Book Write-Up: Biblical Authority After Babel, by Kevin J. Vanhoozer

Kevin J. Vanhoozer.  Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity.  Grand Rapids: Brazos Press (a Division of Baker Publishing Group), 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

Kevin J. Vanhoozer is a theologian at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  He has a Ph.D. from Cambridge University.

Biblical Authority after Babel addresses a prominent criticism of the Protestant Reformation.  The criticism is that the Reformation led to interpretive anarchy regarding the interpretation of the Scriptures.

Roman Catholicism holds that the church founded by Jesus, which it understands to be the Roman Catholic church, has the divinely-commissioned authority to interpret the Scriptures.  When Martin Luther came forward and proclaimed that the Roman Catholic church was incorrect on justification, and thus wrong in its Scriptural interpretation, Luther was saying in effect that people can challenge the church if they believe that its teaching is contrary to the Bible.  The problem is that the Bible can be interpreted in different ways.  The Reformers found this out when they disagreed among themselves about how and whether Christ was in the Eucharist!  If we reject the idea that the Roman Catholic church has the authority to interpret the Scriptures, does that mean that we are giving interpretative authority to each individual?  Critics claim that this had led to chaos!  Not only has Protestantism splintered into numerous denominations, but there are also Christians who act as if they are their own private pope, interpreting the Bible as they see fit.  Can the Bible even have authentic authority, if that is the case?

Vanhoozer argues that even the Protestant Reformers regarded the church as essential, meaning that they were not promoting individual Christians doing their own thing, acting according to what was right in their own eyes.  Vanhoozer notes that Martin Luther and John Calvin were not against catholicity with a small “c”: they were all for the church as a broader body making decisions.  But they were opposed to defining the church as Rome, denying that this approach was truly catholic (universal).  Vanhoozer highlights the importance of the church: the word of God brings into existence a church, and the priesthood of believers presumes a church community where believers can minister.  Vanhoozer also maintains that the traditional creeds of the church and the traditional rule of faith can provide boundaries for Scriptural interpretation.

Vanhoozer’s practical advice is what one would expect in a book such as this.  Concentrate on the essentials of the Christian faith (i.e., the Trinity, Christ’s resurrection, the Gospel), learn from each other, and be charitable amidst differences over the less-essentials!  Vanhoozer does well to define what is essential and why: without the essentials, the Gospel would be unintelligible.  Vanhoozer also talks about how denominations can work together.  Vanhoozer is sensitive, however, to the unhelpful directions in which such advice can be taken.  For instance, he does not favor an ecumenicism that focuses on the least common denominator of Christianity.

In the course of his book, Vanhoozer has various discussions.  He has chapters about the solas of Protestantism: grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone, and Christ alone.  His discussion on grace refers to the theological debates about the extent to which human nature can respond positively to God, and the extent to which God’s supernatural grace is necessary for this to happen.  Vanhoozer somewhat sidesteps this debate by defining grace rather broadly, as he regards creation and redemption both as acts of grace (i.e., God sharing or communicating Godself).  In addressing the Protestant concept of Sola Scriptura, Vanhoozer denies that Sola Scriptura means Solo Scriptura.  Vanhoozer supports drawing from church tradition in theology, but he maintains that Scripture should be regarded as the final authority.  Vanhoozer shares the quote that “our final authority is Scripture alone, but not a Scripture that is alone.”

This book certainly is thoughtful and informative, which is to be expected from Vanhoozer.  Vanhoozer interacts with theological thought in a sophisticated manner.  For instance, in summarizing other scholars’ criticisms of the Protestant Reformation, Vanhoozer not only discusses the main topic of the book, but related issues as well.  One criticism Vanhoozer mentions concerns whether Protestantism’s abandonment of allegorical interpretations of Scripture, in favor of grammatical-historical exegesis, coincides with a secularizing de-sanctification of creation.

Vanhoozer is rigorous in wrestling with the problem of interpretive anarchy, and one may say that Vanhoozer has already addressed the criticisms that I am about to advance.  I admire Vanhoozer’s effort, but I still question whether he successfully eliminates the problem of interpretive anarchy.  Vanhoozer largely appears to presume that mere Protestantism represents the correct interpretation of Scripture.  Many Catholics have argued, however, that the Protestant view of justification by grace through faith alone is at odds with aspects of Scripture, such as the Gospel of Matthew, the Epistle of James, and even parts of Paul’s writings.  Vanhoozer believes that the Nicene Creed is consistent with Scripture, but there are biblical scholars who hold that the New Testament contains a variety of Christologies.  Looking to Scripture as the final authority does not necessarily eliminate ambiguity, even over what Vanhoozer may consider the essentials.

I should note, however, an intriguing statement that Vanhoozer makes on page 101, in the Adobe Digital version: “While there are indeed a variety of interpretations, especially about how salvation happens, mere Protestant Christians agree about what happened and who did what (e.g., Father, Son, and Spirit).”  Vanhoozer here is specifically addressing Protestant divisions on such issues as baptism, but his insight may be relevant to the disagreement between Catholics and Protestants on justification.  Both can find areas of overlap on what happens in salvation and who does what, notwithstanding their significant differences.

Successful in terms of its mission or not, this is still a rich book.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Netgalley.  My review is honest!


About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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