The two foundational Protestant doctrines are those of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) and Sola Fide (faith alone). These two “solas” are known, respectively, as the formal and material causes of the Reformation. Sola Scriptura might be thought of as the methodological doctrine of the Reformation, for Protestantism is said to be founded on Scripture Alone (as opposed to religious tradition), and its primary doctrinal teaching is Sola Fide – that salvation is by faith alone (apart from works).
Sola Scriptura is the idea that the Bible alone has ultimate authority for the Christian. Protestantism’s founder Martin Luther is famous for challenging the authority of the Church by saying that,
“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” (Diet of Worms)
Sola Fide means “justified freely, without their own works . . . faith alone justifies us” (Luther, The Smalcald Articles, 2.1). Luther later said that,
“If the doctrine of justification is lost, the whole of Christian doctrine is lost.” (Luther, Lectures On Galatians)
The problem with asserting that Sola Fide is based on Sola Scriptura is that salvation by faith alone is not only not stated in Scripture – it directly contradicts what Scripture says. Thus, ironically, Sola Fide turns out to be a good argument against Sola Scriptura.
Luther vs. James
James 2:24 is the only verse in the Bible that uses the phrase “faith alone” – and it says that people are “justified by works and not by faith alone.” This is one reason why Martin Luther wanted it removed from the Bible. Church historian Phillip Schaff notes in his History of the Christian Church that Luther “brought Paul into direct verbal conflict with James, who says (James 2:24), ‘by works a man is justified, and not only by faith’. It is well known that Luther deemed it impossible to harmonize the two apostles in this article, and characterized the Epistle of James as an ‘epistle of straw,’ because it had no evangelical character.” Luther said it this way:
“We should throw the Epistle of James out of this school, for it doesn’t amount to much. It contains not a syllable about Christ. Not once does it mention Christ, except at the beginning. I maintain that some Jew wrote it who probably heard about Christian people but never encountered any.” (Luther’s works, vol. 54: Table Talk)
Luther vs. Paul
Romans 3:28 is the closest verse in Scripture that Luther could find to support his novel idea concerning justification.* However, it lacked that all important word “alone” that makes the “sola” doctrine true. So, Luther added the word “alone” to his German translation of Romans 3:28 in order to make it appear that he had biblical support (“man is justified by faith alone apart from the deeds of the law”). When challenged by this act, Luther responded:
But I will return to the subject at hand. If your papist wishes to make a great fuss about the word sola [alone], say this to him: “Dr. Martin Luther will have it so, and he says that a papist and a donkey are the same thing.” (An Open Letter on Translating by Martin Luther)
It seems, then, that Luther himself was guilty of doing the very thing he accused the Catholic Church of doing: elevating his theology above the Bible. In an attempt to justify (pun intended) his non-biblical doctrine of Sola Fide, Luther both mistranslate the content of, and attacked the very canon of, Scripture – the very Scripture he claimed to stand upon against the Church’s teaching.
What, then, of Sola Scriptura? And what of Luther’s theological progeny who, although they generally avoid such blatant adding to or subtracting from Scripture, continue to uphold Luther’s theology?
*Evangelical historical theologian Alister McGrath concluded his study of the doctrine of justification by saying that, “A fundamental discontinuity was introduced into the western theological tradition where none had ever existed, or ever been contemplated, before. The Reformation understanding of the nature of justification as opposed to its mode must therefore be regarded as a genuine theological novum.” (Alister McGrath – Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification,186)