Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Five Solas?

Dan Phillips from Team Pyro has raised an important and difficult question regarding the origin of the so-called five solas of the Reformation (a somewhat unusal and confusing pluralization of the Latin!). He asks, "Who first used the Sola's? What was the earliest documented use?"

While the truths expressed by the five solas were strongly defended by the Reformers, the formula as we know it most likely has recent origins.

In a review of Terry Johnson's excellent The Case for Traditional Protestantism, Chad B. van Dixhoorn, Research Fellow at Wolfson College, Cambridge University and Director of the Westminster Assembly Project, states the matter provocatively.

The popular delineation of these five solas is not a Reformation idea but a modern one. That is to say, if the Reformers were told to list their core doctrines they might as readily have spoken about salvation by the Holy Spirit alone in the church alone (Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 23.1 [2005]: 119).

Likewise, several months ago at the reformation21 blog, our friends Derek Thomas (in Reformation "solas") and Phil Ryken (in The "Solas" as a Synthesis) gave similar answers.

This still does not answer the question as to who was the first to summarize the teaching of the Reformers in this way (perhaps James M. Boice and R. C. Sproul?). There is need for greater historical, theological reflection on this issue. Surely someone needs to set the record straight! Anyone up for the challange?



Anonymous said...

As I wrote at the TeamPyro blog, it has to be older than Boice or Sproul because the fact is the five solas match Aristotle's five categories of cause, and we all know the scholastic Calvinist theologians would have picked up on that and used it. Of course each of the five points of doctrine in the five solas existed and emerged on their own, either before or during the Reformation, but the five together probably just emerged once somebody noticed the match with Aristotle's categories. That tidied the points of doctrine up and gave it a contained form.

My original comment:

Most likely the complete forumula Five Solas emerged out of the scholastic Calvinist collective mind based on Aristotle's five categories for cause (somebody throw me a lifejacket because I'm in deep water):

material cause
formal cause
final cause
efficient cause
instrumental cause

The five categories above correlate to:

sola fide
sola Scriptura
soli deo gloria
sola gratia
solus Christus

Yes, I googled a webpage for the above, but it's my own take on it that the five categories most likely emerged from that unique-to-its-times Calvinist scholastic theology and the practictioners of it. Scholastic types were fond of Aristotle.

Maybe William Ames, or somebody like him.

Chris Ross said...

'Red Rocker'? Who knew Sammy Hagar had such a handle on Greek philosophy and Reformed theology? Certainly not me! (He DID write a mysterious song about the Trinity called "Three Lock Box", though ... hmmm).

Anonymous said...

Is it not almost counter-intuitive to have 5 solas? I understand what it is attempting to convey. I would affirm what is taught concerning the 5 solas, yet I'm not sure this is the best way to present the material. I guess I'm wondering if it's logically coherent?

John W. Tweeddale said...

1. Red Rocker,

Thanks so much for a thoughtful response. Your assessment of the Aristotelian roots regarding the language of causality is I believe mostly correct. The Medieval scholastics, Reformers, and Protestant orthodox were indebted in many ways (though not completely) to Aristotle for providing categories for structuring and communicating theological/biblical truth. The language of causality can be seen especially in discussions of theological prolegomena and the doctrine of God. However, in regards to the question of the origin of the ‘solas’ I’m not sure it plays out as neatly.

My main concern is with equating solus Christus with the instrumental cause and wonder if the Reformers used the term in that way. The instrumental cause was developed later than Aristotle but was used by the Reformers to distinguish their view that faith not baptism (ala the Catholic position) was the means of our justification (ala the material cause – sola fide!).

To my knowledge, Christ was never referred to as the instrumental of our salvation but as the ground of our salvation. However, there is no doubt that Christ was held forth as the only Mediator and Saviour of sinners – the ‘causa materia’ and ‘causa impulsiva’ of our justification!

You are certainly right that Aristotle’s material and formal causes apply to sola fide and sola Scriptura. And I think you’re correct to infer that the efficient cause and final cause probably correlate to sola gratia and soli Deo Gloria.

Thanks so very much for a helpful observation and contribution.

2. David M.,

I appreciate the sentiment of your excellent question. How in the world can there be five onlys?! Are they 'logically coherent'?

Logically speaking, the solas are not used in the same respect nor do they refer to the same thing. This is where, I think, the use of Aristotle categories of causality is helpful.

To use the example from above, Christ cannot be both the instrumental cause and material cause. Christ is the only ground of our salvation while faith is the only means of our salvation. I tend to think these distinctions are helpful for highlighting the exclusiveness of the gospel. We are saved by faith alone (as the only means of salvation) by Christ alone (as the only ground of salvation) by God’s grace alone (as the only cause of our salvation) revealed in Scripture alone (as the only authoritative rule for faith and practice) for God’s glory alone (as the chief end and ultimate goal of life).

For the record, I am happy to affirm that the five solas rightly summarize the teaching of the Reformation and gladly acknowledge their usefulness in communicating the gospel. I don’t doubt for a moment that the Reformers tenaciously held to each of these. However, I am reluctant to say that the grouping of the five-solas originated in the 16th or 17th century - even though the individual 'solas' have their origin in the 16th century if not before. I still tend to think that the presentation of the five-solas as five-solas emerged relatively recently as the result of reflection upon the Reformers’ teaching. If someone has documentation to the contrary, I’d love to see it.

I think we can safely say that there is need for careful, well-documented research on the matter. Anyone up for the challenge?

Thanks brothers for some excellent discussion!


Anonymous said...

Forgive me for my ignornace, but I'd like to pose another question. Can not the use of Aristotelian/Platonic categories to expound and apply Christian doctrine lead us away from Sola Scriptura, one of the very things we wish to defend?

Has not Greek phlisophy as a whole taken root in much of Christian thinking leading us away from reasoning in more biblical rather than Greek/Gnostic categories? Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Sammy was better than Diamond Dave, I can't take credit for being him though :(

The question of the influence of Greek philosophy on biblical theology (theologizing) is one that goes back to the beginning. Greek philosophy, or categories, etc., messed with the pre-Reformation theologians (in getting them away from the Bible) more than the scholastic Calvinists, methinks. I.e., it 'can' be a negative, but it doesn't have to be a negative.

It didn't, for instance, influence the actual doctrines contained in 'five solas.' Just perhaps (maybe) in organizing them as five. Probably would have happened without Aristotle's categories anyway. Or maybe not, seeing that there are always some malcontents who want to add a 'sixth sola' to the formula, usually something to do with ecclesiology...

ps: correct me if I'm wrong, but a guy named Harnack (?) wrote a big book making the case Christian doctrine was all infused - not in a good way - with Greek philosophy...but he may have overstated his case...but it goes to show it has been a question batted about in the history of doctrine for a long time, so you are definitely on to a real thing there.....

Chris Ross said...

It's interesting that this discussion about the pros and cons of mixing secular philosophy and theology comes up -- I was just reading in a Puritan devotional text from 1618 that advises readers to use the logical categories of Peter Ramus (French Calvinist) to aid in one's meditations on Scripture. Ramus's method was sort of a stripped-down version of Aristotelianism. The meditator was to muse on the following attributes of his chosen subject:

1) Its definition
2) Distribution (sorts, kinds, parts)
3) Causes (esp. efficient and final, "which in most things that wee shall meditate vpon, will appeare to bee most pregnant and profitable", says the author, Stephen Egerton)
4) Fruits and effects
5) "Subject wherein it is, or about which it is occupied" (genus?)
6) "Qualities or properties adjoyned or cleaving unto it"
7) What things differ from it or are opposed and contrary to it; and
8) What it is like, or to what it is unlike

I think this is a good case of 'philosophy' being put to good use -- provided these categories aren't too difficult or technical for the one employing them.

Great question, David. And thanks for the response, Red Rocker. (I prefer Van Hagar myself as well, but even their lyrics left something to be desired for the believer, I'm sure you'd agree.)

NB - If I'm not mistaken, there are pretty good indicators in Paul's own writing that he was trained in some classical rhetoric (ie, Greek thought patterns). Maybe Red Rocker or Tweeddale or someone else knows better.

John W. Tweeddale said...

In the 16th and 17th centuries, scholasticism indicated a particular method of academic discourse not a particular theological or philosophical perspective. So you have Catholic scholastics, Lutheran scholastics, Reformed scholastics, Arminian scholastics, etc. Each employed scholastic terms, categories, distinctions, etc but their respective theologies were much, much different! In other words, the mere presence of a philosophical category is not fatal to theological discourse. The classic example of this principle is the use of terms persona and substantia in the Trinitarian formula: God is three persons, one substance. The terms are extra-biblical but the thought communicated is entirely biblical (cf. Mt. 28:19).

When we turn to the pages of the NT, we should not be surprised to find the Apostle Paul reasoning from Scripture in the synagogues but quoting the Greek poet Aratus in Athens. His message was the same (sola fide!) but his methods did vary. But this in no way makes Paul a Hellenist or Platonist (or even merely a Rabbi!). Such a conclusion is a hasty deduction to say the least! It seems to me that the argument of Harnack is at root no different than the argument of Kendall, Armstrong, and others. What emerges from both is a portrait of Paul and the Puritans that looks more like painter than the object purportedly painted.

In conclusion, I concur with Red Rocker, the use of philosophy “can be a negative thing, but it doesn’t have to be negative.”

Brothers, thanks again for a hearty discussion.


Chris Ross said...

Thanks for the stellar commenting, John.

Duane Smets said...

I too have been attempting to find the answer to who first called them "The Five Solas" together. If anyone discovers that answer, please post it.

Clark Dunlap said...

Should we maybe start here?

Jerome (347-420) on Romans 10:3: “God justifies by faith alone.” (Deus ex sola fide justificat).[35]


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