What does it mean to be biblical?

In many ways, Kevin Vanhoozer has been seeking to answer this question his whole theological career. Is “biblical” merely an ideological linguistic move by certain evangelical powerbrokers to sanctify one set of beliefs and practices over against others? Or does the word actually capture something unique about what it means to walk this way, and not the way of the world?


In his latest collection of essays, Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of the Church’s Worship, Witness, and Wisdom, Kevin Vanhoozer hopes to encourage pilgrims on the way not just to rightly interpret texts, but to rightly live them out. “The focus here is not on theories of interpretation in the academy,” Vanhoozer writes, “but on the practice of biblical interpretation that makes up the life of the church” (10).

It’s one thing for Christians to know the text of Scripture; it’s quite another for them to inhabit it. And the primary domain for disciples to live this out are localized assemblies where the Word is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered. For as Luther reminds us, “Where the Word is, there the church is also.”

Electrified Imaginations

Vanhoozer’s hope is evangelicals will embrace a particular imagination—a way of viewing and participating in the world—that testifies to the reality of what God has done, and is doing, in Christ:

Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of the Church's Worship, Witness and Wisdom

Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of the Church's Worship, Witness and Wisdom

IVP Academic. 327 pages.
IVP Academic. 327 pages.

The overall concern is to rehabilitate a biblically invigorated imagination as a means and mode of doing theology—or rather, as a key to healing the breach between knowing, feeling, and doing as well as the distance between Scripture and the church’s contemporary situation. (10)

Doctrine isn’t just for theology handbooks, but for lives changed by the gospel. Doctrine is for discipleship—for fitting participation in the drama of redemption and for understanding what’s “in Christ.”

Our imaginative capacities help us see with new eyes what it looks like to be in the world. The biblical canon constitutes a new reality for those who have been regenerated by the Spirit, seeing not just a data set of facts but metaphors by which we’re to live. The church isn’t a disparate collection of individuals; she’s a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation (1 Pet. 2:9–10). Christians only begin to see these things with electrified imaginations nurtured by Word and Spirit.

Three Pictures

Broken down in three parts, Pictures at a Theological Exhibition explores pictures of the church’s worship (“Gallery One”), witness (“Gallery Two”), and wisdom (“Gallery Three”). Chapters include academic lectures, informal addresses, and sermons. The book aims to take much of Vanhoozer’s academic work over his prolific scholarly career and show what it looks like locally. The chapters aim to serve as “examples of theology on the ground: small-scale snapshots of one theologian trying to minister understanding, vignettes of how to think about and, more importantly, do theology in a way that brings Christian doctrine to bear on specific situations and particular problems” (11).

1. Worship

Theology is for doxology. There ought not be an ugly ditch, then, between the church’s worship and teaching. Instead, we are what we love—and we need to know what we love in order to love rightly. “Theology is for leading the church in right worship: orthodoxology” (107). Vanhoozer is adamant about opposing any ditches, Lessing’s or otherwise, but especially the ugly ditch between theology and worship. Instead, dogmatics ought to make our hearts sing. Meditation on the object of theology—the triune God—should be proclaimed in the major key. “Theology both emerges from and leads us back to worship,” he writes (119).

2. Witness

Doctrine, however, should do more than make us sing. Doctrine is also for discipleship. Christians are called to be faithful in their vocation of making disciples, but how does one learn Christ? Through holy Scripture.

Utilizing Vanhoozer’s parlance, the Christian canon is the “transcript of what God has done . . . and as a script that helps disciples understand how they can participate in what God is doing to renew all things” (190). As we ingest the canonical script, both corporately and individually, we grow wise unto salvation—we begin to learn what it means to truly live.

We’re awakened to the ultimate reality of what God is doing in Christ. And as a people identified together under the cross of Christ, we participate in this reality together. “Disciples know the ultimate truth about ultimate reality—‘he is risen!’—and this truth sets them free to think boldly about everything else” (214).

3. Wisdom

It’s easy to ruminate on the necessity of doctrine for the Christian life, but what does it mean to exercise these things on the ground—what does it mean to be biblical? Vanhoozer is convinced the theodramatic model helps us orient ourselves down the narrow way between theology that is “epic” (i.e., all-encompassing systems that require a “God’s eye” point of view) or “lyrical” (i.e., the constant realization of one’s subjectivity and situatedness within a tradition). He writes, “Drama is a form of understanding that fosters and facilitates concrete rather than abstract reflections about key Christian truth claims” (226).

In order to participate fittingly in the drama of redemption, one needs “a dramatic framework, a sense of how things hang together and of how your action fits into the big picture. . . . The task of Christian apologetics ought to include a defense of Christian phronesis” (227). Vanhoozer seeks to show what this phronesis—this practical wisdom or virtue—looks like on the ground as it relates to apologetics and ethics.

Readers familiar with Vanhoozer’s corpus will recognize a number of themes from his other work including (but not limited to) the centrality of “theodrama,” the importance of pastor-theologians, the right balance between inerrancy and hermeneutics, and more. The difference is that each chapter is situated in a particular place to a particular group—often pastors and seminary students.

The book as a whole, then, is an eclectic tapestry that highlights the range of Vanhoozer’s imaginative framework for the Christian life. It is, in essence, applied systematics. Many of the chapters capture the core of Vanhoozer’s thought and will serve as a helpful gateway to his larger corpus. I’ve already found myself commending it to others for this reason alone.

Modeling Theological Exegesis 

It’s fairly common these days to hear discussions of “theological interpretation” or “theological exegesis” of Scripture, yet often it’s difficult to see one preach what he practices. It turns out being “theological” can be just as nebulous as being “biblical.” In this volume, however, Vanhoozer helpfully models what theological exegesis looks like in the fray. Whereas many of his other books err more on the side of the theologian than the pastor, this volume highlights Vanhoozer’s pastoral sensibilities. Reading him in this context helps us see that the vision of the pastor-theologian is more than an abstract vision; it’s a concrete possibility.

I should also mention that reading Vanhoozer is fun. His prose is peppered with word plays, creative allusions, and plenty of Heideggerian compound words (my favorite: “being-in-missionary-activity”). Reading Vanhoozer is similar to the experience when reading G. K. Chesterton or C. S. Lewis: one is moved by the joy of what lies behind their arguments as much as by their force and logic. Whether it be developing theological hermeneutics, assessing biotechnology, or delivering a homily to seminary students, Vanhoozer is always delightful to read.

Those who take up and read Pictures at a Theological Exhibition won’t be able to walk away without this sense of palpable joy. But more, they’ll come away with a sense of what it looks like to live lives, molded and shaped by God’s canonical script, with a certain fittingness that accompanies the family of the redeemed.

Or more simply: they’ll learn what it looks like to live biblically.

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