Theatrical Theology? – Reflections on the Drama of Doctrine

*The following is a guest post from Lawrence Garcia

A robust treatment of doctrine—what spirited understanding discovers at the end of its examination of the apostolic witness of the Christ event—is not enjoyed by many congregations of our time. Either it is wrongly conceived as something that “divides,” or in this age of over specialization, it is totally relinquished into the hands of an elite few, namely, those western academics who bear all the credentials qualifying them to handle such sacred elements. However, there is a drastic consequence for this doctrinal void that characterizes many pulpits: a culturally saturated church that fails to live and proclaim the truth as it is revealed in Jesus Christ. Fortunately, Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology functions as a much-needed vaccine to this anti-doctrinal contagion currently plaguing the church, Vanhoozer writes:

This book sets forth new metaphors for theology (dramaturgy), Scripture (the script), theological understanding (performance), the church (the company), and the pastor (director).It argues that doctrine, far from being unrelated to life, serves the church by directing its members in the project of wise living, to the glory of God. It sets out to convince ministers and lay people alike not to dismiss doctrine as irrelevant, and to encourage theologians not to neglect the needs of the church. It aims to make the pastoral lamb lie down with the theological lion.

This dramatic metaphor for theology reminds us that theology is not reducible to mere cognitive-propositions (systematic approaches have often been guilty of this) that fall under an either/or rubric of “true and false,” a theory-laden framework that, as Vanhoozer rightly points out, runs roughshod over genre, silences the polyphonic “authorship” of Scripture, and proof-texts in order to fit Scripture into one monological scheme. Taking its cue from the cultural-linguistic theory—the “form of the church’s life and language that gives doctrines their substance and meaning”—Vanhoozer develops what he calls a “canonical-linguistic approach” which unlike its cousin sets theological meaning and truth within the Scriptural canon and not ecclesial culture. In sum, Scripture and doctrine are the church’s canonical script by which it is cast into a role within the wider Trinitarian Theo-drama of redemption where it is called to render a performance that is faithful between the two great “speech-acts” of redemption—the crucifixion/resurrection and the Parousia. Vanhoozer states:

Theology’s task is to equip disciples to speak and act in ways that correspond to the Gospel in particular contexts. Not Just any word or action will do. Not all words and acts are appropriate to the subject matter; not all words and acts achieve theo-dramatic “fit.” The drama of evangelical theology pertains to knowing how to interpret—which is to say, perform—the gospel in concrete situations. Doctrine’s role in the drama is to enable the church to build wisdom’s house: a pattern of speech and action that fits with creation and redemption alike to the glory of God.

Drama, this flexible metaphor for what we do with theology and doctrine, creates enough breathing room for the truthful assertions Scripture makes, but places them within a wider historical theater where God, his Christ, and Spirit are the star actors in a cosmic drama to which the [c]atholic church—the various interpretive communities that have existed throughout time and space since Pentecost—are called to render fitting performances for their specific role. Scripture thus functions like “stage directions for the church’s performance of the Gospel.” Scripture’s authority thus rests ultimately in the divine playwright—God himself—who employs his Spirit to direct the church’s evangelistic performance of the canonical script; the theologian functioning as a dramaturge—“the person responsible for helping the director [pastor] to make sense of the script both for the players and for the audience.”

Eventually, as actors in this theo-drama we will need to prepare to play our role for our particular cultural situation, and an uncreative rehearsal of previous performances will not suffice. First, to render fitting performances we will need to avoid hypocrisy, mere external renditions of our part; instead we must “become the role we play.” Second, we will need to realize our identities as “created persons recreated in Christ—[as] the high and holy calling of the actor/disciple, and the goal of spiritual formation.” Third and finally, developing a “disciple’s diet,” a doctrinally informed way of life that gives way to saintly character. Of course, all this in relation to the climactic speech-act of atonement, both substitutionary and victorious, whereby the one creator God enters into covenant and communion with humanity.

In a church-culture bereft of “thick” doctrinal readings of Scripture, Vanhoozer’s “The Drama of Doctrine” is a much needed theatrical-boost to our reasons to live out a doctrinally soaked vocation in a postmodern world which has lost its way. Vanhoozer’s dramatic approach to theology will aid in helping to mend the chasm between the church’s theory and practice. I cannot possibly recommend this book enough.


Lawrence is the Senior Teaching-Pastor of Academia Church in Goodyear, Arizona. He is a pastor devoted to the educational growth of his congregants, and the raising up of a new generation of disciples, who will think, tell, and live out the Christian story. Lawrence is currently attending Liberty University.

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  • Beth

    So, this seems to be Systematic Theology’s answer to NT Wright’s Six Act Play idea, and the several spin offs (eg Ron Martoia ‘The Bible as Improv’ that have emerged since Wright’s watershed paper. worries with that. The bit that stumped me though, was the role of Pastor. I’m wondering if this is the least well thought through part of the metaphor? Pastors, surely as simply followers of Jesus given a particular gift for serving the church – are part of the company, same as the rest of the mob. Would we not all be co-ordinated by the directorship of the Spirit?It amazes me how, contra-biblically, pastors are give ‘directing’/’managing’ roles, when we ought to be the props guy, or the costume lady, or front of house usher. It’s probably obvious from this last statement that I wouldn’t be saying this about pastors, if I weren’t one myself. Think of the lowest rung in the theatre, and that’s your pastor. 

    • Lawrence Garcia

      Beth, thanks for reading. Yes, I (a pastor too) understand your concern about the over-impowerment of the the pastoral position. This is a mojor problem in North American Christianity where pastors have  become analagous to demigods. However, I would maintain that, functionally speaking, the pastoral position can be similar to a director. For example, Paul (in a sort of pastoral position) recognizes that the man in Corinth who is having relations with his mother and law is (in keeping with the dramatic metaphor) not rendering a fitting performance within the wider drama of redemption. So Paul, as “director,” must severly criticize the man, and the community, for being out of step with the Gospel. We know full well that Paul “works with his hands,” and so can at times be portrayed as a “props guy,” but this by no means precludes his (nor Timothy or Titus, even Junia for that matter) task of directing the community at Corinth’s performance. The pastor should be the epitome of service and humilty, he is also charged with the vocation of teaching Scritpure to direct the church’s life and mission, and to ensure that it is in continuity with the wider drama of redmption as revealed in Jesus Christ.