Classical Reformed Theology and its Postmodern Critics

This post is an extended review of Paul Helm, Faith, Form and Fashion: Classical Reformed Theology and Its Postmodern Critics (Cambridge: James Clarke and Co, 2014).


This latest volume from Professor Helm is a robust defence of Classical Reformed Theology (CRT), and the defence is rendered all the more fascinating by the fact that the critics addressed are scholars who are themselves rooted in the Reformed tradition: Kevin Vanhoozer and John Franke, and to a lesser extent Andrew McGowan and Michael S. Horton.  But roots are not everything.  In addition to being Reformed, these critics have also drunk deeply from the wells of postmodernism and this has instilled serious prejudice against the theology of past masters such as Francis Turretin, Herman Bavinck and, above all, Charles Hodge.  Helm is not content with defence, however.  He also moves to the attack, placing under the microscope the alternatives proposed by Reformed postmodernists (narrative theology in general, but especially the proposal that Christian doctrine should be approached as a ‘theo-drama’).

Charles Hodge famously began his Systematic Theology with the statement that just as we find in nature the facts which the scientist has to examine, ‘So the Bible contains the truths which the theologian has to collect, authenticate, arrange and exhibit in their internal relation to each other.’[1]  To a postmodernist, such a methodology is derisory.  It is too often overlooked, however, that these words were written as a disclaimer.  Hodge wanted to declare at the outset that the Bible as such does not contain a system, nor does it classify its material or lay down an order according to which its material is to be arranged.  The theologian (including the Biblical Theologian) has to choose his own arrangement.  There can be no dogma as to the best order, and Hodge’s admission should be music to the ears of those who are suspicious of fixed systems. 

It is equally easy to overlook what Hodge had in mind when he spoke of collecting truths or facts.  He meant biblical exegesis and, as Helm points out, Hodge was an exegete before he was a systematic theologian.  The first chair he held at Princeton was the Chair of Oriental and Biblical Literature, and long before he published his Systematic Theology he had published commentaries on Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians and Ephesians.  He had also lectured on Isaiah.  It should be borne in mind, too, that the ‘Princeton School’ contained not only the systematician, Hodge, but also the outstanding biblical commentator, Joseph Addison Alexander; the pioneering Biblical Theologian, Geerhardus Vos; and such experts in Biblical Criticism as W. H. Green and R. Dick Wilson.  In Hodge’s own words, it was such exegetes who put the facts in the hands of the theologian.   It was also exegesis that gave us the ‘Princeton Bible’: B. B. Warfield’s doctrine of inspiration rested on a careful exegesis of 2 Timothy 3:16, particularly the meaning of the word theopneustos (‘God-breathed’).

Care is needed, too, as to what Hodge meant by ‘facts’.  He was not making a direct comparison between the theologian and the collector of fossils.  The palaeontologist collects fossils, but neither the fossils themselves nor the rocks that contain them offer any hypothesis to explain, for example, Hugh Miller’s famous fish (Pterichthus milleri).  The collector must find his hypothesis elsewhere.  When Hodge spoke of collecting facts he meant all the biblical facts: not only the bare facts of such biblical narratives as the exodus, but the explanations of such facts offered by the scriptures themselves.  The narrative of the cross must be explained by the word (logos) of the cross (1 Cor. 1:18).  Hodge saw himself not as one who brought his personal hypotheses to the Bible to be verified or falsified, but as one who sought the very hypotheses themselves in the pages of the Bible.  The extent to which he succeeded in this may be debated, but it was no un-interpreted facts that he found in Scripture.  The facts included interpretations.

Critics allege, however, that Hodge represents but one of many 19th century attempts to make Christianity acceptable in a culture which glorified reason and deified science.  The obvious riposte to this is that the critics themselves are attempting to make Christianity acceptable in a culture which glorifies postmodernism. Hodge had no compunction, however, about confronting science, as he showed in his 1874 publication, What Is Darwinism?  What he was ‘glorifying’ was neither reason nor science, but observation, and in this respect there is a fascinating similarity between his methodology and that of the German theologian, Adolf Schlatter (1852-1938).  Schlatter stressed the importance of what he called ‘the seeing-act’,[2] and applied it to both general and special revelation.  Trained to observation by a life-long interest in animal and plant life, he insisted that ‘the made things’ (Rom. 1:20) effectively proclaim God’s eternal power and god-ness only if we look at them, and only if we believe what we see with our eyes.  The same principle applied to Scripture.  It was God’s special revelation, but first of all we had to become observers in order to see what was there.[3]  For Schlatter, theology began with history: what happened in the past, and what was said or written in the past.  Systematic Theology (Dogmatics) thus built on Biblical Theology, and Biblical Theology built on Exegesis.  Both of these were historical disciplines, their mandate was to ascertain which concepts were taught in Scripture, and the only way this could be done was by observation, while carefully keeping one’s own personal preconceptions in check.  We have to ‘use our eyes steadfastly and with no other motive than to perceive the object.’[4] 

This is not to say that anyone moving from Hodge to Schlatter finds himself still in the same world.  Schlatter did not share Hodge’s confessionalism, and though he emphatically rejected Liberalism’s disjunction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith his own Christology had curious idiosyncrasies.  Yet his basic approach to theology was the same as Hodge’s; and it is no fatal objection to their approach that it was shared by the Darwinian scientist, T. H. Huxley, who famously pronounced, ‘Sit down before facts like a little child, and be prepared to give up every preconceived notion.’


It is argued, however, that Classical Reformed Theology saw Scripture merely as a source of proof-texts and that Hodge and his school ‘flattened’ the Scriptures, as if the Bible existed only in monochrome and consisted of nothing but colourless propositions without variety or progression.

Helm counters this portrayal robustly:  ‘To suppose that Hodge is a theological empiricist, assembling data by naïve induction and so disregarding differences of genre, does not withstand serious examination.’  Hodge was fully aware (who wouldn’t be!)

of the presence of symbolic and anthropomorphic language in Scripture, and (precisely because he was an observer of ‘facts’) equally aware of the differences between the great soteriological epistles on the one hand and prophecy, poetry and apocalyptic on the other.  Besides, Classical Reformed Theology was fully aware that far from being a ‘flat’ revelation of God’s will, some earlier parts of God’s revelation were no longer binding.  It recognised, for example (Westminster Confession, 19:3, 4) that the ceremonial law of the Old Testament is now abrogated, and that its judicial laws are binding only so far as ‘the general equity thereof may require.’ 

Even more interesting is the fact that despite his firm belief that all Scripture was equally inspired, Hodge had no compunction about admitting that not all parts of Scripture were equally inspiring, or equally important.  ‘Some books of the Bible,’ he wrote, ‘could be far better spared than others.  There may be as great a difference between St. John’s Gospel and the Book of Chronicles as between a man’s brain and the hair of his head; nevertheless the life of the body is as truly in the hair as in the brain.’[5]  His Scottish contemporary and friend, William Cunningham, fully shared this sentiment, acknowledging that internal proofs of divine authorship were nothing like as clear in the Book of Judges as they were in the Gospel of John.[6] 

Two centuries before Hodge, the Westminster Confession (14:2) had already taken the poly-generic nature of Scripture for granted.  Defining faith as the grace by which we believe whatever is revealed in the word, it goes on to declare that faith, ‘acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings and embracing the promises’.  The assumption behind this statement is that all Scripture is breathed out by God (2 Tim. 3), a proposition which can be perfectly well expressed in fashionable modern terms: Scripture is a divine speech-act.  What the Confession is highlighting, however, is that the Bible is not just one kind of speech-act, but a variety of speech-acts: commands, threats and promises, to name but a few.  The compilers of the Confession may not have been acquainted with the terminology of modern speech-act theory, but they would easily have grasped its key concepts.  The Bible contains locutions (words in various combinations) which have illocutionary force (for example, ‘Do this!’) and perlocutionary effects (such as securing compliance).  This is not the place to expand the nuances of such theorising.  What matters is that long before J. L. Austin published How To Do Things With Words (1962), CRT was already clear that Scripture contained not only a wide variety of literary genres, but also a wide variety of locutions, illocutions and perlocutions.

Vanhoozer argues, however, that Hodge (and presumably Schlatter) forgets the ‘theory-ladenness’ of data: a term, Helm informs us, coined to convey the idea that all factual statements imply some theory or other.  A gene or electron, for example, is a theory-laden concept.  But Hodge, Helm insists, was fully aware of this.  He knew that he was not simply a collector combing the beaches for naked facts and then sorting them out.  Sin, for example, was a theory-laden concept: it deserved punishment.  Similarly, the idea of Christ was theory-laden: he was the incarnate Son of God.  At the same time, however, the data collected by the observer serve as checks on our theories.  For example, closer examination of Scripture may call in question the theory of divine impassibility. 

But did Hodge (and CRT) not approach the Scriptures with a preconceived notion of the nature of the Scriptures themselves?  The answer has to be an emphatic Yes!  B. B. Warfield once remarked that it is Apologetics that puts Scripture in the hands of the theologian,[7] but this scarcely does justice to the Princeton doctrine of Scripture, and it does even less justice to Classical Reformed Theology.  It would be far more accurate to say that it is the church that puts Scripture in the hands of the theologian, and it does so with the words, ‘This is the word of God.’  For Hodge the theologian this was certainly an axiom he brought with him to all his theological work.

But could Hodge be certain, and if so how?  To postmodernists, the very question is shocking: clear proof that one is locked into Enlightenment modernism with its belief in universal reason, rational demonstration and timeless truths.  Surely, however, the fact that there are no timeless expressions of truth can hardly mean that there are no timeless truths?  In any case the attempt to link Hodge to Enlightenment rationalism borders on the perverse.  Apart from all else, the Enlightenment rejected the whole idea of authoritative tradition and canonical writings, and declared itself unwilling to accept any religion but that of pure reason (which, as Kant eventually pointed out, ruled out all religion).  It is absurd to identify Hodge with such a movement.  He was no more a rationalist than he was a mystic. 

On the other hand, the quest for certainty, and the belief in its possibility, did not begin with the Enlightenment.  On the contrary, as Bavinck points out, the Reformation was born out of a deeply felt need for assurance, and certainty was ‘characteristic not only of Luther’s faith but also of the faith of all the Reformers.’[8]  Faith was certainty, a point enshrined in Calvin’s famous definition:  ‘Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us.’[9] Faith was equally certain of the divine authorship of Scripture: certain with full persuasion and assurance (Westminster Confession, 1:5).  This persuasion, however, was not the product of a rationalistic assessment of evidence.  It was due to the witness of the Holy Spirit.  This was the path Calvin had charted at the outset, and though B. B. Warfield is often accused of rationalism, it was he who wrote, ‘Man needs something more than evidence, however abundant, to persuade and enable him to obey God’s Word; he needs the work of the Holy Spirit accompanying the Word … faith in God’s Word is not man’s own work, but the gift of God’[10]  This is at the furthest possible remove from rationalism. 

But was Hodge a foundationalist, and must we now, as postmodernists, also become post-foundationalists?  There can be no doubt that the Princeton theologians took for granted certain truths which they regarded as self-evident and which provided the foundation on which other truths rested.  This reflected their adherence to the Scottish School of Common Sense Realism, which Archibald Alexander, Hodge’s mentor, clearly endorsed in his Inaugural Lecture in May 1812.[11]  Entitled, ‘The Nature and Evidence of Truth’, the lecture developed the theme that all human beings necessarily believe certain intuitive truths.  These truths included the reliability of our senses (we can be confident that what we see corresponds to objective reality: hence the label, ‘Realism’), the principle of causality (every change has a cause), the trustworthiness of human testimony, and the authority of conscience.

There is no necessary connection, however, between Classical Reformed Theology and Scottish Common Sense Realism (which did not command universal assent even among Scottish theologians).[12]  The question remains, however, Are there truths which we embrace intuitively?  The number of possible answers is limited.  One is the position associated with Descartes: we must review all our ‘axioms’ in a spirit of radical doubt, and only after we have proved their truth by rational demonstration can we then proceed to thought.  The most basic of these axioms, of course, is our own existence, and this was the issue Descartes addressed in the argument, Cogito ergo sum: ‘I think, therefore I am.’  It is hard to see, however, how the philosopher who doubts his own existence can make any further progress.  Radical doubt can lead only to radical doubt (or endless linguistic analysis).

The second possibility is that thought must proceed without a foundation: there are no intuitive axioms, and there are no fundamental truths which we can prove by presupposition-less rational argument.  It is high-risk for me, a non-philosopher, to comment on this, but on the face of things it certainly seems to mean that philosophy is a discipline without a foundation.  If so, Kant’s famous dictum, ‘Dare to be wise’, can lead only to frustration; and postmodernism itself becomes an -ism without a foundation.

The third possible answer is the one adopted by Alexander and Hodge: there are certain truths which it is neither necessary nor possible to prove, but which we intuitively take for granted and which constitute the foundation for all subsequent reflection and argument.  We have already noted the most obvious of these.  For Hodge the theologian, however, there was another truth which was foundational, but was neither self-evident nor intuitive: the canonicity of Scripture.  Subjectively, this rested on the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, but if Scripture is our supreme authority it seems only fair to ask whether Scripture itself is foundationalist.  The answer, surely, is a clear Yes!  The Bible operates with axioms it never sets out to prove, and also assumes that there are some truths we know intuitively.  For example, it never offers any formal proof of the existence of God.  Instead, its opening words are, ‘In the beginning, God ….’  Later, in Romans 1:20, it explicitly declares that God has planted a knowledge of his eternal power and god-ness in every human heart.  Similarly, it assumes the existence and authority of conscience, as well as an ineradicable sense of accountability to a supreme tribunal (Rom. 2:15, 1:32).  On another level, it takes for granted that if 500 witnesses testify that they saw Jesus alive after his death, such eye-witness testimony has inherent credibility (1 Cor. 15:6).  On another level still, it clearly accepts the principle of causality.  For example, if a farmer sows his seed on good soil, a harvest will follow (Mk. 4:8); conversely, if people never hear the gospel, they will never believe. (Rom. 10:14)

Prima facie, then, some form of foundationalism seems to be validated by Scripture itself; and if that is the case, it is impossible to move theology into a post-foundationalist phase.



But of all the charges brought against Hodge and CRT, the most persistent is the charge of ‘propositionalism’: a charge which critics seem to be repeating parrot-fashion.  Andrew

McGowan, for example, claims that Princeton theology was ‘founded on the notion that Scripture can be reduced to a set of “facts” or “propositions” which are then collected and arranged into a systematic theology.’[13]

Professor Helm addresses this charge rigorously and extensively (pp. 155-178).  The following paragraphs of this review are offered only by way of grateful interaction. 

The obvious starting-point is that it is the very purpose of Systematic Theology to deal in propositions (including, as Professor Helm points out) definitions and distinctions.  It searches the Scriptures with the specific intent of ascertaining what they teach ‘concerning God and what duty God requires of man.’ (Shorter Catechism, A. 3), and the outcome of such an enquiry is inevitably propositional: for example, God is eternal, God is all-present, God is all-knowing, God is all-powerful and God is faithful.  However, this does not mean that Systematic Theologians view the Bible as consisting of ‘nothing but’ a set of propositions, nor is the approach of Systematic Theology the only legitimate approach to the Scriptures.  Other disciplines may approach them with a quite different range of interests such as, for example, social conditions in Palestine in the first century, the hazards of Mediterranean navigation, the biblical attitude to depression, or the similarities between biblical covenants and ancient Near-Eastern treaties.  The exegete will approach the Scriptures to ascertain the meaning of a particular passage, and the Biblical Theologian in order to trace the development of such themes as Paul’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit.  But, as Schlatter pointed out, theology cannot stop at either exegesis or Biblical Theology.  It has to press on to ask what the Bible, taken over all, says: and when it presses on, it has to systematise because that is the only way the human mind can think.  It has to identify, isolate, compare and correlate biblical concepts. 

It is not only the Systematic Theologian who is guilty of systematising, however.  In fact, every expositor does it.  This is brilliantly illustrated in John Stott’s, The Message of Acts, which abounds in systematic cameos.  For example, in his discussion of the disciples’ communion with Jesus after the resurrection (Acts 1:6-8), Stott points out that Jesus’ main topics of conversation were, first, the kingdom of God and, secondly, the Spirit of God.  He then expounds the meaning of the kingdom under three headings: first, the kingdom of God is spiritual in character; secondly, the kingdom of God is international in character; thirdly, the kingdom of God is gradual in its expansion.  This is both systematic and propositional, and every exegete (and every preacher of three-point sermons) treats the Bible in a similar way.  

But, for all the brilliance of Stott’s treatment, it is not yet Systematic Theology, because it deals with only a fraction of the biblical teaching on the reign of God.  Many other assertions could be made about the kingdom, and the greater the number of assertions, the greater the need for systematisation.  Yet, the concept of system cannot be used to distinguish Biblical from Systematic Theology.  ‘We aim at system,’ wrote Schlatter, ‘because we desire unitariness and completeness in our thinking.  As such, it guides historical work no less than dogmatics.’[14]

Scripture itself clearly contains propositions.  Critics of CRT do not, of course, deny this.  What they deny is that it contains ‘nothing but’ propositions.  But neither Hodge nor any other proponents of CRT has ever advocated such ‘nothing-buttery’.  As we have already seen, the Westminster Confession clearly recognised (14:2) that Scripture contains not only propositions but commands, threatenings and promises.  What Helm highlights, however, is the crucially important point that without propositions biblical narratives by themselves could tell us nothing about the essential nature of God.  For example, the narrative tells us that God kept his covenant on many occasions: it does not by itself tell us that he must do so on all occasions.  This is why, on the basis of mere narrative alone, Gideon is fully entitled to challenge the Angel of the Lord, ‘Pardon me, my lord, but if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us?’  (Judges 6:13)  The narrative up to that point seemed to give little ground for confidence that the Lord is always with us.  Instead, to use Helm’s words, the narrative without propositions would give us only a God who is a ‘bundle of facts’, not one who is necessarily a faithful covenant-keeper characterised by unfailing holy love.  Fortunately, the divine speech-acts include self-referential propositions.  The great ‘I am’s’ of John’s Gospel are not only part of the narrative, but key to it.

It is alleged, however, that CRT assumes that there is a direct correspondence between its propositions and objective reality; or, as Vanhoozer puts it, a ‘perfect, complete equivalence between language and world, formulation and fact.’  This really is stretching a point.  The claim of CRT is not that there is a perfect correspondence between our words and reality, but that there is an infallible correspondence between the words of Scripture and reality: a correspondence which may well be summed-up in the statement that the Scriptures contain the truth, and nothing but the truth, but not the whole truth.  The glory of God can no more be contained within prophecies spoken by men (2 Pet. 1:21) than it can be contained within temples made by human hands.  Nor were Reformed theologians so naïve as to believe that a formulation was the same as a fact.  The formula, ‘the Word was made flesh’, resides in the Gospel of John: the fact (our incarnate Lord) does not. 

But Reformed theologians were not only aware that there was no exact correspondence between words (descriptors) and reality (the object described): they were also fully aware that the revelation in Scripture was not exhaustive.  From this point of view they would have had no difficulty with Vanhoozer’s concept of ‘aspectival realism’, provided it was taken to mean that the fullness of the divine glory is hidden from us and that we see only such aspects of his majesty as he chooses to disclose (what he refers to in Exodus 33:23 as his ‘back’).  What is disclosed in revelation is only to gnōston: what is knowable about God (Rom. 1:19).  Not only has God withheld details as to some aspects of his purposes (his ‘secret things’, Deut. 29:29): much of the truth about the mode of his existence is so counter-intuitive that it cannot be conveyed in current human language.  It was of the very essence of Reformed foundationalism that the finite is not capable of the infinite, and added to this was the distinction between archetypal knowledge and ectypal knowledge.  The source of all knowledge of God is his knowledge of himself.  Our ectypal knowledge derives from his, but he shares with us only as much as we need to know; and only as much as we can bear.

There was also the principle of accommodation, repeatedly stressed by Calvin.  The primary example of this was that when God spoke to us through his Son, it was through his Son in servant-form.  It was indeed true, as our Lord himself highlighted, that, ‘Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’ (Jn. 14:9), yet this could never mean that the mere sight of the incarnate Son gave instant and complete knowledge of God.  After all, the very reason that Jesus made his pronouncement in the first place was his disciples’ failure to understand him: ‘Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time?’ (Jn. 14:9) What was seen was the glory veiled.  Some aspects of this glory (such as the divine compassion) shone brilliantly in the life of the Incarnate.  Others were kept hidden for a time.  Hence the emphasis on a theologia viatoris: ours is the theology of pilgrims.  One day we shall see face to face.  But even that will not be the end, merely the end of the beginning.

But what of the problem of fallibilism?  Does human fallibility not mean an end to all certainty, particularly the certainty to which CRT aspired?  Our fallibility is indeed real enough, and quite apart from our finitude we all suffer from the noetic effects of sin.  Yet the fact that we are fallible does not mean that every statement we make is false.  If it were, then even the proverb, ‘To err is human’, would be false.  It is precisely because fallible human beings can still make accurate statements that Christian theology cannot proscribe science, even though all its practitioners are sinners.  But we must also remember that what we have in Scripture is not only the word of fallible human beings, but the word of God.  Its authors were men, certainly, but they were men ‘carried along by the Holy Spirit.’ (2 Pet.1:21).  The biblical interpreter, of course, is not so carried, yet God has taken pains to ensure that Scripture is so perspicuous that believers do not need to take special courses in Hermeneutics to grasp ‘those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation’ (Westminster Confession, 1:7).


Alternatives to Classic Reformed Theology

The urgent question now is, What alternatives to CRT are the critics able to offer?

One is the ‘communitarian’, ‘expressivist’ or ‘cultural-linguistic’ approach associated with George Lindbeck of Yale.  Lindbeck argues that the meaning of the Christian faith is to be found neither in cognitive information (CRT) nor in religious experience (Liberalism) but in the life, language and practices of the believing community.  Theology is thus ‘descriptive’, charged with the task of giving a ‘normative explanation of the meaning a religion has for its adherents.’[15] The source of Christian theology lies, therefore, in the way the Christian community expresses itself; authority resides in the linguistic practices of the community; and theology  provides grammatical rules for these linguistic practices.

This language is echoed by Robert Jenson, who writes, ‘insofar as theology is second-level discourse, it is best described as a sort of grammar.  The church, we may say, is the community that speaks Christianese, and theology formulates the syntax and semantics of the language.’[16]  Jenson insists, however, that, theology should not simply map what the church is saying.  The canon, Scripture, has authority over all the language of the community.

John Franke is in general sympathy with this communitarian approach.    Christian theology, he affirms, consists in ‘critical and constructive reflection on the beliefs and practices of the Christian church’;[17] or, as Helm expresses it, it is the community, not Scripture, which provides the first-order data on which the theologian reflects.  The elusive Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, seems to strike a similar note.  He points out, quite correctly that, ‘the theologian is always beginning in the middle of things’, and continues: ‘There is a practice of common life and language already there, a practice that defines a specific shared way of interpreting human life as lived in relation to God.  The meanings of the word “God” are to be discovered by watching what this community does – not only when it is consciously reflecting in conceptual ways, but when it is acting, educating or “inducting”, imagining and worshipping’; or, more succinctly, ‘If theology is the untangling of the real grammar of religious practice, its subject matter is, specifically, people who pray.’[18] 



Kevin Vanhoozer has expressed serious reservations about this communitarian approach.  If the interpreting community becomes the primary source for the meaning of the Christian faith, does this mean that are there no norms above the community, controlling the way it expresses itself?  If not, then authority is located in the linguistic practices of the community, not in the Canon; and if theology is reduced to describing the grammar of the community’s culture and language, ‘it ultimately runs the risk of reducing theology to cultural anthropology, in which talk about God just is talk about the community.’[19]  Added to this is the challenge implicit in Robert Jenson’s comment that, ‘theology may be impossible in the situation of a divided church, its proper agent not being extant’.[20]  This is particularly serious for a communitarian theology, which is faced not with one ‘community’ but with many, and has to ask, ‘Which community, and whose interpretation?’

Having rejected both Hodge and Lindbeck (though not with equal vehemence) Professor Vanhoozer himself has opted for the idea of theology as ‘theo-drama’.  The terminology is borrowed from Balthasar’s 5-volume work, Theo-drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, and Vanhoozer expounded it succinctly in his essay, ‘The Voice and the Actor: A Dramatic Proposal about the Ministry and Minstrelsy of Theology’; and at length in The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology, and Remythologising Theology.[21]

This is no mere tinkering with the edges of Reformed theology.  It is a complete re-laying of its foundations.  The dreaded propositionalist theology of Charles Hodge (who is accused of de-dramatising doctrine) is to be replaced with ‘Dramatic Theology’, and the extent of the makeover becomes plain  in the programmatic main divisions of The Drama of Doctrine: ‘Part One: the Drama’; ‘Part Two: the Script’; ‘Part Three: the Dramaturge’; ‘Part Four: the Performance’.   Alternatively, ‘The Christian faith is a not a system of ideas or moral values but a five-act theo-drama in which God’s speech and action play the decisive parts.’[22]

This approach has also commended itself to Michael Horton, author of Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama.[23]  Here again, as with Vanhoozer, the language of traditional Reformed Prolegomema has given way to the language of the theatre, as witness some of the chapter-headings: ‘Before the Curtain Rises’, ‘All the World’s a Stage’, and ‘Community Theater ’.  From this standpoint, salvation history becomes a plot, Scripture a script, the practice of theology a drama, and theologians directors.  This dramatic model, we are told, is the best way of thinking about the practice of theology, because it gives full scope to the concept of God as communicative agent, makes it easier to incorporate elements that have often been marginalised, and ‘turns down the volume’ on some aspects that have been overemphasised (propositions?  This spectre is never far away).

The drama-metaphor clearly resonates with our entertainment-saturated age.  In the past, the theatre was so compromised that Plato would not allow his Prince to be an actor, and Elizabethans forbade women performing on stage.  Our world is very different.  Actors, both, male and female, are idols, and the language of the theatre has moved far beyond the stage into such disciplines as sociology, where all sorts of functionaries are described as performing a role or playing a part.  In such a world it is ‘cool’ to portray Christianity as a drama.

But ‘cool’ does not make it right.  There is much to give us pause.

First of all, Scripture offers no precedent for the drama-metaphor, and Vanhoozer is fully aware of this: ‘Why draw on analogies with drama when the only incident recorded in the Bible as taking place in a theatre is a riot (Acts19:29, 31)?’  Whether the theatron in Ephesus was a theatre in our sense of the word is a moot point,[24] but, theatre or not, Paul refrained from using it and resorted instead to, of all places, a lecture-hall (where, presumably, he expounded such propositions as, ‘In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins’, Eph. 1:7).  But Scripture’s non-use of the word ‘theatre’ is not the only problem.  The Bible, as all acknowledge, is polygeneric, yet the one literary form which is conspicuous by its absence is drama.  There are narratives, poems, treaties, proverbs, genealogies, cultic rubrics, theological treatises, legal codes, parables, apocalypses, allegories and even fables: but there are no plays.  It is not even clear that drama was a recognised art-form among the Jews. 

Secondly, it is not clear how far we are to carry the metaphor.  How much of what we understand by ‘drama’ are we to transfer to the practice of theology and to the living of the Christian life?  The answer will be that drama is proposed not as a complete equivalent to theology, but only as an analogy but, as Horton acknowledges, while analogies are useful in helping us understand the unknown by identifying it in some respects with the known, there are always greater dissimilarities than similarities.  For example, God is a rock (Ps. 62:2), but there are greater dissimilarities than similarities between God and a rock (and the metaphor itself rests on prior propositional statements about the faithfulness of God).  Many moments in the history of redemption and in the story of theology have been dramatic, but that does not reduce them to a drama.  D-Day was dramatic, but it was war, not theatre; and while it is true that Shakespeare wrote, ‘The play’s the thing’ it is hermeneutically irresponsible to quote him as if he were endorsing the idea that the whole of life is a play.  Hamlet was merely using the play-within-the-play as a device to trick the King, his uncle, into betraying his guilt.[25]

Theatre is a world of make-believe, where the actors’ tears are not real, where their words do not express their own convictions, where their actions are simulations, where the script may reveal little of its author’s personal views, where the performance seldom places the audience under any moral obligation, and where any distress is instantly covered up by remembering, ‘It’s only a play!’  This is not to say that drama cannot highlight momentous issues and even transform attitudes.  But neither of these is its primary purpose.  From Coriolanus to Eastenders, theatre exists to entertain, not to redeem; and unless it succeeds as entertainment, it is a failure.

Thirdly, in view of the many biblical analogies, do we really need to go searching for yet another master-metaphor?  The word ‘theologian’ should be enough to remind us that our task is to speak a word about God, but if further descriptors are needed, why look beyond the words ‘teacher’ and ‘rabbi’ (unless you want to distance yourself from the propositionalist notion that theologians are educators?)  And while theological professors may sometimes ‘strut and fret’ their hour upon their podiums (and then are heard no more) there are far greater dissimilarities than similarities between a theatre and a theological college. 

Similarly, Scripture itself offers so many metaphors for the Christian life that there is scarcely need for another, least of all one which demands that it be the controlling one.  The Christian life is already a race, a war, a fight, a pilgrimage and a feast; and Christians are already scholars (disciples), soldiers and sheep.  Is discipleship enhanced by describing it as a play?

The biblical metaphors for God are even more abundant.  There is an immediate difficulty here in that some terms that appear metaphorical may not be so.  For example, when we speak of God as Father we have to remember that it is the divine fatherhood that is archetypal, and ours that is metaphorical.  Similarly, any human lordship is but a pale reflection of his.  Having said that, however, Scripture abounds in metaphors for the deity.  God is a rock, a shield, a sun, a fortress, a dwelling-place and a shepherd, to name but a few.  Are we any the wiser for describing him as a script-writer, director, producer and stage-performer?  

Fourthly, it is not at all clear that to describe God as a ‘communicative agent’ requires us to think of him as a dramatist.  Does this description, impressive though it is, say anything beyond, ‘God speaks’, or ‘God is a communicator’?  Vanhoozer refers approvingly to Goethe’s translation of John 1:1, ‘In the beginning was the Deed’,[26]  and argues in line with this that God’s word is to be seen not only as communicative, but also as active.  It has force, and does things.  But there is nothing here we have not heard before: God reveals himself by what he does, and he does things by revealing himself, yet this should not mislead us into identifying word and deed.  God’s word does not always have perlocutionary force.  It can be defied.  But even when it does have both force and effect, this scarcely requires us to invoke the drama-metaphor.  It is not only the words of script-writers that do things.  Parents and military commanders often function as ‘communicative agents’, and when they do so their words can have real perlocutionary force. And while the concept of God as ‘communicative agent’ has some validity, we have no right to use it as a regulative, all-embracing description of deity.  God is indeed a communicator, but he is much more.  Within the trinity, for example, the Son experiences God not merely as a Speaker, but as Father; and on this very basis Christians address God not as ‘Dear Communicative Agent’, but as ‘Our Father in heaven’.  From this point of view it is clearly more appropriate to refer to believers as a family than as a theatre company, but other metaphors also abound.  We follow the Lord as our shepherd, we are his subjects as our king, and we are his disciples as our teacher.  But to describe him as our resident play-wright is an anthropomorphism too far. 

Fifthly, there is a lack of clarity as to the domains to which the drama-metaphor applies.  The initial proposal was that it should be applied to the practice of theology, but it now seems to embrace both the ‘drama of redemption’ and the ‘drama of the Christian life’.  Each of these presents its own difficulties.

In the ‘drama of redemption’ God not only also serves as director, producer and  script-writer, but also plays the lead-role.  He is the star.  But does it not create serious tensions to portray God as an actor; and not merely as an actor, but as an actor playing himself; indeed, being himself?  He then becomes one of the theatre-company, one of the dramatis personae, on the same level as all the other players on stage: no longer a Deus ‘ex’ machina, but a Deus ‘in’ machina.  This as if Shakespeare were to take the lead-role in Hamlet, not in the sense of acting Hamlet (like Clint Eastwood starring in one of his own productions), but in the sense that the script-writer himself becomes a component part of the on-stage drama: or, in theological terms, God plays the same sort of role in the plot as Herod and Pontius Pilate.  In this scenario, he not only writes the script for Calvary; he personally nails his own Son to the cross.

The idea of the Christian life as a theo-drama was initially set forth only tentatively: ‘The emphasis on hearing and doing the Word suggests a parallel of sorts with dramatic interpretation.’[27]  The main point of the analogy is clear enough.  God as ‘communicative agent’ has drafted the script which believers are to play out in their lives.  However, the analogy has a sharp polemical point: over against the purely cognitive religion of Hodge, there has to be an emphasis on ‘lived Christianity’.  But Hodge never thought otherwise.  Furthermore, as Helm points out, the anti-cognitive polemic ignores the place occupied by ‘application’ in both the New Testament and Reformed Theology.  This is clearly reflected in Hodge’s own Commentary on Romans, where each section ends with a summary of the Doctrine, followed by (practical) Remarks; but this merely reflects an emphasis which goes back at least as far as William Ames (1576-1633), who defined theology as ‘the doctrine or teaching of living to God … the nature of theological life is living to God.’[28]

But how does the ‘drama’ performed by believers relate to the ‘drama’ performed by God?  Is there, Helm asks, ‘overlapping continuity’ between the two, such that  believers are somehow co-actors with God in the drama of redemption?  Or is it not the case that if God is the author, director, producer and lead-actor (with prophets and apostles playing subordinate roles) we who live between Pentecost and the Parousia participate only as the audience?  The main Acts in the drama (the cross, the resurrection and Pentecost) have, as Vanhoozer acknowledges, already taken place, and there is no further role for us to play; and the final Act, the dénouement, lies in the future, which means that for the moment we can have no part in it.  In fact, if we are indeed living ‘between the times’ then, in theatrical terms, as Helm points out, we are living during a very long interval, and the last great Act will be performed not by us but by the Saviour returning in apocalyptic glory.  In the meantime, our lives are indeed a response to the compassions of God (Rom. 12:1), but where does Scripture ever portray that response as a ‘drama’?  We are disciples, not actors, our lives governed not by a dramatic script, but by ‘everything I have commanded you.’ (Mt. 28:20)  And we live, not on a stage, but on an altar, where we offer our bodies as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1).

When it comes to the analogy between drama and the practice of theology we are told that the theologian, simply as theologian, ‘has a speaking and acting part, too’ (in the drama of redemption?).  But as Professor Helm points out, this use of the metaphor is also shrouded in ambiguity.  Is doctrine itself the drama, or is doctrine a presentation of the drama in de-dramatised form?  This latter is the charge that critics bring against Classical Reformed Theology: its exponents have de-dramatised doctrine, reducing it to a set of propositions, and in so doing they have starved the religious imagination, rendering it anaemic.  But this could be true only if CRT were detached from its overall ecclesial context, where doctrine serves as handmaid to missions, evangelism and pastoral care; and handmaid, above all, to the Christian pulpit, where the imagination is set afire by the glory of the message.  Has the Christian imagination ever glowed more splendidly (or less anaemically) than in the preaching of Edwards, Whitefield or Chalmers? 

Or is the drama-model of doctrine to be conserved by seeing Scripture not simply as text (to be read), but as script (to be acted), in which case the theologian’s part is to serve as interpreter of the script, bearing witness to the meaning, significance and demands of God’s ‘communicative action’?  The main point of such interpretation, according to theo-dramatists, is to ‘direct’ believers concerning their participation in the drama.  But from a postmodernist standpoint (the standpoint of this whole programme) this immediately runs into the difficulty, Whose reading of the text counts?   After all, ‘If you think you’ve got it right, you’ve got it wrong.’  Merely to describe theology as theo-drama does not get us over that hurdle.  Besides, if the theologian’s role is only to serve as interpreter of the text, why not simply call him an exegete? 

Or, alternatively, a ‘theo-drama critic’?  In that case, the focus would shift from the script to the performance, and the theologian’s ‘role’ would be to review the effectiveness of Christian witness and ministry (and, presumably, give the various actors either the thumbs-up or the thumbs-down).  This is an honourable role, but if God’s people are sheep, is a drama-critic the most appropriate person to review their performance?  As before, Scripture has its own appropriate metaphor, laying the burden of review on the church’s shepherds. 

Finally, the theo-drama metaphor does not, after all, bring relief from propositions.  Post-propositionalist though he is, Vanhoozer has to concede that ‘there is a sense in which doctrine as dramatic direction requires us to speak of propositions’.[29]  The reason for this is that any direction given to an actor in a drama presupposes certain facts which are already true before the action begins, and which every character in the play has to believe. This is why Professor Helm can speak of theo-drama being parasitic on the very Systematic Theology it rejects because, even before the drama begins, the actors, the audience and the critics are already in possession of some vital truths which only Systematic Theology could have provided.  For example, before the curtain rises on the theo-drama, Vanhoozer already ‘knows’ that it is God who has taken the initiative in staging the drama.  He also knows, apart from the drama, that the ‘communicative agent’ who has written the script is the triune God; and he is even in possession of the ‘timeless truth’ that God is not a being who can be encompassed by space and time.

All dramatic productions presuppose propositions which are true before the drama begins.  For example, the list of dramatis personae already tells the actor playing the lead-role in Hamlet that the hero is the son of the late King of Denmark and nephew of the present one; and sometimes dramatists deliberately furnish actors with additional information they need in order to play their parts.  For instance, in her play, King of Sorrows, Dorothy L. Sayers adds to the list of dramatis personae a delineation of key characters such as Mary Magdalene: she is ‘passionate, emotional, purely human, despairing’.[30]  This is her ‘essence’ and the performance must be based on it.  This is exactly what Professor Helm means when he writes (p. 90) that propositions about what God is, have logical priority over interpretations of his actions.  In fact, even before the biblical curtain rises, the reader already knows through general revelation that the word ‘God’ in Genesis 1:1 includes the connotations of eternity, power and absolute rectitude (Rom. 1:20, 32).  On the other hand, the fact that God is love is not left to the hazard of being a mere inference from the narrative.  It is a categorical, and regulative, proposition (1 Jn. 4:8).

Postmodernists, including those Reformed theologians who now steer by it, are in the habit of asserting that any claims to possess the truth are in fact power-claims, and from this point of view they accuse Hodge’s Systematic Theology of demanding idolatrous veneration, and the person who has ‘mastered divinity’ of using that mastery as an instrument of power.    The New Testament was fully aware of this danger.  Peter, for example, warns elders not to lord it over their flocks (1 Pet. 5:3).  The New Testament also refers, however, to pastor/teachers (Eph. 4:11) who held office precisely because they were ‘able to teach’ (didaktoi, 1 Tim. 3:2), and who not only taught, but also ruled (1 Tim. 5:17).  Clearly, then, although all social distinctions are irrelevant now that we are all one in Christ (Gal. 3:28), it was not Christ’s intention to allow the instruction of his disciples to become a case of the uneducated teaching the illiterate.  If it is the truth that makes people free (Jn. 8:32), then those who have it are bound to share it with those who do not. 

What is fascinating, however, is that the theo-drama proposal introduced under the cover of postmodernist intellectual humility looks suspiciously like a new Gnosticism.  Few believers are going to get their heads around the notion of theo-drama: they are much more likely to shake these very heads and say, ‘If the Bible is a theo-drama, we give up.’  People simply don’t have the key, and will feel they have no option but to leave the Bible to the experts.  Yet it is hard not to be suspicious of a key which has been withheld from Bible-readers for 2000 years.

The theo-drama metaphor, then, though making occasional contact with reality, is neither helpful nor necessary.  But what about this: considering that we are so often asked to see the whole truth through the lens of eschatology, and that at the End the whole universe joins together in a glorious symphony (Rev. 5:13-14), might it not be more biblical to speak of a theo-opera than of a theo-drama?

In the meantime huge thanks to Professor Helm for a most stimulating volume.




[1] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner, 1871-3), p. 1.

[2] ‘The first and foremost task of the theologian is thus to perform the seeing-act (Sehakt), where one simply observes the New Testament document with faithful objectivity.’  Quoted in Michael Bräutigam, Union with Christ: Adolf Schlatter’s RelationalChrsitology (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2015), p. 23.

[3] ‘A dogmatician who no longer observes, but only forms judgements without first perceiving, and who instead of being given his ideas by reality, procures them for himself by free construction, is at best a poet and at worst a dreamer.’ (From Schlatter’s essay, ‘The Theology of the New Testament and Dogmatics’, reprinted in Werner Neuer, Adolph Schlatter: A Biography of Germany’s Premier Biblical Theologian [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995], p. 173.

[4]Ibid, p. 178.

[5]Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. 64.

[6] William Cunningham, Theological Lectures (London: James Nisbet, 1878), pp. 290-1.

[7] In his essay, ‘The Idea of Systematic Theology’, reprinted in Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, Studies in Theology (1932.  Reprinted Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), p. 64.

[8] Herman Bavinck, The Certainty of Faith (Reprinted Potchefstroom: Institute for Reformational Studies, 1998), p.16.

[9] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; 2 vols.; LCC; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), III:II, 7.  Italics mine.  Cf. Hebrews 11:1 (NIV), ‘Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.’

[10] Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, The Westminster Assembly and its Work (New York: Oxford University Press, 1931), p. 211.

[11] For the text of the lecture see Mark A. Noll (ed.), The Princeton Theology 1812 – 1921 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), pp.72-91.

[12] See, for example, the comment of John (‘Rabbi’) Duncan, ‘Common sense I believe in, but not in a philosophy of common sense.’  (Colloquia Peripatetica, being Notes of Conversations by the late John Duncan, LL.D. with the Rev. William Knight; Edinburgh: Edmonston & Douglas, 3rd edition, 1871), p. 62.

[13] A. T. B. McGowan, The Divine Spiration of Scripture (Nottingham: Apollos, 2007, p. 116).

[14] Adolph Schlatter, Method in New Testament Theology, p. 172.

[15] George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Louisville: John Knox Press, 25th anniversary edition, 2009), p. 99.

[16] Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology,Volume1: The Triune God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 18.

[17] John R. Francke, The Character of Theology: An Introduction to Its Nature, Task, and Purpose (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), p. 44.

[18] Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), pp. xi, 13.

[19] See Kevin D. Vanhoozer, ‘The Voice and the Actor: A Dramatic Proposal about the Ministry and Minstrelsy of Theology’ in John G. Stachouse (ed.), Evangelical Futures: A Conversation on Theological Method (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), pp. 77, 100.

[20] Robert Jenson, op. cit., p. vii.

[21] Kevin D. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2005); Remythologising Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). 


[22]The Drama of Doctrine, p. 57.

[23] Michael S. Horton, Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2002).

[24] Built to accommodate 25,000 people, the theatron at Ephesus was more a stadium than a theatre.

[25]Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2.

[26]Evangelical Futures, p. 72.

[27]Evangelical Futures, p. 90 (italics mine).

[28] William Ames, The Marrow of Theology, ed. John D. Eusden (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1968), p. 1.  Cf. W. Andrew Hoffecker, Piety and the Princeton Theologians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981).

[29]Evangelical Futures, p. 93.

[30] Dorothy L. Sayers, The Man Born To Be King: Famous Plays on the Life of Christ (London: Victor Gollancz, 1969), p. 289.