Complete Devotion of Heart, Body, and Mind: Life, Liturgy, and Doctrine


Editor’s note: This is the second of two articles that originated as a sectional presentation at the 2019 Theological Symposium, “Devoted: (Re)forming the Devotional Life.” We publish them here in conjunction with the articles published in the Summer 2020 issue of the Concordia Journal. Adam Clark earned his Ph.D. in Christian Ethics at the University of Notre Dame with a dissertation on Christ and creation in the moral and political thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He currently serves as associate pastor of outreach and teaching at St. Peter Lutheran Church, Mishawaka, IN, and as director of Michiana Lifetree Conversation Cafe.

In a previous paper, I sought a fundamental scriptural definition of devotion and began to articulate how that devotion is formed in us.[1] There we saw that at its root, devotion is an undivided, all-encompassing orientation and dedication to God that is original to us as creatures, lost through sin, but now regained in Christ. This devotion is most fundamentally given by God through a “sacramental-liturgical drama” that unifies our lives by speaking his word for us in diverse ways. Among the points emphasized in that essay was this conviction: since devotion is the inclusion of the whole of our life in our undivided orientation and dedication to God, we need to think intentionally about how this inclusion of the whole comes about. Noting that actual human life is concretely historical and social, the previous essay then sought to understand how specific kinds of preaching and teaching, formal worship including the historic liturgy, and concrete reflection on practices of devotion in each vocation and community can embody and cultivate devotion precisely in the specifics of our concrete histories. This essay approaches the issue of “encompassing the whole” from another angle: since a human being is heart, body, and mind, how are each of these aspects drawn into devotion by the same word-driven, sacramental-liturgical drama?

In addition to addressing devotion, this inquiry also considers oft-contested questions on the relation of mind to heart and body, propositional statements to imagination, doctrine to life and liturgy (lex credendi and lex orandi). It thus also takes up questions often considered under the rubric of “theory and practice,” although by the end of our inquiry, we will be able to see how this particular way of formulating the distinction is problematic. This inquiry begins with a consideration of key points in the recently completed Cultural Liturgies trilogy by Reformed theologian Jamie Smith.[2] Significantly, many of Smith’s starting points align closely with those advanced in the earlier essay on devotion: he too sees human beings as oriented toward a telos, an end or goal at once taken to be a concrete historical destination, what is truly good, and the true perfection of human creatures according to the God-given nature. Likewise, Smith believes that the formation of the creature occurs as a specific “habit” (form) is received from God that is both an internal “virtue” and an external form “in the world.” He too believes that this form is at once both “liturgical” (in the broad sense of forming us in worship) and “cultural” (in the sense of establishing a communal set of values and practices), and that it comes about in significant part through the narratives of Scripture and the practices of the church; indeed, he presses his Reformed and evangelical brethren to see the value of the historic liturgy precisely in this regard.[3] Yet Smith is convinced that philosophers and theologians often have placed too much emphasis on intellectual conceptualization, doctrinal “propositions” (understood as simple statements of truth abstracted from a narrative and/or practical aims), and reflective decision as the key sites where our alignment to the good through these narratives and practices occurs. In contrast, he argues, we should be attending to the imagination, the heart, and the body as the sites that play the much more decisive role.[4]

Much of what Smith has to say about imagination, heart, and body per se is instructive for theology and pastoral practice. Thus, the first part of this paper will outline Smith’s key claims and suggest a few specific ways we might apply what is helpful to our own thinking and practice as it seeks to foster Christian life and devotion. Given our Lutheran penchant for the intellectual and propositional, it is perhaps especially important for us to consider his insights on this score. Nevertheless, I do think Smith makes two critical mistakes along the way. First, I think that Smith loses some of the centrality of God’s gracious action in its own right as the grounding source of our life and sanctified formation, though I do not think this is intentional. Second, I think Smith vastly underestimates the role of intellect and propositions—and thus doctrine—in forming not just devotion but the whole of Christian life.

After dealing briefly with the first problem, in the second part of the paper I look at the second problem in greater detail. After identifying what I take to be Smith’s critical mistakes in assessing the role of propositions and intellectual reflection, I turn to another eminent Reformed evangelical, Kevin Vanhoozer, who shares Smith’s concerns but offers a better way forward. The great strength of Vanhoozer’s approach is that, rather than creating a gulf between intellect and affect, propositional and other knowledge, doctrine and our “lived body,” he offers a paradigmatic recognition and exploration of the ways these aspects are already bound together in the scriptural narrative and the life it gives us to lead. Appropriating Vanhoozer thus not only allows us to make progress on the questions above, it allows us to show precisely how doctrine occupies an integral and fully integrated place in the overall sacramental-liturgical drama that cultivates devotion.[5] By engaging both Smith and Vanhoozer from a distinctively Lutheran perspective, I hope to contribute to ecumenical dialogue while learning something important from these partners regarding our already shared commitments.

Devoted Bodies, Hearts, and Imaginations: Addressing to the Whole Person

As indicated in his Cultural Liturgies, Smith believes that many Christian theologians have come to be too focused on intellectual knowledge of certain key “propositions,” that is statements that “propose” a certain representation of reality as true. This has occurred, he argues, because we too often understand human beings in general to define themselves and shape their actions through such intellectual knowledge. We “conceive” ourselves and our world in a certain way, we make decisions based on these conceptions, and then we enact those decisions. In this framework, conversion and faith become primarily an intellectual matter of getting the true “worldview” in our heads, while further formation toward right living and action is thought to occur through growth in propositional knowledge and the ability to “apply” it to our lives. Accordingly, we present the gospel largely as a series of propositions about the reality of God and the reality of human beings and their world, as well as how we should apply and act on this knowledge.

However, Smith argues, this picture of what motivates human belief and action is fundamentally incorrect. Human beings are moved to believe and act, he agrees, by a kind of knowledge, but it is “not propositional knowledge but rather an aesthetic know-how . . . I imagine a telos or vision of the good life on an aesthetic, metaphorical, poetic register.”[6] Moreover, he claims, the aesthetic moves us in this way specifically because it presents the telos in a way that draws the heart; truly desiring the telos, we readily move toward it.[7] It is through aesthetic know-how, then, that we must come to be aligned with God’s purposes and pursue them; it is this know-how that is key to the virtues cultivated in part through our own action—which then would include the virtue of devotion, as well as the love, obedience, worship, and so on identified as its correlates in the previous paper. Accordingly, Smith claims, the focus of our witness should be more on the imagination than the intellect, more on the aesthetic than the propositional. This suggests that to enhance devotion, as well as Christian life as a whole, it is critical to amplify the aesthetic and affective dimensions of our various practices.

Furthermore, Smith argues, we must also pay attention to the central role played by the body in this same “know-how.” Smith here resists understanding the body primarily as a set of internal drives—as in the Aristotelian anthropology that traditionally underlies much Christian virtue theory. Rather, with the continental philosopher Merleau-Ponty, Smith argues for what is called the “lived body” approach, the view that our body is always already taken up and defined by a concrete lived environment.[8] Merleau-Ponty is particularly strong on the physical dimensions of this environment: prior to any intellectual understanding, he argues, the body already “senses” its positioning in space among an array of objects, some of which it also uses toward a certain telos with a knowledge that is more than instinct or reflex but still not reflective conceptualization and decision. Smith cites Merleau-Ponty’s example of a cup: even a little child acquires the know-how that a cup can be lifted and employed for various purposes without understanding concepts like cup and handle, and without “deliberating” about how exactly the cup can achieve some reflectively “chosen” end. Instead, the child grabs the cup and scoops up or pours the object of desire.[9] The point, then, is that the body is never merely what it is “in itself”; rather, it is what is in and as this interface with the world, and that this interface becomes a kind of knowledge and action that prior to and deeper than propositional knowledge and intentional choices and action based in that knowledge. Moreover, Smith and Merleau-Ponty note, the repeated interaction of human beings with realities “ready-to-hand” in their environment, like the cup, in turn becomes a stable way of directing oneself toward the world, that is, a habitus.[10]

Smith also takes this latter point still further. For it is not only, he says, the physical but also the social environment that has this kind of “pre-theoretical” and even unconscious effect. Here he turns to the leading French sociologist of the past century, Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu also uses the term habitus to speak of a “lived body” that is at once internal to the individual and external in public communities, practices, and institutions. Pivotally, however, Bourdieu also shows that this “social world” (communities, practices, and institutions) like the physical world, is also already ordering us toward a telos prior to our conscious conceptualization, often in ways that can seem small and insignificant. We see this, for instance, in the cultivation of “manners” in children: “While a child is learning to sit straight or hold her knife, she is unconsciously absorbing a social imaginary, a picture of social order, a vision of the good life—even if her ‘teachers’ might not realize they are passing it on.”[11] We see it also, Smith notes, in the organization of bodies through space and clothing: as reflected in Downton Abbey, for instance, as late as the early twentieth century, British society formed members in an aristocratic social order through the division of large manors into “upstairs” and “downstairs” life, and through a corresponding differentiation of clothing (as well as many other practices).[12] All such lived practices, in short, discipline and shape the “arrow” of our being toward a particular form of community, values, and practices—whether we realize it or not. So too, Smith concludes, the “liturgical” practices of both church and world already shape our perception and practice of what counts as good long “before” we ponder it reflectively. Therefore, we should pay careful attention to the social and embodied practices of the church—the lex orandi, so to speak—as the pivotal sites of formation.

As indicated above, I think Smith ultimately misses the decisive role that propositions and reflection play in human life generally and in Christian life and doctrine specifically. Exploring this point and its pivotal significance in adequate detail will take some space, and so we will return to that exploration in the next section. Nevertheless, I think he makes a sound case that the aesthetic moves the heart in a way at least not reducible to propositional knowledge working on the intellect. I also think he makes a sound case that our social groups and environment shape our “lived bodies” in unconscious and primordial ways, even from an early age. The examples he gives for both theses are solid, and I imagine they resonate with wider experiences of the power of the heart’s longing, and of our inherited “training.” Therefore, we would do well to linger for a moment over how to foster knowledge of God in and through these particular aspects of our being. Indeed, given that devotion means the encompassing of the whole person in an undivided orientation to God, it is critical that we consider how to take up these key elements of creaturely being into that devotion—all the more since we Lutherans can be focused on intellectual knowledge.

Significantly, Smith argues that perhaps the most important site of “aesthetic” and bodily formation is a solid liturgical practice that embodies the core of the salvation narrative week after week. Therefore, perhaps the first “practical upshot” for our purposes is simply that we should not underestimate the value of steady liturgical practice, as well as the vestments, architecture, and other “symbols” that help us embody the gospel on every level of the “lived body,” conscious and unconscious. This is especially important as we think about the Christian formation of our children, who begin to imbibe a world through “know-how” long before they become proficient as reflective reasoners.

At the same time, we can ponder how to “amplify” the aesthetic in our weekly liturgy. Each congregation and pastor can ask: does our Sunday liturgy dramatically illustrate and perform the salvation narrative as fully as possible? What additional language, images, or other practices could we use to “heighten” the aesthetic and affective dimensions of our liturgy? In my last visits to Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, I have been impressed (and moved) by the way its preachers and presiders have included poetry and art in the sermons and liturgy of the chapel. For instance, during the 2018 Theological Symposium on the theology of the cross, the meaning of the cross was impressed upon us through centering the Agnus Dei in the liturgy, and correlated in preaching and the worship folder with various paintings and poems, such as Zurbaran’s stark rendering. Similarly, in my own parish, a liturgical dance choir offers theologically driven embodiments of key Bible passages and elements of the liturgy, especially on feast days. The use of art, dance, and song, are ways to enhance the aesthetic and affective.

So too, Smith counsels us to make good use of narrative in our preaching and catechesis. For instance, he says, we should be careful not just to use narrative in our preaching but also not to reduce the richness of the narratives of Scripture and life to simple propositions, principles, or “morals of the story.” Another helpful example comes from the church I grew up in, St. Stephen’s Lutheran in Hickory, NC. There, when the pastors talked to the confirmands about the last day and the resurrection of the body, they often held that discussion in the graveyard beside the church (and often right at dusk!). Here there is something visual, as well as something kinesthetic—something to touch, breathe in, and move among—that better makes the narrative present to the whole of the person, wholly devoting us to the ultimate, eschatological end and good of all things promised by God.

I also have begun to ponder how we might further shift our confirmation and new member classes beyond simply absorbing doctrinal propositions toward sustained “bodily” faith and devotion especially as life in Christ extends from Sunday into the rest of the week. The key here would be directly inviting people in to opportunities to participate in and experience the gospel in the whole of its dramatic character: places of service around the city where we may participate in God’s providential love, like homeless shelters, prisons and halfway houses, addiction recovery, local parochial and public schools, and the host of local and wider organizations that “seek the good of the City” (Jer 29:11); also, places where the directly “salvific” side of the drama is performed in concrete personal ways—worship, obviously, but also tight-knit small groups, youth groups focused on maturing in faith and service, Stephen Ministry and other formal organizations that promote intentional relationship, and even personal invitations to a friend or fellow church member to your home or a coffee house, where two may mutually encourage one another in the faith. No doubt many of us already seek to participate in and promote such practices generally. My point here is that in confirmation and new member classes, we should perhaps be more intentional about not only inviting our confirmands and new members into these practices but also in presenting the transition into such “active participation” as just as much a part of full adult membership and faith as increasing our doctrinal knowledge.

Initiating a first contact and/or first visit to any group often presents a special hurdle in terms of personal and social anxiety, and perhaps logistics. Thus, the emphasis on these “lived” elements in the drama of faith and devotion is perhaps best performed by way of an invitation to join us (pastors, or other experienced members) as we ourselves enter in to such opportunities. Perhaps the most basic such invitation would be pastors inviting new members or confirmands to join them in a routine pastoral practice such as: a homebound visit, a worship planning session, sermon prep, leading a youth event or Bible study. In these invitations to “come with,” we make it easier for our confirmands and new members to clear that first hurdle to a fuller, more holistic immersion in the salvation-historical drama by which faith and devotion are simultaneously embodied and learned more deeply.

As we think of further ways to extend this focus on the aesthetic and bodily in our own congregational context we must return to our twin objections. One of these can be dealt with briefly here. That is, as helpful as it is overall, Smith’s paradigm also falls prey to the same problem Gifford Grobien identifies with respect to Hauerwas, whom Smith follows in the focus on narrative and practices. In this approach, it is easy to so emphasize narrative, practices, and culture—or our efforts to enhance them—that these things seem to take on the primary power of formation, or that they carry that power simply in and of themselves. However, Grobien writes, we must remember that “[while] God forms Christians in the language and ritual of worship . . . Christian formation is not merely linguistic or cultural. God’s speech is divine power,” given further power by the indwelling of both Christ and Spirit, who open the believer to receive the word.[13]

Smith no doubt would affirm this point if asked, yet it hardly appears in his text. But that itself is problematic, for the more God’s supervening agency disappears from view, the more it becomes tempting to view the practices of the church less as means of grace in which we participate and more as mechanisms for manufacturing faith, devotion, and virtue, mechanisms whose power rests in the skill with which we construct them. There is a secondary casualty: the more emphasis shifts to our agency, the more the burden of salvation itself comes to be placed on us. Against these dangers, then, it is vital to directly affirm and fix our eyes on God as the author and perfecter of our faith and devotion—above, before, behind, beyond, and then also within the ways we find to bring out and amplify the aesthetic and bodily dimensions God has already placed in his salvation drama.

My other objection is that Smith has vastly underestimated the importance of reflection and propositional knowledge in the formation of faith and devotion. In the next section, we investigate this objection in detail, on the way to suggesting how we might reclaim these elements, in dialogue with Kevin Vanhoozer.

Reclaiming the Importance of Conscious Reflection, Intellectual Propositions, and Doctrine

Let us consider each aspect of this problem starting with Smith’s claim that human life is guided more by habitual know-how than conscious conceptual reflection. The basic objection to this point is simply: do we not all see reflection consciously at work in the way we shape our lives? Sometimes we human beings do simply “act” out of our initial, immediate perceptions. But often, we do not: rather, we take time to reflectively deliberate on the proper course of action, basing our decision on what we (think we) discern to be our true life, reality, and good in, both in general and for that particular situation. We also engage various reflective “guides” in these efforts—the words of trusted texts and trusted friends, as well as other resources. Is the very thought that our reflective deliberation and decision plays a decisive role in our life and action simply an illusion?

Does not Smith’s own writing of just such a resource for reflective formation of life and practice—a theoretical argument—show that he himself ultimately believes in the power of reflection, trapping him in a kind of performative self-contradiction? Ironically, Smith notes this possible objection in the preface to his second volume; yet his response is to suggest that his use of reflection to downplay reflection is simply the intellect establishing its own “relative inferiority” to the “instinct” created by habituation in a lived body of practices.[14] This claim in turn contains a more specific, if tacit, formulation of Smith’s position on reflection: whatever we think in cool moments of reflective reasoning, it is finally the lex orandi of habitually-repeated practice that will win out in concrete living.

There is something important in this claim. All of us no doubt have experienced the difficulty in breaking a habit. As pointed out in the earlier paper, habit does “stabilize” us in a specific view of what is true and good and thence, a particular way of being in the world. Therefore, our “habitual” way of life will be our default mode of engaging the world, and it also makes sense that it would take significant power to counteract and override this habit. Smith’s claims thus help us see with special clarity just how pivotal habitual know-how truly is, and thus how important the church’s lex orandi is: these likely will be the “formation” and knowledge out of which we routinely live, for better or worse.

Still, given his more specific formulation, it remains difficult to see why Smith writes the book he does. If the whole point is simply to use the intellect to establish its own inferiority with respect to instinct, why go into all the reflective, theoretical detail about what cultures inside and outside the church are doing and how they shape life and practice? Instead, it would seem that you would make the argument about the intellect’s inferiority and then go immediately back to performing the liturgy as is. Indeed, on this account, it is hard to see why one would think any commentary on the liturgy or culture would have any power to shape or revise either liturgy or culture at all. And yet, Smith has written these and other books aimed at doing just that.

These last points about “shaping and revising” liturgy and culture raise another problem with Smith’s downplaying of reflection: we seem to need such reflection precisely in order to critically correct and reshape our “lived habitus.” We know how the established practice of any community, the church included, can stray from the truth. How then are we to correct false and misaligned practices except by reflecting on them and then using this reflection to change them? Importantly, Smith acknowledges in passing the need for such reflection and correction at points in his trilogy, yet he does not foreground it in his focus. Even more significantly, however, the greatest problem is that Smith’s paradigm ultimately gives us no reason to think that such critical correction through reflection can work.

This drives us to the central issue: is there sufficient evidence against Smith’s claims and for the capacity of conceptual reflection to substantially shape habitus, including in critical correction? Our opening claim already began to provide one such piece of evidence: we human beings regularly attempt to guide ourselves by reflective deliberation and understand ourselves to actually succeed in forming our action by that reflective deliberation. Moreover, we also offer such reflective reasons to others in attempts to persuade them to our views and recommended course of action. Such offers show that we also believe others act—or at least, can act—on this same reflective basis.

However, these beliefs are not in themselves definitive “proof”; we could always be mistaken in our comprehension of which factors, habitual or reflective, are actually shaping our action, especially since the depths of our conscious and unconscious “processes” cannot be directly accessed in real-time, that is “while they are happening.” This point also cuts against Smith: he cannot show that “habitual know-how” is really the decisive factor in real-time either. Given this apparently “balanced,” mutual lack of proof, it is hard to see why we should prefer Smith’s explanation to the self-report of so many others.

Of course, this still does not provide us with strong reasons for the power of reflection and deliberation. Fortunately, we have more to rely on than an attempt to examine the “internal” state of human agents. Instead, we can examine their external, objective history. For the sake of brevity and confidence in the source, I will give just one, personal example. Though confirmed in an LCMS church, throughout high school and my early college years I practiced my faith largely in (American) evangelical circles. In high school, I participated in an evangelical youth group while playing piano for a Baptist nursing home service on Sundays (that was my main “worship”). In college, I went to various evangelical churches with my intervarsity friends on Sundays. Over those years, American evangelicalism became my dominant “habitus.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, I also began to question whether my “infant baptism” was valid and efficacious, so much so that I started to plan for a “believer’s baptism” at the local Bible church in college. I was also wrestling with other questions, including whether Lutheranism was “outreach-oriented” enough, which I defined in evangelical terms as trying to “lead people to a decision for Christ.” No doubt my “habitus” played a role here, though I would also say (contra Smith) that my reading of evangelical authors, and the Bible through their lens, also contributed conceptually and reflectively to positions I came to take and actions I was planning.

The decisive event and evidence was what came next: at precisely this point, my mother intervened with the simple statement, “I don’t think you know what Lutherans actually believe.” This statement drove me to read the Confessions and Pieper and a short book on baptism by Robert Kolb, and to do serious conceptual work on the Greek text (with the help of my lapsed-Catholic-become-atheist classical Greek professor at UNC-Chapel Hill) to discern the nature of baptism and its place in the Christian life. Through those resources and reflection on them, I came to see how the basic soteriology of monergistic grace called into question the evangelical focus on personal decision, how that soteriology linked with the biblical descriptions of baptism as salvific (e.g., 1 Pt 3, Rom 6, Col 3), and also how the Scriptures made God-given faith a “family thing,” from God’s covenant with Abraham “and his descendants” (Gn 12ff) to Peter’s invitation to families in Acts 2 and his linking of baptism to God’s saving of Noah “and his family” (1 Pt 3). As a result, I gained confidence in my baptism as an infant and returned to worship at LCMS congregations. This was a powerful moment in my history, but for our present purposes, the critical point is this: in this moment, conceptual reflection and deliberation overrode my American evangelical “established habitus.” Furthermore, I was only “re-inserted” in the habitus of a Lutheran lex orandi after, and as a result of, that conceptual reflection, so it is quite clear that it could not have been Lutheran “habit” reasserting itself that made the difference.

This evidence thus affirms that there is indeed an efficacious reflection that has real power and effects over and above, and even against, engrained bodily and affective know-how. To this experiential evidence we can add another more decisive factor: at multiple points, Scripture itself calls on us to “consider,” “remember,” or otherwise consciously reflect on specific truths, and then choose and act wisely.[15] This evidence above all should make clear that the overriding power of reflection is something God both created and intends us to use.

The foregoing personal and scriptural evidence provides two pieces of evidence against the other half of Smith’s claims about the intellectual (i.e., his diminishment of the role of “propositional knowledge”) and thus also of doctrine, insofar as propositional content is taken to be in any way fundamental to it. For in my own story, it was precisely doctrinal, propositional content that made the decisive difference. If God calls upon us to “consider, remember, and reflect,” and if by Smith’s own admission such reflection is fundamentally linked to propositions, this very call already begins to intimate an important God-given role for propositional statements.

In the work of Kevin Vanhoozer, we encounter a theology that elaborates upon the concerns that rightly drive Smith while also pointing out why propositions are in fact essential.[16] Like Smith, Vanhoozer encourages us to think of the content of Christian faith as fundamentally narrative and dramatic in a way that appeals to the imagination, emotions, and body through preaching and liturgical practice. He too believes that propositions alone are not enough. And yet, rather than diminishing propositions or pitting them against the aesthetic, affective, and bodily, Vanhoozer specifies the problem as a one-sided emphasis on propositions, shows more clearly precisely why that is a problem, and then also shows how to integrate propositions with the aesthetic, affective, and bodily. More precisely he shows how to preserve the integration of these things already given by God in the biblical text and much extant ecclesial practice.

According to Vanhoozer, the emphasis on propositions becomes problematic precisely and only when it causes us to abstract biblical statements, “principles,” and concepts from an orientation to living out the faith (rather than just contemplating it or arguing about it), or from the narrative contexts of both the whole of Scripture and actual life. This is problematic, he says, because the narrative contexts are integral to the real meaning and truth of those statements, principles, and concepts, and because this narrative is always directed toward a real, “practical” life lived out in relationship to God and neighbor. (Using terms from our earlier inquiry, we could put the point like this: since God elected a concrete history for the world, that history is part of God’s given truth; strip it away and you no longer have the truth that God himself gives.) This problematic propositionalism, Vanhoozer argues, includes things like: “prooftexting” that restates a particular verse as an abstract “rule” apart from attention to context, the wider Scriptures, or the similarities and differences between the text’s original audience and its contemporary hearers; “homogenization” that ignores the genre of a text and its difference from other genres (e.g., poetry vs. history); offering the principle “love one another” shorn of the biblical narrative of the cross that gives love its true meaning (cf. Jn 15, Rom 8:5); reduction of the narrative of Scripture to simply a list of propositions; speaking of biblical truths in a way that abstracts them from an orientation to practical wisdom and action; and the attempt to turn the narrative of Scripture into a complete system of propositions—and so, an attempt to master “God” with our own knowledge.[17] These are dangers to which any theology that values propositions should attend.

Nevertheless, Vanhoozer argues, the problems with propositionalism do not erase the importance of propositions. He notes, it just is the case that all performance has “propositional content” mixed in with its practical, narrative, and affective components precisely because all speech inherently “proposes” some world and some good as real and true.[18] Vanhoozer underscores that since every biblical text “reveals” the reality of God, his creation, and its redemption, every biblical text also has propositional content even if doesn’t directly take the form of a proposition—and even though this content still can only be rightly understood in light of the whole of the scriptural narrative.[19] On the most basic level, then, the first problem with diminishing propositions is simply that we cannot actually get away from them—either in general, as human beings, or specifically, as Christians seeking to receive and live into God’s word.

However, Vanhoozer argues, there is more to it than this. First, he notes, Scripture itself often condenses core aspects of the biblical narrative into propositions that summarize both what God has done and what we are to do.[20] For instance, “the Lord has risen” (Lk 24:34) summarizes not just the victorious outcome of the life of Christ narrated in the Gospels but the fundamental “resolution” of the entire salvation-historical drama.[21] This proposition is directed first and foremost toward the “practical wisdom” of faith, and then to wisdom regarding how we live the rest of our lives.[22] Also, proclamation that the crucified Christ is the Wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:30) causes us to link Christ’s witness to the Father in accepting the cross and our own reception of forgiveness and love in the atonement with the call to witness through martyrdom, forgiveness, and the pursuit of reconciliation with others as commanded in various passages (e.g., Jn 13:34-5, Phil 1:29, 1 Pt 2:21) and modeled in other Christians (e.g., Stephen in Acts 7).[23]

Extending Vanhoozer’s points, we see two other important roles played by propositions in this last example: propositions are in fact what allow us to connect the different passages and genres of Scripture to one another, since they link common terms and also allow diverse content to be summarized and/or associated through those same terms (e.g., cross, martyrdom, Jesus Christ, Jesus’s early followers). They also allow us to connect the diverse passages of Scripture to the diversity of our lives today, that is by allowing us to compare the similarities and differences of our situation and call to those of the original recipients and “characters” of Scripture—through the same common terms and content associations (e.g., we live under neither Roman nor Jewish authorities, but what “pressures” in our own lives call forth a similar act of martyrdom and witness?).[24] This practical link includes our ability to summarize the “wise judgments of others” as propositions and integrate them with our own.[25]

All this brings Vanhoozer to a profound conclusion that we may adopt as our own: propositions belong inextricably to doctrine, and doctrine itself is a key part of the drama by which God’s salvation history takes up our history into itself. Put in our particular terms, doctrine and its propositions hold a pivotal place in the devotion of the mind, and thence, the whole person, to God. We also remember (with Vanhoozer) that the full meaning and proper dramatic function of these propositions is given and preserved only in and through their placement within the whole of the scriptural narrative and the whole web of imaginative, aesthetic, and practical elements through which Scripture itself renders them. Accordingly, we should take care to render them always within this whole, and holy, context.

What, finally, does this holistic integration of intellectual propositions and reflection with aesthetic and bodily content and experience look like in practice? As Vanhoozer points out, the integration of all these things is already given and embodied in Scripture and in the practices Scripture most directly commends as means of grace and discipleship (preaching and teaching the Scriptures, baptism, eucharist, confession and absolution, mutual conversation and consolation among brethren, living in devotion to him in each of our concrete vocations, etc.). Thus, holistic integration primarily means continuing these practices and working to preserve and extend this God-given integration within them.

In terms of preaching and teaching, this means joining both Smith and Vanhoozer in resisting the urge to reduce stories, both biblical and contemporary, to simple principles or “morals.” More subtly, it means that from the start, we design our sermons not with the goal that our hearers would simply learn some piece of propositional information but rather with the “practical” goal that they receive God and the specific aspect of his salvation history highlighted in our readings for the day in a way that will not only appeal to mind, heart, and body as our true good (as Gospel, good news), but also that they will be able to imagine and reason toward the concrete ways God seeks to influence their own lived history through the biblical one. I believe this can be done in a sermon that takes as one of its aims the clear and direct teaching of biblical, propositional doctrines. The key here is to present the doctrine precisely as Vanhoozer says: not only in its propositional side but also by fleshing out the scriptural context so that our hearers can see the affective, aesthetic, and bodily impact for the doctrine’s original hearers and developing how the doctrine might have a similar impact for us today. For instance, after introducing from Romans 6 the doctrinal proposition that baptism saves us by freeing us from sin, we might go on to talk about common sins in Rome and how they imprisoned the Romans such as the gluttony of Roman parties and the insatiable appetites it generated, or the violence induced by the conception of the power and divine stature of the emperor, which led Julia Agrippina to plot the murder of Emperor Claudius so that her son Nero might ascend the throne. What joy and freedom (note, affectively felt goods) might the Romans have felt upon knowing that in baptism, their truest need (i.e., for God) was satiated and their lives released from captivity to cycles of violence perpetuated by over-investment in the goods of the world as ultimate? So too, what joy and freedom are ours as baptism frees us from insatiable materialism and the cycles of political violence now fought out on social media and in the court of public opinion? Raising this “good news,” one might then go on to explore what it would look and feel like to embody that freedom as we face the challenges in the week ahead.

One need not always drive the sermon (or Bible study) by presentations of doctrine. To the contrary, one can start with narrative and move between the affective and aesthetic elements of the narrative and the propositional contents they display. It is not necessary always to distill the propositional even in this way; sometimes, it no doubt is better to let the imaginative, aesthetic, and affective elements come to the fore. I think of the mantra I often heard from Jim Voelz and others at seminary, “brothers, do the text.” For instance, again using Romans 6, one could simply proclaim the concrete ways in which baptism now frees them from the guilt and power of sin we commonly face in our particular contemporary context. Because God has already embedded the propositional and doctrinal with the aesthetic and bodily in the history of his people, the text of Scripture brings to bear on our lives through the preacher or teacher, if we faithfully “do” to our hearers what the text did for its original recipients; the propositional content comes through precisely in the concrete significance we give that text in our hearer’s lives today.

Similar points could be made about the ways in which we administer the other means of grace. On the one hand, the administration itself already is the dramatic performance, especially on the bodily register; on the other, we can certainly bring out the propositional, the doctrinal, and the aesthetic in their interconnection through the liturgy with which we surround this administration. The propositional content can be directly and succinctly stated, even as its connections to the wider narrative of Scripture are also highlighted and retold in vivid terms, such that their aesthetic and affective elements are fully felt. An excellent example of this is Luther’s baptismal liturgy now preserved in the contemporary Lutheran Service Book discussed in the last paper. In this liturgy, the doctrine of baptism and its necessity is clearly and succinctly stated in the “introduction” to the rite. At the same time, the invocation of Matthew 28 gives baptism its place within the narrative of God’s saving mission to all nations, even as Luther’s “Prayer for the Floodwaters of Baptism” brings out the “apocalyptic” division of the baptismal candidate from the world and its own burdensome sin.

At the same time, the points traced here encourage us to pursue a dynamic in all levels of our lives as Christians—as individuals, as congregations, as church bodies, and so on—whereby reflection and habit, as well as propositions, affective attachment, and bodily practice, continually feed into and transform one another, both positively and “correctively.” One practice detailed in depth in the previous paper begins to show the way to the “reflective half” of this equation: in Bible study congregants can be invited to reflectively consider how better to practice the concrete devotion of each specific area of life (family, friendships, community relationships, school, job, church, etc.) to God and the embodiment of Christ he gives and commands for us in each. This is a practice that individuals can continue to perform for themselves; pastors, church councils, and voter’s assemblies for their congregation; conventions for their wider church body, and so on. At the same time, we must emphasize that this reflection does not substitute for the actual living out of life in Christ in active worship and discipleship in the world. To the contrary, living out our call in the world is the only way to encounter the concrete historical actors and situations which God intends to form with his word today.

Thus, it is imperative to establish the kinds of concrete points of engagement and invitation sketched above with regard to confirmands and new members, points of engagement that play a vital role in the ongoing formation of all members not only in devotion to God but in their practical knowledge of the concrete significance of biblical doctrines as such. The claims above also make clear how important it is to connect our invitations for confirmands and new members to participate in these embodiments of the salvation-historical drama with reflection and doctrinal formation. How then do we preserve this dynamic connection of life and doctrine in these contexts? One example: ask for one concrete way the confirmand might live into a truth or narrative offered in the sermon; the following week in confirmation class we could discuss how the experience of that practice enhanced understanding of what the doctrine means and what other questions it raised. In both confirmation and new member classes, we could not only explain “here’s how the Sunday liturgy aims to form you” but add, “now go live into this for the next four weeks and then we’ll talk about how that changed your perception of God, the church, and your life as a whole.” Or again, “what’s one concrete place where you could love a particular neighbor more habitually? Now go try it out and we’ll talk.” Each of us might think of other ways to preserve this “dialectic” between embodiment and reflection; but the point is, we all need some such dialectic in our life together to be fully formed in devotion to God.

Finally, though, it is vital to note that this dialectic is emphatically not the same thing as that sometimes suggested between “theory” and “practice.” Our investigation should now enable us to see why that conception is problematic—it leads in the direction that both Smith and Vanhoozer are rightly trying to avoid, where theoretical propositions become detached from actual life and practice with their richer aesthetic and bodily aspects. In contrast, the dialectic as outlined above brings aesthetic and bodily realities directly into reflection precisely because it begins as reflection on lived embodiment and practice and branches from there to scriptural narratives that themselves integrate theoretical propositions with bodily life and practical wisdom. Because “practice” in this paradigm is always itself directly shaped by such reflection, it is never without the theoretical-propositional. In this paradigm, in other words, the propositional is always given primordially in the embodied life of the church and then continues through reflection always toward embodiment.


Jamie Smith showed us how social and bodily habitus, as well as aesthetic and affective elements in the narratives we tell ourselves, seize human hearts and bodies and deeply shape their movement toward whatever they take to be their true telos. We saw the importance of allowing the gospel to speak to these aspects of human existence—since only thus does our life, action, and ministry participate in God’s devotion of the whole person to himself. We traced concrete ways in which the narratives of Scripture and practices of the church do, can, and should speak to these dimensions of human existence. Somewhat over against Smith, we also underscored the importance of retaining our focus in all of this on God’s own gracious action as the primary power of formation “in, with, and under” all these narratives and practices. We used personal and scriptural evidence to call into question Smith’s diminishment of the intellectual, reflective, and propositional. Using the work of Kevin Vanhoozer, we saw how the reflective, embodied, propositional, affective, and aesthetic-narrative are already united in Scripture itself and the doctrines it teaches, thus making doctrine itself at once propositional and embodied, orthodoxy and orthopraxy as one. We sketched ways to preserve this divinely given integration in work of the pastorate and in our wider participation in the whole of God’s salvation-historical drama. In this way, the whole of our lives, intellect included, may be brought within the work of God to devote us wholly to him.


[1] See my paper, “Devotion: A Fundamental Exploration and Practical Guide to Formation,” available at

[2] James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009); Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013); Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017).

[3] Desiring, 19–27, 50–51, 139–203; Imagining, 167–178.

[4] Desiring, 53–56.

[5] I will attend here primarily to Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005). Note that while Vanhoozer himself will refer to the actions of the church as a kind of “sacramental drama” and “participation in Christ,” he does not mean by this exactly what we meant in the previous paper, (i.e., an actual mediation of God’s gracious, saving action “in, with, and under” the visible elements). Rather, largely following Calvin, he interprets “sacrament” as somewhere between (Catholic-Lutheran) “mediation” and (Zwinglian) “memorial,” arguing that the church’s sacramental action thus re-presents Christ, who is really present and active, and so draws us into the salvation-historical drama, yet without Christ’s presence and action being in any way identifiable with the church’s action.

[6] Imagining, 126.

[7] Imagining, 32-5, 108.

[8] Imagining, 52.

[9] Imagining, 44.

[10] Imagining, 51–58.

[11] Imagining, 96.

[12] Imagining, 21.

[13] Grobien, Christian Character Formation, 224.

[14] Imagining, xii–xiii.

[15] See, e.g., Exodus 13:3ff, 20:8; Deuteronomy 11; Joshua 24; Judges 19:30; 1 Samuel 12:24, 25:17; Proverbs 6:6, 24:32; Ecclesiastes 7:13; Jeremiah 9:17ff; Matthew 6:28ff; Romans 6:11, 8:18; etc.

[16] The following relies heavily on Vanhoozer’s magisterial The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005). Some of the same points are made and developed more recently in a less heavily academic form in Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Hearers and Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples through Scripture and Doctrine (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019).

[17] Drama, 266–276, 316.

[18] Drama, 3, 240, 279, 283, 308.

[19] Drama, 300ff.

[20] See, e.g., Drama, 110.

[21] Drama, 41.

[22] Cf. Drama, 89: “The necessity of some propositional content follows from the nature of the gospel itself: ‘what we have seen and heard’ . . . Faith comes by hearing not just anything but something specific. Anselm’s comment on Romans 10:17 is apt: ‘[F]aith comes from what the mind apprehends or conceives through hearing, not in the sense that the mind’s conception alone produces faith in a person, but in the sense that there can be no faith without some conception.’”

[23] Drama, 426–438.

[24] While inspired by Vanhoozer’s examples and his treatment of “theo-dramatic consistency, coherence, and correspondence” as well as “ethics” and “hermeneutics” in Drama, 252, 326, these points are my own. In this regard, we should take note of Vanhoozer’s recognition that what really “guarantees” the coherence and correspondence of propositions and the concepts that comprise them across Scripture and our lives is not the intrinsic power of concepts as such but the work of God to create and make clear to us a common “theo-dramatic situation” with Scripture’s authors and recipients (331). The reason the concepts and propositions cannot do this by themselves is that they are contextually generated and perceived, many of them deeply so—e.g., my understanding of terms like “father,” “salvation,” or “[my] childhood,” and the propositions into which I place them, is deeply defined by my experience and the cultural “tradition” through which I first learned them (89–90). Thus, the commonality that permits the “fusion of horizons” (Gadamer) between people, propositions, and reality across space in time is ultimately God’s work of a common reality underlying all our words, along with his work to give us access to its deepest dimensions through his witnesses.

[25] Vanhoozer speaks of the importance of this integration (Drama, 334). Again, the explanation of the “mechanics” of how this works is my own.





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