May My Four Sons Play The Lord Jesus, Judas, Peter And Pilate In A School Easter Play?
- Rev. J. L. Van Popta [1]

Taken with permission from the Clarion November (1995) Vol.44, No 22.


PictureSome time ago the Rev. R. Schouten published a lead editorial for this magazine with the title Doctrine or Experience. [2] His editorial pointed out that experience, Christian experience, is gaining the upper hand in the search for unity among Christians. Doctrine and confession is taking a back seat to feeling, emotion and experience. This shift of focus is also becoming prevalent in the Christian school classroom. While this change might be more obvious in a general Christian school than in our Canadian Reformed schools, we should not close our eyes to this development.

One of the places where "experience" comes to the fore in the classroom is in drama and particularly in Bible drama. My children have attended the general Christian schools of the Ottawa area and here we were confronted with the dramatization of the Biblical text. At a Christmas assembly a nativity play complete with shepherds and wise men, Mary and Joseph, and baby Lord Jesus (a doll) in the manger was presented. Confronted with this as parents, we asked ourselves the question, "As Reformed confessors, may we allow our four sons to play the Lord Jesus, Judas, Peter and Pilate in a school Easter play?" Before we proceed to the question itself, however, we need to ask a few other questions and perhaps define some terms.

What is drama?

A working definition that we found is as follows: "Drama is an idealized representation of human life - of character, emotion, action - in forms manifest to the senses." [3] Some have said that imitation, and imitation only, accounts for the appeal of drama. Its appeal lies in its imitation of the multi-varied action, emotion and feeling of life. We need to understand that drama always requires action. It is the action which makes drama different from epic story or from plain poetry or prose. We can define drama as a form of artistic endeavour that portrays stylized life.

Drama is presented so that others can watch. It must be presented on a stage. This stage can be anywhere. It can be in an auditorium or in a theater. Even the street or the playground or the back of a class room is a stage if drama is performed there. A stage is the place where the drama is performed so that others may watch. The stage is where the art is acted. We can, therefore, define drama as "an art form which more or less imitates life, by action, performed in public for the purpose of being watched."

Why watch drama?

We can also ask: Why do people watch drama? What is the purpose of drama? Why do people want to watch life imitated by action on a stage? The primary reason for drama is the sheer enjoyment that people get by being entertained. Much drama is simply fun to watch.

Underlying good drama, however, is a message. Through the medium of the stage and through actors, the playwright is attempting to present to the audience his view of the world and of various kinds of relationships in the world. Drama is art in action which presents a message. This message is received by those who watch the stage. A secondary part of drama is the experience of the actors. In their portrayal of the characters the actors attempt to "become" the character. They try to "get inside" the person in the script. They need to experience their character and so be able to understand the person in the play.

History of Bible drama

Bible drama has been around for many centuries. In the middle ages when choirs would sing passages of scripture set to music, actors began to act out the story. The earliest records of Bible drama in the church appear in the 9th century. [4] Before that, the church had consistently repudiated any contact with pagan drama. The earliest drama consisted of four characters in the Easter story which was set to music. One priest in the church would represent the angel at the tomb while three others played the three Marys. The actors began to recite the story and included all sorts of extra material. This became a mini-opera. As the years progressed the mini-drama evolved and more and more material was added. Characters appeared who are not in the Bible story. An example of this is the merchant who sells spices to the women who were on the way to the tomb of the Lord Jesus.

This merchant and King Herod play silly characters to bring some laughter to the play. All sorts of other actors and characters are added - many for comic relief.

Later, instead of a few isolated Biblical events, whole sequences of events were used to provide material for the dramas. These plays became the basis for the instruction of the town's folk. Because of the size of the drama, the play often moved out into the church yard.[5] The popularity of these plays increased and by the 13th century had become so large and complex that they were banished from within the church buildings. Because they went out into the church yard and into the town square, the plays became less liturgical and more secular and so were taken over by the quasi-religious trade guilds. The Fishermen's and Sailors' Guilds presented Noah and the flood. The Goldsmiths re-enacted the visit of the visit of the wise-men. The Butchers graphically staged the crucifixion. Whole cycles of 30 to 50 dramas were produced. They included material from creation to the last judgment. To fill in the dialogue, all sorts of extra material was added. Many characters, not in the Bible, were introduced for dramatic effect. One of these was Noah's wife who shouts and screams and lectures Noah whom she considers to be half crazed. In an other play sheep stealing characters are introduced. With these characters, all kinds of inaccuracies and error crept in.

Because the biblical accounts are brief, additional material was necessary. This material was neither true nor accurate. All this false information was presented, however, as the Word of God. The same process happens today. The data in the Bible is usually not enough to fill out the dialogue and action of a stage production. Thus, if our children act out a drama based on the Bible, they will be using a script which includes all kinds of extra material, actions and characters, as well as inaccuracies and misrepresentations.

Adding to Scripture goes against the very command of Scripture as we find it in Revelation and Deuteronomy. The Lord forbids us to add to the Scripture. The Bible is God's revelation to us. It is the record of God's acts in history. It is the account of redemptive history accompanied by a prophetic interpretation of God's redemptive acts. Re-enacting God's acts as if they were human acts, attacks the very nature of Scripture and revelation.


As we enter into the field of school drama we also enter into educational philosophy. For many years now education has been moving towards childcentered learning. The child is encouraged to look inward for answers. The child is encouraged to learn by experience. [6] The student is not taught to accept things on the authority of others. The teacher no longer brings knowledge and instruction. Rather, the teacher becomes a knowledge facilitator. The teacher helps the student discover and experience. Child-centered learning says that the student must find things out for and by himself. How the child experiences and responds to new knowledge is of primary importance. Added to this is the belief that, like the rest of mankind, the child is free. The student is free and creative. He defines and determines the truth for himself. No longer is the student a receiver of knowledge and truth - one who learns and then reproduces what is learned. In child-centered learning the child is an active creator. In this theory of education we find also the aspect of children's play. Play is truly free expression. Play has no rules. It is imaginative. It is creative and it is experiential. Playing is learning. This type of learning comes to its climax in drama. Here the primary root of educational activity is not in the presentation of external material that is to be learned. Rather, the foundation of education becomes learning by doing; education by play; learning by drama. [7]

Children are to act out the material in a text book and so get to understanding the facts. We can see three principles. 1. Learning comes not from reading and listening but from action and doing, from experience. 2. Good work is often the result of spontaneous effort rather than from good and studious application. 3. The natural means of study for children is playing and acting.

Here then, the center, the focal point is self-awareness and self-realization. Accuracy and facts are not that important. Rather, symbol, story and experience are the most important. Without evaluating this theory of education we now come to the theological developments of the 20th century.

The New Hermeneutic [8]

A theory that parallels the educational philosophy of learning by experience can be found in the world of theology and the Bible. It is called, "The New Hermeneutic," or "the new way of interpreting the Bible." The New Hermeneutic is the way in which many modern non-reformed Bible scholars interpret the Scripture. This hermeneutic has infiltrated the whole of 20th century Christendom. As we examine this new way of interpreting the Bible (with just a thumb-nail sketch) imagine how this might effect the way that the Bible would be taught in school.

To those who support the "New Hermeneutic" there are two kinds of history. First, there is the external world history, in which is included the story of Jesus' life and a record of ideas, reports and beliefs surrounding Him from His day, which are found in the Bible. Second, there is our internal personal history. This is the history that concerns me and my spiritual life. The New Hermeneutic teaches that it is only in the internal personal history that revelation from God occurs. Events occur in external history, but events have revelatory meaning only within my internal history. [9]

Revelation and meaning are supplied by me in the revelatory moment. When we read the Bible, they say, we are not reading revelation from God. No, revelation happens when we experience something. The revelation of God is not Word, but Event. [10] This would mean that revelation is not objective truth coming to us from God who is outside us. Rather, revelation is our subjective personal experience of God. Revelation happens over and over again in our experiences. As Christians rehearse the memory of Jesus Christ, revelation occurs. If this were true, however, then the Bible which God gave to us through the prophets and apostles is not revelation at all. The New Hermeneutic teaches that we can only re-live and experience revelation. This means, therefore, that the written Word of God is not enough. New Hermeneutic theologians say that God does not actually reveal himself to his people in the Bible. Rather, the Bible becomes the basis of an event. They say that revelation from God itself is actually an internal event in which we experience God. As Reformed confessors we reject this.

Evaluation [11]

So, if we combine child centered learning and the New Hermeneutic and include with it the use of drama as a teaching tool we can re-ask that question, "Can my four sons play the Lord Jesus and Judas, Peter and Pilate in a school Easter play?"

When the dramatization of the Biblical text is used as a teaching tool we must understand that there has been a fundamental shift in the role of scripture. I can only conclude that my children cannot participate in this or any other Bible drama for the following reasons.

1. Bible dramas need to add to scripture in word and action. This in itself is enough for us to reject the dramatization of the Biblical text.

2. Bible dramas will be inaccurate and will present something different from the Bible text itself.

3. Bible dramas attack the once for all historical character of God's redemptive acts. The Bible is the record of God's acts in which he reveals himself to mankind. These acts cannot be repeated nor re-experienced.

4. Bible dramas are man centered, not Christ centered.

5. Bible dramas attack the scriptural teaching that faith comes by hearing the Word of God. The Word of God is something that comes with authority from the outside - from God through prophets and apostles in Scripture, taught by parents, preachers, elders and teachers. Instead of faith coming by hearingthe authoritative Word of God, the use of Bible drama supports the teaching of the New Hermeneutic that faith comes by re-living the experience of the biblical characters.

6. Bible drama attacks the character I of the sacraments. Drama with its visual emphasis depreciates the visual signs and seals of Baptism and Lord's Supper. [12] The sacraments are not reenactments but signs of the covenant promises of God. They are the only legitimate visual instruction that Christ has ordained for His New Testament church. We should not be wiser than God in this matter and we should serve Him as He has commanded in His Word. (See the Catechism, LD 35, on the second commandment.) Images were rejected by the Reformation church as books for the laity. We should not enter again a world that rejects the Word in favour of images - in this case, speaking images. We should realize that God wants His people to be taught by the living preaching of His Word.

7. The interpretive principle of the New Hermeneutic and its effect on Bible drama is that man must experience and "re-live" the text. The Bible becomes something that must bring the Word of God to life again and again as an event. The Word of God, in this way of thinking, is something that is internal and so it says something different to different people because everyone's personal experience is different. This means, however, that the objective character and the authority of the Word of God is attacked. Reformed teaching, on the other hand maintains that scripture need not be experienced; instead, it must be proclaimed.

8. Bible dramas also present us with some secondary problems:

a. Who would dare to play God?

b. Who would dare to play the sinless Jesus Christ?

c. Who would dare to play Judas, the son of perdition?

d. Would anyone dare to play Satan in a drama about the Fall, or in the story of job or the account of Christ's temptation?

e. Who would dare to play the resurrection of the Lord

f. Would anyone dare to repeat the words of Thomas, "My Lord and my God," as he knelt before a sinful creature, a fellow student?

g. Would any dare to be Peter and deny the Lord?

h. Would any dare to be Pilate and condemn the Lord Jesus?

i. Dramas depicting the crucifixion would necessarily become very emotional and superficial. The audience as it participated and experienced the pain of the cross would miss the real meaning of the cross. The Lord Jesus would become a tragic figure in a martyr play. [13]

The Belgic Confession

As Reformed believers, we need to maintain the authority of scripture as God's revelation to sinners. We can go to the Belgic Confession to get a concise summary of that teaching.


We receive all these (66) books [of the Old Testament and New Testament] and these only, as holy and canonical, for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith. We believe without any doubt all things contained in them, not so much because the Church receives and approves them as such, but especially because the Holy Spirit witnesses in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they contain the evidence thereof in themselves; for, even the blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are being fulfilled.


We believe that this Holy Scripture fully contains the will of God and that all that man must believe in order to be saved is sufficiently taught therein. The whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in it at length. It is therefore unlawful for any one, even for an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in Holy Scripture: yes, even if it be an angel from heaven, as the apostle Paul says. Since it is forbidden to add to or take away anything from the Word of God, it is evident that the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects.


It seems that with the rise of Bible drama and the incorporation of extrabiblical data the Word of God itself begins to take a subordinate place. Students now present the medieval "mystery plays" in Christian schools. In a unit on medieval history the Carpenters' Guild presented "Noah and the Ark" and the Bakers' Guild presented "Jesus Feeding the Five Thousand." Yet, Bible dramas attack the confession of the church concerning Scripture. They attack the very teaching of scripture about itself. Bible drama attacks the self-authenticating testimony of the Word of God. None may add. None may take away. The Word of God is complete. I can only reject any possibility of my four sons playing in a Bible drama. I also believe that Canadian Reformed schools must withstand the attack on the Word of God by the New Hermeneutic and so also reject the use of Bible drama in their curriculum. Let us not be afraid to mark out the confessional and doctrinal boundaries not only in matters of ecumenicity but also in matters of education.


[1] This article was first presented as a speech at congregational meeting in Ottawa [February 1994] and later presented in a revised form to the Metcalfe Community Christian School education committee [February 1995]. For many ideas presented in this article, I am indebted to Ken Herfst, a former fellow student (now working in Guatemala as missionary of the Free Reformed Churches) who, in April 1990 at the Theological College, presented an Ethics seminar on "Drama and Scripture."

[2] Schouten, R. "Doctrine or Experience, Clarion vol. 44, no. 6.

[3] Gray, L.H. "Drama." Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics. Vol. 4. Ed. J. Hastings. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

[4] The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. 2nd ed., Ed. F.L. Cross. s.v. "Drama, Christian." Oxford UP, Oxford:1974.

[5] The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. Ed. J.D. Douglas. s.v. "Drama, Christian." Grand Rapids, Zondervan:1974"

[6] The "Montessori" theory of education uses this method.

[7] Courtney, R., Play, Drama and Thought: The Intellectual Background to Drama in Education. New York: Drama Specialists, 1974 (42).

[8] A good discussion and explanation of new hermeneutics can be found in - A. C. Thiselton, "The New Hermeneutic." New Testament Interpretation: Essays on Principals and Methods." Ed. I.H. Marshall. Grand Rapids:Eerdmans, 1977. (pp. 308-333). He shows how the German theologians, Fuchs and Ebeling, have influenced much of 20th century biblical interpretation. Their whole purpose was to make the text speak anew (309). Their purpose is, not to understand, but to communicate and to experience the text in creative ways, rather than to proclaim it.

[9] Fore, Wm. F. "Communication for Churchmen." Communication: Learning for Churchmen. ed. B.F. Jackson. Nashville: Abington Press, 1968 (p. 75).

[10] Fore (Pg. 80).

[11] Z. Rittersma has written on this topic in Het Dramatiseren van Bijbelse Geschiedenissen Door Jeugdigen. Leiden, 1972. The present author has not consulted this work.

[12] Van Rongen, G. "Drama and Holy Scripture." Clarion, vol. 25, no. 6, March 20, 1976. Pg. 98. Rev. Van Rongen published four articles in Clarion on Drama. [vol. 24, no. 22. Nov. 1, 1975; vol. 25, no. 2, Jan. 24, 1976; vol. 25, no. 4, Feb. 21, 1976. vol. 25, no. 6, Mar. 20, 1976.1

[13] De Vries, W.G., "Gods Woord een Scenario?" De Gereformeerde Levenswandel. Goes: Oosterbaan & Le Cointre, 1964. (214).


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