(The Five Solas of the Reformation)
by Bob Burridge ©2014
In the late years of the Middle Ages, Reformers in the church refused to go along with man-invented doctrines and rules that marginalized the Bible, and elevated the church as the primary source of what God has done and said.
Five foundational principles have been followed by the Reformed churches since that time. We know them as “The 5 Solas of the Reformation” — 5 things that must stand alone. The first of these teaches us that the Bible as God’s word is the only test of what’s true and good.
We usually speak of this first principle by the Latin expression “Sola Scriptura“. It means “Scripture Alone”. The Bible as God’s word is our only standard in deciding matters of faith and practice. The Bible alone is that authority, not combined with what men or church councils say. What God said was written and preserved by his providential power. The Bible isn’t just the best light to guide us in the dark. It’s the only light.
Psalm 119:105 says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path.”
Today, there’s a flood of ideas each claiming to be true. In the media we hear the views of famous authors, celebrities, athletes, and other self-proclaimed experts. Pop-Preachers on TV, radio, and the Internet flood us with superficial interpretations of the Bible. Pseudo-Science picks isolated pieces of data to support their current pet theories. News teams edit and slant reports to promote their own political and social world-view. Conspiracy theorists gather little things that seem unusual to them, and invent fantasy explanations. The internet offers millions of pages on almost any topic you search for. Most of the pages are based on very unreliable sources. We’ve never had so much information in all of human history. But we’ve never seen such confusion about what’s right and true either. This mis-information is used to manipulate people for self-gain, and to confuse God’s truth.
The Bible alone is our infallible guide through the maze of moral confusion. It directs our lives, and offers real comfort and hope. It shows God’s way of mercy and forgiveness as it’s offered to the whole world.
If we use some kind of test to see if what the Bible says is true, then that test becomes our standard for truth.
But how can we know if our test is reliable? Have we overlooked other alternatives? Is there information we don’t know yet? Have we just assumed things used as part of our reasoning? Have we misunderstood the things we think we know?
To answer that, we need a test for the test. But then that “test tester” becomes something to be tested too. There would be no end to needing something greater by which each level of testing is tested.
Ultimately, either God who made all things becomes the final test, or there is no test and no real way of knowing truth. If God revealed things to us, then that becomes an untestable test because nothing stands above God. He has given us that ultimate source of truth and morality in the Bible.
Today, hundreds of years after the Reformation, the flame of God’s truth and promises continues to burn. It burns in a very dark place. We live in a world that isn’t sure of what’s right and true, or if there even are such things. It’s a world filled with competing theories and beliefs.
Confusion about God and his ways leads to an uncertain attitude about life and personal values. It makes people dissatisfied with their jobs, their marriages, their children, and churches. Reformation is the return to the foundation God gave his world long ago.
There is a Latin expression which summarizes this continuing duty, “Semper Reformanda” which means, “Ever being re-molded (re-formed)”
Reformanda is a Gerundive Participle from the verb reformo. It is in the “reflexive” form, something done to us. It isn’t as much about changing things, as it is about being changed. “Always being reformed” means always submitting our every belief and practice, our every love and goal, to the test of God’s word so that it can be reshaped to conform to God’s truth and ways. Only what God has revealed should persist as our standard and foundation.
Sadly, in our modern world, even among some say they are reformed believers, another Latin expression better describes their objectives, “Semper Neoformans“. This is a Latin active verb meaning always forming something new. Innovation rather than reformation becomes their way of life. Innovation is wonderful within the boundaries set by God’s word. But we should never forget the limits of truth and the principle set by God’s unchanging standard.
The tension we see between many churches today is the battle between these two approaches to the Christian life. Either we are re-forming our lives and beliefs to fit the form God gave us, or we’re making up new forms to fit in with a society in love with its own pleasure, peace, prosperity, power, and prestige.
Reformation isn’t a re-inventing of God’s truth or of the way he calls us to live and to worship. It’s a change made in individuals and to the world that brings them back to God’s ways.
Ignorance of what the Bible says lures unsuspecting people to take up unbiblical beliefs and practices. Some are unaware of how much the New Testament says about worship, marriage and family, business, economics, our attitudes, time management, and how a church should be governed under the headship of Jesus Christ.
Many don’t know God in the way he reveals himself. Some unwittingly divide the God of the Old Testament from the one of the New. But he’s not a different kind of God in various sections of his book. Only when we take it all together can we learn about his unchanging and consistent nature.
God’s word has brought about many great
reformations throughout human history.
Reformations have taken place in the times of Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Josiah and Ezra, through the times of John, Jesus, Paul and Peter, and on into the history of the church after the New Testament was completed. It has always been the word of God that transformed individual lives, families, communities, nations, even at times the world.
The Reformation cry, “Scripture Alone” (Sola Scriptura), should always be our focus. God gave the Bible as the one infallible and perfect rule for our faith and practice. If someone adds any other standard along with it, the Bible ceases to be his foundation. The Apostle Paul based his comments upon this principle in his Second Letter to Timothy.
2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
Scripture Alone was not the standard of faith and practice
at the time of the Reformers.
In 1517 the dominant church claimed it had information from God beyond the Bible. Based upon other standards, it pronounced new dogmas and promoted moral abuses.
The result was not just intellectual chaos. It deeply confused and enslaved the people. It threatened time in Purgatory for believers to pay off their sins. The church sold forgiveness in the form of indulgences from the Pope. It implied that our own efforts and works caused God to bless and forgive us. The Priests made sinners do penance. It called for prayers to the saints and to Mary. Popes were granted the status of Christ himself. A whole list of new Sacraments was established, and worship became a magical mass. Hungry souls were fed this poison instead of the solid nourishment of God’s word.
The Reformers trusted what God said in the Bible as their sole guide for what is true and right. At a great conference of the church held in Augsburg in 1530, Philip Melanchthon and Martin Luther prepared a set of articles to show the errors of Rome. These articles became known as the Augsburg Confession.
The Reformers were all called Lutherans then, because they followed Luther. It had nothing to do with the modern denominations who take the name “Lutheran”. When the Reformed articles were read and explained, the delegates at the conference were impressed. The Reformed position had been drawn from Scripture alone.
One of those against the Reformers said he could easily refute Melanchthon’s confession by quoting from the Church Fathers. One of Rome’s own men, Duke George of Saxony responded saying, “Then the Lutherans are firmly entrenched in the Scriptures, and we are entreched outside of them!” That was a wise and telling observation.
Our Westminster Confession clearly takes the same reformed position. It says in section 1:10,
“The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.”
To most people, religion is generally accepted as long as it doesn’t claim to be exclusively right or the only way. Even unbelievers freely quote verses taken from the Bible to promote their own ideas. It’s the “Sola” part of Sola Scriptura that makes the Reformed position despised and ridiculed.
This is our challenge today, long after the Protestant Reformation.
The world hates any absolute standard. The Bible has become a main target. It has no problem with those who say the Bible is just another nice book of inspirational stories, but it has no tolerance for those who believe it to be the actual and inerrant word of God.
Educational programs on TV and documentaries continue to misrepresent it, and to make poorly informed attacks against its authenticity. A good example is the irresponsible re-writing of the Bible by the History Channel in its miniseries.
Public policy is often promoted in some places that would make it a crime to publicly proclaim Christ. The teachings of Scripture are openly opposed. Some want to make it a hate crime to teach what the Bible says about homosexuality, the roles of men and women, and the redemption of souls by Christ alone.
The clear teachings of the Bible are confused by creative theories and interpretations. The Creation Sabbath Day is abandoned by confusing it with the Jewish Levitical Sabbaths. It becomes a day like any other day where we work at our jobs, or support others who do so. They make detailed pictures of Jesus violating the 2nd Commandment imagining things about his appearance and demeanor not revealed in God’s word. Lustful thoughts and sexual activity outside of marriage are commonly accepted or re-defined. Abortion continues to take the lives of millions of unborn babies every year world wide.
The world takes pride in believing that nothing is absolutely moral or true. I’m still not sure how it can be an absolute truth that “there isn’t any absolute truth.”
The acceptable views of truth and morality today are based upon personal choice alone. The result is a cafeteria-style religion where people take only what they like. They decide to believe and to do whatever they think ought to be right and true. All else that God reveals in his word is passed by as if they can just say, “No thank you.” In the cafeteria-style Churches, the Bible isn’t expounded faithfully and thoroughly. The people do not know what God said so they are not able to decide what to reject or to affirm.
Awhile ago I saw a television interview of a prominent preacher in Orlando, Florida. He openly said that he didn’t care to expound the Bible or to condemn sin. He said his goal is to help people have a positive attitude about themselves. This empty rhetoric is welcomed by millions who listen to him and support him. But it’s heresy. That’s what a Professor at Westminster Seminary called this preacher’s message in the same interview program. It’s an open rejection of the teachings of God’s word and of Christ. Without dealing with forgiveness of sin and restoration to God by grace in Christ, there is no real change of heart, no real hope, nothing except the empty words of some motivational speaker.
It’s no wonder that with teachings like that, the church is marginalized today, people feel more insecure and uncertain than ever before.
God’s word tells us that our own feelings are not to be the test of what’s right. Many imagine the Holy Spirit saying what ever it is they want to hear at the moment. It’s good to ask, “What would Jesus do?” But to answer that question you have to know your Bible. You need to know and understand what he actually said and did. You also need to know the rest of Scripture that gives the context for the life and teachings of Christ.
People taken in by these very popular but irresponsible churches and preachers continue confidently, but blindly,
to offend God while not even suspecting that there is anything wrong with what they are saying and doing.
There’s a need for a continuing reformation in Christ’s church.
The need is very serious in this 21st Century since the birth and death of our Savior. It’s an individual need, a church need, a family and community need — a world need. There is only one light that is able to scatter the darkness. It’s the light of God’s word speaking openly and boldly for itself.
Psalm 119:105, “Your word is a lamp to my feet, And a light to my path.”
Shine the light of his word on your path ever day. See if your feet are on the right trail, and taking the right steps. Let that light expose the things that will trip you up. Avoid those things.
If you are always reshaping what you believe and do so that it fits more with God’s word, you are being a Reformer. When you help others to do the same you are carrying out the work of reforming God’s world.
The key is to be a dedicated servant of God’s word. No other standard will do, because none other can be true. God’s word is all the lamp you need to know the boundaries within which you can live with great liberty. When you live in the way that pleases God, you will find the great blessing he infallibly promises — even in the hard times.
God’s word for God’s world — a lamp for our feet, a light for our path.
For a more detailed study of how God reveals himself to us see the following lessons from our Theology unit covering “Prolegomena”.
1. Knowing Truth
3. The Canon of Scripture
4. The Inspiration of Scripture
5. The Preservation of the text of Scripture
6. The Translation of Scripture
7. The Interpretation of Scripture
Bible quotations are from the New King James Version unless otherwise noted.