Theology in 3D

Celebrating the Solas, Part 1: Sola Scriptura

Layton Talbert | October 19, 2017
New Testament, Theology

I actually have something in common with Britain’s former Iron Lady, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: a favorite TV series. “Yes, Minister” and its sequel “Yes, Prime Minister,” a 1980s British political comedy featuring brilliant scriptwriting and superb delivery, was the former Prime Minister’s favorite show. No canned laughter here; all the episodes were filmed in front of a live audience. (But stick with the originals; the attempt to revive the series with a different cast several years later flopped.) A line in one of the episodes runs something like this: “The first thing you have to do when you want to rubbish someone is to express total support for them. You must be seen to be their friend. After all, it’s necessary to get behind someone before you can stab them in the back.”

It’s a clever expression of human nature, whether in politics, business, or any other field. But it’s a practiced and perfected strategy of Satan as well. Outright frontal opposition to truth is not nearly so effective as initial agreement, followed by the incremental accretion of additional elements which, in time, come to dominate and drown out the original truth.

Introducing the Solas

Protestants are remembering the 5 Solas of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Solus Christus, Soli Deo Gloria. The substantives in those celebrated slogans are the weight-bearing words —Scripture, Grace, Faith, Christ, God’s Glory. The sola is the indispensable qualifier, the reminder that none of these essentials were newly discovered by the Reformers, merely rescued—rescued from impotence, drowning in a sea of accretions that fundamentally distorted each truth.

Five core truths lay at the heart of the Reformation because they lay at the heart of how to be put right with God:

  • Scripture: the ultimate authority on salvation
  • Grace: the basis of salvation
  • Christ: the agent of salvation
  • Faith: the means of salvation
  • God’s Glory: the motive of salvation

How were those truths overshadowed and corrupted over time and to such an extent that a Reformation was necessary?

  • Scripture was superseded by tradition. The church came to teach that because tradition is older and more complete than Scripture, tradition is more authoritative than Scripture itself.
  • Grace was swallowed up by merit—someone else’s merit, like Mary and other human saints who were, despite their humanness, so superhumanly holy that all their excess good works may be accessed and dispensed to help the vast majority of ordinary people like us get a little closer to heaven. Accessed and dispensed by whom?
  • Christ was supplanted by the church as the necessary mediator between man and Christ. The priesthood, baptism, communion, confession—all these became necessary avenues to mediate the benefits of Christ and the merits of other saints to us. And because of the man-centeredness of all these previous distortions of original truth…
  • Faith was overshadowed by works. Works were theoretically necessary to get you to heaven, but in reality they were barely enough to keep you out of hell and usher you instead into centuries of purgatory to cleanse you from sin for which the sacrifice was apparently inadequate.
  • God’s glory was, therefore, eclipsed by human achievement—our necessary contribution to our own salvation.

This being but a blogpost, I can sketch only the broadest outline of the subject.

Sola Scriptura

If there is one book of the Bible more than any other out of whose soil sprang the Reformation, it would have to be Paul’s letter to the Romans. In the 16 chapters of Romans you will find 16 occurrences of a phrase that captures the gist of sola scripturaas it is written. Paul appeals to that phrase repeatedly to ground every doctrine, exhortation, and application not in reason, or tradition, or the words of any man, but in the written words of God. In the Gospels, even the Son of God repeatedly makes the same appeal to the definitive authority of Scripture, usually via the very same phrase (as it is written), on at least two dozen different occasions (not including parallel passages, or the Evangelists’ own references to the OT). Jesus never appealed to any rabbinical tradition to settle any point of doctrine or practice, only to demonstrate their own inconsistency and hypocrisy in condemning his teachings and actions.

A sextet of scriptural claims and characteristics make the Scripture unique: (1) inspiration—its source is divine (2 Tim 3:162 Pet 1:20-21); (2) inerrancy—its contents are incapable of error (Num 23:19Tit 1:2); (3) infallibility—its assertions cannot fail to be realized (Isa 55:10-11John 10:35); (4) perspicuity—its message is understandable (Deut 30:11-14Rom 10:6-9); (5) sufficiency—its guidance for our faith and practice is adequate (2 Tim 3:14-17); and (6) authority—its pronouncements are normative (Heb 4:12).

“Scripture alone is the true lord and master of all writings and doctrine on earth,” said Luther. “If that is not granted, what is Scripture good for?” Does that mean we may not use creeds and catechisms and commentators and church traditions? By no means. Protestantism has always valued such sources, but only as secondary theological norms which are, themselves, sourced in and subject to the ultimate authority of Scripture alone. The problem the Reformers confronted was a church hierarchy that had come to regard Scripture and tradition “as coequal norms”—at least theoretically. In reality, tradition was regarded as the primary norm.

I grew up Catholic in Charleston, SC—as an altar boy, no less. I still have in my possession a Dec. 4, 1960 copy of “The Catholic Banner” (“Official Newspaper of the Diocese of Charleston”). Actually, it was my mother’s; I was not quite 11 months old at the time, and not much of a reader yet. In it is an article on “The Catholic Attitude toward the Bible” by Rev. Martin Schoenberg (a Professor of Scripture in Ft. Wayne, IN) who presented three reasons that “tradition is more important than the Bible”: (1) “because it is more complete” than the Bible; (2) “because it is a necessary means toward understanding the Bible”; and (3) “because it is prior to” the Bible.

The gist of sola scriptura is not, “Only Scripture is an acceptable source,” but “Only Scripture is the ultimate and final authority”—of all other authorities, of all ecclesiastical doctrines, and of all human interpreters (John 12:48-49). Any idea, observance, ritual, or practice—if it is not consistent with Scripture it has no authority, and if it contradicts or conflicts with Scripture it is to be rejected. Scripture—and in the final analysis only Scripture—is the norm, the standard, the rule for faith and practice, the guide for what we believe, how we worship, and how we live.

Photo Credit: Isaac Talbert

2 responses to “Celebrating the Solas, Part 1: Sola Scriptura”

  1. Fabulous write-up. Thanks! Was interested to see you used to live in Charleston. I have enjoyed living in the greater Charleston area for a little over 25 years.

  2. […] the Reformers proclaimed that only Scripture is the final authority for faith and practice. Sola scriptura has often been called the “formal principle” of the Reformation because it identifies […]

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