Friday, August 01, 2008

Analysis 17 - Unexpected Help

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty…..
- Exodus. 34.6,7

Ruminating further about Kevin Vanhoozer’s book The Drama of Doctrine, (Louisville, Westminster/John Knox, 2005), it seems obvious that the author’s claims regarding ‘theodrama’ amount at best to little more than a reminder regarding the biblical setting of classical or traditional systematic theology. The reminder, in a nutshell, is: the eternal God has been pleased to reveal himself at various times and in diverse manners by the prophets and has in these last days spoken to us by his Son. Did we not know that already? The Drama of Doctrine is a big book, but it yields a scant theological dividend.

But how to show that this is all there is to it? Certainly, there are things that could be said about the author’s misunderstanding of classical systematic theology, his skating over problems regarding speech-acts, the ambiguity of the idea of theodrama, the silliness about ‘proof-texting’, or the charge that much modern systematic theology is impersonal. But these issues, interesting in themselves, do not (I believe) take us to the heart of the matter. Merely to appraise The Drama of Doctrine in such terms is, in a sense, a case of tweaking a detail here or there while essentially playing the same game as its author.

A post modern book?

One observation that does begin to take us farther is noticing the general character of the work. It’s self-evidently a modernist work, not of course by being an immediate product of the Enlightenment, but one which is nevertheless conducted in the spirit of the Enlightenment. For it does not seek to build on the past, not even to build on a re-jigged past, but to start over again. Fancy that. After two thousand years, starting all over again.

Kevin makes space for himself – clears the stage, so to say - by distancing his ideas from those of cognitivists (in the shape of Hodge) and expressivists (in the shape of Lindbeck). He tell us that he sits somewhere in the middle, borrowing from each. Yet the idea of such a division, or polarity, between expressivism and cognitivism, is itself a modern phenomenon, to be dated no earlier than the reaction to the logical positivism of the mid-20th century. The farthest KJV goes back, or at least deliberately goes back, (apart from making a number of learned allusions) is to poor ole’ Charles Hodge, but then only to place him at one extreme of this much more recent polarity in a way that would have utterly bemused Hodge.

The Drama of Doctrine is a post-modern work in a sense in which, were he to be persuaded of the fact, would not please its author. To be sure, to place oneself in the middle of two opposite tendencies which are the children of the modernity of yesteryear is to be post-modern, but not in quite the sense that Kevin Vanhoozer courts. (I have to say that this tendency of contemporary evangelical scholars simply to attempt to talk to each other, and not to talk to the past, or allow the past to talk to them, is very depressing. The theological via ephemera, so to speak.)

What of the great doctrinal works of Christian genius? Where do they stand? What of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation of the Word, or Augustine’s De Trinitate, or Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo or the Summae of Thomas Aquinas, or Luther’s Bondage of the Will, or Calvin’s Institutes, or Edwards’ Religious Affections? (To name but a few) Are these great achievements to be dismissed with a wave of the hand as ‘cognitivist-propositionalist’ efforts, works of detached scientia, which, employing a picture theory of meaning, ‘de-dramatise’ Scripture, and endeavour to express it in a series of timeless and universal truths? Kevin never takes up this vital issue, nor even hints at an answer to it. For he does not see himself as standing on the shoulders of giants. Apart from the appeal to Scripture itself, the past does not exert much, if any, authority over his present.

However, none of these considerations, interesting though they are, takes us to the heart of the matter. Which is the inability to answer the question: how does one actually get to theology (the tome is offered , remember, as a novel approach to Christian Theology) from theodrama? (This is but a variant of the largely unaddressed problem of how one gets from ‘narrative theology’ to Christian theology.) But then…..there’s footnote 66 on page 95. I thank Kevin for it, even though he does not seem to appreciate its significance.

Let’s slowly work up to it, by stages, to showing what its importance is. First, how does the theo get into the theodrama?

A God beyond space and time

Among the opening sentences of the work are these:

The human discourse in the Bible is so caught up in God’s triune communicative action that it participates in what we may call the economy of the gospel, mediating both revelation and redemption. (35) Theology would know nothing of God if God had not taken the initiative to “unveil” himself and raise the curtain on the theo-drama. (38)

These are, of course second-order sentences, sentences about sentences. Nevertheless, they raise pertinent questions. Among these sentences are:

(a) God’s triune communicative action participates in the economy of the gospel/


(b) God takes the initiative to ‘unveil’ himself

These are two statements of a timeless theological kind. The questions they force us to ask are: Where do these come from? How does the author of The Drama of Doctrine know these things? How does he know that God is triune? How does he know that God takes the initiative? Come to think of it, how does he know who God is? To which the answer might be, we know who God is by what he does, by the theodrama in which he acts communicatively. But is this so? Can it be so?

The footnote has explosive potential for the thesis about theodrama. For it makes it clear that it is impossible to do without doctrine which is itself not simply drawn from a narrative. When Vanhoozer later on (99 etc.) wishes to speak of God as a personal being who stands over and apart from the storied practices that comprise the believing community, the theodramatic proposal itself begins to unravel. Because if God is a communicative agent, then we need to ask, ‘Who is God?’, ‘What is he like?’ and the rest. Vanhoozer says, all of a sudden, that God is not a being who can be encompassed by space and time. (100) But how does he know this? Does the theodrama tell us? Which act? Which scene? Can he, by reference to other acts and scenes of the theodrama, tell us anything more about God?

The book is written as if we already know who God is. But of course on its assumptions we do not and cannot know who God is. For there is no place for natural theology revealing God’s eternal power and divine nature. There is no place for systematic theology based upon the timeless truths of special revelation. In order to claim to know who God is before we know to interpret Scripture as a theodrama , anticipating that theodrama for ourselves, we must be in possession of an abstract idea of God, a concept of God. But such a concept cannot be the result of God’s gracious self-communication, which is intrinsically dramatic.

The footnote

Now to the footnote. It is to a piece by Professor Terence E. Fretheim, Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, in Theology Today (1997), entitled 'The God Who Acts'. In this piece Professor Fretheim shows us with great clarity the limitations of the ‘God who acts’ paradigm (G.E. Wright and co.) and by the same token, the limitations of theodrama. After listing various of the inadequacies of narrative theology, he then tell us what he thinks is the OT understanding of divine action (with a genuflection in the direction of inter-textuality et al.)

Then he turns to ‘The Issue of Genre’. Here he makes the claim that the narratives ‘present God as a living reality with all the attendant ambiguity and complexity’. (16) No doubt. But – he reminds us - there is more to the OT than narrative.

Interwoven with the narratives are more generalized statements about God. These nonnarrative genres, which gather claims about God, are more important for this discussion than commonly recognized.

Two types of gathering genres might be noticed here, both of which may be designated as “credal’ one type of creedal statement gathers claims about God that focus on divine acts (for example, Deut. 26.5-9; Josh. 24.2-13)….Another type of creedal statement articulates those claims about God in more abstract ways: God is compassionate (Exod. 22.27); gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (Exod.34:6-7; Num. 14.18); holy (Lev. 19.2); great, mighty, awesome, is not partial and takes no bribe, executes justice for the orphan and the widow and loves the stranger (Deut 10. 10: 17-18). (17)

That pretty much demolishes Vanhoozer’s thesis. How does theology or, more pointedly, how does God himself get into theodrama? Not because he enters it as one of the players, for were he do so we would need to know from somewhere who this strange actor is. (Generalising, this is the problem of how biblical theology keeps its body and soul together without living off the earnings of systematic theology.) He gets into the drama (or more exactly, the narrative), only at points where the drama is suspended and the players receive a ‘creedal’ statement from their Creator or Author. The occurrence of those cited by Fretheim, and many more, are not part of the action of the biblical narrative. They interrupt it, and at the same time they control it. They are in the drama but not of it. They are statements, assertions, (i.e. speech-acts) which intrude into the narrative, interpreting it, and so telling us who the God of the narrative is.

What do these credal statements look like? They look like all the things that Vanhoozer thinks is the matter with traditional theology. Propositions? Yes, they are propositions. Abstract propositions? Indeed. Are they propositions with a timelessly-true or time-indifferent truth value? Yes, I’m afraid so. For it’s not a good idea to assume that as these statements intrude into the drama on one particular occasion that they are merely about that one occasion. They are not statements like ‘The sun is now coming out’ which may occur at a time and if they do are exclusively about that time. Credal statements have an occasion when they are first uttered, but they are not about that occasion. Not at all. Rather, they state the same truths when uttered time and again; their truth is indifferent to time, to any occasion when they may be restated. In that sense they are ‘timeless’.

They are about the eternal God who not only takes no bribes on Monday, but who might nonetheless need the money on Tuesday, but who never takes bribes because he cannot take bribes. (Where do these necessities and impossibilities about God, about what he can and cannot do, come from? Not from the de facto statements about him in the ‘drama’, but from the ‘creedal’ insertions, and their good and necessary consequences. Who is the God that leads Israel? He is the incorruptible God whom he declares himself to be, the Creator of the heavens and the earth.)

Now, while it’s salutary to have this help from Professor Fretheim, his remarks, even though presented to us as remarks on ‘genre’, are in fact nothing new. He’s noticing what any attentive Bible-reader notices - the presence of statements about God in Scripture that together form the central data of Christian theology. More than this, he’s unintentionally reminding us of the importance of texts such as Exodus 34.6 in the history of Christian dogma.

What is a proof-text?

That’s a good question. Here’s my suggestion. A proof text for a doctrine (such as the doctrine of God ) is a text that, although it occurs (naturally enough) in one particular context, does not depend upon that context for its truth. If I say ‘I’m going to the beach today’, then the truth of what I assert depends on its context. I’m going to the beach today, 17th July, and not tomorrow, 18th July. But now consider our old friend Exodus 34.6. That first occurs in one particular context, in the Exodus narrative. But it is not true only in that narrative, or only in that narrative and in narratives immediately adjoining it. Why not? Because it is a general statement about the character of God, holding for all times, indifferent to particular times. Seriously non-dramatic, in other words. And interspersed within the narratives of Scripture is an abundance of such texts. They provide the bedrock, the theology, the elements of the doctrine of God, which is itself the bedrock of systematic theology.

(As an example, see the large number of references to Ex. 34.6 in John Frame's The Doctrine of God, ( P & R, 2002), coupled with his references to the 'authoritative descriptions of God's nature' (16) which (though John Frame does not say as much) control the narrative, providing its chief dramatis persona.)

More on this, and its bearing on the value of The Drama of Doctrine, in the September's Analysis.