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), and sola gratia (grace alone). Generally, one ought to be leery of claims that things work “alone.” Typically, many things work together in harmony; things are interrelated. Very seldom is anyone or anything really “alone.”
The problem with “solos” emerges (it seems to me) in our mind, where it is possible to separate things out; but just because we can separate something out in our mind does not mean that we can do so in reality.
Consider, for a moment, a candle’s flame. In my mind, I can separate the heat of the flame from its light, but I could never put a knife into the flame and put the heat of the flame on one side of it and the light on the other. In reality, the heat and light are inseparable—so together as to be one.
I would like to argue that it is the same with things 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. Attempting to separate them from what they belong to leads to grave distortions and to the thing in question no longer being what it is claimed to be. Rather, it becomes an abstraction that exists only on a blackboard or in the mind of a 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 with respect. I am also aware that in a short blog I may oversimplify, and thus I welcome additions, clarifications, etc. in the comments section.
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 each avoid caricaturing the other’s position. Catholics do not and never have taught that we are 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 that they do.
What concerns us here is the detachment of faith from works that the phrase “faith alone” implies. Let me ask, what is faith without works? Can you point to it? Is it visible? Introduce me to someone who has real faith but no works. I don’t think one can be found. About the only example I can think of is a baptized infant, but that’s a Catholic thing! Most Baptists and Evangelicals who sing the solos reject infant baptism.
Hence it seems that faith alone is something of an abstraction. Faith is something that can only be separated from works in our minds. If faith is a transformative relationship with Jesus Christ, we cannot enter into that relationship while remaining unchanged. 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 they are not easily observed.
Scripture affirms that faith is never alone, that such a concept is an abstraction. Faith without works is dead (James 2:26). Faith without works is not faith at all because faith does not exist by itself; it 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 the null set. True faith is never alone; it bears the fruit of love and the works of holiness. Faith ignites love and works through it. Beware of the solo “faith alone” and ask where faith, all by itself, can be found.
Solo 2: Grace alone (sola gratia) – By its very nature grace changes us. Again, show me grace apart from works. Grace without works is an abstraction. It cannot be found apart from its effects. In our mind it may exist as an idea, but in reality, grace 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 its 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) – Beware those who say, “sola Scriptura!” This is the claim that Scripture alone is the measure of faith and the sole authority for the Christian, that there is no need for a Church and no authority in the Church, that there is only authority in the Scripture.
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.
It was Catholic bishops, in union with the Pope, who made the decision as to which books belonged in the Bible. The early Christians could not possibly have lived by sola scriptura because the Scriptures were not even fully written in the earliest years. And although collected and largely completed in written form by 100 AD, the set of books and letters that actually made up the New Testament was not agreed upon until the 4th century.
Second, until recently most people could not read.
Given this, it seems strange that God would make, as the sole rule of faith, a book that people had to read on their own. Even today, large numbers of people in the world cannot read well. Hence, Scripture was not necessarily a read text, but rather one that most people heard and experienced in and with the Church through her preaching, liturgy, art, architecture, stained glass, passion plays, and so forth.
Third, and most important, if all you have is a book, then that book needs to be interpreted accurately.
Without a valid and recognized interpreter, the book can serve to divide more than to unite. Is 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 then everyone is Pope! Protestant “soloists” claim that anyone, alone with a Bible and the Holy Spirit, can authentically interpret Scripture. Well then, why does the Holy Spirit tell some people that baptism is necessary for salvation and others that it is not necessary? Why does the Holy Spirit tell some that the Eucharist really is Christ’s Body and Blood and others that it is 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 itself warns that it is quite possible to misinterpret Scripture.
Where 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 Scripture is not to be read alone. It is 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 passage from Timothy says, the Church is the pillar and foundation of truth. The Bible is a Church book and thus is not meant to be read apart from the Church that received the authority to publish it from God Himself. 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.
Thus, the problems of “singing solo” seem to boil down to the fact that if we separate what God has joined we end up with an abstraction, something that exists only in the mind but in reality, cannot be found alone.
Here is a brief video in which Fr. Robert Barron ponders the Protestant point of view that every baptized Christian has the right to authoritatively interpret the Word of God.