[Common Places] The Five Solas: Soli Deo Gloria
[caption id="attachment_14684" align="alignnone" width="800"] Image: Bach's notation Soli Deo Gloria on his sheet music.[/caption]
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.
Soli Deo Gloria—Glory to God Alone—in some ways seems the odd man out among the Reformation solas. The other four solas focus directly on issues at the center of sixteenth-century debates with Roman Catholics: the nature of salvation and authority of Scripture. In contrast, it is not immediately clear that Roman Catholics would have had any problem with the idea of Soli Deo Gloria. After all, the Jesuit order, which was founded in 1540 in large part to stop the spread of the Protestant Reformation, adopted as its motto Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, “to the greater glory of God.”
Nevertheless, many writers have suggested that Soli Deo Gloria is in fact the central strand that holds all of the Reformation solas together. I’m inclined to think they’re correct. Consider the main point of the other solas. They communicate that salvation does not come by our own works, no matter how noble, and that the final authority for Christian faith and life is never our own word, no matter how wise. God is the one who saves, and God is the one who speaks pure and life-giving truth. But this is another way of saying that all honor and renown belongs to God, not to ourselves. Only the Lamb who was slain is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll (Rev 5:1-7)—“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever” (Rev 5:13)!
This reminds us that the heart of the Christian message is not that the Bible is God’s inspired word or that salvation comes by grace through faith in Christ, as crucial as these truths are. The heart of the Christian message, in other words, is God himself, not how we are saved or what source of wisdom we seek.
This is always a timely message for us, who are inclined toward a variety of vices that keep turning our sights sinfully inward. Through pride, for example, we desire to be more excellent than others, and through vainglory we crave praise and recognition for others—even when we know we don’t deserve it. Such sins afflict the human race in every age. But it is also wise to be alert to particular temptations of our own time, and narcissism is surely among the most powerful. So many contemporary Christians spend hours a day in a social-media world that encourages an obsession with public image and with self-promotion. We sinners are not naturally drawn to render all glory to God with a sincere heart, and much in our fallen world panders to our worst instincts.
There is no better remedy for our inclination to self-glorification than to devote ourselves to Christ’s appointed means of grace. The word tells the story of God’s glory, the sacraments seal the gospel through tangible signs, and our prayers return thanks to God and offer our pleas for blessing. At the heart of this dynamic is Scripture’s beautiful revelation of the glory of the Lord. As we read the word and hear it faithfully proclaimed, Scripture sweeps us into the long history of God’s presence with a sinful people. In the Old Testament, we hear of the mighty glory-cloud that led Israel through the wilderness, filled the tabernacle, and later rested upon the temple in Jerusalem. A great blessing to God’s covenant people! But we also read that God’s glory could not abide with a persistently rebellious nation, and thus the Lord expelled them from his holy land and his glory departed from the temple (Ezek 9-10). The Old Testament leaves no doubt that God is all-glorious, but it must have left his sinful people wondering how his holy glory could ultimately be a joy and encouragement to them.
The New Testament continues the story of God’s glory and provides such comforting answers to these perplexing questions. Above all, it shows us the Lord Jesus Christ—the true temple, the true dwelling of God with his people. The long-awaited Messiah, however, did not manifest God’s glory in the way his people anticipated. In some respects, of course, Christ showed God’s glory visibly and spectacularly, like the glory-cloud of old. We think of the angelic host that announced his birth, the Holy Spirit empowering him to work miracles, or the theophany on the mount of transfiguration. But the truly striking thing about Christ’s ministry, and its cause of offence to many in Israel, was his embrace of humility. He took on human flesh and blood. He was born in a stall. He had no beauty or majesty that we should desire him. And he became obedient to death, even the death of the cross.
None of this appeared very glorious. But Scripture teaches that God was glorified even in Christ’s humiliation. It magnified the grace and mercy of God toward his people, for Christ’s humiliation accomplished precisely what the Old Testament story showed that his people needed: the forgiveness of their sins and reconciliation with a holy God. And this is why the doctrine that all glory belongs to God does not make us irrelevant or worthless. For God wills to glorify himself in part through the salvation of his people. He not only raised his Son from the dead by the power of the Spirit, but in Christ he also pours his Spirit upon poor sinners now and will raise us one day from dead, to behold the glory of Christ in the new creation. God glorifies himself through our glorification!
As we celebrate the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, may we remember that Soli Deo Gloria is indeed good news for the people of God. May we attend to that wonderful biblical story, render all praise to Christ, and rejoice in the hope of the glory to come.
David VanDrunen (PhD, Loyola University Chicago) is the Robert Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminary California. He has written numerous books on theology and ethics, most recently God’s Glory Alone: The Majestic Heart of Christian Faith and Life.
Common Places is a regular column on the Zondervan Academic blog with a focus on systematic theology. The loci communes or “common places” of Christian theology, drawn out of the Scriptures and organized in a manner suitable to their exposition in the church and the academy, have functioned historically as common points of reference for theological discussion and debate. This column will focus upon the classical loci of systematic theology, not as occasions for revision, but as opportunities for entering into the ongoing conversation that is Christian systematic theology. We invite you to join and dialog with us on the first and third Thursdays of every month. For more about Common Places, read the column introduction.
Our current series, The Five Solas, offers doctrinal and exegetical entries to the key principles of the Protestant movement in the sixteenth century.
Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors
Learn more about David VanDrunen's book, God's Glory Alone: The Majestic Heart of Christian Faith and Life. Get it at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, ChristianBook, or iBooks.
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