Retrieving The Reformation After Babel: A Conversation with Professor Kevin J. Vanhoozer

This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.


Kevin J. Vanhoozer is research professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He also serves on the editorial board of the International Journal of Systematic Theology and the Journal of Theological Interpretation. He is the editor of the award-winning Dictionary for the Theological Interpretation of the Bible and is the author of several books, including Is There a Meaning in This Text: The Bible, The Reader, and The Morality of Literary Knowledge, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical, Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology, and Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship. His most recent book is Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity.

Professor Vanhoozer, welcome to Thinking in Public.

MOHLER: Professor Vanhoozer, I have to begin by asking you the one question that seems to pertain to almost every book, but perhaps more so to a book that bears the title Biblical Authority After Babel. That’s after what? Why this book right now?

VANHOOZER: We’re on the cusp of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and I’ve been a little disturbed to hear some people say they feel like lamenting it, rather than celebrating it, and one of the common reasons for that attitude is that they believe that the Reformation opened up a pandora’s box with regard to biblical interpretation. So, After Babel refers to the Babel, the pluralistic conflict of biblical interpretations. It’s not a slam on the doctrine of Scripture. Everyone knows the Reformers had a high view of Scripture. The question is, Did they inadvertently bequeath interpretive pluralism, even anarchy, upon the world? That’s the Babel of my title.

MOHLER: It seems to me that it would also work in terms of Babel representing modernity, to the extent that much of the conversation in your book is very current in terms of issues that are particularly acute in the modern age on the other side of that great divide. But as you acknowledge in the early section of your book, this goes right back to direct accusations against the Reformation and the Reformers. And of course, the historian in me wants to say that’s not at all new. As a matter of fact, you could go right back to the 16th century and at least the apologists for the Roman Catholic Church were making that very same argument, both in terms of what they were seeing in the 16th century and about what they warned would come in the future.

VANHOOZER: Exactly. And it’s not as though we haven’t tried to rebut that argument. But, on the other hand, history seems to provide some evidence that suggests that maybe there was something in that concern. And you’re right, there are Protestants who have tired to answer those concerns from the start. But these concerns seem to be particularly pressing at the moment. Brad Gregory has written a book recently suggesting that the Reformers were the ones that released secularism and individualism and pluralism upon the world. I feel that this accusation is particularly acute now, and I’ve always been one to want to stand up for the underdog, and it seems to me that the Reformers are the underdogs in this conversation. And I wanted to stand up and try to put the best possible face on their achievement.

MOHLER: I know the origin of the book was in a series of lectures given at Moore Theological College in Australia, and I can imagine that that led to some conversation. I think it’s important to note that as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is now looming before us, a lot of the Evangelical conversation is going to be, understandably, celebratory. But it’s also a time for some self-reflection especially given the kinds of charges that, then and now, are made against Protestantism.

VANHOOZER: Yes. The charges and also the statistics. Mainline denominations, these great denominations that have derived from the Protestant confession traditions, they’re on the decline and people are asking the question, Do we need denominations? What is the church for? And how word-centered should it be? So it is to one extent intended to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, but in another sense I think the book addresses a problem that has been with us for centuries, as you pointed out. What do we do when we disagree about what the Bible means, when we’re disagreeing with people who have similarly high views of Scripture?

MOHLER: You know, that Brad Gregory book deserves close attention. It’s intellectually irritating on the one hand, because he raises a lot of questions that are quite easily answered, but the central accusation in his book is that the Reformation set loose anarchy within the church, interpretive anarchy, a subversion of all authority, and he introduced into the conversation a phrase that you go back to time and again in your book. And that’s “fissiparous particularity,” arguing that the Reformation caused this fissure in the church or an entire set of fissures that continue.

VANHOOZER: Right. His idea was that it’s not enough to say that the Bible is the supreme authority if you don’t also say who has the authority to say what it means. So in the Roman Catholic Church they have that authority, the Magisterium, personalized or personified in the figure of the Pope. I first came across this objection when I was doing mission work in France and someone accused me when they found out I was Protestant of being an anarchist, that is, someone who didn’t have a head or a figure in authority who could tell me which of the many biblical interpretations was the right one.

MOHLER: You know one of the interesting first observations I have about that is that it ignores two huge problems. One of them is the existence of radical theological pluralism within the Roman Catholic Church, which does have a Magisterium and does have a papacy, and then the fact that even though many Roman Catholics don’t point to this explicitly, in Vatican II there is a continuing affirmation of a two-source understanding of revelation: both the Scripture and the Church. It goes beyond mere magisterial interpretation of the Scripture to an ongoing revelation through an unfolding tradition.

VANHOOZER: I think that’s right; I think that’s right. There was plurality in the church before the Reformation, and at one point there was more than one person claiming to be the pope. So, it’s not as though Roman Catholics escape the problem of how to locate authority. I think the Reformers were aware of this, and we need to give them credit. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that not only had they anticipated the objection, but they had already begun to take some concrete steps to deal with it. For example, both Luther and Calvin were supportive of church councils, provided that they were truly catholic, that is representative, and not narrowly catholic, that is Roman. So one of the things that I argue in the book is that really the best catholics are the Protestant catholics, those who really want to have a church council that are [inaudible] of local churches.

MOHLER: You know as a matter of fact—and to your credit you point to this in your book—the Magisterial Reformers insisted that they were actually more catholic than the church that called itself Catholic.

VANHOOZER: Yes, indeed, and as I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Luther was calling for a church council that would be truly catholic, that is general, comprehensive, and representative. And not only did they call for councils in the Roman Catholic church, but in their own confessional traditions both Luther and the Reformed practiced what they preached, particularly in Calvin’s Geneva. He instituted a practice where local pastors would get together and have informal councils where they would wrestle with biblical passages, listen to one another, and together to arrive at a unified meaning.

MOHLER: You know, another thought that comes to me in terms of the Reformers and tradition is that many people use simplistic explanations that don’t fit the case. To read Calvin or Luther, for example, is to read two men who understood themselves to be representing a faith that goes all the way back to the Apostles and was affirmed by, for instance, Augustine, who Luther called “The Blessed Doctor”—Calvin quotes him over and over again. Second to Augustine, Calvin quotes Bernard of Clairvaux, obviously in way in which he seeks to find agreement. When it comes to councils, as you indicated, both Calvin’s and Luther’s heirs wanted to claim the early ecumenical councils as representing statements made by the true church, of which they were very much a part.

VANHOOZER: That’s exactly right. I think one of the things I’m hoping to do in my book, and others are doing this as well, is that we are simply challenging the caricature that Protestants believe in individual autonomy and have no role whatsoever for church tradition. The Reformers themselves, as you point out, were very concerned to show that they were in line with the broad church tradition, and yes, Augustine was the hero for Calvin and Luther on many, many points. Sometimes Calvin says, I could spell this out, but Augustine has done it so well I don’t need to.

MOHLER: You know, in terms of thinking this through also in the Solas. The subtitle of your book is “Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity.” We’ll take that whole subtitle apart in just a moment, but about the Solas, you make a brief reference to this, but I would argue that the Reformers of the 16th century clearly articulated and taught all that we now refer to as the Solas, but that the formulas were not collected until, well, just about a century ago, and so what we’re retrieving is what they taught and what we now summarize as five very important Solas.

VANHOOZER: I think that’s right. I couldn’t find all five Solas mentioned by the Reformers. I could find three of the Solas, grace, faith, and Scripture, clearly enunciated, but I think you’re right. The other two correctly summarize insights we can document very easily that were very much the Reformerss concerns: Christ alone, for the glory of God alone—those were clearly uppermost in the Reformers’ mind.

MOHLER: You know, in reading your book, especially as you outline the different Solas, one key question nonetheless comes to mind: would the Reformers recognize the Solas as you describe them here? I’m not asking would they disagree, but would they recognize, and would the historical Reformation churches recognize, the Solas in the way you expound upon them here?

VANHOOZER: Well, I do say I’m retrieving, and that means I’m doing more than simply trying to be faithful to the past. I’m looking to the past, but I’m also looking forward, looking at future challenges and so on. My hope would be that they would recognize it given the context we’re facing today, because I do see, myself, quite a bit of continuity between what I’m arguing and what the Reformers are arguing. But you’re right, I’m in a different context and in a sense, we won’t know, at least for a while, whether they’d agree with me or not.

MOHLER: Well, I entirely agree, for instance, with the Trinitarian affirmations which you make under the rubric of Sola Gratia, grace alone, but it strikes me that as much as it was a brilliant presentation of Trinitarian truth, it wasn’t exactly what the Reformers were understood to have meant by “grace alone.”

VANHOOZER: Well, let’s put it this way: I’m going deeper into their insight. Their insight was that grace indicates the priority of God’s presence and activity to anything we can do with regard to our salvation. God has acted; he’s taken the initiative; he was merciful; he did it freely for our benefit. What I’m suggesting is that if we think about grace, it ultimately leads us back to the God who is gracious, the one who is willing to go out of himself for another, and the way he does that is by the missions of the Word and the Spirit. So if you think about grace enough and deeply, I do think we find the Trinity at the root.

MOHLER: You know, an interesting question that came to my mind when reading that chapter was the question as to the extent of any ontological questions on the part of, for instance, Calvin and Luther. There are certainly arguments that have ontological consequences but I think it’s interesting that’s, in some sense, a pretty modern question in terms of contemporary theology.

VANHOOZER: I suppose if we put it that way. Because you’re right, the Reformers were first and foremost interested in the work of God for our salvation. The benefit necessary through Christ’s work. They didn’t want to get tied up in speculation. On the other hand, one reason they had inherited from the early church, was very robust ontology. So, they didn’t feel the need to explore it. They didn’t want to get into the philosophical side of it. But there was a very strong tradition that God is the one who is, in his essence and existence. To some extent the Reformers took that on board, and sense no one was questioning it. There was really no need to go into it deeply.

MOHLER: Yes, that’s my point entirely. The Roman Catholic Church and the Reformers would have had no basic ontological disagreement there. But, that takes us the next question, the relationship between nature and grace. At that point, there is a very key distinction. Of course, I think many contemporary evangelicals don’t trace that out as far as what that means for epistemological authority. Frankly, we hear that coming from different sources today. But, certainly in terms of nature and grace, it’s important to recognize — which you point out — eventually it comes down to where divine revelation is understood to be found in its authoritative form for the believing church.

VANHOOZER: Yes. It’s ironic also that one of the criticisms that the Reformers get is that they secularized the world by somehow removing the idea that creation was already grace. The sacramental understanding of nature. But in fact, that view that nature has something to offer and we can arrive at the knowledge of God through our natural processes alone associated with the Roman Catholic View, is probably more likely to have lead to the secularism than the Reformers. God has to regenerate our natures. God has to illumine our minds. God has to take the initiative and make himself known through his word for us to know anything about him, especially salvifically.

MOHLER: In terms of scripture alone, sola scriptura, you once clarified what the Reformers meant. You do so already having discussed the issue of tradition and how they understood themselves in terms of receiving scripture and not being the first to read it. But how would you state, as in your book, what the Reformers would have meant by sola scriptura?

VANHOOZER: Well, I think what the Reformers meant was, at the end of the day, the only supreme source and norm for Christian theology, thinking rightly about God, understanding the gospel, the supreme authority is scripture. That doesn’t mean it was the only authority. Tradition has a role in helping us understand what the scriptures are saying. But the final locus of authority has to be with God’s word written. And the Reformers wanted to emphasize that because at the time of the Reformation, certain human traditions, Roman Catholic doctrines, were cloaking themselves with the authority of God himself. So, sola scriptura in the context of the Reformers was a sharp reminder, a corrective, that supreme authority is God’s alone.

MOHLER: I often in speaking of the Reformers remind that the Reformers said sola scriptura, not scriptura nuda. They weren’t claiming scripture be read “naked” as if we had no other source of knowledge. Rather, it was scripture that adjudicates norms. To use my favorite phrase from Luther, the scripture is norma normans non normata. The scripture is a norm that cannot be normed. If it’s the norm of norms that means that there are other structures of thought. You could call tradition among them and it certainly comes into play. The question is: which has the last word?

VANHOOZER: Exactly. So one of the things I was assuming that needed to be stressed was that sola scriptura doesn’t only name a principle of the sort as if there were only one authoritative principle. There is, but that’s the triune God, and his communicative action. That is, his making himself known through Christ and in scripture. But sola scriptura I think is better understood not as a principle but as statement of pattern of authority. So as you were saying, it’s the only norm without a norm. It has the supreme place in the pattern of authority. But, in his wisdom, God has given us what I call ministerial authorities, secondary authorities, help, even, which guide us in the meaning of scripture.

MOHLER: Part of the fun and profit in reading a book like this is that you get to watch another reader at work. As much as you had written in the book, you were deeply immersed your entire lifetime in this literature. So I enjoyed the people which you made reference to in terms of these arguments, and showing up on the same page. I often think about the fact that it takes one author to take two people who otherwise would never be on the same page. So, Anthony Lane and Stanley Hauerwas, in your book—Stan Hauerwas makes the famous argument, or infamous, that sola scriptura is what he calls the sin of the Reformation. Now, why would he say that?

VANHOOZER: Well, from his perspective, he’s one of those who bought into the idea that the Reformation is a pandora’s box that opens up all sorts of interpretations. So from that perspective what he’s complaining about is giving individuals the right to read the Bible without also encouraging them at the same time to be part of the discipline of the church. That is, he doesn’t simply want to hand over the Bible to undisciplined readers who use autonomy to find things that are in their own interests. So I have some sympathy for what he’s saying, but I cannot go as far as what he says as “the sin of sola scriptura.” This is one of the great glories of the Reformation, that the Reformers wanted everybody, lay people, to have Bibles they could read in their own language because it is the responsibility, yes, but it is also a wonderful privilege to read God’s word for oneself.

MOHLER: A couple of thoughts. I’ve had this same conversation with Stanley Hauerwas, indeed, on this program. He is a provocateur; he intends to be that way and playing that role, and let’s face it, he plays it extremely well. But he’s also on to a problem that I would acknowledge. If you’re looking for horrible examples of this fissiparous particularity, to go back to Brad Gregory, you can certainly find them. You don’t have to have much ability on the internet or television remote control to find plenty of evidence of all kinds of problems with the way that some people handle the text. The problem is that he doesn’t actually take us, in terms of his own proposal, to anything other than a postmodern communitarianism.

VANHOOZER: You’re right. We do have too many examples of this; I teach a course called, “The Use of Scripture in Theology” and I think sometimes we are so intent on getting our doctrine of Scripture right—and of course that is important—that we are not as clear about the right practices that follow from it. If we are to rightly handle the word of truth, then we need to know how to use it and not simply what it is. Again, I think the Reformers are wonderful exemplars in right use. They took care to study Scripture in the original languages. They were after the literal sense. They were very concerned not to simply foist their own ideas onto the Bible. It’s the famous image of the nose of wax: if you can make the Bible says whatever you want it to say, then it has no authority of its own, you can simply twist it and wrap it around you little finger. And because sinners are by nature idolaters who would like to have God say so for themselves, it is very tempting to use God’s word to foist one’s own agenda upon people. So I think the Reformers were very aware of their responsibility; the word is authoritative, not our interpretation.

MOHLER: I think Tony Lang’s statement that shows up in your book on the same page of that quotation from Stan Hauerwas is really helpful here, where he says that sola scriptura is the statement that the Church can err—that’s incredible clarity.

VANHOOZER: It is very clear, and I think it’s a statement of fact, isn’t is? The church can and has erred in the past. Again, the Reformers were aware of this and I think this was one reason that they thought it was so important to be in continuity with tradition. Sometimes there really is safety in numbers, especially when the numbers are the cloud of witnesses that have affirmed orthodoxy.


MOHLER: Taken at face value this conversation would be worthwhile simply because it is with Kevin Vanhoozer and about a book, the title of which is Biblical Authority After Babel. These days I think most evangelicals, at least thoughtful evangelicals, feel just about every word of that title as a word of consequence.


MOHLER: Every once in awhile in reading a book, you have the impression you’ve walked into an intramural debate, and I’ve found particular pleasure in finding that in your book as well. When you discuss the relative merits of systematic and biblical theology, I think that’s an ongoing conversation, but it plays into your understanding of how Scripture functions in the Church.

VANHOOZER: Yes. It is true that biblical scholars and systematic theologians view things differently. It has been important to me over the years that this is not a relationship between competitors. I think for those of us involved in seminary education, it is very important to show that we are all interested in reading Scripture to hear the word of God for the church yesterday and today. That seems to me to be a worthy enterprise that requires collaboration, and so I don’t like it when someone says, “I am closer to God’s Word than you are.” I don’t think we need to have to have that competition. We are all, I hope, servants of the word and together are laborers to minister that word to students who can go and do likewise.

MOHLER: And there is a role for both biblical and systematic theology, and it is not as one is an abstraction, and I say that myself to defend systematic theology. You can have a core system, a system that both represents faulty theological foundations and can horribly distort Scripture. On the other hand, the most self-declared biblical theologian, in terms of doing biblical theology, still can only do that task with systematic categories.

VANHOOZER: Yes. It is very humbling, not only that the church can err, but so can biblical scholars and so can systematic theologians. Very humbling. Again, that is why it is a collaborative enterprise, and again I think the Reformers knew this. We can err and we can also err in becoming too proud of our own interpretations. One of the hardest things for students to get right is this balance between confidence, but not to the point of becoming complacent when it comes to handling God’s word.

MOHLER: Words matter. You argue for three words that should be taken together as the essence of your argument here. Those three words are: Mere Protestant Christianity. Why those three? Why are all three necessary?

VANHOOZER: Well, Christianity because we are focused on Jesus Christ and the gospel. That’s what it’s all about, the good news is in Christ; God is restoring creation and making eternal life possible through him. So that’s Christianity. There’s no other hope for the world. Protestant because I think what happened at the Reformation was a recovery of that gospel and of the principle of the authority of Scripture in specifying what that gospel is. It’s great to have good news, but we need a reliable source. Scripture is that source and the Protestants recovered that— that’s what sola scriptura signals for us. But the “mere,” the mere is the surprise, mere Protestant. There  I think I have in mind a catholicity. I do want to emphasize what Protestants have in common. So often we hear about the differences and divisions. People point to these divisions between Protestant church traditions as reason not to become Protestant. When they do that they overlook the fact that, actually, Protestants can affirm much together, and there is quite a bit of unity. So the mere-ness is an attempt on my part to correct the caricature where Protestants are divided over everything, and to say that in fact, the Reformers were united in the essentials.

MOHLER: I think it is important to continue this conversation along these lines, because I think to many evangelicals it’s the word Protestant is the one that requires the greatest explanation. I think it’s an essential word, and I agree, by the way, with David Wells in the title of his book, The Courage to be Protestant. I think that’s one of the most important issues of theological encouragement of our day. But for you, Protestant takes on a particular meaning and I’d like for you to flesh that out a bit.

VANHOOZER: Sure. Obviously, historically it has to do with the Reformation and the fact that at the time of the Reformation there were people like Luther who stood up and actually called the church to be reformed, that is, to reform itself according to the word of God. That to me is one of the main characteristics of Protestantism, this awareness that the church must always be willing to reform its life and thought, and that means theology, in light of the word of God. That’s one of the things I mean by it. The other connotation it has is that it’s referring to not just one insight, but the insight of all of the Reformers. That is, there were different confessional traditions; we call them all Protestant, they arose at about the same time. Yet, they each have slightly different emphasizes. Luther’s, of course, was justification by faith. That emphasis on gospel rather than law still characterizes the Lutheran confession. Similarly, Calvin had emphases of his own. We summarize it with the T.U.L.I.P. acronym—I don’t think that’s necessarily the best way to do it, but all that to say there were distinctives inside. And so it is with John Wesley and Zwingli and other Protestants; each of these Protestant reformers had a gift, I think, to the whole church. And yet each did so clearly under the supreme authority of Scripture.

MOHLER: But that leads me to two questions that I could not answer. The first of them has to with this: I agree with your definition of “mere Protestant Christianity”. The question I have though is, where does that leave us now vis a vis the Roman Catholic Church? Are we in a different position? Are we in a different position than the Reformers in the 16th century? Or are we in the same position?

VANHOOZER: That’s a great question. I’ve been involved for several years with Evangelicals and Catholics Together dialogue and I have been presently surprised to see how what I thought were intractable doctrinal differences in some cases were differences only in emphasis. I’m thinking of the relationship between scripture and tradition even. Now I know you mentioned that in Vatican II there is still that line about tradition being a second form of the word of God. But at least in the dialogues I was a part of, the supremacy of scripture seemed to come through. So I was pleasantly surprised by that. On the other hand, with regard to ecclesiology and the Lord’s Supper and other things like that—I suppose including the whole papal set up, the—there are still differences, and the church is not united on these points. I think the Protestants are in the right. But, I still think that Roman Catholicism is something of a misnomer, insofar as the Roman makes it unduly narrow. I think Protestants are more genuine gospel catholics, and the Roman Catholics insists you must belong to their church in order to share the Lord’s Supper with them. In my mind, that is still an area of division. We are excluded from that fellowship because as Protestants we’re not allowed to share the Lord’s Supper with them. And of course they have a different understanding of what it represents as well. So, there are still real differences. I think the Reformation still has to go on, and I’m not sure that the differences are over the substance of the gospel.

MOHLER: Yeah, I think that’s one of those interesting questions. I was a part of some of those earlier conversations with Evangelicals and Roman Catholics that eventuated into what became the ECT. There’s been a Southern Baptist/Roman Catholic dialogue—conversation may be a better term—for some time, and was formalized for a period. I also did graduate work at a Roman Catholic institution on Roman Catholic theological method. The one thing that strikes me is that the Roman Catholic church has the incredible ability to sound far more consistent with the Reformation than it ever intends to be in practice. So both Protestants and Catholics have a certain reflex, and eventually it gets back to the magisterial authority of the church, and all of those statements remain absolutely in force. I think many evangelicals assume Vatican II somehow moved the Roman Catholic Church into closer alignment with Protestant understandings. I think the argument can be made, if you read it, that it did exactly the opposite.

VANHOOZER: Well, in regard to ecclesiology I think I would agree with you. That’s why I say that differences remain. I can only go so far, I can’t recognize the structure of authority of that church. I can’t fellowship at the table with those who profess Christ. That’s just some of the differences. There are doctrinal disagreements as well such as the assumption of Mary, Papal infallibility, or dogmas that in my mind lack the biblical support.

MOHLER: That leads to my second question I could not answer. This is why I’ve been looking forward to this conversation indeed in so many ways. Let’s just take the Protestant universe unto itself, and you have a very carefully laid out argument concerning what you call the royal priesthood of believers. I think you clarify it very well in terms of the keys and the authority given to the church. But, when it comes to the Lord’s table and your  definition of “mere Protestant —and I guess I have to ask the question straightforwardly—how mere can mere be, here?

VANHOOZER: Well, again I’m not in the position to legislate for everyone what this word must mean. What I was trying to articulate was along the lines of C.S. Lewis who took it from Richard Baxter which has to do with the things all Christians confess together—the essentials. Now, in regard to the Lord’s Supper, excellent question. As you know, the Reformers disagreed about this very doctrine amongst themselves. In the book, I trace the early attempts that the Reformers made to get over those disagreements, and they really did come close at Marburg, for example. Later on they produced at Wittenberg a common confession. They really did try to come close, and at some point the language was just a preposition away from achieving consensus. I think at the end of his life, Luther,did seem to patch things up a bit with Zwingli—at least for a while. I don’t know that we need to buy into any one formula that seems to me that even if we disagree with one another about the nature of Christ’s presence in the elements, we are still to recognize one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. I think the Reformers got to that point, and I think we need to affirm that.

MOHLER: No, certainly. The question is ‘how’ we affirm that. For instance, there’s been a historic Reformed conversation about the distinction between a true church and a false church and a wrongly ordered church—disordered. Do you also affirm that there are churches that truly preach the gospel and yet are disordered in some way?

VANHOOZER: I didn’t use those terms, but I think they’re serviceable. I think they describe what I would probably have to say if I were to tease this out, yes. I think that wrong order doesn’t effect the fact that the church can give a legitimate gospel witness. And as a systematic theologian, I’m a little less sure of myself when it comes to church order simply because what scripture says about polity, in some cases, seems somewhat restrained. So I wouldn’t want to emphasize those questions as much as I do first order items of doctrine. But I agree with you, for practical purposes we have to do it. Even in the book I call matters of church policy, “housekeeping”, and every church has to order its house.

MOHLER: You know, in terms of denominationalism, simply in the American experiment, this is our version of the fissiparousness that many accused the Reformers of creating. It goes back to the charge against you as an anarchist. I love the way Winthrop Hudson put it, the American historian, “take it to its logical conclusion, this means there’s a church under every man’s hat.” Yet, as much as we can lament that—you cite the statistic in the handbook of denominations something like 38,000 Protestant, or at least non-Catholic, denominations—yet, what you’re arguing for in your book is that there is a basic theological consensual unity that it real. That goes beyond many of these labels or organizational charts.

VANHOOZER: It is real. The world knows it, I think, as evangelicalism. Timothy George sees evangelicals as a renewal movement that cuts across various denominations, but also going back to the heart of the gospel confession and trying to recover that, as well as the message of justification by faith, the centrality of scripture. People with that kind of evangelical sensibility exist in many of those 38,000 denominations. So, I know it seems counter-intuitive because people think, ‘Oh, Protestants are divided, how much more are Evangelicals?’ But in fact, I think evangelicalism is one way of expressing what I mean by Protestant Christianity.

MOHLER: I’m really enjoying reading Richard Evan’s new volume, just came out in the last few days, in the Penguin history of Europe. He’s dealing with the long 19th century. One of the things that he includes in his book is a map of Europe in 1815. It lays out Europe by religion. You look at that and you recognize just how territorial many of these Reformation churches were. And of course, we have to add to that the Ottoman Empire, the Catholic Kingdoms, and all the rest. It’d be hard to come up with a map like that. But, it draws my attention to what Sydney Mead argued years ago. It was about why American Christianity, and for that matter English speaking Christianity, has taken on such a denominational form. Mead just responded that denominationalism is what results when you have strong beliefs and religious liberty. I think that’s really profound. People who would point to the existence of denominations as the problem don’t recognize that to solve that problem you’re either going to have to minimize theology or you are going to have to bring about a sort of coercion. You’re going to have to go back to that map that we saw of Europe in 1815. And you don’t condemn denominations. I really appreciate that. It’s a straightforward acknowledgement, even though with different categories, that when you do have strong beliefs and you do have religious liberty, then you’re going to have denominations or something similar to them.

VANHOOZER: Right, and I don’t want to go back to a coercive picture of Christendom where everyone is born into a one-religion, one-state establishment. Yes, I do affirm denominations. But I also distinguish what I call weak, radical, and strong denominationalism. The weak denominationalism is when a church exists and is different, but it can’t even explain why it’s important to adhere to its distinctives. It will probably fade away. On the other hand, radical denominationalism is a kind of ideology in the particular history and structure of a denomination and they lose sight of what the denomination is for, which is, the church of Jesus Christ. What I call strong denominationalism, and churches therein understand that they have distinctives, they appreciate their distinctives, but they offer them up not as blunt instruments to bludgeon other churches but really as gifts. “This is my insight,” as it were, “that we have to give to the church universal.” So I’m in favor of that kind of strong denominationalism.

MOHLER: Do you see many examples of radical denominationalism on the map today? I can go back certainly to the 19th century and find that here in the U.S. In fact, there was a book published by the SBC’s publishing house at the end of the 19th century, and the individual chapters were “Baptist and Why Not Presbyterian” or “Baptist and Why Not Episcopalian” “Baptist and Why Not Lutheran.” I don’t see many evidences of that kind of radical denominationalism these days.

VANHOOZER: Well, I don’t want to mention the particular denomination, but I talked with a couple of pastors who belong to this denomination and they say that their ministry at the local church level is frustrated by the institutional apparatus and having to adhere to the policy and so on. I think it’s radical when the denomination gets in the way of local church ministry.

MOHLER: That’s an interesting question. I see that among younger ministers, the failure to understand that what the denomination funds, the denomination intends to be denominational. It’s a very interesting pattern. And you mentioned the decline of mainline denominationalism—and by the way I certainly affirm your strong denominational model, and it reminds of your treatment of the word ‘sectarian’. No one wants to be called sectarian. And yet I wanted to suggest what is missing in that section of your book is the understanding that we’re all going to be more sectarian in the sociological sense, that to be sectarian is to be increasingly at odds with the dominate society. Which is what the mainline Protestant denominations tried to avoid. I don’t think there’s any way for us to avoid it.

VANHOOZER: Sure. I think we’ll probably look like sects compared to the society at large. When you asses the way which the church in the fourth gospel appears sectarian, there’s a community of darkness and a community of light. What I had in mind in that section of my book is that the Reformers themselves didn’t think of themselves as sectarian because they thought themselves belonging to the catholic church, small ‘c’.

MOHLER: Absolutely. And they had every reason to believe that where the Reformation would survive, it would survive as a dominant cultural force. It was no less true in Geneva than in Luther’s region in Germany. We just find ourselves in an entirely different position. As evangelicals, we find ourselves to be in a context different than what we knew ourselves to be 10 years ago.

VANHOOZER: Well I agree. In the U.S. in particular, it doesn’t seem as though the culture is supporting denominations or the Christian church anymore. So you are right; it may be that in the future Protestant Christianity will appear to be more sect-like. It just won’t have the cultural and social support systems it had in the past.

MOHLER: What was the happiest discovery you found in the research and writing of this book? What brought you the greatest pleasure?

VANHOOZER: I think what brought me greatest pleasure was that I think I did find an answer to what Christian Smith calls the “invasive interpretive pluralism” of our Protestant time. And I think I found in the Reformers what I refer to as a unitive and interpretive plurality. So the emphasis is on unity, not unchecked pluralization. So I think I was most pleasantly surprised that I didn’t have to get the solution, it was already there, at least in seminal form.

MOHLER: Professor Vanhoozer, thank you for the book and thank you for joining me today on Thinking in Public.

VANHOOZER: It’s been a pleasure!


MOHLER: I really enjoyed that conversation with Professor Vanhoozer. I really appreciated his book, and I appreciated it on several levels. First of all, it genuinely delivers on the promise of the title. It’s a very serious consideration to think about Biblical Authority After Babel. The first Babel being the accusations made against the Reformers, and second is the unique set of questions pressed upon us by the modern age. Professor Vanhoozer honestly says that his attempt here is something like retrieval. In the context of 20th century theology, that has a particular meaning. It goes back to a movement in catholic theology in which there was an effort, before and after Vatican II, of trying to retrieve the faith of the church, then to live it out and project it into the present and future. That, in a Protestant sense, is what Vanhoozer has done in his attempt to try and retrieve the solas. I have one concern about that, and that concern comes down to this: as brilliant as Vanhoozer’s presentation of his points and concerns are in this book, the solas articulated here are not the same as the solas which became the central formula of the Reformation. Now, that’s an interesting point in terms of this retrieval. Retrieval is Vanhoozer’s effort to try and take those solas both backward and forward. I think he’s actually quite successful in this effort to go back to central themes and concepts and affirmations of the Reformers, and then to bring that into a faithful evangelicalism, a faithful “mere Protestant Christianity” he calls it, looking to the future. I think there is loss on the one hand, however, by failing to lay out what the Reformers and their heirs meant by these solas. Because as we are looking at the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it seems to me that is the first and most primary task.

But as we’re looking at this book, Biblical Authority After Babel, so much of it is a brilliant presentation of issues that are genuinely historical and genuinely current. On this score, there are few who have the ability, including Kevin Vanhoozer, to deal with both of these simultaneously. He pulls that off very well. Furthermore, as an author and theologian, Professor Vanhoozer has to know that he is here engaged in some of the most controversial territory of all church history. You’re talking about the Reformation of the 16th century. The accusations made then and now against the Reformers and their heirs get to the heart of what it means to be Protestant, but also what it means to be Christian and what it means for the church to genuinely be Christ’s church. I think the strength of this book and of Vanhoozer’s approach is that he argues against the criticisms of the Reformers and he argues quite substantially and quite successfully. There is a genuine doctrinal consensus and a genuine spiritual and theological unity wherever the gospel of Jesus Christ is preached and wherever the faith once for all delivered to the saints is affirmed.

I have written much on what affirm as a theological triage, a hierarchy of theological doctrines and truths. And in his own way, following a very similar scheme, professor Vanhoozer asserts and affirms the same in this book. But that raises the crucial question: how do we make some of the hardest judgments, yet necessary judgments, about how we recognize a church to be a genuine church, that is, to be authentically a representation as part of Christ’s church, that church over which Christ said the gates of hell will not prevail? On this score, I think professor Vanhoozer is more successful in arguing for and explaining that basic theological unity that exists among Protestants than he is in helping us understand how we then are to see the Roman Catholic Church or other groups outside what we would call Protestant Christianity but who still claim purchase on the Christian faith and existence as a Christian church.

One task of any author in any book is to start a conversation and then to at least in a long way contribute to that conversation. And the greatest strength of this book is the fact that Professor Vanhoozer is on to some of the most crucial issues that evangelical Protestants must face in the 21st century. And he does take us a very long way, both historical and contemporary consideration of these issues. Few figures are more conversant in terms of modern thought across a variety of disciplines than Professor Vanhoozer. But in reading any book like this, we also have to ask the question: where does this book now take us in the conversation? I think it’s now an urgent responsibility. Not only because of the 500th anniversary looming before us, but because the issues in the Reformation in the 16th century are still the issues facing evangelical Protestants today.

I think in many ways the most interesting part of the conversation was in my asking Professor Vanhoozer just how ‘mere’ a mere Protestant Christianity can be. The collapse of mainline Protestantism indicates that a mere theology leads to major disaster. I also understand that using the word ‘mere,’ Professor Vanhoozer is intentionally echoing C.S. Lewis, and Lewis, Richard Baxter. But it’s really important for us to recognize that no mere affirmation of Protestantism is going to suffice for the 21st century. No mere retrieval of the solas is going to suffice. What’s going to be required is the courage and conviction found in the Reformers themselves and of course in their heirs, wherever they have been found.

Professor Vanhoozer is not calling for a minimal theological definition. The question for all of us in the conversation is just how mere any doctrinal affirmation can be, any ecclesiology, any affirmation of the solas of the Reformation. The church may end up being merely evangelical. There must be no apology for evangelical Protestants in this generation to assert a full-bodied, full-blooded, full-calorie Protestantism. Without the courage to be Protestant, there will be no Protestants, nor Protestantism. Continuing the conversation as to what that means for us is the responsibility now for this generation of Evangelical Protestants.


Thanks again to my guest, Kevin Vanhoozer, for thinking with me today. For more information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, go to

Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.