Book Review of Vanhoozer’s “Hearers and Doers”

Kevin Vanhoozer, Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, wrote Hearers and Doers partly to fulfill his desire to write one book for the church for every book he wrote for the academy (though he confessed that he’s not that consistent in achieving that goal). But the main reason he wrote this book is to address a glaring problem he observed in how many pastors address discipleship in the local church. There is a common prejudice against theology and doctrine as seemingly impractical, in contrast to discipleship which is very practical. This for him is due to a “low level of literacy in many churches.” Theology cannot be but practical for it trains disciples not just what to believe (sound doctrines of Scripture) but also how to live the good life. The impression that theology is just a university department must be replaced by remembering that before this became the current trend, “theology was done in, for, and by the church.”

In line with that, as an academician himself, he wants to offer his most recent work to serve the church, specifically pastors. His overall aim is “to help pastors view the church as a ‘fitness culture’ and discipleship as the process of rendering believers fit for purpose.” Discipleship is not just about forming habits. Sure, an emphasis on doctrine seems like pastors should add informing minds as a discipleship goal. But for Vanhoozer, discipleship also involves transforming imaginations. How does a pastor do it? His thesis (and hence the title of the book) answers that question: “Pastors make disciples by training them to be fit for the purpose of godliness by means of a regular diet of Scripture and doctrine” (chap. 3). 

He humbly acknowledges that his book is not the book on discipleship because there are other good books dealing with this. But this book offers something unique to contribute to that discussion. It is about redeeming imagination, from the social imaginary of contemporary culture to a gospel-captivated imaginary. It is also about reading Scripture theologically as a necessary core exercise for spiritual fitness. Though he will use several metaphors for discipleship and the work of the pastor in this book, the overarching image he uses is that of spiritual fitness, with an emphasis on the ironic juxtaposition of Western culture’s obsession with physical fitness with the church’s more tragic neglect of spiritual fitness. He offers help how to redeem that, but before dealing with some practical matters on how to do that (in Part 2, chapters 5-8), he spent the first half of the book (Part 1, chapters 1-4) in discussing why discipleship matters.

Summary of Content

Part 1

In answering the why of discipleship (Part 1, chaps 1-4), he lays out some problems and possibilities for discipleship today. This first part is his attempt to cast his vision of discipleship, which he hopes pastors will embrace as well. 

In Chapter 1, he argues that everyone is a disciple of someone or something. That something can be any image or story that holds our imagination captive. For this reason, theology is important for the purpose of freeing the church from a multitude of cultural idols. One’s social imaginary must be in alignment with the Scripture and shaped by the gospel message at its heart. The gospel is of first importance because this is what brings the church into existence, and now forming and ruling her. He defined theology as “critical reflection on the stories by which the church lives and which it lives out.” In light of this gospel, this new reality inaugurated in Jesus, God is calling the church to live in accordance with this reality. That is discipleship. 

Chapter 2 is an analysis of the social imaginary of contemporary culture (at least in the West) and how the gospel confronts and transforms that. The society’s infatuation with wellness, nutrition and fitness, though dominating the culture, can actually be a powerful disciple-making force. Meaning, we need to exegete the culture and expose the lies of the abundance of fake news or counterfeit gospels in the light of the good news of the only one gospel. “To make disciples we have to wake disciples.” We have to alert them to the false gospel of the wellness movement, which is offering self-help salvation, toward living in accordance with the gospel, “the proper context for determining whether we are doing well as mortal beings.” Although proper diet and staying healthy through bodily exercises are noble goals, we must keep in mind that a diet of false doctrine is even more dangerous than health concerns. To what end do we really want to be healthy and fit? Answering this question makes this social imaginary not just body forming, but also mind and heart-forming. For its utmost concern is the meaning and purpose of life. 

Becoming fit for what purpose? This is the question he tries to answer in Chapter 3. Here he offers some first steps in making disciples fit for purpose. He pictures the church as a “gym for training in godliness.” This is biblically informed imagination, setting our imagination free from the cultural idols of wellness, diet and nutrition. Vanhoozer gives proof that this is biblically informed by citing examples from the teachings of Jesus, Paul, and James. In order to be fit for purpose, we must not just be hearers of the word but doers of the word, hence the title of the book. But he is careful enough to clarify that it is not just about doing for doing’s sake, or by human effort, but by the power of gospel. In this sense we also become doers of the gospel (though it is mainly about Jesus’ finished work on the cross) by proclaiming the gospel and living in light of the gospel. In this sense, discipleship is following Jesus, the person of Jesus, not philosophy, not moral code, not justice, not even orthodoxy. It is also not about merely living the good life now, not merely ethical but eschatological, that is, bringing the future kingdom to bear on our present life. This kind of living will require imagination, which he defines not as believing something that is unreal, but “the ability to grasp patterns and relate parts to the whole that gives them meaning.” This is the true evangelical imaginary, “a way of thinking about reality generated and governed by the gospel.”

If Chapter 3 clarifies the purpose of discipleship, Chapter 4 defines what it means for disciples to be fit for that purpose. They are fit “when they are able to act as heralds and representatives of the kingdom of God.” Speaking on behalf of the kingdom is important, but it is not about fighting for its coming, but witnessing to its arrival. Preaching the gospel requires teaching doctrine. Here he presents Scripture and doctrine as primary means to train disciples to be spiritually fit, by cultivating Christian literacy. Again, it is not for head knowledge but “in order to become a competent citizen of the gospel.” In order to achieve that, disciples must be trained in reading Scripture rightly, “seeing oneself as a participant in a God-given drama of redemption.” Reading the Bible theologically is imperative. With conviction and without exaggeration, he wrote that theological reading of the Bible is “our best hope for breaking free of the pictures that hold us captive.” 

Part 2

How a pastor does that in training disciples in the church is the burden of Part 2, Chapters 5-8. Here in the second half of the book, he offers tools and suggestions to realize the vision he presented in Part 1.

He suggested in Chapter 5 that we must recover the essence of sola Scriptura and this formal principle of the Protestant Reformation should rule the church’s social imaginary. With this goal (social imaginary as “the eyes of the heart”) in mind, “pastors ought to be eye doctors who correct the astigmatisms and myopias of the local church.” Our goal is conformity to the written and living Word. In this sense, the church is always reforming as a creature of the word. We do it in sermons, sacraments, and saintly living. Though prone to misunderstanding, he audaciously declared that “the church is part of the content of the gospel itself.” In trying to elevate the importance of ecclesiology, he is also trying to deal with the common problem of disconnect between what we confess and what we practice. The solution is not to believe harder, but address the root: the captive imagination. So, pastors make disciples by recovering sola Scriptura as the only ruling authority of Christian social imagination. We need to train disciples how to use the corrective lens of Scripture to bear on how we see everything in life, including pastoral ministry. 

In order to read Scripture well, we need to do it together. Chapter 6 addresses the individualism that easily marks our practice of reading and interpreting Scripture. Here he reminds pastors to see the church as a theater company. We follow the script of the drama of Scripture, offer it to our people, and invite them to play their particular role as a participant and not merely as passive observers in that redemptive drama. Our rhythms of church life and corporate gathering are crucial training grounds for disciples. The true end of theology is “an orthodox community of disciples who embody the mind of Jesus Christ everywhere, to everyone, at all times.” Pastors are not just eye doctors but theater directors as well. We must give our people a biblical vision of the church and remind them of the importance of liturgical practices, like baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as theatrical displays of the gospel. 

Chapter 7 argues that although we uphold the supreme authority of the Scripture in making disciples, the Scripture is not to be solitary in making disciples. He makes a seemingly counterintuitive argument that “the best way to remain Protestant, and to uphold the supreme authority of Scripture is to make catholic disciples—men and women who become part of the whole (universal) church, and are thus attuned to the remarkable consensus reflected in the Great Tradition, something the Protestant Reformers cared about and maintained.” What is at stake here? We must be careful not to make disciples who are rugged individualists reading Scriptures by themselves, but teach them to read it in view of the communion of saints. Both canonicity and catholicity must be held together. He issues an invitation “to listen for the Spirit speaking in the history of the church’s interpretation of Scripture.” He likens tradition to a moon reflecting the light emanating from the Scripture’s sun.

If chapters 5-7 focus on ways of reading Scripture, Chapter 8 is an attempt to keep that focus on the end goal of discipleship: Christlikeness. Following Christ means not merely admiring or imitating his example, but becoming like him. To be fitting images (not mirror images) of Christ means embodying “the mind of Christ everywhere, always, and to everyone.” For that to happen, for disciples to learn Christ, he reiterates his points in previous chapters that this goal requires biblical literacy, canonical competence, and interpretive excellence. True Christian wisdom means learning how to follow Christ in all situations. For a disciple to put on Christ, he or she must learn the core exercises of seeing Christ as the point of all of Scripture, learn what it means to suffer with Christ, and to die well. 

In the book’s Conclusion, Vanhoozer summarizes the points he made throughout the book on the meaning of Scripture, gospel, discipleship, theology, Christian doctrine, and pastoral ministry. He closes the book with a pastoral exhortation to renounce the vision of a self-made man and embrace the biblical vision of following Jesus, not alone but as part of the church as a theater of glory, doing everything God’s way and for God’s glory. 

Evaluation and Recommendation

Readers who are familiar with Vanhoozer’s works will appreciate his consistency and fascination with the use of images and metaphors in driving home his theological points. The church as theater, the Scripture as script, the pastor as director, the members as actors; or the church as fitness gym, the pastor as trainer, just to name a few. These images capture our imagination, while also drawing from the transforming power of cultural images and using that to align one’s imagination with biblical teaching. These word-pictures arrest our attention, awakening us to greater realities. But there are portions of the book that he got so caught up in his fascination with images that he mixes (though deliberately) the use of metaphors, or sometimes quickly changing from one image to another, so the reader has to make an extra effort to follow along to make sure one doesn’t get drowned in a sea of images.

Like an effective disciple-making pastor, Vanhoozer employs a lot of repetitions in his book. Although this makes the book longer, as he has a tendency to use a lot of words that can be stated rather more concisely, it helps the reader understand his main arguments. 

As a pastor concerned with being faithful in making disciples and training members to make disciples, I appreciate Vanhoozer’s good-hearted efforts in this book to serve as an eye-doctor himself to us pastors. In attempting to offer a prescriptive cure to the prevalent myopic vision of discipleship today, pastors who will read this book will find themselves more confident in the supreme authority of the Scripture, more convinced in the importance of gospel doctrine for discipleship, more motivated to fulfill their glorious gospel calling, and more appreciative of the roles and contributions of the whole Body of Christ (the local church and the universal church) in forming disciples of Jesus. Indeed, we need the whole church for a more holistic discipleship. In a plethora of discipleship fitness regimen available, pastors must be resolute in helping their people see Christ in all of Scripture for all of life in communion with all the saints of all ages.

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