When it comes contemporary systematic theology Kevin J. Vanhoozer is the man. I think I’ve said something like this before, but The Drama of Doctrine single-handedly saved my theology of Scripture when I was in my semi-emerging phase. His recent work Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship is probably the most important text engaging the doctrine of God and first theology (the confluence of God, scripture, and hermeneutics) that’s come out in the last 10 years. (I’ve summarized Vanhoozer’s summary of what that’s about here.) At least, in my admittedly unqualified opinion.
Imagine my excitement, then, when I got my hands on Southeastern Theological Review‘s volume for Summer 2013, which is dedicated entirely to interacting with Remythologizing. The volume is based on an ETS symposium dedicated to the subject, consisting mainly of four critical essays by Stephen Wellum, Oliver Crisp, and Fred Sanders and is capped off by a final response article by Vanhoozer himself. I’ve been waiting to read some constructive engagement with his work, but since the book is relatively new (only a couple of years old), and has been prohibitively priced (until now), there hasn’t been much.
I’ll just say that for those interested in an introduction to Vanhoozer’s project, or further discussion of the important issues involved, these are excellent essays from top scholars. Vanhoozer’s piece alone is worth the price. In order to encourage readers to either pick up the book, or follow up with the essays, over the next few weeks, I’ll write one post addressing each of the respective essays, probably picking out a key passage framing a critical issue, as well as sections from Vanhoozer’s own response.
What’s So Great About Vanhoozer? For this first week, though, I’d like to summarize a small section from Guest Editor Mark Bowalds’ introductory piece “A Generous Reformer: Kevin Vanhoozer’s Place in Evangelicalism.” Using an early piece in the Vanhoozer corpus, Bowald highlights four key features of Vanhoozer’s theological practice that make him necessary reading for those interested the future of Evangelical theology.
1. “First among these characteristics is his commitment to affirm and promote that quintessential feature of evangelical theology: the unrivalled authority of Scripture and the appropriate and fitting practices of its reading.” (pg. 3) Though nuanced, complex, and catholic (in the best sense), Vanhoozer’s theology unquestionably Evangelical, especially in its orientation to, and robust affirmation of the authority of Scripture. Indeed, anyone who has trucked through Is There a Meaning in This Text?, First Theology, or The Drama of Doctrine has seen his passion for, not only the authority of Scripture in the abstract, but it’s lived practice. For Vanhoozer, theology is not only scientia, but also sapientia, a lived out wisdom that gives the life of the Church its particular form. Scripture is not properly read until it is performed by a company of disciples steeped in the Theo-Drama of the Gospel.
2. “The second feature on display early on is his fearless and insatiable appetite to explore and read broadly and engage positively with diverse traditions and authors.” (pg. 4) Among the many accolades his books could (and have) been awarded with, Vanhoozer’s could probably qualify for that of most interesting bibliographies. For instance, in The Drama of Doctrine, alongside the theological titles of expected theologians (Calvin, McGrath, Webster, Barth, Von Balthasar), you’ll find Jeffrey Knapp’s study Shakespeare’s Tribe: Church, Nation, and Theater in Renaissance England and Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares. Beyond that, you’ll find these works seamlessly blended with the insights of philosophers such as Wittgenstein, Gadamer, Riceour, Searle, and Habermas. Vanhoozer won’t be limited to the usual suspects when it comes to theological dialogue.
3. “Third, he displays a unique confidence in drawing from this great breadth of material, integrating and weaving it creatively and humorously into dialogue with evangelical thought.” (pg. 4) Following off of this, it must be noted that he engages this diversity well. As Bowald points out, with section titles like “Propositional Paradise Lost? Some problems with the Concept of Revelation”, he’s obviously comfortable playing with the big boys (and girls), and it shows in his delightfully playful literary demeanor. This isn’t mere whimsy, or the sign of an unserious thinker, however, but rather a mode of communication that displays the confidence that Evangelical doctrine ought to engender. Instead of insular jeremiads, or timid, lowest-common denominator forays out into the broader theological world, Vanhoozer displays a creative ease building on and generously critiquing his interlocutors from a generously Evangelical vantage point.
4. “The last noteworthy…aspect of Vanhoozer’s work which emerges from the foundation of these first three, is his willingness to hold on loosely to method.” (pg. 4) As Bowald points out, this feature of Vanhoozer’s thought and practice is often misunderstood. While he definitely has a clear theological method, Vanhoozer is quite comfortable employing various conceptual aids in an ad hoc, bricolage fashion in order to supplement traditional doctrines; a little speech-act theory here, a bit of acting methodology there, and a dash of continental hermeneutics there and you have a retooled doctrine of Sola Scriptura ready for use. For “serious” theologians, who need there to be a more explicit, linear, link-up between method and articulation, this can be a bit disorienting. (Of course, that’s part of the reason nobody reads them.) Bowald is keen to note, however, that this flows from his humble and generous approach to theological science–a willingness to appropriate and employ whatever insights he can, always in submission to the Word of God.
All of this amounts to a very winsome, irenic, and moderating, yet essentially conservative figure. (In a sense, think Tim Keller, but in systematic theology.) As Bowald notes: “Evangelicals have always been better at building moats than bridges. Evangelical theology tends to be insular and centripetal; Kevin Vanhoozer’s approach to theology is porous and centrifugal.” (pg. 5) All of this goes doubly for the Reformed. Vanhoozer manages to be confessional without being cantankerous, faithful without being fearful. Besides the importance of his constructive answers on the actual material questions he addresses , he is an exemplar of an approach theology interested in reaching, without compromise, beyond the borders of our own little, insular world.
And isn’t that what a truly Evangelical theologian ought to do?
Soli Deo Gloria