Kevin Vanhoozer - "Biblical Authority after Babel"
3:38PM Jun 29, 2020
Jonathan J. Armstrong
It's our deep honor today to be speaking with Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer. Dr. Vanhoozer is research professor of systematic theology at Trinity evangelical Divinity School in the Chicago area. He is author of many books, including Is there a meaning in this text, the drama of doctrine, and also the book that we'll be discussing today, Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity. Dr. Van hooser. It's a delight to have you today.
It's a pleasure to be here.
Dr. Van hooser. In the past several years, we've heard much about the so called resource mob movement, the movement coming out of the 20th century from all Christian traditions to re examine the early church as a way to resource the theology of the contemporary church. It seems to me that your product is Your projects could be described as the Protestant resource Mont, that is retrieving the faith of classical Protestantism in order to renew contemporary evangelicalism. Is this a fair understanding of your projects?
I think you've got it exactly right. And I was trying to be a little provocative here. You know, Luther said, why should the devil have all the good tunes? And I wonder why should Roman Catholics have all the cool French words like was so small? And so yes, I'm trying to resource the Protestant Reformation. And it's a bit of a provocation as well, because a lot of people think that Protestantism has past its sell by or use by date. You know, we're on the verge of celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. And what really motivated the book was my hearing some Protestants say, it's not something I want to go back to. It's not something I want to celebrate. And I know what they mean. It's because of the huge diversity that has blossomed because of Protestantism. Character guard said, Oh, the interpretations 30,000 interpretations referring to differences in biblical interpretation. And 30,000 is just about the number of Protestant denominations there are. So why does anyone Why would I want to go back and, you know, do that, again, let me just say a word, if I may about we're so small. It's not about simply replicating or simply repeating, we can't really go back because the context has changed. So by retrieving or resourcing, I mean, going back creatively in order to move forward faithfully so I want to go back to the reformation, and appreciate what insights they may have for us today, even if we have to apply them to new situations.
Thank you very much interspersed throughout the text you deliver 20 theses of quote, mere Protestant Christianity. And we understand that these theses represent the key elements of your proposal for Protestant resource model. When in the process of writing the text, did you formulate these theses and how should we as the reader receive them? Are they conclusions? Are they introductions?
Yeah, oh, let me just say a little bit about the genesis of the book. I, I delivered the chapters as lectures originally, in the summer of 2015. The whole book originated as a series of lectures I gave at more theological College in Sydney, Australia. And so I had my listeners in mind. And after a, you know, an hour long lecture, I thought it would be helpful to summarize what I felt we had gained as the main points of my argument, in each lectures and so on. got the idea of coming up with four theses. And I believe there's summaries of what I do in each chapter. But there are summaries that focus on the problem the book is trying to address, which is this problem of, you know, who has interpretive authority who say so counts when it comes to saying what the Bible means. And just to fill out that picture. The main problem is this. Some accuse the reformation of loosing interpretive anarchy upon the world, because without a pope, there's no one to referee the conflict of interpretations. That gives rise to what Christian Smith, a sociologist of Notre Dame calls the problem of pervasive, interpretive plurality. Even those who affirm biblical authority can't agree on what the Bible means. So that's the problem I'm trying to address in each of my twins. theses brings one of the soldiers to bear on that problem.
I'm very grateful for that reflection. Thank you Dr. Van hooser. The structure of your text is centered around the five solos of the Protestant Reformation Sola Gracia, sola, Fie de sola. scriptura soulless crystals and soli Deo Gloria, Chapter One is dedicated to the first of those souls grace alone. What is it that evangelicalism today need to recover about the Protestant doctrine of grace?
Okay, so the reformers themselves were concerned to recover grace because in their context, they had to respond to what they took to be a an exaggerated emphasis on the role of human works to make us right before God Luthor tried that didn't work. nothing he could do would make him right enough before a holy God. That was the reformers concern and I share it but we What I'm trying to retrieve in soda Gracia is something else in my book, soda Gracia is what I retrieve as the Christian answer to secularization that is the world This world is not all there is. and grace. Grace alone reminds us that everything starts with God going out of himself creating a world that he did not have to create, redeeming a world that he did not have to redeem. Everything starts with God's communication and self communication, his sharing of his light, and life with creation. So I wanted to retrieve that as the overall context for doing theology. And in particular, I wanted to remind biblical interpreters that grace is the context of our interpretation of Scripture. Scripture comes because God has graciously decided to make himself known, but more particularly for my book. The very process of biblical interpretation is part of the economy of God's grace. In other words, I'm retrieving SOTA, Grazia to counter the idea that we can discover through our own works. The meaning of Scripture. If the reformers were concerned about works for salvation, I'm concerned about an over reliance on human works for interpretation. So I think grace reminds us that we need to understand the Bible, ourselves as readers, and the very process of interpretation as surrounded by God's grace. Just one example would be the importance for interpretation of divine illumination. Paul says in First Corinthians two that the natural man cannot understand the things of the Spirit Word of God. And that would include the inspired scriptures, I would argue, because they're spiritually discerned. So Bible reading is part of this gracious economy of light by which God communicates or shares his light. That is his knowledge of Himself to us. So hope that makes sense. So Gracia in my book reminds interpreters that we're part of something larger than ourselves, this economy, this work of God in sharing his own knowledge with us. So in short, Sona. Gracia reminds us that we're not workers or autonomous agents. We're, we're people who respond to a gracious initiative.
Dr. Van hooser. Thank you so much for that reflection. I've heard Roman Catholics and Protestant theologians alike bemoan the fact that secular is a secularization seems to be a threat to classical orthodoxy against which Perhaps many of us are D skilled. As you look to the future of evangelicalism in the world situation, what are some resources or some theological trajectories that you would advise we invest research into in order to prepare proper responses to the questions secularization is asking our society
Okay, so to define our terms, I think secularization is the process of viewing more and more aspects of reality in terms of this world only. secularism is the Latin word for world and secular urbanization is the process of understanding everything that is, in this world, the terms only. Obviously, that means there's no room for God in secularism, because God is by definition, the creator of all things, and he enters into the world. That's the main Christian claim, Christ in Christ. And not only In Christ, but climactic Lee in Christ, God enters into the world. So secularism is an ideology, a system of ideas that Christians need to oppose because there's no room for God. And we can't understand the gospel in terms of secularism, strictly defined. helpful resource would be Charles Taylor's book, A, I believe it's called a secular age. And this is very helpful because Taylor as a philosopher, locates secularization in the history of ideas. There's no reason why we have to accept its claims it has a genealogy to there are contextual factors that explain or help us to understand the rise of secularization. It has to do with science and in the economy and all sorts of things. But Taylor actually hi Lights, the role of the what he calls the social imaginary. And that's the aspect that I think Christians and theologians need to address explicitly. We need to challenge the social imagination that has taken many moderns captive to this secularization. The Gospel tells us a very different story about the world. I believe it's the true story of the world, and about the nature of reality. So I think Charles Taylor helps us understand where it comes from. But I think we need to attack it at its source, which is not a rational argument so much, but it's a it's a way of imagining the world that has captured the modern imagination. And we challenge that, I think, by telling the biblical story, but not just telling it, but participating in it, living it out. So that We can show the world we're not just talking about ideas we can embody this gospel there is empirical, concrete proof, for example, that forgiveness exists.
No problem. Dr. Van hooser. Thank you. If I can ask one more question related to hermeneutics, what what advice would you give to future theologians who increasingly, literacy is for whom literacy is defined by a very broad interaction with texts? increasingly, we interact with video texts, oral Bible schools are on the horizon and growing. How should we approach hermeneutics in an increasingly broad textual age?
Yeah, that's a great question. So if hermeneutics is the art and science of interpreting texts, in principle, there's no reason why the principles of hermeneutics can't apply to other kinds of texts. discovered this working on my doctoral dissertation on Paul ricoeur, where he had an essay, it was entitled, meaningful human action as text. And the point was meaningful human actions are also susceptible to understanding. So I think movies, I think advertisements, images, actions, everything that humans do that communicates something that that serve as a means or a media of communication. Any of these could be called texts, any of them could be understood. And, you know, we might have to talk a little bit about the difference between general and special hermeneutics are there principles, you know, that we need to apply to movies alone that don't work with other kinds of texts, but in general, there are, I think, principles that apply to all these texts and for example, just to name one principle of charity, you try to undertake a standard text on its own terms first, rather than forcing your agenda on it. Let those who have produced the text, have their say, let them say what they mean. So let's try to understand what people are doing with whatever media they happen to be communicating with. That would be for me one rule that's important because it's the golden rule, do unto others texts as you would have them do unto yours. I've actually written a book with the help of Trinity students on this very point called everyday theology. And it has to do with reading cultural texts for understanding so that the church can engage culture with understanding rather than simply by a knee jerk reflex.
Dr. Van hooser in chapter four of your textbook ethical authority after Babel, retrieving the Solas In the spirit of mirror Protestant Christianity, you right this this is on page 176 the centrality of the church in the pattern of the interpretive authority emboldens us to suggest another sola sola ecclesia. Each local church is wholly the church but not the whole church. And the local church alone is authorized to make binding interpretive judgments about the meaning of Scripture. Tell us more. Have you written at length on this topic of sola ecclesia? Are you planning to write more in the future? What would a full fledged view of sola ecclesia look like?
Okay, good. Let me first put that phrase into a proper context so that people won't misunderstand me. When I say sola ecclesia, I'm not meaning to say the church alone is necessary for salvation. That's not the context of that phrase. Just to remind our viewers, the context of my book is this Problem of pervasive interpretive plurality hermeneutical havoc the idea that supposedly, the reformers leave unleashed interpretive anarchy upon the world. So nobody knows what the Bible means everybody has his or her own opinion. When I say sola ecclesia, then what I want to call attention to is that the church alone solo ecclesia. The church alone is the place where Christ rules his people, via his word, which Luther calls the scepter of Christ. The church alone is the place where Christ bestows His Spirit. The church alone is the place where Christ gives gifts, including pastors and teachers, to minister understanding of his word, and to encourage obedience of his word. So what I have in mind then when I speak of sola ecclesia, is the idea that the church The whole church and nothing but the church is the ultimately the proper context for Biblical interpretation. Now have I written on this elsewhere? It figures a little bit in a book I co authored with Dan Trier called theology and the mirror of Scripture. And I've written essays on it, here and there. But the idea is this, I think evangelicalism need to get away from the idea that that the priesthood of believers means that individuals by themselves can interpret the Bible with some kind of authority. We have a privilege and a responsibility of reading the Bible for ourselves, but we need to do this in community. And that's really what I'm driving at with this tres, sola ecclesia. And I think that's what the reformers meant by the priesthood of believers as well. They were not the they were not the inventors of modern innovation. autonomy, who wanted to give authority to each and every believer to read the Bible for himself or herself. The reformers themselves had a healthy respect for the church. And Calvin called it the Society of Christ and sometimes referred to it as a mother. And the point is the church is the community that nurtures individuals, so that they will become right readers of Scripture.
Dr. Van hooser, early on in the book and then again close to the end of the book you like in various denominational churches, Roman Catholics, evangelicals, etc, two houses in a neighborhood at the intersection of Tiber drive and evangel. Wait, and if I can read just briefly for us a paragraph here. This the concluding or the last time you reference this, this analogy. Let us return a last time to evangel way this is on page 221. The seven storey mansion it's The end of the street is actually at the intersection with Tibor drive. He's having another open house with a twist. The head of the house is inviting everyone who lives on the street to come home quote unquote. And in the upstairs room upstairs window, a votive candle is always lit. Not a few evangelicals have come in from the cold and accepted the offer, especially those who did not previously have a stable home. They feel the attractiveness of becoming part of such a large family with venerable family traditions. Other evangelicals, however, are put off by the family's tendency to invite them in, but never for dinner. Unless of course, they were announced their previous family allegiances, and do as all Romans do. Still, other evangelicalism are suspicious of the family sense of entitlement, which goes so far as seeking exercise to exercise the right of eminent domain over the other houses on eventual way. This is an intriguing analogy. That's one that's caught myself and many of my students in this analogy, what in fact is the one holy Catholic epistatic Church.
Okay, good question.
So the idea is that no one house no one denomination is the fullness of the Church of Jesus Christ. So I think the answer to your question, the one holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church is the whole neighborhood. What I'm getting at is the importance of catholicity. Small See, the whole church. And by catholicity, I mean, the people who have received the gospel, the whole length and breadth and height and depth of those who have received with believing trust, the gospel. So wherever Christ is, wherever two or three are gathered, that that there is a there is a church, the Catholic Church is the sum total of all those gatherings and again, what I'm concerned to focus on here is the idea that the local church is a real church, but it represents the whole church, the church as it has been over space and time. And my concern here is that we don't, I don't think local churches should be so isolated, that they aren't able to relate to other churches, that has been one of the default modes of Protestantism, people can retreat to their own denominational tradition, and then the world looks at the Protestant church and sees only division. My concern then is that each of each local church and each denomination needs to see itself as a representative of the one true church. My problem with Roman Catholic churches is that they've narrowed the idea of catholicity to the institution centered at Rome. And so in the book and and elsewhere, I like to counter Roman Catholic with the idea of reforming Catholic, which is my way of saying that catholicity has to be governed by canonicity. That is the supreme authority of God's Word sola scriptura. But the main point I'm trying to make in the book is that the Catholic Church again small See, the Catholic Church has a role in solving this problem of interpretive pluralism. I'm trying to think through what it means to say that the Spirit leads the church into all truth. And I believe the gospel has supreme authority. So I would speak of apostolic canonicity. But I also want to say that the church tradition has ministerial authority. And so I want to talk about apostolic catholicity as well. I want to carving out room here for a healthy appreciation for Tradition, again, Catholic tradition with a small seat.
But Dr. Van hooser, I experienced something that I'd never experienced before last Wednesday, and that was a virtual church service. We're increasingly experimenting with virtual reality here at Moody Bible Institute. And what I experienced last week led me to the conclusion that perhaps someday down the future, many decades down the future or a couple decades down the future, it may become a real theological debate whether churches ought to meet physically or whether a virtual communication is adequate, given what we're discussing concerning the authority of church, the multiple also the multiplicity of denominational existences of the church. What would you speak into that, that possible future theological debate?
That's a great question. Very, very pertinent. It fits in with one of my pet theories that everyone significant development in society eventually shows up in church. I don't think that's the way it necessarily should be. I think the church has to be set apart a holy nation, that means a set apart nation within a nation. And so, I'm also a little bit concerned about the idea of virtual church or distance church, because in addition to one, holy, catholic and apostolic I also think that churches are to be local. I think it's locality that we that is the issue here and what you raise, and I I'm becoming more and more convinced that locality is essential to the church because human beings are embodied. We're not going to be able to share the Lord's Supper online. It will be one low even if people eat at the same time. So there is something I think about place that is important here that could be lost. Now look, on the other hand, I think the internet is great and online is great for people who are shut in and physically unable to attend. But I would strongly encourage them to use technology to plug into their local church. Again, I would hope that those in the local church would be able to visit those who are shut in or hospitalized. And that still would mean that location is a function of their participation in the church. That's just my, my gut reaction to the issue. I am concerned, however, that if we lose an emphasis on locality, we take one baby step perhaps towards a gnostic view, which is the idea that it's only the spirit of the soul that matters that the body doesn't count.
I very much appreciate your willingness to engage in that question, Dr. Van hooser, if I can close with a question that we've been asking all of the guests on this program, and that is this, what would it mean for the church to be united? How would we recognize this unity and what is it that we can do as Christians to pursue the unity of the church?
Ah, that's a timely question of last month, I had a dialogue with Peter Lionheart on this very question, who he Peter and I wrote our books, they came out the same day his book is called the end of Protestantism. And he's very concerned that we do something to respond to Jesus prayer that they may be maybe one. So how do I conceive of church unity? Very quickly, I think it's would be more like an informal network, rather than a formal institution. Again, think about what I said about the neighborhood. In the book, I do. Compare neighborhood associations that are voluntary, with homeowners associations where membership is mandatory and subject to legal authority. I think the Roman Catholic Church and institution is more like a homeowner's association. But what I'm calling mere Protestant Christianity is much more like a neighborhood association. Now that's still maybe a something of a vague idea. But let me hear resource the reformers once more. The reformers themselves, though they eventually went their different ways. They were concerned about demonstrating the visible unity they had in Christ as well. And in thinking about that, the kind of unity I would be after today is what I would call Table Talk unity table, because fellowship at the Lord's table is a cynic one on and the reformers worked hard to iron out their different is on the theology of the Lord's Supper, so that they could continue to share the Lord's Supper. But in saying Table Talk, I'm also talking about talk. And there has to be lots of talk between churches talk about the things that Jesus accomplished in Jerusalem, just as the disciples on the way to obey us kept talking. In other words, I think we need to be talking about scripture, and what it means and what it means for us today. We need to keep talking. And we need to keep talking at the table that is within the context of fellowship, communion of the saints. I think talk takes time. I think time is God's gift to the church. It's a you know, having more time to talk affords us a greater opportunity to reach deeper understandings and best case scenario. That's what is happening with these diverse Protestant groups, with Lutheran and reformed, and Methodists get together to talk about things. I think we have a richer understanding, because each of those denominational traditions has this special concern, special emphasis. And at the limit, we might even call them gifts, insights that are gifts to the whole church to enrich it. Again, there has to be agreement of some kind about the essentials. That is we have to agree on the basic story of what God has done. But I think there is room for disagreement about what some of the particulars in the story mean. I think, for example, how did Jesus death save us? The New Testament is filled with different metaphors, talking about the saving significance of Jesus death and if we can, if we can I understand that unity and diversity, maybe there's a certain kind of parallel between the unity and diversity of Protestant tabletop. So the kind of unity I envisage would be I suppose you could call it a dialogical unity centered at the table.
It's been a tremendous privilege to be speaking with Dr. Kevin van hooser. Research Professor of systematic theology at Trinity evangelical Divinity School and author of the text we've been discussing biblical authority after Babel retrieving the soul is in the spirit of mere Protestant Christianity, like a van hooser. Thank you so much for speaking with us today. It's been a pleasure, Jonathan. Thank
you for having me.