Does Diversity of Form Lead to Diversity of Message in Theology? (Engaging KJV Pt. 2)

Last week I kicked off a little series engaging Kevin Vanhoozer’s Remythologizing Theology by working through the essays devoted to it in a recent volume of the Southeastern Theological Review. I opened with an appreciative post outlining Vanhoozer’s unique place in Evangelical theology, but from there I figured it would make sense just going through the various essays in order, beginning with Stephen J. Wellum’s “A Critical Appreciation of Kevin Vanhoozer’s Remythologizing Theology.

“A Critical Appreciation” aptly sums up the thrust of the essay; it’s appreciative, then critical. Wellum begins with an excellent multi-page summary outline of RT, noting carefully the methodological as well as material proposals Vanhoozer is making. From there, he moves into three areas of criticism within his overall appreciative take on the work. While Wellum raises some material issues (how does the author-analogy for sovereignty deal with reprobation?), he settles in mostly on issues of theological framework, truth, and method.

Though his section on the absence of apologetics, or rather the assumption of a Reformed theological framework, is worth pursuing, it overlaps with the thrust of Crisp’s essay, so I’ll leave that to the side for this post. What I’d like to do is frame Wellum’s question to Vanhoozer on the issue of literary forms, and then summarize what Vanhoozer has to say in his puckishly-titled follow-up article “Vanhoozer responds to the four horsemen of an apocalyptic panel discussion on Remythologizing Theology.”

mediumMore Than One Medium, More Than One Message? – Back in the day, Marshall McLuhan taught everybody that the “medium is the message”–essentially form and content are inseparable; how you say something is part of what you’re saying. For instance, print media and visual media are two very different things and they radically shape what is being communicated. Vanhoozer is well-known for giving the dictum a theological twist and arguing that the form, or forms, of the message–specifically the various genres of literature in Scripture–should play a role in our theologizing about the message, especially in Is There a Meaning in this Text? and The Drama of Doctrine.

It’s here that Wellum starts to wonder, “are literary forms overblown?” (pg. 24) See, it’s not just that Vanhoozer claims we should be paying more attention to genre so we can figure out that you’re not supposed to read Revelation the same way you read the book of Acts. That’s all fine and good. What causes his query is the further claim that he sees Vanhoozer making–that the plurality of mediums and genres (canonical plurality) yields a plurality of conceptualities and theologies (theological plurality.) Quoting Vanhoozer in DoD (pg. 275):

The plurality on the level of the canon may call for an equivalent plurality on the level of interpretative traditions. If no single conceptual (read, confessional) system is adequate to the theological plentitude of the canon, then we need a certain amount of polyphony outside the canon, too, in order to do justice to it. The church would be a poorer place if there were not Mennonite or Lutheran or Greek Orthodox voices in it.

Applying the idea to atonement theology, this would mean that instead of privileging one of the many metaphors used to speak of Christ’s work to one, single, conceptual framework, a remythologizing approach will let them all come to play and shape our understanding. In RT, he says something along the same lines about our theology of God. Again, he quote Vanhoozer,“The reality of God outruns any one theologian’s attempt to conceptualize it, just as Scripture outruns the attempt of any one interpretative scheme to capture its meaning (RT, p. 474).”

At this point, Wellum throws up his hands and confesses that he’s not quite sure what to make of all of this. It’s all fine and good to think through the various genres of Scripture, as we struggle to do theology that honors all that God revealed, but “why does this lead to theological diversity?” (pg. 25) Sure, we should think through and include all the metaphors used in Scripture when thinking through the Cross, but isn’t it possible to take them all into account and land at an account of things that is better than other attempts? “…does this entail that there is no single conceptual system which accurately understands the Scripture, or at least, in terms of the areas that are central to an understanding of the Gospel?” (pg. 25) Pushing further, Wellum also asks whether this holds up in light of the inter-textual usage of the Old Testament texts by New Testament authors, who seem to appropriate texts freely across literary forms as they re-read them in light of the redemptive-historical story-line of Scripture.

These are good questions. So what does Vanhoozer have to say about it? Well, as with everything he says, he says it playfully and humbly–especially since Wellum happens to be his former student.

The Master Responds – So what’s he getting at? Well, to begin Vanhoozer does a little clarifying as to what he does not mean by theological plurality:

The first thing to be said is that I am careful to locate diversity on the level of vocabulary (e.g., metaphors) and concepts, not the more fundamental judgments that underlie them (e.g., ontological judgments). A second
preliminary observation: diversity is not the same thing as indeterminacy or contradiction. To be sure, there is a certain tension in saying that the same basic theological judgment may be rendered in more than one set of concepts, some of which catch certain nuances better than others. But we need only think of the various metaphors to describe the saving significance of Jesus’  cross to see how canonical perspectives generate theological perspectives. (pg. 75)

In other words, don’t take this too far. Recognizing understandable theological plurality is not a charter contradictory or incoherent doctrinal formulations. It is, however, a call to humility in our theological pronouncements given our finiteness and the fecundity of texts themselves.

Next, Vanhoozer happily concedes Wellum’s last observation about the NT author’s seeming emphasis on redemptive-historical readings over ones sensitive to literary form. That said, in the dispute between Christ and the Tempter (Luke 4), Vanhoozer points out that they’re not just trading true propositions. The issue up for dispute is where these statements fit in the canonical narrative of redemption. In other words, the issue of re-reading texts in light of redemptive history is still an issue of appreciating form–in this case, the form of the whole canon.

Finally, one of the key points to understand, is that Vanhoozer’s reflections on form and genre are an attempt at correcting against some approaches to the place of genre in theology on offer.  For so many Evangelical theologians, possibly including Wellum, understanding genres is important so that you can better crack open the shell of the text, and get to the juicy propositional content. Vanhoozer’s basic hunch about the forms of biblical discourse is that they “do more than provide packaging for theological content.” (pg. 75) Vanhoozer’s concern is that we see Scripture not merely as a treasure-trove of divine propositions to be deciphered and reassembled in the proper, systematic order.

God had particular purposes in using wisdom, apocalyptic, narrative, instead of one, clear, monological form, and this is an insight of theological importance:

Form is also an ingredient in “rightly handling [orthotomeo] the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). It is through the various literary forms of Scripture, including stories and histories, that the divine authorial imagination shapes our view of God, the world, and ourselves, thus forming us to be those who can make right judgments concerning fittingness. (pg. 76)

At a more than systematic level, the forms of Scripture train the disciple in ways of seeing, hearing, knowing, loving, and responding to drama of the Gospel, and that says something about the God of the Gospel.

One of Ricoeur’s line in particular continues to intrigue me: “Not just any theology can be wed to the narrative form.” How much more is this the case with a theology wed to history, apocalyptic, wisdom, prophecy, law, and gospel! (pg. 76)

A Clarifying Word – For some, questions will remain. I have a couple myself. Knowing this, Vanhoozer points the inquisitive to works by Ricoeur, as well as his own essay “Love’s Wisdom: the authority of Scripture’s form and content for faith’s understanding and theological judgment ” (Journal of Reformed Theology 5, 2011) At the end of the day, given the amount of space he had, this is a helpful, clarifying word, though not a final one from Vanhoozer.

Still, in the space he takes, we find a challenge to go back to the text and really see the formal diversity for what it is: not an obstacle to be puzzled apart, reduced to a clear, propositional form, but God’s diverse word that strikes “all the chords of the human soul, not just the intellectual”, in order to train us to take our place in the grand Theo-drama of redemption.

Soli Deo Gloria 

2 thoughts on “Does Diversity of Form Lead to Diversity of Message in Theology? (Engaging KJV Pt. 2)

  1. Pingback: Is Vanhoozer Still a 5-Point Alvinist? (Engaging KJV Pt. 3) | Reformedish
  2. Pingback: What’s So Great About Vanhoozer? (Engaging KJV Part 1) | Reformedish

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