Pictures at a Theological Exhibition
Kevin J. Vanhoozer
(London: IVP, 2016)
‘Theology exists to serve the church.’
So opens this collection of essays and sermons by Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois. And that short, simple statement gets to the heart of this welcome publication.
Kevin Vanhoozer is one of the most creative contributors to contemporary theological discussion. In a productive writing career, Vanhoozer has combined orthodox confessional theology with innovative presentation, employing the concept of ‘theodrama’ in both more technical and (somewhat) more accessible books. While not unique to Vanhoozer, he has made this approach to theology characteristically his own.
I was privileged to have Kevin Vanhoozer as a lecturer during my studies at New College, University of Edinburgh, in the early 1990s. Ever since, I have appreciated his elegant combination of sophisticated hermeneutical theory and confident, biblically-rooted theology.
Vanhoozer is noted as a wordsmith, delighting in word play and artistry. It is no surprise, then, to find that even something as mundane as a collection of essays presented in a variety of settings is given a coherent metaphor, drawing on the musical composition of Modest Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition (1874). This metaphor is introduced, appropriately, in the introductory chapter that urges Christians to employ imagination. Vanhoozer calls the church to reflect on the ordinary scenes of the life of the people of God.
The remainder of the book is arranged in a regular structure of four sections, each composed of two essays and a sermon. The four sections are described in terms of a ‘foyer’ (introductory matters, or ‘prolegomena’), then three ‘galleries’ (containing pictures of the church’s ‘worship, witness and wisdom’). The collection is brought to a close with a final sermon.
For all the sophistication of the metaphor used in the construction of the book, the key themes of ‘worship, witness and wisdom’ reflect a very straightforward conviction on Vanhoozer’s part: ‘Doctrine Matters’ (p. 62).
This volume is probably the most accessible way into key aspects of Vanhoozer’s thought. Yet that is not to say that this book is light reading. In fact, it makes significant demands of the reader. But it is worth the effort.
Those who enjoy Vanhoozer’s skill with words will find plenty of choice phrases. For example, in describing inadequate images of the church, he describes the
televangelists who prey without ceasing, always earning but never helping others come to the knowledge of the truth. (p. 30; compare 1 Thessalonians 5:17 and 2 Timothy 3:7)
In seeking to answer the question, ‘What are theologians for?’, Vanhoozer’s vision of the role of the theologian is presented with a theological passion that is likely to stir readers to desire realisation of his ideal:
What theologians are ultimately for is the joyful publication of the redemption that is in Christ: ‘Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation’ (2 Cor 5:17). In Christ is salvation, the salve for our souls. It is the wonderful vocation of the theologian–both privilege and responsibility–to announce the good news of this new, reconciled creation for which old, alienated creation has been groaning. If it is the hope of redemption that you seek, then you had best look to Jesus Christ, and him only. (pp. 65-66)
Although this was not part of one of the identified ‘sermons’ in the collection, these are the words, it seems to me, of Vanhoozer the preacher!
Yet, Vanhoozer’s commitment to the church, and his passion for the message of reconciliation, does not lead him to abandon his hermeneutical principles. On the idea of ‘literal interpretation’ he comments,
Literal interpretation is all about following the way the words go (that is, understanding what authors are doing with their words). Literal interpretation acknowledges figures of speech and literary genres for what they are. The literal meaning of a metaphor is the metaphorical meaning. Historical narrative should be read as historical narrative, apocalyptic as apocalyptic, parable as parable, and so on. In contrast, literalistic interpretation stubbornly refuses to follow the way the words go, insisting for example that we read Jesus’ parables as if they were historical narrative, or that we read all narratives as though they were journalistic reporting. (p. 83)
In a sermon on Exodus 15, Vanhoozer (originally addressing a group of students at TEDS), recognises the challenge facing those who engage in serious, academic study of theology:
The academic semester can be a critical desert that starves our faith, and we will die in the desert if we do only criticism, examining the water that flows from the rock but never trusting it enough to drink it. I’m speaking to myself first, but you may want to listen in. Paul identifies the rock from which Israel drank in the desert as Christ (1 Cor 10:4). The water of life flows from Christ, but we receive no benefit if it remains outside us, held at a critical distance. It is one thing to know how how to use the text critical apparatus, to know the background of Galatians, or the causes of the Reformation, or to know how various theologians use the Bible. It is quite another thing to trust Christ as one’s Lord and Savior. It is not that criticism cannot be helpful; only that, by itself, it cannot give life or satisfy thirst. Academic excellence alone will not get us to the Promised Land, to life ‘in Christ’. (p. 154)
A particularly attractive aspect of this collection, from my perspective, is the way in which Vanhoozer wears his faith on his sleeve, even while demonstrating the careful use of literary analysis and reflection that we expect of a theologian of his standing. For example, he writes,
What do we love when we love our God? Perhaps the best diagnostic test for assessing the spirit of our hearts is to ask, ‘What is my passion?’ It is a revealing question. If you aren’t sure how to answer, ask yourself another question: ‘In what area of life am I a big spender? Where do I spend the most energy, the most time, the most thought, the most money?’ These are usually good indicators of where our treasure is, and where the passions of our hearts lie.
The wonder of the gospel is that it discloses the heart of God: God’s passion for humanity. While we were yet sinners, God gave himself for us–poured himself out in the person of the Son into the fragility of human flesh and blood, and suffered for us to the point of death. The truth is patently obvious: we are God’s passion! Surely our vocation is to express our gratitude to God in ways that are no less passionate. Those who follow Jesus will share Jesus’ passion for God, the kingdom of God, the poor and the ministry of reconciliation. (p. 187)
While some portions of this artistic presentation will appeal more to some readers than to others, I personally found numerous points where I not only agreed with a point intellectually but was also encouraged, enthused and enthralled.
I encourage all who have a desire to see the church’s worship, witness and wisdom strengthened to read this book.
[I am grateful to IVP for providing me with a copy of this book, with no requirement other than an honest review.]