As Lutherans gather to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation (October 31, 2017), it is quite fitting to reflect on the three Latin solae (anglicized solas), “By Scripture Alone, By Grace Alone, and By Faith Alone” (Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, et Sola Fide). Even though these “Reformation Principles” or the “Exclusive Particles” do not represent the sum totality of the Christian faith, they have long helped Lutherans confess Holy Scripture’s inner core.
It may come as a surprise to hear that the three Latin solas were not coined by Lutheranism. The solas can already be found in the theology of the High and Late Middle Ages. Still, it was not until the advent of the Lutheran Reformation that the proper Biblical meaning of the three solas would be fully restored and their hermeneutical (interpretative) significance be elevated. The frequency with which each Latin sola occurs in the writings of Martin Luther (1483–1546) and the Lutheran Confessions varies. Nevertheless, all three Latin solas are found in the writings of Luther and the Book of Concord, along with other Latin and German equivalents. The concepts underlying the solas, moreover, permeate the thought of Luther and the Lutheran Confessions. That said, the three Latin solas do not seem to appear together as a collected unit for summarizing Lutheranism until the nineteenth century. It should also be noted that while all Protestants claim to hold to the three solas, they do not understand them the way that Lutherans do.
Luther’s Sola Scriptura rediscovery was not limited to the reassertion of the final sole authority of Scripture, but also the sole re-creative (performative) power of Scripture (i.e. it works faith in a person’s heart and strengthens it). Thus, it is just as important for Lutherans to confess this so-called performative understanding of God’s Word as it is the sole authority of Scripture. The former is even less understood by the twenty-first century than the latter. For instance, many today defend the inerrancy of the Bible as a channel of sacred information (e.g. the veracity of the six-day creation), but far fewer believe that the same Word that brought forth the creation has the same power to create faith (regeneration) in a child’s heart.
As Luther zeroed in on his great rediscovery of passive righteousness through God’s performative Word, he was opposed by pope, magisterium, tradition, and even church councils. Many in medieval times believed that Scripture was the only source of doctrine; many also believed that the pope and magisterium could err and had. However, they also believed that councils and tradition were the proper interpreters of Scripture and that councils and tradition had not and could not err. What would make Luther so controversial after the 1519 Leipzig Colloquy was not that he used the words Sola Scriptura, but that he would show that even tradition and council had at times actually departed from Scripture and therefore Scripture was the final arbitrator of truth. Furthermore, Luther maintained that Scripture is subordinate to no interpreter; rather, Scripture was its own interpreter.
While the Radical and Reformed Reformations also claimed to hold to Luther’s Sola Scriptura, they reinterpreted it to mean that any practice not found in Scripture must be rejected. As a result, crosses, religious art, hymns, musical instruments, etc., were removed from their churches. Often Radicals and Reformed also reinterpreted passages of Scripture they did not find conducive to reason or human intuition. This is why they denied the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. Finally, the Radicals and the Reformed sought the Holy Spirit and His grace apart from Word and Sacrament.
In Luther’s last years, he had time to unpack the performative nature or power of God’s Word. He found this very important to teach because of the comfort it provides. The book of Genesis reminded him that if God’s Word was able to bring forth all things by the power of His Word, then God’s Word also has the power to declare the believer’s forgiveness, life, and salvation a reality as well. Let there be light!
Reverend Dr. Timothy R. Schmeling
Professor of Exegentical and Historical Theology
Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary