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Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity

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How the Five Solas Can Renew Biblical Interpretation

In recent years, notable scholars have argued that the Protestant Reformation unleashed interpretive anarchy on the church. Is it time to consider the Reformation to be a 500-year experiment gone wrong?

World-renowned evangelical theologian Kevin Vanhoozer thinks not. While he sees recent critiques as legitimate, he argues that retrieving the Reformation's core principles offers an answer to critics of Protestant biblical interpretation. Vanhoozer explores how a proper reappropriation of the five solassola gratia (grace alone), sola fide (faith alone), sola scriptura (Scripture alone), solus Christus (in Christ alone), and sola Deo gloria (for the glory of God alone)—offers the tools to constrain biblical interpretation and establish interpretive authority. He offers a positive assessment of the Reformation, showing how a retrieval of "mere Protestant Christianity" has the potential to reform contemporary Christian belief and practice.

This provocative response and statement from a top theologian is accessibly written for pastors and church leaders.

288 pages, Paperback

Published October 18, 2016

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About the author

Kevin J. Vanhoozer

58 books147 followers
Kevin J. Vanhoozer is currently Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. From 1990-98 he was Senior Lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies at New College, University of Edinburgh. Vanhoozer received a BA from Westmont College, an M.Div from Westminster Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, England having studied under Nicholas Lash.

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Profile Image for Douglas Wilson.
Author 286 books3,534 followers
June 11, 2018
Really enjoyed the thesis of this meaty book. And when I say "meaty" I am talking about a thick-cut sirloin, and not talking about any watered down sloppy joes.

The Reformation was not responsible for unleashing interpretive anarchy into the world, and furthermore, on top of that, a "mere Protestant" approach to the issues revolving around the five solas is the only way out. This is a worthwhile book.
Profile Image for David Goetz.
271 reviews1 follower
November 26, 2017
4.5 stars.

Another solid effort from KV. See this review for some helpful tables that show the coherence of Vanhoozer's argument. He tries to show, through a "retrieval" of the five solas, that the Protestant Reformation did not cause secularization, skepticism, or schism, at least not necessarily or in a way that undermines the Reformation itself. More specifically, he tries to show that the Reformation did not introduce a necessary and vicious "pervasive interpretive pluralism" (17)

Put positively, KV argues for a material principle, a formal principle, and a final principle to mere Protestant Christianity. The retrieved solas are the material principle, the priesthood of all believers is the formal principle, and catholicity (what he later calls "Pentecostal plurality") is the final principle.

A lot stands out, but I'll start with his theses. These are all quotations.

1. Mere Protestant Christians (MPCs) agree that the many forms of biblical discourse together make up a single unified story of God's gracious communicative initiatives. (62)
2. MPCs agree that the Bible is fundamentally about grace in Jesus Christ. (63)
3. MPCs believe that the Bible, the process of interpretation, and interpreters themselves are all parts of the triune economy of grace. (64)
4. MPCs are interpreters who themselves are caught up in the triune economy of light and who therefore read the Bible as children of light. (66)
5. The authority principle of MPC is the say-so of the Triune God, a speak-acting that authorizes the created order and authors the Scriptures, diverse testimonies that make known the created order as it has come to be and to be restored in, through, and for Jesus Christ. (104)
6. As persons created in God's image and destined to be conformed to the image of God's Son, mere Protestant biblical interpreters believe that the Spirit both summons them to attend and authorizes them to respond to the voice of the Triune God speaking in the Scriptures to present Christ. (104)
7. Mere Protestant biblical interpreters believe that they will have a better understanding of what God is saying in Scripture by attending to the work of other interpreters (and communities of interpreters) as well as their own community's work. (105)
8. MPCs believe that faith enables a way of interpreting Scripture that refuses both absolute certainty (idols of the tower) and relative skepticism (idols of the maze). (105)
9. The mere Protestant pattern of interpretive authority begins with the Triune God in communicative action, accords first place to Scripture interpreting Scripture (the canonic principle), but also acknowledges the appointed role of church tradition (the catholic principle) in the economy of testimony. (143)
10. Sola scriptura is not a recipe for sectarianism, much less an excuse for schism, but rather a call to listen for the Holy Spirit speaking in the history of Scripture's interpretation in the church. (145)
11. Sola scriptura entails not a naive but a critical biblicism. (145)
12. A mere Protestant practice of sola scriptura constitutes a catholic biblicism. (146)
13. Mere Protestant local churches have the 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)
14. Christ authorizes both the congregation as a whole and its officers in particular to minister the same word in different ways. (174)
15. Christ authorizes the local church to be an authoritative interpretive community of the Word of God. (175)
16. Mere Protestant local churches have an obligation to read in communion with other local churches. (176)
17. MPC, far from encouraging individual autonomy and interpretive anarchy, calls individual interpreters to join with other citizens of the gospel as members of a universal priesthood and local embassy of Christ's kingdom in order to represent God's rule publicly. (210)
18. MPC is a confederacy of holy nations (local churches) united by a single constitution, and committed to reform and renewal through a continued rereading of Scripture. (210)
19. The genius of MPC is its distinct converse (i.e., conversational "conference"), generated and governed by Scripture, and guided by a convictional conciliarism that unites diverse churches in a transdenominational communion. (211)
20. The glory of MPC is the conference and communion of holy nations, itself a gift that glorifies God in magnifying Jesus Christ. (212)

A few comments on strengths and weaknesses. First, KV's "retrieval" of the solas is a retrieval only in a very loose sense. Basically, he makes some brief comments on what the Reformers meant by each one and then takes it in his own direction. It seems like he decided to write the book, put together the flow of the argument, and then tried to make the solas fit somehow. It doesn't seem to harm the book in any significant way, but it is curious.

Second, his description of the value of tradition and of the mandate to listen to tradition is excellent. He identifies Scripture as "judicial authority" and tradition as "testimonial authority," which are better terms than "magisterial" and "ministerial." "Scripture alone is the supreme authority, but God in his grace decided that it is not good for Scripture to be alone" (144). If we take the gift of God's Spirit seriously, we will take seriously the efforts of other saints to wrestle with and submit to Scripture. Quoting Bernard Ramm, KV rightly says that sectarianism is "the denial of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the community of believers" (145).

Third, I appreciate the conceptual clarification of the priesthood of all believers. "The priesthood of all believers," KV says, "refers to the freedom and responsibility of every Christian to minister the gospel in word and deed to one's neighbor" (158). I also appreciate and agree with the claim that the ministry of the pastor does not differ in nature from the ministry of the priestly layperson; the layperson and pastor exercise two forms of one ministry--the ministry of Christ through the Spirit to edify and unite his people.

Fourth, his emphasis on the importance of the church, if unsurprising and not in any specific way remarkable, at least continues the trajectory in evangelicalism toward a more robust ecclesiology. He quote John Nevin at one point: "Individualism without the church is as little to be trusted as ecclesiasticism without individual experience" (201). Absolutely.

Fifth and last, his discussions on catholic Protestantism and mere Protestant evangelicalism were illuminating. Pastors and congregations should create opportunities to read and study Scripture together; denominations must be seen as "service structures to assist congregations which are real churches" (189, quoting D. Boughton Knox). And denominational differences can and should be seen as part of a larger Pentecostal plurality in which we all proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ within the comprehensive economy of grace in our different denominational voices.

Highly recommended. I hope it generates increased dialogue among Protestants churches and also demonstrates effectively to the Roman churches that Protestants are not inevitably and intractably schismatic.
Profile Image for Bob O'Bannon.
209 reviews15 followers
August 12, 2017
Reading the introduction of this book got me very excited about exploring a common and very good question -- hasn't Protestantism unleashed a kind of interpretive chaos when it comes to understanding the Bible? How else do we explain that there are apparently 38,000 Protestant denominations? The phrase that Vanhoozer has coined to describe this phenomenon is "pervasive interpretive pluralism." Problem is, when I got done with the book, I still wasn't sure exactly what is Vanhoozer's proposed solution.

Part of the problem undoubtedly is my own inability to keep up with Vanhoozer's intellect (phrases like "unitive interpretive plurality" and "creaturely social coefficient" are generously spread throughout the book). But another problem is a simple lack of clarity – the writing here is wordy, long-winded and repetitive. This book could have been half as long as it is.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of brilliant insights to savor here. Vanhoozer suggests that Protestantism is not an obstacle to Christian unity, but actually the way forward. Just as we have four Gospels that testify to the life of Jesus, so do we need various traditions, humbly working to understand the Bible throughout church history, to express the fullness of the Gospel's meaning. Unity in the church will not come by denying the distinctives of denominations, but only by the "critical appropriation and sharing of them." (203). This requires a certain humility (not being an "extreme epistemic egoist") in order to recognize that the "best Protestants are catholic Protestants – people centered on the Gospel but also alert to how the Gospel has been faithfully received across cultures and centuries." (199)

In the abstract this all sounds good, but I was left wondering – how in the world do we get Christians from different denominations together to dialogue and listen to one another? Vanhoozer wishes for "table fellowship" among different traditions, and suggests "canonical conferences" as a way of getting Christians together to "form consensus about what the Bible means." (231). Again, a good idea, but this book could have been so much more useful if some practical suggestions were offered about how this might work. Perhaps that will fall to someone else concerned about the alleged anarchy among Protestant Bible interpreters.
Profile Image for Alex Strohschein.
690 reviews96 followers
May 15, 2017
Approaching and in this, the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, many books have been released that assess the religious revolution/reclamation ushered in by the monk from Eisleben. Brad S. Gregory speaks of Protestantism's "unintended reformation" that inadvertently secularized Western culture. Sociologist Christian Smith has pointed out the impossibility of biblicism (both Gregory and Smith are converts to Roman Catholicism). Even Protestant scholars such as Hans Boersma and Peter Leithart have lamented the negative consequences of the Reformation, such as sacramental disenchantment. Of course, the medieval Church was beset with its own problems, even anarchy, given the Avignon papacy and the fact that many priests were poorly educated for their pastoral office.

Into this disputation, Kevin J. Vanhoozer offers "Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity" (catch your breath!). As other reviewers have noted, while Vanhoozer laces his book with helpful metaphors and clever quips (in the conclusion he speaks of "Evangel Way" which contains a "seven-story mansion" which welcomes neighbours to "come home" - a nod to both Thomas Merton and Scott Hahn?), he is also guilty of including a lot of clunky jargon (I wish theologians would include glossaries in their books that would provide quick references to key terms).

Vanhoozer contends that the "five solas" of the Reformation - grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone, in Christ alone, and for the glory of God alone - should be recovered as foundational keystones that can provide a basis for unity in diversity, particularly in biblical interpretation and authority and he spends a chapter examining each sola. Vanhoozer admits that biblicism and interpretive pluralism is a problem, but he asserts that there is a substantial difference between "a naive and a critical biblicism, between a pervasive interpretive pluralism, on the one hand, and a unitive interpretive plurality, on the other" (p. 17). Like Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, and other Catholic theologians associated with the "nouvelle théologie" who sought to return to the Bible and early Church fathers, Vanhoozer wants Protestants to take up a "ressourcement" of the five solas of the Reformation. Vanhoozer states "the main purpose of retrieval is the revitalization of biblical interpretation, theology, and the church today. To retrieve is to look back creatively in order to move forward faithfully. In particular, what needs to be retrieved is the Reformers' vision for catholic unity under canonical authority, and also their strategy for making this vision visible through table talk: conciliar deliberation around not simply a conference table but a Communion table" (Amen!, p. 24). Vanhoozer sees Martin Luther as a prime model for this since he “translated and contextualized the gospel – which is to say, RETRIEVED it – into the vernacular language and cultural situation of his day. Theology is always missiological to the extent that the search for understanding requires us to speak that understanding into new contexts. The Reformation thus appears in this light as a missiological retrieval of the gospel as set forth in the original languages of the Bible” (“Ad fontes!,” p. 24-25).

Vanhoozer’s argument is complex, though compelling, warranting (catholic) discussion. Although at the beginning of each chapter he tries to answer critics, there were times it seemed he could have interacted more with Roman Catholic sources, particularly on tradition. I do not think there is a convincing biblical basis for the veneration of Mary or invocation of the saints, but Roman Catholics would insist these tenets are backed up by the Bible. However, in the chapter on grace alone, Vanhoozer does a masterful job of wading into the medieval scholastic debate about grace vs. nature and vindicating the Reformation against charges it led to secularization. Vanhoozer states “Scholastics deployed the concept of pure nature to counter the Protestant teaching about the total depravity of fallen human nature. Late medieval/early modern scholastic commentators on Aquinas tended to follow Cajetan, insisting that fallen human nature retained at least the capacity to receive and cooperate with grace” (p. 47). I need to contemplate this more; I DO believe in total depravity, but at the same time, as an Arminian, I believe God’s prevenient grace prepares us to accept Christ. Vanhoozer points out that de Lubac in fact was the first to call “attention to the trajectory that led from pure self-enclosed nature to modern secularism. This complicates Brad Gregory’s account, discussed above, which pins the blame for secularization on the Reformation…When nature is viewed as pure or autonomous, grace becomes ontologically ‘second order,’ and the result is what Karl Barth rightly described as the ‘secular misery’ of modern theology” (p. 47). In other words, if one can be in right relationship with God via one’s “pure nature,” then one does not need the supernatural infusion of grace and if you don’t need grace then do you even need God or the Cross? Vanhoozer presents the Reformer’s stance as “the gospel is the good news that men and women can be adopted as children of God, not because human nature has by grace been ‘elevated,’ but because human sinners (persons) have by grace been forgiven” (p. 49).

I’ve dwelt a bit on the chapter on grace alone, but others have written excellent reviews already that discuss the chapters on the other solas. Briefly, Vanhoozer insists that “sola Scriptura” does not mean an individualized reading of the Bible but interpretation in the context of the catholic Church. Each local church is “wholly a church” but NOT “the whole Church.”

In order to facilitate genuine catholicity and ecumenical fellowship, Vanhoozer proposes three levels of dogmatic ranking. The first is “formulations of revealed biblical truth that the whole church considers authoritative” such as Jesus’ bodily resurrection and the Trinity (p. 205). It is what is essential for every Christian, everywhere, to believe. The second level also contains important doctrines, but these are more the “how” such as “How does Jesus’ death on the cross save sinners? How are the bread and the wine Jesus’s body and blood?” (p. 206). Lastly, level three doctrines are ones that again, are important, but not as vital to catholicity, such as the precise nature of eschatology. I did wonder as to where Vanhoozer would place important questions of theological anthropology such as women’s ordination and sexual morality?

Vanhoozer makes a particularly powerful, beautiful, and biblical, conclusion. His task throughout the book has been to counter the charge that the Reformation loosed interpretive anarchy upon the Church. Rather than Babel, the Reformation ushered in Pentecost. Vanhoozer explains:

“It is well known that Pentecost reverses Babel. The people who built the tower of Babel sought to make a name, and a unity, for themselves. At Pentecost, God builds his temple, uniting people in Christ. Unity – interpretive agreement and mutual understanding – is, it would appear, something that only God can accomplish. And accomplish it he does, but not in the way we might have expected. Although onlookers thought that the believers who received the Spirit at Pentecost were babbling (Acts 2:13), in fact they were speaking intelligibly in several languages (Acts 2:8-11). Note well: they were all saying the same thing (testifying about Jesus) in different languages. It takes a thousand tongues to say and sing our great Redeemer’s praise.

Protestant evangelicalism evidences a Pentecostal plurality: the various Protestant streams testify to Jesus in their own vocabularies, and it takes many languages (i.e. interpretive traditions) to minister the meaning of God’s Word and the fullness of Christ. As the body is made up of many members, so many interpretations may be needed to do justice to the body of the biblical text. Why else are there four Gospels, but that the one story of Jesus was too rich to be told from one perspective only? Could it be that the various Protestant traditions function similarly as witnesses who testify to the same Jesus from different situations and perspectives?" (p. 223)

In the end, Vanhoozer favours catholicity under the five solas, canonical authority, and conciliarism. One glaring omission (which he admits), is his neglect of Eastern Orthodoxy (which he admits), which IS largely conciliar as opposed to Roman Catholicism under the papacy (though some in the Roman Catholic hierarchy have favoured conciliarism, especially during the late medieval period and the Great Western Schism).

Though an important clarion call at the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, one also wonders how realistic such “mere Protestant Christianity” is? Protestants do enjoy a great deal of fellowship (besides the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, most denominations allow Protestants of different denominations to feast at the Lord’s Table), evidenced by parachurch organizations and ministries such as InterVarsity, but at the same time, there are sharp divisions when it comes to issues such as baptism, women’s ordination, church polity, and spiritual gifts. Will the Gospel Coalition ever publish articles affirming women's ordination (I'd consider this a third-level doctrine) or Arminianism? One suggestion Vanhoozer makes, recovered from 16th century Geneva, would be for pastors to meet weekly at Scripture conferences in order to dialogue and share with one another (p. 208). While not diluting denominational distinctives, I think there is great wealth in this ecclesial coming together. I think Vanhoozer would agree with John G. Stackhouse’s reflection:

“Beyond the family or particular Christian tradition, how much effort do we make to consider what the Mennonites or the Episcopalians, the Baptists or the Pentecostals, the Methodists or the Presbyterians have to say to the rest of us out of their DIFFERENCES, as well as out of the affirmation in common with other Christians? As I suggested earlier, our patterns of ecumenicity tend to bracket out our differences rather than to celebrate and capitalize upon them. Finding common ground has been the necessary first step in ecumenical relations and activity. But the next step is to acknowledge and enjoy what God has done elsewhere in the Body of Christ. And if at the congregational level we are willing to say, 'I can't do everything myself, for I am an ear: I must consult with a hand or an eye on this matter,' I suggest that we do the same among whole traditions. If we do not regularly and programmatically consult with each other, we are tacitly claiming that we have no need of each other, and that all the truth, beauty, and goodness we need has been vouchsafed to us by God already. Not only is such an attitude problematic in terms of our flourishing, as I have asserted, but in this context now we must recognize how useless a picture this presents to the rest of society. Baptists, Presbyterians, and Roman Catholics failing to celebrate diversity provide no positive examples to societies trying to understand how to celebrate diversity on larger scales.”
Profile Image for Drew.
520 reviews11 followers
February 23, 2017
Impressively researched but unconvincing. Like Leithart, Vanhoozer pretends at offering a generic Protestant view but in reality it is only inclusive of those directly descended from Luther and Calvin. Full review here: http://drewbmcintyre.com/2017/02/22/b...
Profile Image for Scott.
473 reviews68 followers
January 13, 2017
Vanhoozer doing the solas in his own creative, idiosyncratic way. Review forthcoming.
Profile Image for Bob.
1,857 reviews621 followers
March 7, 2017
Summary: A proposal that the five Solas of "mere Protestant Christianity" provide a framework to check the interpretive anarchy for which Protestant Christianity is criticized.

One of the most serious criticisms of post-Reformation Protestant Christianity is that it unleashed a kind of interpretive anarchy, a confusing of the languages similar to what happened after the tower of Babel incident in scripture. In fact, one of the major appeals of Roman Catholic Christianity is that in the Pope and the Magisterium, the church speaks with one voice on issues of doctrine over which many Protestants differ. It is a criticism made trenchantly in recent works by Brad Gregory and by sociologist Christian Smith, who converted from evangelical Protestantism to Roman Catholicism over what he calls the "pervasive interpretive pluralism" that characterizes what he calls the "biblicism" of Protestant Christianity.

Kevin Vanhoozer, a theologian who has written extensively about biblical interpretation addresses this criticism in his newest book. He argues that the five solas of the Reformation so shape and inform our reading of scripture as to preclude the kind of anarchy of which Protestantism is accused.

The book is arranged around the traditional five solas of Reformed tradition: sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria. I will try to summarize the major contours of a careful argument he makes that eventuates instead in what he would call a "unitive interpretive plurality."

First of all, he contends that sola gratia means that we understand scripture as as a gracious initiative of the triune God to communicate his gracious work in Christ to us and that the Bible, its interpreters, and interpretation are all caught up in this gracious initiative. This seems quite important in addressing what kind of book scripture is and the origin of its communication and our capacity to discern its meaning.

Second, sola fide recognizes God's trustworthy authority in creation and salvation and in attesting to this work through human testimony and the appropriate response of faith. Faith alone is not faith isolated from listening to others and the epistemic humility of faith avoids the extremes of certainty and relativity.

Third, sola scriptura is not solo scriptura. While scripture is the final authority it is not the only authority. Our reading of scripture is informed by the other solas and the insights of the church as a whole. Vanhoozer affirms the biblicism of his position but calls for a catholic biblicism that listens to the testimony of the church about the scriptures.

Fourth, solus Christus implies the priesthood of all believers, and it is to this priesthood that Christ has entrusted the keys to the kingdom household, which Vanhoozer sees as the local congregation. We do not interpret scripture individually but as part of interpretive communities in local congregations who interpret in communion with other local congregations.

Finally, soli Deo gloria means that local churches are "holy nations" whose uniqueness and communion glorifies God as these nations "conference" with each other around their understanding of holy scripture, experiencing continuing renewal as they read scripture together. Rather than mere uniformity, the church manifests a robust unity within diversity that makes it hardier and more able to adapt to the different settings in which it finds itself.

Each of the chapters develops these ideas and then summarizes them in a final section. Then, in his conclusion Vanhoozer summarizes his argument and concludes that this is a better form of catholicity than Roman Catholicity.

As I worked through this argument, I found much that I could affirm wholeheartedly. He begins, not with scripture but with God's gracious initiative. I heartily affirm his call to a humble faith that refuses to idolize certainty but equally steers clear of skepticism and relativity. He steers clear of the caricatures of biblicism that are rightly criticized. And I found his vision for unity that is not uniformity bracing.

I do think the most difficult part of his argument for the contention he would make is the part about local churches as interpretive communities. I think it a healthier thing that local churches function as interpretive communities than individuals in isolation. What counters the danger of pervasive interpretive pluralism for him is this idea of conference--churches in a gospel-shaped conversation with each other. This sounds nice in theory, but through the 500 years of Reformation history, where has this been practiced, and is there some reason that it might be practiced in our present day when it has not been for all this time? Where are there vibrant examples of congregations, particularly from different theological streams within Protestantism, in conversation with each other? Where are there examples of irenic efforts to listen to one another and address contradictory understandings of scripture around matters like political engagement, gender roles in home and church, the weight we give to dominion and to creation care, and more?

It is striking to me that one of the few examples of such "conference" that I can think of was the initial statement in 1994 and subsequent conversations of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. This was not a conversation between Protestants about a "mere Protestant Christianity" as Vanhoozer calls it but rather one between a subgroup of Protestants and Catholics. With the deaths of Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus, who provided much of the impetus of these conversations, they seem to have waned. The conversations did not downplay difference but also emphasized common ground and the work of listening to each other, for often differences arise from misunderstanding. Might these be a model for the kind of "conference" that might be possible?

I don't think there is a structured way in which the kinds of "conference" Vanhoozer describes can occur for the whole global church. But might his framework begin to inform the practice of local congregations more, around a disposition to commune and confer with fellow believers across denominational, cultural, and other differences, and to read scripture together in ways that enrich and renew each other, as an expression of our shared convictions around the grace and gospel of God? Might it also inform our disposition toward one another, where we determine not to suspect and criticize each other but to confer with and learn from each other, and seek to hear together what the Spirit is saying to the churches? While it might not rectify all the problems critics see in Protestant Christianity, it might be a start toward a catholicity that begins to prepare us for the coming of the Bridegroom.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
Profile Image for Hobart.
2,314 reviews58 followers
September 27, 2016
With the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation's accidental start coming up next year, we'll be seeing a lot of books celebrating and/or critiquing the movement (more than usual, that is). This is one of the former, but done mostly in the way of a defense against some of the most common critiques. There's a very real sense in which I'm not qualified to discuss this book -- and I'm really looking forward to reading reviews from those who are. But, there's another sense in which I am -- I'm a Christian, I like to read and think about these issues, and VanHoozer wrote a book about them, so, you know -- I might as well blather on about it some.

In the Introduction, Vanhoozer rehearses some of the more common critiques of Protestantism, mostly relying on those talking about the lack of organizational unity and those that relate that level of disunity to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura:
One adjective seems custom-made to describe the unintended consequence of the Reformation. It is a word that I never come across except in the descriptions or criticisms of Protestantism: “fissiparous”—“inclined to cause or undergo division into separate parts of groups,” from the Latin fissus, past participle of findere (to split; cf . “fissure” ).
In much of the introduction, he seems to buy into the conventional wisdom/stereotypes of Protestantism/what Protestantism teaches -- including a weird reading of the Ann Hutchison case -- using too many scattered quotations out of context from various authorities to build the case.

To respond to the fissiparousness of Protestantism (which he does lament), Vanhoozer uses the "Solas" of the Reformation to show why the problem isn't inherent in Protestantism's principles -- the examination of the Solas (rooted in Sola Gratia) provides the framework for the rest of the book and his apologetic. I really appreciated this way of framing his argument, and think I need to work on doing that myself.

Throughout this work, Vanhoozer
will be arguing not for the superiority of [his] own Reformed tribe but for “mere Protestant Christianity.” This refers neither to a lost “golden age” nor to a particular cultural instantiation of Protestantism, but rather to a set of seminal insights —- encapsulated by the five solas -- that represent a standing challenge, and encouragement, to the church.
While I have some concerns of the "Mere Christianity" and "Mere Orthodoxy" approaches that are gaining popularity in some circles, I can't fault this. Sure, he'd be able to make a stronger case if he did argue for the superiority of Reformed thinking (if you ask me), but given the arguments he's responding to it makes sense to adopt this approach.

As he looks at each Sola, he begins by examining what the Reformers meant by the phrase (too frequently different from what their heirs mean by the phrase). He then looks at competing views (historical and contemporary -- with an emphasis on the contemporary), focusing each discussion on the doctrine's relationship to Bible, Church and Authority. He starts with Grace Alone, moves on to Faith Alone, Scripture Alone, then In Christ Alone and finishing with For the Glory of God Alone. The latter part begins with a look at "The Lord's Supper as a Test of Christian Unity." Even the most ardent Protestant would have to admit that this is where the Reformers stumbled most -- when Luther and the Reformed couldn't come to an acceptable consensus on the meaning and nature of this Sacrament, our fissiparousness became most evident and quite possibly firmly established as a mark of Protestantism. For my money, everything else comes as a result of this failure -- so for VanHoozer to focus on it at this point, really resonated with the reading/studies I've been doing lately. Sure, it's not that novel an approach, but as a reader, when an author seems to be on the same page, it draws you in.

I do think some of the more technical arguments he makes get a little too creative, maybe too focused on innovation and novelty -- but I'm pretty cautious when it comes to this stuff. So again, I'm looking forward to seeing what others make of this.

This isn't an academic work, but it'll appeal most to the academically-inclined (whether by occupation or temperament/interest). Lay people shouldn't be put off by it, but it will be a challenge at times. Frequently, he's deceptively easy to read -- you'll be chuckling at some remark, smiling at a bit of whimsy, and miss the fact that he's left the shallow end of the pool for something deep and thoughtful. Re-reading paragraphs and sections is highly recommended.

Vanhoozer writes with a very engaging style, some great metaphors and imagery. One paragraph I picked while reading to try to explain this to my wife went like this: It began with some historical notes; then made references to Philip Schaff, John Nevins, and John Calvin; moved on to a quote by Augustine; and ended with a line from a line from Lewis' The Last Battle (one that elicited a grin in addition to sealing his point). Yes, sometimes he lets that creativity run away from him -- okay, he does that often (my notes are filled with that observation). I found myself frequently giving mental fist pumps to something he said and then almost immediately holding up a palm to say, "slow down!" On more than one occasion, I wondered if I was being charmed by his writing more than being convinced by it. I don't think so, ultimately, but it's something to be aware of.

One last note that I won't develop because it was a slight digression for him at one point, but I really appreciated his discussion of Biblical vs. Systematic theology. It was a creative way to frame the discussion, and a helpful one at that.

On the whole, I might have cringed at or questioned his thinking, some of the details of his arguments, but typically I thought his conclusions were spot on. Which probably says more about me than him. There's a few area to be cautious of here, but largely this is an encouraging, well-constructed, challenging and encouraging read. For those ready to gird up their minds, I'd strongly encourage picking this up. This was my first encounter with Vanhoozer outside the occasional footnote in someone else's work -- I don't think it'll be my last.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Brazos Press via NetGalley in exchange for this post -- thanks to both for this.
N.B.: As this was an ARC, any quotations above may be changed in the published work -- I will endeavor to verify them as soon as possible.
Profile Image for Drew Norwood.
276 reviews9 followers
March 14, 2022
This book is like watching a heavyweight grapple with the Protestant dilemma, which is the fact that "sola scriptura, coupled with the priesthood of all believers, seems to make each individual the final authority, and yet various Protestant individuals, each guided and illumined by the Holy Spirit, disagree with one another." Vanhoozer, in response, shows why Mere Protestantism is better than--and actually more catholic than--the simple unity of Roman Catholicism. He does so by offering a material principle (the retrieved five Reformations solas), a formal principle (the priesthood of all believers), and a final principle (Protestant Catholicism).

The book is not perfect. I wish several of the points were made with more clarity. And a few important questions were left unresolved. But it is a excellent source for understanding interpretive authority and ecclesiastical unity from a Protestant perspective.
Profile Image for Wesley.
69 reviews11 followers
January 1, 2017
I had high expectations for this book. Indeed, some of its parts were excellent. However, I disappointed at the overall argument Dr. Vanhoozer was attempting to defend. His arguments defending the 35,000+ Protestant denominations include pointing out at one historical moment, there were three competing claims to the papacy. When he severely downplays the problem with fissiparousness that has become Protestant Christianity, his following points ring hollow. For instance, by invoking the spiritual gifts exposition in 1 Cor 12-14 (out of context) to defend the plethora of denominations, it seems to be a blatant contradiction of Jesus' priestly prayer for unity in John 17. While there are things to appreciate in most denominations, they have developed into their own tradition on purpose. A Baptist and a Presbyterian don't swim in their separate streams merely because of different "preferences," yet that's almost what Vanhoozer wants us to believe.
Profile Image for Maxime N. Georgel.
251 reviews12 followers
January 25, 2018
Le livre de 2017 à mes yeux. Une réflexion fraiche sur l'unité et la catholicité de l'Église. Une vision de l'Église qui fait à la fois justice aux diverses interprétations et au désir d'atteindre le consensus. Surprenant jusqu'à la fin (surtout à la fin !) dans ses suggestions. Vanhoozer permet de regarder avec optimisme le chaos interprétatif actuel chez les évangéliques et aide à ne pas regarder avec nostalgie une unité institutionnelle de l'Église. Je partage complètement sa vision d'union entre les traditions protestantes qui ont une forte ecclésiologie et le mouvement évangélique, fort de son zèle et de ses accents sur la piété.

Un livre qui me sera utile pour ma série sur le problème protestant : https://parlafoiblog.wordpress.com/20...
Et qui explique à nouveau qu'être protestant, c'est être plus catholique que Rome : https://parlafoiblog.wordpress.com/20...
Profile Image for Eric.
173 reviews7 followers
February 26, 2018
This is the Kevin J. Vanhoozer book people should read. In a defense of the five solas, and the right of private interpretation even in the face of interpretive chaos, Vanhoozer puts forth a cogent, sustained argument that the Church, by and through its Spirit appointed prophets, pastors and teachers has been lead into all truth and has the authority and duty to interpret scripture, over time, for the Church universal. Is There a Meaning in This Text?: the Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge is a deeper book, but aimed at linguists and language philosophers. Missing are the tropes within tropes of Vanhoozer's writing style elsewhere. Biblical Authority after Babel is not polemical as such, but is focused on making a series of concrete points, some of which are deemed so central to the Christian faith and confession as to be above reexamination (such as the doctrines espoused in the Nicene Creed).
The Church has delegated authority from Christ to proclaim the gospel and interpret the Word. Each believer is obligated to measure what is taught against the scriptures (as did the Bereans), but each believer is not free to autonomously decide for themselves that the Word means. All interpretation and understanding must be done inside the magisterium of the Word (Jesus) by and through the Spirit (not the Church in the Roman sense, for which see Magisterium), conveyed to the Church, over time and place (that is, white guys in the West, no matter how smart and trained, do not have the final say, but likewise, being white and Western does not mean they are wrong; same for any body of Christians over time and in different places and local cultures). Churches, councils, fathers, teachers, academics may all contribute to the correct understanding of the Word, but all are fallible and subject to correction over time. Also, the Word must be interpreted for new cultural realities, but since at base nothing is new, interpretation should in fact just rearticulated to address the surface particulars as they present themselves.
Vanhoozer proposes a stronger (more traditional) ecclesiology to reign in, so to speak, unbridled Biblical interpretation. Authority to interpret is not a Diktat from any one Church, local or denominational, but arises from a pattern of authority of prior Church interpretations, councils, fathers of the Church, all measured against the Word, under the guidance and power of the Spirit. But, in today's environment in the West, that proposal will create stress.
A final interesting point (at least to this reader) is Vanhoozer's position that their are only two Churches recognized in the New Testament. One is the Church universal (my term), consisting of all believers over all time, to be redeemed in the Second Coming as the bride of Christ. The other is the stand alone local church, under its own pastoral/elder/teacher leadership. Denominations are not prohibited by the New Testament and may be useful, but they are not mandated or recognized either. If Vanhoozer is correct, then any local church, under leadership selected by the Spirit, and recognized (ordained) by the local church can carry out the Great Commission, or at least its part of it. Having lived through the self-immolation of the Southern Baptists, accepting the stand alone local church as the correct expression of "Church" sees less farfetched than it would have in 1980. Philip Schaff made a parallel point when he said the New Testament description of the "Church" was vague enough to support either congregational or hierarchical organization ( denominationalism was not claimed to be in the New Testament), so long as believers followed the goals of the Church set forth in the New Testament, under leadership comporting with guidelines set out in the New Testament.
2 reviews1 follower
September 10, 2018
In summary, Vanhoozer did a great job in casting a vision of unity – churches coming together in faith, to dialogue, to share, holding fast to the gospel and to one another. The BAAB is indeed a timely book for today schismatic church. He sheds light to this depressing situation not by offering us something new that we have to learn, but he is redirecting us to look back to the Reformation – the supposedly culprit to today’s gloomy situation, and to rediscover again the good old gems of the Reformation as solutions to contemporary Protestantism.

Vanhoozer’s arguments though impressive, will only work if churches are in dialogue with one another. He pushes for churches to meet in conferences just like the days of the church councils. In today’s church scene, there are not many denominations meeting up globally to dialogue, let alone cross-denominational conferences including the myriad of independent churches. Similarly, are the churches today seeking for such cross-denominational dialogues to discuss about unity? My opinion is that most churches like to be left alone and build their own kingdoms.

However I am still grateful for the fruit of Reformation, i.e. the passion for studying and preaching Scripture, but I had always ascribed today’s contemporary church divisions to the Reformation. In which, I would posit that the contemporary churches did not carry out the true intention of the Reformers – that is not to neglect the traditions as well. The negligence of traditions have spiral downward to today’s empowerment of individual interpretations, which further cause divisions and fragmentation in the body of Christ. Reading Vanhoozer’s arguments strengthen my convictions that, “The church must always be reformed”, thus we, the heirs of the Reformation must constantly check ourselves, aligning ourselves to the orthodox doctrines and the good intentions of the Reformers, lest we strayed further away. May God help us. Amen.
11 reviews1 follower
January 25, 2019
Le protestantisme ouvre-t-il la porte du relativisme, du scepticisme, de la division ? Sola scriptura signifie-t-il que chaque interprétation est digne de confiance et légitime ? Si tous les croyants ont un même accès au père, à quoi servent les responsables d'églises ? Etre protestant est-ce rejeter la tradition ? Y-a-t-il une unité possible dans le mouvement protestant ? Quelle interprétation fait autorité ?
Voilà quelques unes des questions que traite K.V.
En s'appuyant sur les 5 solas de la réforme il tente de dessiner les contours d'un protestantisme catholique aboutissant à 20 thèses. Il cherche ainsi à répondre aux problématiques d'autorité de la parole auxquelles sont confrontés les protestants. Ses propositions sont particulièrement pertinentes aujourd'hui, pour le monde évangélique confronté aux multiples dénominations.
J'ai apprécié l'équilibre de l'auteur dans tout ce qu'il propose, il ne s'agit non pas d'un simple regard nostalgique en arrière, mais de s'appuyer sur les principes de la réforme pour progresser dans le contexte actuel.
J'ai été particulièrement encouragé par l'accent que met l'auteur sur l'œuvre du Dieu trinitaire qui guide et garde l'église à travers les siècles. Ce livre m'a également été d'un grande aide pour comprendre le comportement et la vision à adopter vis à vis de la diversité doctrinale qui existe dans le monde évangélique.

J'émet un petit bémol quant à la forme adoptée, si l'utilisation des 5 solas est sans doute très accrocheur, j'ai trouvé qu'on ne voyait pas toujours la pertinence du lien entre le sola et la problématique traitée par l'auteur. Il me semble que K.V. force parfois (j'ai bien dit parfois) un peu ce lien (extrapole le sola), ce qui ne facilite pas la compréhension de sa pensée.
Mais je recommande quand même !
Profile Image for Garrett.
51 reviews1 follower
August 1, 2022
A creative, insightful defense of Protestantism against the common critiques of subjectivism, schism, and secularism.

I really admire Vanhoozer’s project to articulate “mere Protestant Christianity,” which is probably why I wish he made some more specific suggestions and applications in the end. He may not resolve every issue or question one may have around church authority, interpretative communities and denominationalism, but in my opinion, he demonstrates that Protestants have a firm foundation for unity-in-diversity in the gospel. I’m sure I will be thinking about some of his insights for a long time.

For example, his thoughts on sola scriptura vs. ‘solo scriptura’ in chapter 3 provided a particularly helpful framework, clarifying why Christian tradition can have a function in church life (ministerial and fallible, rather than magisterial and infallible). Sola scriptura, he says, “functions properly only in the context of the whole church,” in the context of the economy of salvation (including the other solas), and with Scripture as the supreme normative authority of Christian faith and life above the “appointed role of church tradition,” which is a “derivative or relative authority.” (130, 143-145)

“Protestants forbid any interpretation from enjoying the same authority as Scripture itself, yet mere Protestant Christians acknowledge the Spirit’s use of fallible teachers, councils, and tradition to lead the church into all truth.” (144-145)
89 reviews1 follower
December 8, 2018
It was good. I think all people who self-identify as Protestants or evangelicals should read this. The most important aspect was how biblical authority isn’t just individuals running wild with their own ideas. Tradition matters. Scholarship matters. History matters. Teachers and pastors matter. Interpretive communities matter.

Vanhoozer admitted he might be betraying people with his last chapter where he calls for evangelicals to be the main interpretive community when it combines powers with Protestantism (My paraphrase. I could be incorrect in my paraphrase). The idea is evangelicals bring the devotion and excitement and passion and Protestantism brings the organization and deeper theology.

I have issues with the word ‘evangelical.’ Maybe I shouldn’t but it’s a relatively recent word and I don’t see a need to preserve it. It now has political connotations I don’t think is helpful.

All-in-all, it was a good read. As Protestants, we can be distinct and defined but we also have to be open to and in communion with other interpretive communities.

Did the reformation cause individualism and leave a path of divisive destruction? Vanhoozer says no. He actually says the opposite. Do I fully agree? Like most things, I find myself somewhere in the middle. But my opinions will continue to change as I learn more.
Profile Image for Christopher Hall.
69 reviews1 follower
September 3, 2018
This is a book that should not be tossed aside lightly — instead, it should be hurled with great force! In fairness, I am tempted to give it 2 stars because the introduction raised some great questions. However, the rest of the book gave terrible answers, some were not even answered at all. E.g., it was never answered how to decide truth when different denominations contradicted each other. Instead, he seemed to relate as if it were all various facets of truth, different emphases. Also, this book never seemed to address practical issues, it was all theoretical and that was written as if it were in some alternate reality/history.
Profile Image for Matt Crawford.
390 reviews9 followers
January 23, 2018
I cannot say enough good things about this book. My only issue with the book is that I had not read it sooner. Have a pen and highlighter handy. I take notes in the margin but if you don't then have a notepad handy as well. There is something to highlight or mark up on every single page. Vanhoozer takes the solas as they relate to one another, expounding on Sola Scriptura. He sees a parallel between the escape from Roman selfishness of the text and the pluralism of today's society. Sola Scriputra was the issue then, and the authority of Scripture is the answer now.
Profile Image for Samuel Kassing.
336 reviews10 followers
May 15, 2019
This is not a lay level book. I thought it was going in but was quickly disillusioned of that notion.

Now, with that said this was an excellent work. Vanhoozer shows how the Solas together form a robust catholicity that Protestants shouldn’t be ashamed of and should rejoice in! The evangelical gospel is beautiful.

He ably demonstrates how Protestant and Evangelical go hand in hand, and why the reformation didn’t loose interpretive chaos on the church.

If you’re a Protestant thinking about swimming the Tiger. Wrestle with this book.
19 reviews
May 7, 2023
Vanhoozer does a good job outlining what Sola Scriptura is and, importantly, what it is not. It is refreshing that he emphasises reading the Bible in community (arguing from the priesthood of all believers and 1 Peter), actively pushing back against the 'me and my Bible' mentality. It is a pity, however, that he does not demonstrate how his framework and vision for unity looks like concretely. If he had proposed his vision for how the approach towards debates concerning interpretation can be changed for the better (per his framework), this book would have been much better.
Profile Image for Douglas Fyfe.
Author 1 book4 followers
January 8, 2018
I quite enjoyed this book. I also attended the lectures which were a precursor to this book and was pleasantly surprised to see a lot of humour come through into the book, making it an enjoyable read despite being quite thorough in places.
Ultimately the question is do Protestants have any authority to interpret the Bible without a Magesterium?, and the five solas are used to answer that.
So a good read, good length chapters, and very engaging.
Profile Image for Ryan.
138 reviews2 followers
July 11, 2018
Love this book! Dr. Vanhoozer provides an engaging analysis of Protestantism and shows that it is not the cause of a Babel of biblical interpretations by arguing that the five solas of the Reformations—and a robust affirmation of the doctrine of the Church—serve as guard posts for mere Protestantism. I hope all Protestants will read this book and deal with the suggestions that Dr. Vanhoozer has humbly offered.
Profile Image for Ben Cooper.
48 reviews2 followers
January 24, 2023
I'd give this three and a half stars if I could: there were many, many good things in it. But overall I found it a huge muddle. The solas really didn't work as an organisational device, and the clarity was obscured by a slightly affected style. The argument was also hamstrung by the ecclesiology. That all sounds quite negative. But the question the book addresses is a great one. And some of the pieces of a good answer are here, even if scattered and hidden across many less helpful pages.
Profile Image for John Newton.
94 reviews3 followers
May 10, 2017
I think I agree with the author’s basic argument: that true Protestantism was never intended to be individualistic (as it so often is today) but conciliar in nature. That being said, I found the title somewhat opaque, and the content of the chapters did not seem to match their headings. Also, I had never been aware previously of five “solas”.
Profile Image for Matt Pitts.
576 reviews40 followers
October 17, 2017
This is not your typical book on the solas. It will require your full attention (and a fair amount of imagination), but will richly repay the effort. Vanhoozer has given a resounding answer to the accusation that the Reformation has condemned us to radical interpretive individualism that needs to be heard by any who think Protestant unity is nothing more than a wish upon a star.
Profile Image for Ian Howard.
7 reviews1 follower
May 11, 2019
Superb - I love the way Vanhoozer approaches theology, I don't agree with everything he proposes, but he writes in a way that forces me to rethink many of my own assumptions and conclusions in ways I find helpful - he also has a sense of humour that helps to lighten even the most dense of theological arguments.
50 reviews
September 11, 2020
A must read for all Protestants. Kevin Vanhoozer summarizes the doctrine of the five solas, the logic behind the solas, and how they do not lead to secularization or interpretative anarchy. Instead, the Protestant Church can apply the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church as taught in the Nicene Creed consistently.
Profile Image for Noah Nevils.
182 reviews2 followers
February 26, 2018
Not a big fan. I agree with what Vanhoozer is saying
for the most part, but it seems rather poorly said.
Perhaps I was expecting more specific answers to the question
of interpretive authority. I also don't think that his rubric of
the five solas helped him make his points.
225 reviews3 followers
May 26, 2018
An excellent read, one I would recommend to any student of hermeneutics. Understanding the authors point was quite difficult at times, but the last chapter and conclusion make things much more clear. Worth s read.
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