Published on February 9, 2017 by Joshua R Monroe

Brazos, 2016 | 288 pages

A Brief Book Summary from Books at a Glance

About the Author

Kevin J. Vanhoozer (PhD, University of Cambridge), one of the world’s top theologians, is research professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He previously taught at Wheaton College and the University of Edinburgh. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including The Pastor as Public Theologian, Everyday Theology, The Drama of Doctrine, Is There a Meaning in This Text?, and the award-winning Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible.


“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?

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 re-appropriation of the five solas sola 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.”

Table of Contents

Introduction: Should the Church Repent or Retrieve the Reformation? Secularism, Skepticism, and Schism – Oh My!

1. Grace Alone: The Mere Protestant Ontology, Economy, and Teleology of the Gospel
2. Faith Alone: The Mere Protestant Principle of Authority
3. Scripture Alone: The Mere Protestant Pattern of Interpretive Authority
4. In Christ Alone: The Royal Priesthood of All Believers
5. For the Glory of God Alone: The Wealth of Holy Nations

Conclusion: From Catholic Protestantism to Protestant Evangelicalism


Introduction: Should the Church Repent or Retrieve the Reformation? Secularism, Skepticism, and Schism – Oh My!

“By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them”

Assessing a Revolution – This quotation, from Matthew 7:16, sets out the crucial teaching that a person can be judged by actions or effects – the inner life of the heart will show itself by its fruit in the world. This is true of movements, too, and the five hundred years that have passed since the Reformation is more than enough time to assess the harvest of the movement “that gave birth to Protestantism as a distinct form of Western Christianity,” now with four million congregations in thirty-eight thousand denominations. Making disciples, and disciple-making churches, is fundamental to the Christian calling, but is such decentralization, and the many withering denominations, consistent with the fruit of the Spirit, with Christian love and faithfulness

Narrating the Story of Protestantism

So where has Protestantism come from? Some see it as Martin Luther’s story – “boy loves church, boy leaves church, boy finds new church friend” – but that narrative may be worth challenging (Is there another church?). Several answers have been given on the question of how to narrate Protestantism’s story. Ernst Troeltsch thought that it was Luther’s story, itself a “second blooming” of medievalism, which led Protestants to base religion not on church authority but on personal conviction. Individualism, secular science, and state were at home in the “new” Protestantism. H. Richard Niebuhr worried that a brand of religious authority separate from institutional mediation was sure to threaten “anarchy in every sphere of life” for the American (religious and political) experiment. Alistair McGrath likewise comments that the potentially “dangerous idea” of sola scriptura may have set up Protestantism for chaotic disunity in divergent readings of the Bible.

Here we will suggest the value of “mere Protestant Christianity.” This is not a lost golden age or a particular instantiation of Protestantism; rather, it refers to a set of seminal insights, the five solas: sola 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). These principles stand as a challenge and encouragement to the church and allow for theological unity in ecclesial diversity, thus preventing interpretive anarchy while giving concrete priorities to faith and practice.

Repenting the (Unintended) Iniquities of Our Reformation Fathers

Like it or not, the Protestant answer on authority results in a complex state of affairs. That situation includes the fact that Christians who agree on biblical authority often disagree on the interpretation of that same Bible. Several other unfortunate results appear as well. As Brad Gregory has argued, it may be that the Reformation begat secularization. The “hyperpluralized” world we live in arises directly out of the Reformation’s refusal of the church’s final say-so: thus the “shared framework for the integration of knowledge” was lost on this view. It’s worth noting that the advent of the printing press may have even more to do with the new diversity beginning in this period. Richard Popkin sees a line between the Reformed basis for knowledge (“that which conscience is compelled to believe on reading Scripture is true”) and skepticism. If individual conscience is king, each one stands as judge over the facts. Hans Boersma and Peter Leithart agree that schism is an unfortunate fruit of the Reformation: Protestantism identifies itself by opposition – from Rome, from others? – in the first instance.

Fine-Tuning the Problem; Deepening the Dilemma

Christian Smith, for one, sees the dilemma: biblicism, treating the Bible as the only source of authority, creates “persistent interpretive pluralism.” This deals out a mortal blow to ecclesial unity, at least on any practical level. How can the one church not agree about anything in particular? The dilemma of interpretive authority seems to have no clear resolution in the wake of the Reformation’s re-ordering.

Always Retrieving? “Ressourcing” the Debate about Interpretive Authority

Perhaps we could find some help by plumbing the depths of church history. Philip Schaff called the Reformation a “retrieval,” afterall. What would ressourcement look like for our Protestant purposes? Lutheran theologians as well as Reformed theologians like Graeme Goldsworthy and Herman Bavinck have pointed to the solas of the Reformation embodying different facets of the same basic gospel truth. These solas do not develop the doctrine of the Trinity; rather, they presuppose it in deep ways, bringing together the ontology, epistemology, and teleology of the gospel. The solas prevent interpretive anarchy: they form an economy of interpretive authority as the royal priesthood of all believers is realized in the church. All of this should result in a teleology, a certain end goal, namely, the retrieval of catholicity. The solas function well as interpretive guides with which Christians can read and expound the Scriptures.

Why Mere Protestant Christianity Matters

Mere Protestant Christianity is at the center of this proposal. Picture it perhaps as a street beside which stand various houses (denominations) and on which events are held: block parties as well as the neighborhood watch. Unity-in-diversity is free to thrive there, but individual autonomy is not. The solas guide the church in its work, just as they did for the reformers. On the street of mere Protestant Christianity, the lion of biblical fidelity (sola scriptura) can lie down with the lamb of ecclesial fraternity.

Chapter 1 – Grace Alone: The Mere Protestant Ontology, Economy, and Teleology of the Gospel

While all five of the solas we have mentioned appear in substance during the Reformation, three in particular occur as sixteenth-century terms outlining the retrieval of the gospel: sola gratia (grace alone), sola fide (faith alone), and sola scriptura (Scripture alone). While the Reformers did not set up a scheme of prioritization among the three, it makes good sense to take sola gratia as the broadest framework for understanding what the faith says about God’s presence, activity, and initiative in creation, redemption, and biblical interpretation alike. Grace alone is not merely a thesis about salvation; it encapsulates God’s triune beneficence to create in love (Father), give life that redeems (Son), and give light that sanctifies (Spirit).

Sola Gratia: What the Reformers Meant

The Reformation can be seen as connecting two questions to a single answer: 1) How can I obtain salvation? (soteriology), and 2) Where is the true church? (ecclesiology). The answer is found in the gospel of “the grace of God made flesh in Jesus Christ… through whom God shares his divine life and creates the church.”

Luther discovered this by re-reading Romans 1:17 and seeing “the righteousness of God” not as a threat of judgment or a demand but as a gift to sinners. Calvin in the Institutes expounded a “sum of piety” arising from true saving knowledge of God. He retrieved sola gratia in a fundamental way. Calvin and Luther saw that “God acts by speaking.” Both of these “Eureka!” moments involve the church in a pattern, a life, of hermeneutics. The church must hear the divine promise and distinguish law and gospel – “do this” versus “believe in this and everything is already done.” Notice the pattern of Spirit-led and gospel-qualified community interpretation.

Nature and/or Grace: Other Views

We live in what Charles Taylor calls “a secular age,” that is, an age “degracified.” As we’ve seen, some attribute this to the Reformation’s rejection of the church’s magisterium, a serious charge to be sure. But it all hangs on how grace and nature relate. Medieval scholasticism, in Thomas Aquinas, held that grace perfects nature since the divine gift enables human creatures to surpass their created capacity. To deal with the Protestant challenge, Thomas Cajetan and other late medieval/early modern interpreters introduced pure nature, a nature that can exist without grace but which retains the capacity to cooperate with grace. Henri de Lubac, leading up to Vatican II, sought to retrieve from patristic theology the notion that grace pervades nature and that the church’s sacraments are the concentration of this fact of God’s presence in all of reality.

De Lubac makes grace internal to nature to solve the problem of separation; Aquinas sees the gap in terms of being – God bridges a metaphysical gap to perfect nature. But we really need grace that offers forgiveness since transgression, not being or nature, alienates humans from their creator.

Triune Ontology and the Economy of Salvation

To put the matter briefly, mere Protestant Christianity holds that grace restores and transforms nature. More elaborately, this means that grace provides a participation in being (creation), in Christ in a special sense (covenant), and further grace in the Spirit’s illumination (church). As noted above, the gospel “presupposes an ontology of grace, consists in an economy of grace, and continues in a teleology of grace.”  

It is crucial to see that the economy of God in history outlined in the doctrine of salvation, so much at issue in the Reformation, is meant to return us to the Triune God. There is a communicative ontology which grounds God’s grace; that is, he communicates himself, his own love, life, and light, when he saves creatures. The end is communion, “a sharing in union” with God.

Sola Gratia for Bible, Church, and Interpretive Authority

So what does all this mean for the interpretive challenge brought on by the shift in the center of authority from the church to the individual believer? Grace alone can function as a resource (going back to go forward) to help us engage the problem of authority and secularization. In short, sola gratia locates “biblical interpreters and interpretation in the all-encompassing economy of triune communicative activity.”

Mere Protestant Christians recognize a few implications for Scriptural interpretation which follow on from this view of grace alone. 1) The many forms of biblical discourse together make a single unified story of God’s gracious communicative acts. 2) The Bible is fundamentally about grace in Jesus Christ. 3) The Bible, the process of interpretation, and interpreters themselves are all parts of the triune economy of grace. In all, grace alone shows God’s fundamental character to create, redeem, and enlighten. His character and activity in this domain ground the church’s reflection on the authoritative word of Scripture.

Chapter 2 – Faith Alone: The Mere Protestant Principle of Authority

We’ve seen that sola gratia hems in biblical interpretation by providing a roadmap of sorts: like Luther’s theology of the cross, there are clear gospel patterns of thought which regulate our interpretation. Here, we will turn to look at the way sola fide rebuts charges that the Reformation begat skepticism. We note again that on Richard Popkin’s view, the epistemological principle of the Reformation – “that which conscience is compelled to believe on reading Scripture is true” – leads directly to crisis.

Sola Fide: What the Reformers Meant

The basic insight of the Reformation on this point is that God saves people “by faith”; he declares them righteous on the basis of their believing. This is “the article by which the church stands or falls,” also called “the material principle of the Reformation” and “the sum of the gospel.” This ground of religion was perceived as a solid foundation because of a return (ad fontes) to the sources through grammatical-historical philology and the certainty given by the Spirit to those who seek his wisdom. The words of Scripture understood in this manner were the antithesis of subjective words of men to Luther and Zwingli, for example.

Faith and/or Criticism: Other Views

While mere Protestant Christianity is authorized (made authoritative) by this combination of philology and pneumatology, of course there are other options. From Medieval allegorizing (full of Trojan horses) to postmodern pragmatism, based as it is on the authority of various ways of reading in community, we find no surer footing. Which allegory do we prefer? Which way do modern critical tools point? Which community is trustworthy? To questions of authority we turn then.

The Principle of Authority

Most fundamentally, the principle of authority in the Christian religion is the Triune God whose verbal communicative action then bears his authority as well. Human beings in turn were authorized, put in authority (Romans 13:1), by God in the mandate recorded in Genesis 1:28. Adam then sought. . .

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

Brazos, 2016 | 288 pages

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