Reviewed by Scott A. Corbin
Can anything good come out of Protestantism?
2017 marks the 500th year anniversary of the Reformation. But is this a time to celebrate or a time to mourn? Depending on who you ask—or which narrative you read—the Reformation was either a lamentable scourge upon the legacy of Christ and his apostles, or a recovery of the gold of the gospel that lay underneath decades of medieval dross. Pick your denomination (or faith tradition, or parachurch organization, or theological tribe), and you’ve got your story.
But back to the question: can anything good come out of Protestantism? Something that might nourish the church catholic?
Kevin Vanhoozer argues ‘yes’ in his newest book from Brazos Press, Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity. For Vanhozer, the so-called ‘solas’ of the Reformation—sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura, sola Christus, soli Deo gloria—help to provide the ontology, epistemology, and teleology of the contours of the gospel. His little book is a prolonged meditation upon how the solas might shape Protestant theology, and in particular, Protestant biblical interpretation.
A preliminary concern of Vanhoozer’s is to clear the air surrounding popular misconceptions of how the solas ‘work’ and what they actually are. Differences over what the Reformation meant (and means) is a sticky question. Depending on whom you ask will determine what exactly the Reformation heritage is, whether it be the history of the Geist toward freedom (Hegel); the antidote to Roman dogmatism (Schleiermacher); a creative ‘yes’ to the ground of being (Tillich); or the bulwark of the Protestant work ethic (Weber).
A more popular story, popularized by the likes of Brad Gregory, Charles Taylor, and others is that Protestantism unintentionally paved the way for secularism, radical autonomy, and replaced the pre-modern sacramental ontology for an understanding of the universe as a “closed system.” Again I say: can anything good come out of Protestantism?
For Vanhoozer, the way forward is through Protestant retrieval. That is, according to the Reformers, asking questions like, What exactly are these solas? What are they saying? And, perhaps more importantly, what are they not saying? Vanhoozer spends the majority of his book retrieving the impulse driving the Reformation project for the purpose of placing it into conversation with issues in contemporary theology. The result is a greater appreciation for the Reformational inheritance and a clearer footing for which to understand classical Protestant convictions.
For the rest of this review I will survey the contents from each chapter, exploring particular points of significance. I will conclude with some reflections on what it means to be both Reformed and catholic.
Sola Gratia: Grace Alone
Vanhoozer begins his retrieval with sola gratia, “grace alone.” While a colloquial understanding of sola gratia typically emphasizes the particularities of Protestant soteriology, Vanhoozer uses the term to ground God’s initial activity in creation, redemption, and even interpretation. While it might seem idiosyncratic to utilize sola gratia for what Vanhoozer terms “the economy of interpretive authority,” he argues that faithful retrieval doesn’t mean mere repristination—rather, it’s a thinking backwards for the sake of faithful action moving forward. This understanding of retrieval will undergird the rest of the chapters.
While sola gratia has soteriological significance, Vanhoozer argues that it also has ontological significance; that is, it aids in understanding God’s radical freedom, as well as understanding that the Bible, interpretation, and interpreters “refer not to natural entities and processes but to elements in an economy of grace.” (50) Vanhoozer argues that the revelation of the triune God is in itself an act of lavish grace to creatures created in his image.
What this means for interpretation is that interpreters—and their interpretations—are all participants in the economy of triune grace: “The process of interpretation is from grace to grace: it is by grace alone that the Word is spoken and received, and it is by grace alone that the Word dwells richly within us.” (65) It is by grace alone—God’s free, gracious initiative—that one can know the God of the gospel truly, and the way this grace is mediated in the triune economy (biblical interpretation in the church) is also grace. It’s grace all the way down.
Sola Fide: Faith Alone
For many, the idea of “faith alone” connotes an understanding of salvation happening not as a result of works, but through faith in Christ. Vanhoozer, however, rethinks sola fide within the context of understanding the proper place and mode of biblical interpretation. “Sola fide thus refers to the way Christians come to know and appropriate the gift of Jesus Christ via the human words of Scripture.” (74)
The central insight of this chapter is that the principle of authority is the triune God speaking via the human words of Scripture. Over against understandings of interpretation that err heavily on historical-criticism on the one hand, and moderate relativism on the other, Vanhoozer highlights the centrality of Scripture’s interpretation within the church. As redeemed creatures, Christians stand under the authority of God, and this authority is mediated through the apostle’s testimony. Scripture, then, is the primary “fiduciary framework”—the way in which we understand the things around us—that interpreters inhabit.
Sola Scriptura: Scripture Alone
While each of the solas have their critics, perhaps none is more maligned than sola Scriptura. For those who charge the Reformation with interpretive anarchy, it is precisely at this doctrinal loci that they find modernity’s smoking gun. If anything good can come out of Protestantism, this is not it. Yet a proper understanding of the doctrinal entailments of sola Scriptura, as the Reformers understood it, might offer nourishment not only to evangelicals but to all of those living and moving within the church catholic.
The important question to ask is: in what sense is Scripture alone? Vanhoozer argues, with the Reformers, that a proper understanding of sola Scriptura entails viewing Scripture as the primary or supreme means of authority for Christians and churches. This is not to say that Scripture is authoritative on every type of knowledge possible—be it stock options, or dietary judgments—but rather, it is authoritative and sufficient for “everything for which it was divinely given.” (114; author emphasis) Scripture is, to use the Latin, the principium cognoscendi externum—the external principle of the knowledge of God. As the external, instrumental means by which we know God, it is itself magisterially authoritative because it proceeds from God himself—the principium essendi.
And what of tradition? Does sola Scriptura entail that we forsake tradition, or that tradition has no authority? Vanhoozer rightly argues that tradition is “the moon to the Scripture’s sun: what light tradition casts, and what authority it has, is secondary and derivative—ministerial—thought it is nonetheless real light.” (139) This is a very helpful illustration for those evangelicals and Protestants sympathetic to the church’s catholicity. Tradition is a derived authority that is itself in submission to Scripture’s authoritative witness.
Sola Christus: Christ Alone
Another commonly misunderstood notion is that the principle of sola Christus entails a type of obedience to Christ independent of the church. In its evangelical variety, this often means pitting “going to church” versus the more superior notion of “following Jesus.” The implicit idea is that going to church hinders one’s obedience to Christ. In evangelical circles this has meant volume after volume of memoir (often published by evangelical publishing houses) about how one “learned to love Jesus” by leaving the church. And to salt the wound, the Protestant principle of the priesthood of all believers is often used to defend such an act!
Vanhoozer attempts to rehabilitate the priesthood language by highlighting the social dimension of the priesthood’s function. It’s not the priesthood of the believer, but rather the priesthood of the believers—the full company of the redeemed speaking and ministering the words of the gospel to one another in the Spirit.
Churches, and church polity, matter because Christ has received all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18) and has now authorized churches, as local embassies of Christ’s kingdom, to bind and loose what is not in harmony with the gospel. “Binding and loosing becomes a constitutive aspect of the church’s mission, namely, to become a people of the gospel, a holy nation that aims to discern what does or does not belong to good citizenship of the gospel.” (171) This has implications for interpretation because, far from unleashing interpretive anarchy, churches become places where interpretive fidelity is weighed according the Spirit-indwelt community.
Soli Deo Gloria: For the Glory of God Alone
The telos of the solas is God’s glory. The Reformation sought to re-ground God’s due glory away from the artificial glory that they perceived from their papal opponents. The impulse behind soli Deo gloria was to let God’s glory shimmer in all of its brilliance, uncorrupted by man.
Vanhoozer’s telos is the communion of churches with the triune God. This doesn’t just include specific houses on “Evangel Way” (Vanhoozer’s mythical road that is cluttered with various communions and denominations), but rather “Protestant churches from east and west, Anglican and Baptist, Pentecostal and Presbyterian to ‘recline at table in the kingdom of God.’ (Luke 13:29)” (182) This chapter will likely be the most controversial among those who seem themselves as Reformed, but it, at the very least, moves the conversation forward. If the goal of the gospel is churches reunited and ruled under Christ, what must we do to see what the Reformers tried but failed to accomplish?
The aim then is a catholic gospel. That is, a gospel that does not strive for a forced unity through soft ecumenism, but a gospel that recognizes that unity does not deny difference. “The aim . . . is to determine whether a church is a faithful expression of the universality of the gospel. Catholicity, on this view, becomes not merely a description of the church but an ecclesial virtue: a willingness to engage other church traditions.” What ultimately matters is striving toward this kind of catholicity. What matters less is what this looks like institutionally.
On the ground, this will mean that varieties of churches and denominations engage in dialogue with others to enrich their readings of Scripture or challenge certain assumptions that end up being more cultural than dogmatic. At minimum, it might mean prayer for one another, regardless of confession or creed. The end—the telos—is God’s glory in the life of the many churches and communions situated on Evangel Way.
While there will inevitably be neighborly dissenters on Evangel Way to Vanhoozer’s proposal, the singular value of this book is the creative way in which he reappropriates otherwise familiar concepts—faith alone, grace alone, etc.—into creative interlocutors for issues in modern theology. This isn’t to say that many of the solas can often feel dressed up in a way that feels more native to Vanhoozer than his Reformational forefathers. Even still, Vanhoozer is to be commended for his creative vitality when it comes to presenting the Old Protestantism for those of us who live in the New. In this way, his book is a model for utilizing the riches of history to address contemporary issues in biblical and systematic theology, much the same way that Thomas Joseph White addressed contemporary issues in Christology through a fresh reading of Thomas Aquinas in his recent The Incarnate Lord: A Thomistic Study in Christology.
It is the hope of this reviewer that exegesis, biblical, historical, and systematic theology can all dwell in peace once again—for what God has brought together, let no exegete, historian, or theologian tear asunder.
On Being Protestant and Catholic
It’s worth noting how this book might read alongside a similarly aimed work, namely Peter Leithart’s recent The End of Protestantism (Brazos Press, 2016). Both books desire the same thing: a Protestantism that recognizes its catholic heritage. Yet, while they may both share a similar aim, they don’t necessarily share the same means or ends. For Leithart, his Catholic Protestantism looks like Protestants shedding some of their distinctives—what makes them authentically Protestant—in the form of a forbearing repentance. Baptists need to learn authority from Anglicans; Presbyterians need to learn the promptings of the Spirit from Pentecostals. Lutherans and Anabaptists share ways in which the other can think about the church and politics. West learns from East, East from West. And until this begins, these various communions willfully rebel against Christ’s command to seek unity in John 17, regardless of any intention they might have to the contrary.
For Vanhoozer, however, being Protestant—being an evangelical—looks like each tradition bringing their theological treasures to the table and, while heartily affirming their collective ‘Yes’ in the gospel, they must also be able to utter a calm, confident ‘No’ when it comes to things that are contrary to their reading of Scripture—things essential to their tradition, things not incidental to their understanding of the Christian life.
This is why I remain more convinced by Vanhoozer’s vision of Protestant catholicity than Leithart’s. For Vanhoozer, being catholic and evangelical doesn’t mean forfeiting those things which are ultimately essential to each tradition’s reading of Scripture. And, if he is correct, those differences don’t mean rebellious schism on the part of differing factions within Protestantism, or an ultimately destructive “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” Rather, those differences ought to enrich our reading of his our particular inheritance, as well as challenge and confront our lack of interpretive self-awareness, when needed, in our claim to be “merely biblical.” On my reading, I can’t help but get the feeling that Leithart’s vision, by contrast, isn’t for Protestants to become catholic—it’s for Protestants to ultimately become (Roman) Catholic.
These conversations are good for Protestants, but they are especially good for evangelicals. Evangelicalism suffers a sort of historical rootlessness that makes her churches vulnerable to winds of doctrine that come bearing gifts, looking meek and lowly, but sadly end up being crafty, deceitful schemes (Eph. 4:11). The way forward for a richer evangelicalism is for evangelicals to become catholic—to see themselves as sharing in an inheritance that is given for all of those who are in Christ. For Luther, Calvin, and others, the goal of their Reformation was ultimately built on that insight: it wasn’t for a new church, but for a church ultimately reformed by God’s Word. This insight should not just nourish Protestants and evangelicals on Team Luther or Team Calvin, but all those everywhere who wish to confess the catholicity of the church.
So, can anything good come out of Protestantism? If the central insight of the Reformation was a recovery of the gospel through the perspicuous Word of the risen Christ then, yes, something good can come out of Protestantism—something very, very good.
Scott A. Corbin is a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife Jessi live in Nashville, TN with their son.
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Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity