Kevin J. Vanhoozer. Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press (a Division of Baker Publishing Group), 2016. See here to purchase the book.
Kevin J. Vanhoozer is a theologian at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has a Ph.D. from Cambridge University.
Biblical Authority after Babel addresses a prominent
criticism of the Protestant Reformation. The criticism is that the
Reformation led to interpretive anarchy regarding the interpretation of
Roman Catholicism holds that the church founded by Jesus, which it
understands to be the Roman Catholic church, has the
divinely-commissioned authority to interpret the Scriptures. When
Martin Luther came forward and proclaimed that the Roman Catholic church
was incorrect on justification, and thus wrong in its Scriptural
interpretation, Luther was saying in effect that people can challenge
the church if they believe that its teaching is contrary to the Bible.
The problem is that the Bible can be interpreted in different ways. The
Reformers found this out when they disagreed among themselves about how
and whether Christ was in the Eucharist! If we reject the idea that
the Roman Catholic church has the authority to interpret the Scriptures,
does that mean that we are giving interpretative authority to each
individual? Critics claim that this had led to chaos! Not only has
Protestantism splintered into numerous denominations, but there are also
Christians who act as if they are their own private pope, interpreting
the Bible as they see fit. Can the Bible even have authentic authority,
if that is the case?
Vanhoozer argues that even the Protestant Reformers regarded the
church as essential, meaning that they were not promoting individual
Christians doing their own thing, acting according to what was right in
their own eyes. Vanhoozer notes that Martin Luther and John Calvin were
not against catholicity with a small “c”: they were all for the church
as a broader body making decisions. But they were opposed to defining
the church as Rome, denying that this approach was truly catholic
(universal). Vanhoozer highlights the importance of the church: the
word of God brings into existence a church, and the priesthood of
believers presumes a church community where believers can minister.
Vanhoozer also maintains that the traditional creeds of the church and
the traditional rule of faith can provide boundaries for Scriptural
Vanhoozer’s practical advice is what one would expect in a book such
as this. Concentrate on the essentials of the Christian faith (i.e.,
the Trinity, Christ’s resurrection, the Gospel), learn from each other,
and be charitable amidst differences over the less-essentials!
Vanhoozer does well to define what is essential and why: without the
essentials, the Gospel would be unintelligible. Vanhoozer also talks
about how denominations can work together. Vanhoozer is sensitive,
however, to the unhelpful directions in which such advice can be taken.
For instance, he does not favor an ecumenicism that focuses on the
least common denominator of Christianity.
In the course of his book, Vanhoozer has various discussions. He has
chapters about the solas of Protestantism: grace alone, faith alone,
Scripture alone, and Christ alone. His discussion on grace refers to
the theological debates about the extent to which human nature can
respond positively to God, and the extent to which God’s supernatural
grace is necessary for this to happen. Vanhoozer somewhat sidesteps
this debate by defining grace rather broadly, as he regards creation and
redemption both as acts of grace (i.e., God sharing or communicating
Godself). In addressing the Protestant concept of Sola Scriptura,
Vanhoozer denies that Sola Scriptura means Solo Scriptura. Vanhoozer
supports drawing from church tradition in theology, but he maintains
that Scripture should be regarded as the final authority. Vanhoozer
shares the quote that “our final authority is Scripture alone, but not a
Scripture that is alone.”
This book certainly is thoughtful and informative, which is to be
expected from Vanhoozer. Vanhoozer interacts with theological thought
in a sophisticated manner. For instance, in summarizing other scholars’
criticisms of the Protestant Reformation, Vanhoozer not only discusses
the main topic of the book, but related issues as well. One criticism
Vanhoozer mentions concerns whether Protestantism’s abandonment of
allegorical interpretations of Scripture, in favor of
grammatical-historical exegesis, coincides with a secularizing
de-sanctification of creation.
Vanhoozer is rigorous in wrestling with the problem of interpretive
anarchy, and one may say that Vanhoozer has already addressed the
criticisms that I am about to advance. I admire Vanhoozer’s effort, but
I still question whether he successfully eliminates the problem of
interpretive anarchy. Vanhoozer largely appears to presume that mere
Protestantism represents the correct interpretation of Scripture. Many
Catholics have argued, however, that the Protestant view of
justification by grace through faith alone is at odds with aspects of
Scripture, such as the Gospel of Matthew, the Epistle of James, and even
parts of Paul’s writings. Vanhoozer believes that the Nicene Creed is
consistent with Scripture, but there are biblical scholars who hold that
the New Testament contains a variety of Christologies. Looking to
Scripture as the final authority does not necessarily eliminate
ambiguity, even over what Vanhoozer may consider the essentials.
I should note, however, an intriguing statement that Vanhoozer makes
on page 101, in the Adobe Digital version: “While there are indeed a
variety of interpretations, especially about how salvation happens, mere Protestant Christians agree about what happened and who
did what (e.g., Father, Son, and Spirit).” Vanhoozer here is
specifically addressing Protestant divisions on such issues as baptism,
but his insight may be relevant to the disagreement between Catholics
and Protestants on justification. Both can find areas of overlap on
what happens in salvation and who does what, notwithstanding their
Successful in terms of its mission or not, this is still a rich book.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Netgalley. My review is honest!