The Christian life in the late 15th and early 16th centuries was a complicated one.
There was one church, centered in Rome.
Now there were multiple cathedrals and parishes, but everyone reported to Rome and more specifically to the Pope.
Scripture was practically chained to the pulpit and it was only read in Latin.
Whether you spoke German, French, Spanish or English - Latin was the means by which would hear Scripture.
Priests and Monks were the only ones authorized to read and teach the word.
Beyond that, there was a complicated system of obtaining salvation.
Repentance was part of the picture.
Praying to saints, paying indulgences, and performing acts of contrition all worked together to keep faithful Christians in a sort of bondage of wondering.
While the Papacy claimed to be infallible, corruption marked by greed and infidelity was all to common.
One Pope practically bragged about having a child out of wedlock with a physicians daughter.
Another Pope was so eager to expand the Vatican that a fundraising campaign was famously launched with the phrase - “A coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.”
Matthew Barrett noted:
With the appropriate amount of money, repentance was now for sale, and any sin could be covered
This was the Spiritual environment that prompted several men of God to lobby for reforms in the church.
They wanted to bring the church back to its roots.
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther famously posted his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenburg church.
The conversations and debate that he hoped for spun into what we now know as the Protestant Reformation.
While there is a lot that happened in the early decades of the reformation, there are five significant pillars that became markers of reformation churches.
These are known as
The Five Solas
Namely, these consist of...
Sola Scriptura - Scripture or God’s Word Alone is the authority for church
Solus Christus - Salvation is through Christ Alone
Sola Fide - Salvation through Christ is by Faith Alone
Sola Gratia - Salvation is an act of Grace Alone - not of works
Soli Deo Gloria - For the Glory of God alone
Over the next five weeks, we’ll consider each of these pillars.
In doing so, we’ll reflect a bit on what brought that particular sola about, but we’ll also consider why each one is still important today.
As you know, normally when I preach, I try to go sequentially through a book.
The sermons over the next few weeks will be necessarily a bit more topical.
We’ll still look closely at some scripture passages, but we’ll also jump around a bit.
So let’s begin where the reformation began....
In order to think through this, let’s go way back to the first century.
When Jesus was born, the books that we know of as the Old Testament was quite firmly established as the biblical canon, known as the Tanakh which consisted of
Torah - or the Law - Genesis through Deuteronomy
Nevi’im - the Prophets - Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Minor Prophets
Ketuvim - the writings - Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, and the books of Poetry.
As Jesus’ ministry gained an impact and the church began to grow, people began to circulate letters beginning around 50AD.
By roughly 150, the books that we know of as our New Testament were generally accepted as scripture.
There were other letters written to churches that seemed introduced divergent views of theology.
This prompted the church to convene some councils to solidify or canonize the full body of scripture.
A matter of Authority
Here is where one of the first big argument over scripture began - that is over authority.
Does Scripture have authority over the church or does the church have authority over scripture?
The debate within the Church
I didn’t fully understand why there was such a debate until about 10 years ago.
I was listening to a news talk station here in the area.
It’s a secular station.
One of the DJs is a devout catholic.
One morning as he was talking, the issue of scripture came up and he made a comment that helped me realize why Catholics and protestants view the bible so differently.
He said that since the church canonized the bible, the church, its officers, and tradition have authority over the bible.
For Martin Luther and the other reformers, their view was that the authority rested in scripture.
Scripture trumped tradition, the church, and its officers.
So let’s define what Sola Scriptura means.
According to Barrett - who wrote an excellent book entitled “God’s Word Alone,”...
Sola Scriptura means that only Scripture, because it is God’s inspired Word, is our inerrant, sufficient, and final authority for the church
During the time of the reformation, the doctrine of Sola Scriptura became a big dividing line between the protestant and Catholic churches.
This debate forced the Catholic church to revisit that over and over again in various councils.
To this day, the Catholic church maintains a view that the church and tradition - which may include some unbiblical beliefs (like views on Mary, transubstantiation, etc), trump scripture.
Now, I don’t bring this up to cause division between us and our Catholic brothers and sisters, but rather to help us understand where the debate ensued.
Why is this a big deal?
Well, if the practice of the church and the teaching, reading or understanding of scripture is left to a few and it’s only communicated in a foreign language, then those teachers and leaders could say almost anything and declare it to be true, right or valid.
Unfortunately they often did.
Sure, the leaders in the church valued and revered scripture.
I think they were generally truthful in their instruction, but doctrines like praying to saints, venerating Mary, purgatory, and paying indulgences are all non-biblical practices that were a big part of church life.
As a result of this element of the debate several people began to translate the bible into the languages of the people.
Luther had his German translation.
Wycliffe and Tyndale worked on their translations.
The invention of the printing press made mass distribution of Scripture readily available.
Now reading, studying, and applying scripture wasn’t reserved for the Spiritual elites, but for the common folk - in a language they could truly understand.
But this conflict with the authority of Scripture didn’t just exist among the churches.
Right on the heals of the reformation came...
The debate with Enlightenment
During this era, also known as the “age of reason,” human reason and science began to be the big antagonists to the authority of scripture.
If something couldn’t be reasoned out, setting miracles aside, then it must not be true.
Barrett notes that...
God’s Word Alone—The Authority of Scripture (The Reign of Autonomous Reason: The Enlightenment)
What distinguished the Enlightenment was how it viewed reason.
The Enlightenment individual believed he could have access to pure human reason, which would allow him to tear down traditional ecclesiastical myths that only served to oppress societies of ages past.
The Enlightenment man confidently declared to the world that he had come of age intellectually, and it was now time to liberate himself from the assumptions he had previously inherited from mother Christendom.
By means of pure reason, he was now capable of discovering truth for himself, and in doing so he would pioneer a new path to enlightenment.
Reason was the golden ticket to a life of total objectivity, free from bias.
There are various stages within Enlightenment and the age of reason.
We don’t have time here to process through the ramifications of this part of the debate.
Generally speaking, enlightenment produced a variety of results from Deists who would believe that God is silent to agnostics who would say that God is unknowable to atheists who say that there is no God.
For many of these enlightenment thinkers - reason is the highest authority.
Eventually the outside attack of the enlightenment gave way to the internal attacks from
The Debate with Protestant Liberalism and Biblical Criticism
Barrett again notes:
Protestant Liberalism was an intentional renovation of Christian orthodoxy to accommodate Enlightenment thought.
This did not mean that Liberalism accepted the rationalism of the Enlightenment uncritically.
But it did believe in the necessity of recasting Christianity to meet the concerns raised by the Enlightenment.
Protestant Liberalism removes the authority from God and scripture and places it squarely in the hands of experience.
If it is experienced then it must be true.
As a result, this caused people to look closely at the biblical autographs - or the original documents.
Rather than taking the documents at face value, people began to question everything - authorial intent, integrity, history, etc.
People began applying modern or contemporary standards to ancient, biblical texts.
Even today, we see the debate with the authority of Scripture as seen in...