In the Pictures at a Theological Exhibition Series I aim to provide brief summaries and reflections on the chapters of Kevin Vanhoozer’s work of the same title. Vanhoozer’s task in this book and my own task with Lead U have a great deal of overlap, so I hope in this series also to help elaborate on the mission of Lead U.
Vanhoozer begins his work with the claim that “theology exists to serve the church” (9). Yet the reality according to Vanhoozer is that many churches don’t want to accept theology’s help, instead treating it like a plague. According to Vanhoozer, “the way forward is to cultivate minds and hearts characterized not only by evangelical fidelity but also by convictional civility, hermeneutical humility and Christian charity” (9). Vanhoozer’s point suggests, all too correctly I’m afraid, that we lack civility in our convictions, we lack humility in our interpretations of Scripture, and we lack Christian charity in our interactions with believers and unbelievers alike.
Vanhoozer asserts that this book is an attempt to “ ‘stand in the breach’ (Ezek 22:30) between theology and the life of the church, theory and practice, knowledge and obedience—not simply to occupy space but to fill it by creating connections” (10). I am supportive of Vanhoozer’s goals in this respect; creating connections, especially between theology and “everyday life,” show that doctrine is part of the drama that we live out daily, not simply some intellectual endeavor for the Academy. I think the ability to connect doctrine to the life of the church is the most vital change that must occur in the next generation of believers. Far too many in the church have eschewed doctrine altogether, thinking it has nothing to do with our day-to-day lives. Many ask, “If I can share the gospel, why does anything else matter?” But almost equally vital is to once again connect the Academy to the Church. As the Academy and the Church go further in different directions, it becomes easier for the Church to think that doctrine is merely an intellectual endeavor. We need pastors who are theologians, theologians who are pastoral, and laypeople who love the Lord their God with all their hearts and with all their minds. Vanhoozer’s preface, as well as several of his other works (e.g., Drama of Doctrine, Pastor as Public Theologian, Faith Speaking Understanding), suggests that he has the same vision in mind.
Vanhoozer then proposes that his book can be read in three ways. First, the essays are “portraits of the theologian at his ministerial task” (11). These portraits provide a type of “applied systematics” (12). Second, the book is his attempt to “rehabilitate doctrine for the church: a life and research project of theodramatic systematics” (12). Finally, the book serves as a “plea for incorporating the imagination into the work of theology as sapiential systematics” (12).
The key to accomplishing these three purposes lies in the evangelical imagination. Vanhoozer writes: “Doctrine is vital for the church’s health (salus) precisely because the understanding that faith gets from doctrine is eminently practical. In particular, I argue that we need to recover a biblically rooted, theologically formed imagination for the sake of the church’s worship, witness and wisdom” (12). Vanhoozer continues: “The point is to get doctrine into the lives of people, individuals and communities, and onto the field of contemporary culture, not least by waking the sleeping giant, the evangelical imagination, thereby giving long-dormant church bodies the Word-and-Spirit kiss of life” (13).
I am particularly thankful for Vanhoozer’s emphasis here on the evangelical imagination. I agree that the imagination must be cultivated if we are to bridge the gap between the head and the heart, whichever direction each one of us needs to move in order to find balance. Moreover, to take the truths of Scripture and apply them faithfully in our present context will require not a propensity for following detailed directions, but rather imaginatively creating outside the box. To use an analogy, we are not doing a Paint By Numbers, but rather a street artist caricature that requires spontaneity, observation, and imagination, but yet is still faithful to the “original” (i.e., the meaning of the text of Scripture).