Biblical Authority After Babel - A Review

In the year Protestants are commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, many tend to review the Reformation as either an unchristian schism or a tragic necessity. These sentiments tend to obscure a more positive view that the Reformation was a much needed liberation of Christendom from the hegemonic theological and doxological distortions of the Roman Catholic branch of Christianity. As a result, a common mood is for Protestants to wring their hands and confess to divisiveness while Roman Catholics wag their finger at the destructive individualism and doctrinal plurality they argue is the necessary result of the five solas Reformation and the theological recovery movement known as the Reformation. Liberal Christians, both those who claim continuity with Roman Catholicism and those who chart their course by revising other theological traditions, tend to see the interpretive plurality that resulted from the Reformation as an indication that the main principle of the Reformers—namely, sola scriptura—is a fundamental failure and that Scripture is an insufficient foundation upon which to build Christianity.

In Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity, Kevin Vanhoozer makes a positive case for Reformed Christianity built upon a robust development of the five solas. Vanhoozer unpacks his apology for Mere Protestant Christianity in five chapters with a separate introduction and conclusion. This book is a modified version of a series of lectures given a Moore College, the result is a more conversational and accessible volume than some of Vanhoozer’s other work, which is to say that this volume combined Vanhoozer’s academic rigor with clear, readable prose to create a much-needed tool and treasure for contemporary Protestants.

The body of this volume is comprised of five chapters in addition a substantive introduction and conclusion. Each of the five chapters highlights one of the five solas of the Reformation, though, as is clear from the title of the book, there is one sola to rule them all. Since sola scriptura is at the heart of true Protestantism, that idea functions as the glue that holds the entire volume together.

In the introduction, Vanhoozer begins by addressing the elephant in the room in considerations of contemporary Protestantism: Can separating from “The Church” ever be considered a good thing? He addresses some of the more common historical critiques of the Reformation, but remains confident that Protestantism was not fundamentally schismatic in its origins. Rather, Luther sought to reform Roman Catholic dogma because of severe errors in it and the Roman church forcefully rejected attempts at theological correction. Thus, Luther’s actions were not simply a protest against the error of the papacy. Instead, Vanhoover notes, “To protest is to testify for something, namely, the integrity of the gospel, and, as we will see, this includes the church’s catholicity.” (pg. 15) That catholicity includes more than the claims of Rome’s devotees to sole stewards of unqualified, universal truth. At the same time, Vanhoozer is critical of versions of Protestantism that have been divisive and individualistic in their interpretation, that is why he pursues the concept of “Mere Protestantism,” which is the sort of Protestantism that “encourages the church to hold fast to the gospel, and to one another.” (pg. 33). That vision, which Vanhoozer explores through his exposition of the five solas, is exactly why the Reformation was both necessary and good.

In Chapter One, Vanhoozer focuses on sola gratia, and by virtue expounds the gospel to his readers. Grace in the gospel is what ignites the Christian to God exalting praise, allows Christians to see the good in the world, and focuses the believer’s gaze eternally on the procurator and source of all grace—the Holy Trinity. It is God’s grace alone that enables fallible humans to have access to God’s infallible word and be able to comprehend any of it; the Spirit illuminates Scripture because of grace alone, which provides understanding of the path to salvation. Vanhoozer argues it is God’s grace alone to give Scripture and also to illuminate it that keeps the accusation of autonomous interpretation from being true among authentic believers.

The second chapter covers sola fide, which Vanhoozer uses to counter the argument that the Reformation begat skepticism. This accusation seems a bit strange, since the meaning of sola fide is “by faith alone,” which is used in reference to the sole necessary response to God’s gracious offer of salvation. In its original context, the term was meant to differentiate the gospel faith of the Reformers from the myriad of religious duties foisted on believers by the Roman hierarchy. Returning to the central theme of the place of Scripture, Vanhoozer is careful to show that the reading of Scripture encouraged by the Reformers was not one of skepticism, but of faith. Vanhoozer then considers several different hermeneutical methods and epistemical failures that are not consistent with biblical faith. Instead of subverting the authority of the church through private readings of Scripture, Vanhoozer argues the faithful reading of Scripture requires the authority of the God, working through the historic community of believers. It is God and his gift of Scripture—not the hierarchy of the Church—that are ultimately affirmed by faith alone. As Vanhoozer sums up, “True faith has to do not with anti-intellectual fideism or private judgment, then, but rather with testimonial rationality and public trust, the trust of God’s people in the testimony of God’s Spirit to the reliability of God’s Word.“ (pgs. 106-107)

Chapter Three digs into sola scriptura. Vanhoozer notes, “Sola scriptura is perhaps the most challenging of the solas to retrieve. Even many Protestant theologians now urge its abandonment on the grounds that in insisting on Scripture alone, it overlooks or even excludes the importance of tradition, the necessity of hermeneutics, and the relationship between Word and Spirit.” (pgs. 109-110) It is in the reliance on Scripture alone that those who regret the Reformation find the root of division. As Vanhoozer points out, however, divisiveness is driven more by solo scriptura rather than sola scriptura. The distinction is clear and obvious for those willing to consider it. Sola scriptura refers to relying on Scripture only as the primary authority in theology. There are other sources that inform theology, but those sources must be normed to the overarching authority of humans. This, of course, presumes the clarity, sufficiency, and coherence of Scripture. Vanhoozer discusses these, then he surveys other understandings of authority, but concludes that a robust understanding of sola scriptura brings Christians together, even simply in conversational disagreement, and that rejection of the concept through naïve biblicism and covert traditionalism is what leads to division.

The fourth chapter interprets solus Christus, which is the affirmation that Christ alone is the only mediator between God and humanity. In all practicality, this has sidelined the parish priest in Protestantism, since a sanctioned representative of the church is no longer needed for forgiveness of sin or receipt of grace through the eucharist. However, Vanhoozer argues that the priesthood of all believers has not minimized the significance of the local Church, as some claim (and as some flawed interpreters have posited). Rather, it has sanctified the lives of the lowly congregant, giving him or her a part to play in the divine drama coequal with ecclesial leaders in community with Christ. This means that local congregations have the right, privilege, and responsibility to rightly interpret Scripture and minister as the local instantiation of the body of Christ.

Chapter Five celebrates the final sola: soli Deo gloria. This is a fitting climax to the volume as Vanhoozer notes, “Soli Deo Gloria, like the other solas, is partially intended to exclude an error. In this case, what is excluded is not human works but the end for which we work: human glorification.” (pg. 182) The failure of the Reformers and their spiritual heirs is partially explained by the loss of unity around this concept, and the sometimes unwillingness to unite or work together due to human turf wars. Vanhoozer does not decry denominations; rather he rejects divisiveness due to human pride. Instead, he commends legitimate, gracious division of matters of interpretation, with an ongoing dialogical argument toward truth. Such dialog, conducted for God’s glory alone is a recognition of the authority of Scripture and the unity of the one, holy, catholic church. According to Vanhoozer, “The glory of mere Protestant Christianity is the conference and communion of holy nations, itself a gift that glorifies God in magnifying Jesus Christ.” (pg. 212)

This volume is just the sort of book needed for our present time. The term “evangelical” is quickly becoming meaningless as progressives deny the doctrinal content of the term and reject biblical authority. At the same time, it is being used as a vague political label that refers to a supposed conversion experience, but represents right wing politics. What Vanhoozer presents is a positive case for a properly evangelical, Mere Protestant Christianity, that rejects the divisiveness of the Roman Catholic tradition and pursues unity in the core of Christianity, which is the gospel.

Biblical Authority After Babel may be, without exaggeration, one of the most important books to be released in celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Though Protestantism is not perfect, Vanhoozer explains the beauty and necessity of standing for truth against error and preserving the gospel for the sake of all.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

A Plea for Reading the Bible

One of the greatest tragedies in the Christian life would be to believe that the Bible is God’s word and not take steps to read and understand it.

In contrast to the many years prior to the Protestant Reformation when the Roman Church worked to keep reading the Bible in the vernacular language illegal, we now have more access to the Bible for less money than ever. The problem is that we simply are not reading it.

Consider this video from the United Bible Society, which shows a people group in Indonesia getting the New Testament in their language for the first time. Compare their excitement over access to God's Word with our apathy despite the overflowing availability of it.

Choosing a Translation

There are so many versions of the Bible available right now that it can becomes confusing to figure out what you need. Here are some tips for choosing a version:

1.         Find out which translation your local church uses in its regular worship services and Bible studies. If they are consistent, it may help to have the same translation as you worship.

2.         Consider your reading ability. One of gifts of having multiple translations is that you can find a version of the Bible that is easiest for you to comprehend. This guide from the publisher, Cokesbury, may be helpful for your decision. Even if you aren’t sure what your reading level is, the guide will give you a relative understanding of the differences in difficulty.

3.         Before you buy a Bible, go to and read the same passage in several versions. If you are familiar with a particular passage, you can compare between translations and get a feel for the language in it.

4.         Ask one of the leaders in your local church for a recommendation if you aren’t sure. A good Bible can cost a significant amount of money, so ask your pastor or a trusted ministry leader what they recommend.

After you’ve picked a Bible, or if you’ve already got one, then the most important thing you can do with it is read it and begin to learn it. If you’ve read this far in this post, I’ll assume that you have a desire to read your Bible and are looking for ways to break down this monumental task into smaller chunks.

An Argument for Bible Reading Plans

Many contemporary Christians set annual goals of reading through the Bible each year. This can be a great practice for a number of reasons.

a.          It exposes you to the whole counsel of God. It may take a year and you won’t remember all the details, but making it through Scripture will help shape your understanding of God if you work at it.

b.         The practice of reading all of Scripture in a year ensures that, if completed, most days you will have spent time in God’s Word.

c.          You will begin to see patterns, recurring themes, and connections in Scripture that you were not aware of. Reading the Bible helps you become a better Christian.

At the same time, simply going through the motions to move your bookmark 3 chapters each day or check of the day's box can become a form of legalism. It is important to find a reading plan that meets your commitment level, your ability, and the time resources you have available.

For example, a mother with several young children is going to find setting aside even 20 minutes a day for Bible reading exceedingly difficult on a consistent basis. Therefore, choose a Bible reading plan that keeps you moving, but doesn’t kill you.

It is also possible to skim through the Bible each day in a year and never latch on to anything. It is possible to read the Bible without getting anything from it. This is a danger with some of the 1 year plans. Find a reading plan that matches your reading ability and time commitment. 

But by all means, please read the Bible.

Some Basic Reading Plans

Here are a few different Bible reading plans that are available for free online. I’m linking to a few of them here:

1.         The simplest option is to read the Bible from cover to cover. In order to do this, you will need to read about three chapters each day every day.

2.         Another option is to read through the Bible in chronological order. Our Bible doesn’t necessarily flow in a straight timeline from the first page to the last, so someone has put together a reading plan that puts the minor prophets (for example) in order and shifted Paul’s letters to the order that we believe he wrote them. If you are trying to understand the flow of the Old Testament history (for example), doing this reading plan may help.

3.         For those looking some flexibility in their schedule, but who still want to get through the Bible in a year, a five day a week reading plan like this one will give you two catch up days in the week. This is an option that might appeal to busy professionals or parents.

4.         Some may want or need to use a slower pace. For those who read a bit slower, there are plans that will walk you through the Bible in two years.

If you have never read through the Bible, I recommend that you start with one of these plans and get a broad sense of Scripture. Do this for a couple of years, then consider a more in depth study method or selective reading plan.

One example of a focused study method is the plan suggested by Joe Carter, writing for The Gospel Coalition. He suggests reading each book of the Bible twenty times straight through. This, he argues, will begin to change your worldview through Scripture saturation. His method is pretty simple:

1.         Choose a book of the Bible.

2.         Read it in its entirety. 

3.         Repeat step #2 twenty times. 

4.         Repeat this process for all books of the Bible.

I have not tried Joe's method myself, but it stands to reason it would be beneficial if simply because it would help the reader be very comfortable with the content of the Bible. Moving through all sixty-six books of Scripture would take some time, but at the end, I imagine the reader would have developed a depth of familiarity that would serve well for the remainder of life.

A Call for Gracious Persistence

Photo Credit: Bible Reading by Cristeen Quezon. Used by CC License.

Photo Credit: Bible Reading by Cristeen Quezon. Used by CC License.

Whichever method you choose to increase your Bible intake is not nearly as important as simply reading the Bible more deeply. You will benefit more from reading a third of the Bible this year than in reading none. You will benefit from picking up after you have missed a few days and continuing on, even if it puts you “off schedule.” Falling short of your goal is no sin. Failing to take time to engage with God’s word can lead to sin, as you enter life's battle unarmed by the sword of the Spirit.

Therefore, don’t wait until the New Year to start a plan. If you decide to start in February, that is fine; there is nothing magical about the first of January.

If you miss a month, don’t sweat it. Just pick up where you left off and keep going.

If you don’t get it all, keep moving. Ask questions of your pastor or ministry leaders. Just keep moving.

Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation - A Review

One of the biggest divides between Roman Catholics and Protestants has been the understanding of the relative weight of authority of the Church and Scripture. Roman Catholics have tended to have a very high view of both sources of authority with equal or nearly equal weight given to both when making doctrinal determinations. Protestants, with their famous motto sola scriptura have tended to minimize the importance of church tradition in understanding doctrine.

Many of the radical reformers (i.e., Anabaptists) and contemporary fundamentalists have clung to Scripture alone, when the reality is that suprema scriptura is probably more consistent with the intent and practice of the reformation. Scripture alone is the supreme authority in making doctrinal determinations. However, if Church tradition is entirely neglected and a foundation for doctrine is laid only on one’s own interpretation of Scripture, then Mormonism, the Campbellite doctrine of baptismal regeneration, and Charles Finney’s (near) Pelagianism is a likely result. “No creed but the Bible” is a warning sign that heresy is soon to come. This is a pattern that has been reinforced by Church History.

On the other hand, the approach Matthew Levering takes in Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation: The Mediation of the Gospel through Church and Scripture, is not correct. Levering is Roman Catholic. Therefore, when he finds a dual source for revelation in both the Church and Scripture, it is not surprising. His conclusions, like my own, were likely to go no farther than his presuppositions. However, Levering makes the case so clearly that, were I to be converted to a Roman Catholic understanding of revelation, this would be the sort of argument that I would find most convincing.


After the introduction, which surveys some of the previous academic volumes on this topic, the book is divided into eight chapters. In each of the chapters Levering explains how divine revelation is mediated by the Church through various means. Chapter One begins with revelation mediated through the outward motion of the Church as she fulfills her mission. As the Church participates in the self-denying missio Dei, she demonstrates the very nature of God to herself and the world. The second chapter focuses on revelation experienced through the Church’s liturgy, which is considered a demonstration of God’s character on public display.

Levering then shifts to treating revelation and the hierarchical priesthood, arguing that the accepted hierarchy of the Roman Catholic (and some “high church” Protestant denominations) affirms Jesus’ design for the Church, and represents divine revelation. This is, I think, the weakest of the chapters because there is no clear logical basis for this assertion. Chapter Four relates the relationship between the gospel and revelation. While Chapter One focused mostly on the Church’s collective demonstration of revelation through action, this section zooms in on the life of the individual as impacted by the gospel.

Chapter Five explains the necessity of Tradition and Levering’s belief that Church Tradition has been faithfully transmitted in much the same way Scripture has been transmitted. Levering seems to beg the question in this chapter, as can be seen in his introductory comments that “divine revelation has a specific cognitive content that must be transmitted. Tradition cannot be less than this.” This is valid in the way that Levering intends it only if you assume the premise he is trying to prove. The sixth chapter moves into the relationship between revelation and the development of doctrine, arguing that the Roman Catholic Church has, necessarily, been faithful in transmitting doctrine in the same manner that Scripture has been faithfully transmitted.

The next chapter deals with revelation and biblical inspiration. This is a more helpful chapter, though Levering’s conclusions concede too much ground. He points out the difference between modern expectations for historical and scientific accuracy, arguing for more latitude in interpreting Scripture so that contemporary hermeneutic constraints are not applied to an ancient document. At the same time, Levering’s approach allows the denial of the historicity of significant events without clear guidance as to how one would have faith in certain facts over others. Therefore, he affirms the historicity of the resurrection, which is of first importance, but the same arguments he uses to allow for denial of other historical events could be used to undermine that one. This is problematic.

Chapter Eight closes the volume exploring some of the relationship between Hellenistic philosophy and Scripture, particularly places where Levering believes such philosophical elements were imported (not merely referenced) in Scripture. His conclusion in this chapter is that “we should view Hellenistic philosophical culture as providentially providing the scriptural communication of divine revelation with some important and true insights about God.” It would be easy to overreact to this statement, because it seems to imply too strong a link between pagan philosophy and Scripture. It would be better had Levering nuanced his position to argue Hellenistic provided a helpful framework for expressing truths about God, which is more likely the case. In that sense, such philosophies shaped Scripture, but it does not seem they were a source for divine revelation, as it were.


While I appreciate what Levering has done here I am unconvinced. His scholarship is of high quality and his summaries of many different thinkers are fair and accurate, however his case is built upon presuppositions he never adequately supports. His purpose is “to explore the missional, liturgical, and doctrinal forms of the Church’s mediation of divine revelation and to appreciate Scripture’s inspiration and truth in this context.” This is admirable, except that it assumes that the Church and the Church alone can mediate divine revelation. It also seems to imply that the Church has faithfully done so through its history. Levering provides no reason to suppose this is so and history, at least as seen from this Protestant’s perspective, seems to argue otherwise.

Additionally, in trying to argue for the consistent mediation of divine revelation through the Church as a close analogy to that mediation through Scripture, Levering does more to denigrate Scripture than to elevate the Church. He writes,

I agree with Gunton’s view that Scripture’s truthfulness does not depend on an absolute lack of any kind of error, just as I agree with his insistence that there has been no rupture in the mediation of ‘certain beliefs about God, Christ, salvation, the church and the work of the Spirit.’ (26)

 He goes on,

In my view, we need not claim for the later Church the same ‘relation to revelation’ as the apostles, but we can still argue that the Church, like the prophets and apostles, mediates divine revelation in the process of appropriating it under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Without placing the Church over revelation, the Spirit can guarantee the Church’s preservation from error in its definitive interpretations of revelation––which differs from guaranteeing the truthfulness of everything the Church says and does. This perspective enables us to give due weight to ‘the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth’ (1 Tim. 3:15). IN short, we can accept the existence of errors within the Church’s works and teachings over the centuries, so long as we do not suppose that these (reformable) errors produced a rupture, that is to say a false definitive doctrine about faith or morals in the heart of the transmission of revelation. (27)

I quote this section at length because it is assumed and not supported throughout the remainder of the argument. To my mind, Levering needed to show how this could be so. Instead, he assumes this and shows how he thinks it comes to pass. Hence the book has a great deal of explanatory power, but little chance of convincing those skeptical of this position. This, I think, is the critical weakness of the volume.

Overall, though, this volume is well written and may replace Avery Dulles’ book, Models of Revelation. Having done a fair amount of reading on this topic, it is the best explanation of a Roman Catholic understanding of the doctrine of Revelation I have encountered. I would recommend it to those seeking to meaningfully engage in inter-denominational dialogue on this topic. Levering is an excellent scholar, whose work on Augustine I have benefited from in the past. This book is a helpful addition to the discussion, but it is far from the final word.

Note: A gratis copy of this book was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.