Performing Christianity

From “Faith Speaking Understanding:
Performing the Drama of Doctrine”
by Kevin J. Vanhoozer, b. 1957

"Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to people of goodwill.”

Gloria in Excelsis Deo is an ancient hymn, based on Luke 2:14, whose Latin words were probably translated by Hilary of Poitiers. The hymn is thoroughly biblical, robustly Trinitarian and clearly Christocentric. It is at once fully doctrinal and fully doxological, without confusion, division or separation. This is the disciples’ theme song for performing the drama of doctrine. When disciples in their life together act out what is in Christ, they perform or express what we would call a “eucharistic realism”: a living thanks offering for the “eucatastrophe” (good outcome), “euangelion” (good news) and “eutopia” (place of ideal well-being, as a practical aspiration) in Christ. For it is only when disciples enact the new creational kingdom in Christ, praising without ceasing, that we begin to catch a glimpse, by way of eschatological anticipation, of the way things are (and will be) in Christ. When disciples display faith and hope by the way they endure and rejoice in their sufferings, they become “an apocalypse of Jesus Christ, an intrusion of the messianic era into the time of the world.” Their worship is their witness and vice versa.

Doctrine and doxology are equally dangerous. To make disciples is to awaken sleeping images of God and let them loose on the world. Enacting and celebrating what is in Christ has ego-shattering and world-shattering power. To live out doctrine in grateful response to God’s grace and the praise of his glory (Eph.1:12, 14) is to subvert the social logics and cultural conventions of this world. For disciples must do more than simply talk about God’s perfections to glorify God; they must also participate in, embody and enact them. We glorify God when we show the world the goodness of his attributes. Imitation is the sincerest form of glorification, which is why the Lord requires us to “do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with him" (Mic. 6:8). Our performances invariably fall short. Even at our best, we image God only dimly, through the veil of our flesh. God nevertheless remains faithful.

Whenever disciples gather in groups of two or three (Matt. 18:20), they should present their bodies and their activities as exhibits of the gospel, the new reality under the lordship of Christ Jesus. This is their spiritual worship, performance of doctrine and glorification of God. Rightly to perform the drama of redemption is the disciples’ chief mandate, the index of their wisdom, witness and worship alike. Doctrine is a vital aid to right performance. The drama of doctrine thus refers both to the process by which disciples acquire understanding of the theodrama and to the requirement to demonstrate that understanding daily by, for example, speaking truth, making peace, doing justice and loving mercy.

Doctrine directs the company of faith to speak and show what is in Christ. The Church keeps company with Christ in heaven, not least as his theatrical exhibit on earth. The best defence of the Faith is its compelling (lived) demonstration: the action by which disciples exhibit the reality of God and the gospel, theos and theodrama. Everything I have said here about the importance of doctrine for discipleship pertains not only to theology and doxology but also to apologetics. To demonstrate the theodrama is to show its truth, goodness and beauty; the truth, goodness and beauty that is in Christ. Everything that the Church has, is and does is in for, and through Christ. To exhibit Christ is the Church‘s raison d’être and what we might call its “martyring orders,” which is to say, its commission to witness to what is in Christ by embodying his mind and, if necessary, suffering in the body:

“My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples" (John 15:8)

When the company of faith follows doctrinal directions, it lives up to its name and becomes a society of Jesus: an earthly body in which God’s light and love circulate in truth-speaking, right-doing and life-giving ways. The Church is a performance aimed not at earning but at exhibiting the righteousness of God, the life eternal and the hope of the world. To perform the drama of doctrine is to do and become a constant display of faith and faithfulness, grace and gratitude, mercy and love. This glorious show must go on.

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