By David Gunn
Oct. 31 marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation’s outbreak.
It began humbly, without pomp or circumstance—just a lone, nonconforming Augustinian monk, unspectacularly nailing a piece of parchment to a church door. At the time, this action wasn’t really intended to be a grand revolutionary act; nailing theses to church doors was just the way that medieval scholastics invited the scholarly community to participate in an academic debate. In this case, Luther wished to begin a discussion about the Scriptural warrant for indulgences—or the lack thereof. What it blossomed into was a full-scale recalibration of Western theology and, indeed, of Western civilization.
As the Protestant Reformation spread, Luther’s voice was joined by those of other nonconforming upstarts like Calvin and Zwingli. Reformed theology began to coalesce and take shape. Although there were various diverse schools of thought within the Reformation movement (it is probably more accurate to speak of Protestant Reformations than of one singular monolithic Reformation), Protestant theology came to be characterized by five statements, which we call today the five solas:
- Sola scriptura. “Scripture alone.” God’s Word is the final authority in matters of faith and practice, not church tradition or the magisterium.
- Sola fide. “Faith alone.” Salvation is received by faith. It is not conditioned in any way on the performance of good works.
- Sola gratia. “Grace alone.” Salvation is granted solely on the basis of God’s grace. It is therefore wholly unmerited.
- Solus Christus. “Christ alone.” Jesus is the only mediator between God and man. Sacerdotalism—the view that a special class of ordained human priests is necessary for legitimate worship to occur—is rejected.
- Soli Deo gloria. “Glory to God alone.” Whereas Roman Catholicism had developed a robust system of veneration for Mary, the saints, and the angels, this sola held that such veneration should be directed only toward God.
In my opinion, it would not be accurate, strictly speaking, to say that Baptists are Protestants. No direct line of historical continuity can be firmly established between the Protestant Reformers and the earliest Baptists. Ideologically and theologically, Baptists have always shared more in common with the Anabaptists than with the magisterial Reformers. We who are Regular Baptists are even further removed from the Reformers than some other Baptistic groups, for we have typically rejected covenant theology (a component that came to be part and parcel with Reformed theology) in favor of the dispensational approach.
Nevertheless, despite these historical and theological differences, there is much in the spirit of the Reformation that resonates deeply and powerfully with Baptists, and rightly so. We joyfully and unreservedly embrace the five solas, for they are elegant expressions of pure Biblical truth. We join the Reformers in their rejection of man-centered theology and ecclesiastical corruption. We cheer when we hear them calling a wayward people back to the Scriptures.
In that spirit, we have chosen to devote five articles in this issue of the Baptist Bulletin to the theological commitments expressed in the five solas. These articles are not simply a rehashing of the way in which the five solas originally functioned during the 16th century; rather, they explore some of the ways in which these theological commitments are still relevant today.
In 2017, you will find few (if any) academic disputations on the legitimacy of indulgences. The theological and social controversies we face today are far different from those that Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli faced so many centuries ago. Nevertheless, it is still incumbent upon us to confess with every ounce of strength we can muster that Scripture alone is our north star. That salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. That worship is due only to God. To Him alone “be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever” (Jude 1:25).
David Gunn is managing editor of the Baptist Bulletin.