Biblical Authority after Babel: Book Review

Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity.

Introduction: When two Christians disagree over how a passage in the Bible is to be interpreted, how can they go about adjudicating whose interpretation is correct? Furthermore, both are in agreement about Scripture’s authority—its veracity, infallibility, and inerrancy. Do they simply agree that they’ve reached an impasse and move on with their day? What is the way forward?

Enter Kevin Vanhoozer, research professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Informed readers will be familiar with the name, most likely aware of other books he has authored, such as Faith Speaking Understanding and The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach, among numerous others. In this volume, Vanhoozer enters into a discussion that has long plagued Protestants: How do they go about resolving interpretive disagreements? One of the rallying cries of the Protestant Reformation was sola Scriptura, but did sola Scriptura unleash chaos on the church? Further, is the Reformation the cause of secularism?[1]

Vanhoozer seeks to move the discussion forward by retrieving the five solas of the Reformation. His goal, as he puts it, is to “retrieve Protestant insights to address the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism” (23). He argues that the solas, properly understood, do not lead to interpretive chaos, but instead bring unity to the church. This unity, however, does not mean uniformity; it does not mean that all Christians will come together to hold hands and sing “Kumbaya.” Rather, it will result in “mere Protestant Christianity.” While choosing to pass over the differences between Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy, Vanhoozer does engage Roman Catholicism.

Summary of Argument and Contents: During the Reformation, the Church of Rome argued (and still argues) that authority was to be found in the Bible, tradition, and the Magisterium. The Reformers responded by insisting that authority was found in Scripture alone. However, “Scripture alone” did not necessarily mean “Scripture independent of church tradition” (111); it never meant Scripture was to be “taken in isolation from the Church or the rule of faith.”[2] Understood in this light, the Reformers were right to emphasize the priority of the Bible. Only Scripture is “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16), not the church’s tradition, whether written or unwritten.

Vanhoozer anchors God’s revelation in the “economy of grace,” which he says “effectively rebuts the charge that the Reformers ‘naturalized’ biblical interpretation” (71). God’s grace is not only demonstrated in his self-disclosure, but also manifested in illumination. In his grace, then, God will work to bring the church into agreement on the core matters of the gospel (62-63). He then appropriates the Reformation principle of sola fide, calling for “epistemic conscientiousness,” or humility, when listening to others who may have interpretive disagreements with us.

Solus Christus is explained in its historical context and retrieved for the present. Vanhoozer argues that although the church is one in Christ, it need not be one in organizational unity. In other words, denominations need not be seen in a negative light or deleterious to achieving unity. Rather, each local church is authorized by Christ “to preserve the integrity of the gospel,” and each local church has been given “its own set of house keys” (233), the keys being a reference to Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:18. This means that each congregation has authority to render interpretive judgments on secondary issues (175).

Soli Deo Gloria is retrieved for the purpose of highlighting the potential good that can come from Protestantism’s fragmentation. In short, Vanhoozer argues that the multiplicity of denominations within evangelicalism isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it causes Christians to go back to the Bible, study it in community, and work to bring understanding across denominational lines. He envisions Christians from different theological traditions coming together in a conference to better understand each other’s positions, listening with patience and grace, and working together for the good of the church and the world.

 Strengths: The book is typical Vanhoozer. He’s witty, and the usual pithy statements are peppered throughout the work. You will find yourself laughing and smiling while you read. You will be challenged and stimulated.

Weaknesses: All this notwithstanding, you may feel, as I did, that you didn’t really get the answer you wanted. At certain points Vanhoozer takes a long time to make his case, and I seriously question whether any of his proposals will help resolve actual interpretive differences. To be sure, the catholicity of the church and the rule of faith outlined many years ago by Irenaeus and other fathers is not in question.[3] Similarly, his call for Christians to display the fruit of the Spirit is warranted and admirable.

Nevertheless, one wonders how many of these “canonical conferences” as he calls them, are Christians supposed to sit through before we conclude that, despite our love for our brothers and sisters from other traditions, we still think they’re wrong? Vanhoozer gives his answer: It’s a “never-ending conference” (233).

Conclusion: In general, I found this to be an enjoyable read. I have no doubt that readers will be stimulated to further reflect on interpretive differences within the church and how best to resolve those differences. Nevertheless, we must wait and see whether Vanhoozer’s vision will become a reality. That said, given that his aim was to argue for “mere Protestant Christianity,” it’s hard to say he didn’t accomplish his goal.

__________________________________________

[1] A good summary of the arguments can be found in Ronald K. Rittgers, “Blame It on Luther,” Christian Century 130:2 (2013): 26-29.

[2] Keith A Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2001), 305. D. H. Williams noted years ago that “the Reformation was not about Scripture verses tradition but about reclaiming the ancient Tradition versus traditions” (Retrieving the Tradition & Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999], 176).

[3] On the “Rule of Faith” more generally, see Williams’s work above, Retrieving the Tradition, 88. Also Williams’s Tradition, Scripture, and Interpretation: A Sourcebook of the Ancient Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 67-80; and D. Jeffrey Bingham, “Evangelicals, Irenaeus, and the Bible,” in The Free Church & The Early Church: Bridging the Historical and Theological Divide (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 27-46.

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