The Five Solas: An Interview with Matthew Barrett
What’s the goal of The Five Solas series?
Historians and theologians alike have long recognized that at the heart of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation were five declarations (or “solas”) that distinguished the movement from other expressions of the Christian faith. Five hundred years later, we live in a different time with fresh challenges to our faith. Yet these rallying cries of the Reformation continue to instruct us, addressing a wide range of contemporary issues.
So, the goal of The Five Solas series is to help Christians understand the historical and biblical context of the five solas and how to live out the relevance of Reformation theology today.
Summarize each book for us and tell us the contribution each makes.
God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture, by Matthew Barrett
In this book, I look at the historical and biblical roots of the doctrine that Scripture alone is the final and decisive authority for God’s people. I examine the development of this theme in the Reformation and trace the crisis that followed resulting in a shift away from the authority of Scripture. I also explore how biblical authority is portrayed throughout the storyline of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation. I give attention to the way God speaks a covenantal word to his covenant people and to the way that covenantal word carries authority.
Finally, I turn to systematically address biblical authority, defending its inspiration, inerrancy, clarity, and sufficiency. I show that we need to recover a robust doctrine of Scripture’s authority in the face of today’s challenges and why a solid doctrinal foundation built on God’s Word is the best hope for the future of the church.
Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification, by Thomas Schreiner
In Faith Alone, Thomas Schreiner looks at the historical and biblical roots of the doctrine of justification. He summarizes the history of the doctrine, looking at the early church and the writings of several of the Reformers. Then he turns his attention to Scripture and walks readers through an examination of the key texts in the Old and New Testament. He discusses whether justification is transformative or forensic, and introduces readers to some of the contemporary challenges to the Reformation teaching of sola fide with particular attention to the new perspective on Paul.
Five hundred years after the Reformation, the doctrine of justification by faith alone still needs to be understood and proclaimed. In Faith Alone readers will learn how the rallying cry of “sola fide” is rooted in the Scriptures and how to apply this sola in a fresh way in light of contemporary challenges.
Grace Alone: Salvation as a Gift of God, by Carl Trueman
In this work, Carl Trueman explores the notion of grace as it’s found in the Bible and church history, particularly in the Reformation. He ends the historical discussion with the Reformation because he believes the basic patterns of Protestant and evangelical understandings of grace are sufficiently developed in the Reformation to allow us to draw lessons for the present day.
Christ Alone: The Uniqueness of Jesus as Savior, by Stephen Wellum
In Christ Alone, Stephen Wellum considers Christ’s uniqueness and significance biblically, historically, and culturally for our pluralistic and postmodern age. He examines the historical roots of the doctrine, especially in the Reformation era, and then shows how the uniqueness of Christ has come under specific attack today. He walks the reader through the storyline of Scripture; explains Christ’s unique identity and work as prophet, priest, and king; and highlights the application of his work via believers’ covenantal union with him in order to show that apart from Christ there is no salvation. Wellum argues we must recover a robust biblical and theological doctrine of Christ’s person and work for our day. A fresh appraisal of the Reformation’s cry of sola Christus is desperately needed today.
God’s Glory Alone: The Majestic Heart of the Christian Faith and Life, by David VanDrunen
In God’s Glory Alone, David VanDrunen looks at the historical and biblical roots of the idea that all glory belongs to God alone. He examines the development of this theme in the Reformation, in subsequent Reformed theology and confessions, and in contemporary theologians who continue to be inspired by the conviction that all glory belongs to God. Then he turns to the biblical story of God’s glory, beginning with the pillar of cloud and fire revealed to Israel, continuing through the incarnation, death, and exaltation of the Lord Jesus Christ, and culminating in Christ’s Second Coming and the ultimate glorification of his people. In light of these wonderful biblical themes he concludes by addressing several of today’s great cultural challenges and temptations—such as distraction and narcissism—and reflecting on how a commitment to God’s glory alone fortifies us to live godly lives in this present evil age.
How do all five solas fit together as an inseparable whole?
All five books (and solas) fit together and are inseparable from one another. It’s only on the basis of the work of Christ alone that sinners receive the perfect righteousness of Christ and the total forgiveness of sins. Reception of this imputed righteousness, however, isn’t by works but through faith alone in Christ alone.
But even our faith is a gift from God. Therefore, it’s by God’s grace alone that we’re raised from spiritual death to life, that our eyes are opened to our sin and our desperate need for a Savior. It’s precisely because salvation is by grace alone that all glory goes to God alone.
So, how do we know about this good news? Through the Scriptures alone! Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Melanchthon, and many others cried sola scriptura, which means that only Scripture, as God’s inspired Word, is the church’s inerrant, sufficient, and final authority. Scripture read, preached, and proclaimed feeds the sheep with the good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ. To paraphrase Luther, the Scriptures are the swaddling clothes in which we’re presented with Jesus, our Savior.
What’s something surprising you learned from writing your book, God’s Word Alone?
God’s Word is inherently and invariably Trinitarian in nature. Throughout redemptive history, each person of the Trinity participates in the delivery of divine revelation, yet it’s the Holy Spirit in particular who takes on a central role, carrying along the biblical authors so they speak from God (2 Pet 1:21).
Additionally, God’s Word, though communicated in a variety of ways, is undeniably covenantal in character. God communicates who he is and what he will do via divinely initiated covenants—and Scripture itself is a covenantal document. It’s the constitution of the covenant between God and his people. To reject God’s Word is to reject his covenant. Redemptive history demonstrates that the covenantal Word of the triune God proves true. His covenantal promises, both spoken and written, will not fail, and nowhere is this more evident than in the incarnation of Christ, the Word made flesh.
What other books on the Reformation—biographies, theology, etc.—would you recommend to pastors? To church members?
First, the best book someone could read to become more familiar with the Reformation is a book by one of the Reformers. As great as literature about the Reformers may be, nothing compares to hearing the Reformers speak for themselves and benefitting from their writings directly. So where should you start? Begin with Luther. Start with three of his early works: To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and The Freedom of a Christian. All three have been collected in one volume called Three Treatises. But to see Luther at his best, at least in terms of the doctrine of justification and interaction with the biblical text, pick up his Lectures on Galatians.
Next, turn to John Calvin, specifically his Institutes of the Christian Religion. If you’re overwhelmed by the size of the contemporary 2 volume set, try Calvin’s 1541 edition (translated from the French!), which has been published in one attractive volume by Banner of Truth. Calvin’s Institutes are not only a theological feast, but they act as a medicine to the soul, full of pastoral wisdom. Not only will you meet Calvin the theologian, but Calvin the shepherd, as he teaches you how to live the Christian life.
If you’re looking, however, for books on the theology of the Reformers, be sure to read any of the outstanding authors in the recent Crossway volume I edited, Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary. Here you’ll find chapters organized doctrinally, from biblical authority to eschatology, as well as bibliographies at the end of each chapter directing you where to turn for further study.
Books about the Reformation and the lives of the Reformers are many, but there are a handful of classics you can’t afford to pass up. Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther is still the best concise narrative of Luther’s life. You won’t be able to put this book down as Bainton paints Luther in full color. Pastors will also enjoy the writings of Timothy George who has spent his life telling others about the theology of the Reformers. Two must-reads include his Theology of the Reformers and his Reading Scripture with the Reformers.