Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity

Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016. pp. xii + 269. $21.99, cloth.

While many will look back to the Protestant Reformation on this 500th anniversary of its beginning, backward glances are not easy. The issues of the Reformation are perennial, each in their own way, as they connect to ongoing facets of life before God and amongst one another in the church: answering questions like “How am I right with God?” or “How does God exercise authority in the life of the Christian and the church?” But the perennial questions are now experienced amidst new, complicating contextual realities. Whereas the sixteenth century reformers had to challenge a nominalism that had marked late medieval piety, now we increasingly face a radically post-Christian environment where much more basic catechesis demands our attention. We cannot simply respond to legalisms of varying sorts with words of grace and good news, but we must also attend to elementary matters of identifying God, humanity, and our true plight. In many ways, this is to say that we can look back at the Reformation only through the haze of a world marked by secularization outside and (sadly) inside many congregations.

A number of voices have suggested that this modern disenchantment or secularization not only has followed the rise of Protestantism but has flowed from its very own roots. Brad Gregory has spoken of the “unintended Reformation” in this regard, wherein naturalization has sped up from Luther’s project. Christian Smith has argued that “pervasive interpretive pluralism” marks the experience of those who cry “Sola Scriptura!” and undercuts any genuine ecclesial authority. Hans Boersma suggests not that the Reformation began the godless framing of the world and human experience within it, but that it failed to respond to that festering medieval problem and only exacerbated its growth. For these and other reasons, many are marking this anniversary with calls for lament as opposed to celebration, for sorrow rather than happy remembrance.

Kevin J. Vanhoozer argues in Biblical Authority After Babel that the project of Protestantism ought not be treated in such ways but deserves our assent and our gratitude. More specifically, he commends the reality and necessity of what he deems “mere Protestant Christianity” over against these criticisms, and he does so by returning to the root principles of reformational theology: the famous five solas. To commend the project of “mere Protestant Christianity,” the volume offers twenty theses for consideration. The author clearly relates each sola to the perennial challenges thrown at Protestantism:

Sola gratia addresses the charge of secularization by locating biblical interpreters and interpretation in the all-encompassing economy of triune communicative activity. Sola fide and sola scriptura address the charge of skepticism by focusing on the principle and pattern respectively of what I will describe as the economy of theological authority. Solus Christus addresses the charge of schism by focusing on the royal priesthood of all believers, and that is the proper context for understanding the sola ecclesia. Finally, soli Deo gloria returns to the scene of the crime—Protestant division over the Lord’s Supper—in order to address the challenge of hyperplurality and interpretative disagreement in the church” (61).

Readers with some familiarity in Reformation theology will recognize that Vanhoozer is putting old slogans to use in significantly new ways. It is helpful to catch that he is redeploying the solas to inform discussion of more recent debates regarding the legacy of Protestantism itself. Perhaps this redeployment can be seen most overtly in the way that he speaks of a “formal principle” and “material principle” of “mere Protestant Christianity.” Whereas those terms normally apply to the doctrine of sola Scriptura and to justification by faith alone, respectively, he uses the terminology in a very different vein. “Retrieving the solas yields the material principle of mere Protestant Christianity: the triune economy of the gospel … The solas summarize what the Father is doing in Christ through the Spirit to form a holy nation, and this summary—a rule of faith, hope, and love—functions as a hermeneutical tool with which to arbitrate the conflict of interpretations” (28, 29). “[W]e also need to recover a hitherto-underappreciated element in the pattern of Protestant interpretative authority: the principle of the priesthood of all believers. I call this the formal principle of mere Protestant Christianity” (29). In so doing, Vanhoozer points toward the vivid description of biblical interpretation in a world enchanted with God’s presence and activity (over against the void of secularization) and locates such scriptural reading and theological judgment within the communion of the saints (contrary to the purportedly individualistic legacy of Luther).

Each chapter moves through a sequence whereby Vanhoozer describes the sola, locates it amidst its own initial context, and then applies it to the questions of interpretive individualism and pluralism. Readers need to note that the primary focus of the work is not excavatory but applicatory: Vanhoozer is primarily serving here to show the way in which these fives solas shed light upon questions of interpretative activity, either individually or corporately but always theologically. While he does reference and quote primary and secondary sources on each sola with skill, this book is neither aimed at nor best for doing that kind of historical backward glance. Where it is uniquely beneficial, however, is asking after the impact these “mere Protestant” tenets have upon our thoughts about theological and exegetical work.

In a sense, then, this is a book that could very easily be received with false expectations. If one is looking for an academic exposition of the reformational debates in their nuance, you had best look elsewhere. But this book actually does something far more notable, for my money, in that it asks how retrieval of those insights might help us confront much later questions that demand an equally courageous protest. Identifying secularism and individualism is hard enough, responding to them each with truly theological and evangelical resources doubly so. Vanhoozer’s focus upon the triune economy of the gospel and the churchly character of the solas proves remarkably promising in this regard.

Perhaps an example proves helpful. The chapter on sola fide focuses upon the way in which this reformation-era principle attunes us to the way the “Spirit uses words to effect faith” (79). In other words, we must catch the link between pneumatology and philology. Modern subjectivism provides one lush trap we must avoid this side of the Reformation, whether in the forms of philosophical rationalism or later romanticism. And perhaps the most common rebuke of those subjectivisms has been the recent turn to community and tradition-based rationality (as in the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, and others). Vanhoozer rightly shows that we actually need a much more fundamental appreciation of the church as creature of the Word (102) so as to appreciate the finitude and dependence of the church, the ongoing agency of the Word, the inscripturated form of the Word’s work now by the Spirit, and the distinctiveness of the church over against other social forms. Tradition-based sociology will not keep us from falling into individual subjectivism (83, 94); we demand an appreciation of the society of Christ and the communion of the saints that is rooted ultimately in the unique action of God here and now. We also need to tend appropriate virtues as the “epistemic fruits of faith” and ward off luring vices regarding theological labor, commending confidence and diligence rather than undue pride and bitter sloth (106). Like many in the recent theological interpretation of Scripture conversation (especially Scott Swain, Todd Billings, and John Webster) as well as some late modern theologians in the Reformed world (such as Herman Bavinck), Vanhoozer seeks to deploy fundamental evangelical principles not only to frame our understanding of salvation but also of theological exploration, not only for our eschatological destiny but also our epistemic practice. In light of the dominance of Enlightenment-era scientific method and the screed of critical theory and identity politics in shaping the pursuit of knowledge now, such a distinctly Christian and theological approach is much needed.

The book is useful not only for putting basic Protestant convictions to good epistemic work but also for drawing out some easily overlooked tenets of reformational faith and practice for more careful examination. As mentioned earlier, the Reformation demands our attention precisely because it had to do with God, before whom we are always summoned. Yet Vanhoozer helps us appreciate the way in which some of the assumptions of the Reformation can no longer simply be assumed. Drawing on the work of RTS’s own Michael Glodo, Vanhoozer suggests a sixth sola apart from which the others do not make sense: sola ecclesia (29; see esp. fn. 120). “The church alone is the place where Christ rules over his kingdom and gives certain gifts for the building of his living temple” (29). Vanhoozer suggests elsewhere that we need to attend to the significance of epistemic “means of grace” in describing the theological journey (115, 175). Such did not need to be said with the same gusto in the 1510s or 1520s, not until the Radical Reformation, on the one hand, and modern individualism, on the other hand, would eat away parasitically at the churchly character of Christianity in their varied ways.

I do wonder about certain judgments scattered throughout the course of the book that seem overly polemical, in my judgment, as in the precise manner and rather total contrast presented between Vanhoozer’s communicative ontology and Hans Boersma’s sacramental ontology (55-57). Whereas Vanhoozer rightly presses the covenantal and Christological concern that we do not merely participate in being but specifically participate also in Christ (55), I nevertheless wonder if we also need to speak then of an epistemic feedback loop wherein union and communion with Christ provides a set of spectacles for seeing the saturated character of all reality (albeit while sharing his concern for speaking of such participation as being itself “sacramental” when looking more broadly than the two ordinances). Perhaps Boersma’s account of creational participation is more serviceable in that second register, though only then and there. I also wonder about the way he concludes with a contrast between the ascended Christ and the church, arguing that Christians all have a “relation to the ascended Christ independently of church organization” (163). Is that not a more dichotomous phrasing than is needed to affirm he personal character of union with Christ and does it not at least risk underselling the social character of evangelical formation?

I also have reservations of a different sort about the success of his argument regarding Acts 15 and the Jerusalem Council and the interplay of ecclesial judgment and scriptural authority when he does not address the most common objection to classic evangelical methodology, namely, the argument (from Luke Timothy Johnson, Sylvia Keesmat, and Stephen Fowl) that interpreting the movement of the Holy Spirit has somehow trumped earlier Scriptural claims in the judgment of that ecclesiastical assembly (130-132). I agree with what Vanhoozer says regarding the council, but I think tackling the skepticism lurking in the waters today demands facing that counter-reading of Acts 10-15 head on. Finally, one wonders in what ways “mere Protestant Christianity” can affirm these five (or six) solas together and wherein ecclesiological differences will lead to notably distinct witnesses (whether Lutheran or Reformed, Anglican or Baptist). Such worries about overstatement or underargument are minor, however, and largely fall into the realm of rhetorical and pedagogical rather than substantive and principial judgments.

I commend the volume as a helpful retrieval of early Protestant principles, a useful engagement of lingering criticisms of the project of Reformation theology, and a promising sketch of how fundamental evangelical tenets inform very significant questions of epistemology and ecclesiology.

Michael Allen
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando