Book Review: Biblical Authority after Babel, by Kevin Vanhoozer
Editor’s note: Kevin Vanhoozer kindly read and responded to this review. You can see his response at the bottom of this piece.
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Kevin Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Protestant Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity. 288 pages, Brazos Press. 288 pps. $21.99.
Please choose one: the Reformation was (a) a tragedy, or (b) a triumph. No, no—no nuance, no in-between. Which tag is truer, more fitting? Why?
Since its beginning, critics of the Reformation have charged that the Protestant principles of sola fide and sola Scriptura have let slip the dogs not only of war, but also of anarchy. More specifically, interpretive anarchy. Recent learned criticisms of Protestantism such as those of Brad Gregory and Christian Smith highlight what they see as the empirical reality of “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” The Reformation gave individuals the right, or even the mandate, to interpret the Bible for themselves. And ever since, countless Protestants have read what is right in their own eyes, with today’s 30,000 global Protestant denominations as the retrospectively inevitable result. If every Christian gets to say what the Bible says, then in the end no one can say what the Bible says. And, so the story concludes, we therefore need some infallibly authoritative interpreter to tell us what the Bible says. Now just who might be offering to relieve us of our interpretive burdens?
Not so fast, says Kevin Vanhoozer. In his recent book Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Protestant Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity, Vanhoozer argues that this pervasive interpretive pluralism is indeed a problem, but that it is a bug, not a feature, of Protestant theology and hermeneutical practice. Instead, Vanhoozer argues that a properly programmed Protestantism—what he calls “mere Protestantism”—will lead not to interpretive anarchy but to “plural interpretive unity” (17 n. 70; 223): a bounded diversity that accentuates and attests a more fundamental unity, a unified witness to the gospel of the grace of God in Christ. Vanhoozer therefore “retrieves” each of the five Protestant “solas” (grace alone, faith alone, and so on) with an eye trained on their hermeneutical promise. Does a properly configured Protestantism embody the grace of the gospel, attest the unity of God and God’s people, and equip Christians to flourish together in Christ? Yes, yes, and yes, Vanhoozer argues.
Vanhoozer’s argument is engaging and intricate, at once demanding and delightful. Since Patrick Schreiner has already given a full and fair summary of the book, I will skip straight to evaluation. I have three cheers, a wish, and a worry, which I will nail to 9Marks’ electronic church door in reverse order.
Before I do, let me cut to the closing credits: I love this book. In my view, Vanhoozer proposes a compelling thesis and argues it convincingly. Vanhoozer’s customary clarity, charity, verve, vigor, humor, and infectious enthusiasm are all amply on offer. I would recommend this book to anyone committed to the Reformation, questioning the Reformation, or opposed to the Reformation. The writing is dense but lucid and pointed. The book is a manifesto, not a handbook, but I would anticipate plenty of practical payoff, especially for pastors. More commendation to follow.
But first, the worry: what about the disagreements among Protestants that, five hundred years on, just haven’t gone away? I have two primarily in mind: the Lutheran/Reformed divide over the Lord’s Supper, and the credobaptist/paedobaptist divide over the proper subjects of baptism. Vanhoozer predicates his unifying vision of a “mere Protestantism” on Protestants’ ability not only to proclaim the same gospel, but also, repeatedly, on their ability to share fellowship at the Lord’s Table. For instance: “The golden rule for confessional traditions is to practice hospitality, to visit one’s neighbors and invite them to (the Lord’s) Supper. Protestant traditions should be inviting homes, not mighty bulwarks (at least not toward one another). It is possible to fellowship with one’s neighbors without betraying one’s identity” (204; cf. 206, 212–13, 222, 226). I agree unreservedly in principle. But in practice, matters are more complicated.
For many Lutherans, even a Reformed perspective on the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper amounts to something more than a secondary difference over the “interpretation” of the story as opposed to the “story” itself (cf. 63). Such Lutherans, in my view, have legitimate reason to require that those who celebrate the Supper with them share their understanding of what the Supper is. Further, someone has argued somewhere that, narrow as it sounds, those churches that are convinced that only the baptism of believers is baptism should require such baptism of those they would admit to the Lord’s Supper and church membership.
Are such Protestants “mere” enough to qualify for Vanhoozer’s program? I suspect Vanhoozer would generally commend such Lutheran and Baptist brothers and sisters, occupying as they already do some of the “historic Protestant homes on Evangel Way” that Vanhoozer encourages evangelicals to “repossess” (220). Further, Vanhoozer does not envision some conglomerate church in which everyone’s doctrinal distinctives are cut down to size in service of lowest-common-denominator unity. Far from it: “We do not prosper the gospel when we pit unity against truth” (20). And Vanhoozer acknowledges, “Disagreements about level-two doctrine do not disqualify a person from the fellowship of the saints, but they may lead to a parting of the ways” (205). So I here register a worry rather than an outright criticism. But I worry that Vanhoozer’s “mere Protestants” might not be able to be quite as unified as he wants them to be, or perhaps as the precise terms of his apologetic require them to be.
This leads to my wish: I wish Vanhoozer had been a bit more specific about some of the forms that his envisioned Protestant interpretive unity can, should, and does take. For instance, Vanhoozer argues that, within the ministerially norming framework of the catholic councils, Protestants should engage in “canonical conference,” meeting to “discuss and deliberate the meaning of Scripture” (230). But what forms do, and should, such meetings take? He argues that the congrégations and Prophezei of, respectively, sixteenth-century Geneva and Zurich “remain helpful models” (231). But is anyone following in these footsteps today? If so, who?
Behind my wish is the question of how realistic or idealistic is Vanhoozer’s vision. He says the book “primarily aims to help Protestants clean their own houses, not to condemn the houses of others” (182). So the book clearly (and compellingly!) calls for further reformation. But where on the ground does this vision land? Where do we start, and who among the living can help us? Perhaps I am falling into the classic book reviewer fallacy of holding the author to account for failing to answer a question he did not ask. But if so, I think the book would have been strengthened—and its persuasive power enhanced—if Vanhoozer had touched down in the realm of practice at least occasionally, providing a smattering of well-cleaned houses for us to emulate.
I now return to the far more pleasurable task of singing this book’s praises. I limit myself to three: three cheers for Kevin Vanhoozer, a jolly good fellow of Reformation College, University of Catholic and Apostolic Christianity!
1. Joined-Up Protestantism
First, a cheer for Vanhoozer’s vision of a joined-up Protestantism. In his exposition of the five Protestant solas, Vanhoozer takes what could be isolated slogans and expertly fits bone into socket, linking ligament and muscle, until what emerges is truly a body of divinity: a cohesive account, albeit in outline, of the grace of God in the gospel, and the gospel’s gift of the church as the place where Christ is known through his Word. Vanhoozer expounds not just what the solas assert, but what they presuppose and imply. For those tempted to abandon what seems the interpretive poverty of modern Protestantism for the alluring wealth of Roman Catholic tradition, Vanhoozer shows that there is more hermeneutical capital in the Protestant account than many, friend and foe alike, have recognized.
And Vanhoozer’s Protestantism is joined-up in another sense: he richly accounts for the role that tradition, the witness of catholic Christianity through ages and cultures, should play in the interpretive pattern of authority governed supremely by Scripture. For Vanhoozer, tradition is not judge but witness. “Tradition is but the moon to Scripture’s sun: what light tradition casts, and what authority it has, is secondary and derivative—ministerial—though it is nonetheless real light” (139). In other words, Vanhoozer provides a thick and urgently needed account of the sense in which all of us Protestants should be catholic.
2. A Powerful Answer to a Question both Perennial and Presently Pressing
A second cheer: in this book Vanhoozer offers a powerful answer to a question both perennial and presently pressing. Since the Reformation, one of its opponents’ key claims has been that we Protestants can’t agree about what the Bible means, so what good does it do to claim Scripture as our final authority? What kind of authority can a wax nose have? This criticism has gained new force in the wake of our age’s empirical pluralism and postmodernism’s hermeneutics of deconstruction. How can anyone claim to say that this and not that is what any text means, much less sixty-six texts bound together by who knows what arbitrary decision?
If you are in any kind of church leadership, I’m sure you’ve been asked questions like these. How do you answer them? Could you use any help? Vanhoozer offers plenty.
In his introductory survey of objections to sola Scriptura, Vanhoozer sets the bar very high indeed. For instance, he asks, “Did the Reformation set loose interpretive anarchy upon the world, and, if so, should Christians everyone file a class-action suit?” (9) And he adduces the testimony of many eloquent witnesses for the prosecution. Yet in my judgment Vanhoozer clears the bar with room to spare. In the end, Vanhoozer turns the tables on the opposition: “The Reformation solas do a better job of preserving genuine (i.e., conciliar) catholicity than do the Roman anathemas against them pronounced by the Council of Trent” (233).
3. The Right Role of the Church in Biblical Interpretation
Third, Vanhoozer rights one of the most common wrongs of garden-variety Protestantism: the sidelining of the local church. In a deft reconstructive surgery, Vanhoozer rebuilds not only the proper place of the church in Protestant theology and practice, but also the church’s right role in biblical interpretation.
In his fourth chapter, on “the royal priesthood of all believers,” Vanhoozer argues that this doctrine is “the sum of the solas—and a summa of mere Protestant Christianity” (156). In expounding this doctrine Vanhoozer argues that the local church is a ministerially authoritative interpretive community. He affirms that the keys of the kingdom authorize the church to declare “what does or does not belong in the royal household of God” (171). And he concludes that the church, in submission to Christ’s authority in Scripture, does indeed have authority “to make binding interpretive judgments on matters pertaining to statements of faith and the life of church members insofar as they concern the integrity of the gospel” (174).
The church is not optional, either for your Christian life or for how we all interpret the Bible. Instead, “[T]hose who cherish the gospel must also cherish the church, for the church is an implication of the gospel, a figure of its telos, giving body to the lordship of Christ” (147). So my third cheer comes all the way from the bottom of my Baptist heart: Hip, hip, hooray! for Vanhoozer’s precise, impassioned articulation of the crucial role of the local church in articulating, promoting, and defending the truth of the gospel.
THE APPLICATION IS EASY
This review is much too long, yet much too short to do justice to the richness, rigor, and joyfully astonished delight in God’s grace that render this book not only persuasive but powerful, not just convincing but moving.
If you want to be reminded of the depth and power of God’s grace, of the beautiful wisdom of God’s plan of salvation and his ordering of the church; if you want your commitment to Scripture’s authority and sufficiency strengthened; if you want to better understand how the Spirit’s illumination, tradition’s witness, and the church’s authority all work together under the rule of Scripture, then, as the Puritan John Flavel often said, the application is easy.
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A Reply to Bobby Jamieson, by Kevin Vanhoozer
Jamieson gets it. He understands my argument and therefore asks the right questions, in a critical yet sympathetic spirit, and with constructive intent—my favorite type of review (thank you!). He wants to push me further, not over a cliff, but towards more concrete suggestions, so that he can put the proposal to good practical work.
As to his worry: as I say in the book, it is not that mere Protestant Christianity has been tried and found wanting, but that it has been found arduous and left unfinished. Real live Protestant Christians need to grow up into the full stature of mere Protestant Christianity. This requires charity and virtue, in particular, epistemic conscientiousness and interpretive humility about the absoluteness of the distinctive beliefs of one’s confessional tradition.
As to his wish: yes, I could have said more, although I’m typically criticized for saying too much! In this case, I wanted to leave some things to the reader’s imagination, not least because people tend to get more excited when they discover things for themselves. However, I was careful to leave a trail of breadcrumbs that I hope people will follow. The trail begins with a plea to retrieve both church councils and the more informal congrégations. If I had to be more specific about the form mere Protestant interpretive unity, canonical conference, and catholic conversation should take today, however, I would probably point to the Lausanne Conference. It’s not Genevan, but it’s close, and in a footnote towards the end, I hinted that John Stott was the patron saint of mere Protestant evangelicalism.