Biblical Authority After Babel by Kevin Vanhoozer (Or, An Antidote To Shame-Faced Protestantism)

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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.

Conclusion

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

Three Stages of “Being A Protestant” (On Not Feeling Guilty About the Reformation)

martin-lutherWhen I was a kid, you could say I had an ecumenical instinct in some respects. It was common at the time (I’m thinking 6th-12th grade) to ask, “Are you a Christian or a Catholic?” meaning something like, “Evangelical or Catholic?” or “Catholic or something else?” depending on who was asking it. This was true of the Roman Catholic kids too. I—being me—took special delight in pointing out that technically they we were all Christians and, really, it was a matter of sub-branches. Beyond that, I didn’t trouble myself too much. I knew we had the Bible and they had the Pope, so there wasn’t much to worry about.

Oh, those were the days.

Of course, things get more complicated as you age and especially as you begin studying doctrine and history. I got to thinking about this yesterday after a conversation with a friend, so I figured I’d briefly (and roughly) explore this a bit.

In my experience, there are something like three stages or modes of being a “consciously” Protestant—where you adopt your theological stance with a fair amount of awareness of other positions, traditions, etc. Or, at least, there have been three modes that I have inhabited.

Unreconstructed Triumphalism. The first is sort of the unreconstructed or un-conflicted joy of discovering you are the heir to the great Martin Luther with his hammer, who put the Papists in their place, rediscovering the gospel again after it had long been buried under Papal dogma. This is often accompanied by a general sense that there was no church between Augustine (maybe even Paul) and Luther. What’s more, Roman Catholics are obviously likely not saved (or maybe by the skin of their teeth). Luther was a hero, Calvin had no blemishes, and there was no blood on our hands in the whole affair. I’m painting with a broad brush here, but you kind of get the feel—the ethos—so to speak. There’s no guilt about it, but there’s also sort of arrogant myopia involved. Protest on, bro.

Begrudging Embarrassment. From there we pass to a second stage: a sort of bashful, apologetic Protestantism that’s fairly conflicted about the whole thing. This ambivalent stance can come from any number of sources. Sometimes it comes with studying a bit more of church history and theology and coming to appreciate the riches of the broader tradition. Start reading the Fathers and a little Anselm or Aquinas, or some spiritual masters, and you begin to realize the Holy Spirit might have been doing a few things during that gap between the Fathers and the Reformation. This new appreciation for history might occur while simultaneously looking at the worst excesses of pop-culture Evangelicalism and getting the sense that they’re the natural outworking of Reformation theology.

Some have drunk deeply from the wells of recent narratives of decline that lay all the blame at Protestantism’s feet (ie. Reformation –> Modernity and Bad, Bad Things). Sure, there may have been some excesses in the Medieval period, and Luther and Calvin had a point on justification, but…was it all worth it? I mean, are our beliefs that different? Are beliefs even the point? Was all the blood, the division, the dis-unity really the unalloyed victory for the truth it’s painted to be? Can the solas, especially sola Scriptura, be sustained in our day anyways? This is often accompanied by an unspoken (often unrecognized) premise that unity is supposed to be of a certain, more clearly chain-link, institutional sort and is scandalized by the thought of (30,000!) denominations the Reformation has apparently left in its wake. (BTW, that’s a myth that’s been debunked even by Roman Catholic apologists).

I don’t want to make light of this. There’s a real (and right) holy grief at this disunity for the sake of witness. And there’s something wise about the chastening of un-catholic pride.

Second Naïveté Protesting. Coming in third is what I’ll call (in a very snooty manner) Protesting with a “second naïveté.” The idea is that once you’ve kind of gone through this sort of chastening, self-critical phase, you push past it to something more constructive. In other words, you get tired of feeling guilty about being a Protestant, about some of ecclesial realities on the ground, and get on with the business of confessing the faith.

How this happens, I’m not entirely sure. I suppose for me it’s involved a few things.

First, there’s been a greater appreciation for just how muddled history can be. For instance, it comes with recognizing that the Reformation was, in many ways, dependent on the diversity already present within the pre-Reformation medieval scene. In which case, Luther with his hammer, and Calvin (with his…pointy beard?) weren’t coming out of nowhere, bursting in and overturning a serene unity that needed a tune-up. In many cases they were drawing on Medieval theologies and Patristic theologies to do the work of Reformation—because they did see themselves as Reformers of the church they loved.

This is where you appreciate their claim they didn’t leave the church, but they were left by it. In their view, they weren’t the arrogant ones, but it was Rome that had arrogated to itself an un-catholic and divisive authority over the whole of the church in contradiction to the Word of God. To see Luther and Co. as the dividers, the de-unifiers, is to concede the Roman Catholic point at the outset; it is to buy that story and buy their view of the doctrine of the church, sacraments, and salvation in general.

And this is at the heart of things. Did the Reformers have a point or not? Is Christ’s work alone the basis of the justification we receive by faith, not our meritorious works? Is there a right to assurance for the troubled conscience in the gospel or not? Is Scripture as the Word of God the ultimate authority (the norming norm) in matters of faith and practice for the church, or does the church rule over the Word? On and on down the line we can go (sacraments, worship, etc), but at the core of things is the question whether the Reformation made a recovery of a key dimension to the faith that threatened to be overshadowed or not.

In other words, is there something to “protest” or not? And I don’t mean protest in the modern sense of revolution—but in the original sense of making a confession of faith against abuse. If there is, then let’s get on with it. Because if we truly get on with confessing these things, not begrudgingly, or with a shamed face, then many of the anxieties that plague the bashful Protestant will begin to take care of themselves.

The heart of the Reformation-gospel is not sectarianism, pride, disunity, or the things that make for skepticism and dissolution, but (for the most part) the New Testament call to one faith in one Lord who has promised by his one Spirit to make us one body according to his Word. To confess this gospel, then, ought not leave us complacent with ourselves, nor dismissive of the history of the church, nor other branches of the Church, nor proud and boasting against others with a sectarian spirit, unwilling to learn, grow and submit to the Word of God anew. Why should it?

But neither should it leave us anxious, guilty, and laboring with a bad conscience about being a Protestant. Fundamentally it is a message of humility and joy: humility before God and joy in what Christ has done before me and apart from me, now given to me by grace, and worked within me by the Spirit.

Soli Deo Gloria