Kevin Vanhoozer Corrects N.T. Wright’s 5-Act Hermeneutic

Wright againWhile many other scholars have made similar points, Kevin Vanhoozer and N.T. Wright have probably done more than any other theologians to help me understand the Bible as a drama. As opposed to viewing the text as a static collection of theological bullet-points, they suggest we conceive of it in active, narrative terms, with a plot whose development yields the doctrine which gives life to the Church. So, when one of them offers up a criticism and nuance of the other’s approach the way Vanhoozer does here, I’m definitely interested:

Tom Wright has thrice put forward a model for conceiving biblical authority that trades on the notion of biblical improvisation. He compares the drama of redemption to a Shakespeare play, most of whose fifth act is missing. The church has the first four acts (creation, fall, Israel, Christ) but must work out the fifth act (church) for herself, all the while remaining in character. It is not enough for the actors “merely to parrot what has already been said”; they must go beyond the sacred page and find—improvise!—the conclusion. Still, the first four acts are the “authority” for the fifth act, hence the idea of “improvising with a script.”

This suggestive model has much to commend it. However, I see the fall not as its own act, but as the conflict in the first act, creation. I prefer to see each of the five acts of the theodrama as set in motion by a divine act. Hence: creation, election of Israel, Christ, Pentecost and the church, consummation. On my dramatic reckoning, the church does not have to work out the ending so much as to live in its light. The essential thing is to play the right act. The church is no longer in Act 2, under the law, nor in Act 3, in which case it would have to do the work of Christ. Nor is it already in Act 5, as some in the first-century church at Thessalonica with an over-realized eschatology mistakenly thought. No, the church is in Act 4, an in-between the first and second comings of Christ time, marked by the firstfruits of the end time but not yet at the end.

-Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology, (Kindle Locations 2961-2973).

On one level I find this all rather compelling. The more traditional Creation, Fall, and Redemption (or Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation) is still rather serviceable. Wright’s suggestion is helpful, though, in that it distinguishes Israel’s phase thereby ensuring we don’t simply skip over it straight to Jesus–as if we could. It also helps us remember that while Israel is part of the Jesus plan, it is still a distinct phase, not to be confused with Christ’s work or that of the church.

Vanhoozer’s rolling the Fall back into the first act of Creation is also admirable for it’s theocentricity–God-centeredness. When it comes to thinking through the different acts as periods of human action, the Fall needs to be accounted for in our moral and theological reflection, but isn’t really stage on its own, it’s a presupposition for the rest. The narration of salvation-history is governed by God’s gracious action, not human sin.

I don’t have much to comment beyond that except to ask: what do you all think? Theologians, Bible-types, any thoughts?

Soli Deo Gloria

13 thoughts on “Kevin Vanhoozer Corrects N.T. Wright’s 5-Act Hermeneutic

  1. This might be a hit below the belt somewhere, but wouldn’t a good and consistent Calvinist acknowledge that the Fall is, in some sense, a divine Act, thus distinguishing it from Creation while keeping it god-centered?

    On a more serious note, while I appreciate Vanhoozers attempt to keep everything God-focused (that is, I fully appreciate his aim and agenda), it’s very difficult for me to conflate Genesis 3 with Genesis 1-2. I see Genesis 1-2 as standing as an Act of creation while Genesis 3-11 would fit well as an Act all it’s own with the Biblical narrative showing the depth of our situation leading to (dare I say) the third Act: God’s move to answer the problem through Abraham and Israel. I thinking the Biblical narrative (not least the Psalms, Romans and Acts itself) consistently draw those lines. No metaphor is perfect, and Vanhoozer is one of my favourite theologians, so I’ll have to give his proposal some more thought.

  2. Nothing substantial to add, but I’d like to commend you for your clippings, in addition to the usual posts. It makes for a nice digest of some huge ideas.

    -another Derek

  3. Good reflections here. I’ve shifted from talking about “Creation, Fall, Redemption” to “Election, Exile, and Restoration.” Or more broadly and clunkily, “Creation & Catastrophe, Election & Exile, Restoration part 1: Jesus, Restoration part 2: Spirit and Church, Restoration part 3: All things new.” I think the election-exile-restoration actually captures the centrality of both the universal scope and the particular people through whom God is working. Gen. 1-11 is absolutely crucial as prologue (think the opening 10 minutes of Fellowship of the Ring), but the real story gets going in Gen. 12. I think that the “CFR” model can miss the centrality of Israel-church because of the undue emphasis on Gen. 1-3 and lack of emphasis on Gen. 12. Also, I think the danger of Wright’s fifth act and of “creation-fall-redemption” WITHOUT consummation is an overly realized eschatology and an overly optimistic focus on the “already” without a proper emphasis on the “not yet.”

  4. Derek,

    Thanks for this post. So helpful. I’ve always liked NT Wright’s idea of “improvisation” because of the potential that concept has for helping Christians think of practice, and how they can live as “storied” persons and communities within God’s work.

    How do you think “improvisation” (Wright) vs. ” the church does not have to work out the ending so much as to live in its light” (Vanhoozer) differ in practice? What do we lose or gain from each nuance/framework?

  5. If the drama of redemption is going to be cast into a Shakespearean five-act structure, Jesus (his Incarnation, life, Atonement and Resurrection) pretty much has to be the third act.

  6. Truly Vanhoozer’s ammendation is is a right and justified correction to N. T Wright’s model. The Church age is given far too much direction in the NT letters to warrent an improvisation. what all this reveals is the weaknesses of models. they are only to be carried so far. NT Wright seemed to have forgotten the NT escatological emphasis.
    Still, as hermeneutic it lacks the verbal propositional element of the revealed Word of God. We need to remember that even words, individual words, at times even in narrative or poetry have doctrinal or prophetic import, there is to use the German liberal phraseology, the dialectical “this and not that” 🙂

      • I appreciate both Wright’s suggestion and VanHoozer’s improvement on it; especially the caution that we don’t have to work out the way the play ends so much as live in the light of the ending.
        We need to make a distinction here. These models do help us understand how the Bible functions as Guide, which is part of its authority; they do not help quite as much in picturing how the Bible, or the Word of God functions as judge of ideas, doctrines, ideologies, etc. I suppose the caveat that the participants must act “in character” as they work out the rest of the story goes a little ways in that direction; then, I suppose, a totally different Jesus from the Jesus in the early acts of the story would be a false Jesus, but the function of the Word of God as judge is not sufficiently clear in this model.

  7. Pingback: A Theology of Sex and Gender–Pt. 1–What does it mean to be “biblical”? | Raising Lazarus

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