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EPISODE 71: Kevin Vanhoozer and the Importance of Theology

Theology is inevitable. Everyone does it. We all make decisions and statements about what is true about God, his word, our nature, and our ultimate purpose. As Christians we want to make sure that we “do theology” well. Kevin Vanhoozer, professor of Systematic Theology and a C. S. Lewis Senior Fellow helps us tremendously.

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Welcome to Questions That Matter. This is a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute, and I'm your host, Randy Newman. Today my conversation partner is Kevin Vanhoozer, who is our senior teaching fellow and helps out a great deal with the teaching with our Chicago branch of the fellows. He's written numerous books about theology. Today we're going to explore the book that the title caught my eye so very much, because it's entitled Pictures at a Theological Exhibition, and we'll dive into that a little bit more. But, Kevin, welcome to Questions That Matter.

Thank you. I love questions.

Okay. Well, this is going to be great! Well, I'm going to start with just the broadest, most obvious question that may have some of our listeners say, “Really? Are you asking such a simple question?” But I don't want to just assume it, and I think some of our listeners may wonder something like, “Why is theology so important?” So let me just start there with the broadest. Why is theology, good theology, so important for individual Christians and the church at large?

Excellent first question. Theology is necessary because it's inevitable. Everybody who thinks about God is doing theology. So the first thing I want to stress is that it's not for professionals. It’s not for university professors only. It’s not for super smart people. The disciples amazed their listeners because they didn't have the kind of education that many people had in the ancient world, and yet they were speaking about God in new and compelling ways. Think of theology as faith thinking, faith asking questions and trying to get an answer to questions, questions that inevitably arise as one reads the Bible. I like to say that theology matters because it addresses questions that the Bible raises but doesn't necessarily answer on a first reading.

Good. Yeah.

The other thing I'd like to say is that the product of theology, doctrine, which also sometimes gets a bad rap. Doctrine matters, in my view, only to the extent that it builds up disciples. So when I'm doing theology, I’m always telling myself, “Is the doctrine I'm working on somehow making disciples, making people more mature in the knowledge of Jesus Christ?”

Oh, that’s a great start and very, very helpful. And I forgot to tell our listeners, you're also a professor of systematic theology at a very fine school, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I say a very fine school because that's where I went. That’s really obnoxious, and I'm going to need some theology preached to me. But you say, at the beginning of this book, Pictures at a Theological Exhibition, “Theology exists to serve the church, but the sobering reality is that many churches are not particularly inclined to accept theology's help. Indeed, some churches avoid all deliberation about doctrine like the plague. After all, doctrine divides. And in any case, who is in a position to know which doctrinal position is correct?”  How do you respond if people bristle or they’re resistant? And especially that statement, “Doctrine divides.” How do we step into that and not allow it to have its negative effects?

Right. We have to be realistic. We have to be genuine. There are a couple of ways you can take that statement, “Doctrine divides.” The positive way is, “Well, yes. It intends to divide truth from falsehood.” So not every division is necessarily negative, right? Right from wrong. True from false. True worship from idolatry. That's one of the most important things doctrine divides, true worship from idolatry.

But I think when you hear it in churches, most people are thinking about doctrines that have actually been written by Christian theologians that have become divisive. Different views on the Lord's supper, different views on baptism, and we could go right down the table of contents of any systematic theology, and there are several things to say here: First, we have to be realistic. Doctrine has divided large swaths of the church. The Protestant Church because of their concern for justification by faith and other doctrines, felt compelled to draw a line and say, “No, this is not of the gospel.”

That's another reason why theology is necessary, by the way. We're always having to ask that question: Is this of the gospel? There is only one gospel, so we can't have counterfeits. Is this the genuine article? Or is it a counterfeit gospel? It's a question we have to keep asking.

But back to the one on “doctrine divides.” It saddens me. I mean it's tragic that doctrine has often unnecessarily divided the people of God. So on the one hand we have to draw the line over some issues, but on the other…. Well, what is the alternative? One thing to keep in mind is that not all doctrines are created equal. Some are more important than others.

Yeah. Good.

And about those—I would say for example the doctrine of the Trinity—we can't waffle. We can't accept substitutes for the doctrine of the Trinity.

Yes.

And so there has to be a division, say, between orthodoxy and heresy. But on a doctrine like baptism, I don't think orthodoxy is the issue. I'm very reluctant as a systematic theologian to whip out the H word and call someone a heretic. Unless there’s really good reason to do so. And so what I want to say is this: Doctrine divides sometimes because of the way people use doctrines. And I’m a big believer in intellectual virtue and in listening very carefully, trying to be charitable to other positions. And only after you've made the effort to listen and understand and to be charitable, only after you've made the effort can you even dare to criticize someone.

And I think too many of us and too many times in church history, people haven't necessarily taken the time to listen well or to be charitable to their conversation partners, so some divisions, I think, have been unnecessary. There is a good book I recommend on this. It's called When Doctrine Divides the People of God. It’s Rhyne Putman, and he has a lot of helpful advice for what to do when you find yourself in the thick of a doctrinal disagreement.

Are you interested in learning more about our triune God? The C.S. Lewis Institute award-winning website has some excellent resources that can help you with that. So go to www.cslewisinstitute.org—sorry for all those letters—and type in “triune God” in the search bar. You'll find articles there by Tom Schwanda, Kevin Vanhoozer, Andy Bannister, Stephen Eyre, and others that can help you deepen your understanding of our great and magnificent triune God.

Ah! That’s really good! We'll put the link for that in the show notes. I very often recommend to people J.I. Packer’s book Concise Theology because it lives up to its name. It is concise, but boy he… I mean the joke about Packer is he packs a lot into just a few pages. But that book was very helpful for me, even after I had read much bigger things and more complex. That was just very, very clarifying. So that’s really helpful.

I’m definitely a Packer fan, so I second that.

I love that phrase you just said: Intellectual virtue. Boy, that is a goal to pray toward and pray for. Well, let's dive in a little bit about this book, Pictures at a Theological Exhibition. And I'm not sure that all of our listeners will catch the reference there. It's a great, great work of music by Modest Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition. It's one of my favorites, and I keep forgetting it was originally written just for the piano but then it was orchestrated by Maurice Revel, and that's what I'm more familiar with the orchestral version. And musically it's like walking through an art museum, and you stop. There’s a common theme of this promenade that moves from one picture to the next, but then each picture has its own movement in the piece of music. I think there are about a dozen different pictures. And at first you would think, “Oh, this is just going to feel random or feel disconnected,” but it doesn’t. It holds together, and when it comes to an end, you feel like the whole previous—whatever it is—45 minutes to an hour, has been woven together.

So is that part of the reason you chose this title? And are we, as Christians, to try to look for how these different pictures of theology or beliefs are woven together? Or am I going in a completely wrong direction?

No. I'm delighted! You’re the first reader actually to unpack what was in my title and has been missed by several people. Yeah. Mussorgsky… It’s a famous piece, and like you, I love the Ravel orchestrated version. That's the one I prefer to hear. But let me just mention two things why I think this particular title and Mussorgsky’s piece is so appropriate: First of all, as you mentioned, the common theme that connects the pictures he calls “Promenade.” And what you should picture here are people walking from one picture to another. But again, to walk is the biblical metaphor for what disciples do.

Ah! I love it.

So we’re walking. And instead of “Promenade,” I might have said “pilgrimage.” And we're pilgrimaging as a church, as a people, from one scene to another. And the subtitle of my book is “Scenes of the Church's Worship, Witness, and Wisdom.” And you might think of the whole of church history as a kind of art gallery, scenes of how the church has done Christianity in this culture, in this century, as opposed to the others. But the other thing is Mussorgsky meant his piece to express a kind of Russian nationalism. The pictures had to do with the soul of what it meant to be Russian. Now I'm not advocating that in my book, but I'm thinking of Peter’s analogy, taken from Exodus, of the people of God as a holy nation. And what I'm trying to capture in this book is the spirit, as it were, of a holy nation as they live through different scenes of history and have to make difficult decisions about how to live out the way of Jesus Christ here and now.

Oh, man! All right, so give us just one example. What is one of the pictures on that art gallery of the history of the church or an image, a visual image, of what it means to walk as pilgrims in the Christian faith?

So one of the chapters looks at a bio-ethical challenge facing Christians today. What should our involvement be in technology? Particularly I have a chapter on something called smart pills. What should Christians do if and when scientists come up with a smart pill, some kind of pharmaceutical enhancement to our natural abilities that will make us smarter? I did this as an assignment because we have a bioethics program here at Trinity. And this is one of the issues my colleague was facing, John Kilner, as an ethicist. What do we do? The church has never been in such a situation. But I was reminded right away of Goethe’s Faust, where the Devil tempts Faust on this very note, is promising to make him the most knowledgeable person in the world if he sells his soul. That’s a pretty high price to pay for knowledge. And so my question in the essay is: Would the church be selling its soul if it took this smart pill? I mean, we use glasses. That’s a technological advance. What's the difference between wearing glasses and taking smart pills? And this is an exercise of Christian wisdom.

And that's just one example of many scenes that the church faces all over the world. Different cultures have their different challenges. But that’s just one example, as you asked for, of one of these issues.

Yeah. Oh, that’s good. That's helpful. I hope this isn't too much of a rabbit trail, but I can't resist, because we were talking about Mussorgsky and music. And I've read and heard that you're a pianist. So what is the intersection of music and theology like? I know you've… I read an interview in a Trinity Alumni Magazine that you spoke about this a little bit. But can we explore that just for a part of this?

Sure.

Because I know that some of our listeners and quite a few of the people that I've met when I've spoken for fellows’ groups, when I tell them that I was a music major, I can see their eyes widen, as like, “Ooh! Let’s hear more about that.” So what is this intersection of music and theology?

Well, I can see you and raise you one better by saying I was a music missionary, not just a music major.

Oh, my!

After college, I went to France, and for a year, was involved in developing a program of evangelism using classical music.

Oh my goodness! Oh, man!

Yeah.

All right. We’re doing this. We’re expanding this interview now for another three hours. I hope our listeners are comfortable. No, I'm just kidding.

Well, I mean I had to test out my Christian liberal arts education and what better way than to try to apply it to a real-world situation? Very briefly, here was my thought: “Am I simply using music as a gimmick to get people to come in to hear a gospel presentation?” And I thought, “No! It has to be more organic and integrated than that.” So I did begin to wonder, “What’s the connection?” And I happened to have come across Leonard Bernstein's Norton Lectures at Harvard from years earlier that he entitled “The Joy of Music.” And I thought, “That’s it! Joy. Music can make people feel joyful, but it's true. Is there a basis for this feeling of joy?”

And so what we did is we called our summer evangelism program “The Festival of the Joy of Music.” And we gave 94 concerts all over the country, three different groups traveling in different directions. And in every instance, we started with a joyful piece of music, and then we'd have a person, an MC, address the audience and say, “We hope you feel joyful, but we also hope that that just doesn’t go away after a few seconds. We believe there’s a basis for this joy. We're Christian musicians.” And then we would just go on and present the gospel story in terms with musical imagery, for example creation as composition, sin as discordance that ruins the harmony, Christ as composer who comes into the piece as soloist to make things right, and so on. So that's been one of my interests in music. It was helpful for me in evangelism in France.

But still it's more than a means to an end. It's fascinating in its own right. I'm a pianist, and as a pianist, I had to read music. And thinking about what it is to read music has proved influential on how I read the Bible. Because in both cases what I'm reading has to be interpreted, and the interpretation isn't just a mental thing. It’s a very physical thing. As a pianist, I have to embody my interpretation by the way I play, but then I thought, “It’s the same thing with discipleship. I'm not just reading the Bible and interpreting things in my head. My interpretation of what Christianity is all about has to be embodied.”  And so, that whole idea of interpreting the Bible morphed into performing the Bible. And then eventually I switched the metaphor again and emphasized theatrical performance and not just musical performance.

I'm very excited to tell you about a new resource we’re working on at the C.S. Lewis Institute. It's going to be a series of relatively short articles that answer challenging questions to the Christian faith, so less than a thousand words, which is like the front and back of one piece of paper, maybe even less than that. Of questions like, “Why does a good God allow evil and suffering?” and, “Isn’t Jesus just like all the other religious people?” and, “Aren’t all religions the same?” and the questions that people are likely to ask us if we get into some really good, deep conversations with them. And it's going to be a growing resource. There'll be a new topic and piece of paper, basically, for you to read and share with nonbelievers. So check it out. If it's not already, it will be at cslewisinstitute.org/resources-category/challengingquestions. Or, if that's just crazy, go to cslewisinstitute.org and search for “questions.” I sure hope that'll help. Thanks.

Oh, my goodness! You write about music in this book, but just… I'm looking at the chapter where you say, “Three Ways of Singing Sola: Scripture as Light, Compass and Script.” Have you written more about this intersection about music and theology in other books? I'm sorry I'm not familiar enough to know that.

There's another essay in here called, “Praising God in Song,” and I think about the relationship of dogmatics and doxology, but the one that may interest you the most began its life as a lecture recital, “A Festival of Faith and Imagination” at Westminster Theological Seminary a few years ago. And that's entitled, “What Does Vienna Have to Do with Jerusalem?”

I love that! Okay, but we have to explain that, because that's a switch from, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” Was it Athanasius who said that long ago?

Tertullian, Tertullian, but Randy, I'm so appreciative. You're the ideal listener. You're getting all my allusions.

Well, see now the pressure's on. I don't know how well I’ll hold up now. But okay. So Tertullian was saying…. Well, what was he saying? “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?”

So to ask, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” was his metaphorical way of saying, “What does philosophy have to do with theology?” And he wanted to say, “Not much.” And so…. And by the way, that title or that phrase, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” that became also a book title for a fresh riff for Cornelius Van Til, who was teaching at Westminster Theological Seminary, which is why I knew my variation would have resonance. They all knew that, and Phil used to say that all the time.

So, “What does Vienna have to do with Jerusalem?” This is another way of asking the question, “What does classical music have to do with the Christian faith?” And the issue really is, “Does music mean something?” “Does music mean something?” Or is it just sounds with no meaning? They may make us feel something, but they don't have any meaning. We can't get into that big question here, but let me just say that, in my Athens, Vienna, and Jerusalem essay, I do argue that there is a meaning, that there is something to be interpreted, that you can get it wrong or right, and then I’m reflecting on, “What is it that we get wrong or right as interpreters of music?” It's not just the notes. There's something deeper. It's the composer’s intent, and the composer, of course, is located in a particular culture and time, and so really what comes through are elements of a worldview.

Oh, years ago, I did this extended study. I wanted to just read what people were writing about music, along the lines of what you're saying. Not diving so deep as, “Let’s talk about this piece of music,” but about music in a sort of philosophical, theoretical sense. What does music mean? Or why are we drawn to music? And I read several books by writers who let you know very early on that they were an atheist. They were atheists, and they didn't believe in anything bigger, anything larger. This is just molecules and sound waves, and for 200 pages, they would sort of say, “Nothing to see here. Nothing to hear here,” which made me wonder why they wrote the book, but then they couldn't help themselves. When they got to the end they had to say amazingly religious statements. They talked about how music points them outward and connects them to the intangible and makes me wonder if there's more to life than like, “Oh, you couldn't suppress it even within a book that you yourself are controlling what you chose to write and what you didn't?” So I find that intriguing.

But let's dive in, I'm sorry, in another direction, where you talk about scripture as light, compass, and script. What do you have in mind there, especially the third one about script?

Well, the light is taken from scripture, that the Word is a lamp, a light unto our feet. The compass has to do with the fact that we're walking in the world. We’re all wanderers and walkers, and the compass helps us get oriented. And I do think Scripture is a book that orients Christians. And it points not to the north, but to the true north of humanity, which is Jesus Christ. And if you just keep remembering that, this orientation towards Christ, you'll walk wisely as a Christian. The idea of script, though, that picks up on the theatrical image that I mentioned a moment ago. It's not just that scripture sounds like script, but that, in some sense, it is a written story that explains to Christians who we are as a holy nation. And once we have that script, we have to do more than simply repeat it. A script does call for performance, for involvement, just like a musical score. And so Scripture is our script, but it's not a blueprint. It orients us, but it doesn't tell us exactly what to do in every situation. That's why we need theology, as I mentioned before. We have to ask the question, “What should people who belong to a holy nation do in this kind of situation?” And I believe the Bible is sufficient to help us answer it, but the answer may not be, as it were, on the Bible's sleeve, but it is sufficient to help us to get there.

You write in the book, “Theological understanding of the Bible involves learning to think not simply about, but along the biblical texts, making sense not only of various propositions, but also of the various scenes, the things that happen or are said that comprise the drama of redemption.” I was challenged by that sentence, and it reminded me, when I was a fairly new and young Christian, what I heard a lot from teachers and people who had been Christians longer, was they wanted to keep saying—and they did say—that the answer is simple. It’s simple. It’s simple. And at some point, it struck me, “You know, the Bible isn't simple.” Now, I don't think it's convoluted in a random way or a confusing or perplexing way that can ever be unraveled. No. But it is rich and big and thick. It’s long. And it has very doctrine statements and then poetry and then songs and then mini dramas within the larger drama, and the individual mini dramas are reflections of the larger drama. And I've just loved the complexity, and I hope that word doesn't cause people to stumble, but the richness, the bigness, the fullness of scripture. And that's what you're challenging us as a theologian. Can you speak more to that?

Yeah. Again, I wholly concur. Abraham Kuyper asked, “Why are there so many different kinds of books in the Bible? Why so many genres?” And his answer, I think, was exactly right. He said, “So the word of God would touch every chord of the human soul.” Not just the intellect, not just the emotional, not just the volitional, but every part of our being. And there are so many scenes, as you put it, in scripture, these little stories about Saul and Samuel and David and everybody else. All of these, all of them, say Paul and Peter, were written for our instruction. So they're all not just moral tales, but I think they're more scenes of how God expects His people to respond to various situations. It’s deeper than morality. So you were saying complexity. I think the term I would use would be inexhaustibility.

Good, good. Yeah.

That is there's something for everyone, and we'll never get tired of it. No one exhausts scripture. It’s always…. One can go deeper. One is always stopped, in a sense, because one eventually confronts a mystery, and with a mystery, it's not the kind of… like a murder mystery where there's a solution. It’s the type of mystery that you can go deeper, and your understanding can grow but never to the point where the mystery completely goes away. I think that's why I would call it inexhaustible.

I love it. I love it. And as you're talking, I'm thinking about… you said, “Why are there so many different kinds of books in the Bible?” It also reminds me of the question of, “Why are there so many different voices?” I mean just in the New Testament, we have four gospels by four gospel writers. They're telling the same story, and yet the flavor of each of the different books is different. And it's not just the different purpose or goal, because they did have different audiences in mind. But it's much richer than that. Luke has a feel that is very different than Mark, and Paul and Peter feel different. I remember one time… this was very early on as a young believer, maybe one of the first times through the book of Psalms, and I got to the Psalms of Asaph, and I thought, “Oh, he just feels very different than David. In a sense, he's saying a lot of the same things, but just a different personality, a different flavor that comes through, and I love that.” And that should be encouraging for us, as individual people, of God gave us the personality that likes classical music or structural engineering or this or that. And His word, like you said, is to connect to every single part of our being. I love that.

And, as you say, every kind of person as well. Jesus’ disciples are quite different from one another. And that should encourage us as well. As we grow, it doesn't mean we all have to grow exactly like one another. God can use diverse people who have diverse gifts—and use diverse cultures as well. I think that’s part of the diversity as well. But I think you're right. It's all the word of God, and yet, with so many human authors and so many styles, it does feel different, and so there is something for everyone.

Well, you and I could go on talking for quite a while, but something tells me our listeners might like speed up the pace of the podcast or say, “Well, that was enough.” So I'm going to draw it to a close. Any last thoughts you have to encourage people to not be afraid of theology and not let it be divisive in unhealthy ways, but let it divide between truth and error. Any final culminating thoughts on that?

Yeah. Just that it's never too late to begin doing theology, and nobody has it all figured out. We're all disciples together. We need one another. Don't be afraid to talk. Just remember, as you talk about God and Jesus on your way to Emmaus, listen to the other person, be as charitable as possible, and remember that you are not the first person to read the Bible or to have the Spirit’s illumination. We need one another in community.

Oh, that’s a good place to bring it to a close. Thanks so very, very much. Thank you, Kevin Vanhoozer. May the Lord keep blessing you with your writing and your teaching. To our listeners, we hope this has been helpful. We hope that all the resources we’ll point you to in the show notes and at our website, cslewisinstitute.org, that all of this helps you grow as you pursue discipleship of the heart and mind. Thanks.

Brought to you by the C.S. Lewis Institute and the Questions That Matter Podcast with Randy Newman

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