When we write or teach on the solas of the Reformation, with which distinctive should we begin? In the end, this is probably a matter of preference, but after completing Reeves and Chester’s (excellent) book Why the Reformation Still Matters and pondering how I would begin our young adult’s study on the Reformation, I was forced to wrestle with the question of order.
I had planned to begin with Scripture alone, but when I noticed that Reeves and Chester begin with justification by faith alone (chapter 1) and then move into Scripture alone (chapter 2), I was thrown into a fit of confusion. Alright, it wasn’t that severe, but I did develop two different introductions because I was slightly unsure how I should go about sequencing these Reformation distinctives.
In the end, I went with Sola Scriptura. But why begin our discussion of the five solas of the Reformation with Scripture Alone? Doesn’t it make more historical sense to begin with justification by faith alone (Sola Fide)?
The Truth of Justification, Found in the Bible
Yes, perhaps for the sake of historical order it helps to begin with justification by faith alone. If we follow the narrative of Luther’s theological and spiritual development, it makes sense to begin with the “material principle” of the Reformation, for it was two years after Luther posted the 95 Theses, in a disputation with John Eck (1519), that the Reformer officially concluded that Scripture is the supreme spiritual authority in the church and that church tradition is subject to the authority of Scripture, not vice-versa.
In Luther’s story, it is his search for assurance of salvation that led him to discover the glorious truth of justification by faith alone. Yet, he discovered this truth in the Scriptures, which would eventually lead him to declare Scripture Alone as the supreme source of spiritual authority for the individual Christian and the corporate church.
The doctrine of Scripture Alone, therefore, was implicit, we might say, in Luther’s search for assurance. It was Luther’s search for assurance that led him to find light in the Scripture and not in the teaching of the Roman Church. Indeed, it was the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church concerning salvation that had cast Luther into a desperate spiritual state for several years. He finally had a breakthrough when he discovered the truth of justification in the Scriptures.
Not a Mere Logical Starting Point
Our of the Reformation principle of Scripture Alone, therefore, is not a mere intellectual or logical starting point. Intimately tied to the principle of Scripture Alone is the believer’s assurance of salvation, for it is in the Scriptures and only in the Scriptures that God has given us his clear Word on how a person can be right with his Creator. When the supreme authority of Scripture is disregarded or when Scripture is placed on an equal plane of authority with church tradition and counsels, then the gospel and assurance of salvation will soon be muddled and eventually lost.
As the Luther and the other reformers sought to promote theological, spiritual, and ecclesiastical transformation throughout Europe, they drew their doctrines from the Scripture, appealing to the Bible as God’s Word to man and our supreme spiritual authority for faith and practice. Even those who came before Luther who had critiqued the Roman Catholic Church—John Wycliff, John Hus—had rooted their arguments in the Bible, thus indicating that it was to Scripture they were finally beholden, not the church’s teaching.
Without a commitment to Scripture Alone, the Reformers’ commitment to other doctrines of the Reformation would have been weakened and eventually abandoned. It was because the Reformers were convinced that God has revealed his Word in the Bible alone and not in the teaching of the church that they were able to stand through intense opposition from the Catholic church.
That’s why I begin with Scripture Alone.