A Q&A Review of Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas In the Spirit Of Mere Protestant Christianity – with a personal response from Dr. Vanhoozer.
So, all the book reviews I read are either summary and analysis types which can get too involved or interview the author types which can meander too much, but it occurred to me that it would be nice to have a Q&A review that gets to the meat and potatoes of an author’s premise and gives a taste of their core assertions. Then again, it is me writing this so it may be both too involved and too meandering! Note: Dr. Vanhoozer’s personal responses are in the last two questions if you are interested (basically the ones I could not confidently figure out on my own).
So, feel free to skim and read only the questions that most interest you!
What does the title “After Babel” mean?
“After Babel refers to the Babel, the pluralistic conflict of biblical interpretations. It’s not a slam on the doctrine of Scripture. Everyone knows the Reformers had a high view of Scripture. The question is, “Did they inadvertently bequeath interpretive pluralism, even anarchy, upon the world?” That’s the Babel of my title” (interview w/ Mohler).
What’s the main premise for Biblical Authority After Babel?
The critique leveled against Protestantism for 500 years is that it causes division, disunity, and is ultimately broken and fragmented beyond repair (30,000 denominations some say! Not so, of course, see here, and here), so why not just give up and return to the bosom of her Sacred Mother; Rome sweet home? Vanhoozer argues that instead, "Protestantism is not the virus that divides and attacks the body; it is the antibodies that set to work attacking the body's infections (e.g. late medieval Roman Catholicism)." The Reformation gave us all the tools necessary to find the gold of unity in the craggy hills of theological pluralism; we just have to put them to good use.
Why should I care about this book?
We can quote “In essentials unity…” all we want, but the whole thing is a pipe dream unless we can define with some precision what the “essentials” are, and how to actually dialogue about the “non-essentials” in any kind of helpful and beneficial way rather than with dogmatic fire and brimstone. How can other interpretive traditions help us understand Scripture better, correct any of our own blind spots, and lead us into gracious communion with one another, but without sacrificing our own identity? Vanhoozer answers this with dense, sometimes humorous, but always sharply keen insight.
Why do I need to talk about what the Bible means? After all, God said it! I believe it! And that settles it!
So, what do we do with all the individual interpretations of Scripture in Christendom? Is someone right and another wrong? Are both right? Or perhaps both are wrong? How do we know? Is it intuition? Gut feelings? Personal preference? How do we know if one faith tradition (i.e. denomination) is more or less accurate to the biblical author’s intention over against others? “Sola Scriptura!,” someone cries out in response. But the Holy Scriptures are being interpreted through each community’s particular colored glasses. The more accurate truth is, “God said it. My faith community interprets it. That doesn’t really settle it.” Vanhoozer’s solution? Catholicity rightly understood and precisely defined. He argues that the Reformers thought of themselves as more catholic than Catholicism because they rightly understood the role of tradition as a guiding principle (in other words, if your faith community comes up with a new interpretation never before seen in Church history that may be a serious problem!).
How do the five Solas bring unity?
The five solas demarcate the boundaries of a what he calls a “mere Protestant Christianity”. More than that they function as the authoritative speed limit on the interpretive highway. Any believer can travel this road (i.e. priesthood of all believers), but they must head in the right direction that has been historically laid out (i.e. catholicity) and understand that they do not travel it alone (i.e. the importance of an interpretive community contra Greenday).
The Gospel Coalition review rightly summarizes Vanhoozer’s three main approaches to unity that the church has tried: (1) ecumenicism, (2) sectarianism, (3) denominationalism. As you can expect he finds serious deficiencies with each one though his criticism and tone is irenic. e.g. Rather than argue for no denominationalism, he in fact argues for stronger denominationalism that focuses on the centrality of the Gospel essentials and grace with the non-Gospel, but important issues.
Vanhoozer does not spend much time unpacking the Solas from within their historical perspective; he wants to apply them to modern critiques. Faith alone answers the charge of skepticism by providing a firm epistemological foundation. Scripture Alone answers the problem of both individualism and pluralism when the guard rails are followed properly. In Christ Alone answers the criticism of sectarianism.
Vanhzooer’s solution is similar to and yet in contrast with Peter Leithhart’s work published the same year, The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity In A Fragmented Church. Leithhart very much contends that not only must denominationalism die, but Protestantism as a whole must die in order to bring about the new growth of what he calls “future church.” What he means is “Reformational Catholic Churches” that come to a common ground understanding of the true biblical Gospel (something Vanhoozer and other Reformed theologians such as Michael Allen, and Scott Swain all agree with as well). However, Leithhart is more utopian and his ideas carry implications a bit more concerning. e.g. While Roman Catholicism can lather platitudes on Luther for recovering and not discovering justification, the divide remains and should not be ignored. If Protestantism dies then justification by faith alone in Christ alone dies with her, leaving only Roman Catholic dogma to rule the day (for more see Michael Allen’s review in Reformed Faith and Practice).
But the Gospel brings unity so all we need is the Gospel not fancy Latin phrases! Right?
Sure, but which Gospel? The Roman Catholic Gospel is not the same as the biblical Gospel and to pretend otherwise is either blind naïveté or blatant ignorance. The Universalists Gospel is also not one and the same with the true Gospel. We still need definitions that bring clarity and provide a path for unity.
Why is Vanhoozer talking about a sixth sola, sola eclessia? Isn’t that a Roman Catholic doctrine?
This is Vanhoozer’s concept of what the Antioch School would call a hermeneutical community! 9Marks summarizes the concept well in his review: “In his fourth chapter, on “the royal priesthood of all believers,” Vanhoozer argues that this doctrine is “the sum of the solas—and a summa of mere Protestant Christianity” (156). In expounding this doctrine Vanhoozer argues that the local church is a ministerially authoritative interpretive community. He affirms that the keys of the kingdom authorize the church to declare “what does or does not belong in the royal household of God” (171). And he concludes that the church, in submission to Christ’s authority in Scripture, does indeed have authority “to make binding interpretive judgments on matters pertaining to statements of faith and the life of church members insofar as they concern the integrity of the gospel (174).
The church is not optional, either for your Christian life or for how we all interpret the Bible. Instead, “[T]hose who cherish the gospel must also cherish the church, for the church is an implication of the gospel, a figure of its telos, giving body to the lordship of Christ” (147).”
If Church communities can interpret the Bible unto themselves doesn’t that lead to the very pluralism he is trying to avoid?
Not only that, but doesn’t this put all interpretive communities on the same playing field, a la liberal churches who espouse all kinds of sexual interpretations of the Bible hold equally valid interpretations with more conservative communities of faith?
First, following Calvin one has to establish what a true Church of Jesus Christ actually is (hint: they preach the biblical Gospel!).
Second, I asked Vanhoozer directly and this is what he said via email:
“Clearly issues of same-sex marriage and transgenderism have become divisive of the church on many levels. I think this is where I see catholicity playing a role. The local church is to represent the catholic church in its particular place and time. The other problem with liberal views of sexuality, in addition to their departure from the literal sense of Scripture, is that they tend to depart from the received consensus of the church. This is not authoritative in and of itself, but it does suggest that the burden of proof ought to be on those who argue the Spirit has led the majority of churches across centuries and cultures in a wrong direction.
In short: I think Calvin might appeal both to canonicity and catholicity in discussions about what it means to proclaim and live out the gospel, though of course canonicity enjoys magisterial authority and catholicity only ministerial authority.”
What is the precise relationship between an interpretive community and sola scriptura?
Asked another way, is the Bible really our final arbiter or is my hermeneutical community the true determiner of biblical truth? This was probably the most plaguing question I had reading Vanhoozer’s book. It seems that an appeal to sola scriptura is in some ways lip service, or so it is claimed by Roman Catholic advocates at least. But they have a point when our appeal to sola scriptura is in practice an appeal to Scripture through the lens of one’s own church tradition. Hence, doesn’t the actual role of sola scriptura seem suspect when in the end my interpretive community gets the final say?
How I think Vanhoozer would answer:
This is why conversational conferences are so vital and needed. We may agree that Scripture is our final authority but we need to listen to each other to understand if our community is missing something. By listening we grow in our own blind spots, or at least we grow in sympathetic understanding for one another. These are needed precisely because of sola scriptura! i.e. Scripture is the final authority, not our interpretive community, thus the churches cannot make exclusive dogmatic claims on non-essentials and expect them to be binding for one another.
Or as Anthony Thieselton writes, “Part of the safeguard against self-deception and manipulation is the task of listening to other selves in mutuality and self-criticism. This belongs to the aspect of selfhood which has to do with intersubjectivity and more especially with moral and political responsibility in the context of community and traditions.”
How Vanhoozer actually answered over email:
“I think you've done a good job in your first paragraph answering your questions in my voice. The one thing I would add to how dialogue between interpretive communities should take place is an emphasis on everyone developing the interpretive virtues, which ultimately comes down to maturing in Christ. This is probably my hardest saying: it's no doubt easier to adopt a method, or an objective criterion, than to become a person of interpretive virtue, especially when that process involves dying to self in some respects (and perhaps to one's cherished pet theories/beliefs).”
“Here too I have to appeal to the interpretive virtues, which include the ability to discern (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 5:10; 1 Thess. 5:21). Discerning works best in community, but it also takes time, which is the other hard saying in my book, for who has time?
To your question: I think our hermeneutical community is the de facto (as it in fact so happens) determiner of many theological disputes. But de facto is not the same as de jure (by right). Scripture must be the de jure determiner but, as I say, sometimes one has to die to self for biblical authority to work as intended.
I think the Jerusalem Council serves as a kind of template for the conversational conferences for which I am calling. When there become formal conversations, we can call them church councils. What impresses me when I look at church history is how seriously these councils took their business, often staying months and years where evangelicals seem to think they can produce lasting documents over the weekend at a hotel at O'Hare.”
“As I say at the end of my book Is there a Meaning in this Text, what impresses me about the Reformers is their ability (most of the time!) rightly to balance boldness in the gospel with humility on the non-essentials.”
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No! That’s enough spoon feeding for one day. Now go order the book and read it for yourself! I probably missed some really crucial point you need for your life and ministry.
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A Reforming Catholic Confession – Go sign it!