Life in God’s Cosmic Drama: An Interview with Kevin Vanhoozer


The Bible is dramatic — it sets out for us a story which is set in history, and features a cast of colorful characters, with protagonists, antagonists, with leading characters, and twists and turns of plot, and all of this on a stage called creation. And of course there is a Savior who takes center stage to conquer death and evil in the offer of his own Blood. The incarnation and life of Christ, and his death on the cross, his resurrection, and ascension are at the center of the biblical storyline, and this means Christ himself is at the very heart of all of world history.

God is the Author of the story, and he has orchestrated this drama in history, a it’s a drama we now participate in, every day of our lives.

This is the point of Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer, who currently serves as Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. His fields of kjv-2expertise include Bible interpretation, systematic theology, and the study of postmodernism.

Vanhoozer is particularly drawn to the Bible’s drama, and how it resembles theater, and he explores ways that theology can be done in light of the contours of the biblical drama.

He detailed his approach in the 2005 book, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Doctrine and more recently explained the role of the local church in his new book, Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine.

I caught up with Dr. Vanhoozer to talk about the drama of redemptive history, or what he calls the theo-drama, and transcribed our talk.

I began by asking him how he introduces the theme of “performing the drama of doctrine”?

That is a great question and I start at different places depending on the audience, but if we are starting at the very beginning I think we have to ask the question: What is Christianity? And my concern is with being biblical rather than a cultural Christianity. So I am not simply interested in perpetuating what people take to be business as usual. So that makes me want to raise the question, first of all: What is the Bible? What is Christianity all about? What is the Bible?

And this is how I entered into talking about the theodrama, because the Bible I don’t think is a set of principles. It certainly doesn’t read like a systematic theology if you read it from cover to cover. It is not simply a worldview the way philosophers talk about it and it is certainly not a moral code only. People assume that Christianity means do this, don’t do that. But it may be all these things in part, but in the first instance that is not what I would say the Bible is. The Bible, I think is explaining Christianity by telling us a long story. It is about God taking an initiative, rescuing the world from what has happened to it, this entropy, the captivity, the death, this sequence of destruction. And I see the Bible, then, as a transcript of the interaction between God and the people of God throughout centuries of history.

But the focus of the Bible is what God has done in history, God’s doing. And that is what theo-drama is, theo for God and drama comes from the Greek verb drao which means to do. So theo drama is what God is doing and that is at the heart of Scripture.

I also think the Bible is a little bit like a dramatic script, because it is the story in which the Church and Christians find themselves caught up. In other words, we aren’t simply reading about somebody else’s story. We are reading about the story in which we are caught up and we are caught up as actors. There are lines for us to say, things for us to do. We are in the thick of it.

So at the heart of the Bible there is a gripping story about God and human beings. I think it is a love story of cosmic proportions, not boy meets girl, but God meets world, loses world, gets world back. And that is how I would begin to talk about what theodrama is. It is about this love story of God for the world and that just brings us to the threshold of gospel, but that at least gives us a sense of how I begin talking about theodrama as such.

You really have a heart for Christians to not only see and understand the cosmic story, and to see Jesus at the center of that storyline, but you want Christians to consciously live within the storyline itself.

Right. That is exactly because at the heart of the Bible is the story of what God has done, but the gospel is the good news, the good news about what? It is about the good news about what God has done for the world. And if we ask what that is, there are many ways of talking about it and Scripture does so in many ways. But we could say that it is about the victory God has won. You know, Paul says we have been delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of his Son. And that means there are wars been fought. I mean something dramatic has happened and the good news is the announcement of victory. Something has happened that changes everything.

And, of course, that is what we get in the gospels, four different versions of this story of what God has done in Jesus Christ. And the gospel is the whole story of Christ. I think it focuses on his death, but the cross is a huge part of the climax. So I would want to say the climax involves more than the cross. I think it involves all of the events of cross, resurrection, ascension, the sending of the Spirit and even the entering of Christ into the heavenly tabernacle, because that is where he is enthroned as what Hebrews calls an eternal priest king, a high priest seated at the right hand of the throne of the majesty in heaven. And that is when we know the victory is really, you know, complete.

And so the gospel is this amazing drama. And it really is dramatic, because not only do we have the problem in the Old Testament of human beings rebelling, but even in the gospel itself we have the story of one who has humbled himself taking the form of a creature even though he was the one through whom all things were made. He became obedient to the point of dying on the cross. And then he somehow got exalted and his name is above every name and now he is enthroned as the high priest in heaven. How did that happen? And that is the drama, the story of how the Son got from here to there and back again.

So Christ is at the center. All lines of the theodrama converge in him. He holds it all together.

Exactly. And I think the theodrama idea helps us to keep the center on Christ. It is because if we saw Christianity as a philosophy, as a morality, I don’t think Christ would be at the center of it. But in the drama model Christ is at the very center. And we have hints of his coming from the very start.

The other thing I would want to say about how Christ is at the center that in the beginning of the story we see God making promises to human beings to Adam in the garden, right? We have a pre gospel announcement that the serpent’s head will be crushed by the seed of Adam. We don’t know how, but there is something to hope even in Genesis three. And then we have more explicit promise that God makes to Abraham later in Genesis. And a promise, let’s just think about that. A promise is as commitment to act on someone’s behalf in the future. And that is what generates the dramatic tension. Is God going to act? When is God going to act? How is God going to act to fulfill these promises?

So I think the fact that we have so many promises from God in Scripture sets us up to expect the fulfillment which is ultimately in Christ. But it also reminds us we are in the realm of action, because a promise promises action in the future.

Yes, that’s a helpful perspective. Let’s rewind to the beginning for a moment and talk about creation. Jonathan Edwards presses into the question: Why did God create everything? His answer is that God’s triune effulgence — his fullness — spills out, which explains creation out of the fullness of God. Thus creation — this world — provides for us the backdrop for the drama of Christ and the Church. So how do you articulate the role and purpose of creation? In your own words, what function does creation play in the theodrama?

I like Edwards very much. But I don’t want to give the impression that God overflows by accident. I think creation is more than milk boiled over the pot. But I guess I would answer the famous philosopher’s question: Why is there something rather than nothing? By saying that God spoke. He said, “Let there be light.” It all begins with God taking the initiative. So God has prepared the stage and it is important for us to know that because the universe is here for a purpose. It is the staging area for this theodrama, this amazing triune communication of God.

And Edwards does himself say that God created the world in order to communicate himself. I think that is entirely right. I guess I would just want to underline that communication is much more than transmitting information. It is about sharing, ultimately sharing one’s self. That means of word communication you have to do with making common. So the amazing thing about creation is though God was under no compulsion to do this, he decided to create a world that was not himself, but with which he would share his own life, make common the life and love that make up the trinity with those who are not the trinity.

So I agree with Edwards. God created the world as a stage in order to communicate himself. And that is why, again, I like this drama model. Drama is all about communicative activity. It is about people doing things, saying things that share something of who they are with others. You can’t have a drama unless you are acting in front of someone. And so it is really the creation, I suppose, that starts the drama off, because it also is a communicative act from God.

And just one last thing. Even in the act of creation though it isn’t necessarily a promise, it is not an explicit promise, but if Edwards is right and creation is a kind of communication, I think it is worth remembering that the end of communication is sharing with someone else. So even in creating God is making an initiative towards communion. Obviously we know that creation’s purpose got stifled by Adam in the fall, but that is what Christ ultimately makes possible when he enters the stage. He is able to bring about communion and we can think in especially of his high priestly prayer in John 17 where he is praying to God that for his followers that they may be one as we are one.

Essentially I would say creation is the stage that gives us the space and time to interact with God. And everything that is bears some token of God’s perfection. You know, we aren’t to value creation in and of itself, but it tells us something. It points us back to God as author and source and communicator. So when we are dealing with the world, if we have the eyes to see, we are dealing indirectly with the author of all things.

You quote Shakespeare’s line: “The play’s the thing.” Explain why this line stands out to you.

Yeah. Well, I like to quote lots of Shakespeare, but this one is particularly good, because the play is the thing. At least the way I am reading it he is saying that action is what it is all about. You know, and this is the gospel is, as I have said, the report of an action. It is not the principle of the thing. That is not what the gospel is. The gospel is action. It is something done in history. So the play is the thing. That is the core of Christianity. And what is exciting about it is that the play goes on and we as members of the church and disciples have been given roles in this play. That is an incredible dignity as dignity of being a player.

You have spent many years studying postmodernism and its influence on church and on theology. How does theodrama interact with postmodernist thought?

Ah, good question. So I think the postmoderns are obviously upset with modernity for a few reasons. I am not sure I would consider myself either postmodern or modern, but I do think that they have identified some weaknesses in modernity, an over reliance on reason, an over reliance on individuals.

I suppose for postmoderns I would want to talk about a metadrama. This is the drama of dramas that reality is what is in Jesus Christ. That is the story that tells the story of the world. So I think they would like that, the emphasis on story. But I would want to call it a metadrama and they might resist that notion.

Two other things come to mind.

In speaking about dramas we are not simply talking about ideas. To be a disciple is not simply to be one who has correct thoughts. We need to make sure that discipleship involves the heart as well as the mind. And yes Paul encourages us to have the mind of Christ, but I don’t think he simply means the intellect. To have the mind of Christ involves the attitudes such as humility that Christ displays. And in other words, being a Christian involves living out the mind of Christ. It isn’t just a set of ideas. And I think the postmodern might resonate with that because they are after more than simply knowledge. The theodrama involves imagination and desire, the aesthetics, and not simply questions of epistemology.

And then I guess a final point would be postmoderns often call attention to the importance of community. In fact, some would say community is one of the striking characteristics of the postmodern turn instead of individualism. And I would say that in the dramatic model the church is very important for various reasons. It is one of the things God is trying to bring about through the work of Christ. He is trying to create a new humanity that the church reflects and it takes a company of players to witness to the gospel. We can’t forgive others as an autonomous individual. In other words, we have to exhibit the truth of the gospel in community with a company of players.

There is truth to be maintained, but I think the dramatic model might appeal to postmoderns because it is not just simply about stating the truth, it is about suffering the truth, demonstrating the truth in love, in community. So a lot of the things they find missing in modernity with its emphasis on ideas and systems of knowledge, I think the theodrama compensates for.

I want to build on this point that theology is not merely about subscribing to the right orthodox proposition statements. In your book The Drama of Doctrine, you wrote: “Scripture governs theology not by providing the field from which we harvest abstract universals but by embodying truths of transcultural significance in particular contexts. What we have in the canon is not a set of detachable (e.g. abstract) universals but concrete universals: universals embedded in particular situations, in particular space-time words and actions” [348]. So when we read the Bible — and so much of it is narrative and situational — how does this makeup of Scripture challenge us and shape the way we do theology today?

Good question. Scripture doesn’t simply give us universals or principles or maxims, but concrete examples. What I guess I would say here is that we do have dramatic scenes in Scripture. They are particular. But from those particular scenes I think we can derive a better grasp of Christian wisdom. And I think this is important especially when we think about missions and contextual theology and how to be biblical in other cultures than our own.

Every time the gospel enters a new culture and every time the Church has to contextualize, the understanding of the whole church increases. And in a sense this is what I see in the cannons. Everything that the people of God have to do, that is right in new context, adds to our stock of wisdom. And I mention wisdom here because that is about knowing how to live to the glory of God, knowing how to live in a way that fits in with the created order and the new created order. And history moves on. The Church is always in new situations. So we can’t simply repeat the past. But we are to learn from the biblical case studies, as it were and we are to translate, transpose the wisdom from one context into another.

It is easier said than done. But the point is we are not simply trying to put a system together, we are trying to form wise people. And that is how you learn wisdom is by an apprenticeship and as a theologian I see myself as an apprentice to canonical wisdom.

So I wonder, what role does systematic theology play in the interaction with theodrama? How does theodrama relate to the discipline of systematic theology?

Well, I am a systematic theologian and I am suggesting that systematic theology itself made use of certain ideas drawn from the realm of theater and drama just as other systematic theologians say we should make use of certain ideas drawn from philosophy. So I don’t see myself as doing something other than systematic theology. I see systematic theology as informed by this new model. This is a new way, as it were, of doing systematic theology.

I am still interested in systems, how one doctrine is related to other doctrines, how everything coheres. But I guess my question would be: Why can’t the coherence be dramatic rather than ideological or conceptual, even?

Very interesting. There are many things I want to ask you about, but our time is drawing to a close. Let me end with one more question, this one on the role of imagination. The imagination of course plays a very important role in theology, and in how the church sees herself performing on the cosmic stage. Explain how. What’s the importance of imagination in the life of the Church?

Right. Well, maybe we can back up and just ask, you know: Why is the Church here? What are we supposed to be doing? And, you know, we are an elect people. And we have a vocation, as Israel had a vocation. And I think part of our vocation is to image God, live up to the image of God in which we have been created. But also testifying to the gospel and we do this, as I was saying earlier by exhibiting a kind of community life that really demonstrates this reality. We have new life in Christ. We are living out what is in Christ.

So we are exhibiting the gospel. Now, we didn’t see it. We didn’t touch Jesus with our hands or hear him with our own ears or see him with our own eyes. We have testimony, much of it eye witness testimony, but we weren’t there. So to some extent there is a distance. And we certainly don’t see with our eyes or hear with our ears today God renewing all things. And it is hard to see things with, for example, scientific instruments. We don’t see God at work in that way. That doesn’t mean God isn’t at work.

So the question then is: Well, how do we perceive God? And I think one of the ways we live our experience through these biblical stories and testimonies. And that means we have to imaginatively view our world, as it were, through these biblical lenses.

I suppose you could just call it faith, but faith is belief without seeing. So I would want to say in order for the Church to participate in this drama we have to have the eyes of our heart enlightened. We have to be able to taste and see. And I think it is through the imagination that we really are part of this amazing thing God is doing in Christ through the Spirit. And because we can’t see it with our senses, we have to grasp it another way.

I do think it helps to be someone who can follow a story. Imaginations help us to follow stories. We are not at the end yet. We are in the middle. But we have to hope for that ending.

I guess the other and connected thing to say about the imagination is that because Christ has shown us what the ending is going to be, we have to keep the end in mind. It is this already/not yet tension. And, you know, it is so crucial for discipleship. We may not see one another as glorious beings, but that is what we are being made into. And I guess I would call it the eschatological imagination, the ability to see things that are not yet the case as already the case, because they are in Christ.

We have been raised in Christ. That may not be apparent to the senses, but with an eschatologically sensitive imagination they can see the not yet as already. That helps us to persevere in our faith. It helps us to rejoice in tribulation. I think it is the only way we can rejoice in tribulations. We have to be able to see them as part of the bigger picture

That was Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer, who serves as Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He is the author of several books including, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Doctrine, which was published in 2005, and the new book, Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine.

On Reading Nonsense Satire

From the mailbag, Daniel writes to ask: Have you read Rabelais? In your reading of and about the classics, do you know of any reason why a Christian should hesitate to read him, for moral reasons or otherwise?

Good question, Daniel.

François Rabelais (1494–1553) was a contemporary of John Calvin (1509–1564) and the two Frenchmen couldn’t be more unalike. More on that in a moment. Rabelais’s two novels, Gargantua and Pantagruel are named for the central characters in each book (two giants). The works are non-sensical satire of farce, loaded with scatological humor.

I’ve read bits and pieces of the novels in the past and found his works to be so unnecessarily vulgar to lose all luster for me as a reader (there’s an entire paragraph describing how to use a live goose as toilet paper, and worse things I dare not share on this blog).

These novels raise other related questions. Here are a few things to consider regarding Rabelais (in particular) and the genre of nonsense satire (in general).

For a good start, be sure to read two G. K. Chesterton essays (both mention Rabelais).

In A Defence of Nonsense, Chesterton writes, “Nonsense and faith (strange as the conjunction may seem) are the two supreme symbolic assertions of the truth that to draw out the soul of things with a syllogism is as impossible as to draw out Leviathan with a hook.”

And in A Defence of Farce, he writes: “The literature of joy is infinitely more difficult, more rare and more triumphant than the black and white literature of pain. And of all the varied forms of the literature of joy, the form most truly worthy of moral reverence and artistic ambition is the form called ‘farce.’”

Traveling back in time to Calvin’s Geneva, Rabelais’s novels were condemned as obscene and one could face church discipline (i.e. public lashings) for being found with them.

Philip Schaff, in his History of the Christian Church, draws an interesting comparison (8:266):

These two men, so totally different, reflect the opposite extremes of French character. Calvin was the most religious, Rabelais the most witty man, of his generation; the one the greatest divine, the other the greatest humorist, of France; the one a Christian stoic, the other a heathen Epicurean; the one represented discipline bordering on tyranny [??], the other liberty running into license. Calvin created the theological and polemical French style — a style which suits serious discussion, and aims at instruction and conviction. Rabelais created the secular style, which aims to entertain and to please.

But this comparison is a bit overdrawn. Calvin was widely read and appreciated more literature than he commonly gets credit for, and he certainly appreciated the value of wit and sarcasm, as B. B. Warfield explains (W, 5:10–2):

The Reformation was the greatest revolution of thought which the human spirit has wrought since the introduction of Christianity; and controversy is the very essence of revolutions. Of course Calvin’s whole life, which was passed in the thick of things, was a continuous controversy; and directly controversial treatises necessarily form a considerable part of his literary output. We have already been taught, indeed, that his fundamental aim was constructive, not destructive: he wished to rebuild the Church on its true foundations, not to destroy its edifice. But, like certain earlier rebuilders of the Holy City, he needed to work with the trowel in one hand and the sword in the other. . . .

Of course he had nothing in common with the mere mockers of the time — des Périers, Marot, Rabelais — whose levity was almost as abominable to him as their coarseness. Satire to him was a weapon, not an amusement. The proper way to deal with folly, he thought, was to laugh at it. The superstitions in which the world had been so long entangled were foolish as truly as wicked; and how could it be, he demanded, that in speaking of things so ridiculous, so intrinsically funny, we should not laugh at them “with wideopen mouth”? Of course this laugh was not the laugh of pure amusement; and as it gained in earnestness it naturally lost in lightness of touch. It was a rapier in Calvin’s hands, and its use was to pierce and cut. And how well he uses it!

More recently, Kevin Vanhoozer makes a very good point about why Rabelais’s works may appeal to the postmodern mind (Is There a Meaning?, 432–3):

Nietzsche and Derrida capture the spirit of much postmodern interpretation — what I call the “spirit of carnival” [a phrase coined to describe Rabelais’s novels]. In the festivities associated with the medieval carnival, hierarchies are turned on their heads (fools become kings and kings fools) and the sacred is profaned. Everything authoritative or serious is mocked and subverted. Indeed, one critic has suggested that Derrida’s most important, though perhaps unintentional, effect has been the “carnivalesque impetus” that has taken hold of and overturned the humanities. To view the world, with Nietzsche and Derrida, as a Dionysian carnival is to celebrate its openness and indeterminacy. Yet the spirit of carnival is ultimately a rebellious spirit, one that undoes authority by mocking it: “Deconstruction subverts from within the system that liberation seeks to change from without. . . . Carnival as a social event is the mockery by the oppressed of the structures of oppression, through an ironic mimicry by the subordinate of the dominant, a reversal of roles.” Carnival is thus an apt metaphor for the postmodern condition.

Finally, I scanned through Douglas Wilson’s blog and books for mentions of Rabelais but with little to show for it. He’s a Chesterton-Calvin-Vanhoozer blended thinker, and I’m certain he could put all these thoughts together on Rabelais in a way I cannot.

There’s a lot more that can be said about the genre of nonsense satire, but for now — for my money — I’d skip Rabelais strictly on the basis of his gratuitous scatological humor and his filthy and crude joking (Eph. 5:3).

C.S. Lewis, Imagination, and Discipleship

Kevin Vanhoozer, in his 2013 Desiring God National Conference plenary message Saturday:

Let me state, in my own terms, what I think I’ve learned from Lewis.

Theology ministers understanding, so that we can live out our knowledge of God. Theology is practical, it is all about waking up to the real, to what is, specifically to what is ‘in Christ.’ For Christ is the meaning of the whole, the one in whom all things are held together.

And disciples demonstrate understanding by conforming to that what is ‘in Christ.’ It’s all about living out our knowledge of Christ. There are no armchair disciples. You cannot be a disciple in theory. So doctrines tell us what is ‘in Christ’ and that’s what we live by.

What is ‘in Christ?’

Incarnation, Trinity, atonement are not abstractions to be thought but meaningful patterns to be lived and entered into. The imagination, then, helps disciples act out what is ‘in Christ.’ Theology exchanges the false pictures that hold us captive with truth, disciplining our imaginations with sound doctrine.

Discipleship is a matter of the indoctrinated imagination.

Now, of course, we have to beware of having our imaginations taken captive by other things. Many of Screwtape’s things have to do with capturing the imagination for Satan’s purposes. If you control the metaphors and stories people live by, you’ve got them.

Imagination is where God gives creative form to his thoughts, and literary forms to his word. Jesus used what we could call the ‘parabolic imagination’ to give story form to his thought about the kingdom of God. And similarly, disciples need this ‘parabolic imagination’ so we can live in that kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Jesus doesn’t describe what the kingdom looks like, he tells us what kinds of things happen there. The metaphors the disciples live by are those that awaken them to the kingdom things God is doing ‘in Christ.’

How Do We Defend Biblical Authority in Postmodernity?

This relatively tricky question increasingly appears in contemporary debates like the reoccurring debate over complementarity and mens/womens roles in the home and in the church. It simply isn’t possible to dismiss NT roles and also affirm the authority of the Bible at the same time. So then, how do we defend biblical authority in this age?

Kevin J. Vanhoozer helps answer this bigger question in his books The Drama of Doctrine and Is There a Meaning in This Text? and Everyday Theology and probably everything else he’s written. But he wrote the following in his article “Exploring the World; Following the Word: The Credibility of Evangelical Theology in an Incredulous Age” [Trinity Journal 16/1 (1995), 20–21]:

Biblical interpretation involves performance. Think of a pianist who interprets a Beethoven sonata. We speak of Alfred Brendel’s interpretation as opposed to Glenn Gould’s. Can we really “perform” texts? Can we put prophecy, wisdom, apocalyptic, narrative into practice? Can we perform doctrine? psalm?

Certainly! We do so all the time: the fundamental form of interpretation is the way we live our lives each day. Our behavior is the true index to what we believe about biblical authority. The Bible lays claim to our whole being. Some of God’s words require our intellectual assent, others our pious submission, others our moral obedience, and others our cultural faithfulness.

Christian life and thought alike, then, are interpretations of Scripture. Our doctrine is our theoretical interpretation of the Christian story; our life is our practical interpretation. In the postmodern world, the best way to defend biblical authority may be to create a kind of community life in which the Bible functions as authoritative (and liberating).

No contemporary theory of the authority of the Bible can assume that a person will be convinced of the Bible’s authority apart from participation in the community of faith. To repeat: the fundamental form of Christian biblical interpretation is the corporate life of the Christian church. The church embodies the Word of God—this, at least, is its task, its privilege, and responsibility. In Lesslie Newbigin’s words: the church must be a “hermeneutic of the Gospel.” Think of the congregation as a living commentary. Biblical literacy—“following” the Word—should lead to Christian discipleship, to practicing the letter in our lives.

The Drama of Doctrine

From Kevin Vanhoozer’s stimulating book, The Drama of Doctrine (2005), page 39:

“The Gospel is ‘the greatest drama ever staged … a terrifying drama of which God is the victim and the hero’ [Dorothy Sayers]. Drama is a composite of word and deed: at times the language of action drowns out the words, at other times the words carry the action along. Yet what God was doing in Jesus Christ ultimately makes sense only according to the biblical script that places the person and work of Jesus Christ in the Old Testament context of creation and covenant. There is a cosmic stage and a covenantal plot; there is conflict; there is a climax; there is resolution. Evangelical theology deals not with disparate bits of ideas and information but with divine doings—with all-embracing cosmic drama that displays the entrances and exoduses of God.”

Today on his blog, Justin Taylor posted two videos of Vanhoozer lecturing at SEBTS. These videos comprise a nice abbreviated summary of The Drama of Doctrine.

Gospel Theater: Staging, Scripting, Directing (50 min)

Gospel Theater: Rehearsing, Improvising, Performing (53 min)