Why do we call them ‘solas’ when they are clearly not alone?

You may well know that this year will mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing the 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. This single act, intended to spark an academic debate, lit the blue touchpaper for one of the biggest social, cultural and religious upheaval the Western world had ever seen.

Underpinning the reformation were five solas (or, five ‘alones’) that were deemed essential to the doctrine of salvation. Whilst Luther, in particular, had no intention of breaking from the Catholic Church and believed the pope to be a generally good man who was unaware of what had become standard errant practice, it was the five solas that formed the basis of the break away. As discussions progressed, it became clearer and clearer that these five solas were fundamentally rejected by the Catholic Church from top to bottom.

The five solas are:

  1. Sola Gratia (Grace alone)
  2. Sola Fide (Faith alone)
  3. Solus Christus (Christ alone)
  4. Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone)
  5. Soli Deo Gloria (Glory of God alone)

Stated in long form, the Protestant Reformation stood on the statement that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to scripture alone, to the glory of God alone.

Somebody asked me a while ago, why do we call them solas when there are obviously five of them? In other words, isn’t it confusing that we keep saying salvation is by grace alone when we are also saying it is through faith alone and in Christ alone? In what way are they ‘alones’ when we demand all five of them?

The key to understanding the use of ‘alone’ is to recognise the background against which the Reformation sparked to life. Although the five solas are a clear statement of the means of salvation, they were written against the backdrop of a Catholic Church that was deemed by the reformers to have strayed so far from the truth that it was keeping people from real salvation.

The five solas are best understood in response to key questions.

  1. Is salvation a gift of God’s grace alone; or, is it a gift of God that enables us to attain salvation by merit through our own efforts?
  2. Is salvation received by faith alone; or, by faith coupled to works such as baptism, partaking in communion and confessions?
  3. Is salvation found in Christ alone; or, is it found in Christ and the Catholic Church?
  4. Is salvation according to the teaching of scripture alone; or, is it according to scripture alongside tradition and papal edicts?
  5. Is salvation entirely to God’s glory alone; or, God’s glory alongside honour given to Mary and other saints?

The solas make most sense when understood against the context into which they were stated. As Greg Allison comments at The Gospel Coalition:

Roman Catholic theology is characterized by an et . . . et (and . . . and) approach. In [Peter] Kreeft’s [Philosophy professor at Boston College and respected apologist for Roman Catholicism] own words, ‘Whenever two positive things seem to conflict, the Church sorts them out as some kind of a “both-and” instead of a simple “either-or”‘. This is the opposite of Protestant theology’s approach, which is grounded on the five “solas”: Scripture alone, rather than Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium; grace alone, rather than grace that enables human effort for the meriting of eternal life; faith alone, rather than faith plus sacramental grace that promotes good works; Christ alone, rather than Christ and the Roman Catholic Church as the prolongation of the incarnation of Christ; and the glory of God alone, rather than divine glory plus a measure of honor accorded to Mary and the saints.

The ‘alones’ are not five statements of that which, by themselves, bring salvation. It would be logically inconsistent to say salvation is found in Christ alone but also in scripture alone. The reformers obviously do not believe anybody is saved simply by reading the Bible and nothing else.

Instead, the solas are counterpoints to Catholic theology. They are a definitive statement that salvation originates in God, comes from God and is wrought by God. It is understood according to God’s revealed word and thus the glory for salvation belongs exclusively to God. It is a reorienting away from a focus on men, the church and their traditions and centres salvation on God himself. They are ‘alones’ in the sense that nothing needs to be added to them and could almost be summarised as salvation being from, to and through God alone.