Historians and theologians have long recognized that at the heart of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation were five declarations (or solas) that distinguished the movement from other expressions of the Christian faith.
Five hundred years later, we live in a different time with fresh challenges to our faith. Yet these rallying cries of the Reformation continue to speak, addressing a wide range of contemporary issues, including the authority of Scripture.
Please briefly explain what the Reformation was and describe the five solas of the Reformation.
Matthew Barrett: The 16th-century Reformation was first and foremost a reform in doctrine. The Protestant Reformers were convinced that the medieval Catholic Church had compromised biblical teaching on essential matters of the Christian faith.
For example, Church tradition was believed to be a second infallible source of divine revelation alongside Scripture. The Reformers argued, however, that as important as church tradition is as an aid, helping Christians understand and interpret the Bible, the Bible alone is inspired by God, without error, and fully sufficient for faith and practice. Therefore, Scripture alone is the church’s final authority. The Reformers concluded that while tradition may play a ministerial role for the church, only Scripture has a magisterial role. This belief, called sola Scriptura, outraged Rome because it meant that the Pope was not the final, infallible authority; that position of prominence belongs to Scripture and Scripture alone.
The Reformers also believed the late medieval Catholic Church had misunderstood in a very serious way the nature of salvation. While God’s grace was necessary for salvation, man’s right standing was based in part upon man’s good, meritorious works, even if they be grace-enabled good works. This created a massive crisis in the life of Luther. No matter how many good works Luther performed, at the end of the day Luther could not escape the fact that he fell short. Luther admitted that he hated the righteousness of God because it reminded him that he was a sinner condemned before a holy God.
Then Luther started studying the apostle Paul, especially his letter to the Romans, and he realized that when Paul refers to the gospel he has in mind a righteousness from God, that is, the righteousness God gives to guilty sinners as a gift. This gift of righteousness is imputed or credited to man’s account upon faith in Jesus alone.
Luther, along with many other Reformers, concluded that man is justified by God’s grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ Jesus alone (solus Christus). This discovery changed everything. No longer did the sinner need to perform works of penance or purchase an indulgence certificate; rather, he needed to abandon all efforts at self-righteousness and trust in the righteousness of Christ alone. When Luther’s eyes were opened to these solas, suddenly it was as if he had discovered the gospel for the very first time.
As you might have guessed, rediscovering this biblical understanding of salvation meant all glory, honor, and credit in salvation was to be given to God (soli Deo Gloria). This emphasis on the glory of God, however, was not restricted to the Christian’s initial conversion. The Reformers believed soli Deo Gloria was to change the whole Christian life. Every Christian had a God-given vocation that was to be performed for the glory of God.
Why is sola Scriptura considered the foundation of the five?
Matthew Barrett: Luther’s rediscovery of the gospel happened progressively. When his 95 theses were posted in 1517, challenging the abuse of indulgences he saw in own his day, that was but the beginning of a mature understanding of God’s grace still yet to come. Increasingly, therefore, Luther hit heads with Rome. It was not long before Luther realized that behind the debate over justification was a more foundational debate: who has ultimate authority to decide on these matters? Is it the Pope, church councils, or Scripture? Luther had a very high regard for church councils, but church councils, he argued, were not infallible. Only Scripture is inspired by God and without error. Final authority, therefore, resides with Scripture, argued Luther.
All that to say, if agreement could not be reached on the issue of authority, then it was increasingly difficult to see how there could be agreement on the issue of salvation. Luther believed the Pope and the Bible drew radically different conclusions concerning our right standing with God. Yet if final authority did not reside in Scripture, but the Pope had the final word, then a divide between Rome and Luther was inevitable. Famously, this became the dividing line at the Diet of Worms. Though he feared for his life, Luther boldly 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 often err and contradict themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen (LW 32:112).
Who was William Tyndale and why is his story so important to the idea of Scripture being its own interpreter?
Matthew Barrett: Luther tends to get all the attention when we discuss the Reformation, and for good reason too. But we cannot forget that the ideas of the Reformation were not limited to Luther’s Wittenberg. They were taking root in other territories as well. In England, William Tyndale risked his life in order to translate the Bible into the vernacular.
We take Bible translation for granted today, given the numerous excellent Bible translations we have readily at our fingertips, but in the 16th-century it was the Latin Vulgate that dominated the scene. The average churchgoer, however, may not have had the ability to read Latin. Even if he did, the Vulgate became increasingly untrustworthy for those sympathetic with the Protestant cause. Biblical scholars like Erasmus had exposed the Vulgate for mistranslating the original Greek, and sometimes its mistranslation only further perpetuated Rome’s faulty view of salvation. Add to this the fear in Rome that if the Bible was placed into the hands of the people, in their own native tongue, the authority of Rome as the infallible interpreter of the Bible would be undermined.
Enter William Tyndale. Tyndale was educated at Oxford and lived in Cambridge when Luther’s writings were burned in 1521 at both London and Cambridge. With Luther’s revolutionary ideas swimming around in the heads of young theologians and Erasmus’s groundbreaking work in the Greek text freshly printed, the atmosphere was ripe for further advances. The people were hungry to read the Bible, even if the legal authorities said otherwise. Tyndale felt a deep-rooted conviction that he was called to make God’s Word available to God’s people. John Foxe recounts a telling encounter with Tyndale that reveals his single-minded passion:
Master Tyndale happened to be in the company of a learned man and in the communing and disputing with him, drove him to that issue that the learned man said, “We would be better off without God’s law than the pope’s.” Master Tyndale hearing that, answered him, “I defy the pope and all his laws,” and said, “if God spare my life, ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth a plow shall know more of the Scripture than thou doest.”
Sadly, Tyndale would be strangled and burned at the stake, but not before he translated the New Testament into English from the original Greek.
Why is Tyndale’s story so important to our understanding of sola Scriptura? Tyndale believed Scripture possessed the words of eternal life. By bringing the Bible to the common person in the common language, the Word of God was, often for the very first time, piercing the hearts of the people, igniting gospel reformation that the church had for so long been without.
How can Christians best communicate the concept that the Bible is absolute truth when living in a “truth is relative” culture?
Matthew Barrett: The “truth is relative” culture we live in today is one saturated by a postmodern worldview. According to postmodernism, truth can no longer be “Truth” with a capital “T” but only “truth” with a lower case “t.” In other words, no longer do people believe there is absolute truth. Truth is relative. For the postmodernist, the ultimate sin is claiming one knows the truth. Naturally, postmodernism is anti-authority. It’s little surprise, then, that postmodernism is a self-professing enemy to biblical authority.
In the Christian worldview, we, as readers, are subservient to God, the divine author. Meaning and truth are not determined by us (the readers), but by God, the divine author.
How should we, as evangelicals, respond? We must return to sola Scriptura. The God of the Bible not only speaks, but claims to speak the truth, even sending his Son who is the way, the truth, and the light (John 14:6), the Logos who speaks the truth with authority (John 1:1), a truth that liberates the enslaved (John 8:32).
Historic Christianity has argued that Scripture hands to us not just any narrative, but the metanarrative that interprets reality and judges all other competing narratives. This claim lies at the heart of sola Scriptura and the Bible’s claim to authority. The Bible gives to us the supreme, final, truthful, objective, clear, and sufficient metanarrative, and this claim makes sola Scriptura offensive to the postmodernist mind. For many evangelicals, postmodernism and historic Christianity could not be more antithetical.
How has the modern Protestant church, including evangelicals, veered from the concept of sola Scriptura?
Matthew Barrett: The battle over biblical authority that started in the early 20th century is far from over. There continues to be an ever-growing number of books published on the subject every year, many questioning Scripture’s authority, inspiration, inerrancy, clarity, necessity, and sufficiency.
In God’s Word Alone I use the label “evangelical Bible critics” to refer to certain evangelicals today who are critical of Scripture (in varying degrees) but nonetheless still identify themselves in some sense as “evangelical” (or at least did so at one time). For these thinkers, the Bible is primarily a human book, and since it was written by humans it naturally errs. Historical errors and contradictions, they argue, are present throughout (for example, Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch, Paul didn’t write many epistles bearing his name, the flood and exodus never happened, Nineveh never repented, Gospel writers contradict each other, the prophecy of Christ’s return is mistaken). But these errors are not only historical in nature, but theological and ethical, as the Bible espouses values that are sinister and evil. Even Jesus’s teachings, they claim, were not immune from the fallen condition. Therefore, the Bible, being fallen and broken, has a dark side. Nevertheless, they qualify, Scripture is still God’s Word and authoritative in its main message, since God accommodates himself to error, redeeming and sanctifying man’s broken word. So the argument goes.
Evangelicals must be ready to spot the loopholes in such claims. I explore many in God’s Word Alone, but let’s consider just two. First, while the “evangelical Bible critics” look at apparent Bible “problems” and conclude that the Bible is not inerrant but nonetheless remains the “word of God,” skeptics (for example, Bart Ehrman) look at the same Bible “problems” and conclude that the Bible most definitively is not the “word of God.” On this point, ironically, evangelical inerrantists and skeptics have much in common over against “evangelical Bible critics”—they agree that if the Bible errs, it cannot be the authoritative “word of God.”
Second, for “evangelical Bible critics,” not only is the historicity of the biblical accounts called into question, but the very theology and ethics of the Bible are questioned. We should not think that “evangelical Bible critics” have a problem with minor issues. Rather, their criticism of Scripture is with the Bible’s own theology and ethical instruction; indeed, the Bible’s own worldview.
Needless to say, sola Scriptura will be seriously compromised and abandoned should evangelicals go down this path. What we need, then, are evangelical Christians bold enough to take a stand for biblical authority, even if it means being laughed at by “evangelical Bible critics” today. In doing so, evangelicals defending sola Scriptura will find the 16th-century Reformers to be their greatest allies.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?
Matthew Barrett: I have benefitted in the past from Bible Gateway. I especially appreciate how Bible Gateway makes the Bible, in a variety of translations, so accessible to Christians everywhere. God has blessed us with technology in the 21st century and it’s a great responsibility. It’s encouraging to see Bible Gateway using this technology to advance biblical literacy.
If readers would like to learn more about your new book, as well as The 5 Solas series, where can they go?
Matthew Barrett: Over at Credo Magazine you can read endorsements for the book from thinkers like Albert Mohler, D. A. Carson, and Kevin Vanhoozer. There you’ll also find other articles I’ve written explaining what sets the book apart and how it can help Christians today apply the doctrine of sola Scriptura today.
Bio: Matthew Barrett (matthewmbarrett.com) is Tutor of Systematic Theology and Church History at Oak Hill Theological College in London. He’s the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine, as well as the author and editor of several books, including Salvation by Grace, Four Views on the Historical Adam, and Owen on the Christian Life.
Matthew is the editor of the Five Solas Series: God’s Word Alone: The Authority Of Scripture, Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification, Grace Alone: Salvation as a Gift of God, Christ Alone: The Uniqueness of Jesus As Savior, and God’s Glory Alone: The Majestic Heart of Christian Faith and Life