As we near the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I will be writing a 5-part series on the five solas. However, it will not be a series that merely seeks to define the historic principles in an academic manner. Instead, the series will focus on how easily it is to misunderstand and misrepresent the intention of the five solas that were birthed out of the Reformation era.
The five solas are specific Latin slogans that emerged from the Reformation era as a means of identifying specific doctrinal positions that stand in contrast to the beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. The slogans are:
- Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone)
- Sola Gratia (Grace Alone)
- Sola Fide (Faith Alone)
- Solus Christus (Christ Alone)
- Soli Deo Gloria (To God Alone Be Glory)
The doctrines of grace, faith, Christ, and God’s glory all stand or fall based on their connection to Scripture. This is why the five solas begin with sola Scriptura. When we read creeds and confessions of church history, we notice that they often begin with an article on the Scriptures. All doctrines and positions will emerge from a specific connection to the Scriptures. Either they are coming out of the pure teachings of the Word of God or they are loosely connected and tied to both culture and the Scriptures at the same time. The Reformers were champions of God’s Word and stood courageously upon the firm foundation of the Scriptures.
Defining Sola Scriptura
The idea of sola Scriptura was known as the formal cause of the Reformation. The intended purpose of the statement points to the fact that the only infallible rule of faith and doctrine is God’s infallible Word. For the Roman Catholic Church, faith and doctrine are governed by a three-fold system including the Scriptures, tradition, and the Magisterium. The Roman Catholic Church’s tradition involved a body of beliefs and practices that were established as a direct fruit of the ruling office of the pope—the Magisterium. Since the pope is infallible when he speaks ex cathedra as the one who is the successor of the Apostle Peter’s seat—all such decisions are right and good.
Man of history were raised up by God to stand in direct contrast to that type of teaching. Since such ideas are found nowhere in the Bible—the Reformers believed them to be abusive in authority and to pervert the pure gospel of Christ. Sola Scriptura points to the Word of God as the only infallible rule of faith and practice and the singular source whereby all other doctrines and practices must be judged.
Misunderstanding Sola Scriptura
If you haven’t ran into someone who claims that they can have a personal relationship with Jesus without the local church—give it time, you will run across such a personality in your lifetime. Perhaps you’ve ran into the one who refuses to submit to God given authority in the local church suggesting that he doesn’t need to submit to pastors because he submits to God through the Scriptures. Have you ran across someone who dismisses any need for creeds, confessions, and statements of faith? Often you will hear that type of belief represented under the umbrella of a certain slogan that says, “No creed by the Bible.”
When we come to the idea of sola Scriptura, we must be clear—it in no way dismisses the value of creeds or diminishes the need for confessions. When it comes to a creed or confession, the church or organization is drawing a line in the sand and stating with absolute clarity where they stand on important doctrines taught in the Bible. It’s a way of being transparent and open rather than ambigous about the doctrinal convictions of a church or organization.
The Reformers never intended anyone to use sola Scriptura against the use of rich confessions of faith that act as a spotlight to inform people about specific doctrinal convictions that are based on the clear teachings of the Word of God. The Reformers did intend for all such statements, creeds, confessions, and church practices to be judged by the clear teachings of God’s Word. While theologians may be quoted in sermons and books may be collected in a church’s library for use by the members—no scholarly voice or body of writing should transcend higher than God’s Word. They may be useful and profitable in many ways, but never higher in authority than God’s infallible Word.
James White, in his excellent book titled, Sola Scriptura, writes the following:
Sola scriptura literally means “Scripture alone.” Unfortunately, this phrase tends to be taken in the vein of “Scripture in isolation, Scripture outside of the rest of God’s work in the church.” That is not its intended meaning; again, it means “Scripture alone as the sole infallible rule of faith for the church.” 
- James White, Scripture Alone, (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2004), 27-28.