In our weekly Theology Breakfast, we have just started doing a historical theology track. In our case, that means a focus on the five solas and the doctrines of grace. Yesterday was our first session on this track, the first back after our summer break, so we were doing an overview of the five solas.
One of the things that became clear is that one of the solas stands under all the others. That isn’t to say the others don’t matter. Nor is it to say that this one is more important than the others. But there is one that ultimately drives us to the others and, without it, the others can all be dismissed. The one I am talking about is sola scriptura.
As we looked at Ephesians 2:1-10, we could pick out four of five solas. All of them mentioned fairly clearly. But where is sola scriptura? Ultimately, it is implied. We only think these other things are legitimate because we see them in the scriptures. There are, of course, scriptural reasons to believe in the final authority of scripture. But, without that sola, all the others are meaningless. If we don’t believe in the final authority of scripture, it doesn’t really matter whether we can find the other four written there or not, we can just dismiss them with whatever higher authority we have chosen to adopt.
Historians generally like to talk about both the material and the formal cause of the reformation. The material cause – the presenting issue – was sola fide. Is salvation really by faith alone or is it by faith and works? That was the issue that got Luther hauled to the Diet of Worms. But the formal cause, the issue that always lurked in the background, was the authority of scripture, sola scriptura. Did the scriptures of the church have final authority? In the end, Luther insisted that he did believe in sola fide ultimately because he believed in sola scriptura. The Roman Catholic Church disagreed and thus the creation of Protestantism as we know it came to be.
I think it is quite right to understand that sola scriptura is the sola that therefore undergirds all the others. Apart from this one, we can reject whatever the scriptures may teach about the others. But insist on sola scriptura and we must be wedded to whatever the scriptures happen to teach on the rest. As we open Ephesians 1 and 2 – and not only those places but all over the scriptures at large – it is hard not to see the other four plastered all over its pages.