Book Review: Biblical Authority after Babel

Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity. By Kevin J. Vanhoozer. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016.  Click here.

The “solas” are at the forefront, appropriately so, of a lot of Reformation jubilee discussion and literature as October 31, 2017 approaches. Because they can be seen as providing a content-rich but extremely compact summary of the Reformation movement, of Reformation teaching, or of the motivations of the Reformers, even the fact that they’re in Latin is overlooked. I myself find, as I pastor in a setting where Lutherans are one of the rarer breeds of Christianity, that a short reference to sola gratia, sola fide, and sola scriptura can go a long way, not only to describe who we are, but also to garner some respect among those who otherwise suspect me of having a shrine to Martin Luther in my house.

Kevin Vanhoozer, Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL), enters the fray with his effort at a “ressourcement” of the solas. By that, he means “a retrieval of distinctly Reformation insights . . . to address the problem of interpretive pluralism” (23). The problem of interpretive pluralism is a problem the author identifies within the plethora of confessions and denominations that have grown out of the Reformation (Vanhoozer refers simply to Protestantism, and of course includes Lutheranism in that), namely the problem that no hermeneutical rules or criteria have thus far been developed that successfully assure that two protestants or protestant communities reading the holy scripture draw the same conclusions about its meaning. Instead, a plurality of interpretations is apparent to everyone, thus: the problem of interpretive pluralism.

            Lamenting the suggestion that this interpretive pluralism is a result of sola scriptura, Vanhoozer seizes the opportunity instead to push the solas into the foreground and suggest that they provide a way forward. The outline of the book bears it out. The chapter headings are: Grace Alone; Faith Alone; Scripture Alone; In Christ Alone; and For the Glory of God Alone. Each chapter concludes with four theses that summarize the benefit of the ressourcement for what Vanhoozer calls Mere Protestant Christianity.

The meaning of ressourcement is key to understanding the Vanhoozer’s intentions. He is aware that the solas originally belong in the discussion of soteriology —and there in fact as negations of error (exclusionary or exclusive particles)—but he attempts to retrieve from them positive insights for overcoming the problem of interpretive pluralism. The result is not a new set of insights for hermeneutics, but rather for ecumenical Christianity within the Protestant sphere, thus the subtitle of the book: “Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity.”

However, certain difficulties arise in Vanhoozer’s attempt at ressourcement. The disregard for the principally negative character of the solas as exclusive particles in favor of mining their positive sides results in a muddling loss of precision. For example, the first thesis resulting from the principle of “faith alone” is this:

The authority principle of mere Protestant Christianity is the say-so of the Triune God, a speak-acting that authorizes the created order and authors the Scriptures, diverse testimonies that make known the created order as it has come to be and to be restored in, through, and for Jesus Christ. The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. (Rom. 8:16 NIV). (62)

With a little work, one can follow parts of his line of reasoning: sola fide hands authority in justification to the pronouncement of God, and by extension, also the authority in anything else that he would say (Vanhoozer: epistemological as opposed to soteriological authority). But since the discussion is based in the positive, in all that the sola fide allows to be affirmed, rather than in the specificity of its denial of works-righteousness, the use of the sola is hardly more than as a mnemonic device for recalling Vanhoozer’s concept of Mere Protestant Christianity, and for this task, it actually seems poorly suited. The subheadings of the chapters provide some help at illustrattion, as they give a clue regarding what aspect of the positive ressourcement of the solas is important to the author:

Grace Alone: The Mere Protestant Ontology, Economy, and Teleology of the Gospel

Faith Alone: The Mere Protestant Principle of Authority

Scripture Alone: The Mere Protestant Pattern of Interpretive Authority

In Christ Alone: The Royal Priesthood of All Believers (!)

For the Glory of God Alone: The Wealth of Holy Nations

Again it is clear: Mere Protestant Christianity is the goal. It’s defining characteristics are probably stated most clearly in Vanhoozer’s 19th thesis:

The genius of mere Protestant Christianity is its distinct converse (i.e., conversational ‘conference'), generated and governed by Scripture, and guided by a convictional conciliarism that unites diverse churches in a transdenominational communion. (211)

The author advocates for (protestant) Christians to read the scriptures together in the hope that such an effort would lead toward unity.

Vanhoozer does not call for the dissolution of denominations and he explicitly recognizes the “interpretive authority” of a congregation within its own walls over against the imposition of an external viewpoint. In this regard, his theses do represent hermeneutical suggestions, but the goal is a different one, summarized in the final thesis: “The glory of mere Protestant Christianity is the conference and communion of holy nations, itself a gift that glorifies God in magnifying Jesus Christ” (20). The goal is the restoration of the visible external unity of the church, because this would bring glory to God. Here especially, Vanhoozer sheds light on two of the traditional lines in the sand between Reformed Christians and Lutherans: the theology of the cross and fellowship at the Lord’s table. I would only briefly comment on the latter.

Without going into detail on the doctrine of the real presence, Vanhoozer continues the regularly observable puzzlement of Reformed theologians about why Lutherans think they hold to a different teaching regarding the presence of Christ in the Supper than the Reformed. Interpretive disagreement should not prevent the celebration of fellowship—and demonstration of unity to the glory of God—that occurs in the Lord’s Supper. That the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper might be such an important subject of interpretive disagreement as to prevent this from happening seems not to occur to the author. At the very least, Vanhoozer’s presumption of a mutual invitation to the Sacrament, as a part of “Mere Protestant Christianity,” actually presumes the success of the program of “Mere Protestant Christianity.” In this sense, the program remains identifiably Reformed, despite higher intentions.

Vanhoozer’s book is a difficult read. His conversational, sometimes witty style, filled with references—explicit and implicit—to a wide range of culture (including “pop” culture) and literature (like the obvious reference in the title to C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity), as well as of inventive, alliterative catchphrases—unfortunately always in need of additional explanation—seemed more distracting than helpful. His argument ostensibly relies on the ressourcement of the Reformation solas, but separates them from their unity principle, the doctrine of justification, and instead ascribes to them different key aspects of the author’s Mere Protestant Christianity. If the purpose of the work is to argue for an interpretation of the value of the solas for contemporary Christianity, this is a clear case of begging the question. If the book is rather to be seen as a welcome proposal for addressing the disunity of the church today, then I leave the evaluation of this proposal to another reviewer, but also register my disappointment, as it would seem that the emphasis on the solas, which drew my interest to the work, was misleading and only of superficial interest to the author.


Jacob Corzine

Lutheran Campus Ministry

Pretoria, South Africa