A Wesleyan Searches the Solas: A Review of Biblical Authority After Babel
Much like Leithart’s The End of Protestantism, I leave Kevin Vanhoozer’s new work Biblical Authority After Babel wondering if Methodists make bad Protestants. Vanhoozer’s tome is well written, meticulously researched, but it will ultimately be most convincing to those already enamored with Luther and Calvin. Like Leithart’s Reformed Catholicism (I prefer “Roman Calvinism”), Vanhoozer invents a “Mere Protestant” species in which I, as an orthodox United Methodist with Anglican leanings who was never taught to be enamored with the solas, cannot see myself. That said, I believe Vanhoozer’s new work is still worth a read.
In many ways, this book is a work of Protestant apologetics; that is, it is not defending Christian faith in general, but rather Protestantism (in the form of the 5 classic solas) against Catholic (but, sadly, not Orthodox) broadsides. Vanhoozer is sensitive to claims (many of which, he rightly notes, are overblown) that Luther and Calvin opened a Pandora’s Box that ultimately made something like small-c catholic consensus impossible. He names the driving questions thus: “Should the church repent or retrieve this dangerous Protestant idea? Can the Protestant principle sola scriptura ever produce consensus, or is the result always chaos?[…]Did the Reformation set loose interpretive anarchy upon the world, and, if so, should Christians everywhere file a class-action suit?” (9) To help answer these questions and defend “Mere Protestantism,” he offers “the solas as seeds for a perennial reformation of the church.” (33)
While I remain unconvinced of Vanhoozer’s overall argument, there is a lot of meat on these bones that is worth pondering, even if one has doubts about his thesis. This description of the Bible, for instance, is just pure gold: “Scripture is essentially a narrative account of God’s gracious self-communicative activity in the histories of Israel and Jesus Christ whereby the Father adopts a people by uniting them to his Son through his Spirit.” (62) I also appreciate his definition of systematic theology: “simply the requirement to think biblical things through and to make sure that what one thinks about different biblical themes coheres.” (125)
There are times that Vanhoozer lapses into more Romish sentiments than he would wish. Thus, in the chapter on “faith alone,” he asks how this “compensate[s] for the loss of external authority (the church magisterium) in biblical interpretation?” (72) But surely the very solas which form the spine of his entire argument function as a kind of (Mere) Protestant magisterium? His defenders might claim that the solas are merely natural extrapolations of Scripture – but then, Catholics would say the same about the papacy or transubstantiation.
Speaking of Catholics, Vanhoozer leaves many of these centuries-old debates underdeveloped. There is, of course, a rich literature from the Catholic counter-reformation and a long dialogue with Rome down through the years, and yet on the whole the reader does not get the sense that Vanhoozer is not interested in presenting the opposing view in a sympathetic light, but merely restating the oldest of the Reformers’ arguments. In this vein, he quotes Ramm’s contention that “the Bible treated allegorically becomes putty in the hand of the exegete,” which uncritically presumes a Protestant hermeneutic – sans magisterium or catechism. This, additionally, is the inverse of the caricature that Vanhoozer is so committed to fighting. For surely we might just as easily say “the Bible treated literally” or “the Bible treated independent of other sources” becomes putty in the exegete’s hand?
The chapter I find most lacking explores sola scriptura. Vanhoozer here sounds like theologians who collapse all of soteriology into justification, or all of the atonement into subsitutionary, in that he seeks to make “sola scriptura” a catch-all category for a nuanced, broad “Mere” Protestant hermeneutic. He comes dangerous close to spouting alternative facts when he sums up his view: “it is not that Scripture is alone in the sense that it is the sole source of theology”; rather, “Scripture ‘alone’ is the primary or supreme authority in theology.” (111) I was taught sola fide for a decade by Southern Baptists who revered Luther, and I promise that for them, “alone” meant just that – not primary. Primary, in fact, is the language that United Methodists use when describing our unique take on the Anglican three-legged stool unfortunately named the “Wesleyan” Quadrilateral. It is simply not possible that Sola Scriptura means Lutheran and Calvinist “Mere” Protestants have the same view of Scripture as Anglicans and Wesleyans, which would have to be true if Vanhoozer’s reading is correct. Methinks the author has stretched the bounds of this particular definition; I’m not a perfect husband but I know that there is a significant difference in saying I love my wife “alone” and that I love my wife just more than other women. Sola and prima are simply different concepts, and they get conflated by Vanhoozer (and I am unconvinced by his solo/sola distinction).
This is an important work for a particular tribe of Protestants, but alas, not mine. As an ecclesial descendant of the Anglican via media, Vanhoozer’s thesis is simply too Protestant for this presbyter. This would’ve been a stronger argument had it included more attempts to narrate Catholic beliefs from a Catholic position, and if it had referenced the East. Many of Protestantism’s critiques of Rome are shared by the East, and yet the East comes to vastly different conclusions – and has done so for twice the life span of Protestantism. Sadly, the East is wholly lacking here, including in places where it would have been quite helpful (for instance, on the nature of catholicity and the role of the Pope).
Vanhoozer even manages to offend my delicate Duke sensibilities, referring to the Yale School of Frei and Lindbeck rather brusquely to the “postliberal cultural-linguistic bandwagon.” I’m not sure what mainline seminaries Vanhoozer has been spending time in, but if postliberalism is a bandwagon, we will need to invent new terms for extreme popularity to describe how existentialist, liberation, process, and contextual theologies reign practically unchallenged in most denominational schools of theology.
Nevertheless, Vanhoozer’s new work will make you think and is worth the time to read. Even when less than convincing, there is more than enough solid content to keep you interested along the way – even if you are a Wesleyan, like me, whose Protestantism is almost wholly lacking in this account of Protestantism’s view of Scripture as found in the solas.
A Final Note: This work is riddled with side comments that are intended to be humorous but which this reviewer found tedious and irksome. For instance, “And the evening and the morning were the first day of the hermeneutics of suspicion,” (88) and, “For those who swim in Fish’s school…” (22), or, “…in the Father’s household there are many Protestant mansions…” (103). Additionally, an editor should have caught his reference to Trinitarian relations as “eternal intercourse.” (52) This is, to say the least, a highly unfortunate turn of phrase.