The five solas (or solae in Latin) are a set of principles held by theologians and clergy to be central to the doctrine of salvation as taught by the Reformers and are considered important truths of the Protestant Reformation. These principles are:
- Sola scriptura (by Scripture alone)
- Sola gratia (by grace alone)
- Sola fide (by faith alone)
- Solus Christus or Solo Christo (Christ alone or through Christ alone)
- Soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone)
However, although the five solae were recovered and proclaimed during the Reformation period of the 1500's, they were not systematically articulated together until the 20th century. Sola gratia and sola fide were used in conjunction by the Reformers themselves. For example, in 1554 Melanchthon wrote, "sola gratia justificamus et sola fide justificamur" ("only by grace do we justify and only by faith are we justified"). All of the solas show up in various writings by the Protestant Reformers, but they are not catalogued together by any.
In 1916, Lutheran scholar Theodore Engelder published an article titled, "The Three Principles of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fides" ("only scripture, only grace, only faith"). In 1934, theologian Emil Brunner substituted Soli Deo gloriam for Sola Scriptura. In 1958, historian Geoffrey Elton, summarizing the work of John Calvin, wrote that Calvin had "joined together" the "great watchwords. Elton listed sola fide with sola gratia as one term, followed by sola scriptura and soli Deo gloria. Later, in commenting on Karl Barth's theological system, Brunner added Christus solus to the litany of solas while leaving out sola scriptura. The first time all of the solas are mentioned together is in Johann Baptiste Metz's 1965 book, The Church and the World.
Although these solas are seen as distinctive to Protestant Christianity, I believe they can and should be affirmed by all Christians. And, here, as an Anglican, I appeal to my Anglican brothers and sisters—those all across the Catholic and Reformed spectrum of Anglicanism—to affirm these solas:
Sola scriptura (by Scripture alone). How is it that we know of the Person and Work of God other than through the Holy Scriptures that have been handed down to us? We can speak of the value of the Church's tradition, but where is there any agreed canon of the tradition? Roman Catholics can look to the Magisterium. But would any part of the Magisterium declare that it affirms anything as essential for belief apart from that which can be confirmed by Holy Scripture? If so, it has ceased to be truly catholic, as in the famous, fifth-century definition of St. Vincent of Lerins, what is truly catholic is that which has been believed ubique, semper et ab omnibus, everywhere throughout the Chrtistian world, always (from the beginning), and by all (that which is generally held among all the faithful). The Eastern Orthodox (and, indeed, all knowledgeable Christians) can look to the traditions and writings handed down by the early Church Fathers. But would any dare assert that any article of faith not agreeable to the Scriptures can be truly Orthodox? As the Apostle Paul would say, μὴ γένοιτο (me genoito)—may it never be!
Sola gratia (by grace alone). So how is it that we come to a knowledge of all that God has done for us and an understanding of what is said in Scriptures and become partakers of the life offered to us in the Gospel's life-giving, life-transforming message? Is it in any other way than by God's grace? If we are at all drawn to these things and moved to respond, it is because God, by his grace, has spoken and we have heard.
It is by God's grace that he created the world. It is by God's grace that he created us humans. It is by grace his that he reached out time and time again calling his people, who had disobeyed and wandered far away from his will, into a covenant relationship with him. And it is by God's grace that he gave his one and only, eternal Son to become incarnate and to redeem the world from sin. So can we ever say that any aspect of our knowing God is by any means other than his grace? No, how could it ever be?
Sola fide (by faith alone). And how is it that we respond and become partakers of all that God has done for us? By faith. Hebrews 11 gives us that marvelous definition of faith:
1Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2For by it the people of old received their commendation. 3By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.And the chapter goes on to tell us how every one of the believers under the old covenant, to which Jews and Christians have always looked, accomplished what they did as the result of faith.
And the Apostle Paul reminds us in Ephesians 2 of this important truth:
8For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
So the grace that comes to us and even the faith by which we respond are not of our own doing but the gift of God. Paul then goes on to speak of the place of good works:
10For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.The good deeds we do are the outgrowth and result of our being saved by grace through faith. They are the demonstration of God's activity in our lives, not the cause of it. To suggest that they are in any way the cause of our salvation or add anything of merit to it is to suggest that there is another way to reach God; who if we truly understand the depth and greatness of his love and mercy, are compelled to admit in humility, that he reached out to us as the only means by which all this happens.
Solus Christus or Solo Christo (Christ alone or through Christ alone). And how has God spoken and revealed himself to humankind? — through the Holy Scriptures but chiefly through his Son, Jesus Christ. It is by the eternal Son that the world was created (John 1:1-3). It is through the atonement of the eternal Son that God's grace is effective in saving us. God is only our Father on the basis of adoption through faith in Jesus Christ (John 1:12-13). And, the Apostle Peter tells us in Acts 4 that, "there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” What else could anyone add to Christ's own Person or his work on our behalf that could save us. Nothing; we are saved through Christ alone.
Soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone). And, having said all this, is there any possibility that the glory should be given to anyone but God alone? For he alone, through the Person of his Son, is the author and perfecter of our faith; to him be glory, honor, and praise for ever!