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Danger Signals: The Solas of the Reformation

Over the past several years, I've read a great deal of literature on both the Catholic Church and the Reformation. Many of my protestant friends have brought up concerns about my fascination with the Catholic Church, and everyone seems to have varying understandings of the problems surrounding it. Some are wary of the teachings of Rome for historical reasons (i.e. the selling of indulgences), some suspect heresy (i.e. their view of the sacraments), and still others believe it to be complete apostasy from Christ’s true Church (i.e. the veneration of Mary and the saints). There are many arguments against the Church of Rome; some historical, some personal, and some doctrinal. The historical problems are absolutely valid, as are some of the personal. Unfortunately, these historical and personal problems have been misinterpreted to be doctrinal problems. A deep misunderstanding of Catholic teaching has been taught to protestant believers for centuries, and it has given many of us cause to shun the Catholic Church.
It is for this reason that I've decided to return the favour and bring up some of my concerns with the doctrinal pillars of the “Reformed Church,” the Solae, and clarify the actual teachings of the Catholic Church in response to these Solae. Historical issues aside, is important to examine the foundational groundwork of Reformational doctrine in the 16th century, and properly assess whether or not we may have created a theology that is attractive, but subtly heterodox. It will be hard for the average anti-papist to forget the historical travesties of certain Catholic leaders during the Reformation, but it is important to remember that the abuse of doctrine does not equate to the invalidity of doctrine.

Imagine, if you will, an ivy league school—old and learned in it’s teaching of advanced mathematics. In that school’s math department, there are several really nasty math teachers. They treat students poorly, and make the students do personal favors for extra credit. Does this make all the teachings of the math department inherently wrong in the content of their teaching, or should we place individual responsibility on those teachers in the math department? My hope is that most readers would not deny the teachings of the department based on the fallenness of the teachers.
Before I dive into these doctrines, I implore my readers to look past human errors and instead compare the actual doctrines of the Catholic Church versus the Reformed Church. While the arguments against these Solae are deep and extensive, I will attempt to simply show the immediate problems that need addressing and sorting out, and, in doing so, challenge readers to rethink their positions on both sides. I am content to see people maintain their theological views, as long as they have given fair thought to the alternative views and are fully aware of what their own doctrines imply.

Sola Scriptura

First, let us take a look at Sola Scriptura, the doctrine of “Scripture Alone.” This idea seems really good at first glance—simply because we, as Christians, know that we can trust Scripture as Truth. Is it, however, the only source of truth in the Church? It is clear that Martin Luther’s original intent was to use the Scripture against corrupt leaders, but this seemingly innocent sola ended up dividing the Church—not just on a physical level, but on a sacramental and doctrinal level as well. This is why there are now tens of thousands of denominations—each denomination claims to be using scripture as the final authority, but really it is personal interpretation that becomes the final authority. Scripture’s authority is actually undermined when it becomes inconvenient to our own motives and fallenness. So how could one prevent this?

Besides the obvious disunity, there are several other troubling problems with this sola. The first problem, and perhaps the most blatant, is that Scripture does not state anywhere that it is the only authority on Christian life and living. In fact, it seems to state that there are extra-biblical things that Christians must do. In his letter to the Thessalonians Paul writes, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle” (II Thess. 2:15, NKJV). Paul, the largest individual contributor to the New Testament, clearly states that his letters are not the only authority to stand by. There are also traditions that must be stood by. Which traditions are these? And who is to say? Not all of this is clear. If we believe (as the majority of Christendom believes) that Scripture is the inspired, infallible Word of God, we must also believe that there is an inspired, infallible teacher and protector of that Word. Some say that the perfect teacher and protector is the Holy Spirit, and they would be correct, but two inherently contradicting doctrines on morality cannot both be of God since He is the source and author of all Truth.

Secondly, scripture was not canonized for several centuries. There were many writings mixed in with what we now call Scripture, but not all of them have been included in the Bible. In fact, the Bible has had several large revisions made to it over the life of the Church. So who was the authority before scripture was canonized? Simply put, it was (and I would argue still is) the Church. The Canon was established by councils, not individuals. The Church in Acts reveals a fascinating Truth: the authority of the Holy Spirit is in disciples and gets passed in a specific way—apostolic succession. Although this passing of authority is not specifically called “apostolic succession” in scripture, there is clear scriptural evidence that the authority of the Church is passed from Christ to the apostles, and then from the apostles to others. The process involves prayer, careful selection, and especially the laying on of hands (Timothy 5:22; Acts 6:5-6; Acts 8:18). This can even be seen in the conversion and anointing of the Apostle Paul by Ananias (Acts 9:10-19). Paul is converted by an encounter with God, but before he can fulfill God’s mission for him, Ananias must come lay his hands on Paul, open Paul’s eyes, and baptize him. The laying on of hands appears to be of the highest scriptural importance. Although the evidence can be found in any modern translation, this practice cannot be found in most modern denominations. Why not?

Thirdly, there are certain doctrines that are only solidified by the context of the Church—doctrines that have been included with the Truth of the Canon. The Apostles Creed, which emerged in the first century of the Church, establishes the core beliefs of our faith and is almost universally accepted. The Nicene Creed, brought about in the first four centuries, does the same. Trinitarian doctrine was established and upheld by the Church (often in the face of severe opposition). The doctrine of the real body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist was established at the beginning of the Church and was almost universally believed for the next fifteen hundred years. The Church is the inspired writer of Scripture, and has in been given the power to establish extra-biblical doctrines on Scripture. This authority is necessary for the moral protection of each age. There are some Christians who would argue that cloning and genetic experimentation is not specifically mentioned in the Bible, and therefore it is an up in the air issue. But there are also plenty of Christians oppose it saying that it is implied. Who is to say that this is moral or immoral? We need a clear, loud, infallible voice to identify and oppose the atrocities that arise in each age.

Sola Fide

Next on the docket is Sola Fide, the concept of “Faith Alone.” From a historical context, it is easy to see why Luther wanted to incorporate the idea that works could not contribute to one’s salvation—after all, many leaders in the Catholic Church were abusing their power by claiming they could grant salvation by selling indulgences. The problem is that this pillar has allowed many people to take salvation for granted. Salvation cannot be earned by works, but works are still a necessary part of faith. Ironically, if we follow Luther’s belief that scripture is the only authority, we run into a problem. Biblically speaking, faith alone will not save us. The writer in James clearly states, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17). James immediately follows with a statement that faith is only shown by works (James 2:18-21). Confusing? Perhaps this is why Luther wished to eliminate the book of James from the Canon altogether.

One might site the places in Scripture where faith alone seems to be the apparent operation of salvation. For example, in Luke 7:50, Christ tells the sinful woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in Peace.” But was it simply her faith alone that was in play? How did she show her faith? The answer can be found a few verses back. Jesus addresses the judgemental Simon, saying, “You have rightly judged.” Then He turns to the woman and says, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil. Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much” (Luke 7:43-47).
Her actions (or works) are what reveal her faith. Such is the case with any similar story in Scripture. The thief on the Cross next to Christ has faith but also shows this by defending Christ and confessing his own sinfulness (Luke 23:39-43).

Should we overlook the fact that Saint Paul the Apostle wrote: “if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (I Corinthians 13:2)? More importantly, should we also overlook the fact that Christ Himself always showed faith through his actions? I would say that it would be a terrible error to ignore these signs.

Even if Sola Scriptura were correct, it would still completely dismantle Sola Fide.
Faith is an essential and necessary piece of our salvation, but faith is not the only essential piece. If we sin and do not repent of our sin as the Bible tells us (James 5:16), have we actually displayed faith? If say we love God but hate our brother, is faith a possibility? All the strength we have to do good works comes from God, but we still have to choose to do them with the free will he bestows. This is the struggle of the Church: to have a faith that is truly shown in works.

Sola Gratia

Thirdly, Sola Gratia or “only grace” states that individual worth or contribution has nothing to do with one’s salvation. Again, this was a fail-safe against corrupt Church leaders who were selling salvation via indulgences. It was important to show God’s people that it was the grace of God that enabled them to do anything at all.
 This sola does not conflict with the teachings of the Catholic Church, but rather conflicts with the practices of some of the leaders in that age. The Catholic Church has never proclaimed that anyone deserves to go to heaven based on action, but righteous actions are still fundamentally important to salvation. Grace is truly what saves us, but in order to accept the grace offered to us, we have to allow Christ to live and work in our hearts. A parent will help their child (especially in the early years), but eventually a child must both take some responsibility and ask for help. A relationship requires effort on both ends, even if one side of the relationship is all loving and powerful.

Grace has been lessened by this doctrinal concept. Combined with the concept of Sola Fide, one might be led to believe that a state of grace is both effortless and impossible to lose. As soon as we believe that our contributions are not what save us, there is little incentive to live a devout and Godly life. Why pay for something that is free, right? But actually we know that accepting the grace of Christ costs us our very lives. In Galatians 2:20 Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” The idea that we can simply claim an indelible status by saying a quick prayer is both preposterous and dangerous. We must always continue to pursue Christ in everything we do. When we sin, we must repent and beg for mercy. We may claim to love God, but when we prioritize our sinful desires over what He desires, have we not set up an idol in our hearts? Is this behaviour compatible with the truest Good? In Titus 1:16, the author writes, “They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good.” Real Christianity is to take on a whole new self, a self that can be resurrected as Christ was resurrected. This is the grace that Christ offers to us. It is what saves us, but this is not a distinctly Reformed thought at all.

Solus Christus

Solus Christus translated means “Christ Alone.” Again, this sola sounds like wonderful theology; but let us take a look at what this sola implies. Solus Christus expresses the idea that there is no longer a need for priesthood since Christ is our Great High Priest. Under this sola, authority no longer rests with organized religion, because Christ is the authority, and we all partake in His holy priesthood. Unfortunately, this roughly translates to every believer having doctrinal authority—a logical impossibility. While it is true that Christ founded the Church, it is not true that He withheld priestly authority from individuals in the Church. Nor is it true that everyone was given the same type of authority. Christ is our great High Priest (as it emphasizes in Hebrews), but nowhere is it stated that He is the only priest. Some will say that all share in a common priesthood, and this is true, but there are certainly those who have more authority than others. Claiming that they have no authority because you are disgruntled does not change the fact that they have authority.

Let us take a quick look at the Old Testament. Hophni and Phineas were the sons of Eli the Priest, the same Eli that raised the prophet Samuel. Like their father, both of these men were priests; but unlike Eli, they were terribly wicked and actively sinned against God. It was their sin that eventually led to their downfall, because God did not allow wicked leaders to forever remain among His people. If one of the tribes had broken away from Israel over this corruption, would this have justified splitting from God’s covenant people—even in an attempt to avoid bad priests? No. Thankfully we see how God reformed the leadership of His people in His own time, and how He was the one who restored and saved them time and time again when they turned back to Him.

Not liking a system of authority does not mean that that system is bad or incorrect. Wicked leaders in a system of authority may cause corruption within the system, but this does not prove that the systems fundamentals are wrong. Every system run by broken men will have issues, but God has proven that He will work through broken men in the Church. The question we must ask is: why such an explosive change in doctrine of authority in the reformation? Sure, there were plenty of offences happening, but apostolic succession is both highly biblical and one of the original traditions instituted in the Church. Could 1500 years of this succession be tossed away due to the actions some bad apples? Scripture seems to argue otherwise.

Soli Deo Gloria

Finally, Soli Deo Gloria stands in opposition to the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary or of any saints. It argues that those labelled as saints should not be commended for their good works since it is God who created them and allowed them to do those good works. Sadly, this view is basically a restating of what the Catholic Church already believes. In fact, they specifically glorify God alone in their stating of the Gloria Patri: “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.” Glory is a product that God alone can produce, but He chooses various people made in His image to reveal his glory, and this is where veneration comes in. Veneration is not worship or deification, rather it is a giving of honour and respect. Mary and the saints are not venerated in the Church for their own sake, but rather because of what God did in them. The reason they are venerated is simply because they don’t point to themselves. They point to God. God fully reveals Himself in Christ, but when Christ lives in the hearts of men, they begin to reflect that same glory. This glory is not their own, nor do they claim it as their own. They are role-models for all Christ-seekers.

If you are still sceptical of venerating Mary, try thinking about it with this perspective: Being all powerful, Christ could have been made man without being born of a woman, but He was born of a woman—the Blessed Virgin Mary. As Christians, we believe that Christ is fully God and fully man. His divinity made Him worthy of dying for our sins, but His humanness, the mortal piece passed down from Mary, made him able to die. Why should we honour the Blessed Virgin Mary? Because it she conformed her will to God’s and offered a piece of herself in Christ’s incarnation. She bore the burden of being perceived as having a child out of wedlock. She raised and protected and loved Christ in a way that only a mother can. She supported His ministry and had faith in Him. She even watched Him die on the cross at Golgotha. Mary is alive in Christ because He was and is alive in Her. The veneration of Mary has been practiced for Millennia by billions and billions of Christians. Her importance? She is connected to our Lord and Savior in a miraculous way. It is not for her sake that we call her blessed among women. Again, I’ll ask the same question I asked about the Eucharist and the priesthood: Why would God have allowed His beloved people to do something so utterly heinous for so very long? It’s a question we don’t ask ourselves, simply because we often perceive something different than the actual beliefs of the Catholic Church.

Let this be known: the true Church of God will proclaim His glory from age to age. He alone is deserving of our most devout praise. By honouring those who have Christ in them, we are honoring Christ, not the creation. By calling out to those who have Christ in them, we are asking for intercession on our behalf. Praying to Mary and the saints is akin to asking your family and or friends to pray for you. Remember, the community of God’s Church is so powerful that death and the gates of Hell cannot prevail against it. The saints are more alive than we can begin to imagine.

Final thoughts

While the solae of the Reformation sound good, the main premise of each one contains a fundamental fallacy. It is apparent that even the original meanings of the solae have been reinterpreted to mean what individuals want them to believe. The original theologies of the reformation have evolved over time, morphed by the viewpoints of various interpreters. If one takes the time to unpack the histories and biblical backings of the solae, the solae will eventually being to unravel, leaving the investigator in a place of realization—it was not theological reform that was needed in the early Church, but rather a reform of heart. To believe we could heal a spiritually broken Church with man-made medicine was a clear sign that we did not understand the problem. The medicine is the Holy Spirit working in the Church and the correct traditions established by the Church fathers. More than anything, we need to turn back to God and seek to live righteously. There is nothing else that will save us.

One final word. My goal is not to mislead those who seek the Truth, and I believe that Christ reaches out to all those who seek. If, however, we are to condemn or criticize the ancient traditions of Catholicism or Orthodoxy, we must be certain that we fully understand the doctrines that lie within each Church. Upon understanding, we must listen for a call, check for a stirring, and examine our hearts for a tugging that may just bring us closer to God than we ever thought possible.

L. C. Getz