Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Are the Solas of the Reformation Coherent?

You may have heard it said that the solas of the Reformation (solus Christus, sola gratia, sola fide) are incoherent. I know I have. How can we be justified only in Christ, only by grace, and only by faith? Can't there only be one "only" at a time? Don't multiple solas cancel each other out?

There may be some important objections to the Reformation doctrine of justification, but this is not one of them. Why? Because this criticism betrays a fundamental misunderstanding concerning the meaning of the Reformation solas. The mistake is taking the adjective "only" in an absolute sense. But the intent of the solas is to rule out very specific answers to very specific questions.

This misunderstanding may arise from the solas functioning as slogans outside the polemical context from which they emerged. In order to avoid such misunderstanding, it may be necessary to re-embed the solas within this polemical context so one can see the relative sense in which "only" is used in each case. This can be done by adding to each of the solas an absque ("apart from") clause.

Christ alone ... apart from law. The mediator of justification before God is Jesus Christ. By fulfilling the law, the law does not function for us as the mediator of righteousness. Rather, we are justified by the alien righteousness of Christ that is imputed to us. God's law is not set aside, however, but fulfilled by Christ. Nor is the ongoing function of the law in the Christian life necessarily ruled out. But with specific regard to our justification, it is in Christ alone apart from the law that we are justified.

Grace alone ... apart from merit. The means by which justification is given is God's own gracious gift of mercy. Justification is not merited or earned from God. It is not deserved. We have no claim to make on God and what he owes us. This does not mean the language of merit or reward need be expunged entirely from our thinking. For instance, Christ may in some sense be said to merit righteousness for us. And we may find ways of speaking of a "reward in heaven" as the Bible does. But with specific regard to justification, it is by grace alone apart from any merit of our own that we are justified.

Faith alone ... apart from works. The instrument through which justification is received is human faith or trust in God's promises. Justification is not accrued through human working. It is received through faith, which is itself a gift of the Holy Spirit who comes to the justified person. Faith bears the fruit of works of love, so they are not ruled out entirely. Works have their place. But with specific regard to justification, it is through faith alone apart from works that we are justified.

"Christ alone," "grace alone," and "faith alone" do not rule each other out. Rather, each rules out a specific aspect of an alternative soteriology. Understood within their polemical context, the solas can be take in their highly specific and relative sense. Therefore, to hold on to the solas does not entail self-contradiction, as some have claimed. Perhaps there are successful criticisms of the Reformation doctrine of justification, but its supposed incoherence is not one of them.

Any thoughts?
Have you heard this criticism before? How did you respond?
Does this re-embedding of the solas in their context illuminate the matter?
Am I correct in attributing a relative rather than absolute sense to the solas?
What are some more significant criticisms of the Reformation doctrine of justification?


WTM said...

I like this a lot, John. Well done. I'm just wondering where sola Scriptura is. :-)

JohnLDrury said...

Thanks Travs. Yes, sola scriptura must also be understood in its proper context, not as an absolute "only" but an "only" relative to a certain set of issues and ruling out certain alternatives. This is important for understanding what is at stake in the slogan.

I did not bring it in directly here because it is not usually criticized as incoherently held with the other solas. This is because these three are more directly related to soteriology, whereas sola scriptura relates more directly to issues of authority (though the two topics must not be separated). I'm glad you mentioned it, though, because this very distinction helps to further undermine the criticism of incoherence: the adjective sola is used when answering a discrete question.

My concern is that all these solas are being both proffered and criticized in a form abstracted from their context and content. Me genoito!

Anonymous said...

Someone recently suggested that those who use the Wesleyan Quadrilateral for interpreting Scripture do not hold a "sola scriptura" view but a "prima scriptura" view. They place Scripture first and final in authority, but also look to reason, experience and tradition to formulate right understanding.

John, I know that you hold to a more Barthian view. However, would you care to comment on this suggestion that Wesleyans do not hold to the final "sola?"

Chris Shinn

JohnLDrury said...


Good question. When making the statement sola scriptura, everything depends on what question you are answering. If the question is "Where do we get all our ideas?" then "only scripture" as an answer is pattently ridiculous. If the question is "What is the authority by which we norm theological speech?" then "only scripture" may be a plausible answer.

How this relates with the so-called Wesleyan Qualidrilateral is beyond me. Yes, all four are operative when making judgments in the Christian life. That's should be descriptively obviously. What's more important is how each of these should be related to each other and what function is assigned to each. Assserting the presence of a quadrilateral doesn't answer these questions. It is questionable whether the quadrilaterial is not a basket with two apples, an orange, and a lemon marange pie.


Scott Hendricks said...

John, thanks for this post. It is very helpful in qualifying the intentions and meaning of the reformation solas.

However, it seems to me that the famous verse in James (that 'epistle of straw') about justified by what we do, is a necessary qualifier for "by faith alone"; within the same vein as John Wesley's, "Faith is immediately necessary to justification, and repentance is remotely necessary." In other words, all the thief on the cross did was believe in Jesus. But if he had lived longer, repentance would have been necessary to his justification. Jesus can say that the man who said, "God have mercy on me a sinner" went home justified, but also "every tree that does not bear fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire."

But of course, good works are the FRUIT of faith, and only as they are enabled by the Spirit through Christ are they acceptable to God.

See also the last paragraph in:


Ken Schenck said...

Sorry to keep on the "off topic" sola scriptura, but...

I'll admit to using this phrase to my own devices. In other words, it was not forged in the context of debates over where the meaning of texts comes from but in dialog with post-biblical developments in Christian faith and practice.

To what extent are these slogans in need of re-presentation for the debates as they have continued in the present?

Keith Drury said...

Thanks for the helpful entry on the three solas. In context then are they seen more clearly as "not" statements than "only" statements... If so then truncating the last half of the sola sentence may confuse their primary point?

David Drury said...

Gotta love that "lemon marange pie."

Love to post... this will help me not charge into a faulty critique of the solas in the future.