By Graham Glover –
Grace Alone – Faith Alone – Scripture Alone.
These are the three great “Solas” of the 16th century Protestant Reformation and the theological foundations of those communions that remain separated from the Roman Catholic Church. For those who adhere to the teachings of the reformers, one is saved by grace alone through faith alone, with scripture alone being the only rule and norm for Christian doctrine.
As a Lutheran pastor one would expect that I too would extol these reformation solas. I most certainly concur that one is forgiven and ultimately given eternal life solely by the grace of God in Christ Jesus. So too do I believe that this grace is given to us without any merit of our own. In other words, it is ours solely through faith in the Triune God – a faith freely given to us by the Holy Spirit in Holy Baptism and/or through the proclamation of the Gospel message. However, I am increasingly skeptical that God’s grace and the faith I have in Him is ruled solely by the Holy Scriptures.
On its own, even with the emphasis of grace and faith alone – I’m not sure that scripture alone will ever be enough to norm my faith.
It’s no wonder that the 16th century reformers emphasized the centrality of the scriptures. Any theologian of Christian history must recognize that there were “issues” within the western church during the time of the reformation. Among other things, the abuses surrounding the selling of indulgences, the comingling and confusion of church and state, and an over emphasis on trusting in things outside of our Risen Lord, required the church to reorient herself to the central message of our faith – that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. To combat these abuses, the reformers sought to find a common ground on which Christendom could unite. So, they turned to the teachings of the Holy Scriptures in their effort to reorient – to reform the church. If the reformers thought a church teaching or practice was in contradiction to the principal that we are justified by grace through faith, they sought to correct it through the words of the scriptures, which they believed were the sole rule and norm of all Christian doctrine.
Simple, right? Just teach what the Word of God says. This is all we Christians need to do.
Grace alone works because it focuses us on Christ, who alone gives us the grace we need to be forgiven and saved. Faith alone works because it focuses us on Christ, the only author and perfecter of our faith. To be sure, these things are proclaimed in the scriptures. But God’s grace is not dependent on the scriptures. Our faith is not given by the scriptures. Grace and faith come through Christ. And Christ is much bigger than the Holy Scriptures.
This is why scripture alone fails. It fails because it focuses us not on Christ, but on what we want Christ to be and how we want to interpret what God has revealed to us. Scripture alone will never be enough because we can’t read the scriptures or understand them outside that which gave them to us in the first place, namely the church, the very Bride of Christ. It’s not scripture that rules and norms our Christian doctrine, it’s the church, to whom the scriptures were given and through whom they are rightly interpreted. What is the church? Well, that’s another topic and another article…But this much is true, scripture alone is not enough. It wasn’t enough for the church prior to the reformation. Try as they did, it wasn’t enough for the reformers. And it hasn’t been enough for Christendom for the past 500 years.
The theological foundation of scripture alone is ultimately one of the seminal failures of the reformers. Again, it’s easy to understand why they made this move. To fix dissension, the reformers had to find a common ground on which all parties could theoretically unite. But their noble effort fails because one cannot know Christ without the church. This same church cannot exist without Christ. It is Christ alone. The same Christ that gave us His Bride to proclaim His Gospel, offer His Sacraments, and be the means of His means of grace.
To piggyback on a recent theme here at The Jagged Word, we Christians are called to deliver the goods of Christ. These goods are found first in His Church, through whom we are given the Holy Scriptures. To deliver the goods is to be ruled and normed by the one holy catholic and apostolic church – which is the true source of all Christian doctrine.