The 5 Solas: The Reformation Declarations of Freedom
To cap off this blogs’s series on the Reformation, it is good for us to go back to the tenets that forged Protestants and Evangelicals to what they are today. Deep at the core of the Reformation was the principle we historians apply in our every research—AD FONTES, back to the source. Luther himself demonstrated this by setting aside commentaries of Scripture and going directly to the Bible in its original languages to discover what it really meant. (Luther devoured Erasmus’ Greek New Testament as soon as it came out in the press in 1516).
It was indeed dangerous to be educated then and to go back to the source, for truth is dangerous. People were maligned, tortured and burned at the stake for it. But within the fledgling “protestant” church of the 16th century, now excommunicated by the ‘mighty’ Catholic Church, there were so many errors to unlearn, so many discoveries in the Scriptures that were incompatible with church practice. Surprisingly, these churches, instead of demanding that Scripture be changed or adjusted, opted their church life to change and adjust to Scripture. It was never easy. It involved a lot of struggle, radical changes, and some didnt have the stomach to accept it that it led to bloodshed. But with the guidance of humble scholarly pastors amidst the changing political and socio-economic atmosphere of the time, Semper Reformanda (always reforming) had been the call of these freed churches of the Reformation. To summarize, there were 5 declarations that the Reformers heralded that changed everything. These tenets included the word ‘alone’ implying that these alone are sufficient for the church. I won’t focus much on its intricacies (I will leave that to theologians better equipped than I) but I’ll try to picture for you the historical reverberations and what logically follows in each tenet.
Sola Scriptura (Scriptures Alone): The Only Foundation
As if recovered from dust (reminiscent of the Jewish prophet Ezra when he recovered the Book of the Law from the dusts of the temple at Jerusalem) the Bible had arisen in the Reformation as its bedrock and pillar. No longer are people to allow Scriptures to be interpreted for them. The Reformers championed that people have minds and can understand the Scripture for themselves by the individual ‘illumination of the Spirit’. More importantly, they championed that Scripture is all sufficient, more sufficient than the traditions of Rome, because the Scriptures are ‘God-breathed’ (2 Tim. 3:16). This had two historical effects:
One, because the Word of God was no longer monopolized by the pope and clergy but could be accessed by everyone through the written Word, it spurred the Reformation churches to create universities of free learning. It’s no wonder that the Counter Reformation responded with the same. Why study? To discover truth. And to the Reformers, it is preserved and encapsulated in Scripture—all there is to learn about God and the meaning of this life. In the United States, Puritan pastors in the 17th to the 18th century had impressive personal libraries, with the Scripture as their supreme fountainhead (almost all were well-versed in the Biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew). Ignorance was no longer an excuse. The Scripture, as longed for by Wycliffe in England, had begun to be sung in the fields, discussed at pubs, wrestled upon in the universities. Truth should be studied and need not be defended as though it has no voice of its own. For like what Luther said, if it is truth, like a raging lion released, it will defend itself. Two great universities, Harvard and Princeton, started as pastoral seminaries for Reformed theology in their beginnings. Protestantism and Evangelicalism became associated with progress (as was the case in modern Korean history).
Two, this gave special dignity to the vernacular languages of the day to which the Scriptures would be translated. Before the Reformation, Latin Vulgate would be read even when the congregation could not understand it, but when the Reformation came, the clergy used the vernacular and it gained momentum. German, insultingly called before as the ‘language of pigs,’ became poetic because of the German Bible of Luther (1522 for the NT and 1534 for the OT). It was also Luther who used the down-to-earth imagery of German to ingeniously use it satirically against those who opposed the Reformation. The same could be said of English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons. French was seen as more intellectual than English but that changed through the years. Many metaphors in the English language came from the English King James Bible itself published in 1611. The spread of free public education open to all broke down feudalism and leveled the peasants with the nobles. Many pastors of the time were peasants but were so learned and disciplined that even the pastoral office gained dignity.
Sola Christus (Christ Alone): The Only Mediator
The Reformation championed the supremacy of Christ, which had longed been veiled by several saints and mediators along the line. All now need not pray to Mary (who proved that she too was in need of a Savior, as sung in Catholic churches) or St. Anne (as Luther did when he became an Augustinian monk) or to other saints (such as Pedro Calungsod). Every ‘child of God’ is a saint, has direct access to Christ and all the ‘spiritual blessings’ in him and more. This had two historical effects:
One, as the thousands of saints were minimized to One as the focus of ‘adoration’ and emulation, the complex hierarchy in the church was also thrown away. There were no longer the long line of to-go-to ‘infallible’ Popes, cardinals, archbishops, bishops, orders etc. There would only be the pastors, the elders, and the congregation. Each one is accountable to the other in equality. Each one may fall into sin, each one may err but each one admonish one another. The church is no longer a kingdom to be navigated upon in management and funds or to be lorded over. The church is now a hospital of the soul, the pastor the doctor, the cure, the ‘Word of God’ ALONE in its contextual fullness, under the church’s head, Christ.
The second effect is that, since according to the Epistle of Hebrews, Christ is the ‘high priest’ and ‘mediator’ on our behalf, ALL members of the church (not just the clergy) are ‘priests’ or in the words of Apostle Peter ‘a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God’. This effectively democratized church government. Everyone in the church, including a humble farmer, had a voice. There is no longer an elite few who have closer acces to God. Everyone, even a deacon, is as important as the work of the church minister. What would unite these churches would be Biblical doctrines contained in their Confessions (statement of beliefs), not uniformity or a supreme head, for that position belongs to Christ alone. More importantly, everyone can go directly to God and Scripture.
Sola Gratia (Grace Alone) and Sola Fide (Faith Alone): The Only Method and Means
According to the Reformers, grace is grace because it is an undeserved favor which we cannot earn. It is in the initiative of the Giver to give it, not because of our good works but because God is. Grace from God, in short, is unconditional, and solely all-sufficient. Period. How does one get saved? Not by fulfilling the 7 sacraments but by simply having confidence and faith (alone) in what Christ did on the cross. While this is a simple Protestant concept and repeatedly condemned by the Catholic Church, its historical effects are not to be underestimated.
One, it freed the individual from the complicated rituals and sacraments of the church. Good works are only the consequences of receiving grace. Therefore it is not forced, coerced or to be an outcome of fear. That is why for Evangelicals, we cannot boast of our good works because even the enabling to do good is a gift and an undeserved favor.
The second effect is, it gave peace and consolation to millions who went through the tragedies of the Black Plague, famines, war, persecution, etc. If it is only by faith that one can be saved, then the peasants need not cash out to the church everything in their poverty just to go to heaven. They also need not keep a list of good works to be weighed by St. Peter (which by the way would always be outweighed by our sinful acts). Simple faith in Christ and what he did on the cross became the answer. Evangelicals call this ‘substitutionary atonement.’ We were supposed to be punished but Christ himself died in our place so that when we come to him, we gain him and heaven, in so doing He satisfied His justice by punishing sin and achieving our salvation. By our acceptance by faith, Christ’s righteousness is ‘imputed’ or given to us. In effect, this brings us to the third effect, the comeback of simplicity and raw spirituality. The heavy and tiresome burden of trying it out and doing a lot of good works and eventual failing are removed. What remains is simple gratitude, and in the Evangelical term, pure teary-eyed ‘worship,’ what Jude would describe as ‘to stand before Him blameless and with great joy.’
Soli Deo Gloria (To the glory of God alone): The Only Ambition
The Reformers declared that if Salvation could not be earned but given by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, then all glory of being saved does not belong to us but to God alone. According to them, it was exactly why Christ died, because God knew we could not reach his standard. A way was made for us. Therefore good works are not self-imposed, but only comes out naturally (or miraculously) out of a sincere grateful and ‘changed’ heart.
One could appreciate how refreshing and freeing this still is. God, in the Reformation’s view, does not weigh our good and bad deeds for us in a weighing scale for us to qualify for heaven. Instead, we are given a grand view of the sovereignty of the Divine who out of his sheer mercy and love assured salvation to those who will put their faith in Christ.
This changed the worldview of millions at the time.
Before the Reformation, grace and good works were cheap. It could be bought by indulgences, you could even hire a devotee to kneel for you and pray for you (they do that at Quiapo church). Life was compartmentalized. One could be ‘devout’ inside the church, but since he/she did what the clergy required, it gave one a license to do what one wanted. It also opened the door for the clergy to abuse their power (they are but human too). Thus it was common in Europe to sire many wives while living out his duties in the church (even the popes of the time did it). While others within the Catholic Church went away from all these and lived cloistered lives as monks and nuns to achieve holiness, they still compartmentalized themselves since they withdrew from the world and lived as ascetics. When the Reformation came, the altar of God was moved from the mass and monastery to the private work of the individual. One can worship God not only in the church but in the workplace. Martin Luther was the first one to call each person’s work or occupation as ‘calling’, a calling received from God. These had historical repercussions: - Each occupation no matter how lowly, suddenly had dignity, because since all of us our ‘priests’ even a janitor or a lowly servant, in his/her own way, have direct access to God, and thus each handiwork became not a burden to be carried until life ends (not knowing where you’re going in e afterlife) but an expression of gratitude and worship for the grace he/she received. Fatalism and determinism was no longer an excuse for laziness. If everyone is a priest and equal in the sight of God, then anyone can rise up in the social strata. If a work is done as an expression of thankfulness then it should have a high quality so that people would give glory to God alone. Progress and learning therefore became the undeniable after-effects of the Reformation. All the nations who embraced it experienced growth in their industries. England became a world-power surpassing Spain. Power was no longer centralized but became community-driven while the church became apolitical and therefore became more effective in edifying its members. (as was the case in the United States that astonished the French politician Alexis de Tocqueville)
Jean Merle d’Aubigne, a 19th century French historian, after studying the Reformation meticulously ‘capturing the spirit of its age’, commented:
“The church was created anew, and from that regeneration flowed great developments of literature and science, or morality, liberty, and industry. None of these would have existed without the Reformation. This reformation was to be the result of two distinct forces—the revival of learning and the resurrection of the Word of God. The latter was the principle cause, but the former was necessary as means.”
To celebrate the Reformation Day is not only a celebration of progress and growth of knowledge, for that was not the point when the movement started. In its deepest intent, it is a celebration of freedom, in every sense of the word (in the mind and in the spirit). And that gave strength to the people who embraced it amidst torture and persecution. If the Reformation did not happen, we would have had a very different world today.
Every Born-again, Evangelical and Protestant in the Philippines should stand proud of our great heritage.
(Art above: Puritan pilgrims who came to the ‘New World’ to escape persecution in Europe so they could worship freely. Painting by Jennie Brownscombe, 1914)