In recent years it has been argued that the Protestant Reformation unleashed interpretive anarchy on the church, a veritable Babel. Is it time to consider the Reformation to be a 500-year experiment gone wrong? Many are wondering.
Protestantism comes in so many flavors and varieties that the sheer number of alternative explanations makes one wonder whether something is innately out of kilter in the post Reformation church. This has led a good number of Evangelicals who are tired of the confusion and constant churning to return to Rome and its “safe harbor” of the teaching magisterium.
Evangelical theologian Kevin Vanhoozer sees recent critiques of this Protestant development as a legitimate concern, but he argues that retrieving the Reformation’s core principles offers an answer to critics of Protestant biblical interpretation. Vanhoozer explores in his upcoming book, “Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity,” how a proper reappropriation of the five solas–sola gratia (grace alone), sola fide (faith alone), sola scriptura (Scripture alone), solus Christus (Christ alone), and sola Dei gloria (for the glory of God alone)–offers the tools to constrain biblical interpretation and establish interpretive authority. He offers a positive assessment of the Reformation, showing how a retrieval of “mere Protestant Christianity” has the potential to reform contemporary Christian belief and practice. This book will be on my reading list.
This book reminds me of David Wells’ book, “The Courage to Be Protestant.” Unless you have gone brain dead, you, a Protestant, understand that when you step into a Protestant church, you never really know what you are going to get. You have to ask a lot of questions and listen carefully to get some understanding of that particular church’s take on doctrine. It’s not always so upfront. And since it has no real accountability and is not seriously peer reviewed, it might harbor teachings which distort and bend the orthodoxy that you assumed was there. I don’t think I overstate the case.
This is in contrast to Roman Catholicism and to some degree Eastern Orthodoxy. When I walk into an RC church, there is some confidence that what I experience on a local level has some serious connection with the stream of Christian truth with its source in apostolic Christianity. It will be Trinitarian, Jesus will be presented as the Lamb of God who was sacrificed for us. God will be Lord over history, climaxed in the second coming of Christ. Etc. Yes, I know the distortions of RC, particularly its sacramentalism, its Marian doctrines, purgatory, and so on. But the Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition stand solid. The RC maintains the supernatural characteristics of the Christian faith. Go to your local mainline Protestant church and all of this will be up for grabs. You never know what will be coming down.
Evangelicalism is, indeed, getting crazier and crazier. It’s a battle of competing emphases and teachings. Evangelicals number worldwide about 600 to 800 million, out of a total of 2.75 billion who self-identify as Christian. So Evangelicalism is definitionally a sect, self-defined and evolving. It takes a lot of work to keep on top of it and do appropriate self-monitoring. So, as you can see, I am sympathetic with the concern that Vanhoozer is addressing, along with David Wells. As it often said, in Protestantism “every Christian a Pope.”