Biblical Authority after Babel by Kevin J. Vanhoozer
It has become popular among many modern theologians to disparage the Reformation and blame the Reformers for the “hermeneutical havoc” that has been unleashed upon the modern world (p x, see pp 10, 18-19). Vanhoozer wants to refute this idea by reclaiming “elements for a normative Protestantism from the ruins of present day by revisiting historical Protestantism (the Reformation solas)” (p xi). This present volume devotes a chapter to each of the solas, however VanHoozer spends little time explaining the solas in a normative sense. His concern is to show that when rightly understood the solas are both biblical and helpful. They have not thrown the church into a theological and ecclesial freefall, but rather have restored to God’s people truths that had been slowly abandoned throughout the first 14 centuries of church history: The priesthood of the believer solved the problem of unbiblical church authority and abuse; Scripture alone demoted tradition; grace alone put merit in its place; faith alone revealed that works lack saving power (p 25). VanHoozer calls this “mere Protestantism,” meaning a focus and emphasis upon what is essential and central within Protestantism that should unite rather than divide the movement. Throughout the volume the author offers 20 theses with which mere Protestants agree.
The first chapter discusses Sola Gratia. To go wrong here is to go wrong everywhere in theology, VanHoozer asserts (p 40). As a matter of fact, the Reformation is a recovery of grace, as well as a return to literal hermeneutics (p 42). The Roman Catholic Church (RCC) went astray when it began to teach that fallen humanity retained the capacity to receive and cooperate with grace; the Reformers disagreed (pp 47-49).
Sola Fide is the subject of chapter two, and is the recognized article by which the church stands or falls (p 73). Unfortunately Jerome had translated “justification” as “to make righteous” rather than to “declare righteous,” which has caused significant misunderstanding of justification ever since. Returning the church to the correct meaning of justification was at the heart of the Reformation.
Sola Scriptura, however, was no less important. Ecclesiastical authority determines not only what is true but how Scripture is to be interpreted. The RCC claimed that even Scripture draws its authority from the church (p 112), to which is added oral traditions (pp 118-120,137). The Reformers challenged Rome’s authority and declared the Bible had primal and final authority (p 111), and was sufficient for everything for which it was divinely given (2 Tim 3:16) (p 114). But this does not mean Scripture is the solo authority, as modern day Fundamentalists claim (pp 120-121, 143). The church is to look to the community of interpreters (pp 121-123,136-144), the witness of God’s true church through the ages. Sola Scriptura does not require the exegete to come to the text with a blank theological slate (p 124). Rather the term is shorthand for “Scripture interprets Scripture” (p 127). And proper interpretation requires both biblical and systematic theology (pp 124-121).
Chapter four takes on Sola Christus which implies the royal priesthood of all believers. It “means that we need no further prophets to deliver new revelation, no more priests to make propitiation and mediate salvation (Heb 2:16-17, 4:14-16; 7:2-26), and no other kings to rule the church” (p 150). The RCC teaches that the church is a continuation of the incarnation (Christus Totus), whereas mere Protestantism views the church as the theater of evangelical operation (p 154).
The final chapter centers on Soli Deo Gloria, in which VanHoozer discusses Sola Ecclesia more than the glory of God. The conclusion warns evangelicals that because they have recently shied away from emphasis on correct doctrine they have become infected with a social disease (MTD), or moralistic therapeutic deism (p 219). A return to mere Protestantism is immediately needed.
Biblical Authority after Babel is a well thought-out book defending the necessity of the Reformation against its most recent critics. Rather than a movement that brought schism and chaos to the church it has, at its best moments, brought God’s people back to the foundations of the faith – mere Protestantism. However, VanHoozer has not given the final word on all these issues, especially that of authority. Who determines orthodox truth? We can listen to the church at large, and appreciate many of the councils and confessions, but there still exists disagreement within the ranks. Destractors of VanHoozer’s views will not be satisfied with some of his answers but he has given all of us much to contemplate.
This is a volume well worth reading but I would recommend it only to the most studious due to the nature of the discussion and VanHoozer’s writing style, which can be difficult to comprehend at times.
Biblical Authority after Babel by Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016) 269 pp., hardcover $14.57
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Southern View Chapel