drama of Doctrine.

Approaches to Doctrine

First, there is his comparison of different approaches to the nature of doctrine. Vanhoozer contrasts “epic” and “lyric” styles of doctrine alongside more “dramatic” approaches (p.84). The epic perspective reaches back to the philosophy of Hegel and tries to give an absolute, comprehensive explanation of doctrine. He explains, “Systematic theologies resemble epics to the extent that they appear to be written by impersonal and omniscient narrators who stand nowhere in particular” (p.85).

Vanhoozer thinks that much of modernist theology fall within this epic framework. Another term for the epic style is “cognitive-propositionalist” theology (per Lindbeck) (p.84). Despite being vastly different from each other, he judges both Chales Hodge and Rudolf Bultmann to have worked from within this epic/cognitive-propositionalist framework. For Vanhoozer, “The main problem with epic theology… is that it opts out of the drama altogether and takes ‘an external, spectator’s perspective on the completed play'” (p.86).

On the other end of the spectrum sits what Vanhoozer calls “doctrine as lyric” (p.91). He explains that “lyric theology, typical of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, swings to the opposite extreme [of epic theology], virtually identifying the subject matter of theology with the interpreter’s religious experience” (p.91). While Hegel is identified with epic theology, lyric theology is primarily associated here with the German theologian Schleiermacher. Vanhoozer explains:

Lyric theology, insofar as its theologizing begins with one’s own religious experience, neither recognizes nor responds to the prior word/act of the triune God. Evangelical theology begins, however, with the divine promise, not human experience; with the divine missions, not a spurt of human creativity… One can read theology neither off the cosmos (as in epic) nor off consciousness (as in lyric)… Doctrine poses a spiritual challenge, a challenge to become a Christian and to perform one’s faith… The drama of doctrine involves propositions and passions alike. (pp.92-93)

In contrast to the epic and lyric approaches to theology, Vanhoozer believes the cultural-linguistic conception of doctrine, as advocated by the postliberal theologian George Lindbeck in The Nature of Doctrineto be much closer to his dramatic proposal, though not without some differences (p.93). This leads us into the second main discussion in The Drama of Doctrine that we will look at: the differences between Vanhoozer’s canonical-linguistic theology and Lindbeck’s cultural-linguistic approach.

Vanhoozer Versus Lindbeck

Lindbeck’s book came out in 1984, and it proved to be quite influential, leading to the “cultural-linguistic” turn in theology (p.10). One of the healthier consequences of the rise of cultural-linguistic theology is that it re-emphasized the importance and potentially life-giving nature of tradition, understood as the habitual practices of a community (p.10). It should be said that there is much in common between Lindbeck’s work and the proposal being set forth by Vanhoozer in The Drama of Doctrine. Nevertheless, his examination of the cultural-linguistic turn is not without critique:

The canonical-linguistic approach to be put forward in the present book has much in common with its cultural-linguistic cousin. Both agree that meaning and truth are crucially related to language use; however, the canonical-linguistic approach maintains that the normative use is ultimately not that of ecclesial culture but of the biblical canon. (p.16)

The Achilles heel of the cultural-linguistic approach, for Vanhoozer, is that practices can become empty and hollow; traditions can become corrupt and self-serving (p.22). Again, to say this is far from advocating a marginalization of tradition/practice in the life of the Church. Rather, it is to affirm the importance of Scripture’s ability to speak over against traditions and church practices when they are found to be wanting (p.17). This leads to Vanhoozer’s most biting criticism: he claims that Lindbeck’s attachment to the normative importance of church practice leads potentially to a situation where “doctrine does not direct the community but is directed by it” (p.97).

Vanhoozer’s solution for this problem is to re-emphasize what Nicholas Wolterstoff calls divine authorial discourse (p.11). He thinks that the way forward is to “see the Scriptures themselves as ‘spirited practices'” (p.99). In other words, it’s not that narrative, rhetoric, and communal use aren’t important, but that “on the dramatic view, God gets the principle speaking part” (p.99). As we mentioned earlier, the canonical-linguistic approach subscribes to a directive approach to doctrine. So briefly, let’s look at what this means.

The starting point is the communicative action of God. “In the beginning was the word… not propositions or religious experience or community practices” (p.101). At the same time, though, Vanhoozer argues that Scripture can be seen as incomplete in that “it calls for appropriation on the part of the believing community—in a word, performance” (p.101). He gives a beautiful description of what this kind of performative interpretation can look like:

The appropriate theological response to the theo-dramatic gospel should be equally dramatic: a saying/doing that demonstrates one’s understanding of what God has done in Jesus Christ. Faith seeks nothing less than a performance understanding. Scripture is the script in and through which the Spirit guides God’s people into the truth, which is to say truthful ways of living… Doctrine’s place in the drama of redemption should now be clear. Doctrine is a guide for the church’s scripted yet spirited gospel performance(p.102)

I think this portrait sketched by Vanhoozer is a great way of bridging the ugly ditch that has all-too-frequently divided theological belief and practice in recent times.

The Work of the Dramaturge

We have seen that for Vanhoozer the gospel can be compared to a drama, Scripture can be compared to an authoritative script, and doctrine can be understood as directions for participating fittingly in the drama. This all leads to a question, though: “Who in the church corresponds to the director?” (p.243). Vanhoozer’s answer to this forms the third point we will explore here.

The job of the director includes serving as the “mediator between the script and the actors,” which leads some to identify the director with the theologian. Vanhoozer, on the other hand, thinks it best to see the Holy Spirit as “the principal director of the church” (pp.243-244). What does this make the theologian? A dramaturge, “the adviser to the director and company alike” (p.244).

The dramaturge has up until recently been a relatively unknown figure in the world of American theater, according to Vanhoozer. However, “In Europe… the dramaturge is the person responsible for helping the director to make sense of the script both for the players and for the audience” (p.244). In this framework, the dramaturge is tasked with researching and preparing the script for use. Other tasks include: selecting a edition/translation of the play, investigating the historical situation of the script, and looking at how the play has been performed in the past (p.244). The parallels of these activities with the work of a theologian are significant. In addition to these script-oriented tasks, the dramaturge also concerned with ensuring that the actors perform well. Some additional tasks include leading interpretative discussions, writing study guides, giving lectures, and writing scholarly essays and books for the community. As Vanhoozer puts it, “One is hard pressed to think of a better job description for the theologian than that” (p.245).


The most obvious criticism of Vanhoozer’s thesis, as he himself acknowledges, is that it could train Christians to overly-focus on external actions rather than the “inner emotions from which action springs” (p.365). In other words, they might become hypocrites:

There is indeed a risk that the metaphor of “performing” the Scriptures could shrivel into that of “play-acting,” if by that we mean “taking on a role rather than becoming transformed into a different kind of person.” The danger is real. It is, alas, possible to play-act the Christian life. (p.365)

Does this possibility of hypocrisy mean that attempts to understand the gospel and doctrine in “theo-dramatic” terms should be given up? Far from it, in Vanhoozer’s opinion:

The solution is not to give up the theatrical metaphor, however, but to take it with the utmost seriousness. Like good actors, we have to learn not simply how to play-act a role but rather to become the role we play. The drama of doctrine has nothing to do with pretending but everything to do with participating in the once-for-all mission of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. (p.366)

He goes on to take readers on an exploration of Constantin Stanislavsky’s way of teaching acting, a technique frequently referred to as “the Method” (p.369). The heart of the Method is the desire to embody dramatic roles in compelling ways, to avoid what Stanislavsky called “mechanical acting.” To act mechanically means to “suffer from a lack of coincidence between the inner and outer man,” which is fairly similar to the Scriptural category of hypocrisy (p.370). Thus, even in dealing with the criticism of hypocrisy, theatrical metaphors for theological issues can be potentially fruitful.

The Drama of Doctrine is an ambitiously grand, and ambitiously dense, piece of academic theology. His proposals are both creative and constructive, and this has been one of the more rewarding reads that I’ve had in quite a while. I still have some questions regarding how he thinks about situations where issues of doctrinal directives seem to conflict (ex. between denominations), but Vanhoozer has nevertheless given plenty of food for thought for those seeking to find more fruitful ways of understanding the relationship between theological practices and beliefs. I happily recommend it.

*Disclosure: I received this book free from Westminster John Knox Press for review purposes. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. 








Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.