At Babel, the LORD God pronounced judgment on human hubris. Scattering humanity through the confusion of language, he fractured it into warring tribes and nations. For many, after the Reformation a similar scattering occurred. On a certain telling, when the Reformers set forth the doctrine of sola scriptura differing theological tribes, tongues, and nations emerged, perpetually at theological (at time actual) war with one another, and a legion of ills followed in the wake of their battles.
The charges are various. For some the Reformation’s “dangerous idea” (McGrath) landed us in a place of “pervasive interpretive pluralism” (Christian Smith) which begat such bastard sons as secularism (Brad Gregory), skepticism (Richard Popkin), and schism (Hans Boersma and Peter Leithart). In other words, the crisis of interpretive authority led to a loss of ecclesial unity and, according to many, it could not help but do so. And you could probably throw in Charles Taylor’s “disenchantment” thesis for good measure too.
Enter Vanhoozer, stage text. In his new book Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity, Vanhoozer moves to defend the Reformation against its critics by articulating it in a broader context with the other four solas (grace, faith, Christ, glory). Together they yield the proper interpretive matrix (the ontology, the economy, and teleology of interpretive authority) shaped by the gospel which yields a properly ‘catholic’ “Mere Protestant Christianity” that is “inflected by the Reformation.”
Now, in what follows I won’t attempt a typical, “objective” review. That would be silly. I’m one of Vanhoozer’s grad students and I saw the thing before it went to print. I also won’t attempt a sort of full-scale summary review. Patrick Schreiner’s engagement over at The Gospel Coalition has a pretty helpful condensation of the main moves of the argument (with charts!).
Instead, I’d like to simply offer a few framing remarks and suggestions about its relevance to the contemporary theological and churchly scene.
What’s It Isn’t and What It is: Retrieval for Ressourcement
First, I think what the book is not should be stated clearly at the outset. Even though the work is an examination of the five solas, Vanhoozer is explicitly not trying to mount an historical defense of the Reformation against these charges. He doesn’t think “the accidental truths of European history” should ever be “the proof of necessary truths of Protestant theology.”
In which case, it should be unsurprising that this is not a book of history. So while there are discussions of Luther and Calvin’s theology, if you’re looking for a nice, historical survey of the key points of the Reformation, you may want to try elsewhere.
Instead, Vanhoozer’s argument is an explicit retrieval of historical theology in order to resource it for the challenges of the present. So when he dips into the theology of the Reformers as summarized by the solas, he is taking them as a historical beginning to be constructively developed or unpacked beyond its original remit in a way that’s consistent with it, but not simply a repristination or rehash.
When you read about the doctrine of sola fide, then, yes, you’ll get a discussion of the historical challenge the Reformers made. But you’ll also see the way that faith alone grounds a broader theology of trust in testimony that undercuts the skepticism so often laid at its door. (See Schreiner’s review for more.)
In that sense, it’s a theological argument for why some of what has been must not necessarily be.
Who It’s For: Embarrassed Protestants (And Others)
I’ve written a before about the tendency for young Protestants in the academy, or just theologically-inclined pastors and students, to tend to feel sheepish about the Reformation. After getting over the triumphalistic Protestantism of their youth, they read all the criticisms, learn that after postmodernity Sola Scriptura just obviously can’t work, and so forth, and they start seeking elsewhere for theological heft and health. I’ve seen it over and over again.
While I think the book’s aims an applications expand farther than this, I believe Vanhoozer’s new work serves as something of a beefed up, theological manifesto for what Fred Sanders called “Glad Protestantism.” In it, many a struggling, young Protestant can find a needed line to save them from being swept away across the Tiber (or the Bosphorous). And this is both at the level of actual communion, as well as theological practice and ethos.
That said, the work also offers a corrective towards the kind of anti-confessional, a-historical, an-ecclesial, me-and-my-study-Bible Protestantism that often provokes these crises of conscience among the aforementioned, embarrassed Protestants!
In other words, it’s an argument for remaining (and becoming) good Protestants, not only in name, but in practice.
Challenge, Defense, and Manifesto
There’s a healthy balance of challenge, manifesto, and defense involved, then. Vanhoozer rightly acknowledges the sort of weaknesses that ought to be worked on. Indeed, the point of mounting a theological retrieval is to urge theological renewal in the Evangelical church through appropriation of the rich veins of ore left to us in our common Reformational heritage.
Beyond that, though, he manages to transfigure some other situations on the ground into glories to be appreciated and leaned into. One such instance is learning to appreciate the proper “Pentecostal Plurality” encouraged by the solas which yield diverse, contextual, theological insights for the whole church. Often our angst at the loss of certain forms of “visible” unity stems from a failure to appreciate the eschatological dimension to God’s work of unifying his Church’s common confession. Appropriate to a healthy, small-“c” catholic, Mere Protestantism (or, if you prefer, Reformed Catholicity) is an appreciation for the eschatological tension at work—the now and not yet of striving for unity where possible, seeking to learn from one another, while not despairing over those areas where we cannot reach it.
Building on this, there is a bit of manifesto relevant to some of the discussions that have been swirling around the issue of Evangelicalism of late. One thinks of the skepticism as to whether bland, a-theological Evangelicalism as a proper heir to the Reformation (Trueman), or calls for the Future of Protestantism to be basically some sort of Reformed Anglicanism (Leithart), or suggestions that, in a post-Trump world, we ought to abandon the word “Evangelical” altogether and redoubt to more solid confessional identities (Roberts).
Following his call for an appreciation of Pentecostal plurality, Vanhoozer argues for developing the kind of strong, Protestant denominationalism that is neither sectarian, nor blandly or generically ecumenical. Indeed, the surprising suggestion at the end of the book is that the sort of revitalized, Reformational, trans-denominational unity supported by the 5 solas is and can be best realized in a denominationally-structured evangelicalism! It is within the solid, older houses of the Protestant tradition, then, that evangelicalism can play the revitalizing role to which it has always been best suited.
In that sense, Vanhoozer’s proposal for “Mere Protestantism” is the needed theological backbone for any movement to take up the term “evangelical” and “steal it back” (Jacobs).
But I don’t want to give away too much, so I’ll let you pick up the book to see that counter-intuitive argument for yourself.
At the end of the day, I’ll simply say that this book is vintage Vanhoozer: the gracious, inviting style, the treasure-trove of theological insights, references, puns, and tightly-spun arguments. It’s on an extremely important subject for those concerned with the health of the Church, the nature of Scriptural authority, and the future of Protestant Christianity.
So go ahead and pick it up.
Soli Deo Gloria
Currently reading this one. I am through the introduction where he lays out the arguments posed against the Reformation and specifically against Sola Scriptura and its supposed negative effects on the lack of interpretive authority (among other things) from Leithart and others. What I am most impressed about so far is less his argument and more how he handles specific critics of the Reformation. It takes a lot of humility (both academically and personally) to lay out your critics’ best arguments and even make them sound convincing–and VanHoozer does this so charitably. Even more, he seems to take a figurative breath at the end of the chapter in saying it may be difficult to forge his way of retrieving the Reformation for the sake of renewal, but he welcomes it all the more. I think there’s a lot to be said there about integrity and humility in how one writes. Glad we have charitable and humble voices like VanHoozer’s.
Side note: I have been very blessed by your voice and your writing this year, Derek–both on Twitter and on this blog. Keep it up!