Monday, September 01, 2008

Analysis 18 - Tell Me the Old, Old Story

‘I know this man……His name is Stand-fast; he is certainly a right good pilgrim’.
- Mr Honest, (John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress).

In the last Analysis I argued that the Biblical narrative is what it is because it is God’s narrative, the God who reveals himself in Scripture by means of representative statements about his nature or essence, and then narrates what he has freely done and suffered for our sakes and for our salvation. So at once we see that Christian doctrine cannot be essentially theodramatic , since its rests upon a bedrock that is pre-narrative or narrative-indifferent in character.

Kevin Vanhoozer’s ‘theodramatic’ proposal for re-casting our understanding of Christian doctrine cannot be the whole story, or even the main story. But can it be an account of Christian doctrine at all? Can it be any of the story? Can it turn out to be anything other than an extended rhetorical embellishment of the idea of Christian doctrine?

Act 4

Let us first briefly remind ourselves about what Dr Vanhoozer says about what he calls Act IV of the drama. This Part is concerned with ‘The Performance’. that is the performance of Christians who are ‘participating in the once-for-all mission of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit’. (366) This is the sort of thing he has in mind:

Theology as a practical sapientia directs us to perform the atonement by appropriating our identity in Christ an by engaging in practices that participate fittingly in Jesus’ saving work... Actors who wish to participate fittingly in the theo-drama must therefore learn what their role “in Christ” entails, not only in theory but in practice. For to perform the doctrine of the atonement is to engage in a theater of martyrdom….(362)

According to Vanhoozer doctrine prepares us for fitting participation in the drama of redemption. (363)

Two observations

I begin an answer to these questions about the nature of our participation in the drama of redemption (supposing we allow ourselves to use the word ‘drama’ for the moment), with a couple of general observations.

Since the time when the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, an important structural distinction has been recognised between Christian doctrine on the one hand and its application to the lives of individual Christians and the Church on the other. In his letter Paul teaches us about sin and righteousness and grace and atonement (in roughly the first 11 chapters) and then applies these truths practically, from 12 onwards. It’s similar in Galatians and Ephesians and Colossians and is foreshadowed by Jesus’ teaching on bearing fruit, the danger of looking back, and his teaching on not only being hearers of the word, but doers of it also ; as well as his emphasis, especially in John, on love as the basis of true discipleship; an emphasis followed by James’ teaching on faith and works.

So from these first Christian times the distinction between doctrine – the teaching about God, and salvation, which we are to believe – and application - the consequences that belief in the doctrine of our salvation should have for our human life in the widest sense - has become deep-seated in Christian thought. The one is to lead to the other, but each is nevertheless distinct from the other , and the one may not lead to the other. The seed may not bear fruit. The profession of faith may not even be skin-deep.

Vanhoozer’s proposal that Christians are to be participants in the drama of redemption, the theodrama, if it were to be taken seriously, would blur if not entirely abandon this formative, time-honoured distinction and connection. It is therefore one thing to speak of ‘doctrinal direction’ (Vanhoozer 362), a phrase which is easily assimilated into the age-old doctrine + application approach to Christian theology; it is another thing to talk of ‘engaging in a theater of martyrdom’ (362), which (I suggest) takes us well beyond the parameters of the New Testament.

Vanhoozer’s idea of ‘participation’ is a very strong one, and it is the only sense which would justify the writing of The Drama of Doctrine in the first place. But we need to bear in mind that participation comes in a variety of strengths. For example, in a democratic society, voters, Members of Parliament, the Civil Service, and ministers of the government all ‘participate’ in the political process. (‘Participatory democracy’). But the strength of that participation ascends from the humble voter through to the (sometimes) not-so-humble member of the ruling elite. In a theatrical production the audience, the director and producer, the designers and technicians, the cast, and the audience, all participate in the drama. But obviously the cast participate by enacting the play, the audience by watching and enjoying it.

Shortly I shall try to show that when the NT refers to the relation of Christians to the work of redemption it uses a sense of ‘participate’ that is very weak, one that does not at all justify the attempt to recast Christian doctrine in the wholesale way that Vanhoozer proposes. Ironically, it is when, in Part IV of the book, ‘The Performance’, he comes to work out the role of doctrine in the drama, that Vanhoozer himself f is forced to recongise this weakest sense, the sense that does not justify the writing of the book in the first place. So he says, in the place already noted, that doctrine prepares us for fitting participation in the drama of redemption. (363) He is forced to explain or gloss the language of theodrama using non-dramatic terms which are already richly displayed on the surface of the New Testament – calling, union, sanctification, and so on, th staple of Berkhofian systematic theology. ‘Those who participate in the theo-dramatic missions do so through union with Christ, a union that is wrought by the Spirit yet worked out in history by us’. (366) ‘It is the Spirit who creates a new “role” (character, “spirit”) in us through the process of sanctification.’ (373) Here Professor Vanhoozer employs the rhetoric of drama to do nothing more than embellish what boils down to a conventional understanding of the relation between doctrine and practice. It’s hardly worth the labour, and most certainly does not justify the bally-hoo.


The second general point is that making the idea of drama theologically central creates serious difficulties over the pronounced stance of the New Testament on sincerity and against hypocrisy. Participating in a drama is, basically, play acting. And one thing that the New Testament, and particularly Jesus in his teaching on hypocrisy, is dead set against is play acting: hypocrisy, playing a part, not being wholehearted and sincere, being merely outward and not inward, and so forth. No doubt this is one reason, perhaps the reason, why the New Testament does not use the concept of drama in a positive way. It uses many other figures which convey intense, concentrated, activity – a fight, a race, a wrestling match, a walk – but it never uses theatrical figures. So before he can set out to treat Christian doctrine theodramatically the theodramatist must defend the very idea of a drama against the strictures and warnings of Jesus and the New Testament more generally against play-acting and mere role-playing in religion. (369) Should this not mismatch arouse our suspicions?


Why do I insist that the sense in which Christians participate in the accomplishment of redemption must be a very weak sense? For the simple reason that by now the theodrama is over. I fully realise that some of the sense of this pastness is ‘eschatological’, but this does not change the main point. The segment of real time in which the mighty acts of God’s redemption were accomplished is past. The drama is no longer taking place, and our eschatological hope is wholly based upon what has been accomplished. No amount of re-presenting the drama, in re-enactments of the Incarnation or of the Crucifixion, or in celebrations of Baptism or the Supper, can provide us with the means of participating in it even as strongly as an audience participates in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest when they are watching it and are engaged and moved by what they see and hear. For such an audience is watching a real-time production of a drama, but in the case of the ‘drama’ of redemption such a privilege is denied us.

Of course besides this fact of tense, on which the New Testament insists, (and which any dramatic or sacramental view of the Christian faith tends to water down) there are other, more theological reasons, for denying to Christians strong participation in the accomplishment of redemption. The work of our redemption was solely the work of the Son, in accordance with the will of his Father and empowered by the divine Spirit. He is the sole redeemer, and though we may share in his sufferings, it is because he suffered that we have sufferings to share in. Sharing in his sufferings could never mean being a co-redeemer with him.


As we have noticed, the very idea of doctrine as drama is noticeably absent from the New Testament conception of the application of doctrine. ‘Drama’ is not a biblical word, and it is hard to see that it is a biblical concept either. Of course our redemption is in history and through history. To be sure it occurred little by little. Of course the Lord produced twists and turns in that history, the unexpected, the shocking. To be sure believers are in Christ, sharing in his sufferings, his death and resurrection.

Let us press this point a little. As Vanhoozer notes, the New Testament has a rich vocabulary to depict the atonement – it is a victory, an example, a sacrifice, a penal substitution, and so on. But nowhere in these riches do the writers of the New Testament find it in themselves to refer to the cross as a drama, or a play, or a type of play, such as a tragedy, even though obviously enough there are dramatic and tragic aspects to it. Is this omission not significant?

In applying such doctrines tio Christian life the apostles do not invite us to join them in a drama, or even to think of our lives as a drama, but in fact to do and to be something that is dramatically different from that, as we shall shortly see.

I suggest that insofar as we permit ourselves to use the language of drama about the accomplishment of our redemption, this can only be illustrative, a metaphor, a conceit, and thus something to be used sparingly and with care. Think how far from the spirit and the letter of the New Testament is the idea that the Lord God is an impresario!

The response to the fact of our redemption that the New Testament calls for is not to participate in it, (in any but the weakest sense) but to celebrate it, to enjoy it, and to stand fast in confessing it. The New Testament is given over to stressing the solid, lasting, permanent character of the gospel and the dangers of forgetting this. So Christians are urged to continue, to be patient, to endure, to stand, to keep in mind, to be steadfast and immoveable, to be not soon moved, not to forget, to wait, to remember, and so on. This language suggests not the shifting activity of the actor, but precisely the opposite. It calls for inactivity, ‘engaged inactivity’ as we might call it

Jesus Christ, in whom this stability is to be rooted, ‘is the same yesterday, today and for ever’. And even if, in the interests of supporting some idea of the real presence of Christ at the Supper, we are urged to dramatise our celebration of it, and our participation in the celebration, we must never forget that the Supper is made intelligible only by the Word, and that intrinsic to the Scriptural commentary on the Supper is the teaching that it is an act of remembrance.


In the Preface to his book Professor Vanhoozer explains how what he thought and hoped would be a small book turned into a large one. It did indeed. But its size deceives. The book is a long development of an unbiblical analogy which borrows what illuminating force it provides by riding piggy-back upon the distinction between doctrine and its application, the age-old, basic way in which the New Testament shapes our understanding of the Christian life and how to live it. It is greatly to his credit that Professor Vanhoozer sees that this is how the New Testament speaks to us. But in recognising this, however fleetingly, he undermines the cogency and plausibility of his own novel proposal.