There are a lot of “Solos” sung by our Protestant brethren: Sola Fide (saved by faith alone); Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone is the rule of faith); sola gratia(grace works alone). (See the Protestant Logo to the right). Generally one ought to be suspicious and careful of claims that things work alone. It is our usual experience that things work together in harmony with other things and are interrelated. Very seldom is anyone or anything alone.
The problem of the “solos” emerges, it seems to me, in our minds where it is possible to separate things out. But the fact is, just because we can separate out something in our mind does not mean that we can separate it in reality. Consider a candle flame for a moment. In my mind I can separate the heat of the flame from the Light of the flame. But in reality I could never take a knife and put the heat over to one side and the light off to the other. In reality the heat and light are inseparable, so together as to be one.
I would like to respectfully argue that it is the same withthings like faith and works, grace and transformation, Scripture and the Church. We can separate all these things out in our mind but in reality they are one. Attempts to separate them from what they belong to lead to grave distortions and to the thing in question no longer being what it is claimed to be. Rather it turns into an abstraction that exists only on a blackboard or in the mind of a (geeky) theologian.
Let’s look at the three main “solos” of Protestant theology. I am aware that there are non-Catholic readers of this blog so please understand that my objections are made in respect . I am also aware that in a short blog I may oversimplify an thus welcome additions, clarifications etc. in the comments.
Solo 1: Faith alone (sola fide).For 400 years Catholics and Protestants have debated the question of faith and works. In this matter we must avoid a caricature of one another’s positions. Catholics do not and never have taught that we were saved by works. For heaven’s sake we baptize infants! We fought off the Pelagians. But neither do Protestants mean by “faith” a purely intellectual acceptance of the existence of God as many Catholics think they do.
But what concerns us here is the detachmentof faith from works as the phrase “Faith alone” implies. So let me ask, What is faith without works? Can you point to it? Is it visible? Introduce me to someone who has real faithbut no works. I don’t think they can be found. About the only example I can think of is a baptized infant! But oops, that’s a Catholic thing! 🙂 (Pardon me for having some fun). Hence it seems that faith alone is something of an abstraction. It is something that we can separate from works only in our minds but not in reality. If faith is a transformative relationship with Jesus Christ it seems we cannot remain unchanged by our entering into that relationship with him. This change affects our behavior, our works. Even in the case of infants it is possible to argue that they are changed and do have “works” it’s just that we cannot easily observe them. Scripture affirms that faith is never alone, that such a concept is an abstraction. Faith without works is dead (James 2:26) It is not really faith at all since faith does not exist by itself but is always present with and causes works through love. Galatians 5:6 says: For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision; but faith working through love. Hence faith works not alone, but through love. Further as Paul states in 1 Corinthians 13:2 if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. Hence faith alone is a null set, it is nothing in that it does not exist. True faith is never alone, it bears the fruit of love and works of holiness. Faith ignites love and works through it. Beware the solo “faith alone” and ask where faith, all by itself can be found.
Solo 2: Grace alone (sola gratia). As for grace alone, this too is a puzzling claim since grace by its very nature changes us. Again, show me grace apart from works. That is an abstraction. It cannot be found apart from its effects. In our mind it may exist as an idea but in reality it is never alone. Grace builds on nature and transforms it. It engages the person who responds to its urges and gifts. If grace is real it will have it’s effects and cannot be found alone or apart from works. It cannot be found apart from a real flesh and blood human who is manifesting its effects.
Solo 3: Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) – Finally beware the soloists who say Sola Scriptura! Namely the claim that Scripture alone is the measure of faith and the sole authority for the Christian. There are several problems with this.
- First, Scripture as we know it (with the full New Testament) was not fully assembled and agreed upon until the 4th Century and it was Catholic Bishops in union with the Pope who made the decision as to what books belonged in the Bible. The early Christians could not possibly live by sola scriptura.
- Secondly, until recently most people could not read. Kind of strange that God would make a book the sole rule of faith. Even today large numbers of people in the world still cannot read well.
- Thirdly, and most importantly, if all you have is a book, that book still needs to be interpreted accurately. Without a valid and recognized interpreter the book can well serve to divide more than unite. It this not the experience of Protestantism which now has tens of thousands of denominations all claiming to read the same Bible but interpreting it in rather different manners? The problem is if no one is Pope everyone is Pope! Protestantism claims that everyone alone with a Bible and the Holy Spirit can authentically interpret Scripture. Well then why does the Holy Spirit tell some that baptism is necessary for salvation and to others no. Why the Holy Spirit tell some that the Eucharist really is Christ body and blood and others only a symbol? Why does the Holy Spirit say to some Protestants “Once saved always saved” and to others, “No” ?? So it seems clear that Scripture is not meant to be alone. Scripture itself says this in 2 Peter 3:16 our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, also wrote to you, Our Brother Paul speaking of these things [the Last things] as he does in all his letters. In them there are some things hard to understand that the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures. Hence Scripture warns that it is quite possible to mis-interpret Scripture. Well then, were is the truth to be found? The Scriptures once again answer this: you should know how to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth. (1 Tim 3:15) Hence Scriptures are not to be read alone. They are a document of the Lord through the Church and must be read in the context of the Church and with the Church’s authoritative interpretation and Tradition. As this quote says, The CHURCH is the pillar and foundation of the truth. The Bible is a Church book and not meant to be read apart from the Church that received the authority to publish it from God. Scripture is the most authoritative and precious document of the Church but it emanates from the Church’s Tradition and must be understood in the light of it. Further, faith is not alone but works through love, grace is not alone but builds on nature.
Thus the problems of singing solo seems to come down to the fact that we end up with an abstraction. Something that exists in the mind but in reality cannot be found alone. Thus to gloss on a famous passage from Genesis:
It is not good (or even possible) for grace or faith to be alone. It is not good for Scripture to be alone. I, (the Lord) will make a suitable partner for the grace of faith: works. I will make a suitable partner for the Scriptures: the Church. That is why the grace of faith leaves it’s Father and clings to its wife and the two of them becme one. That is why Scripture leaves its Father and joins itself to the Church and the two of them become one.
Ok it’s a little corny. But I couldn’t resist. In end, Beware the solos, it is not good to be alone!
Here is a brief video where Fr. Robert Barron ponders the Protestant point of view that every baptized Christian has the right to authoritatively interpret the Word of God.