I would first like to thank IVP for sending me this book to read and review. I had the privilege to study with Dr. Vanhoozer while I was studying Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity school. Dr. Vanhoozer is research professor of Systematic theology at TEDS and as a research professor, he seems to be always releasing a new book. Pictures at a Theological Exposition: Scene’s of the Church’s Worship, Witness, and Wisdom is his most recently published book having just come out May 1, 2016 (He already has another book set to be published in October 2016 called Biblical Authority After Babel). Dr. Vanhoozer’s passion is to bring theology back into the church and show how theology is not a mere intellectual exercise but rather, theology “helps disciples to display the lived knowledge of the gospel: the mind of Christ embodied and embedded in particular situations. Theology is the art and science of enacting the mind of Christ everywhere, at all times, and to everyone” (Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2014. 5). As such, Vanhoozer argues that theology’s existence is to “serve the church” (Pictures at a Theological Exposition. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016. 9). So, in Vanhoozer’s new book he attempts to “’stand in the breach’ (Ezek 22:30) between theology and the life of the church, theory and practice, knowledge and obedience” (10). What he seeks to do in this book, then, is to give us pictures of the “biblically grounded, theologically formed evangelical imagination at work, exhibited in concrete scenes of Christian life, where contemporary culture confronts the church with new problems and opportunities” (11). His desire is to change our thinking about theology from a theoretical knowledge to practical wisdom and in the end provide a “playbook for understanding, a guidebook for helping pastors run plays” (13). His hypothesis behind this book is that “the church needs a biblically formed, reformed and transformed imagination in order to live out a vital faith” (44). This book takes the reader through the foyer of prolegomena, things that must be said before the galleries are looked at. The reader is then taken through three galleries; pictures of the Church’s worship, pictures of the Church’s witness, and the final gallery is pictures of the Church’s wisdom.
The first section he entitles “Foyer: Before the Promenade (Prolegomena).” He beings by addressing the question “what are theologians for?” He argues that the answer should be clear. The work of theology is “doctoring and farming: growing healthy disciples” (71). Thus, the role of the Theologian is to cultivate growth and minister health to the body of Christ. Thus, theology is not a waste of time as a lot of people wish to say. Rather, “the real work of theology is the work of getting real” (71, emphasis his). The reader continues through the foyer with an argument for the importance for a high view of inerrancy. He argues that inerrancy and hermeneutics ultimately matter because “discipleship is largely a matter of following the way the words go, in both senses of following: understanding and obedience” (94). As the reader exits the foyer they are left with a sermon on Psalms 119:1-3-105; Luke 24:5-7; and Colossians 3:15-17. In this sermon, Vanhoozer offers helpful tips for following the reformation cry of Sola Scriptura. He argues that in allowing Scripture to light our way, orient us to truth and serve as our inner script this means that we are “letting its [Scriptures] triune Author have an authoritative say in everything you do” (104).
After the foyer, the reader is taken into the first gallery; “Pictures of the Church’s Worship.” The first section of this gallery is an examination of the Church’s worship. He argues seven points. First, it is the person and work of Christ that even allows us the ability to worship. Second, because we have a tendency to worship what we know if our knowledge of God is shallow so will our worship of God. Third, worship does have a cognitive element and our worship is the outflow of our knowledge of God. Fourth, “the meaning of the gospel and Christian life comes to focus in worship as nowhere else” (121). Fifth, theology is not merely the study of God, but helps us to improve our worship and worship helps us to refine our theology. Sixth, worship is the index by which we can see how well we have come to understand our faith. Seventh, our worship is a function of how we see God’s worth. Vanhoozer argues that “worship should spring forth wherever the people of God are sojourning, or whenever two or three are gathered in Christ’s name….corporate worship provides a gathering place to refresh pilgrims along their Christian way” (122). The second section of the first gallery is an examination of beauty and the arts. Vanhoozer argues that “praising God in song is a vital part of the curriculum of worship, part of the pedagogy of the church as that beauty school that seeks to produce forms of individual and communal holiness” (145). The church is called to be a beautiful body (communion of persons in Jesus Christ) through whom the love of God sounds as a “glorious sonorous form in active, loving, bodily motion” (Ibid). The first gallery is closed with a sermon on Moses Magnificat in Exodus 15:1-18. For Vanhoozer, this song of Moses was given to us not to simply remind us to study Scripture or “merely confess our theology, but delight in God’s Word and live out sound doctrine with every fiber of our being. The truth of the Gospel must stick in our minds and sing in our souls. Orthodoxy without doxology will not get us through the wilderness” (155).
Gallery two gives the reader pictures of the Church’s witness. In the first section of gallery two, Vanhoozer walks the reader through the “drama of Christ,” the gospel itself. What we believe about Jesus matters for how we live our lives. If we are to have our imaginations seized by the “drama of Christ” we must be “an active participant, a player in continuing action. This means adopting the pattern of seeing, judging and acting exemplified by Christ Jesus himself” (179). This is seen in the Church’s everyday behavior. Vanhoozer argues that the most potent evangelism is the church simply “living out the drama, witnessing in all that it says and does to manifold ways in which God has made all things new in Christ” (Ibid). The second part of gallery two examines the disciples role in the drama of Christ. He argues that if we are to do justice to our roles as Disciples then we must “attend to theology not only for the sake of intellectual information but also spiritual formation” (198). As disciples, we act not from a list of propositions concerning Christ, rather, we act from the inside out. We are defined, as disciples, by who we are in Christ which is something we can only see in the mirror of Scripture. “The drama of discipleship is a matter of acting our what is in Christ, and doing it from the inside out” (198, emphasis his). Gallery 2 closes with a sermon on Philippians 2:5-11. This sermon reflects on that fact that “bearing witness in every personal encounter to the strange new status logic of the Christian faith,” is to part of the drama of discipleship (200).
The closing gallery focuses on the “pictures of the Church’s wisdom.” This gallery opens with an explanation of what Vanhoozer calls “sapiential apologetics.” He argues that the church is the embodiment of “evangelical reason.” Each member of the church is a part of a larger drama; a drama which acts out that which is in Christ. Vanhoozer quotes Lesslie Newbigin saying that the church is the “hermeneutic of the gospel” (Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989. 234). He argues that the “best Christian apologetic is the church speaking and acting as a reconciled community of faithful disciples of Jesus Christ: arguing, living and, if necessary, dying as wise witnesses to his way, truth, and life” (250). The second section of gallery 3 is an attempt to “help disciples work out what participation in the drama of redemption-the way of Jesus Christ- looks like when the cultural scenery is no loner that of first-century Palestine but the strange new technological world of the twenty-first century” (252). He argues that we live in an age that is attempting to save humanity through technological advancement, which he says, is a false hope. For the faithful disciple to act in this drama of Christ in this technological age, they must continue to “speak and act in ways that bear witness to their faith in God’s power-knowledge-the wisdom of the cross and resurrection-rather than their own” (280). We must be willing to be martyrs in order to stand strong and faithful to the script of that which is in Christ. Gallery 3 ends with a sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25. He argues that true wisdom does not observe from a theoretical distance, it does more than consume mere facts. Rather, “to be wise is to know how to live out the knowledge of the cross of Christ” (294). He says that the goal of theological education, sapiential knowledge, is summed up in this; “reconciliation in Christ and the fellowship of the Spirit” (295).
This book did exactly what it sought to do, to give us a picture of “the practice of biblical interpretation that makes up the life of the church” (10). Unlike many theology books, the reader of this book will not walk away merely intellectually informed, but will walk away knowing exactly what it looks like to participate in the drama of Christ. If you are unfamiliar with Dr. Vanhoozer’s writings this book may be a slow read as you come to understand what he calls the drama of Jesus Christ and how we are all actors in this divine drama, but you will not leave confused and wondering what Vanhoozer was trying to do. I have met many people who do not see the importance of theology because they see it as a purely intellectual exercise for those in their ivory towers. Vanhoozer has done a tremendous job striking this harmful ideology to the ground with his arguments in this book. If you think that theology is impractical and you struggle to see the importance of continuing to grow in theological knowledge, then please, purchase this book and read it thoroughly.
This book is a great complement to his other books such as Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2014) and The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015). I look forward to what he will be releasing next!
Quality rating: 4.5 stars
Recommended Reader: The Amateur Theologian
Price: $11.95 (Amazon)
Vanhoozer, Kevin. Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of the Church’s Worship, Witness and Wisdom. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.