(The first three are earlier, and were especially important to differentiate Reformation beliefs from those of the mediaeval Roman Catholic church; the fourth and fifth added during the 20th century to express Evangelical belief more fully.)
The historical context: The Roman Catholic church had tended to suppress Scripture (deeming it too complex for the ordinary person to understand) and had made itself the authority. Over the centuries, this had led to oppression and departure from the gospel of Christ, and the Reformers wanted to get back to their source. Interpretation of Scripture should come from other places in Scripture ("comparing scripture with scripture") rather than from church tradition or pronouncements.
Why it makes sense: 'By Scripture alone' makes sense because of the vagaries of church interpretations. The Reformers held that Scripture can only be interpreted by reference to other parts of Scripture, that Scripture is an harmonious whole, which alone enables humanity to understand aright God, and the way to God, and what God requires.
In conjunction with this, the Reformers set great importance on the ordinary person being having access to Scripture and being able to interpret it for themselves, and discover things about God and life for themselves, rather than these being circumscribed by church authorities.
So "Sola Scriptura" became one of the watchwords of the Reformation.
But slogans like this are usually over-simplified, however, and as discussed below, the meaning of this needs to be deepened in two ways.
The historical context: The mediaeval Roman Catholic church, at root agreed with this, but it held that, once saved, a person could merit higher things. The Reformers rejected this.
Why it makes sense: 'By grace alone' makes sense: suppose some human beings actually deserved to be right with God, actually deserved through their moral stature or their strenuous courageous efforts, to enter God's Presence on their own terms. Then they would be in a psoition to boast "I got here by my own deserts; you needed grace; I am superior to you." To me, that would turn heaven into a kind of hell. But if nobody deserves it, then nobody there can boast, and all must be thankful.
But what is 'grace'? The Reformers also held to the idea of 'common grace', so where does this fit in? The idea of 'By grace alone' is not as simple as we might think, as discussed below. It is tied up with the question "What is salvation?" To the Reformers, it meant being juridically made right with God in a juridical sense, but Scripture indicates more dimensions to it, as discussed below. Are not the good things of life also by grace, common grace. Maybe we need to see salvation as not only of souls but also of the entire creation.
The historical context: The mediaeval Roman Catholic church offered several ways to obtain salvation or various types of grace: by various sacraments, especially baptism and the Mass, by buying indulgences, by saying the Rosary, by doing penance, and various others. The Reformers were particularly keen on distinguishing faith from 'works'. Similar may be said about the five Pillars of Islam.
Why it makes sense: 'By faith alone' makes sense for various reasons. (1) Nobody is excluded, because faith (of the kind meant here, as an inner response or attitude) is possible everyone, whatever mental or physical capacity or economic or social status. (2) All our efforts are as nothing before God, just as any finite number is 'nothing' when compared with infinity. (3) The various Roman Catholic actions need to be 'done', and it is possible for people to miss out, also, many of them require an ordained priest to officiate; by contrast, faith is a transaction directly with God, that is almost outwith time.
But, as Scripture makes clear, faith is not so divorced from 'works' as the Reformers liked to think. Also, faith has been besmirched somewhat by people who claim faith behaving in atrocious ways, or seemingly turning to God at the end of an evil life. See below.
The historical context: The mediaeval Roman Catholic church holds that only ordained priests can serve the sacraments that are necessary for salvation, and holds that their priests are ordained by bishops who are in an 'apostolic succession', which is a contested idea. The Roman Catholic church also elevated Mary as being active in our salvation, e.g. as interceding with womanly compassion to her kingly son, Jesus. Also, some versions give a role to angels as channels of grace in addition to Christ.
Why it makes sense: Christ Himself, as God, is his own priest. He mediates himself. This makes priests and other mediators unnecessary. The apostolic succession is contested, and seems too trivial a thread for such a weighty thing as the salvation of the world to hand on. That God Himself is his own mediator is commensurate with the Biblical idea of a God who wants to engage with His Creation. The Roman Catholic ideas might also open the way to the idea that Christ is reluctant to save, and 'needs' another to intercede.
But the Reformers' idea of 'By Christ alone' applies to only one dimension of salvation and reduces the role of the Holy Spirit of Christ, as discussed below.
The second meaning is that our salvation is for the glory of God, and for no other purpose. This comes from the Old Testament statement via the prophets that God saved Israel "Only for my glory". The Westminster Catechism's "The sole purpose of humankind is to glorify God and enjoy him forever" is an expression of this.
The historical context: The mediaeval Roman Catholic church gave glory to Mary, some saints and others in addition to Christ. The Reformers disliked the tendency to venerate saints and holy people, and also to elevate 'spiritual' roles above more mundane ones. However, the Roman Catholic church today, in the Second Vatican Council, declared that glory is only to God.
Why it makes sense: Ultimately, God is the only source of goodness, of holiness, of salvation. So everything good has its ultimate source in God. So all glory goes to God.
But the second meaning, that the sole purpose of salvation is to glorify God, might be true, but it does not exhaust all that Scripture tells us. There are purposes of love as well as glory, as discussed below.
Example: John 10, the good shepherd (Jesus Christ) leads the sheep to pasture.
I Peter 5:2 "Be shepherds of God's flock".
Deduction: church leaders should lead and the members should follow, and not question, because all of God's will and truth comes via the leader.
That way of thinking is very popular with leaders, making the leaders mistake their own ideas or desires or aspirations for "What God told me". That deduction makes leadership more interested in what God is doing among themselves, and less what God is doing among the people, which is often suppressed. It also reinforces the world's false assumption that church leadership is only a power-play.
We need to recognise that when Jesus was speaking (to opponents) he was reminding them of Ezekiel 34 and the promise of God as the good shepherd, while when Peter was writing, he was urging humility and care by the leaders rather than to assume that God speaks only via leaders.
When we "compare scripture with scripture" we must always be aware of the difference context, and always be cautious about the deduction that emerges. Doing this can be assisted by the second problem or deepening.
Second, do we really live by Sola Scriptura? Do we not, in practice, take testimony into account alongside Scripture? Testimony: accounts of how God has interacted with people. Does not Scripture itself support this view, in that "the word of their testimony" proved very important?
For example, it is when I hear of George Müller taking God at His word, about supplying all our needs, that I am motivated to do likewise, and to believe, about God, that He will always supply what is needed if we are in His will. Though I can find Scriptures that back this up, I would probably not have interpreted them quite so literally. It is not the fact that some interpret them literally that convinces me to do the same, but that I hear that it 'worked' in George Müller's life, and did so consistently.
Likewise, is Scripture really the sole source for our doctrine? Does not our worldview or ground-motive steer us to interpret Scripture in certain ways?
For example, in The Transforming Vision, Walsh & Middleton cite Matthew 24:40-41 "Two men will be working in one field; one will be taken, the other left ..." They then ask "Who is taken, who is left?" and most readers answer in their minds "Christ's people are taken up into heaven; the wicked are left on earth." The authors then point to the link with Noah, where it is the wicked who are taken, and suggest that in fact it is the righteous who are left on earth, to populate the renewed earth. The authors point out that it is our worldview presuppositions, inherited ultimately from the pagan Greeks, that cause us to interpret the Scripture in a way that is obviously against what Jesus was meaning. If you dispute their interpretation, then look at your own motivation for so doing: is it not that you have held this very presupposition?
There are many interpretations of Scripture that we make, to generate our doctrines, which are affected unknowingly by our presuppositions more than we think.
The Dutch Christian philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd , argued that all our thinking is rooted in presuppositions, and can never be neutral, and Roy Clouser expands on this, saying that it must be so if we are not to treat Reason as Divine.
So, if both experience and presuppositions are active alongside Scripture, in our understanding of it, is this still Sola Scriptura? I believe it is, for two reasons.
We can say that all goodness, and not just salvation, and not even just moral goodness, is ultimately 'by grace alone'. It might be that if, because of thankfulness to Christ, I am good, and that stimulates another person to be good, and so on, and so there are human agents of goodness. But the original source of all that goodness is God.
Whereas in Sola Scriptura I argued that experience and presuppositions are active in the interpretation of Scripture, in Sola Gratia, I have argued that grace is not just for salvation, but for all goodness in the world, in all its aspects.
This becomes clearer if we see justification as only one dimension of salvation, alongside sanctification and being salt and light in God's creation, as argued in Three Dimensional Salvation.
1. Relationship to works. Paul argues that it was by his faith that Abraham was justified, especially in Romans, and as I have shown above, it makes sense. But James argues against that. He says that it was by his works that Abraham was justified. Is Scripture contradicting itself here? Or should we exclude James from Scripture? I believe there is no need for either, but rather, if taken together, they inform us what faith is that is 'alone' the entry to salvation.
If we assume salvation has only the one dimension of justification, and ignore the other two, then they seem contradictory. But if we recognise the other two dimensions of salvation too, of experience of God here and now, and of shepherding the creation and world (see Three Dimensional Salvation), then faith is the only way to achieve sustainable good works, and faith will always result in such works because of the activity of the Holy Spirit in the believer, and because God's Plan is not just justification of souls, but that God will have 'sons' for whom creation is eagerly awaiting. If someone claims faith and this is not accompanied by works then it is probably not saving faith.
2. Faith as heart attitude. In other Scriptures, including I Samuel and the gospels and Romans, it becomes clear that what God values is not assent nor actions as such, but attitude of heart. Is it not an attitude of heart that is open to God, humble and flexible, that is what Scripture means by faith that saves?
These two come together when we recognise that salvation in God's full plan is not just salvation of souls, not just being filled with the Holy Spirit, but is so that those who are like their Father treat the Creation aright, and bless it self-sacrifically like the good shepherd who lays down his own life for the sheep.
However, if we interpret Sola Deo Gloria to mean that the sole purpose of salvation is the glory of God, then Scripture shows us that that is too narrow. There are several purposes of, or reasons behind, salvation, including God's love and compassion for all He has made, and to enable human beings to regain their creational mandate (as the Holy Spirit grows his fruit in us so that we become mature 'sons' of God for whom Creation eagerly awaits; see Five Rs). Of course, God deserves and receives glory from this, but his Love means that that was not his primary purpose. The kind of glory that is meaningful to God is not that which He has planned for himself, but that which comes spontaneously from creatures when they realise the grace and glory and surprising rightness of what God does. See, for example, my small reflection on the doxology that are the final verses of Romans 9-11.
However, today, now we acknowledge that God's full salvation has further dimensions -- immediate experience of God here and now, and responsibility of the 'sons of God' for the rest of creation -- the Five Solae, though still valid and important, need deepening in their meaning.
This page is offered to God as on-going work in developing a 'New View' in theology that is appropriate to the days that are coming upon us. Comments, queries welcome.
Copyright (c) Andrew Basden to latest date below, but you may use this material subject to certain conditions.
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Created: 9 August 2015. Last updated: 22 August 2015 added conclusion, and rewrote some parts; 'solae' r.t. 'solas'. 29 August 2015 scriptural arithmetic.