Our Feature on the Solas
The 16th – century reformers—Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Knox and others—were derisively nicknamed, “the Sola – ists.” They distilled the essence of the gospel in five Latin slogans using the word sola, meaning only, solely or exclusively: sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura, solo Christo, soli Deo gloria (grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone, Christ alone, to God’s glory alone).
Today the solas of early Protestantism run up against other realities and claims: What does it mean to say “Christ alone” in a multi – religious world? How does scripture alone square with contemporary thought about biblical interpretation? And so on. So, are we still sola – ists today?
Scripture alone—this has been one of the ringing proclamations upon which the Protestant world has built the basis of its understanding of the Christian faith. The 66 books of the Old and New Testaments recognized by Protestants have been understood to be the rule of faith and life—not church councils or ancient creeds, not pronouncements of bishops or conclaves. Through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Bible is to be interpreted by reference to itself. It is the witness of the whole canon and not bits and pieces chosen at random that opens to us our understanding of God.
Historically, Protestants have understood the revelation of God in Christ to be the high point of that revelatory stream and thus the New Testament becomes a kind of linchpin in determining the sense of the rest of the scriptures. Unfortunately, this is where problems arise. If the Holy Spirit guides those who seek after God through the scriptures, why is it that there are approximately 30,000 denominations of Protestants in the United States alone, all maintaining that their interpretations of scripture are correct, and many differing so widely from each other that a visitor from outer space would wonder whose scriptures they were talking about? From the wildest fundamentalists to the most extreme radical textual critic, the understandings and positions they take are so dissimilar that one is required to ask: “Whose scriptures are we talking about?”
When Luther and other Reformers demanded that the Bible be made available to the laity in their own language, they firmly believed that these inspired scriptures, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the leadership of Reformed theologians, would break Christians free from the authority of the medieval church with its suspect practices, such as the use of indulgences for the remission of sins. It wasn’t long before even these leaders of reform began attacking other Christians, such as the Anabaptists, on the basis of what Luther and Calvin determined were wrong interpretations of scripture. This understanding of how we are to interpret scripture has always been the Sword of Damocles hanging over the head of the concept sola scriptura. For what might be termed orthodox Protestants, sola scriptura has never been understood to mean that any single Christian’s interpretation of scripture is as good as any other’s. As our own Living Faith puts it: “Both Old and New Testaments were written within communities of faith and accepted as scripture by them. Those who seek to understand the Bible need to stand within the church and listen to its teaching.” (Living Faith, 5.3)
Which raises another point. In the first four centuries of the church’s life, there was not just one community of faith. There were numbers of them and they did not all agree on what constituted “scripture.” By the time of the Reformation, Protestants accepted the Old Testament that had been canonized by Jewish scholars in the second century CE. Thus today there are three main canons of the Old Testament: the 39 books of the Jewish Tanakh and Protestant churches, the 46 accepted by Roman Catholics and the 51 accepted by most Orthodox churches. (And Anglicans sit on the fence between the Protestants and Roman Catholics.) Consequently, if it is sola scriptura, whose scriptura are we talking about?
There is a school of theological thought that runs under the name of the Jesus Seminar whose members attempt to discover the “historical Jesus” hidden, as they maintain, beneath the words of the four gospels. They seek to determine which parts of the gospels are the original stories and which are accretions of later church theology. Consequently, they depart from the general approach to New Testament interpretation by weeding out segments they claim are not historically accurate to Jesus’ time. (Similar questions were asked in the first centuries of the church’s existence.)
It really is a bit of a muddle to the average Christian. However, one needs to recognize that even those who want to take a radical view of Christianity are forced to deal with these canonical books. We may differ in our understandings about what the Christian faith is all about in reference to our understanding of God, of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but no matter what we believe we are forced to recognize that, like it or not, it is the 66 books that compose our Bible that have to be dealt with. We may argue about interpretation. Some may even want to dismember some of them (even Luther wanted to get rid of the Epistle of James) but one way or another, these are the books that frame our faith.