Review: Biblical Authority After Babel

Biblical Authority After Babel

Biblical Authority After BabelKevin 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.

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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.

 

 

Review: Why Church History Matters: An Invitation to Love and Learn from Our Past

Why Church History Matters: An Invitation to Love and Learn from Our Past
Why Church History Matters: An Invitation to Love and Learn from Our Past by Robert F. Rea
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Why learn about church history? This is particularly an important question for Christians committed to a biblical faith. Isn’t the Bible enough? Isn’t tradition a bad thing, a kind of institutional legalism that takes us away from the heart of the gospel and the vitality of the early church in the book of Acts?

Robert F. Rea meets these questions “head on” in a book that I hope will see wide usage. His basic argument is that when we ignore the thought and actions of Christians throughout history and from other cultures, what we more likely do is create a culturally captive Christianity that is a “Christianized” reflection of the culture in which we are embedded. Only as we “commune with the saints” across history and culture and understand how they read and applied the Bible can our expression of Christianity “sync” with theirs and have a hope of being the startlingly fresh word the world needs.

Rea begins with discussing “tradition”, which he uses in “the general sense as a synonym for Christian history, church history, or historical theology…”(p. 29). He recognizes that tradition is necessary and inevitable while recognizing that particular traditions may be good or bad. He then explores how “tradition” has been understood in relationship to scripture throughout the history of the church. He begins by showing that in the early church scripture and tradition were compatible–the clarification of the meaning of scripture by the early fathers and councils gave shape to orthodoxy. He traces this through the Great Schism of 1054 and the issue of papal primacy, the Reformation period and the heightened emphasis on scripture and subordination of tradition, down through to the present and the renewed interest in some sectors of the church in patristics and the role of tradition in Christian understanding. He then summarizes the role of tradition among the major current streams of the church. What is significant for him is that tradition plays a role in all of these, even though the relation of biblical authority, ecclesial authority, and tradition will be defined differently.

The second part of his book looks at the expanding circles of inquiry that are necessary to explore as we talk about church history beginning with our immediate circle, our congregation, our faith tradition, our shared theological outlook, contrasting theologies, other cultures, and across the centuries. He considers how our identity is shaped and modified as we expand our circles of interaction. He emphasizes how the cloud of witnesses across the centuries give us models for living, help us recognize false belief, and help us confront persecution and difficult ethical choices. We also practice accountability across the centuries, both allowing prior formulations of biblical understanding and practice to critique ours, as well as sometimes engaging the beliefs and practices we think inadequately reflected biblical faithfulness. We both avoid past errors and learn from past responses to error. Theologians from the past can mentor us–filling in gaps, helping us think in different categories, and as we listen to the conversation across the centuries, come to understand the “consensus of the faithful” where this exists.

In his third section he explores the usefulness of tradition to biblical exegesis and proposes a model that incorporates not only the historical-critical approaches we most commonly use but listens to how our contemporaries in our own and other cultures read scripture and how Christians through history have read scripture. Hopefully, these understandings agree but when they do not, he raises the possibility of multiple levels of understanding, which was certainly accepted by biblical writers as well as many of the early fathers. Some may be critical of Rea here, but what challenges me is that writers of the New Testament themselves sometimes interpreted scripture in other than historical-critical ways.

He concludes with exploring the uses of church history for systematic theology, which must interact with both biblical and historical theology; spirituality, drawing on the spiritual writers and formative traditions the church has learned from down the centuries. He also considers other topics such as worship, mission, ethics, compassion, and Christian unity and how an understanding of church history can enrich and inform our efforts in each of these areas.

Rea makes a good case here that biblical faithfulness may be enhanced rather than diminished as we study the scriptures with the saints across history and culture. He provides examples throughout and resources at the end to help underscore his case. Rea’s book not only makes the study of church history appealing to those who would identify as “Bible” Christians; he also lays the groundwork for a vibrant Christianity that evades the shackles of cultural captivity and heals the schisms of the past.

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You Lost Me, The Conversation: Generational Distinctives

You Lost Me

So, my blogging son and I are trying a conversation (or is that a blogversation?!) on David Kinnaman’s book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church…and Rethinking FaithBen’s led off last week with the post, Generation Gap. I’m going to pick up on that with exploring three characteristics Kinnamen highlights that distinguish, for him, “Mosaics” (his term for Millenials) from other generations.

The first is the idea of “access”.  He observes that Mosaics have grown up with unprecedented access to knowledge and the world because of the internet and related technologies. I think Ben makes a perceptive observation that early and later “Mosaics” may have different experiences here. However, I would agree with Kinnaman that this has a profoundly shaping quality, particularly in the idea that access doesn’t come in the context of one’s physical community where we gained knowledge through parents, ministers, school teachers, librarians and others who were all embedded in the same physical community, but rather in a placeless virtual community that is everywhere and nowhere at the same time and is not curated by trusted adults in our lives but is wide open and un-vetted.  Social interaction is also changed. Direct dial long distance calls became available while I was growing up–even so this was costly and mostly limited to the US and Canada. We could not have imagined instant contact with someone halfway across the world via tweets or Skype. Mosaics cannot imagine the world any other way. This is a real difference.

The second was a discussion of alienation, and here I wonder if this is a point of contact between Boomers and Mosaics, if we can remember being the age of Mosaics. Growing up in the Vietnam era, many of us felt alienated from a government and educational structures that we felt had lied to us. Many of us had workaholic parents pursuing the American dream (although in many more cases, those parents were still together). Some of us experienced alienation from churches as well that seemed out of touch with concerns about the war, civil rights, and the other issues we were facing. Were it not for a few powerful counter-examples in my own life, I probably would have ditched the faith. For some of us, the experience of re-connecting with God and other people in the context of Christian community powerfully addressed our sense of alienation. I wonder if in the intervening years we’ve forgotten that journey and the painfulness of the alienation we experienced.

The third characteristic Kinnaman noted was a skepticism of authority. Once again, I think there are real points of contact. Our mantra was “don’t trust anyone over thirty”. It is funny how you forget that when those of your generation become “the authorities” or you yourself occupy such positions. I do think the issue of the authority of the Bible among Christians has changed. We certainly had a number of people in our own day who were skeptical of the Bible. But that was not true inside the Christian communities we were part of. We not only spoke of biblical authority but did try to live it, if imperfectly and sometimes selectively. And that last may be the problem–where we were blind to our own failings while being critical of the failings of others. I also wonder if “personal interpretation” where people defended divergent and idiosyncratic readings of scripture contributed to our current generation’s dismissal of biblical authority altogether. Too often, Christians just turned scripture to their own ends without recognizing the larger problem they were creating in tolerating such divergent and individualistic interpretive approaches.

In sum, I find that Kinnaman’s first distinctive, that of access, is indeed a genuine distinctive. The issues of alienation and skepticism of authority are not new, although the nuances of this generation’s experience need to be understood. That last word, “understood” leads me to two things that I think are critically important if my generation is to re-connect with my son’s generation and those who are saying, “you lost me”. One is understanding that genuinely tries to enter this “brave new world”. Perhaps here it is not, in Crosby, Stills, and Nash terms a matter of “teach your children”, but rather to be taught by them and to make the effort to really learn the new technology and the new world mediated by that technology, even if it is bewildering. It also means understanding from their perspective the pain of alienation and why one might be so skeptical of authority. The second thing for me is remembering–particularly our own experiences of alienation and skepticism of authority. While no two journeys of people are alike, it might be that we each might learn from the other’s journey if we are willing to honestly remember them with all their warts and struggles–not the sanitized, all worked out versions we may be tempted to present.