Wednesday, August 22, 2007

POST-CONSERVATIVES AND POST-LIBERALS: Reflections on Kevin Vanhoozer’s "The Drama of Doctrine"

Stephen Noll

Note: I have rushed this essay into print because of the relevance of the discussion between those orthodox “conservatives” who see long-continuing (invincible) heresy on central matters of doctrine as a church-dividing necessity and those who argue that the maintenance of the form of church unity takes precedence over agreement on doctrine. Within the current Anglican context, members of the former group have sometimes been labeled “Federal Conservatives” or “Confessionalists,” while members of the latter have been called “Communion Conservatives.” To some extent, this fault-line mirrors the historic divide in Anglican theology between Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics. Now I am proposing, following Kevin Vanhoozer, a new binary classification: post-conservatives and post-liberals.

Labels can always distort one’s position, but they are also necessary markers of genuine difference of opinion. I am particularly interested in seeking a response from the Communion Conservatives, many of whom have spent time at Yale with George Lindbeck, to see whether they agree with the typology proposed by Vanhoozer in his recent works. In a recent essay, Craig Uffman contends that Federal Conservatives are unconsciously reflecting the rationalistic “either/or” epistemology of the Enlightenment. I suggest, in response to Uffman, that his view of ultimate, may I say mystical, reconciliation of opposites owes much to Enlightenment Romanticism (a position shared, I think, by Rowan Williams). If Vanhoozer’s typology is correct, then we should begin by admitting that we are all heirs of the Enlightenment (and the postmodernism deriving from Nietzsche) in one sense, but that we are seeking to transcend its rationalistic and romantic distortions of Christianity in order to be true to the “faith once for all delivered to the saints.”


When I took sabbatical leave in Cambridge in 1994, I found myself sharing a cubicle with a young academic named Kevin Vanhoozer. Kevin’s piles of xeroxed articles covered most of the working space, and I soon recognized that I was cohabiting with a very bright and competent scholar. I was also gratified to find that he and I shared a common interest in and commitment to the “literal sense” of Scripture, properly defined. As I got to know him, I discovered another side: an accomplished pianist, who had conducted evangelistic missions in France, where he met and married his wife. And a genuinely thoughtful and compassionate Christian individual.

So I have not been surprised to find that this “young scholar” (I’m not sure now long he gets to wear this label, but far be it from me to set an expiration date) has burst upon the academic scene with two major books on hermeneutics - Is There Meaning in This Text? (1997), and First Theology (2002) – which lay the groundwork for his dogmatic work, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005). Vanhoozer has been a leader in an academic movement to recover the “theological interpretation of the Bible,” editing a dictionary of that name (2005). Although his work has garnered respect and praise across the theological spectrum, he has written this as an Evangelical, who moved from University of Edinburgh to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

One mark of his stance is his unashamed defence of sola scriptura – the sufficiency of Scripture alone for salvation and life. Hence he writes in The Drama of Doctrine:

One goal of the present work is to model a post-critical approach to biblical interpretation that respects both the principle – or rather the practice – of sola scriptura and the location of the interpretative community that nevertheless results in performance knowledge and doctrinal truth.

While not disowning his Evangelical pedigree, Vanhoozer claims that his hermeneutical approach to doctrine is catholic and evangelical, and he adopts his central concept of the Gospel as “Theo-Drama” from the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Vanhoozer’s hermeneutics is “post-critical,” that is, accepting the postmodern rejection of Enlightenment rationalism and embracing the “linguistic turn” to subjectivity in interpretation. In particular, he adopts as a dialogue partner George Lindbeck of Yale University, whose book The Nature of Doctrine (1984) has set the “post-liberal” agenda of parsing Scripture using the grammar of the church. Vanhoozer takes for himself the mirror label “post-conservative” and carries on a friendly dialogue with Lindbeck throughout the book. He refers to Lindbeck’s “cultural linguistic” and his own “canonical linguistic” approaches as “cousins” (page 16). Yet while he is carefully appreciative of Lindbeck’s views, by the end of The Drama of Doctrine, it is clear that he considers Lindbeck’s position defective in crucial respects.

In terms of doctrine, Vanhoozer claims to be “postfoundational,” i.e., finding inadequate a certain kind of Evangelical “foundationalist” reading of Scripture as a dogmatic textbook. At the same time, he speaks of “two types of postfoundationalism”:

The first type of postfoundationalism, then, substitutes the life of the church for the set of indubitable beliefs. Though Lindbeck clearly moves beyond the modern emphasis on individual autonomy, one wonders whether his position could not be classified as ecclesial expressivism, and hence of the experiential-expressivist position he associates with modern liberals. (p. 294, emphasis original)

By contrast, Vanhoozer sees his own “canonical-linguistic” type of postfoundationalism as differing from Lindbeck in its insistence on accepting the autonomous truth claims of Scripture and of the Rule of Faith and other summaries of doctrine (a.k.a. confessions). Cultural linguistic and canonical linguistic views share an appreciation of the “illocutionary” character of speech (“illocutionary” referring to the directive use of speech, e.g., persuasive, narrative, celebratory) and the “intertextuality” (“this text interprets that”) in the biblical record. Whereas both views accept the biblical canon as the horizon within which doctrine must operate, Lindbeck tends to see the canon as text-centered (“just this set of writings”) whereas Vanhoozer sees a necessary connection between an authoritative script and an authored script, one where the divine and human author’s meaning is final. For all his appreciation of the grammar and intratextual meanings of Scripture, Lindbeck finds the locus of biblical meaning in the performance by the church rather than the author of the text.

Vanhoozer argues that Lindbeck’s approach leads to three mistaken tendencies: “With regard to theology, it tends toward fideism,” because it accepts an internal world of the text, which must either be accepted or rejected without any further criterion. “With regard to the church, it tends toward idealism," because the church and only the church can establish the truth of Scripture. “With regard to God, it tends toward nonrealism,” because it has no way of handling the truth claims of what God has done in Jesus Christ. (p. 174, emphasis original)

Vanhoozer notes on several occasions that Lindbeck’s theology slips into a kind of cultural anthropology or ethnography, that is, it is descriptive but not prescriptive. One of the symptoms of this deficiency is the inability to identify false ecclesial interpretations of Scripture. Vanhoozer asks: “If church practices serve as both source and norm for theology, how can we ever distinguish well-formed practices from those that are deformed?” (page 7). In a telling footnote, he comments:

I do not want to minimize the difficulty in discerning “correct” from “incorrect” [readings from Scripture]. At the same time, I believe the ability to reform the church depends on just such discerning judgments that arise not from humanly devised exegetical method, but from a prayerful combination of attention to the Word and attention to the Spirit. (p. 12 n. 38)

In a comment reminiscent of the Anglican Article XXI, he states: “Neither tradition nor practice can be the supreme norm for Christian theology because each is susceptible to error. Practices become deformed; traditions become corrupt” (page 22, emphasis original).

This important distinction between Lindbeck and Vanhoozer allows the latter to speak unqualifiedly of confession and its converse heresy. He deals with heresy ecclesiologically in his final section on “Doctrine and the Church.” He begins by stating that true doctrine necessarily identifies false teaching in order to heal the wounds of the Church. So heresy-hunting is not a matter of ecclesiastical power-plays, but of discerning the truth of the Gospel. This task is not to be taken on lightly but must be done to preserve the integrity of the church’s witness to Christ. Vanhoozer points out that the canonical texts themselves contain warnings against false teaching. Not every occasional theological error constitutes heresy, but true heresy threatens the corporate threat because it attacks like a disease the very lifeblood of the Gospel:

Heresy is dangerous because it proposes an alternative economy of salvation, not that there is one. A heresy is thus a fateful error that compromises the integrity of the theo-drama, either by misidentifying the divine dramatis personae, misunderstanding the action, or giving directions that lead away from one’s fitting participation in the continuing dramatic action. (p. 424, emphasis original)

Careful and prayerful discernment of heresy leads necessarily to excommunication:

To repeat: those who perform some other drama take themselves out of the redemptive action. Excommunication is thus an outward and formal recognition of an inward reality, namely, the fact that the heretic is no longer oriented to the way, the truth, and the life. (p. 426)

The basis for distinguishing heresy, Vanhoozer argues, is nothing less than the conviction that the false teaching contradicts the biblical testimony. This judgement involves a statement of truth, called a creed or confession. Vanhoozer contends that the patristic councils like Nicaea claimed to be judging heresy not according to their own interpretative script but on the clear sense of the biblical script. Hence a true evaluation of Nicaea must be a matter of determining whether the Council correctly read the theo-dramatic witness to the Person of Christ, or whether it was merely following its own philosophical language du jour.

Among the variety of ecclesiastical truth statements, Vanhoozer (pp. 449-457) distinguishes between Creeds (“Masterpiece Theater”), Confessions (“Regional Theater”) and Congregational Theology (“Local Theater”), and the role of the pastor is to harmonize all these performances. But at the heart of them all is the conviction that the biblical story, as recorded in Scripture, provides a single text from which all précis and stage-directions proceed.

Kevin Vanhoozer’s most recent book on doctrine models a respectful yet critical dialogue between two interpretative schools - call them “post-liberals” and “post-conservatives” (dare I compare them with the Alexandrians and Antiochenes) – who share a common commitment to the biblical canon and the Church’s Rule of Faith but who diverge on the locus of divine authority. I have suggested that the issue of acceptance of church confessions as grounds for identifying heresy and enacting discipline through excommunication or separation may distinguish the two schools.

The current crisis of discipline within the Anglican Communion has drawn these schools into the forum of dispute. Sometimes they resort to rhetorical barbs (“appeasers” and “angry militants”), and at the end of the day they may find themselves on different sides of an ecclesial divide. But at least we should know where we are coming from and hope and pray that in the end by “turning, turning” in this debate, we may come round right and together.

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