The Seven Solas: Toward Reconciling Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic Perspectives
by Bruce Atkinson, Ph.D.
December 31, 2009
The Five Solas Those among us who have studied Reformation theology are familiar with the "Five Solas" that codify the doctrines of grace as they apply to salvation. Evangelicals in general believe that the solas are essential to understanding true Christianity and some even assert that believing them is essential for salvation itself.
1 - Sola scriptura ("by Scripture alone") 2 - Sola fide ("by faith alone") 3 - Sola gratia ("by grace alone") 4 - Solus Christus or Solo Christo ("through Christ alone") 5 - Sola Deo gloria ("glory to God alone")
I have always regarded these distilled teachings of the reformers as undeniably true. It is easy to find scriptures to back them up. However, they also have seemed incomplete, not providing the full picture of the process of salvation. I believe that the incompleteness has created conflict in the universal Church. This situation should not be surprising, since these solas were formed in the first place in the midst of conflict, in order to protest the errors of the Roman Catholic Church.
Why did the reformers need to add the word 'alone' to each of these elements? How can any of them be 'alone' when there are five? It seems clear to me that the 'alone' is there for only one purpose-to exclude certain other options that were believed to be heretical. The solas are a sort of creed that helped the reformers stand firm in their doctrine and save souls. Thus we have: faith alone (versus works), scripture alone (versus other sources of knowledge), grace alone (versus anything we can do), Christ alone (versus any other authority), and God's glory alone (versus anyone or anything that would take credit for our salvation and sanctification).
It seems evident to me that the existing five solas bypass a couple of other important principles taught by Jesus and the writers of the NT. The reason why these principles were ignored by the reformers also seems evident; they were not helpful in their goal of condemning the Roman Church. I think it likely that, in their need to protest the RCC errors (which they did need to do), many of the reformers became somewhat theologically unbalanced.
In this article, I propose adding two solas to the five-to make seven. These two additional elements of the salvation process are clearly present in the scriptures and in the Church's 2000+ years of experience. I expect radical Calvinists to protest the article in force, but more moderate Reformers and those who lean toward the AngloCatholic side will appreciate it.
On the Order of the Seven Solas The seven solas will be presented in a particular order which has theological (i.e., soteriological) significance, describing the salvation process as it applies to the individual. For our purposes here, the solas are presented in a linear, time-related order. What comes first? We will start with what is divine and pre-existent and move into what believers actually experience in their individual journeys of faith. While each sola is interconnected to each of the others, yet there is sense of movement to the process which eventually comes full circle; the final sola points back to the first. I visualize them as a wheel divided into seven colors, with each color blending into the next as you go around the wheel. I start with the pre-existent glory of God. Please be patient and do not jump ahead, because each sola builds and prepares for those that follow.
1. Soli Deo gloria ("glory to God alone") - This is the entire reason for everything, including the salvation of individuals. God is full of glory and anything that He does only increases that glory.
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God. How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out. 34"Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?" 35"Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?" 36For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33-36)
To get a glimpse of the mind of God regarding His purposes in creation and salvation, we need go no further than the words of Jesus in John 17:22-24: "I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24"Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world." Note for later reference that this passage links the concept of glory with the concept of unity in love, since that is God's essential characteristic.
The Reformation reclaimed the Scriptural teaching of the sovereignty of God over every aspect of the believer's life, not just what one does "at church." Every activity of our lives is to be sanctified toward the glory of God. "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God." (1 Cor. 10:31) The Westminster Confession, Shorter Catechism says it well: "Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever."
2. Sola gratia ("by grace alone") - From God's love and grace springs His mercy and redemptive will for us. It all starts and ends with God. Since Christ is the "Author and Finisher of our faith," our cooperation is minimally important; extreme Calvinists would say that our cooperation is not required at all. Arminian believers argue this point. Moderates (like myself) would say that our cooperation must occur but that this cooperation is inspired and empowered by God's Holy Spirit and is not of ourselves. We have nothing that God did not provide, and thus we have no room for boasting, not even about our faith. But to be saved we still must respond to God's Gospel call, and some people don't. Only our sovereign, omniscient God knows why some do and some don't. We are not qualified to judge.
We know this: without God's grace, we never had a chance. But with His grace, we get everything. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us." (Ephesians 1:3-8)
3. Solus Christus or Solo Christo ("Christ alone" or "through Christ alone") - Without the coming of Jesus Christ and His sacrificial suffering and death on the cross, there could be no salvation for us sinners. We must believe in Him and accept His sacrifice for us, and then we receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life. That is the Gospel message. He is the only Savior, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, the Only Begotten Son, and the Word of God made flesh (see the prologue to the Gospel of John). He only spoke what the Father told Him to say and at the Transfiguration we hear: "This is My beloved Son. Listen to Him."
"He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 17He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross." (Colossians 1:15-20)
4. Sola scriptura ("by Scripture alone") - God chose to reveal Himself (His love, grace, and Gospel salvation) to us through the Holy Scriptures. His principal communication to us was through words (especially the words of Jesus), thus is our Lord named the "Word made flesh" in John 1.
We must first receive the Gospel (in words) before we can believe it, before we can obtain the salvation offered. Without scripture, none of us today would know of the saving Gospel: "...faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ." (Romans 10:17)
Note that both the glory and the grace of God come before scripture in this salvation process. This is because God is more important than His words, even though of course they work together. Words reflect who one is, and in God's case, words accomplish whatever He says: "As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it will not return to Me empty, but will accomplish what I desire, and achieve the purpose for which I sent it." (Isaiah 55:8-11, NIV) All scripture is true and useful (2 Timothy 3:14-17); however, the words of our Lord Jesus (the "red letters"), must be regarded as the most authoritative. The Gospels have primacy, then the Epistles and the rest of the NT, and finally the OT. All true, but not all equal.
Then Simon Peter answered Him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." (John 6:68, NKJ)
"The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life." (John 6:63, NIV)
"Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away." (Matthew 24:35, NIV)
5. Sola ecclesia (through the church alone) - This newly recognized sola is needed to battle the extreme individualism and anti-church sentiment that is becoming more and more prevalent. I hear: "I believe in Jesus but I don't trust organized religion." "All the churches are full of judgmental hypocrites." "I don't have to go to church to be a Christian, I can just watch services on TV." Surely you have heard similar statements; they are very common these days. Let us examine the historical and present value of the Church for salvation and sanctification.
Like scripture, we cannot receive the Gospel truth until someone presents it to us. This has been God's plan from the beginning. "How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?" (Romans 10:14, NKJV)
Like it or not, God used the Church to bring the Gospel to each of us. If it happened that we first read the Bible without a flesh-and-blood person presenting it, then we still must acknowledge that it was human beings who saved the words, translated the words into our language, published the book and put it where we could read it. The people who served in these capacities were part of the Church, the body of believers (inspired by the Holy Spirit) who have believed the Gospel of Christ and spread it throughout the world. The Church is inextricably associated with the scriptures as we have them. The scriptures became Canon in the early Church by the discernment and wisdom of third and fourth century believers, but I am happy to give the credit to God who accomplished this work through gifts of the Holy Spirit in these believers.
So our faith is associated with and dependent upon the faith of those who came before us. I am content to leave it to my AngloCatholic friends who understand church tradition to flesh out this sola more fully.
Here are some scriptures supporting church worship and fellowship:
For where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them. (Matthew 18:20, KJV)
And they continued steadfastly in the Apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in prayers. (Acts 2:42)
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another-and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:24-25)
A final warning is in order for this particular sola. There is a reason why sola scriptura comes before sola ecclesia. Church authority must always be secondary to the authority of God's Word. All traditions of doctrine, worship, and human authority in the church must be tested by the Canon. In the history of the Church, we have seen how human power tends to corrupt and change things. But Jesus Christ does not change (Hebrews 13:8, Rev 1:8) and His words will never pass away (Matthew 24:35). Humans (other than Jesus) can and do change, sometimes for the worse. Remember that the churches in the world are still made up of both sheep and goats, and there are some wolves in sheep's clothing at the highest levels.
6. Sola fide (by faith alone) - As both Jesus and Paul pointed out, no individual can receive the salvation offered by God except by believing in Christ, that is, by faith. Jesus paid the price for our sin with His blood, and when we believe, we receive. Since each of us is a sinner (Roman 3:10-12, 23), we cannot do enough to earn God's salvation; we are totally unqualified and unable. Only the "perfect Lamb of God" could make it possible. But God makes us acceptable ("justified") when we believe and trust in Christ-in His words, His sacrifice, and His resurrection. Our righteousness is our faith in The Righteous One.
I like to think of faith in terms of this metaphor: Someone tells me that I have a package, a free gift of great worth waiting for me at the Post Office. I still have to believe the message (and the messenger) or I will not go get it. In the same way, we must believe in Christ to receive His offered salvation.
7. Sola caritas (by love alone) - I prefer the original Greek word agape for this "sacred seventh" sola, but I suppose I must be consistent and use the Latin translation caritas ("charitable love").
Our salvation begins with the love of God; it is His greatest glory; is the source of and motivation for His grace. All Christians are familiar with John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." Nothing would have happened toward salvation without the love of God.
And Jesus was clear about God's priorities for us: the First and Second Great Commandments were both about love (notice that these commandments were not about faith). John, the "apostle of love", taught that we love because God first loved us. So it is crucial that our faith does not stop with an intellectual belief in propositional truth... but goes on to true fellowship and intimacy with God.
The OT repeatedly asserts that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." Obeying God out of fear may be the beginning of wisdom but it is not its end. Fear, even if it means awe and reverence for God, only goes so far. Wisdom's destination is love. God's words become written "on our hearts." Our faith and new wisdom results in a desire to please God, not out of fear, but out of trust, gratefulness, and love for Him. My favorite bumper sticker reads: REAL MEN LOVE JESUS.
While our salvation/justification all begins with grace and faith, and nothing we can do can save us, scripture is also clear that if we do not eventually show love to our brothers and sisters, then we never had faith in the first place. James (2:26) called it "dead" faith. John did not mince words either: "Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love." (1 John 4:8)
Love comes last in this list of solas because our love comes last in the process. Love is the primary "fruit" that comes from "abiding in the true vine" (John 15, Galatians 5:22) via our faith in Christ. As we remain "in Christ," His Word and Spirit (symbolized by the bread and wine) find a home in our hearts and lives, making us "temples of the living God." This grace-faith process empowers us to grow, first the bud, then stem, leaf, flower, and ultimately producing spiritual fruit (love and its by-products), resulting in good works. In discussing Abraham, the 'father of faith,' James wrote: " You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did." (James 2:22) Faith is therefore NOT complete if it does not transform how we live.
Summary: Our love for God and our neighbor (and especially for our brothers and sisters), comes from our faith in God and the Spirit's subsequent power within us. Love completes the circle that began with the glory of God (sola gloria) which was expressed by God's grace in Christ's dying for us. This "love process" continues in the Church's submission to His Word, preaching the Gospel, and making disciples of all nations (Matthew 28). Because of God's grace and love, we expect the saints (all true believers) will persevere to the end, spreading good works along the way. "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." (Ephesians 2:10) We have been "set up" by God for victory, to make a positive difference in the world for the Kingdom.
God is glorified by the love and good works shown by His children. God is glorified by the Church's unity in Christ. Now we have come full circle.
----Dr. Bruce Atkinson, Ph.D. is a member of Trinity Anglican Church in Douglasville, Georgia. Dr. Atkinson's education and training includes a doctorate in clinical psychology from the Fuller School of Psychology (1987), an M.A. in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary (1985), an M.S. in psychology from Illinois State University (1976), and a B.A. from Beloit College (1968). He has been in private practice as a Licensed Psychologist in Georgia since January, 1990. He has been an adjunct professor and is a clinical supervisor with Richmont Graduate University in Atlanta (formerly the Psychological Studies Institute), training graduate students in Christian counseling.
Postscript: My charismatic friend tells me that there is one more sola
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