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

Kevin J. Vanhoozer
Published by Brazos Press in 2016

Since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, critics have charged that the principle of sola Scriptura has brought about “anarchy” in the life of the church. Scholars across the theological spectrum have taken on the Reformation, noting what they see as the empirical reality of “pervasive interpretative pluralism” (Christian Smith) or “unintended consequences” (Brad Gregory). Others have also waded into the waters: Alister McGrath arguing how “justification by faith” introduces “Protestantism’s Dangerous Idea” of expressive individualism, Richard Popkin suggesting how the Reformation laid the groundwork to radical skepticism, or Hans Boersma stating how Protestantism contains the very seeds of schism.

With the 500th anniversary of Wittenberg upon us, the debate is on: How is the Reformation implicated in the rise of modernity, and how did the notion of the “individual” come to the right, or even the obligation, to interpret Scripture separately from the church? Thirty-two thousand Protestant denominations later, we might want to know how we got here.

Enter Kevin Vanhoozer’s new work Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity. According to Vanhoozer, the problem is not interpretive anarchy per se, but how to negotiate the conflict of interpretation of that authoritative source in the church (21). According to Vanhoozer, biblical authority is more a symptom than an underlying problem in Protestant theology (22). The vast majority of Protestants (and Roman Catholics) affirm that the Bible is authoritative as God’s Word (21). The real issue is how one interpretation can have say-so over another, or why this tradition may have the right to make an authoritative interpretation over against another. Who determines who comes to the table to hear which views?

In what he calls an act of retrieval, Vanhoozer brings forth five of the “solas” of the Reformation and stipulates a properly programmed Protestantism, or what he coins as “the first theology of mere Protestant Christianity” (23), to contend with the perils of “interpretative anarchy” (17). Such a “mere Protestantism” will accentuate a “bounded diversity” and attest to the “fundamental unity” of the gospel (25). By retrieving the solas, Vanhoozer believes he can capture the key principle of the Reformation and thus heal the bleeding of Protestantism. Vanhoozer identifies this key principle as catholicity (31). Solidifying sola ecclesia, in which the church alone, or the priesthood of all believers, is the place where the rule of Christ reigns, can provide the gifts to the building of the living temple (29). Vanhoozer organizes his work around these solas, giving each extensive treatment before providing summations of mere Protestant Christianity.

Vanhoozer pursues his vision of mere Protestantism by arguing that we must take the solas together in order to recover the church’s catholicity; that is, the solas are not “substitutes for creedal orthodoxy but its servants” (28). Protestant Christians are to seek unity on theological essentials with genuine fellowship despite secondary differences (27-28). In other words, the goal is nothing less than to “look backward creatively in order to move forward faithfully”: to retrieve the ontology of interpretative authority in regards to the Bible (24).

Vanhoozer discusses the five solas by rebutting the charges that typically come against each. For example, with the doctrine of grace alone, there is the need to speak to the charges of secularization by providing “guardrails” for the all-embracing economy of God’s revelation (50). Sola gratia is not simply about the nature of salvation, but about the very nature of God; grace alone refutes secularization by locating us within the saving work of the triune God (61).

But if “grace alone” rebuts the charge of secularization, then what about “faith alone”? In Vanhoozer’s schema, faith alone answers the charges of skepticism, or the crisis of knowing (epistemology). Sola fide does not bless the rights of private judgment in biblical interpretation, but rather unites us, by the Holy Spirit, to Christ (85). Building on the work of philosopher Linda Zagzebski, Vanhoozer contrasts what he calls “epistemic egoism” with “epistemic trust” in accord with the testimony of scripture. Such testimony is warranted within the common fiduciary framework of grace, allowing God’s people to thrive as God’s people (100).

Vanhoozer moves on to address sola scriptura within the popular narrative common among scholars that it produces division and not unity. Here, the Reformers did not intend a doctrine that would bring about a series of individualistic interpretations; rather, their aim was to advance scripture as the primary or supreme (but not the only) authority in theology (117). Sola scriptura does not reject tradition, but places it in the proper perspective: “The Reformers’ main objection to Roman Catholicism was not its catholicity but its centeredness in Rome” (136). Rightly understood, sola scriptura is not a recipe for schism or sectarianism, but a call to listen to the Holy Spirit in the life of the church’s history of interpretation (137).

The fourth sola that Vanhoozer explores is the doctrine solus Christus, or “in Christ alone.” This doctrine does not present Christ as independent of the church, but rather, like sola scriptura, relocates the priestly, kingly, and prophetic offices of Christ within the church (148). Vanhoozer’s goal is to gesture toward a “mere Protestant ecclesiology,” or an ecclesiology that does not fall prey to totus Christus (Roman Catholicism), or the Christless congregation (secular church), or the congregationless Christ (dispensable church) (151-155). Instead, the focus is on the royal priesthood of believers as the corporate body of Christ in line with the apostles and prophets (156). The purpose of this sola is to center the church’s unity (or its mereness) in Christ as a way to mitigate against the forces that lead to the all-pervasive sense of division (its fissiparousness) in isolation from Christ (148).

The last sola that Vanhoozer stresses is soli Deo Gloria, or for the glory of God alone. As with the other solas, soli Deo gloria has teleological implications and points to the eschatological promises of the kingdom (180). Here, Vanhoozer emphasizes the link between the glory of God and unity in the Lord’s Supper. Unfortunately, unity is also divided, whether through ecumenism, sectarianism, or denominationalism, all with strengths and weaknesses, as there are times when unity can be ungodly and other times when division may be godly, whereas at other times it is not (186). What is necessary is not another form of “radical denominationalism,” thus reinforcing “denominational egotism,” but a “strong denominationalism,” in which the gospel can be contextualized in new situations (189), and in which communion can exist both within the church and between churches (191). Practices of recognition are simply part and parcel of table fellowship in the one body of Christ, a true unity-in-diversity (192).

Several issues surface when reflecting on Vanhoozer’s new book. First, it is not clear whether persons will find in Vanhoozer a convincing defense of his critiques of secularization, schism, and skepticism. Others will want to explore more where Vanhoozer’s theological proposals might lead or what the historical links are. Whatever the angle, the debate on authority and modernity has only started. Vanhoozer will likely serve as an interlocutor in the days ahead, especially among Reformed Evangelicals. We can at least compliment Vanhoozer on beginning the discussion, even if the Anglican-Wesleyan-Pentecostal wing of the church is conspicuously absent.

Second, in a day when others are also envisioning and developing “interim ecclesiologies” (Leithart), revisiting what truly unites and divides Protestant Christians, Vanhoozer’s development of a “mere Protestantism” holds promise. The use of C. S Lewis’s notion of mere Christianity can play a constructive role in navigating the conflict of interpretations; the hallway theme can allow for unity-in-diversity. But the danger of such a functional understanding of the church also remains: We may all go to our separate rooms and eat when necessary, but the isolation lingers (33). Such a “weak” form of ecclesiology is the opposite of the kind of “strong” ecclesiology the church needs. In fact, Vanhoozer’s gesturing toward a “strong denominationalism” remains to be developed. Denominations can build on the conciliar forms of the faith across time (for example, with the Church Fathers, rule of faith, church canons) and pursue more thoroughly the kind of orthodox ecumenism that is emerging on all fronts (such as Reformed Catholicity, Evangelical Catholicism, Creedal Evangelicalism, and Canonical Theism, to name a few). Indeed, Vanhoozer’s work compliments these efforts.

Such insights, however, also raise questions: Who really wants to come to a block party on Evangel Way? Yes, there are many rooms in the Father’s House (John 14), but what actually constitutes that house, or, in Vanhoozer’s idiom, that street? It would appear, in keeping with the critique of Anglican theologian Ephraim Radner, that Vanhoozer’s account of the church simply reinforces the “atomization” of the church, especially within Evangelicalism. It is why Mennonite-turned-Roman Catholic Gerald Schlabach’s argument of “unlearning Protestanism” also needs serious consideration, as the church cultivates “virtues of fidelity” and “forms of stability”: How may dissent not automatically lead to separation?

Interestingly, on this very point, Vanhoozer’s retrieval of the five solas, while serving creedal orthodoxy, does not necessarily fully assume creedal orthodoxy. Though Vanhoozer is quick to point out that we cannot see the solas working independently of each other, or “solo,” he does allude to the way the “rule of faith” can play a vital role in the interpretation of scripture (120). Indeed, read carefully, we may notice how Vanhoozer’s resurrection of the solas in practice has similarities with the way the rule has functioned across time in the church. Protestant “confession” need not exclude conciliar dynamics. Therefore, we might not want to ask why Vanhoozer did not focus on retrieving that which was part of the whole church from the beginning, or, ironically, on what C. S. Lewis called “deep church,” or on those canons and practices which made the church what it substantively was, a truly mere Christianity. This is not to say that the solas do not have a place in the economy of God’s salvation. They do, as Vanhoozer persuasively shows. They simply need to be located within the larger context of the nature of the church and workings of the Holy Spirit, offering not one more criterion of authority, but the grace of Pentecost—not the confusion of Babel, but the way forward.

Cite this article
Andrew D. Kinsey, “Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Protestant Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 46:4 , 416–418

Andrew D. Kinsey

Grace United Methodist Church
Grace United Methodist Church, Franklin, Indiana