Reflections on The 5 Solas: Sola Scriptura
The 5 Solas are the basic tenets held by Protestants over against the theology and practice of the Roman Catholic Church. They are as follows:
- Sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”)
- Sola fide (“by faith alone”)
- Sola gratia (“by grace alone”)
- Solus Christus or Solo Christo (“Christ alone” or “through Christ alone”)
- Soli Deo gloria (“glory to God alone”)
Since I’m spending a fair amount of time these days questioning the historical validity of my Protestant roots I thought I should reflect on the 5 Solas and consider my own attitude to each. I’ve been a little busy recently and so my reflections are admittedly only a first attempt at discovering my thoughts on the subject. I’ll start with Sola scriptura and work my way down over the next few weeks.
I’ve had a long-standing relationship with reading the Bible. Even during my teenage years in which I rebelled against mainline Christianity I continued to read the Bible. I interpreted it first through Rastafarian eyes, then through Hindu eyes and eventually it become some kind of New Age oracle.
When I eventually accepted the truth of Christianity and felt Jesus draw me back to Himself I simply assumed that all would be well and I would understand the Bible and Christianity without issue. Nothing could be further from the truth.
From the very outset of my walk with Christ I was tormented by different interpretations of the Bible and what those interpretations meant in practical terms for my faith and practice. Did the Bible allow or condemn the modern outpouring of spiritual gifts? Were all interpretations of the Bible valid or was the King James the only Authorized Version? Did the Bible teach the doctrine of the Trinity or was Christ somehow less than God the Father? Did the Bible indicate a suspension of Jewish Law or should the keeping of the law continue under Grace. Does the Bible teach a symbolic understanding of communion or a sacramental understanding? Does the Bible indicate that the church should be hierarchical or de-centralized? Is salvation by grace alone or do works influence the outcome?
The list could go on and on so I’ll end it with just one more…
…Does the Bible even consider itself Authoritative?
I remember during college a number of students became disillusioned with the teaching that the Bible considers itself authoritative since the New Testament did not even exist when the texts of the New Testament were written. Therefore passages like 2 Timothy 3:16 (All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness) should not be used to uphold the teachings of the New Testament since it was not speaking of the New Testament when it was written.
With all this confusion over interpretation and claims of authority it has become ever clearer to me that the Bible is not as easily understandable and self-interpreting as the Reformers taught it to be. The history of the church post-Reformation is the clearest example of this fact…while there had been schisms and breaks with the official teaching of the church before, at no time did it fracture into the thousands of interpretations we have today.
This fact nearly caused me to disregard the bible completely. I went through a phase in which I considered my own experience and sense of right and wrong to be the sole guide in my walk with God. But through this phase I felt God leading me back to the bible and emphasizing the importance of scripture. But coming back to the bible still left me with the problem of interpretation.
Historically the church taught that the Bible can only be interpreted by Apostolic Tradition. In other words the early church was responsible for recording and passing down the teachings of the Apostles. As a community the church was responsible for safe-guarding the faith and guiding its’ beliefs and practices. As its’ leaders the clergy were the one’s given the ministerial duty of carrying out this mission for the one body of Christ. When the Catholic and Orthodox talk about Apostolic Tradition it is this historical ministry to which they refer.
Whether one accepts this or not it is true that tradition played an important role in the churches formation and growth for 1500 years. Since that time it has become acceptable or unavoidable that each person follows his own interpretation resulting in disunity and a plethora of views.
When I was first confronted with the disunity of Protestant Christianity one of my first reactions was to consider what the Church Fathers taught and practiced. Only after this assumed solution to the problem was I taught that Protestants don’t do that because we don’t believe that the Early Church Fathers can be trusted. Currently I’ve decided to take up that initial investigation and I’m reading Clement, Ignatius and Eusebius and will continue to read other church Fathers as well. My initial thoughts on what I’ve read so far is that Catholic and Orthodox understandings of theology and practice can already be seen in the generation following after the Apostles.
Did the church really take such a radical departure from the teachings of the 12? Or might it be that the church in following the teachings of the 12 continued to grow and develop in exactly the way Jesus intended it too?