A Review of “First Theology” by Kevin Vanhoozer

first theology“Should theology begin with God or with the Word of God” (15)? The reality, says Kevin Vanhoozer, is that you can’t separate the two. Attempts to divide theology and Scripture have led to reductionist theological developments, but fusing them together “allows the theological matter to influence the theological method” (16). This highly creative approach to theological methodology is a welcome contribution to the bridging the unnatural divide between the disciplines of exegesis and systematics.

The book, as the subtitle explains, is broken down into three parts: God, Scripture, and Hermeneutics. The book begins with an introduction where Vanhoozer establish his terms more clearly. “First theology” refers to the approach to theology that views the “questions of God, Scripture, and hermeneutics as one problem.” It is “a plea for being hermeneutical about theology, and for being theological about hermeneutics” (9). So do we begin with God or with the Word of God in doing our theological work? Neither, according to Vanhoozer. You begin with hermeneutics as the locus for understanding God and Scripture together. Theology, then, is simply “God-centered biblical interpretation” (10).

In bridging the divide between exegesis and theology, Vanhoozer is also helping to bridge the gap between the academy and the church. He has no interest in prolegomena, like so many other theologians of generations past. This, it seems, is a particularly criticism Gregory Thornbury has with Vanhoozer. He seeks to do theology beyond prolegomena (16). His interest lies, rather, in the area of “performance knowledge,” or applied wisdom. Theology is about right living, which begins by learning to see reality the way Scripture does. I confess to have trouble tracking with Vanhoozer on this point. It’s not clear how he accomplishes a theology “beyond prolegomena,” for it seems to me that “first theology” involves a whole lot of prefatory remarks on methodology. The trends of deconstructionism and postmodernity, which Vanhoozer takes aim at in this work, are regrettable. They have led to a great deal of abstract thought without any actual usefulness. Yet, I am not as prepared as he is to abandon prolegomena.

The key to Vanhoozer’s “first theology” is the conception of God as a communicative agent, and Scripture as His communicative action. He writes:

The virtue of this construal, as far as first theology is concerned, lies in its implicit thesis that one can neither discuss God apart from Scripture nor do justice to Scripture in abstraction from its relation to God. For if the Bible is a species of divine communicative action, it follows that in using Scripture we are not dealing merely with information about God; we are rather engaging with God himself – with God in communicative action. The notion of divine communicative action forms an indissoluble bond between God and Scripture. (35)

This idea becomes more thoroughly developed throughout the following twelve essays which comprise the rest of the book. Thinking along a hermeneutical theology allows us to understand God, the Trinitarian God of Scripture in particular, and the nature of Scripture. Through this lens Vanhoozer discuss a vast array of interrelated ideas, including pluralism, pneumatology, language, effectual calling and more. Vanhoozer develops affirms thoroughly orthodox Evangelical positions in the book, but he recasts them in fresh light by interacting with the contemporary issues, criticisms, and ideas of the day. This is an incredibly creative work.

There’s much to love about the work. It’s fresh and insightful, and Vanhoozer has a very engaging style of prose. It is, however, a challenging read. Those of us less versed in the history of philosophy will find many parts difficult to grasp. The lack of uniformity across the book also often makes it feel choppy and disjointed. The author attempts to create some uniformity through his preface, but the work still feels like a collection of previously individually published essays. That doesn’t totally disrupt the value of the book, but it makes it difficult to track with from chapter to chapter. I also found that many of Vanhoozer’s ideas can be located in the works of John Frame. They are far more accessible in Frame, which is not to say that one should skip over Vanhoozer and just go to Frame. Vanhoozer gives more depth than Frame does, but readers who struggle to understand and track with him will find an accessible guide in Frame’s works.

First Theology exemplifies some of the best work in contemporary creative theological work. It is decidedly orthodox, yet it is not afraid to interact with some of the most pressing ideas of the contemporary theological landscape. He uses some of the very tools of postmodernism and deconstructionism to deconstruct and critique these new schools of thought. His discussion of pluralism was particularly instructive and engaging in that regard. In particular he offers some great help in bridging the gap between exegesis and systematics. There’s much here to chew on and to wrestle with. Frame’s perspectival model has helped me to think through a number of the issues developed in Vanhoozer’s work. Though the book is highly academic, Vanhoozer’s methodology will definitely shape the future of theological conversations. I highly recommend the book to more advanced theology students, it will take me some more time, however, to think through all the dynamics of what he is recommending. There have been some criticisms of Vanhoozer’s use of speech-act-theory, and I want to attempt to listen to and understand those concerns better. But whatever I ultimately decide about the work, it is highly creative and thought-provoking, and for that reason worthy of the time of any serious theology student.

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