Book Review: Hearers and Doers, by Kevin Vanhoozer
Kevin Vanhoozer, Hearers and Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples through Scripture and Doctrine. Lexham Press, 2019.
In a world full of plans and programs designed for church growth, Hearers and Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples through Scripture and Doctrine by Kevin Vanhoozer is what the church needs! Perhaps this sounds like a marketing pitch geared to promote the latest fad in church growth. But it is actually the opposite.
Hearers and Doers’ doctrinal approach to discipleship returns to the heart of Jesus’s Great Commission, where Jesus commanded the apostles to teach “all that he commanded” (Matt. 28:20). This approach to discipleship is not theoretical. Vanhoozer has championed the notion that doctrine is for “drama” for years and this book puts into practice what his readers have been learning from him for more than two decades. Since the publication of The Drama of Doctrine, Vanhoozer has been on a mission to help Christians integrate objective truth with subjective action. Hearers and Doers is, in some ways, the culmination of that project.
This review will not be a typical summary and evaluation. You can find an excellent review of that sort by Aaron Menikoff. Instead, this review will consider the larger context of discipleship and how Hearers and Doers provides the church—not just individual followers of Christ—with a unique and useful resource for discipleship.
A SYNTHESIS OF MANY OTHER WORKS
First, Vanhoozer compellingly draws from many sources, both ancient and modern, helping the reader understand the task of discipleship. Over the course of Hearers and Doers, Vanhoozer cites Calvin’s view of discipleship (214–15), C. S. Lewis’s vision of Christian formation in the church (xxi, 98), and Trevin Wax’s book Eschatological Discipleship (67). Hearers and Doers introduces its readers to a wide array of discipleship resources.
One particular author Vanhoozer engages is Charles Taylor and his idea of the “social imaginary.” Citing Taylor, Vanhoozer defines the term this way: “A social imaginary is the picture that frames our everyday beliefs and practices, in particular ‘the ways people imagine their social existence’” (8). This concept for understanding oneself in relation to the social setting of their life has become an important lens for understanding what shapes individuals and cultures today.
Vanhoozer then explains the power of a social imaginary for the drama of doctrine to cultivate disciples. He writes, “Theology serves the church by helping to shape its collective imagination so that its image of its body life, and everything else, is governed by the gospel message at the heart of the master story that unifies Scripture” (10). In short, doctrine is not for individualistic information but for community transformation, which in turn cultivates ongoing discipleship.
Putting this idea to work, Vanhoozer takes all of chapter 2 to recount the way medicine, diet, and exercise have created a persuasive “social imaginary” for millions of Americans. Using these themes as an extended metaphor, Vanhoozer sets up his book which calls pastors to be body (of Christ) builders who lead churches to feed on healthy doctrine (13–42, 206–11). Such colorful illustrations run throughout Hearers and Doers and make his calls for doctrine anything but dry. Rather, they awaken the reader’s imagination to see how doctrine plays a vital role in discipleship.
A WORKBOOK FOR THE WHOLE CHURCH
Of all Vanhoozer’s theological writing, Hearers and Doers is the most practical. It even comes with “core exercises” for disciples to apply. In contrast to his academic works, this book is written for the church—even if the subtitle is directed toward pastors. In fact, if there’s any criticism of the book it’s that readers may assume by the subtitle that Hearers and Doers only applies to pastors. But this would be a mistake. At our church, I have encouraged everyone to read this book, including our women’s book club.
Stressing the importance of the church, Vanhoozer relates a personal anecdote describing how his commitment to the church was renewed. Repenting of his early disinterest in ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church), he now advocates for the importance of the church. He states,
When I first began to teach theology, I asked my head of department to be excused from teaching Theology III (ecclesiology and eschatology). At that time (the 1980s), the syllabus looked like a hit parade of controversial topics, and I preferred to stick with things that were of first importance: first theology [i.e., Theology Proper, Scripture, etc.]. I have now repented of that error, and the doctrine of the church is one of my favorite topics to teach. As the realization of the new humanity that is now in Christ, the church is part of the content of the gospel itself. (101–02)
Vanhoozer’s change of mind is a good model for all theologians to follow—the study of doctrine is for the church. But in the other direction, churches who may suffer from anemia due to a lack of doctrinal iron, need the study of doctrine. This is what Hearers and Doers is aims to do, to give the whole church a workbook for growing in sound doctrine.
To be clear, Vanhoozer is not putting doctrine over the gospel. And he is not confusing the gospel message with the gospel community. He is simply articulating the often overlooked fact that when the gospel is faithfully preached, it will create a people. And those people will be most robust in their discipleship when they are trained by pastors (and others) to feed on sound doctrine. Thus discipleship is not an exercise in adding theological knowledge to the gospel, nor is it a special track for Christians to pursue independent of the church. Rather, the church is, in Vanhoozer’s words, “the company of the gospel” (ch. 6) who exercise their discipleship together by spurring one another on with God’s Word.
A WORKOUT FOR THEOLOGICAL DISCIPLESHIP
Highlighting this theme of doctrinal fitness, Vanhoozer explains the purpose of his book as a theological “training manual” (71). And with the space remaining, I want to highlight the kind of workout Vanhoozer’s book provides.
Picking up Paul’s imagery of physical training (1 Tim. 4:7–8) and the way sound doctrine relates to good health (206–11), Vanhoozer urges the church to exercise its faith. Yet, such a regimen of theological training requires more than adding a few supplemental truths or practices of religion. It requires a mind captured by the things of God and a life shaped by the drama of the gospel. Vanhoozer calls this “theodrama” (71) and throughout the book, he explains how a doctrinal vision that comes from Scripture enables disciples to faithfully dramatize the ways of Christ.
Broken into two parts, the first four chapters (Part 1) explain the need disciples have for doctrine. In particular, Vanhoozer argues that we need to read the Bible theologically, which is to say churches must reject the Bible of the academy which has become a lifeless object of inquiry (71). Instead, pastors and churches must come to the Bible as God’s living Word for the purpose of hearing God’s voice and living out God’s redemptive drama (72). This is discipleship. In chapters 3–4, Vanhoozer shows how this works to form in God’s people a new social imaginary, which stands against other identity-forming imaginaries like health and fitness (ch. 2).
Chapters 5–8 get even more practical. Chapter 5 reminds pastors of their calling to be theological fitness instructors. This vision of the pastor is important for pastors and members alike, as the latter needs to know who their pastors are and what they should be doing. Pastors also need to be reminded of their call to lead the church with doctrinal truth.
Chapter 6 turns to the local church, where Vanhoozer explains how God’s local assembly is called to dramatize the gospel. In baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and church discipline, God’s people inhabit the story of the gospel, and their coordinated actions dramatize the reality of Christ. In this call to action, Vanhoozer reminds disciples that justification by faith alone leads us to pick up the cross and follow Christ. In this way, gospel believers must also be gospel walkers, those who walk worthy of that gospel we believe.
Chapter 7 explores the difficulties associated with Scripture and tradition. With clarity and brevity, Vanhoozer explains what Sola Scriptura is and is not. He affirms the authoritative role of Scripture over and above tradition, even as he reminds us of the importance of learning from tradition.
Chapter 8 concludes the book, as Vanhoozer brings the focal point of discipleship back to Jesus. Jesus is the goal of all disciple-making and the standard for all discipleship. Hence, churches that are faithful to making disciples will keep Christ at the center, so that Christ can be formed in the church (Gal. 4:19).
A BOOK FOR THE CHURCH TO WORKOUT
All in all, Hearers and Doers is a book for the church. Chapter 5 is written expressly for pastors, but the rest of the book applies to all Christians. Importantly, this book is the first by Vanhoozer I have been able to recommend to the church without reservation.
Though I have profited immensely from Vanhoozer’s theological works, I have only rarely recommended any to church members. Now, however, we have a book that can be given to any church member who desires to run well their race of faith.
Again, this is not because Vanhoozer has developed some magic pill for theological fitness. It is because his book reflects the light of Scripture. Hearers and Doers calls us back to the Bible, and then from the Bible it helps us apply God’s Word so that our minds are renewed and our lives reformed by a theological reading of the Bible. In a world where churches chase the latest ministry fads, Hearers and Doers is a refreshing contrast.
May many pastors and churches hear and do what it says.
 See e.g., James, K. A. Smith How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2104) and Collin Hansen (ed.), Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor (Deerfield, IL: The Gospel Coalition, 2017).