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A Theo-Dramatic Bible?

Recently Byron has posted a lengthy review of Kevin Vanhoozer’s tome, The Drama of Doctrine. I have a review of my own on Amazon and another published in Neue Zietschrift, and I may post one of them here later for people’s reading pleasure. But, in the meantime, I wanted to think a bit on some of the issues which Vanhoozer’s proposal raises about the nature of doctrine, and specifically the doctrinal role of the Bible.

Vanhoozer’s vision of theology, boiled down – and certainly oversimplify – is that theology is direction about how we should fittingly participate in the ongoing drama of redemption. Thus, for Vanhoozer, the primary way of conceptualizing the shape of God’s engagement with the world in Jesus and the Spirit is in terms of dramatic encounter. Thus, as Christians we find ourselves within this drama of divine-human encounter in Christ and must strive in discipleship in learning how to rightly “play our roles” in the theodrama.

Now, at the outset I want to affirm this basic theodramatic orientation.  This basic vision of redemption as the dramatic interplay of speech and action between Triune and human persons is, I think an undeniably crucial way of envisioning and understanding God’s relation to the world in Christ. Long before Vanhoozer crafted this elegant evangelical appropriation of the language of drama, it was Hans Urs von Balthasar who thoroughly explored such a theodramatic approach to understanding the Christian faith. Indeed, it was Balthasar who unquestionably demonstrated the indispensable importance of understanding the divine-human relationship in dramatic terms.

However, Vanhoozer the evangelical and Balthasar the Catholic have quite a different set of concerns toward which they seek to deploy their respective theodramatic arsenals. And for Vanhoozer, one of the central aims of his theodramatic theology is to find a new way of situating the Scripture principle (sola scriptura) within a theodramatic context. However, this is where Vanhoozer’s approach gets perhaps, a bit messy. In his treatment the Bible appears in the play first as the recounting of the history of the original theodrama, as an actor in the ongoing performance, and (most predominantly as a script which rules and directs our performance.

So, the question I am left with is whether it is really possible for the Bible to be all of these things in a theodramatic framework that does not push its categories to the point of redundancy or absurdity. It’s certainly one thing to say that the character of the Triune economy of salvation is something akin to a drama, and entirely another to try to figure out who’s the director, who’s the writer, and who’s the audience, which I fear Vanhoozer goes a bit too far in trying to do.
But, for my present purposes, I pose he question. What is the Bible’s theodramatic role? To my mind, we must give the simplest answer possible to avoid, on the one hand inflating the importance of the Bible in the economy of salvation, and on the other, by dropping it out of the picture entirely. At a minimum we need to acknowledge that the Bible is in some significant sense tied to God’s ongoing action in our world and simultaneously affirm that it is fully embedded in and concerned with history. So, if I were pressed to give an answer, about the Bible’s theodramatic role, what would I say?

Well, first of all the Bible cannot be an actor. Only persons are actors, and despite what some fundamentalists think, the Word that was with God and was God, is Jesus, not the protestant canon. The Bible can no more be an actor in God’s drama than the U.S. Constitution can be in the story of American history. To be sure, God acts through Scripture, but that is precisely the point – it is God, not the Scripture who is doing the acting!

So, the real question we have is this: is the Bible a script, or a record of past performances?  Here we would have to work much too hard to redefine what is normally meant by “script” in order to consider the Bible to really be such a thing. The Bible is certainly theodramatic, but it appears, prima facie to be, not so much a script, but as a collection of theodramatic memories and histories which present themselves to us as a training school as it were, in which we can imaginatively take up residence so as to find ourselves situated within the same theodrama that is present in the Scriptures.  This seems to be the best way to think theodramatically about the Bible, keeping its theodramatic and humanly historical character in view simultaneously. The Bible gives us a story, a history of what has happened in the theodrama so far and hints at the future to come. It doesn’t script our roles for us, but rather provides us with a way of seeing what the drama is really all about so that we can figure out, through the memories of Scripture, the guidance of the Spirit and communion with one another what it really means for us to find ourselves as participants in God’s drama.


  1. WTM wrote:

    “So, the real question we have is this: is the Bible a script, or a record of past performances?”

    That is a very good question. Of course there are ways that records of past performances can serve as something of a script, but they are fundamentally different things, as you go on to suggest. How might we hold together the notions of Bible as ‘script’ and Bible as staging notes for improvisation? In what ways are we bound to records of past performances if they are not scripts? It is here that I thought KJV had something to offer in his talking about cross modal similarities and various notions of ‘transposition,’ but I don’t think he has struck on the best way of talking about it yet. Of course, I say that not because I necessarily have a better idea, but I hope to know one when I see one!

    Monday, June 11, 2007 at 8:16 am | Permalink
  2. Ben wrote:

    It’s the prolog. “A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” scrolling up the screen. Camera pans down to you.

    Or maybe it could be thought of as stage directions? The controlling aesthetic of the play?

    Thursday, June 14, 2007 at 10:01 am | Permalink

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