The Sixth “Sola” that Cripples the Church

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The lively debate Martin Luther was hoping to generate with his 95 Theses quickly got out of hand and changed the world forever.  Obviously the time was right: when events are primed to happen, they happen.  Within decades the Reformation was firmly established on the “Five Solas” developed over the next half-century of Reformation teaching, namely

Scripture Alone

declaring the gospel of

Christ Alone,

effecting salvation by

Grace Alone,

apprehended in the believer by

Faith Alone,

for the

Glory of God Alone.

(That’s not the usual order, but you get the idea.)

This is all good news, and the Five Solas are a concise way of defining the aims of the Reformation as they shook out.  A concise definition would be sorely needed, for within Martin Luther’s own lifetime the Protestant movement became dozens of Protestant movements, energizing Europe in ways that weren’t always positive.  It was like releasing one of those mattresses that come packed under pressure: once out of the box, you’ll never get it back in, as it expands far beyond its original bounds.  A quasi-communist peasants’ revolt, numerous pietistic communes, a state church headed by the monarch, proliferating Bible translations and commentaries, a series of wars, the seeds of the Enlightenment, the eventual establishment of the United States of America: all these and more can trace their ancestry to the Protestant Reformation.  So can the sixth, unstated Sola:

by My Interpretation Alone

Once Luther realized his concerns about the Catholic Church had gone beyond an academic debate, and way beyond the original issue of indulgence-peddling, he went on to develop his ideas of where the Church had gone wrong.  One problem was the priesthood, which created a superfluous intermediary between the believer and God.  The Lutheran phrase, “priesthood of all believers,” meant that every follower of Christ had free access to God through Jesus, our only mediator.  We don’t need a priest to hear our confession and assign penance; we can work that out with God on our own.

“Every man a priest” was never meant to imply that every man had the right to make up his own mind about what the Bible said.  But it didn’t take long for the narrow interpretation of that phrase to stretch.  If Luther and Zwingli disagree about a point of scripture, who’s right?  If the Anabaptists are preaching a radical pietism, should they be stopped?  Aren’t they’re reading the scriptures for themselves, as we’re all supposed to?  Peeling off from Luther and Zwingli, in very short order, were Calvin and Muntzer, followed by Wesley and Fox, Alexander Campbell and Joseph Smith, Charles Finney and William Miller, Ann Lee, Ellen G. White, Charles Taze Russell, Mary Baker Eddy, William J. Seymour . . . and literally thousands more, founders of Protestant mainline denominations, offshoots, micro-movements, and cults.

The multitude of denominations is not entirely bad.  We all have different personalities, inclinations, and backgrounds; it’s possible that some will thrive in a particular Christian tradition where others would suffocate.  And while “organized religion” is dying all over the Western world, fewer churches are on life-support in the state-churchless USA.  But it’s hard to say whether their relative health is because of the Sixth Sola, or in spite of it.

 

What gives some people—mostly men, but plenty of women, too—the assurance that, not only can they interpret scripture for themselves, but their interpretation is right?  As in, “The rest of you are wrong.”  Damnably wrong, even.  Having grown up in one one-true-church and, much later in life, been declared apostate by another (much smaller) one, I’ve seen how the sixth-sola pattern emerges:

  • Reformer displays an early aptitude for religion.
  • Reformer involves himself in established church, where he may experience disappointment or disillusionment.
  • Reformer endures a period of intense self-examination and study, from which
  • Reformer emerges with a unique spiritual insight.
  • Reformer enthusiastically preaches his special insight, meets resistance from “establishment.”
  • Reformer collects a band of converts, may undergo real or perceived persecution.
  • Reformer, now the leader of a movement, receives affirmation from his followers.
  • Reformer decides his opposition is a) wrong, b) going to hell, or c) spawn of Satan.
  • All of which means that the Reformer is a) right, and b) well, just right.  Because.

Don’t get me wrong: the church is always in need of reform, and God is always reforming it.  But not usually through movement men (and women).  Luther was an exception, and there are others, but I’ve known and heard of many mini-Luthers who have it all figured out according to the Sixth Sola.  Some may be false prophets, but most are sincere believers (at least to start with) who let that special insight go to their heads.

A little humility would do wonders for them; a little charity and patience with those who aren’t where they are, and may never be.  “My interpretation” must be tested and debated and measured against established teaching—and perhaps discarded, if it doesn’t measure up.  But even if it’s a sound scriptural principle, the soundest secondary principles become shaky when they’re elevated to primary ones: right up there beside “Jesus is Lord.”

Jesus is Lord of our minds, our study, our interpretation.  As he submitted himself to his Father (and even, temporarily, to men), so should we.  It’s not for us to build little empires around a Sixth Sola; far better to live it out in the wider church, and let the Spirit be our interpreter.

7 Comments


  1. // Reply

    Hi Janie, among my non Christian family members this issue of many denominations is a huge stumbling block. Or at least they have made it huge. One couple that we knew, when they realized they needed God in their life, passed by all mainline denominations here in the US and joined the Greek Orthodox Church (they weren’t Greek) because they felt it was the true church because it was a long standing historic church.


    1. // Reply

      Nicol, there seems to be a trend of Christians joining the Orthodox church, even (or especially) in Reformed circles. The main reason seems to be just as you suggest: disillusion with denominationalism and a conviction that the closer you get to the “original” church, the better off you’ll be I understand that, but it suggests that the Reformation was a huge mistake and that the church never needs reforming. But the church ALWAYS needs reforming; I’d just like to see more humility in the reformers!


  2. // Reply

    Hey dear sis. Love this. And you! 😊👍


  3. // Reply

    My answer to this very big problem is “systematic Biblicism”.


    1. // Reply

      Agreed–but tempered with consistent mortification! (the real thing, not the humble-brag variety)


  4. // Reply

    Guilty of adding a Sixth … Perhaps a great need in the Church today is discerning the Spirit. If He really does guide us into all Truth and, yet, we struggle with grasping the true meaning of God’s Word(s), perhaps we”re as off balance as the woman at the well (John 4), to whom Jesus explained true worship would be “in Spirit and Truth.” As one with enormous reformational roots (known ancestry back to the 1500’s of Dutch calvinists; graduate of Calvin College ’76 – need I say more?), my tendency is to take up academic, dogmatic arms for the cause of Truth. And … doing so seems not just to separate me from others but also (and maybe more importantly) to atrophy my spirit so that I barely experience/discern the Spirit’s testimony that I am a child of God (Romans 8:16). May our Lord grant us more grace, being filled with and led by the Spirit of Truth (1 Jn 4:6) so that our worship, corporately and individually informed by God’s Word, is truly and compellingly Loving – of God and our neighbors.

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