The five solae (Anglicized to five solas) of the Protestant Reformation are a foundational set of principles held by theologians and clergy to be central to the doctrine of salvation as taught by the Reformed branches of Protestantism. Each sola represents a key belief in the Lutheran and Reformed traditions in contradistinction to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. These Reformers claimed that the Catholic Church, especially its head, the Pope, had usurped divine attributes or qualities for the Church and its hierarchy.
The solae were not systematically articulated together until the 20th century; however, 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 we justify and only by faith are we justified”). All of the solae 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 solae are mentioned is in Johann Baptiste Metz’s 1965, The Church and the World.
The three solae
In most of the earliest articulations of the solae, three were typically specified: scripture over tradition, faith over works, and grace over merit. Each was intended to represent an important distinction compared with teachings claimed in Catholic doctrine.
Sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”)
Sola Scriptura, (Latin ablative, sōlā scrīptūrā, meaning “by Scripture alone”), is upheld by Lutheran and Reformed theologies and 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. This principle is largely based on 2 Timothy 3:16, which says, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” 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 (Latin ablative, sōlā fidē, meaning “by faith alone”), sola gratia (Latin ablative, sōlā grātiā, meaning “by grace alone” or by God’s favor). The adjective (sola) and the noun (scriptura) are in the ablative case rather than in 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).
Methodist theology, on the other hand, enshrines prima scriptura in its theological concept of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, which holds that Sacred Tradition, Reason, and Experience are sources of Christian theology, but are subordinate to Sacred Scripture, which is the primary authority.
Sola fide (“by faith alone”)
Sola fide, or “by faith alone“, asserts that good works are not a means or requisite for salvation. Sola fide is the teaching that justification (interpreted in the Lutheran and Reformed theologies 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 Lutheran and Reformed theologies, 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 a putative 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) Likewise, the Methodist Churches also emphasize that ordinarily, both faith and good works play a role in salvation; in particular, the works of piety and the works of mercy, in Wesleyan-Arminian theology, are “indispensable for our sanctification.” Bishop Scott J. Jones in United Methodist Doctrine writes that in Methodist theology:
Faith is necessary to salvation unconditionally. Good works are necessary only conditionally, that is if there is time and opportunity. The thief on the cross in Luke 23:39-43 is Wesley’s example of this. He believed in Christ and was told, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” This would be impossible if the good works that are the fruit of genuine repentance and faith were unconditionally necessary for salvation. The man was dying and lacked time; his movements were confined and he lacked opportunity. In his case, faith alone was necessary. However, for the vast majority of human beings good works are necessary for continuance in faith because those persons have both the time and opportunity for them.
In understanding Sola fide, it is important to understand the nuances of difference between Catholic and Lutheran/Reformed 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 Lutheran and Reformed views of justification, by contrast, are 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 Lutheran/Reformed 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, after the initial conversion which relies solely on the merits of Christ (CCC 2010), righteous works are considered meritorious toward salvation in addition to faith, whereas in the Lutheran and Reformed theologies, 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 Lutheran/Reformed belief. In Catholic theology, conversion effects justification (CCC 1989) and God gives the baptized the grace of justification (CCC 1266): however, the faith required for baptism is not a perfect and mature faith (CCC 1253). In baptism, even of infants, the grace of justification and sanctification is “infused” into the soul, making the recipient justified (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). 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 the case of a child from original sin only, in the case of a believing repentant adult from all sins. For the Lutheran, baptism is a work of God by which the forgiveness of sins and salvation earned by Christ’s death, and confirmed by Christ’s resurrection, are given to the baptized person who believes God’s Word that says He is doing exactly that in baptism. Infant baptism is not only appropriate, but urged: “We bring the child in the conviction and hope that it believes, and we pray that God may grant it faith; but we do not baptize it upon that, but solely upon the command of God.” In the Reformed theologies, especially that of Baptists, however, the faith of the individual is absolutely necessary and is itself the efficient and sufficient response of the individual that effects justification. Therefore, for the Reformed, child baptism is performed on the basis of the promise of faith to come, but Baptists go even further and assert that infant or child baptism is not appropriate nor legitimate. Apart from baptism by water, Catholics also recognize baptism of desire and baptism by blood.
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).
Sola gratia (“by grace alone”)
Sola gratia, or “only grace”, specifically excludes the merit done by a person as part of achieving salvation. Sola gratia is the teaching that salvation comes by divine grace or “unmerited favor” only, not as something merited by the sinner. This means that salvation is an unearned gift from God for Jesus’s sake. While some maintain that this doctrine is the opposite of “works’ righteousness” and conflicts with some of the aspects of the Roman Catholic doctrine of merit, it might be asserted that this article, taken at face value, conflicts in no way with Roman Catholic teaching; while the doctrine that grace is truly and always a gift of God is held in agreement between both views, the difference in doctrine lies mainly in two facts: that of God as sole actor in grace (in other words, that grace is always efficacious without any cooperation by man), and second, that man cannot by any action of his own, acting under the influence of grace, cooperate with grace to “merit” greater graces for himself (the latter would be the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church). This doctrine asserts divine monergism in salvation: God acts alone to save the sinner. The responsibility for salvation does not rest on the sinner to any degree as in “synergism”.
Protestant Arminians, such as Methodists, are synergists but may also claim the doctrine of sola gratia, though they understand it quite differently than Lutherans and Calvinists do. Arminians believe that God saves only by grace and not at all by merit, but man, enabled by what is referred to as “prevenient grace”, is enabled by the Holy Spirit to understand the Gospel and respond in faith. Arminians believe that this is compatible with salvation by grace alone, since all the actual saving is done by grace. Arminians believe that humans are only capable of receiving salvation when first enabled to do so by prevenient grace, which they believe is distributed to everyone. Arminians therefore do not reject the conception of sola gratia expounded by Lutheran and Reformed theologians, although their interpretation of it is quite different.
John Owen, in A Display of Arminianism, rejects the implied belief that the understanding of the Reformed theology has any alliance between the two doctrines and Arminianism is but another form of pelagianism, known as semipelagianism.
The Five Solas
While the Reformers of the 16th century wrote of all five solas in various period writings, they are not all mentioned together in one place and were not systematically brought together until the 20th century.
Solus Christus or Solo Christo (“Christ alone” or “through Christ alone”)
Solus Christus, or “only Christ“, excludes the priestly class as necessary for sacraments. Solus Christus is the teaching that Christ is the only mediator between God and man, and that there is salvation through no other (hence, the phrase is sometimes rendered in the ablative case, solo Christo, meaning that salvation is “by Christ alone“). While rejecting all other mediators between God and man, classical Lutheranism continues to honor the memory of the Virgin Mary and other exemplary saints. This principle rejects sacerdotalism, the belief that there are no sacraments in the church without the services of priests ordained by apostolic succession. The Catholic Church teaches that lay people, and even unbaptized people, can validly baptize, and may do so in an emergency, and that the ministers of the sacrament of matrimony are the people getting married, not the priest, who is only a witness to the marriage, although a witness is legally required in the modern Western Catholic church. Other sacraments, according to Catholic doctrine, essentially require a bishop or at least a priest in order to be valid. Martin Luther taught the “general priesthood of the baptized”, which was modified in later Lutheranism and classical Protestant theology into “the priesthood of all believers” denying the exclusive use of the title “priest” (Latin sacerdos) to the clergy. This principle does not deny the office of the holy ministry to which is committed the public proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments. In this way, Luther in his Small Catechism could speak of the role of “a confessor” to confer sacramental absolution on a penitent. The section in this catechism known as “The Office of the Keys” (not written by Luther but added with his approval) identifies the “called ministers of Christ” as being the ones who exercise the binding and loosing of absolution and excommunication through Law and Gospel ministry. This is laid out in the Lutheran formula of holy absolution: the “called and ordained servant of the Word” forgives penitents’ sins (speaks Christ’s words of forgiveness: “I forgive you all your sins”) without any addition of penances or satisfactions and not as an interceding or mediating “priest”, but “by virtue of [his] office as a called and ordained servant of the Word” and “in the stead and by the command of [his] Lord Jesus Christ”. In this tradition absolution reconciles the penitent with God directly through faith in Christ’s forgiveness rather than with the priest and the church as mediating entities between the penitent and God.
Soli Deo gloria (“glory to God alone”)
Soli Deo gloria, or “glory to God alone“, stands in opposition to the veneration perceived by many to be present in the Roman Catholic Church of Mary the mother of Jesus, the saints, or angels. Soli Deo gloria is the teaching that all glory is to be due to God alone, since salvation is accomplished solely through his will and action – not only the gift of the all-sufficient atonement of Jesus on the cross but also the gift of faith in that atonement, created in the heart of the believer by the Holy Spirit. The reformers believed that human beings – even saints canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, the popes, and the ecclesiastical hierarchy – are not worthy of the glory that was accorded them; that is, one should not exalt such humans for their good works, but rather praise and give glory to God who is the author and sanctifier of these people and their good works. It is not clear the extent to which such veneration is actually approved by the Roman Catholic Church and so the extent to which this Sola is one of justified opposition is unclear. The Roman Catholic’s official position, for example as described in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, make it clear that God alone is deserving of glory.
More recently, certain scholars have suggested that there should be additional solas on the list: Sola ecclesia (“the Church alone”), Sola caritas (“Charitable-love alone”) and Sola Spiritus (In the “Spirit alone”).