Biblical Authority After Babel, Kevin J. Vanhoozer. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016.
Summary: A proposal that the five Solas of “mere Protestant Christianity” provide a framework to check the interpretive anarchy for which Protestant Christianity is criticized.
One of the most serious criticisms of post-Reformation Protestant Christianity is that it unleashed a kind of interpretive anarchy, a confusing of the languages similar to what happened after the tower of Babel incident in scripture. In fact, one of the major appeals of Roman Catholic Christianity is that in the Pope and the Magisterium, the church speaks with one voice on issues of doctrine over which many Protestants differ. It is a criticism made trenchantly in recent works by Brad Gregory and by sociologist Christian Smith, who converted from evangelical Protestantism to Roman Catholicism over what he calls the “pervasive interpretive pluralism” that characterizes what he calls the “biblicism” of Protestant Christianity.
Kevin Vanhoozer, a theologian who has written extensively about biblical interpretation addresses this criticism in his newest book. He argues that the five solas of the Reformation so shape and inform our reading of scripture as to preclude the kind of anarchy of which Protestantism is accused.
The book is arranged around the traditional five solas of Reformed tradition: sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria. I will try to summarize the major contours of a careful argument he makes that eventuates instead in what he would call a “unitive interpretive plurality.”
First of all, he contends that sola gratia means that we understand scripture as as a gracious initiative of the triune God to communicate his gracious work in Christ to us and that the Bible, its interpreters, and interpretation are all caught up in this gracious initiative. This seems quite important in addressing what kind of book scripture is and the origin of its communication and our capacity to discern its meaning.
Second, sola fide recognizes God’s trustworthy authority in creation and salvation and in attesting to this work through human testimony and the appropriate response of faith. Faith alone is not faith isolated from listening to others and the epistemic humility of faith avoids the extremes of certainty and relativity.
Third, sola scriptura is not solo scriptura. While scripture is the final authority it is not the only authority. Our reading of scripture is informed by the other solas and the insights of the church as a whole. Vanhoozer affirms the biblicism of his position but calls for a catholic biblicism that listens to the testimony of the church about the scriptures.
Fourth, solus Christus implies the priesthood of all believers, and it is to this priesthood that Christ has entrusted the keys to the kingdom household, which Vanhoozer sees as the local congregation. We do not interpret scripture individually but as part of interpretive communities in local congregations who interpret in communion with other local congregations.
Finally, soli Deo gloria means that local churches are “holy nations” whose uniqueness and communion glorifies God as these nations “conference” with each other around their understanding of holy scripture, experiencing continuing renewal as they read scripture together. Rather than mere uniformity, the church manifests a robust unity within diversity that makes it hardier and more able to adapt to the different settings in which it finds itself.
Each of the chapters develops these ideas and then summarizes them in a final section. Then, in his conclusion Vanhoozer summarizes his argument and concludes that this is a better form of catholicity than Roman Catholicity.
As I worked through this argument, I found much that I could affirm wholeheartedly. He begins, not with scripture but with God’s gracious initiative. I heartily affirm his call to a humble faith that refuses to idolize certainty but equally steers clear of skepticism and relativity. He steers clear of the caricatures of biblicism that are rightly criticized. And I found his vision for unity that is not uniformity bracing.
I do think the most difficult part of his argument for the contention he would make is the part about local churches as interpretive communities. I think it a healthier thing that local churches function as interpretive communities than individuals in isolation. What counters the danger of pervasive interpretive pluralism for him is this idea of conference–churches in a gospel-shaped conversation with each other. This sounds nice in theory, but through the 500 years of Reformation history, where has this been practiced, and is there some reason that it might be practiced in our present day when it has not been for all this time? Where are there vibrant examples of congregations, particularly from different theological streams within Protestantism, in conversation with each other? Where are there examples of irenic efforts to listen to one another and address contradictory understandings of scripture around matters like political engagement, gender roles in home and church, the weight we give to dominion and to creation care, and more?
It is striking to me that one of the few examples of such “conference” that I can think of was the initial statement in 1994 and subsequent conversations of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. This was not a conversation between Protestants about a “mere Protestant Christianity” as Vanhoozer calls it but rather one between a subgroup of Protestants and Catholics. With the deaths of Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus, who provided much of the impetus of these conversations, they seem to have waned. The conversations did not downplay difference but also emphasized common ground and the work of listening to each other, for often differences arise from misunderstanding. Might these be a model for the kind of “conference” that might be possible?
I don’t think there is a structured way in which the kinds of “conference” Vanhoozer describes can occur for the whole global church. But might his framework begin to inform the practice of local congregations more, around a disposition to commune and confer with fellow believers across denominational, cultural, and other differences, and to read scripture together in ways that enrich and renew each other, as an expression of our shared convictions around the grace and gospel of God? Might it also inform our disposition toward one another, where we determine not to suspect and criticize each other but to confer with and learn from each other, and seek to hear together what the Spirit is saying to the churches? While it might not rectify all the problems critics see in Protestant Christianity, it might be a start toward a catholicity that begins to prepare us for the coming of the Bridegroom.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
2 thoughts on “Review: Biblical Authority After Babel”
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Thanks for the review, I’ll definitely check this book out. For your major concern you ask where in history have churches been in gospel-shaped conversation? Would not the writing of the major historic confessions be a great example of like minded conversation. The WCF, LBC and Savoy have stood the test of time, all in the reformed tradition, and all are considerably close in theology. What do you think about that?
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