[Common Places] The Five Solas: Christ Alone
This year we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation, looking back to Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and the theological debates kick-started by their posting. The Reformation continues to be lauded, cajoled, and debated in circles of all sorts today. At Common Places we will begin the year by focusing on some of the central principles and most relevant texts that shaped early Reformation theology and that have continued that conversation in the centuries that followed. Each month we will begin with a post related to an ongoing book project from Zondervan Academic that addresses the five solas of Reformation theology. We will then conclude each month with an annotated reading guide on classic and contemporary works that address that particular principle.
Reformation theology is often summarized by the five solas. Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) stands as the formal principle of the Reformation and the foundation of all theology. God’s glory alone (soli Deo gloria) functions as a capstone for all Reformation theology, connecting its various parts to God’s one purpose for creating this world and humanity in it. In between these two solas, the other three emphasize that God has chosen and acted to save us by his sovereign grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), which is grounded in and through Christ alone (solus Christus).
If we are to learn from the Reformers, we do well to begin with these summarizing solas. But if we are to understand the substance of the Reformation solas and profit from them, we must also keep in mind two points. First, all of the solas are interrelated and mutually dependent; you cannot have one without the others. Second, without minimizing their mutual dependence, it is also important to note that it is solus Christus which uniquely unites the other solas to bring us the full glory of God in the Gospel. Let us consider briefly why Christ alone is at the center of the Reformation solas and the rest of Christian theology.
First, Christ alone offers coherency to Reformation doctrine. We come to know Christ only by God’s self-disclosure through the Scriptures. Yet, God speaks not simply to inform us but to save us in Christ alone. We are saved by faith alone, but the object of our saving faith is Christ alone which we receive by grace alone. The purpose of God’s grace, however, leads to and culminates in our reconciliation and adoption through Christ alone. In the end, the ultimate goal of God in our redemption is his own glory, even as we are transformed into a creaturely reflection of it. The word spoken by God, the faith given by God, the grace extended by God, and the glory possessed and promised by God cannot make sense apart from the divine Son who became a man for our salvation.
Second, the Reformers placed Christ alone at the center of their doctrine because Scripture places Christ alone at the center of God’s eternal plan for his creation. Despite the diversity of human authors, Scripture speaks as God’s unified voice by which he reveals himself and the whole history of redemption—from creation to new creation. And this unified word of God has one main point: the triune God of the universe in infinite wisdom and power has chosen to bring all of his purposes and plans to fulfillment in Christ. The centrality of Christ does not diminish the work of the Father and the Spirit. Scripture teaches, rather, that all which the Father does centers in his Son and that the Spirit works to bear witness and bring glory to the Son.
Third, the Reformers emphasized the centrality of Christ alone because they accepted the apostolic witness to the person and work of Christ. The opening verses of Hebrews underscore the finality and superiority of God’s self-disclosure in his Son: “In the past God spoke . . . at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son . . . the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being . . .” (Heb. 1:1-3a). Paul comforts us with the cosmic pre-eminence of Christ (Col. 1:15-17) and encourages our hope in Christ by declaring that God’s eternal purpose and plan is “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Eph. 1:9-10). In other words, Jesus stands as the most important figure in God’s new creation work—a work that restores and even surpasses what was lost in Eden. God brings forth a new, redeemed and reconciled heaven and earth by and through the person and work of Christ alone.
Fourth, beyond the Reformation solas, Christ alone also centers all Christian theology. Theology is more than a bag of marbles; instead it is a wonderful tapestry which finds its coherency in Christ. Four quick examples will underscore this point.
Think of the doctrine of the Trinity. This fundamental truth comes fully to us by the divine Son’s incarnation. The church confesses the triunity of God because Scripture reveals the coming of God the Son as a man in eternal relation to the Father and the Spirit. Christ alone opens our eyes to see the Father, Son, and Spirit working distinctly yet inseparably as the one Creator-Covenant Lord. Or, think of the doctrine of humanity. We cannot understand who we are in all of our dignity and fallenness apart from comprehending the person and work of Christ. Christ alone is the image of God, the last Adam, the beginning and end of humanity. And Christ alone is the hope of humanity. Or, reflect on the doctrine of salvation. It is Christ alone, unique in his person and sufficient in his work, who makes sense of the why and how of divine-human reconciliation. Lastly, think of the doctrine of the atonement. To make sense of the essence of the cross as penal substitution requires a proper Christology. In fact, at the root of every caricature of the cross lies a distorted Christology. If he was not who the apostles say he was, then he could not have done what they say he did. And furthermore, by understanding the substitutionary death of Christ we gain more clarity in all other doctrines—the nature of sin, God’s sovereign grace in sending his Son, let alone the wisdom and goodness of the triune God in his glorious redemptive plan to overcome evil and restore his creation. God’s glory in all his ways depends upon Christ alone.
Christ alone, then, must unite our entire theology because he stands at its center. Christ alone is no mere slogan. It is the center of the Reformation solas and it alone integrates the purposes and plans of God as he has revealed them in Scripture and as we represent them in theological formulation. May we stand with the Reformers to declare Christ alone to the glory of God alone.
Stephen Wellum (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. He serves as editor of the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology and has written a number of books, including the soon-to-be-released Christ Alone: The Uniqueness of Jesus as Savior and the recently released God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ.