Through the Eyes of the Five Solas

Introduction

   The Reformation represents a tremendous breach of social, economic, and political norms in its day. In doing so, it threw entire areas into chaos, indeed, most of Europe’s social, economic, and political structures were challenged by it. The Reformation happened at a time when the Renaissance, the new humanism, and corruption within the papacy had already weakened the hold of status quo Christianity throughout Europe. The shift in thinking centers around the role ecclesial authority plays in matters of faith, social, economic, and political systems. For most of a millennium prior to the Reformation, the church had dominated faith, social, economic, and political systems. When speaking of the Reformation, it seems best to work from the impact it had on doctrine within the faith outward to how that change impacted society at large. Exploring the impact of the five Solas of the Reformation[1] within the faith community will not only show the fundamental shift in thinking about Authority, Salvation, Worship and Justification within the church, but also the epoch changing impact on the culture at large.

Authority

   The doctrine of Sola Scriptura is that Scripture is the sole infallible rule, authority, of faith for the church. Martin Luther was a churchman. He enjoyed the rank of professor and the privilege that came with ordination. In an age where the world was just Christian, the clergy enjoyed a place of power. Luther first set his eyes on a doctrine within the church that he judged to unbiblical, the doctrine of indulgences. In the 95 theses, which proved to be the spark of the Reformation, Luther was primally in concerned with the idea of merit[2] and how that merit is applied to the believer. However, by 1521, just four years after the 95 theses were posted, as Luther made his iconic stand at the trial in Worms, the issue of authority had become central. Luther’s position on the authority of popes and councils had been established in a debate in 1519 with John Eck in which Luther stated “A council may sometimes err. Neither the church nor the pope can establish articles of faith. These must come from Scripture.”[3] When Luther questions the issue of papal authority based on disagreements within “popes and councils” he is most likely referring to the period of 1309 to 1376 when there were as many as three people claiming the title of Pontiff Maximus. It is important to note here the Luther was not first papal critic,[4] John Wycliffe (1320~ to 1384) and John Huss (1369 – 1415) among others had proceeded Luther. However, the fact that Luther was the first to successfully challenges the papal carte blanche shows how greatly the papal authority had been undermined by the events of 1309 to 1376 and the general impact of the Renaissance emphasis on education. The impact of Luther challenging the papal authority had implications for society at large. Luther was declared an outlaw by Rome, yet monarchs stood in defiance of Rome to protect him. The result of the break down of Rome’s authority was 30 years of bloody conflict[5] between Protestants and Roman Catholics: fighting in the streets of Europe. The challenge to papal authority not only helped to birth the Protestant movement and shake the foundations of ecclesial authority over secular governments, but also within Rome’s counter Reformation there were stirrings. Worcester points out that the council of Trent said very little about papal authority because even within Roman Catholic ranks it was a disputed issue.[6]

Salvation

   Just as Sola Scriptura is a doctrine that necessitated a challenge to traditional authority structures, the doctrines of faith, grace, and Christ alone (sola Fide, Gratia, and Christus) represented a fundamental change in understanding Salvation. The doctrines simply put are that salvation is by faith alone, given by grace alone, no one can merit it, and through the work of Christ alone. The church had long taught that the sacraments administered by the church were the way in which a person would merit salvation. An example of this is pointed out by Woodbridge and Frank III when they wrote, “At the heart of medieval Catholicism was the sacrament of penance, which sometimes is called the “second plank of salvation.”[7] There is more to add to this conversation in the section on justification. For now, it is important to understand that with the shaking of confidence in ecclesial authority also came the lack of confidence that the church could lead a person to salvation. If a man could not trust a priest, answers would need to be found in scripture alone; the common man must have the scripture. The post death cremation of John Wycliffe and the execution of William Tyndale had clearly outlined Rome’s position on Bible translations in the common language. Rome’s position on the scripture being translated into the vernacular remained fixed until the second half of the 1900s.

Worship

   Soli Deo Gloria, for the glory of God alone, became the next cornerstone of Reformation doctrine. This sola is primarily about the purpose of the saint. The Westminster divines expressed this sola as the first questions in the shorter catechism.[8] The new Protestant faith had to wrestle with just how to define worship and the Reformers took different positions on the subject. Calvin held to a strict vision of worship “that the public worship that God once prescribed is still in force.”[9] In other words Calvin prohibited any form of worship not prescribed in the text of scripture. Biblically ignorant worship appalled Luther;[10] however, Luther’s approach was based on excluding that which the Bible prohibits. The starkest contrasts between the Reformation and Roman Catholicism came there understanding of the place the sacraments had in worship. Calvin envisioned the sacraments as having “the purpose of confirming and sealing the promise itself,”[11] the promise being salvation. While the Roman Catholic system applied the sacraments as a means of doing meritorious acts. The conclusion is that the new Protestant movement held that worship was for glorifying God alone, while the Roman Catholic tradition had worship as a place for people to meritoriously participate in salvation.

Theology of Justification by Faith

   It must be made clear that the difference between the Reformers and Rome was not over justification by faith. Both sides believed in justification by faith. The tipping point was the word alone. Rome’s tradition was that “[i]t was necessary for the sinner to provide some sort of penance to remove the temporal effects of sin.”[12] While Reformers like Calvin stressed the singleness of faith in the economy of salvation. Ephesians 2:8-9, by grace, through faith, not works, was the formula that Reformation adopted as a result of placing authority in Scripture alone. Luther as early has 1513 had already rejected the “treasury of merit”[13] as a means of salvation and the other Reformers shared Luther’s view. Calvin said, “… for men cursed under the law there remains, in faith, one sole means of recovering salvation.”[14] Both Calvin and Luther held to the “Augustinian reading of the apostle Paul”[15] that not only was salvation a gracious gift from God, but the faith required for salvation was also given by God in so much that God was the sole actor in the salvation of His people.

Conclusion

   There were epoch changes that happened because of the events of the Reformation. The changes were not without blood, and the seeds of it were sown in the Renaissances and in the corruption that had seeped into the Roman Catholic church over the previous centuries. As the hammer fell in Wittenberg, on that fateful day in 1517, not even Martin Luther could have known the far-reaching implications of his 95 theses. In challenging the authority structures of the Roman Catholic Church, Luther forced everyone to re-evaluate what it meant to be saved, worship and what place faith has in the justification. Looking through the lens of the Reformation Solas is the best way to evaluate the impact that the Reformation had all the structures of society: faith, social, economic, and political.

 

 

 

 

[1]. Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Sola Scriptura, Solus Christus, Soli Deo Gloria (Faith, Grace, Scripture, Christ and God’s Glory alone).

[2]. John Woodbridge, and James A. Frank III. 2013. Church History, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 113

[3]. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Updated 2nd ed. (Dallas, Tex.: Word Pub., 1995), 241.

[4]. GCU Lecture “HTH-511 Topic 3 Overview.pdf”, 2019, Grand Canyon University. Retrieved from https://lms-grad.gcu.edu

[5]. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Updated 2nd ed. (Dallas, Tex.: Word Pub., 1995), 301.

[6]. Thomas Worcester. 2014. “Trent: What Happened at the Council.” Church History, no. 2: 482. https://lopes.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsgao&AN=edsgcl.373164829&site=eds-live&scope=site

[7]. John Woodbridge, and James A. Frank III. 2013. Church History, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 112.

[8]. BPC Shorter Catechism Project: Matthew Henry, , accessed February 21, 2019, http://www.shortercatechism.com/resources/wsc/wsc_001.html.

[9]. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 367.

[10]. Mark Rogers, “‘Deliver Us from the Evil One’: Martin Luther on Prayer,” Themelios 34, no. 3 (2009): 344.

[11] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 1278.

[12]. John Woodbridge, and James A. Frank III. 2013. Church History, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 113.

[13]. John Woodbridge, and James A. Frank III. 2013. Church History, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 113.

[14]. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 725.

[15]. John Woodbridge, and James A. Frank III. 2013. Church History, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 116.

 

Bibliography

 

BPC Shorter Catechism Project: Matthew Henry. Accessed February 21, 2019. http://www.shortercatechism.com/resources/wsc/wsc_001.html.

GCU Lecture “HTH-511 Topic 3 Overview.pdf”, , Grand Canyon University. Retrieved from https://lms-grad.gcu.edu, 2019.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2. Edited by John T. McNeill. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. Vol. 1. The Library of Christian Classics. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.

Rogers, Mark. “‘Deliver Us from the Evil One’: Martin Luther on Prayer.” Themelios 34, no. 3 (2009).

Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language. Updated 2nd ed. Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995.

Worcester, Thomas. 2014. “Trent: What Happened at the Council.” Church History, no. 2: 482. https://lopes.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsgao&AN=edsgcl.373164829&site=eds-live&scope=site

Woodbridge, John, and Frank A. James, III. Church History, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013.

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