(5) Biblical Authority after Babel proposes a distinction of importance among doctrines, so that not every doctrinal difference need produce a schism or a division among Protestant churches. Level-one teachings, dogmas, which a follower of Jesus always has to believe, have to do with “identifying the main persons of the gospel story” (p. 205). Level-one doctrines answer questions of who and what, whereas level-two doctrines “typically respond to questions of how” various parts of the gospel story were accomplished (p. 206). But this distinction seems difficult to maintain on these terms. Trinity is a level-one doctrine, according to Vanhoozer. But why should it be? Why can’t a person admit that salvation is a work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit while not subscribing to the trinitarian metaphysics of Nicaea? Wouldn’t the Nicene creed sooner fall into the domain of “how”, namely how these three figures are involved in our salvation, or how they relate to each other, etc.? This invites unitarians and others into the fold of mere Protestant Christianity, radically disjointing Protestant unity. On the other hand, he lists questions of atonement theology (“How does Jesus’s death on the cross save sinners?”) as a level-two doctrine. But can you affirm that there was an act of salvation at all without specifying what the danger was and how it was avoided? This pulls atonement theology into level-one, once again making mere Protestant Christianity ripe for schism.
(6) Vanhoozer speaks about Trinitarian theology throughout his book as if it were an obvious conclusion to come to by simply reading the Scripture. He doesn’t justify Trinitarian theology; it is a maxim. Likewise, he treats Scripture as a complete object, the word of God, Old and New Testaments included, without paying any attention the causal origins of the Scripture and its inextricable connection to the Church that produced it. It comes off like trying to change the rules in the middle of the game to one’s advantage: traditions and councils and the rest are now fallible, even if valuable; Scripture alone is the ultimate authority, and I (Luther, Calvin, whoever) am aware that the Catholic Church has been misreading it very badly. What of unitarians who do not think that trinitarianism is the conclusion you come to by a close reading of Scripture? They have an answer for every prooftext you bring up. Or how do you know what books count as Scripture at all? The Bible didn’t come with a table of contents. Some source outside of the text had to recognize what was Scripture and what wasn’t; why is that source no longer infallible when it comes to interpreting the texts it assembled and recognized as Scripture?
For these reasons, then, I am not convinced by Vanhoozer’s retrieval of the solas in Biblical Authority after Babel
Steven Nemes teaches philosophy as an adjunct professor at Grand Canyon University. He completed a B.A. in Philosophy at Arizona State University and M.Div. at Fuller Theological Seminary. In September 2017 he will be beginning his Ph.D. at Fuller Theological Seminary, studying under Oliver Crisp.
For more on biblical hermeneutics see: Jesus Didn’t Call God Daddy
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