The ‘5 Solas’: Radical theology for 16th-century Europe

October 2nd, 2017 / By: Michael Foust / comments

The ‘5 Solas’: Radical theology for 16th-century Europe

Five hundred years removed from Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, it can be difficult for the 21st century Christian to appreciate the radical nature of the Reformation. 

After all, phrases such as “grace alone” and “faith alone”—two of the so-called “Five Solas”—are commonly used among Protestants with little thought given to their historical nature. 

But in 1517 Europe, modern-day evangelical beliefs would have been considered heresy.  

The theological world that Luther faced when he became a priest and then a professor was one based on grace plus works. This framework within the medieval Roman Catholic Church allowed for the selling of indulgences, which required a contribution to the church to ensure that a person—dead or alive—could be released from purgatory. The most popular salesman of indulgences became friar John Tetzel, who pledged that the indulgences he sold would make the sinner “cleaner than when coming out of baptism” and “cleaner than Adam before the Fall.” He even claimed that the “cross of the seller of indulgences has as much power as the cross of Christ.”

“As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs,” his famous jingle went.  

The profits helped fund the construction of Saint Peter’s Basilica, the famous dome structure that still stands within the Vatican.  

“Salvation was understood as occurring through the church and through the saints,” said Malcolm B. Yarnell III, research professor of systematic theology and director of the Center for Theological Research at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. “And people actually viewed purgatory in a semi-mathematical way: ‘How long will I have to serve in purgatory in order to atone for my sins?’ And the papacy made promises that you could get out sooner through these indulgences, by saying so many Hail Marys and through gifts to the church.”

It was against this backdrop that Luther and the Reformers took a stand by pointing Christians back to Scripture, emphasizing a Christ-centered salvation. 

“Luther began to question the whole Catholic system and read the Bible carefully,” Yarnell said. “And he began to discover that it didn’t fit with Scripture.”

The principles of Luther and the Reformers were summarized by later Christians in what is now known as the “Five Solas.” (Sola is Latin for “only” or “alone”) They are:

  1. Sola fide (“faith alone”): The sinner is justified by faith alone, not by works. Therefore, indulgences are unnecessary.
  2. Sola gratia (“grace alone”): Salvation is a free gift accomplished by God’s action, not by human works. 
  3. Solus Christus (“Christ alone”): Salvation is found only in Christ, the sole mediator between God and man. As a result, church leaders, the Virgin Mary and the saints are not mediators. 
  4. Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”): The Bible is the ultimate authority for Christians, not the pope or councils.
  5. Soli Deo Gloria (“glory to God alone”): All glory is due God alone—and not to the pope, the Virgin Mary or the saints.  

“These concepts were radical at the time because they were living under a different system of thought as to what salvation is and how one is saved, and to what is one saved,” Yarnell said. 

According to the Catholic Church, the papacy had the power to sell indulgences because it had access to the Treasury of Merit, which includes the overabundance of “merits” from Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints. As the thinking went, just one drop of Jesus’ blood would have accomplished his redemption plan. Yet Christ shed lots of blood. This “extra merit” ended up in the Treasury of Merit, similar to a spiritual treasure chest. The Virgin Mary also had “extra merit,” as did the saints.  

“Human salvation [during Luther’s time] was understood in a communal sense, and in a communal sense that was far beyond the present,” Yarnell said. “It involved the saints throughout history.”

The medieval understanding of salvation, Yarnell emphasized, involved human action.

“Even by systematic theologians, it was grace plus works,” Yarnell added. “Luther read Galatians and Romans and said: No, salvation is by grace alone. If it were by works, it would be your work and not Christ’s work. It has to be by grace. It’s either by works or by grace; it cannot be grace plus works. The solas help us to get our mind around the fact that salvation is a gift of God in Christ. I don’t think you can have one without the other. They all fold into the same package. These remind us of how and who brings us our salvation. I think they’re very important for Christians to remember.”

The five solas, Yarnell added, cross the Calvinism divide. 

“I do see these as pan-evangelical, pan-Protestant,” he said. “These are ideas that all those who are descendants of Reformation theology should be able to hold onto.”