The Five Solae of the
|Soli Deo gloria|
The solas (occasionally, solae) of the Protestant Reformation are a set of principles held by theologians and churchmen to be central to that period of change in the western Christian church. Each sola -- from the Latin meaning "alone" or "only" -- represents a key belief in Christian faith held by the Protestant reformers in contradistinction to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church of the day. The Reformers claimed that the Roman Catholic Church, especially its head, the Pope, had usurped divine attributes or qualities for the Church and its hierarchy. The precise number of solas varies among commentators, but lists specifying three and five are common.
The solas were not systematically articulated together until the 20th century. But sola gratia and sola fide were used in conjunction by the Reformers themselves. For example, in 1554 Melanchthon wrote, "sola gratia justificamus et sola fide justificamur" ("only by grace do you justify and only by faith are we justified"). All of the solas show up in various writings by the Protestant Reformers, but they are not catalogued together by any.
In 1916, Lutheran scholar Theodore Engelder published an article titled "The Three Principles of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fides", ("only scripture, only grace, only faith"). In 1934, theologian Emil Brunner substituted Soli Deo gloriam for Sola Scriptura. In 1958, historian Geoffrey Elton, summarizing the work of John Calvin, wrote that Calvin had "joined together" the "great watchwords." Elton listed sola fide with sola gratia as one term, followed by sola scriptura and soli Deo gloria. Later, in commenting on Karl Barth's theological system, Brunner added Christus solus to the litany of solas while leaving out sola scriptura. The first time the additional two solas are mentioned is in Johann Baptiste Metz's 1965, The Church and the World.
The Three Solas
In most of the earliest articulations of the solas, three were typically specified: scripture over tradition, faith over works, and grace over merit, each intended to represent an important distinction compared with Catholic doctrine.
Sola scriptura ("by Scripture alone")
Sola Scriptura, or "scripture alone," asserts that scripture must govern over church traditions and interpretations which are themselves held to be subject to scripture. All church traditions, creeds, and teachings must be in unity with the teachings of scripture as the divinely inspired Word of God.
Sola Scriptura asserts that the Bible can and is to be interpreted through itself, with one area of Scripture being useful for interpreting others. That scripture can interpret itself is a means by which to show the unity of Scripture as a whole. As all doctrines are formed via scriptural understandings, all doctrines must be found to align with Scripture and as such are then subject to scripture before the believer can begin to apply them.
This particular sola is sometimes called the formal principle of the Reformation, since it is the source and norm of the material cause or principle, the gospel of Jesus Christ that is received sola fide ("through faith alone") sola gratia (by God's favor or "grace alone"). The adjective (sola) and the noun (scriptura) are in the ablative case rather than the nominative case to indicate that the Bible does not stand alone apart from God, but rather that it is the instrument of God by which he reveals himself for salvation through faith in Christ (solus Christus or solo Christo).
Sola fide ("by faith alone")
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Sola fide, or "faith alone", asserts that good works are not a means or requisite for salvation. Sola fide is the teaching that justification (interpreted in Protestant theology as "being declared just by God") is received by faith alone, without any need for good works on the part of the individual. In classical Protestant theology, good works are seen to be evidence of saving faith, but the good works themselves do not determine salvation. Some Protestants see this doctrine as being summarized with the formula "Faith yields justification and good works" and as contrasted with the Roman Catholic formula "Faith and good works yield justification." The Catholic side of the argument is based on James 2:14-17. "What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Depart in peace, be warmed and filled," but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead." (James 2:14-17, NKJV)
In understanding Sola fide, it is important to understand the nuances of difference between Catholic and Protestant notions of the term "justification". Both groups agree that the term invokes a communication of Christ's merits to sinners, not a declaration of sinlessness; Luther used the expression simul justus et peccator ("at the same time justified and a sinner"). However, Roman Catholicism sees justification as a communication of God's life to a human being, cleansing him of sin and transforming him truly into a son of God, so that it is not merely a declaration, but rather the soul is made actually objectively righteous. The Protestant view of justification, by contrast, is that it is the work of God through the means of grace. Faith is the righteousness of God that is accomplished in us through word and sacraments. Law and gospel work to kill the sinful self and to accomplish the new creation within us. This new creation within us is the faith of Christ. If we do not have this faith, then we are ungodly. Indulgences or human prayers add nothing—they are nothing. Everyone has some kind of faith — usually a faith in themselves. But we need God to continually destroy self-righteous faith and to replace it with the life of Christ. We need the faith that comes from God through law and gospel, word, works and sacraments. In the founding document of the Reformation, the 95 Theses, Luther said that 1.) "When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matthew 4:17) He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance." and 95.) And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace (Acts 14:22).
The true distinction, therefore, between the Protestant and the Catholic view of Justification is not an issue of being "declared righteous" versus being "made righteous", but rather it is the means by which one is Justified. In Catholic theology righteous works are considered meritorious toward salvation in addition to faith, whereas in Protestant theology, righteous works are seen as the result and evidence of a truly Justified and Regenerate believer who has received these by Faith Alone. The actual effectual means by which a person receives Justification is also a fundamental division between Catholic and Protestant belief. In Catholic theology, the means by which Justification is applied to the soul is the Sacrament of Baptism. In Baptism, even of infants, the grace of Justification and Sanctification is "infused" into the soul, making the recipient Justified even before he has exercised his own faith (or indeed in the case of an infant who is baptized, before he even has the ability to consciously understand the Gospel and respond with faith). In Catholic theology, faith is not a prerequisite to Justification. For the Catholic, baptism functions "ex opere operato" or "by the working of the act", and thus is the efficient and sufficient act to bring about Justification. In Protestant theology, however the Faith of the individual is absolutely necessary and is itself the efficient and sufficient response of the individual that effects Justification.
The Sola fide doctrine is sometimes called the material cause or principle of the Reformation because it was the central doctrinal issue for Martin Luther and the other reformers. Luther called it the "doctrine by which the church stands or falls" (Latin, articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae).