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Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity by Kevin J. Vanhoozer


For good reason, the Presbyterian theologian Kevin Vanhoozer's latest book has been gathering a lot of attention. Biblical Authority after Babel is an ambitious academic work that retrieves the five solas of the Reformation (grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone, Christ alone, for the glory of God alone) as a contemporary challenge to the ecumenical church to be thoroughly converted by the gospel, unified around the gospel, and authorized by the gospel for witness.

Because our own denomination is so firmly planted in the 16th-century Reformation, many Christian Reformed folks might not realize just how much of a maverick Vanhoozer is. It's been fashionable for some time among academic theologians—even Protestant ones—to regret the Reformation as a disaster for Christianity.

"My conscience is captive to the Word of God. . . . Here I stand, I can do no other," uttered Martin Luther at his 1521 trial in Worms. Was this, as critics charge, the source of the "pervasive interpretive pluralism" that troubles Western Christianity today? Did Protestantism, by elevating the Bible alone as the authority for the church and insisting on the "priesthood of all believers," shatter church unity and unleash a skepticism toward authority that would breed both secularism and individualism? The 38,000 denominations in the world today do suggest that Protestantism has little capacity for achieving consensus on what the Bible means!

A short review can't do justice to the significant argument in Biblical Authority after Babel for how the solas help keep the church sharply focused on the saving action of the triune God witnessed in Scripture and lived out in the church. Vanhoozer's overall aim is constructive, though he doesn't flinch from current criticisms of the Reformation. He offers wise and often surprising reflections on secularism (in the context of sola gratia), skepticism (sola fide), church tradition and catholicity (sola scriptura), schism and disagreement (solus Christus), and denominationalism and unity (soli Deo gloria).

His goal is to see the solas and the classic Protestant teaching on the priesthood of all believers provide a pattern for reading Scripture that can enable unity among Protestant churches on gospel essentials and loving fellowship where disagreement over secondary matters exists. "The fruit of the Protestant Reformation is ultimately no anarchy . . . but abundance . . . a rich diversity that makes for lively conversation around the table . . . without breaking table fellowship."

Biblical Authority after Babel is not an easy book by any means, with dense argumentation, florid use of metaphor, and the author's highly idiosyncratic style. Reformed readers familiar with the five solas of the Reformation—as many Banner readers will be—might be frustrated by Vanhoozer's often counterintuitive use of the solas. By his own admission he is “creatively” retrieving them for translation into today's context.

But if one can bear with him, a compelling vision of a renewed Protestantism emerges, where the antidote to our current Babel is “pentecostal pluralism”: a global diversity of local churches gathered in Christ by the Spirit around the one Word of life. Here is a book that will surely outlive the Reformation's quincentenary in 2017. (Brazos)

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