Friday, September 21, 2007

The Kevin Vanhoozer Interview

GD: Hello Kevin Vanhoozer and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Could you tell us a little about yourself?
KV: Thanks for bringing me into the Exile. I'm a middle-aged student of theology in the Reformed tradition who teaches evangelicals (at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) and writes for catholic Christians. I'm married to Sylvie, who is French, and I have two daughters, Mary and Emma, who are both in college. I've spent most of my adult life trying to answer the question, 'What does it mean to be biblical?' and half my adult life in Europe and the UK.
GD: What do you enjoy most about being a systematic theologian?
KV: I enjoy seeing connections between things - not only between doctrines but between things in everyday life. I'm interested in the history of ideas and how these ideas take on flesh and influence culture, and the church. Being a systematic theologian allows me to indulge all my interests - in literature, film, art, music - by relating them all to God. Most of all, I appreciate the privilege and responsibility of seeking to understand God for the sake of my own well-being and that of the church.
GD: A lot of your work e.g. Is there a meaning in this text? and to some extent The Drama of Doctrine has been about biblical hermeneutics in the postmodern world. Why do feel particularly drawn to this aspect of the theological task?
KV: I'm not interested in either hermeneutics or theological method for their own sakes. I don't want to turn method in theology into a theology of method! On the contrary, from the very beginning my interest has been in thinking about God and the world biblically. I quickly learned, however, that it is not enough simply to use the Bible or claim to be biblical. Everybody uses the Bible, even the heretics. So, because I believe that the ultimate authority for theology is the triune God speaking in the Scriptures, I have had to spend more time than I perhaps would have liked trying to clear my throat (to use Jeffrey Stout's metaphor for method).
I had to engage with postmodernity simply because it is part of the intellectual context in which the church, at least in the West, lives and moves. Also, when I was teaching at the University of Edinburgh, my students forced me to give a reason for the hermeneutical hope - that I could ascertain the meaning of the biblical text - that was within me. The suspicion that meaning and truth are simply ideological tools was too serious to ignore.
GD: One of your burdens in The Drama of Doctrine (DofD) is to bridge the gap between theology and the practice of the church. Why do you think that reconfiguring theology in terms of dramatics is the way to make doctrine more practical?
KV: Theology is faith seeking understanding, but understanding is more than theoretical. If we really grasp who and where we are as disciples, we should know how to live out our faith. All too often, however, the church professes its faith but is unsure how to practice it. Even some of my seminary students come to theology classes somewhat reluctantly, assuming that doctrine is neither practical nor relevant to their future ministry.
To define doctrine as direction for fitting participation in the drama of redemption - in what God is doing in Christ through the Spirit to form the church and renew creation - is to ensure that the understanding that faith seeks will not stop short of practice. My goal as a theologian is to move beyond the acquisition of knowledge to its application in real life: in a word, I want to get wisdom.
GD: Is it right to make the metaphor of drama the driving force of Christian theology? One criticism of the DofD was that space was sometimes devoted to drama theory at the expense of biblical exegesis and exposition. How would you respond to these points?
KV: The driving force of Christian theology is the God of the gospel. The subject matter of theology is intrinsically dramatic: God in his missionary movements (viz., Son and Spirit). It's a matter of God saying and God doing the good for the world in Jesus Christ. Christianity is neither a system of ideas nor of morality but a way, a way of life. Life is something to be done, and so is drama. I had not intended to plumb the model of drama so deeply, but I did so because the more I did so the more the approach yielded understanding. My research affected me on a personal level: I came to see myself as an actor with a script, called to act (or improvise) in a new situation. Everyday life became infused with urgency as I tried to speak and act in ways that fit the holy script and glorified God in new contexts.
I don't myself think that the drama theory got in the way so much as open up new vistas. Part One, where I set forth the drama of redemption, is replete with biblical theology. Also, my colleague Bob Yarbrough compiled a Scripture index for Drama of Doctrine during his sabbatical, and I was pleased to see that there were ten pages of entries!
GD: You often make use of "speech act theory" in your books. I think that this can be a helpful way of focusing attention of God's communicative action in Scripture. But is there not a danger of relying too heavily on philosophical language theories in theological work? Today's fashionable "speech act theory" may become tomorrow's despised "common sense philosophy".
KV: I agree. I'm not a speech act theorist tout court. But I do think that the insight into illocutions - that we do things in saying things - marks an important and permanent gain in our knowledge of language. For what it's worth, William Alston agrees with me! Of course, it also needs to be said that all biblical exegetes and theologians have a theory of language, whether they acknowledge it or not...
GD: Is there room for inerrancy in your theodramatic account of the Bible as the God-given script that the church is to understand and perform?
KV: Yes. I hold Scripture to be the word of God written. I believe that God speaks by means of the human discourse of Scripture and that the Holy Spirit so guided the authors that what they say/do with their words corresponds to the divine intent. God is the divine playwright who communicates his ideas through the voices of the various human authors. It's true that the term 'inerrancy' does not appear in Drama of Doctrine, but it doesn't follow that the idea is absent. To think that it does is to commit the word-concept fallacy.
One reason I didn't employ the word is that there is confusion about what inerrancy means. It doesn't mean that we should interpret the Bible literalistically, turning a deaf ear to its figures of speech and literary genres. What it does mean is that when we rightly interpret the Bible, taking due consideration of what authors are doing with their words in their speech and literary genres, we can be assured that its truth claims are indeed true. And by 'true' I mean that its claims are reliable because they correspond to God, his creation, and to what God has done, is doing, and will do to renew his creation through Christ.
GD: Thanks for that. Some people have wondered about your position on inerrancy simply because you did not use the word. In the DofD and in your essay in Always Reforming, you are quite critical of the theological method of older Reformed dogmaticians like Charles Hodge. Why do you think that their methodology was so flawed?
KV: I don't want to exaggerate the problem. I grew up, intellectually speaking, reading Hodge and Warfield and it was they who first awakened in me an excitement about systematic theology. Moreover, I think they said what needed to be said in their own intellectual context. Faced with the alternatives, Hodge was right to emphasize theology as an inductive science, that is, a principled study of the biblical text, rather than a mystical or speculative endeavor.
If I am critical, it is only because I think we can (and must) do better today, not least because others have raised objections that Hodge and Warfield are not here to answer. I see my own work as continuing in their basic trajectory, giving authority to what Scripture says, while at the same time responding to criticisms of their views of science, method, and knowledge.
Paul Helm has led me to wonder, however, if the terms in which I have described Hodge's method (e.g., 'empiricist') are entirely appropriate. They probably aren't (I have never pretended to be an expert on Hodge or to give the last word). Nevertheless, I continue to believe that systematic theology can do better than what Hodge suggests (the inductive method) at least with regard to its biblical interpretation. The model of inductive science suggests to some (even if this was not Hodge's intent) that the task of theology is primarily theoretical: that of systematizing truths. Make no mistake, this is an important task (which is why I insisted that my Research Professorship be identified as 'Systematic Theology'), but so are the pastoral and sapiential tasks, and these requires imagination as well as induction.
GD: I'm sure that Paul Helm (who sometimes drops in here) will be gratified to see your remarks on Hodge's 'empiricism'. On reading the DofD, and your criticisms of Hodge elsewhere, I have sometimes wondered what a Vanhoozer-authored systematic theology might look like. Would you follow the traditional schema and work through the great biblical doctrines from God to Eschatology in terms of theodramatics, or do you propose an entirely different way of doing things?
KV: Not too much has been written about the history of systematic theology as a literary genre. Systematic theology is, of course, more than a form of writing, but it is also not less! I'm still thinking the matter through. The key is to write in such a way as to make possible an illuminating and edifying reading of Scripture and thus a deepened Christian understanding. There are a number of models out there - everything from Aquinas' Summa and Calvin's Institutes and from Hodge's Systematic to Barth's Dogmatics. My inclination is to emulate several models of 'best practice'. But I can't here reveal my secret formula!
GD: That's a bit tantalising! Are you planning at some point to write a full-length systematic theology?
KV: Yes, God willing. Everything else is but a tilling of the ground...
GD: Could you tell us your top three pieces of music?
KV: No, but here are three from my top 100: Allegri, Misere (sung by theTallis Scholars); Bach, St. John Passion (John Eliot Gardiner, conducting); Brahms, Second Piano Concerto.
GD: What is the most valuable work of theology that you have read in the last year? It is a must read because?
KV: I have to mention two, not least because they¹re doing something similar. Paul Molnar's Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity (2002) and Matthew Levering's Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology (2004) are both concerned with affirming the reality of God's action in the world (the economic Trinity) while not dragging God down to the world's level. Each in his own way, the one in dialogue with Barth and the other with Aquinas, emphasizes the importance of not letting the immanent Trinity collapse into the economic. That way Feuerbach lies...
GD: In the DofD, you suggested that the theologian is a "dramaturge", whose task is to enable the pastor -director to understand the biblical script. But not all pastors make time read great works of theology. They are too busy preparing sermons, visiting their people, organising the church's evangelistic programme and so on. Why should pastors make the effort to become pastor-theologians?
KV: Both parts of the Great Commission, evangelism and making disciples, require theology. Theology is a form of the ministry of the Word; specifically, theology is a the ministry of Christian understanding. We need theology in our evangelism because theology is about preserving the integrity of the word, the message of the gospel an evangelist proclaims. We need theology in our disciple making because theology is about reminding us who we are and what we are to say and do as followers of Jesus Christ in this or that situation.
The world is filled with therapists and managers. What the church needs now is people who can (1) articulate from the Bible the truth about God, the world, and ourselves in terms that are faithful to the Bible and intelligible in the contemporary context (2) exhort their congregations to say and do things that corresponds to the truth of Jesus Christ as attested in the Bible.
GD: Are you in the process of writing a book at the moment? Care to give us a sneak preview?
KV: Yes, I'm working on a book for the Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine series. It's entitled Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship. It sets forth the contours of a dialogical theism that develops the doctrine of God largely out of the biblical depictions of God speaking. It then brings this communicative focus to bear on the twin vexed issues of divine action and divine suffering. The result: an 'upgrade' of classical theism that makes interpersonal dialogue rather than impersonal causality the keystone of the God-world relation, some notes towards a theo-dramatic metaphysics, and a new vision for how divine sovereignty engages human freedom in commanding and compassionate (i.e., communicative) fashion.
GD: That sounds very interesting. Best wishes with your work. Thanks very much for spending a little time here in Exile. It's been great talking to you!

14 comments:

Alex Abecina said...

Thanks for this interview!

Ched said...

Very helpful interview.

It will be interesting to see when Dr. Vanhoozer finally "reveals his [systematic] secrets"

blackhaw said...

Thank you for the interview. VanHoozer is a very interesting theologian. However in the part wherre he is discussion his new book he states:

"The result: an 'upgrade' of classical theism that makes interpersonal dialogue rather than impersonal causality the keystone of the God-world relation,"

What is this "classical theism" he is speaking about here? I do not see Augustine nor the Cappadocians doing what he states above.

blackhaw said...

Thank you for the interview. VanHoozer is a very interesting theologian. However in the part wherre he is discussion his new book he states:

"The result: an 'upgrade' of classical theism that makes interpersonal dialogue rather than impersonal causality the keystone of the God-world relation,"

What is this "classical theism" he is speaking about here? I do not see Augustine nor the Cappadocians doing what he states above.

Exiled Preacher said...

I'll put your question to KV and see what he says.

blackhaw said...

Exiled Preacher,

Cool. I would like to know his answer. I am reading Drama of Doctrine right now. VanHooser is an excellent theologian so I am sure his answer will be good.

Exiled Preacher said...

Here is KV's response to "blackhaw's" question:

"Impersonal" is clearly too strong a term to use of some theologians, and I tremble every time I use terms like "classical theism" that suggest that every theologian for a thousand years was doing pretty much the same thing! Nevertheless, there is at least a perception, which is perhaps partially justified, that many theologians in the theistic tradition employed the category "cause" in ways that could be prima facie construed as less than apt as descriptions of the believer's relationship to God. The term "upgrade" - in scare quotes! - signals my belief that ultimately the theologians who form the mainstream Christian tradition were basically on
the right track.

(Kevin Vanhoozer)

blackhaw said...

Very interesting. I will have to pick up his book whenever it is released. I think what is he is looking at doing is good and necessary given some in the Western theological tradition. (or at least what many think of some of those in the Western Theological tradition)

I think his work is somewhat akin to the stuff on Augustine by those like Colin Guton although Lewis Ayres and M. Barnes I think have shown that Augustine was not the cause for some of the problems Gunton and others thought that he was the cause of. But still there is this sense that the Western tradition after Augustine and probably relying on an interpretation of Augustine went down a path in which the Trinity was less personal and the "being of God" was focused on instead of the economic Trinity.

Right now there seems to be a big debate on the latter. I went ot a conference at Fordham Univ. where that was the central thread of debate in which "Orthodox views of Augustine" was the outward topic.

John Behr and Jean Luc Marion gave very good lectures and supported the view that theologians ar misguided when speaking about the being of God. (at least if they are not very, very apophatic about it). There is much more I could say about this extrodinary conference and the lectures of the two men above but I will not here in a response to a thread abut VanHoozer. Fordham is putting the lectures in a book and IU would suggest reading it.

blackhaw said...

I got lost in what I was saying and forgot what I meant to say.

I hope VanHoozer does puts a chapter on what "classical theism" is and is not in his text. I fear that if it is not specific enough then the book will not be so useful. But if he treats the history fairly, sympathetically, and fully then it will be a much stronger work even if it is not so clear cut or black and white. And I think the Eastern Fathers can help with what I understand his thesis to be.

Anonymous said...

I was interested in the question about the relationship between the theologian and the Pastor. I would be interested to know how Kevin, or anyone else, saw the theologian as a figure within scripture, in Eph.4.11 for example?

As a jobbing Pastor, working within the busy schedule that EP describes, I need to run my theological notions that appear to me from exegesis past a listening ear sometimes, more than past a talking head. No offence. Is systematic theology 'searchable' enough? How can one bounce what may be new thoughts to me, off someone who is not the arbiter of orthodoxy who says, yes that's right, or no that's wrong, as if they had authority over my situation, but rather can assist and point out possible advantages or pitfalls in any given proposition?
Surely this is the route from Pastor to pastor-theologian if such a thing be.

Exiled Preacher said...

Anon,

I think that pastors can become pastor-theologians by learning to think theologically. This will enable us to approach Scripture with greater theological sensitivity.

We should read books that will stimulate us to think within the parameters of biblical revelation. Read the big works of theology that will give you a good grasp of doctrine, like Calvin's Institutes .

Discussing theology with fellow pastors in Minister's Fraternals can be also be a helpful exercise.

Pastors only become pastor-theologians through the hard work of prayer, mediatation and dilligent study. Maybe one day I'll get there!

Anonymous said...

So a higher plain of Pastor? How does this fit with Ephesians 4.11 then?

Exiled Preacher said...

Ephesians 4 tells us that pastor-teachers are gifted and called to build up the body of Christ. We cannot do that without theology or doctrine. That is why all pastors should aspire to be pastor-theologians.

If you look at the interview again, I think Vanhoozer responded very helpfully to my question on this issue.

Rick Penney said...

thanks for sharing. i went ahead and linked to this one on my blog.