This is the first of a 5-part series about the “5 Solas” of the Protestant Reformation. The word “sola” is Latin, meaning “alone”. There were 5 things primary things that the Reformers felt needed to be reformed or purified in the Roman Catholic Church. The “alone” part refers to the idea that none of these 5 things were designed to be “added to” by anything. They are each meant to stand alone. The 5 Solas are…
- Sola Scriptura – Scripture Alone (sermon audio below)
- Sola Gratia – Grace Alone
- Sola Fide – Faith Alone
- Solus Christus – Christ Alone
- Soli Deo Gloria – Glory of God Alone
For the first 1,500 years of the church, almost no one had a personal copy of the Scriptures. The church was always the custodian of the physical copies of the Scriptures.
Early Church – In the opening centuries of early church history the canon of Scripture had not yet been agreed upon. Churches would have copies of the individual gospels or letters that had been written and would eventually be incorporated into the Bible. Greek was the common spoken language of the Roman Empire while Latin was the official or formal language. There was a widely circulated Greek translation of the OT (called the Septuagint) and the NT was written in Greek, the language that everybody could use. It was cost and time prohibitive to create copies of the Scriptures by hand. A church would have to employ a scribe and the pace of copying would be a few chapters per day. Thus, individuals did not have copies of the Scriptures but could read the copy that the church had.
Middle Age Church – When the Roman Empire finally fell in the 5th century, the Latin language developed over the centuries into the various Latin-based languages of Europe (Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese). As well the Germanic languages were widespread. All of these became the common language of the people over the centuries, but the Roman Catholic Church maintained the use of Latin in all aspects of church life and writing. As the centuries progressed a significant problem developed from this. The church was still the custodian of all the physical copies of the Scriptures, but the general population could no longer read the Scripture when they went to the church because the copies of the Scripture were not written in the common language but in Latin.
Given time (centuries to develop traditions), power (church and state closely linked), and the ignorance of the population (stated above) the Roman Catholic Church slowly began to elevate two other sources to an equal level of authority with the Scripture. The Pope and Church Tradition began to be as authoritative as the Scripture over the church and people. Gregg Allison writes in his book Historical Theology, “all multiple-source views of authority are unstable, giving preference to one source rather than to another. As seen in the Catholic Church, tradition takes preference over Scripture; thus, tradition becomes the church’s ‘final authority’.” (p. 87-88)
So, by the time of the Reformation in the 16th century, the Roman Catholic Church had completely suppressed the Scripture under the Pope’s edicts and interpretation of Scripture because the Pope’s edicts and interpretation often ran contrary to Scripture.
Reformation Church – “Scripture Alone” became the central principle of the Reformation churches. Martin Luther made his famous stand at the Diet of Worms in 1521 where he declared,
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. May God help me.
The doctrine of Sola Scriptura demands a Bible in the language of the common people so that the common person can discern truth. So, Martin Luther put his mind and hand to the task of translating the Bible and, aided by the invention of the printing press, the NT was printed in the German language in 1522. For the first time in the 1,500 years of church history the Bible was now unchained from the pulpit.
What does “Scripture Alone” mean?
Sola Scriptura means 2 things (taken from Allison’s Historical Theology, p. 88)
- Scripture, because it is the Spirit’s writing, is the final judge of Christian doctrine and practice, standing above everything else.
- Anything that lacks biblical warrant cannot be authoritative or binding for Christians.
Do you appreciate the copy (or copies!!) of God’s Word that you have in your native language sitting in your house? I hope so. Now pick it up and read!