When Kevin Vanhoozer returned to the United States after a year of ministry in France, he did something characteristically imaginative. He wanted to go to seminary. He already had an undergraduate transcript full of Bible and theology credits; the only problem was that it was already August, and classes would begin in a matter of days. Vanhoozer needed a way to convince a seminary to admit him, quickly.
A classically trained pianist, Vanhoozer and others with Greater Europe Mission had spent a calendar year talking to unchurched audiences about how “the joy of music” pointed to Christ. Flush from the success of the mission, he decided, “I don’t have time to apply to seminaries, I want them to apply to me.” So he designed “an inversion or parody of the recommendation form,” he says, with questions such as, “What are the strengths and weaknesses of the seminary?” He promptly dispatched 60 forms.
“Professors didn’t get it,” Vanhoozer now laughs.
Except for one. Vanhoozer’s eyes light up as he describes it. John Frame, then a professor in the honors program at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, wrote back. On the form, under “Weaknesses,” he scrawled,“Totally depraved.” For a Calvinist theologian, it was a wickedly funny joke. Vanhoozer loved it.
In many ways, his seminary admissions story captures a lot of what you need to know about Kevin Vanhoozer. Formerly a senior lecturer at Edinburgh University, now a longtime research professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, Vanhoozer is one of the biggest names in academic theology. The author of six books and the editor of at least a dozen more, his sessions at the annual American Academy of Religion and Evangelical Theological Society meetings are always overflowing.
But in and through all the groundbreaking research and years of teaching, Vanhoozer views himself principally as one who practices the “care of words.”
“Theology is a bridging exercise,” he says. “We’re always trying to reach people.” The way Vanhoozer does it is by looking for the playful, visionary, creative angle from which to speak and write.
What Is ‘Biblical’?
If you know Vanhoozer’s name, chances are it’s because of his work in biblical interpretation. Most of the research from the first phase of his career centered on Scripture’s authority in the church. Vanhoozer urged believers to become attentive, loving interpreters of the Bible in all its bewilderingly diverse glory. Is There a Meaning in This Text? has been a standard textbook for many upper-level seminary classes on biblical interpretation since it was published in 1998. When I took a class on hermeneutics at Wheaton College in the early 2000s, the book was high on the recommended reading list. Students were buzzing about it.
One late-night conversation with a fellow undergraduate led me to pick up a then-new Vanhoozer book called First Theology. “It shows you how to read the Bible like a Christian!” my friend gushed. Vanhoozer was pursuing largely uncharted territory in evangelical thinking: namely, whether there’s a special way to read if you happen to believe in the triune God. “What would it mean if we thought through hermeneutics with a Trinitarian framework?” Vanhoozer asks now, looking back on what he was trying to accomplish then. Since the Bible really is God’s Word, shouldn’t there be a special, God-directed way to engage with it?
It wasn’t always a welcome question in the years before Vanhoozer began publishing. For decades, evangelicals relied on secular theorists like E. D. Hirsch to set the agenda for biblical interpretation. Hirsch had drawn a neat distinction between the meaning of the Bible and its significance. The biblical meaning is fixed and unchanging, grasped by using the right method of reading. The significance, by contrast, is constantly changing, depending on the cultural space you inhabit.
When I studied the Bible in evangelical academic settings, I was steeped in this thinking. I learned to mine Scripture’s meaning the way I’d mine the meaning of any book: I’d read the text in its original language, diagram its syntax, learn its historical and literary context, and so on. Only when I later asked about the significance of Scripture did I need the help of the Holy Spirit (or so I thought). A godly mentor told me, “You don’t need the Spirit to figure out what the Bible means. You can do that on your own, just like any unbeliever can. But you do need the Spirit if you’re ever going to submit your life to that meaning.”
Vanhoozer disagreed, and still does. “Method will never be enough without the Spirit’s work in helping us discern,” he says. He replaced Hirsch’s crisp distinction between meaning and significance with a more overtly Christian agenda. In a new preface to Is There a Meaning in This Text? Vanhoozer wrote, “We should begin our thinking about meaning and interpretation as Christians with the paradigm of the triune God in communicative action.”
Or, as Vanhoozer puts it, the Bible is best defined as God doing things with words. If we’re ever to do justice to what the Bible is, we have to talk about the Spirit, with the Father and the Son, at the beginning, middle, and end of that definition.
The stories, poems, letters, and visions in the Bible aren’t simply the products of human authors who were infused with divine insight. Instead, says Vanhoozer, the Bible is God’s way of addressing and guiding the church, of administering his saving covenant with us. Studying the biblical books in their historical contexts is, of course, vital. But the Bible achieves its present purpose—of making us all like Christ—because of how God speaks through it, present tense.
As Vanhoozer put it in his first scholarly publication in 1986, “[The infallibility of Scripture] means that Scripture’s diverse . . . forces will invariably achieve their respective purposes.” God will ensure that his Word will not return void (Isa. 55:11). And no human method could ever guarantee that outcome.
Hearing the Full Symphony
But what does it mean that God speaks in and through Scripture? Vanhoozer’s work appeared at a time when evangelical theologians were fiercely debating that question.
By the time Vanhoozer published his first essay on interpreting the Bible in 1986, evangelicals had already engaged in multiple “battles for the Bible” at places like Fuller Theological Seminary. Conservatives had held up the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which affirms that “Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching,” for almost a decade. The Scripture Principle—simply that the Bible is God’s Word—had been in the air for years, often finagled and fine-tuned but never abandoned.
Vanhoozer’s work somehow broke new ground. Retreading the footsteps of others, he found a way to neither repudiate everything that came before nor simply repeat it. (As a Trinity professor and Evangelical Theological Society member, Vanhoozer continues to affirm inerrancy.) “I’ve never been so committed to my [theological] team that I didn’t recognize that we commit fouls too,” Vanhoozer told me. So, armed with a confessional and evangelical tradition, Vanhoozer pressed beyond where evangelicals had arrived. As he wrote in the 1986 essay “The Semantics of Biblical Literature,” “Scripture does many things with words and hence its authority is multifaceted.”
Vanhoozer was concerned that evangelicals’ approach to biblical interpretation was narrowing and hardening. Given the right conditions, evangelicals could well stop appreciating the diverse ways in which God’s Word comes to us. By saying that all of Scripture was “without error,” evangelicals risked implying that all of Scripture came in the form of “true or false” statements. How, then, to understand an exclamation of praise in the Psalms? Or what could the cry of “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!” mean if it could only be slotted into a “true” or “false” box?
“To read always for the proposition is like always listening to a Brahms symphony only for the melody,” Vanhoozer says. “My motivation for saying that [is] to hold Scripture up high, to let it be everything it’s supposed to be.”
In short, Vanhoozer shook up evangelical thinking about Scripture at just the moment when it could have calcified. He insisted that evangelicals were right to keep a high view of Scripture’s authority. But he was equally firm that God does many things with the Bible: God prompts lament, incites adoration, urges repentance, wounds pride, and announces forgiveness and new life. Of course, Scripture also asserts truth statements to be believed, but that’s not the only thing it does.
The biblical canon doesn’t just make claims about the world. It seeks to reinvent that world—and remake us in the process.
Resisting the Status Quo
Vanhoozer’s creative approach risks leaving all theological camps unsatisfied. Later this year, Vanhoozer will publish a book on the pastor as theologian with Owen Strachan, who teaches theology and church history at Boyce College, a conservative Southern Baptist school in Louisville, Kentucky. Strachan also leads the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which promotes male headship in the church and the household. Vanhoozer is celebrated in circles like this. As one conservative theologian puts it, Vanhoozer is “a reforming but committed evangelical.” For that reason, the theological Right trusts him.
Others are less certain of his consistency. When Vanhoozer’s recent tome on the doctrine of God, Remythologizing Theology, hit shelves, Paul Helm worried that it underplayed Scripture’s truth claims. Helm, a Reformed philosophical theologian, wrote on his blog, “The omission from his list of [the Bible’s] communicative acts—poetry, song, parable, apocalyptic, story, and argument—of statement, or assertion, is significant.” Vanhoozer wants to remind us of the conversational covenant between the speaking God and the listening believer. But in doing so, does he sideline the core evangelical emphasis on the Bible’s truths that “transcend [their] occasion and context”?
Vanhoozer is also valorized by more progressive evangelical thinkers. Postconservative theologians like John Franke appear to have drawn on Vanhoozer’s work for their own projects. And many outside the evangelical fold—Kathryn Tanner of Yale and George Hunsinger of Princeton—have praised his work for being generous and incisive.
Still others suspect Vanhoozer of dressing up garden-variety evangelical “bibliolatry” in fancy new garb. Peter Enns left the faculty of Vanhoozer’s alma mater, Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, over disagreements about the Bible. He accuses Vanhoozer of papering over the Bible’s genuine errors.
Enns supports Vanhoozer’s description of an “inerrancy of the Cross.” This is Vanhoozer’s way of saying that biblical truth always communicates God’s loving faithfulness. But, by the same token, Enns has said the Cross suggests that God speaks humbly in Scripture. That is, God uses biblical authors’ errors and missteps, rather than preventing those mistakes from creeping in. Vanhoozer suggests that any apparent contradictions in Scripture may await resolution in the future, in God’s timing. Enns views this as a classic inerrantist ploy to wriggle out of genuine tensions in the biblical canon.
“I have received criticisms from the Left and the Right,” Vanhoozer tells me. In the end, he wonders aloud whether his “creative fidelity”—his efforts to hold up an evangelical doctrine of Scripture in a fresh, lively way—leaves him open to misunderstanding from all quarters. “Those toward the Left don’t like fidelity when it appears to be status quo,” he concludes. “Those toward the Right don’t like creativity when it appears to be infidelity.”
The Theater and the Script
In the classroom, Vanhoozer finds that even the most committed evangelicals can be
suspicious of theology. When he wrote his acclaimed 2005 book The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Doctrine, Vanhoozer did so with those students in mind. He had observed “that doctrine and church life [had] come apart, and that disturbed me.”
I understand. When I was younger, all my Christian reading consisted of devotional books and the occasional Christian novel. My dad once suggested I try reading some meatier, more demanding theology. At first I balked, put off by the idea that controversial topics could be edifying. And I wasn’t alone. Many churchgoers, young and old, have found that doctrine divides, and that avoiding theological debates can hold a community together.
Vanhoozer is out to change that perception. Don’t be repelled by the word doctrine, he says in effect. If the Bible is God’s communication to us, then doctrine functions as the “stage directions.” Doctrine helps us take our place to perform the Director’s commands. “Theo-drama” is the way Vanhoozer speaks about the Christian life. Doctrine is part and parcel of making sure that drama gets from the printed page to the well-lit stage.
“Doctrine helps disciples act out what is in Christ,” he says. “And what’s in Christ is the new creation, the new humanity.” Doctrine, in short, assists Christians to perform their faith, to live in ways that display to an eager audience redemption in Jesus. “We need to learn how doctrine directs us to live out the life of Christ,” he says. And you believe him when you see that flash of excitement in his eyes.
Vanhoozer’s more recent work completes an unfinished arc from earlier in his career. His first published writings tried to explain how the Bible holds authority in the church. His later books—including his most recent, Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine—describe what it looks like to hear and obey the voice of God in Scripture in mundane moments, in the church foyer or at the local multiplex.
A hallmark of Vanhoozer’s theological style is the way he spins out a metaphor beyond where more trepid thinkers would venture. When talking about church life, Vanhoozer suggests that the pastor is the stage director who ensures players all know their lines and can improvise when necessary. Individual Christians are the actors. Scripture furnishes the script. The theologian is a “dramaturge,” using expert knowledge of acting and classic performances to help the director proceed. There is masterpiece theater (the creeds). There is local (the congregation) as well as regional theater (the denomination or confession the congregation belongs to).
You can almost picture Vanhoozer smiling to himself as he extends the metaphor, twirling it further and further out to demonstrate just how rich theology can be. “Systematic theology should be exciting,” he tells me. I imagine his students agree.
From Communication to Communion
When Vanhoozer completed his doctoral studies at Cambridge, prior to his first job at Trinity, he worked with the revered Catholic theologian Nicholas Lash. In an essay published the same year as Vanhoozer’s first, Lash wrote, “The fundamental form of the Christian interpretation of Scripture is . . . the life, activity, and organization of the Christian community.” He went on: “Christian practice consists . . . in the performance or enactment of the biblical text: in its ‘active reinterpretation.’ ”
So, you know a church is heeding Scripture when you look at the church in action—preaching the Good News, feeding the hungry in Jesus’ name, offering music and joy to a fractured world in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Vanhoozer is still committed to Lash’s vision. Doctrine is for living. And the church is to embody and implement, not just catalog and classify.
Toward the end of our time together, Vanhoozer steps back and draws some threads together. “Theo-drama,” he says, returning to the metaphor of performance, “is something that’s not just telling us what to think.” The truth of Scripture isn’t grasped merely by a bare mind, peering through the microscope. “There’s beauty,” Vanhoozer says. “There are a lot of beautiful scenes in Scripture. But there’s an odd beauty, of course, a strange beauty.”
It’s the odd beauty of the Cross—and the odd beauty of the cross-bearing troupe who progresses across the stage, performing the drama of salvation for the healing of the world.
Wesley Hill teaches New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. His most recent book is Spiritual Friendship (Brazos).
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