Vanhoozer Confronts Dualism Dramatically. Part 1

vanhoozer_review_02162017Kevin, J. Vanhoozer. 2014. Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. (Goto part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the most pernicious heresies in the church of our time is old fashioned Greek dualism which separates faith and action. This dichotomous thinking, however, is inconsistent with the biblical understanding where faith and action are inseparable. Jesus and his half-brother, James, both rail against hypocrisy, defined as a separation of faith and action.[1]


In his book, Faith Speaking Understanding, Kevin Vanhoozer argues for a new look at the theatrical understanding of faith and action because Christians must both speak and do “Christian” in pursuing authentic discipleship (19). The theater provides an interesting way to live out the doctrine of the church because an actor must not only speak a part but also act it out which may at first seem unnatural but with practice may become instinctive, like learning to ride a bicycle or swim. Like a good actor will focus not on displaying an emotion, but really feeling it, the good Christian must put on the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16).

Relation of Doctrine and Discipleship

Vanhoozer uniquely emphasizes the role of sound doctrine in discipleship. Like a good actor must learn his lines, doctrine guides discipleship and avoids the trap of adopting a “performance mentality”. Sound doctrine is part of teaching people how to keep the faith and applying doctrine (or theology) to their daily lives (xiii-xiv). They learn by applying this doctrine in life, hence the special need to act it out.

Scriptural Interpretation

Vanhoozer sees scriptural interpretation playing a key role in theology. He writes:

“To be a follower of Christ is to be a follower of Scripture in all three senses of ‘follow’:

  1. To understand the meaning of what Christ says in Scripture,
  2. To respond to his instructions with obedience, and
  3. To go after Christ or along ‘the way’ of Christ”. (1)

He sees the history of the church as virtually the same thing as the history of biblical interpretation (2).

It’s About

Vanhoozer describes his book with 9 “It is about” statements. It is about (1) being biblical, (2) theology, (3) church doctrine, (4) the Gospel of Jesus Christ, (5) life, (6) the reign of God, (7) the church, (8) public theology, and (9) reality (4-9). He writes in two parts where the first part lays out his theater model and the second part offers a detailed proposal for how it should work (9-10).

Theater Model

The remainder of part 1 of this review will examine Vanhoozer’s theater model while part 2 will focus on the details of how it works.

Vanhoozer offers four reasons for merging doctrine and drama, two intrinsically difficult topics:

  1. The subject matter of the Bible is inherently theodramatic, saying what God has said and done in history.
  2. The language of the theater offers images and concepts to bridge the theory/practice dichotomy.
  3. The purpose of theology is to cultivate disciples where knowledge is static, but wisdom—lived knowledge—is dynamic and dramatic.
  4. Every Christian has a role to play (20-21)

This last point is critical. The uniqueness of the church as a theater is that the audience is invited into the play and helps to determine how the performance is played out. Vanhoozer writes:

“disciples obey the truth and the gospel when they take hold of what they behold and let the drama of the Christ serve as the metanarrative or control story of their own lives.” (40)

In other words, in this drama spectators do not remain spectators. And doctrine allows “disciples to fill empty spaces and empty moments with redemptive speech and action.” (47)


Kevin Vanhoozer[2] is a Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago, Illinois. His degrees are from Westmont College (BA), Westminster Theological Seminary (MDiv), Cambridge University, England (PhD). This book, Faith Speaking Understanding (2014), is designed as a more readable and pastoral version of an earlier book, The Drama of Doctrine (2005), which lays out a theological defense of the theater model.

For reviews of other books by Vanhoozer, see the list of references below.


Kevin J. Vanhoozer. 1998. Is There a Meaning in This Text:  The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan. (3-part review: Vanhoozer:  How Do We Understand the Bible?,,

Vanhoozer, Kevin, J. 2005. The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology. Louisville: Westminster John Knox.

Vanhoozer, Kevin, J. and Owen Strachan. 2015. The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. (Review: VanHoozer and Strachan Argue Case for Pastor-Theologian;


[1] “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.”  (Matt 23:25-26 ESV) and “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (Jas 2:17 ESV)


Vanhoozer Confronts Dualism Dramatically. Part 1

Also see:

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

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