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.
Chapter One: What Are Theologians For?
Vanhoozer suggests that “theologians are doctors attending the body of Christ, administering doctrinal prescriptions intended either to cure the body or, like vitamins, to build it up” (49). In elaborating on this definition, Vanhoozer says there are four things theologians are not and six metaphors that explain what theologians are and what they are for.
Theologians are not entertainers, they are not underwriters of the status quo, they are not overlords of the academy, and they are not pretenders in the academy (55-56). Theologians are, however, philosophers, poets, sociologists, hermeneuticians, dramaturges, and doctors (56-59). Vanhoozer’s list of metaphors here is excellent. Each of the metaphors hits on an important nuance of the role of the theologian, and each is important if the Church is to be instructed in living out the drama of redemption. For example, philosophers train the congregation to think clearly, logically, and systematically about truth, not falling into fallacy (or heresy) or muddled thinking. Yet theologians are also poets, and like poetry, theology is not only about communicating truth but about evoking a response from the reader or hearer. Theologians, however, must understand people, and thus must be sociologists who understand people’s actions, behaviors, thought patterns, and more. Theologians, although possessing imagination, do not create ideas out of thin air, but rather root their teaching in the Word. In order to teach accurately, however, they must properly interpret the text. Thus, they must be precise and responsible hermeneuticians before they can be effective theologians. The Word is also the script for the drama, although it does not spell out every line. Instead, we have the stories, poetry, and epistolary teaching of Scripture that serve as the earlier acts of the drama. We, then, must step in and improvise our act in a faithful portrayal of the earlier acts. The theologian is thus a dramaturge who both gives directions to the actors and himself sets the example. Finally, the theologian is a doctor. The church is full of sick people, and the theologian diagnoses and prescribes treatment to build up the health of the body.
To continue with the metaphor of the doctor, Vanhoozer proposes that “doctrine is good for us—health-giving—because it informs us about our identity and destiny” (63). He then continues this medical imagery to explain four things that doctrine is. First, it is subscription, and theologians “must subscribe to apostolic teaching with genuine conviction” (63). Second, doctrine is proscription. Theologians must not only subscribe to right teaching, but they must also proscribe false teaching (64). Third, doctrine is description. The theologian must speak what is true; he must be a “minister of reality.” Vanhoozer states that in Christ we find knowledge of God, knowledge of self, and hope of redemption, and these are all realities that doctrine describes (65-66). Finally, doctrine is prescription, and theologians who are doctors prescribe “directions for the people of God to follow for the sake of their salvation and spiritual health” (66).
Vanhoozer then provides six summary theses on the way in which doctrine builds up the body of Christ. First, “doctrine tells us who God is and what God is doing in Christ” (67). Second, “doctrine tells us who and what we are in Jesus Christ” (67). Third, “doctrine restores sinners to their senses” (67). Fourth, “doctrine provides a fiduciary intellectual framework for understanding God, the world and ourselves” (67). Fifth, “doctrine instructs the head, orients the heart and guides the hand” (68). Sixth, “doctrine directs the church in the way of wisdom, godliness and human flourishing” (68).