Let’s Increase the Drama: Kevin Vanhoozer on the Church as Gospel Theater

drama.jpegWhy should you commit to, participate in, become a member—or however you want to describe it—of a local church? Because Christians are called to gather to “dramatize” the gospel of Jesus Christ.

While “drama” in the church is often a troublesome condition related to strife and gossip; rightly understood, drama is the very reason why the church exists. Consider the insightful words of Kevin Vanhoozer (The Drama of Doctrine), who describes the communion of the church as a theater troupe called and commissioned to interpret God’s Script through their faithful living and Word-based improvisation.

The church has to celebrate what no other institution can celebrate: communion with God and communion with others. The Lord’s Supper is a communal act of solemn, yet ultimately joyful, thanksgiving. The shared bread and wine recall the theo-drama’s climax and rehearse the play’s conclusion. It is a key scene to the meaning of the whole, and it ought to affect our interpretation of all the other scenes. The Supper cannot, however, be performed by individual actors, no matter how virtuosic their talent; it takes a company. A company is, in the first instance, an assembly. The church is that singular assembly that keeps company gospel and with one another, not least by breaking bread together (com panis = “with bread”). But the church is a company, second, in the theatrical sense: a troupe of speakers, singers, and actors. It is the company of the forgiven, and this is why the company communicates, indeed radiates, joy.

The theologian should be ‘a competent interpreter of the tradition in the idiom of one’s own time and place.’ The church, a community or interpreters, is both a theological given and a theological task. Clothed with new natures by the Spirit-dresser, the church is a community of costumed interpreters, a covenant community whose privilege and responsibility it is to perform the Scriptures. Clothed with the righteousness of Christ, the church embodies the very meaning of the gospel. In putting on the new man, the church becomes the silhouette of Jesus Christ in his living body.

The church is the theater of the gospel, its members the company of performers. It is only as a company that the people of God can function as a ‘hermeneutic of the gospel’: ‘Interpretation may be so institutionalized in schools and done by learned men and women that it has become over-identified with ideas and written commentaries. . . . [T]he most authentic Christian biblical interpretation is human enactments of God-informed life. . . . Interpretation, then, in its final form, is God-formed human practice. What we do as the people of God is our interpretation of the Bible.’ The theater of the gospel requires not only a priesthood but a playerhood of all believers in which every member of the church plays an important role. (Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology, 413–14. Emphases mine.)

His whole chapter on ecclesiology is worth reading, but this quotation highlights a few key ideas.

  1. The church’s communion proper (i.e., the Lord’s Supper) directs everything else Christians do in community.
  2. The church is God’s visible display of Jesus Christ on earth. To be the church is to make him visible. Hence, attention to what Jesus has said about the church is no small matter.
  3. The church, and all of its members, not just its (paid) leaders, “perform” together a way of life that either affirms or denies the truth of the gospel. We are not just priests in name; we are priests in action, wearing the robes of righteousness and re-presenting the Lord in his temple (i.e., his holy dwelling place).

For all these reasons and more, how we gather as Christians matters. It matters not just for individuals, as a place to acquire intellectual knowledge about God, nor as a place to find meaningful relationships. Both of these things are, of course, true. But the church, more dynamically, is the people who believing the gospel gather together so that they can display for all to see the power, love, and holiness of God. This is why Paul said in Ephesians 3,

To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. (vv. 8–10)

Ultimately, this is why we gather. Or better, why the Lord gathers us—to display in real time his eternal grace and glory. With that in mind, may we approach church with fresh excitement and earnestness. So that, wherever we gather with God’s people, we would strive to “interpret” his gospel to one another and to a watching world through a true dramatization of God’s loving grace. In this way, we ought to pray that God would do more than we ask or imagine, as he glorifies himself in Christ and the church (see Ephesians 3:20–21).

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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  1. Pingback: The Church’s Place in *Picturing* the Gospel (A Review of 1 Corinthians 1–10) | Via Emmaus

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