Book Review of Vanhoozer's "Biblical Authority after Babel"

By Paul Shirley | 03.14.17 | The Expositors Blog

    As the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses draws near, appreciation and acclaim for the Reformation may be at an all-time high. For some, however, there remains a dark cloud around the history, principles, and consequences of the Reformation. Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Solas in a Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity (Grand Rapids: Barzos Press, 2016) by Kevin J. Vanhoozer (BAB) was written to address such concerns and propose a way for the church to move beyond these criticisms.

    Vanhoozer (PhD, University of Cambridge) has established himself as one of the most influential and innovative theologians in the English speaking world. He currently serves as Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL and has written numerous books, including Is there Meaning in This Text? and The Pastor as Public Theologian. The material found in BAB was originally delivered at the Annual Moore College Lectures in 2015 and the recordings of these lectures can still be found online.

    As Vanhoozer notes extensively, many scholarly historians have laid the blame for secularism, skepticism, and schism at the feet of the ecclesiastical events of the 16th century. The first Protestants—so it is said—taught their spiritual progeny to disdain any kind of hierarchy, to doubt all authority, and to divide at the drop of a hat. They apparently lit the first sparks of the raging inferno of modern individualism, and as proof the critics point to the thousands of disparate Protestant groups and denominations devoid of external unity. In this volume Vanhoozer seeks to assuage the critics of the Reformation, at the same time setting the course for a unified “Mere Protestant Christianity.”

    As the title of the book indicates, Vanhoozer deals with the Reformation as a “hermeneutical Babel” (155) and with Protestantism’s lack of visible unity as the post-Babel ecclesial world. For Vanhoozer, the Reformation resulted in “hermeneutical havoc” and “split churches,” but it didn’t have to be that way (xi) and could be different moving forward. In fact, if Protestantism will revisit and properly apply the five solas of the Reformation, these “accidental truths of European history” (xi) can be avoided and a “Mere Protestant Christianity” can be achieved (31-33).

    Mere Protestant Christianity is an attempt to stop the bleeding: first, by retrieving the solas as guidelines and guardrails of biblical interpretation; and second; by retrieving the royal priesthood of all believers, which is to say, the place of the church in the pattern of theological authority—the place where sola scriptura gets lived out in embodied interpretive practices (32).

    In other words, Vanhoozer’s goal is to bring increased visible unity to a fractured Protestant movement by using the solas of the Reformation to produce an authoritative hermeneutic all Christians can live under.

    The burden of the present work is therefore to reclaim elements for a normative Protestantism from the ruins of present-day Protestantism by revisiting historical Protestantism (the Reformation solas). I argue that the solas provided not an alternative to orthodox tradition but rather a deeper insight into the one true gospel that undergirds that tradition (xi).

    Vanhoozer’s hope is not to put an end to denominationalism, but to encourage denominations to appreciate and learn from the various interpretations of Scripture found within the Body of Christ—as long as they fall within the parameters of the solas as explained by Vanhoozer. Thus, the author is seeking to retrieve the catholic spirit he perceives to have been lost in the generations subsequent to the Reformation.

    The main purpose of retrieval is the revitalization of biblical interpretation, theology, and the church today. To retrieve is to look back creatively in order to move forward faithfully. In particular, what needs to be retrieved is the Reformers’ vision for catholic unity under canonical authority, and also their strategy for making this vision visible through table talk: conciliar deliberation around not simply a conference table but a communion table (24).

    In order to bring all Protestants back to the table, Vanhoozer proposes that we use the five solas (grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone, Christ alone, and the glory of God alone) as the guidelines for how to interpret the Bible in a catholic manner. He uses “the solas not as doctrines in their own right as much as theological insights into various facets of the ontology, epistemology, and teleology of the gospel” (61). According to his proposal, viewing the slogans of the Reformation in this fashion would provide the interpretive certainty and authority that would allow Protestants of differing convictions to co-exist under the banner of “Mere Protestant Christianity.”

    In chapter 1 Vanhoozer explains “Grace Alone” as more than just a soteriological principle:

    The crux of the argument will therefore be that sola gratia has ontological and not merely soteriological significance: first, by helping us better understand the freedom of God… second by helping us to see that the Bible, biblical interpretation, and biblical interpreters refer not to natural entities and process but to elements in an economy of grace. We are not to read the Bible like any other book… (50).

    For Vanhoozer, a method of interpretation which seeks objective truth from a specific passage through interpretive methods does not measure up to hermeneutical implications of sola gratia. “To recognize Scripture as God’s gracious address is to view biblical interpretation less as a procedure that readers perform on the text than a process of spiritual formation that takes place in the readers” (65-66). This formation requires that interpreters “preserve the integrity of the story of salvation” without giving the “impression that second-order doctrines are of first-order importance” (63). Thus he can muse, “Could it be that the various Protestant traditions function similarly as witnesses who testify to the same Jesus from different situations and perspectives? Perhaps we can put it like this: each Protestant church seeks to be faithful to the gospel, but no one form of Protestantism exhausts the gospel’s meaning” (224). It is not explicitly made clear how the concept of sola gratia leads to this implication, nor is it clear how one accurately identifies the story of salvation or distinguishes the doctrines of first-order importance. Historically, Protestants have contended that these questions can only be answered through an accurate interpretation of Scripture, but in Vanhoozer’s view it is not entirely clear if any of these issues can ever be resolved.

    In chapter 2 Vanhoozer explains how “Faith Alone” functions as an epistemological principle that prevents the interpreter from overstepping the bounds of his own authority. “Sola fide thus refers to the way Christians come to know and appropriate the gift of Jesus Christ via the human words of Scripture” (74). Because we appropriate the gift of Christ found in Scripture through faith, we must be cautious about the authority of our own interpretations since “the claims to have absolute knowledge or even objective knowledge comes close to claiming that one knows as God knows” (82). Thus, “Mere Protestant Christians believe that faith enables a way of interpreting Scripture that refuses both absolute certainty (idols of the tower) and relativizing skepticism (idols of the maze)” (105). What lies between absolute certainty and relativizing skepticism is unclear, but Vanhoozer has previously made it clear that “honesty forbids certainty” (Is There a Meaning in This Text?, 207). Interestingly, Vanhoozer uses a doctrine that has traditionally called sinners to believe in Christ with absolute certainty to argue for a hermeneutic that obfuscates absolute certainty.

    In Chapter 3 Vanhoozer argues that Scripture alone is necessary but insufficient for interpretative authority. “Scripture alone is the supreme authority, but God in his grace decided that it is not good for Scripture to be alone. He thus authorized tradition, and Scripture" (144). Thus, God’s Word is supreme, but tradition, which is determined by the conciliar consensus of the church, is necessary in interpretation to prevent disunity within the church. Vanhoozer does not mention where God has authorized the use of tradition in this way, but he does assert that tradition plays an “appointed role in the economy of salvation” (143). In fact, he states that “Christian tradition…is an external means that the Spirit uses” (141). Again, he does not specify from Scripture where the Spirit promised to use tradition in this manner.

    In Chapter 4 readers will find a surprise in Vanhoozer’s explanation of solus Christus. Vanhoozer expands the concept of “Christ Alone” to include the doctrine of the royal priesthood of believers. In fact, he argues “the royal priesthood is the sum of the solas—and a summa of mere Protestant Christianity” (156). To some it might seem strange to extrapolate the salvific concept of “Christ Alone” to include the royal priesthood of believers, but Vanhoozer reminds his readers that “retrieving involves more than merely repeating” (160). This is a helpful principle to remember when reading Vanhoozer’s explanation of the priesthood of believers, since there are very few places where he merely repeats the historic definitions associated with this doctrine. For Vanhoozer, the royal priesthood of believers implies that the local church in conjunction with the communion of churches has been invested with the authority to interpret the meaning of Scripture. It would seem, then, that Vanhoozer would argue that an individual believer should accept a specific interpretation of a passage based on the church’s authoritative interpretation of that passage. Someone could easily read this explanation and wonder if Vanhoozer turned this doctrine on its head to argue against what the Reformers were arguing for.

    In Chapter 5 Vanhoozer closes his exposition of the solas by looking at “the Glory of God Alone.” At this point, readers who have become accustomed to his interpretive expansions will not be surprised to learn that Vanhoozer has found an innovative application of soli Deo gloria. In generations past Christians were content to let this mantra communicate that God alone gets the glory for the salvation of a sinner, but this chapter reveals that soli Deo gloria is an ecumenical principle, since what most glorifies God is the external unity of the professing church. This is the goal that eluded the Reformers, no doubt because their retrieval of the gospel did not look back creatively enough in order to move forward faithfully. Vanhoozer, however, proposes that God’s glory alone should lead the church to arrive at external unity. Practically, he proposes that “Mere Protestant Christianity” can achieve this by prioritizing few core doctrines that are worth dividing over and employing theological conferences for extended dialogue about all the other disputed doctrines. Vanhoozer’s goal is to bring all segments of the church together around the communion table by using the principles of the Reformation to craft an authoritative hermeneutic. Ironically, the Reformers who first articulated these principles could not even agree on a view of communion. Readers seeking to apply Vanhoozer’s vision of Mere Protestant Christianity will again have to wrestle with the issue of how core doctrines and other disputed doctrines are identified.

    No doubt, Vanhoozer is a compelling and creative writer. Regrettably, his creativity is not limited to his forward movement but also includes an innovative analysis of the history of the solas of the Reformation, which conveniently agrees with his hermeneutical proposals. He turns the solas of the Reformation into an opportunity to restate many of his previous conclusions from previous works. There are enough insightful nuggets of theology, coupled with obfuscating formulations, to distract many people from discerning the unhelpful elevation of tradition embedded in his approach. Vanhoozer goes too far when he espouses a “pattern of theological authority by which the Spirit leads the church in the full measure of Scripture’s meaning by utilizing previous readings” (145) and ascribes “testimonial authority as to Scripture’s meaning” to the “corporate confessions of the church” (146). It seems as if he is saying that Scripture is authoritative but we only have access the authoritative meaning of Scripture through the authoritative interpretation of the church (141-144; 212, 223, 233)—which is what the Reformers argued against. This, along with a startling addition of human tradition to the economy of salvation, would not have been welcomed by the Reformers. On this point Vanhoozer certainly departs from Luther’s view on biblical authority. Biblical authority comes from demonstrating a truth from Scripture in such a way that it informs and persuades the conscience of a believer. The authority does not reside in the conciliar counsel of a church but in the clarity of Scripture. The church has been given the Spirit to recognize and submit to the authority of the Bible, not as a source of interpretive authority. To put it another way, the church possesses a ministerial function in the interpretation of Scripture, not a magisterial authority. What Vanhoozer misses in his evaluation of the post-Reformation church is that the problem of authority in interpretation is not epistemological; it is hamartiological. The reality of original sin, remaining sin, and false professions make perfect unity among the professing church an impossibility until the return of Christ.

    I suspect those who have experienced the scorn of scholars toward the Reformation will greatly appreciate this volume’s attempt to defend their academic credibility. Vanhoozer’s vision for Christianity appeals to the sensibilities of philosophical pluralism by providing a place at the table for every theological tradition, but it will add little to confessional Christianity. For the reader who appreciates a clear exposition of historical theology and as little innovation as possible in their systematic theology, this volume will not be as appealing. Students of the Reformation will find Vanhoozer’s articulation of the solas so creative that they are barely recognizable.

    Paul Shirley is a graduate of The Expositors Seminary and has served as the pastor of Grace Community Church in Wilmington, Delaware since 2011.


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