Beyond the Five Solas
Written by Managing Editor on February 5, 2020
Guest Post By Douglas Wilson
If we want to be faithful to our reformational heritage, we need to understand the ways in which it is necessary to go beyond it. We must also understand, down in our bones, the ways in which we must not go an inch beyond it. There is a way of “going beyond” that is actually abandonment, and there is a way of “going beyond” that is application. Going further up and further in is going beyond.
Would to God ye could bear with me a little in my folly: and indeed bear with me. For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him (2 Cor. 11:1-4).
And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers . . . And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved (Acts 2: 42, 46-47).
The Gospel is Not Over-Engineered
Consider what we learn in these passages. Paul sarcastically notes that adultery and treachery are complicated, but fidelity is simple. The serpent came to Eve in all subtlety, and this is contrasted with the “simplicity that is in Christ.” Other Christs, other gospels, other spirits are easy enough to put up with (in this fallen world), but they are generally complicated. Rationalizations are always tangled, and sin breeds rationalization.
By way of contrast, true simplicity does what the early Christians did. They just accept what the apostles taught, period, they fellowship with one another, period, they take the Lord’s Supper together, period, and they pray together, period. This brings the glorious result—gladness and simplicity of heart, praise to God and favor from outsiders. And God then uses this to bring salvation to those who are being saved.
What Is at Issue?
A common mistake that is made here is that of assuming that if Christians are serving God with “gladness and simplicity of heart” then everyone around them just looks on admiringly, and the sound you hear is that of polite golf applause. But what actually happens is that when Christians are liberated into the simplicity that is found in Christ, their surroundings are frequently characterized by tumult and an endless chain of controversies.
And so why all the controversies. But actually, at bottom, when this happens, at bottom they are all really the same controversy. Whenever the Spirit moves in the history of the church, He does so in a way that sweeps away all our carnal complications, and restores that primitive and apostolic sense of gladness and simplicity of heart. But often the slogans of a previous period of simplicity have been transformed (in the hands of trained professionals) into something that only a scribe could love.
The Five Solas
The title of this post is Beyond the Five Solas. Now some might worry that this implies an abandonment of the glorious revival that we call the Reformation. Nothing could be further away from my intention. But it is an abandonment of much of jargon that has grown up around the solas.
Over against the errors of so many false religionists, we still affirm what the solas originally meant. Salvation is by Christ alone (solus Christus), not by Christ and some creaturely help. Salvation is by grace alone (sola gratia) and not some mixture of grace and merit. Salvation is received through faith alone (sola fide) and not some mixture of faith and works. We understand all this through ultimate reliance on Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) and not through some combination of the Word of God and the words of men. And all this comes together to glorify God alone for all that He has done (soli Deo gloria). So far so good.
An Insidious Rot
But all glorious confessions of faith can be attacked in two ways. One is the assault from without (persecution), but the other is corruption from within. In Reformed circles today the latter is what we are dealing with. In the grip of Enlightenment individualism, pietism, sentimentalism, and so forth, in our day the meaning of the solas has been turned aside from their earlier and more glorious meaning.
Now they are solo Christus (just me and Jesus), solo gratia (narrow, sectarian grace), solo fide (when I “prayed the prayer”), solo Scriptura (just me and my Bible), and solo Deo gloria (God gets all the glory for saving me, and maybe somebody else). Now please realize that the word solo here constitutes a bad macaronic pun, and not a serious attempt at matching gender, number, and case.
The Five Totas
Our answer to such things must be simple, and not complicated. The claims of Jesus Christ, Lord of heaven and earth, are necessarily and always total, never partial. The solo tendency always tends to restrict the work of God to just a part of reality, and this makes the rest of reality incomprehensible—and obviously complicated (with great “subtlety” required, along with a couple of years of graduate school).
To this we reply with totus Christus (all Christ and all His people), tota gratia (to be a creature is grace, to be saved is more grace), tota fide (we are saved by faith from first to last, with faith all along the middle as well), tota Scriptura (we do not pit the Old Testament against the New, or law against grace), and tota Deo gloria (all the glory for all things goes to God).
God save us from every form of partialism. May God soon rise up and deliver us from our great smorgasbord religion. May we soon be rescued from our fragmented faith in all the bits and pieces. Making this simpler still, the fundamental Christian confession is this—Jesus is Lord. His lordship is exhaustively extensive, as well as thoroughly intensive. The former means that He is Lord, as Kuyper once put it so memorably, over every square inch of the cosmos. The latter means that He is Lord over every single thing in every respect. And no remainder.
This means that Christians who subscribe to the five totas of the Reformation are going to approach all of life quite different than those who subscribe to the truncated form of the solas. But if we have been paying attention, we should want to combine them. Tota et sola Scriptura—all of Scripture and only Scripture. Tota et sola gratia—all of grace and only grace.
And by the time we get to the end, we discover that we are in possession of a full-orbed Christian world and life view.
Douglas Wilson is the pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho. He is a founding board member of Logos School, a Senior Fellow of Theology at New Saint Andrews College, and he serves as an instructor at Greyfriars Hall, a ministerial training program at Christ Church. He helped to establish the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC), and has authored numerous books on classical Christian education, the family, the church, and the Reformed Faith. After serving in the U.S. Navy in the submarine service, he completed a B.A. and M.A. in philosophy and a B.A. in classical studies from the University of Idaho. Douglas and his wife Nancy have three children and a bunch of grandkids.