With the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Reformation coming up next year, it’s a fitting time to take a look at the two main Reformation dogmas which Luther invented, the famous solas of the Reformation: sola fide (faith alone) and sola scriptura (Scripture alone). Are they biblical? In a word, no.
Saved by Faith Alone (Sola Fide)?
The notion of sola fide says that Christians are saved by faith alone, and that Catholics have added many unnecessary things to the requirements for salvation. But is this true? Can we just ignore the rest of the Bible when it talks about the Eucharist and baptism and good works, and just believe that our faith alone is all that saves us? No, we can’t. In fact, the Bible never once says that we are saved by faith alone. Luther added the word “alone” after the word “faith” in his German translation of the Bible to Romans 3:28, which says, “For we hold that a man is justified by faith (alone) apart from works of law.” By modifying Paul’s words, Luther changed the meaning of the scripture to suit his own purposes. Luther detested good works as being useless, but that isn’t what Paul is talking about here. What Paul is saying is that in the Old Testament, works of the Mosaic Law, like circumcision, hand washing, and eating kosher foods were how one was justified. But now, faith in Christ apart from these works of the ceremonial law justifies us in the New Testament.
By saying that we are justified by faith alone, Luther set up a head-on collision with James 2:24, which states that “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Here James is saying that both faith and good works (that is, acts of charity) go together like two sides of one coin. Even Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount that we must do good works to give glory to God: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
Colossians 1:10 says that good works are the fruit of our faith, and we all know about how necessary it is to bear good fruit (remember the barren fig tree parable!). Matthew 25:31-46 delineates all of the good works one must do if one is to enter heaven.
There are scriptures which indicate that other things that are necessary to save us. 1 Corinthians 13:13 says that “there are three things that last – faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love” (not faith). Romans 2:6 says”For he will render to every man according to his works.” St. Peter says in 1 Peter 3:21 that Baptism saves us. Jesus says in John 6:48-58 that we have to physically eat His flesh and drink His blood to have eternal life (rather than just have “faith alone”).
#1987 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “The grace of the Holy Spirit has the power to justify us, that is, to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ” and through Baptism.” To sum up, faith is a very necessary component of our salvation. But it is certainly not the only one. By adding the word “alone” to Romans 3:28, Luther gives the false impression that hope, love, Baptism, the Eucharist, and good works are not necessary for salvation. But as we just discussed above, the Bible says that they are. To assert that we are saved by faith alone is like saying that a house is built by nails alone, when in fact, wood, shingles, bricks, screws, etc., are all necessary components as well.
The Bible Alone (Sola Scriptura)
This novel philosophy says that the Bible is the sole rule of faith, easily understood by anyone (no “official” interpreter is required), and since Catholics believe in Sacred Tradition and in the teaching authority of the Magisterium, additions to what is necessary for salvation have unnecessarily been made by the Catholic Church. While Catholics certainly believe that the Bible is the infallible Word of God, we also believe that not everything is written down in the Bible, and that it certainly needs an interpreter. One would be hard pressed to understand the Jewish culture of the day that Jesus lived in without the Jewish Talmud and the Mishna, which are the oral traditions of the Jews. If you study these books, what you find makes the Bible come alive with Jewish traditions and rituals. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that the Bible is the sole rule of faith. In fact, Jesus set up his Church (not ChurchES) (Matthew 16:18) to teach and to baptize the faithful. And his Church authoritatively recognized the canon of the Bible, such as in 382 AD, at the Council of Rome. Luther subsequently changed the canon 1100 years later (on his personal authority) to suit his own personal theology. The Gutenberg bible, printed in the century before Luther, has the original Pope Damasus I canon, which is still used by the Catholic Church today.
The Bible itself contains confirmation of oral tradition. 2 Thessalonians 2:15 says “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” The Bible itself also says in that the Church is the pillar and bulwark of truth, rather than itself, in 1 Timothy 3:15: “if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”
Notice that Paul doesn’t tell Timothy above that each individual believer is the pillar and bulwark of truth, but only the Church. The Church uses the Bible as its textbook, similar to the way a professor uses his textbooks to teach. A professor doesn’t write a textbook and then have the students interpret it for themselves; rather, a professor teaches his students from his textbooks and tells them what they mean. That is exactly the way the Catholic Church uses the Bible to instruct its pupils.
Examples of oral tradition would be how to say Mass, baptizing infants, devotion to Mary leading to worship of Jesus, the Apostle’s Creed, the doctrine of the Trinity, celebrating Christmas as a holy day, the canon of Scripture, changing the day of worship from Saturday to Sunday, and so on.
The Bible also contains examples of tradition not written down as well. Matthew 2:23 says “And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene, when no such prophecy is in the Old Testament. In Matthew 23:2 Jesus tells us that “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat,” yet “Moses’ seat” is never mentioned in the Old Testament. 1 Corinthians 10:4 tells us that “all drank the same supernatural drink. For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” No mention of a moving rock in the desert is ever mentioned in the Old Testament. 2 Timothy 3:8 says “As Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith,” except there is no mention of Jannes and Jambres anywhere in the Old Testament. Jude 1:9 says “But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, disputed about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a reviling judgment upon him, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you.'” There is no mention in the Old Testament of St. Michael and the devil fighting over the corpse of Moses.
The Real Problem
Of course, the real problem with these two traditions of man is that they lead to a fracturing of Christianity into thousands of different denominations, with each one claiming to be the right interpreter of Scripture, all the while claiming that Scripture needs no interpreter, because it is so easy to understand. But that is so wrong. Some denominations baptize infants, while others do not. Some claim that homosexuality is now okay, others do not. Some claim that abortion is okay, others do not. The Holy Spirit is not schizophrenic! No, the scriptures, especially for us today, are not that easy to understand, being written thousands of years ago in an agrarian Jewish culture, in Hebrew and Greek, a culture and languages so different from our own. Sometimes, the Hebrew and Greek do not translate properly into English, so the original Greek and Hebrew meaning must be taken into account when trying to understand Scripture, and very few denominations do this. The Catholic Church does, however, with its great footnotes in its study Bibles. The Bible itself warns us of the dangers of self-interpretation of scripture:
2 Peter 1:20: “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”
2 Peter 3:15-16: “And count the forbearance of our Lord as salvation. So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.”
The Bible is clear that Scripture is not to lead to dissension and schism. John 10:16: “And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.” Romans 16:17: “I appeal to you, brethren, to take note of those who create dissensions and difficulties, in opposition to the doctrine which you have been taught; avoid them.” 1 Corinthians 1:10: “I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”
There are signs of hope. Representatives from the Lutheran World Federation and the Holy Catholic Church have signed a joint declaration on the doctrine of justification. So there is hope that one day that we all can be one flock, with one shepherd, yet again.