Paul Helm. Faith, Form, and Fashion: Classic Reformed Theology and Its Postmodern Critics. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014. 284 pp. $32.00.
Paul Helm is worried about the state of Reformed theology. The dangers that trouble him, though, are not the enemies at the gate but the dangerous friends unwittingly doing damage from within. In his latest, forceful offering—Faith, Form, and Fashion: Classic Reformed Theology and Its Postmodern Critics (henceforth FFF)—Helm takes aim at recent strands in Reformed theology he thinks are drinking too deeply from the well of postmodernity, endangering the well-established methods of “Classic Reformed Theology” (which Helm calls CRT) in order to accommodate the intellectual fashions of the age. More specifically, he singles out Kevin Vanhoozer’s theodramatic theological proposal, as well as the work of John Franke, as the chief exemplars of this drift.
We want to be clear at the outset that students of Reformed theology and philosophy owe Helm, teaching fellow at Regent College in Vancouver, a debt of gratitude for his generally excellent work in the field. What’s more, conversations about the issues he raises need to be engaged. Regrettably, FFF is not the book to constructively carry it forward. While there is much value in his introductory comments, Helm’s portrait and criticism of his interlocutors is beset by a lack of interpretive charity so as to be deeply misleading, and at times simply factually mistaken.
Since we are better acquainted with Vanhoozer’s corpus, and the bulk of Helm’s critique is aimed at him (Franke gets a chapter-and-a-half, compared with Vanhoozer’s five-and-a-half chapters), we will focus our analysis on his critique of Vanhoozer.
In chapter 3, Helm examines “the logical structure of narrative and its bearing on what the narrative means” (71) in order to critique Vanhoozer’s theodramatic approach. Chapter 4 argues that Vanhoozer doesn’t sufficiently flesh out his doctrine of the ontology of God, and from this lack of sufficient attention to God’s metaphysics, Vanhoozer “does not altogether extricate from himself” from the “panentheizing tendency of modern theology” (109). In contrast, Helm insists the Reformed systematic theologian “does not need narrative theology or any of its friends” (110).
In chapters 5 and 6 Helm offers his critique of Vanhoozer’s construal of propositions and speech acts, their historical conceptions, and how the concept of proposition can and should function in theological formulation. In chapter 7 he engages Vanhoozer’s critique of Charles Hodge’s theological method, and in chapter 8 he responds to Vanhoozer and Franke’s rejections of classical foundationalism. In chapter 9, Helm gives “Vanhoozer the benefit of the doubt” and admits that, for Vanhoozer, “the Trinity, the canon, the creeds, and the confessions are reliably accessible” (260). Chapter 10 concludes with a brief reflection on the future of CRT.
Initial Problems: Absences and Errors
The problems with FFF begin in the bibliography. Though Vanhoozer’s theological output has been massive and diverse over the last 20 years, a quick jump to the bibliography reveals Helm has only cited four of his works: two major volumes (The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology  and Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship , henceforth DD and RT) and two articles. He neglects at least one major stand-alone monograph, Is There a Meaning In This Text?: The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (1998, 2009), the dozen or so essays on theological method gathered in First Theology: God, Scripture, and Hermeneutics (2002), and various other publications dedicated specifically to the issue of method. The absences show.
For instance, between pages 80 to 84 Helm faults Vanhoozer for retooling the doctrine of effectual calling in narrative and speech-act categories, accusing him of not dealing with the issue of why some freely respond to the free offer of the gospel while others do not (81). Helm criticizes him again, at length, on the same issue connected to the problem of evil, or the possibility of multiple intentions in the same communicative act (125–128). In point of fact, Vanhoozer devoted an entire article to those subjects, analyzing that apparent lacuna in his model through more than 30 pages of close exegesis of Ezekiel 14:9 (see “Ezekiel 14: ‘I, the Lord, Have Deceived That Prophet’: Divine Deception, Inception, and Communicative Action” in Michael Allen’s [ed.] Theological Commentary: Evangelical Perspectives , 73–98). Indeed, contrary to Helm’s claim that he’s trying to overturn classic Reformed answers, Vanhoozer even champions Calvin’s own interpretation in the article. What’s more, Helm doesn’t address Vanhoozer’s fine-grained treatment of the issue in “Effectual Calling or Causal Effect?” printed in First Theology (96–124).
In the same vein, though he spends half a chapter criticizing Vanhoozer’s shaky “post-foundationalism,” Helm nowhere references an important exchange between Oliver Crisp and Vanhoozer in the Southeastern Theological Review. Here Vanhoozer clarifies that his use of the term “postfoundationalism” actually refers to a form of chastened foundationalism a la Alvin Plantinga (“A Reply to the Four Horsemen,” Southeastern Theological Review 4/1 [Summer 2013], 79) that Helm admits as an acceptable option for CRT (29, 209, 218). Accounting for this exchange would have significantly clarified and altered the section.
Sticking to the texts he does interact with, Helm misses relevant sections. For instance, he twice charges Vanhoozer with incompleteness for his lack of case studies in constructing theodramatic doctrines (DD, 87, 216). Yet Vanhoozer provides exactly that, first in DD with a case study on the atonement (380–397). Then there’s his lengthy treatment of divine impassibility (in which Helm is favorably cited) in Remythologizing Theology (387–433), which Vanhoozver explicitly labels as a “diagnostic case” and a “theological litmus test” for his own method (388). If these don’t count as doctrinal case studies, we’re not sure what else Helm has in mind.
In one exemplary instance of factual misrepresentation, Helm accuses Vanhoozer of subscribing to a view of creation involving “struggle” (115), referring to a section in Remythologizing Theology where Vanhoozer describes Jon Levenson’s polemical account of the creation narrative in Genesis 1. Helm also accuses him of disparaging Greek categories only to fall back into a Greek Demiurge concept. Serious charges, if true. The problem is Vanhoozer never actually affirms Levenson’s reading as his own. In fact, on the page Helm explicitly references, Vanhoozer says his “own constructive alternative to Levenson’s position is presented in Part III” (RT, 37, n. 10), indicating that the preceding analysis was presented as a foil. As for the anti-Greek charge, Vanhoozer has a section devoted to refuting the Hellenization thesis in which he draws on patristic (Gavrilyuk), medieval (Kerr, Weinandy), and post-Reformation (Muller) scholars to dispute it (RT, 89–93). This mistake seems to be the result of uncharitable reading, since even without the footnote the whole shape of Vanhoozer’s theology militates against it.
These aren’t small, pedantic mistakes either, but ones that skew Helm’s own analysis of Vanhoozer’s allegedly revisionist doctrine of God. Nor is it the only instance of its kind. At one point Helm says the Creator/creature distinction only briefly makes an appearance in Vanhoozer’s thought (109), despite Vanhoozer’s explicitly noting it as one of six key themes in his doctrine of God (RT, 65–66, 149, 167, 176, 211, 222, 243, 297, 302). Or again, he dismisses Vanhoozer’s use of hyphenated terms like “being-in-communicative-act” as rhetorical obfuscation covering over terminological confusion (118), without acknowledging Vanhoozer’s explicit invocation of Thomist and Barthian terminology on this point (RT, 221). Mistakes, conspicuous absences, and interpretations amounting to lengthy non-sequiturs (especially on the nature of his “narrative” theology) could be cited ad nauseum; they are present in each chapter.
For the sake of clarity, we will note a couple legitimate disagreements that do in fact exist between Helm and Vanhoozer.
(1) Does Propositionalism Sufficiently Account for Scripture’s Theological Language?
Most of Helm’s engagement with Vanhoozer’s relocation of the proposition takes place over DD, in which Vanhoozer responds to George Lindbeck’s postliberal theology—itself a rejection of classical theological models (like CRT) on the basis of their dependence on the outdated epistemology of propositionalism. Vanhoozer concedes propositionalism is insufficient in and of itself to account for all the phenomena under the umbrella label of “language,” but insists propositions themselves (such as assertions, predications, and so on) should not be discarded but rather incorporated into the larger framework of speech-act theory (which merely posits that we do multiple things with words besides make truth claims—like apologize, pronounce, bestow forgiveness, and so on).
Helm’s contention with Vanhoozer over propositionalism is unclear. Either his charge is that (1) Vanhoozer’s critique of propositionalism works with a correct view of propositionalism, which Helm holds and intends to defend in FFF, or that (2) Vanhoozer misunderstands propositionalism by conceiving of it in a rigid way, and Helm intends to defend a view of propositionalism that actually includes all of the aspects of language that speech-act theory includes (which he does acknowledge in FFF, p. 5). In other words, Helm’s critique is either that Vanhoozer rightly understands propositionalism (and Helm has a substantive disagreement with Vanhoozer) or that Vanhoozer misunderstands propositionalism, and they have the same view of language in general (and Helm’s quibble with Vanhoozer is semantic only—that is, whether they should call their full view of language “propositionalism” or “speech act theory”).
The important point is this: Helm cannot make both arguments, since each begins with conflicting premises (whether Vanhoozer properly understands propositionalism, and also whether Helm holds to speech-act theory as valuable to theological method—both unclear in FFF). Yet Helm consistently oscillates between the two arguments. If one reconstructs the arguments as we’ve done here, it seems he’s exchanged logic for rhetoric—throughout the book he gives premises with one hand and takes previously posited ones with the other.
Intermixed in this confusion are errors in reading. For example, Helm insists that “there are clear concepts in Scripture with a definite, stable, interpersonal meaning. But as we saw, Vanhoozer denies this” (205). Helm calls Vanhoozer’s theology a “repudiation of propositionalist theology” (140), “cognitive, but not propositionalist” (131), and an effort at “preserving propositional content without propositions” (136). Yet Vanhoozer insists, “The instinct of cognitive-propositional theology is sound. The gospel is informative: ‘He is risen.’ Without some propositional core, the church would be evacuated of its raison d’être, leaving only programs and potlucks” (DD, 278). Vanhoozer explicitly rejects the interpretation Helm assigns him.
Moreover, is Helm correct to say Vanhoozer’s project is “cognitive, but not propositionalist”? Again, Vanhoozer explains: “[My] aim is to rehabilitate the cognitive-propositional approach to theology by expanding what we mean by ‘cognitive’ and dramatizing what we mean by ‘proposition.’ . . . Every speech-act, even the joke, has propositional content; but not all speech acts make informative statements” (DD, 88, 90).
Further, does Vanhoozer deny that Scripture has a “definite, stable, interpersonal meaning,” as Helm claims he does? No; in fact, he rejects the notion that Scripture lacks definiteness and stability on the basis of God’s clarity (perspicuity) as a speaker:
In relation to the claim that the meaning of the Bible is in principle unstable and indeterminate, the perspicuity of Scripture acts as a hermeneutical principle. In relation to the claim that the Bible can only be interpreted by an authoritative interpretive community (viz., the magisterium of the church), perspicuity functions as a critical principle. Finally, in relation to the claim that the determinate meaning of Scripture cannot be sufficiently known to inform and challenge Christian practice, perspicuity acts as an epistemological principle. (Is There a Meaning In This Text?, 315)
(2) Can We Insist on the Economic Trinity Without Losing the Ontological Trinity?
According to Helm, Vanhoozer insists that God’s relation “has to be understood as a person-to-person relation . . . and only at that level” (80, italics his). Helm also claims that “the Creator-creature distinction” is “starkly absent from Vanhoozer’s account of doctrine as drama” (109). Once more, Helm insists that, for Vanhoozer, “God is (nothing more than) his self-communicative action” (103–04).
Only one thing can be done to redeem Vanhoozer from these charges—quote Vanhoozer himself: “Faith that stops its search for understanding short of ontology risks falling back into mere mythologizing.” (RT, 217; cited in FFF, 205). Further, he insists, “Unless we resist collapsing the Father into the work of his two hands, Son and Spirit, it will be difficult to resist what Calvin thought to be the persistent temptation in religion, namely, to blur—or collapse altogether—the distinction between God and the world” (RT, 112; elsewhere he explicitly affirms aseity, e.g., 252, 276, 477). Vanhoozer is unequivocal: “God acts in our world from a different ontological level altogether; this is the truth of the concept of divine aseity” (RT, 483). It seems that in light of Helm’s book, we are left with a Vanhoozer-said/Helm-said situation on the issue of Vanhoozer’s theology.
(3) Are Vanhoozer and John Franke Really on the Same Team?
Another issue that merits comment is the relationship between Vanhoozer’s approach and that of John Franke, unequally yoked in Helm’s critique. While at times Helm seems to note a distinction between the two, both are subsumed under the generic, slippery category of “postmoderns” and are mutually implicated in each other’s theological approaches or even in the works of other allegedly representative postmodern theologians (150). This is evident especially in Helm’s chapter on foundationalism, where the critique moves somewhat seamlessly between the two men (220–221, cf. 4). Ironically, Vanhoozer and Franke themselves acknowledge their significantly different approaches—with Franke being far more revisionist, even while attempting to address similar problems.
For example, in their exchange in Christianity and the Postmodern Turn: Six Views (2005), Vanhoozer explicitly criticizes Franke’s non-foundationalist epistemology, arguing that he has “capitulated to postmodernity too fast” (197). Vanhoozer also claims Franke’s constructionist view of truth confuses “an epistemological problem with an ontological problem” (198); in fact, it appears Franke’s proposal is “simply an upgrade of the modern liberal method of correlation” (198). What’s more, he worries that Franke’s emphasis on the Spirit speaking through culture is unmoored from the text of Scripture and deregulated from Christology (199). In Vanhoozer’s estimation, Franke’s non-foundationalism results in a text that cannot speak over and against its interpretive community (198). Helm might applaud here.
For his part, in “God, Plurality, and Theological Method: A Response to Kevin Vanhoozer’s Remythologizing Theology” in Southeastern Theological Review 4/1 (Summer 2013), Franke sharply criticizes Vanhoozer’s approach in RT on a number of fronts. For one, he “chafes” at what he takes “to be the pretensions of either/or metaphysical assertions about God” (42). Franke also believes Vanhoozer is insufficiently attentive to the diverse, pluralistic nature of God’s revelation in human communities (45–46) as well as to the “potential limitations this places on creaturely media for the construction of theology or theological systems” (44). Unsurprisingly, then, Franke’s concerns are something of the inverse of Vanhoozer’s (not to mention Helm’s concerning Vanhoozer); if Vanhoozer is worried culture will trump Scripture, Franke is worried Vanhoozer isn’t giving God’s diverse, highly accommodated work in culture its due.
Whatever their respective merits, Vanhoozer’s and Franke’s projects ought to be more sharply distinguished than Helm does in this work.
(4) Is Vanhoozer Trying to Be Original?
Commenting on the non-originality of Vanhoozer’s theology, Helm quips, “Here he employs the rhetoric of drama to do nothing more than to adorn the time-honored understanding of the relation between doctrine and practice. Once more we note that the rhetoric of theodrama depends for its force on the solid, permanent dogmatic framework of the Christian faith. But Vanhoozer does not seem to see this” (102). And again, Helm laments: “Vanhoozer overstates . . . the novelty of what he proposes. For some of the expressions he uses look to be mere variants of traditional ways of speaking of theological language and its epistemic status” (217).
The problem is that Helm sets up CRT as a system, then tells us Vanhoozer aims to totally supplant it with his de novo remythologizing method. Then, whenever Vanhoozer does something that looks like the CRT he is allegedly trying to replace, he is either accused of arrogance because “this isn’t all that new” or of incoherence because he’s falling back on old methods, since his own isn’t enough. The better read would be to understand that Vanhoozer is intentionally only proposing a version, or recalibration, of CRT, which explains the similarities.
Helm has no basis for his assumption that Vanhoozer is trying to replace CRT with something completely new, or to be anything other than following the spirit of the Reformation. Vanhoozer is not trying to be original—he is trying to be communicative. Even the synopsis of RT claims that the only “original contribution” of the work is that “it brings theology into fruitful dialogue with philosophy, literary theory, and biblical studies” (i). Most of Vanhoozer’s polemic in Remythologizing Theology is aimed not at CRT, but at modern revisionist theologians.
Helm’s comment on Bavinck and Kuyper’s criticism of Hodge is ironically relevant: “It leaves the reader with a seriously misleading and even unintelligible account of the Princeton theologian’s method. For each of the . . . points . . . insofar as they are intended to implicate Hodge, seem to be off their target” (187). These comments are hauntingly appropriate to this volume. Helm wisely notes that no theologian is above critique, but is “entitled to have his views fairly presented” (200).
Indeed. We only wish Helm had extended the same courtesy to Vanhoozer.