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

The Reformed Catholicity of Herman Bavinck

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It's a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It’s a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

Herman Bavinck is one of the, if not the, finest, confessionally-Reformed dogmaticians of the last two hundred years. Anyone who has encountered his work and knows the depth of his learning, his sound orthodoxy, and creatively faithful articulation of the Reformed faith in the face of his modern context.

Those same readers, though, could also testify to Bavinck’s credentials as a theologian of the Church catholic, despite his location at the small confessional school at Kampen. Indeed, George Puchinger notes, “History has its ironies but it cannot be denied: the most ecumenical protestant dogmatic theology in fact appeared in Kampen, the place where theology was practiced in the most isolationist manner” (cited in James Eglinton, Trinity and Organism, pg. 93)

Bavinck’s method of developing doctrines historically and organically certainly played a role in this. In pretty much every locus in the Reformed Dogmatics, Bavinck takes the time to review each doctrine according to broader cultural material, as well as the Old and New Testament witness. A large bulk of his chapters, though, consist of an extensive historical survey that give an irenic account of each topic from the Fathers (East and West), to the Medievals, through the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, Post-Reformation, and modern period across Roman, Lutheran, Reformed, and Radical traditions.

But even Bavinck’s skill as a historian doesn’t cut to the heart of his Reformed Catholicity. References to Augustine, the Cappodocians, Hilary, and Pseudo-Dionysius, as well as Thomas, Scotus, and the medievals all play a role in his formation of doctrine now. That’s because Bavinck had a depth theology of the witness of the Holy Spirit in the tradition of the Church that speaks to his approach to dogmatics.

First, he notes that human knowledge, especially our theology and religion, is only and always grounded in our existence as humans in community. Long before Alasdair MacIntyre came on the scene, Bavinck knew that knowledge was traditioned:

Abstractions—universals—do not exist in reality. The tree, the human being, the science, the language, the religion, the theology are nowhere to be found. Only particular trees, human beings, sciences, languages, and religions exist. Just as a language is associated with a particular people, and science and philosophy are always pursued in a certain school and ideological context, so religion and theology can be found and nurtured only in a related community of faith.

Of course, that means that we come to knowledge of our faith on in the churches we inhabit–they are the “natural soil” of religion. There are limitations to this, of course. There isn’t one pure theology, or pure church, but many churches and many theologies. And it will be this way until the church reaches the maturity and the unity of the Son of God at the end of all things (Eph. 4). That said, the churches, for all their division, are not disqualified from the purposes of God with respect to our knowledge of the truth.

It is not apart from the existing churches but through them that Christ prepares for himself a holy, catholic church. Nor is it apart from the different ecclesiastical dogmas but through them that the unity of the knowledge of God is prepared and realized.

How can Bavinck affirm this in the face of all the division and doctrinal strife? Because he had a solid grasp of the now/not yet quality to the Church’s possession of doctrinal truth. What’s more, he knew that it is to the Church that God has promised the Holy Spirit:

This significance of the church for theology and dogmatics is grounded in the link that Christ himself forged between the two. He promised his church the Holy Spirit, who would guide it into all truth. This promise sheds a glorious light upon the history of dogma. It is the explication of Scripture, the exposition that the Holy Spirit has given, in the church, of the treasures of the Word.

It is this understanding that reveals the root of Bavinck’s own approach to the broader church tradition in which he stood as a confessional theologian of the Church catholic. Here’s how he conceived of the dogmatician’s job in this light:

Accordingly, the task of the dogmatician is not to draw the material for his dogmatics exclusively from the written confession of his own church but to view it in the total context of the unique faith and life of his church, and then again in the context of the history of the whole church of Christ. He therefore stands on the shoulders of previous generations. He knows he is surrounded by a cloud of witnesses and lets his witness merge with the voice of these many waters. Every dogmatics ought to be in full accord with and a part of the doxology sung to God by the church of all ages. – Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 1: Prolegomena, pg. 86

Bavinck sought to craft a dogmatics that blended its voices into the that of the broader choir of the church throughout the ages, even as he sung it in his own deep, Reformed baritone.

None of this, of course, threatens the Scripture principle. Though the dogmatician is a student of the tradition, learning from what has come before, grateful for that deep cloud of witnesses, Scripture not the Church, is still the self-authenticating norm of all theology. All the same, it is his commitment to Scripture, or rather, the Triune author of Scripture, that authorizes Bavinck’s aim to speak beyond the confines of his own Reformed tradition to speak to the broader Church over which Christ is Lord.

Soli Deo Gloria

Retrieval–It’s What All The Hip Reformed Catholic Kids Do

reformed catholicityThe theological hills are alive with the sound of “retrieval”–the idea that theology can only go forward if it begins by looking backward to the tradition that maintained and fed the faith that came before it. Whether it’s looking back to the Fathers, or Thomas, or the early Reformed tradition, across the denomination divides, theologians are increasingly explicit about their necessary dependence on the theology of their forebears, whether in the Creed, Counsels, or Confessions. In his section arguing for the importance of recovering traditioned thought in The Drama of Doctrine, Kevin Vanhoozer listed a number of reasons (Biblical, traditional, philosophical, inevitable, and spiritual), but among them was the fact that it was “fashionable” (pg. 158), by which he meant supported by contemporary movements in literary theory.

In other words, all the cool kids are doing it.

I was reminded of this point as I opened Michael Allen and Scott Swain’s little volume Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation. Part of their project is making the case for a Reformed iteration of this movement that appreciates the traditional shape of even Protestant practices like Sola Scriptura, which commonly is interpreted as precluding this sort of activity. In order to set the stage for their own project, though, they begin by compiling and briefly describing a fascinating list of recent movements in theology that have set the stage, or contributed to the revival of retrieval in theology (pp. 4-12). I thought it might be useful to briefly summarize their summary and comment on their summary list.

  1. Nouvelle Theologie. Earlier in the 20th Century a bunch of Roman Catholic theologians like De Lubac and Congar led the way in trying to reappropriate patristic and biblical theology for systematics, sacramental theology, and liturgical practice. Much of this theology set the stage for the developments of Vatican II.
  2. Karl Barth. Barth’s Church Dogmatics did many things, but one of the big long-term effects it had was reviving the discipline of dogmatics in theology, drawing heavily as it did on patristic and Reformational sources.
  3. Reception History. Plenty of Biblical scholars like working with the historical context of the text, but there’s a big movement to do work on compiling commentaries or studies on the historical reception of texts. In other words, not just asking “how ought we read it?”, but asking “how has it been read in the past?” in order answer the former.
  4. Donald Bloesch and “Consensual Christianity.” Bloesch was a UCC theologian who tried to develop a “consensual” Christianity based on the witness of Holy Scripture and the Church’s tradition as a cross-denominational resource for the Church
  5. Thomas Oden’s “Paleo-Orthodoxy.” Thomas Oden’s conversion from liberal, Protestantism to a sort of “paleo-orthodoxy”, a “pastiche” of patristic and Protestant theology is an approach towards a “consensual Christianity.” He has also headed up the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series in order to facilitate this sort of scholarship and spirituality as well.
  6. Robert Webber’s Ancient-Future Christianity. Webber has written various works and developed a number of ministries devoted to helping Evangelicals tap in the Christian past for the sake of engaging postmodern culture in worship and evangelism.
  7. The Modern Hymn Movement. Reformed and Presbyterian churches and ministries like RUF, Indelible Grace, and Keith and Kristyn Getty have been retooling classic hymns and developing new ones for revived congregational worship.
  8. Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson’s Evangelical Catholicism. From within the Lutheran tradition, Braaten and Jenson have been trying to focus the church on classical resources as a way forward for the ecumenical conversation and the strength of the church. To that end, they launched the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, begin the journal Pro Ecclesia, and published a number of influential volumes in that vein. Allen and Swain note, though, that while Bloesch and Oden’s retrieval ends up looking like pretty standard classical theism, Jenson and others have still engaged in quite a bit of theological reconstruction, showing the retrieval doesn’t only lead to repetition.
  9. Theological Interpretation of Scripture. One big movement afoot is the drive towards theological exegesis”, or reading Scripture to do theology and not just historical or textual criticism. To that end, a lot of theoretical ink has been spilled, but a number of good theological commentary series have begun as well.
  10. Radical Orthodoxy. The movement by theologians like Catherine Pickstock, Graham Ward, and John Milbank, to reappropriate a sort of Christian Platonism in order to combat the decline of the Church, leans heavily on the idea of retrieval, even if it has been often criticized for its idiosyncratic and problematic readings of the history it’s attempting to retrieve.
  11. Evangelical Ressourcement. Evangelicals are getting in on the fun too. D.H. Williams has been arguing for recovering the early church as a theological resource and Hans Boersma has been even more specific in advocating a particular sacramental ontology, mostly drawing on the Nouvelle Theologie of Roman Catholic theologians.
  12. The Emerging or Emergent Church(es). Whatever their problems have been, the emerging or emergent movement did have an emphasis on retrieving the various insights, texts, and practices of the Christian past to meet the postmodern future. Of course, this played out differently for various kinds of emerging or emergent churches.
  13. Ressourcement Thomism. Thomism is the gift that keeps on giving. At least, that’s what a number of recent Roman Catholic theologians like Matthew Levering, Gilles Emery, and Reinhard Hutter have been arguing. Engaging with movements in biblical studies, systematics, and philosophical movements, these theologians have been making the case that Thomas still has something to say to the modern church.

As I read Allen and Swain’s list, I was fascinated to note how many of the movement and theologians had their effects on my own journey. When I was young in theology, the emergent conversation was in full swing and so the talk of appealing to tradition was definitely in the air. Thankfully reading some Pelikan and Vanhoozer showed me early that it could be done while keeping your Orthodox and Evangelical wits about you. In philosophy, MacIntyre’s work in After Virtue and Whose Justice? Which Rationality? had its effect as well. Oden and Bloesch are sitting on my shelf, duly marked up, as well as some Barth, Boersma, and Jenson. I suppose my early classes in the history of philosophy had their effect as well. It’s hard to take a whole class on Augustine’s thought and believe him irrelevant to any theological conversation. This is also largely the impulse behind my big reading projects.

Beyond this personal reflection, though, a few things are worth noting about this list.

First, retrieval is an ecumenical endeavor. Theologians across the major traditions, both Catholic and Protestant, are well-represented. Although, one important absence ought to be noted and that is the names of any Eastern Orthodox theologians. The burgeoning awareness of Eastern Orthodox theology has definitely spurred on the movement towards engagement with the Fathers on the part of Western theologians.

Second, retrieval is not a monolith. As already noted with the case of Jenson and someone like Oden, two theologians may be committed to the project and yet their engagement may yield wildly diverging judgments on something like the doctrine of God. What’s more, since it is an ecumenical endeavor with a catholic spirit, it will inevitably bear diverse fruits as theologians approach the catholic tradition from within their own ecclesiastic locations.

Third, and connected to the second, retrieval theology need not yield theological sterility. Some of the most creative theological minds of the 20th Century are included in that brief summary. Indeed, when think of some of the work being done in the Theological Interpretation of Scripture, some of the brightest of our own very young century are those looking back to the wisdom of yesteryear through figural and typological readings. Many have ended up breaking the modern, interpretive mold in the process.

Finally, retrieval can be quite practical. Indeed, most of the movements and theologians mentioned are quite heavily involved with the cause of church renewal within their respective communions. Looking to the past is not simply done for the sake of dry antiquarianism, but for the life of the Church in the world today. In other words, it’s not only done to preserve the memory of the victories of church triumphant, but for the battles the church militant is currently embroiled in.

Now the question is, what exactly will Allen and Swain contribute to the discussion? I suppose I’ll just have to keep reading to find out. I’d suggest that many of you consider doing the same. You can purchase the book here.

Soli Deo Gloria