"Pictures at a Theological Exhibition" by Kevin J. Vanhoozer. A Review

Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of the Church's Worship, Witness and Wisdom
Kevin J. Vanhoozer
IVP Academic (InterVarsity Press)
PO Box 1400
Downers Grove, IL 60515
ISBN: 978-0-8308-3959-9; $20.00; March 2016
Reviewed by Rev. Dr. Michael Philliber for Deus Misereatur

Clear-Eyed  Read; 5 Stars out of 5

If relaying sound doctrine to Christ’s people is part of the divinely sanctioned, apostolically commissioned tasks of a minister (e.g., 2 Timothy 2.2 and Titus 2.1), then looking for friends who can help us in this task is simply plain smart.  And a friend has stepped forward to do just this in his recently published 327 page paperback titled, “Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of the Church's Worship, Witness and Wisdom.” Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, has pulled together this readable resource with the aforementioned goal in mind; “…it may help to think of this book as a playbook for understanding, a guidebook for helping pastors run plays. The point is to get doctrine into the lives of people, individuals and communities, and onto the field of contemporary culture,…” (13).The intended audience is clearly a wide range of readers from seminary students to practiced parsons.

“Pictures at a Theological Exhibition” flows along as if the reader were walking through an art exhibit. Outside of the introductory and concluding chapters, the book moves through four rooms. The first three chapters are in the foyer of the exhibit (prolegomena) where Vanhoozer explains the importance of good theology and doctrine, the place of scriptural inerrancy, and how to practice sola scriptura. Because the author believes that what “the church needs now are pastor-theologians” (62) this three-pack set of chapters doesn’t shy away from some hard discussions about reading scripture literally or literalistically, and what inerrancy means and doesn’t mean.

The next area in this theological exhibition displays the pictures of the church’s worship. The author shows how theology should feed into doxology, the place of beauty and fittingness in Christian singing, and how the “truth of the gospel must both stick in our minds and sing in our souls” (155). The heartbeat that rhythmically pulses in each of these chapters is that right “worship proceeds from right knowledge of God” (114), and conversely, we should “resolve to let our worship improve our theology, and our theology improve our worship” (120).

Our tour guide then leads us into a second apartment that demonstrates the church’s witness. Vanhoozer asks his readers to step outside of their present Darwinian story into a different drama that looks at our world through the lens of Scripture, what he calls textual indwelling and canon sense. As the church moves inside this God-breathed performance “it becomes a revolutionary and reconciliatory theater” (179). Here inside this God-crafted play, were we practice new ways of regularly responding to God’s call on our lives, we are shaped and formed in virtues and disciplines that stand in contradistinction to lives that have been formed by alternative narratives (184). And similarly, it is here inside this divine drama that we shift from status anxiety to status peace, for the “gospel is the good news that, because of Jesus’ status exchange, our status before God is secure” (213).

The final chamber in this theological exhibition sets out three pictures of the church’s way of wisdom. The initial portrait is painted around the theme of apologetic virtue. Since, “when doctrine fails to relate to life, it becomes an argument against the truth of Christianity” (230), it becomes imperative to demonstrate the truth of Christianity with our whole being; “To live out our knowledge of the gospel is to integrate what we say we believe with what we desire and do” (233). Vanhoozer then asks us to slide over to view the next painting, which invites us to practice canon sense by looking into, and making a proper assessment of, an illuminating example of scientism which reduces humankind to only and solely that which is physical. The final drawing sketches out the modern, unitive tale being conveyed in the contemporary academy; “What is universal in today’s university is contestability, the notion that everything that can be said can also be challenged” (287).

“Pictures at a Theological Exhibition” challenges readers to examine the imaginative plotline that outlines their lives. Vanhoozer, rightly in my estimation, anticipates that many of his Christian readers are indwelling a Darwinian narrative “that only the strongest survive. This Darwinian mythos generates an ethos of conflict and competition” (135); and running parallel to this is the market fable of bigger is better and success means numbers. These shaping stories show up in Christian worship where singing and ceremony are MacDonaldized, influenced not by sola scriptura, but by sola cultura (97). This is the storied world where popularity “is next to godliness” (205); where we are “dominated by the hermeneutics of suspicion and epistemology of doubt” (153). The author’s concern is that fellow believers don’t fully recognize that there “are cultural powers and principalities at work to shape our habits of seeing, thinking and doing” (184).Nevertheless, this is not a protest book, but rather a handbook on learning to revitalize our corporate imagination to begin picturing reality through a different plausibility structure; the divine drama scripted out in holy writ and written out in the Icon of God: Jesus the Messiah, crucified, resurrected and enthroned.

Vanhoozer hands pastors and ministers, younger and older, fresh tools by which to relay sound doctrine to the ears and hearts of their congregations. Not only would this volume be a worthy gift for any seminarian, but it is an essential addition to a cleric’s library. And it would be an ideal manuscript for a minister’s reading and prayer group to pore over together. I can’t recommend the book enough!

Thanks to IVP Academic for providing, upon my request, the free copy of “Pictures at a Theological Exhibition” used for this review. The assessments are mine given without restrictions or requirements (as per Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255).

Feel free to repost or republish this review; and please, as always, give credit where credit is due. Mike


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