Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity. By Kevin J. Vanhoozer. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016, vii + 269 pp., $21.99. See the note at the end of the article about the later publication of this article.
Does the Reformation, and sola scriptura in particular, unleash interpretive anarchy upon the world? Alister McGrath calls sola scriptura and the priesthood of all believers Christianity’s “dangerous idea” because it makes everyone into little popes, who sometimes disagree over the proper interpretation of Scripture. Roman Catholic apologists, both during the Reformation and today, believe the Protestant emphasis on sola scriptura leads to doctrinal chaos, rather than unity, due to conflicting interpretations of the Bible. Therefore, what should Protestants do, when two or three gathered in Jesus name, disagree over what Scripture says?
In his book, Biblical Authority After Babel, Kevin Vanhoozer attempts to address the issue of “interpretive pluralism” amongst Protestants and the hermeneutical havoc it loosed upon society. Vanhoozer’s aim can be summarized in two propositions: (1) “[T]o refute the charge that the Reformation loosed interpretive anarchy upon the world, and that the Reformation is responsible for interpretive pluralism that bedevils society, the academy, and the church” (p. 232); (2) To refute the claim that Protestantism is solely responsible for the hermeneutical chaos and doctrinal disunity it released upon society. In other words, “The accidental truths of European history ought never become the proof of necessary truths of Protestant theology” (p. xi). Vanhoozer’s thesis is clear: The present work contends that retrieving the five Reformation solas helps to address the contemporary problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism, and that retrieving the priesthood of all believers (ecclesiology) helps to address the problem of the authority of interpretive communities (p. 25, emphasis in original). The retrieval of the solas constitute the material principle of Protestant Christianity (by summarizing the gospel); the priesthood of all believers constitutes the formal principle (by addressing who are Jesus’ commissioned representatives); and catholicity represents the final principle of the Reformation (which represents a “plural” interpretive community, a fellowship marked by both the Word of God and the Holy Spirit) (p. 25).
Since other reviews sufficiently explain and summarize Vanhoozer’s book, I will not attempt to retrace each aspect of his argument. Moreover, since other reviews approach Vanhoozer’s book from the perspective of the assessor’s specific academic training (e.g., New Testament, Systematic theology, and Historical theology), I will continue this trend and evaluate Vanhoozer’s volume from the perspective of a philosopher of religion and an apologist, which are my specific areas of academic training. Principally, because Vanhoozer claims the solas are a first theology (p. 27) of mere Protestant Christianity, and he admits, “I view the solas not as doctrines in their own right as much as theological insights into various facets of the ontology, epistemology, and teleology of the gospel” (p. 61). For example, Vanhoozer identifies with Graeme Goldsworthy’s claim that faith alone points us to the “ontological inability of the sinner and the epistemological priority of the Holy Spirit” (p. 72). Consequently, “As salvation is by grace alone, so too is knowledge of God, through faith” (p. 72).
Vanhoozer rightly admits the Reformers inadvertently worked a Copernican revolution as it concerns knowledge of God. He admits, “[I]nstead of seeing Scripture as a planet that revolves around the system of theology, the Reformers made Scripture the sun that illumines the whole theological system. Instead of making Scripture conform to tradition, Scripture would speak for itself” (p. 10). Scripture and revealed theology are now considered the principal operators for all genuine Christian theology; not tradition, natural theology, or reason. Collectively each sola of the Reformation functions as a necessary truth for genuine Christian theology. Vanhoozer (along with Goldsworthy) captures this insight and links the solas to the basic ontological, epistemological, and hermeneutical presuppositions that undergird the Christian faith (p. 27). While we can conceptually distinguish the solas from each other, one ought not separate the solas; for collectively, Vanhoozer claims they overcome interpretive anarchy and offer a “permanent Copernican revolution at the heart of the Reformation,” because they provide the philosophical and hermeneutical axioms to proclaim “the exclusive Lordship of Christ, the crucified king” (p.28).
This first epistemological point strikes at the heart of Vanhoozer’s thesis and is sometimes underappreciated by present-day philosophers and theologians. What is needed and required today is a uniquely Christian approach to knowledge. Modernity presents a distinct set of questions and Christians should not let the unbeliever frame the nature of the debate. Vanhoozer understands this axiom, and rightly inserts the solas into the conversation by demonstrating how they function as an epistemological and hermeneutical tool to adjudicate conflicting interpretations (p. 29). This theological epistemology, or religious hermeneutic, rightly captures the triune logic that: (1) God is the source-criterion of all knowledge; (2) Jesus Christ, who by faith alone, is the sole mediator of salvation and knowledge; and (3) the catholic (not Roman) Church standing upon Scripture as its supreme authority (with the “magisterium of the evangelium” and the “ministerium (ministerial authority) of the priesthood of all believers”) is able to provide a uniquely Protestant approach to authority capable of overcoming and settling interpretive anarchy (p. 231). But how does Vanhoozer specifically workout this distinctly Protestant religious epistemology? Since other reviews explain the interconnectedness of each sola, I want to highlight and decidedly commend the three most important solas (e.g., Grace, Faith, and Scripture) for philosophy of religion and apologetics.
First, Vanhoozer, alongside historic Protestantism, rightly recognizes that “grace alone” captures the essence of God’s relationship with sinful humanity. According to Vanhoozer, sola gratia also bore philosophical and hermeneutical consequences for the Reformers by emphasizing the triune economy of interpretive authority and the divine communicative initiative. In the drama of redemption, God the Father is the source of revelation; the Son takes the initiative to reveal the Father; and the Spirit continues this work of revelation by illuminating the reader’s minds (p. 42). Grace alone also points us to the ontological priority of God in Scripture. This axiom entails “we are not to read the Bible like any other book” says Vanhoozer (p. 50). Sola gratia also helps us to see the Bible, biblical interpretation, and biblical interpreters refer not to “natural entities and processes,” but to “elements in the economy of grace” (p. 50). Consequently, proper biblical interpretation is done only by the recipients of God’s grace: the redeemed people of God—the Church.
Vanhoozer asks his readers to understand grace alone defined materially and formally. Understood materially, grace alone specifies the content of Scripture; understood formally, grace specifies the right reading of Scripture (p. 62). The strength for our purposes is found in the second, or formal distinction. Vanhoozer rightly notes that to rely on one’s “native interpretive powers” is to succumb to the temptation of a “hermeneutics of glory”—that is, one’s natural exegetical abilities can lead to a right reading of Scripture (p. 64). Grace is required to restore a right mind and heart and to reorient the proper end of exegesis: to receive Christ in our hearts and minds (p. 65). The work of the Holy Spirit is to illumine the minds of believer’s and foster spiritual formation. By grace, knowledge is communicated; and by the grace of illumination, believer’s minds can behold the glory of Christ (p. 67). Vanhoozer summarizes his claim, suggesting: “My main claim was that sola gratia effectively rebuts the charge that the Reformers ‘naturalized’ biblical interpretation. That was the point of examining Luther’s contrast of a theology of glory with the theology (and hermeneutics) of the cross. What illuminates Scripture is not the light of autonomous human reason but the light that originates from the Father, radiates the Son (Heb. 1:3), and penetrates to hearts and minds through the Spirit” (p. 71).
Second, in his chapter on “faith alone,” Vanhoozer attempts to address the crises of knowledge; particularly skepticism and uncontrolled subjectivity, supposedly a result of the Reformation. Vanhoozer claims, “As salvation is by grace alone, so too is knowledge of God, through faith” (p. 72). Vanhoozer attempts to demonstrate this thesis in two steps: First, alongside Goldsworthy, noting, “The principle of ‘faith alone’ points us to the ontological inability of the sinner and the epistemological priority of the Holy Spirit” (p. 72, emphasis in original); Second, by developing a “modest testimonial foundationalism” found in the work of the Protestant Christian philosopher, Alvin Plantinga (p. 72). For our purposes, the strength of the chapter is found in the second step. When addressing the question of authority, Vanhoozer surveys various answers offered by different communities (e.g., Roman Catholic Church, scholars or experts, and fundamentalism) that assume authority over the biblical text (pp. 92–94). He raises the question, “Is there something about mere Protestant Christians that predisposes them to be epistemological lone rangers—always protesting, but never coming to tradition?” (p. 95). Vanhoozer responds to these communities and charges by developing Plantinga’s testimonial approach to knowledge and applying it to biblical interpretation. He rightly argues that faith is a confident and properly basic belief or a “warranted epistemic trust in biblical testimony” (p. 106). To understand the significance of this claim, we must briefly explain Plantinga’s epistemology and Vanhoozer’s use of it.
Plantinga argues it is rational to believe in testimony if the belief is (1) produced by properly functioning cognitive faculties; (2) aimed at true beliefs; (3) in the proper environment; and (4) there is a high statistical probability of it being true. Plantinga’s model recognizes it is the role of the Holy Spirit to produce in human beings the gift of faith, that provides a firm and certain knowledge of God. Vanhoozer’s use of the testimonial model makes a threefold claim that: (1) believing testimony in general is rational; (2) in this case only, the primary person whose (inspired) testimony we believe is divine; and (3) the Spirit uses testimony to produce certain knowledge (p. 98). Beliefs about the gospel are warranted because they are the product of a “God-given, reliable belief-producing process: the internal (personal) testimony of the Spirit to the meaning and truth of Scripture” (p. 98). We trust the apostolic testimony contained in Scripture, not so-called epistemic autonomy, because the Apostles are Spirit-guided eyewitnesses (p. 99). “Faith alone,” per Vanhoozer, “means that individual interpreters had best attend to the authoritative apostolic testimony (the primary fiduciary framework) as read in the context of the church (a secondary fiduciary framework)” (p. 102). He suggests this “testimonial model” overcomes fideism, private judgment, and calls for believers to trust the testimony of God’s Spirit to the reliability of God’s Word in the community of the Church (which is the only proper interpretive community) (p. 103). In brief, Vanhoozer claims Reformed epistemology provides the only antidote to epistemological skepticism—epistemic (and spiritual) trust (pp. 106–107).
The third important step in Vanhoozer’s book is his development of sola scriptura. He explicitly claims this chapter “continues to focus on the epistemology of the gospel” (p. 109). But the question remains: What did the Reformers mean by sola scriptura? The Reformer’s understood “Scripture alone” to mean Scripture is the sole infallible rule of faith, not that Scripture is the sole source of all knowledge. Vanhoozer also corrects inaccurate understandings of the terms: clarity, sufficiency, and Scripture interprets Scripture (pp. 112–117). In particular, that sola scriptura does not mean nulla tradition (no tradition or Tradition 0) (p. 137), nor does it means naïve biblicism (p. 145). Rightly understood, sola scriptura recognizes the ministerial, not magisterial authority of tradition (p. 144). The Reformers did not object to the catholicity of Roman Catholicism, but to its “centeredness in Rome” (p. 136). They recognized the role of tradition in the economy of grace; however, unlike Roman Catholicism, the Reformers viewed tradition as having testimonial, not judicial authority (p. 144).
Vanhoozer proceeds to develop his testimonial approach to authority and its relationship to sola scriptura. He suggests that we “transpose what Plantinga says about cognitive faculties to corporate testimony” (p. 141). Tradition bears testimonial authority in that it witnesses to the truth of Scripture. Tradition can serve as an external aid to biblical interpretation through the corporate testimony of the Church (p. 141). Like many other disciplines, it is rational to believe in the authoritative testimony of other people. By deferring to the testimonial authority of tradition, we are not referring to generic people, but to brothers and sisters in Christ (p. 141). Tradition in the economy of God’s grace, insofar as it faithfully testifies to the truthfulness of Scripture, and it is functioning properly in the divinely intended environment (i.e., the community of God’s redeemed), serves a valuable ministerial role (p. 142). Nonetheless, tradition can fail if it is no longer a reliable witness. Consequently, sola scriptura is also a reminder that tradition can err. Vanhoozer rightly suggests the beauty of Protestant Christianity is its ability to affirm the magisterial authority of the Bible and the ministerial authority of catholicity or tradition (p. 233). The final two solas find their place here, too. Sola Christus affirms the trans-denominational role of Protestantism, which affirms Jesus Christ is the authoritative head of every local church, who has authorized the local church as his official “interpretive authority” (p. 233). Sola Deo Gloria affirms the telos of the local church (we are a gospel people) and the fact the Church ought to have ontological unity (the gospel), even if it does not always have organizational unity (p. 204).
The strength of Vanhoozer’s approach is his development of a uniquely Christian, Reformed, and evangelical approach to knowledge. Present-day evangelicals must recognize and champion a distinctly biblical approach to knowledge and hermeneutics because it is only by divine grace (or as Vanhoozer demonstrates: all the solas) we participate in the epistemic and ontic realities affirmed in the Protestant and Biblical heritage. As evangelicals, we do not accept the axioms of the five solas as arbitrary or conjecturally grounded, but are anchored in the triune God’s self-existence and self-disclosure. Christians know the truth and we should never be embarrassed by the centrality of Christ as the Logos and the solas as an epistemological appropriation to ground interpretive pluralism. In brief, like the way 20th century philosophers of religion have praised Alvin Plantinga for restoring the distinct aspects of Reformed epistemology to the philosophical scene; so too, theologians and exegetes ought to commend Vanhoozer for reestablishing a uniquely warranted approach to knowledge addressing interpretive pluralism.
Despite the strengths advanced by Vanhoozer’s unique epistemological appropriation of the solas there are still a few things we ought to consider. Due to the limitations of the review, I would like to address two. First, methodologically, it seems Vanhoozer’s approach does not go deep enough to sufficiently address the collective epistemological issues that give rise to interpretive pluralism (or subjectivity) for Protestants. Near the end of his book, Vanhoozer raises the question, “Why do Christians who agree about sola scriptura differ as to what the Bible means?” (p. 206). Vanhoozer’s response is dialogue. He seems to resist Gadamer’s definition of dialogue or “fusion” where each individual is absorbed into each other (even though he accepts Gadamer’s use of tradition) (p. 82). Nevertheless, this does not seem to adjudicate which person is correct or if there is a correct position, or if we can actually achieve a “correct” interpretation. On the one hand, Vanhoozer rightly notes there is interpretive pluralism and provides a robust theological epistemology to address this pluralism. On the other hand, since Vanhoozer jettisons the notion of authorial intent to manage conflicts of interpretation or specific methods to rule out opposing interpretations (e.g., objectivity and the historical-grammatical method), he seems to remove any possibility for Protestants to actually adjudicate various “interpretive pluralisms” affecting the biblical text (p. 82, 207). In fact, this self-professed “cognitive-propositionalist” and “Henrician” believes a better way forward is to nuance the best of Vanhoozer’s claims in Biblical Authority After Babel with the epistemological insights found in Carl F. H. Henry’s God, Revelation and Authority. Henry’s cognitive-propositionalist method is more consistent with the Reformed tradition, and it seems to offer a more rational and objective way to epistemologically and methodologically adjudicate conflicting interpretations of the biblical text.
Second, it seems like another latent weakness in Vanhoozer’s book is his appeal to what some have labeled as “the myth of 38,000 [Protestant] denominations” (p. 1, 176). As a former Roman Catholic, I do not believe advancing this claim will benefit the apologetic efforts of Vanhoozer’s cause. In his book, Vanhoozer initially disproves the false definition of sola scriptura by Catholic apologists. He also rightly demonstrates that the accidental truths of European history ought to never become the necessary truths of Protestant theology (e.g., namely, sola scriptura is not the actual cause of European denominational divisions). But the weakness in his argument is that a factual survey of Protestant denominations illustrates that most non-Catholic denominations do not actually practice sola scriptura, so we should not lump all of them together as some type of homogenous group. In fact, numerous non-Catholic denominations embrace all sorts of concepts that violate sola scriptura, so how can the principle be blamed as the cause for so many denominations? How can they be labeled Protestant when many of these “38,000 denominations” do not embrace the formal cause of the Reformation? Vanhoozer’s argument could be strengthened by highlighting the fact that those churches which seem to specifically profess, practice, and apply the proper definition of sola scriptura are more united in their theology than the plethora of non-Catholic denominations or Roman Catholics who appeal to a supposed external authority for interpretation. Whereas those denominations that do not consistently practice sola scriptura are inundated with a significantly higher amount of interpretive pluralism.
Even if someone does not agree with all the arguments or perspectives in this book, Vanhoozer has filled a gap by addressing one of the most pressing issues plaguing Protestantism: interpretive pluralism. It is refreshing to see Vanhoozer’s commitment to Reformed epistemology and Plantinga’s testimonial model, and how he appropriates it with the solas of the Reformation to ground the nature of divine revelation, interpretation, and tradition.
This article is a book review of Kevin Vanhoozer’s publication: Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity. This book review (albeit with the possibility of slight editorial changes) will be released in a journal later this year.
Here’s an article from a Roman Catholic who also admits that we need to stop claiming there are 33,000 Protestant denominations.