On October 31, 2017, we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
I thought it would be beneficial personally to review the history and benefits of the Reformation. So I read a few articles and started watching several documents. And am looking forward to reading Eric Metaxas’ recently released biography of Luther, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the Word.
In the process, I’ve updated the following post and will in provide additional resources.
The five pillars of the Reformation
Although these 5 Solas as not listed together in succinct fashion during the time of the Reformation, they do serve as a good summary of the core beliefs that developed and propelled the Reformation.
What we do find stated by the reformers is that, “Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone.”
- Sola Scriptura Scripture alone—the Bible is to serve as the ultimate or final source of authority (2 Timothy 3:16-4:2)
- Solus Christus Christ alone—salvation is found only in Christ (John 14:6; Acts 4:11-12)
- Sola Gratia Grace alone—justification is grace alone, not based on effort/works (Ephesians 1:7)
- Sola Fide Faith alone—this justification which is by grace alone, is through faith alone (Ephesians 2:8-9)
- Soli Deo Gloria Glory to God alone—the whole of creation and all elements of the redemption process are for God’s glory (Revelation 4:11; 5:9)
Some thoughts (definitely not exhaustive) and observations, starting with Sola Scriptura.
Sola Scriptura—Scripture alone
This had to be the focus of the Reformation because so much tradition had not just been added to Scripture but replaced it.
Apart from God’s initiative to speak to us in an authoritative, reliable, and sufficient way, we would not know God in a true, objective manner. No doubt, in creating the world, God has made himself known in creation which reflects his plan (general revelation), but to know God’s plan, purposes, and will, we need a specific Word-revelation, which serves as our final and ultimate authority. (Stephen J. Wellum) 1
But is it true that we only use Scripture?
What about reason? Theology is a process of reasoning about what God has revealed. God, in His wisdom, did not give us a systematic theology text, but a revelation of Himself. Sometimes this revelation is through nature (general revelation, Psalm 19:1-6; Romans 1:18-21), sometimes through conscience (Romans 2:14-15), clearly through His Word (2 Timothy 3:16, 17; 2 Peter 1:21) and His Son (John 1:18; Hebrews 1:1-2).
The revelation through the Word is sometimes through narratives which reveals how a personal God interacts with man. These narratives are sometimes descriptive, not prescriptive. Sometimes His Word is in poetry, the language of emotion. At times through didactic, logical progressive thoughts. All these forms of revelation require us to reason. As we encounter God and His Word, we must process what we read.
A danger occurs when our logic and reason seek to determine what the text should say rather than working to understand the text. There are theological systems that are logical, but which are not biblical. That is, in order to be logical they make conclusions that can’t always be supported by Scripture, and I believe, at other times create contradictions. But those problems do not negate the need for reason.
It does not mean that other things cannot inform our theology. The Reformers quoted past theologians freely as authoritative guides. They reflected on experience and used their reason. What sola Scriptura does mean is that when we have to choose, there is only one choice we can make: Scripture alone is our ultimate authority. And in particular it is the supreme authority, in contrast to the authority of the church and its traditions. 2
But not only do we use reason, along with Scripture, we also involve tradition and experience. We never approach a biblical text without preunderstanding. We are not neutral. Everyone has presuppositions which form the basis of their thinking. While our preunderstanding can color our view of the world and the Word, the goal is not to become pre-suppositionless but pre-suppositionally self-critical. No matter how hard we try, we can’t see a text from a totally neutral perspective. But we must allow the text to mold, develop, change and correct our preunderstanding. Preunderstanding that may be caused by gender, ethnicity, culture, experience (and many more areas).
So, Scripture is the final authority, but we use reason and we have traditions and experience of which we must be aware.
These next two graphics picture how I think we develop our theological understanding. It should be founded on the Word and making a practical difference in my life. (I guess there could be things we believe, but don’t think about regularly or for which we may not have immediate applications—I’ll need to think more about that.) As I develop my theology I also evaluate my theology. My theological system should be consistent and therefore it helps me as I do exegesis. Since Scripture interprets Scripture my theology (the synthesis of my overall understanding of Scripture) helps me connect passages. But my theology should not force a passage to say something it does not say, nor ignore a challenging or difficult issue. When my exegesis and my theology are not consistent, I must evaluate both my theology and my exegesis. Sometimes admitting that there are things I can’t fully understand (the finite trying to understand the infinite). Those times I should celebrate the greatness of God and continue seeking answers.
Ideally, we should always be in the process of “doing theology.” By “doing theology” I mean that theology should not be stagnant but dynamic. Not that we are looking for ways of discarding our theology, but we are seeking to refine it. As we continue to study God’s Word and as the world changes around us, we must be able to communicate God’s truth into our world, responding to new or repackaged ideas.
God has been so gracious to give us His Word, to allow us to know Him–but it’s not just for us, or for a mental exercise, but ultimately for His glory.
May God be our passion, His Word our priority and His glory our purpose.
There are four other Solas, we’ll get back to them in later posts.
- Stephen J. Wellum, Editorial: Remembering the Reformation by Reflecting on its Solas, The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, Vol. 19, Num 4, Winter 2015
- Michael Reeves and Tim Chester, Why the Reformation Still Matters, (Wheaton Ill: Crossway, 2016, p. 41)