Evangelical Scholars Defend the “Five Solas” of the Reformation at 2015 SBTS Theology Conference

Stephen J. Wellum, professor of Christian theology at Southern Seminary, lectures during Southern Seminary's Theology Conference, held Sept. 24-25. Photos by Emil Handke, SBTS
Stephen J. Wellum, professor of Christian theology at Southern Seminary, lectures during Southern Seminary’s Theology Conference, held Sept. 24-25. Photos by Emil Handke, SBTS

While Pope Francis visited the United States for the first time, leading evangelical scholars defended the “Five Solas,” central themes of the Reformation, at the 2015 Theology Conference at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

With the approaching 500th anniversary in 2017 of Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, the signature moment of the Protestant Reformation, speakers at the conference emphasized the distinctiveness of the Reformed tradition from the Roman Catholic tradition.

“[A] Reformation understanding of grace sees God’s presence to people as mediated through the Word of God — especially the Word of God preached,” said Carl Trueman, professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, Pa., during the Sept. 24-25 conference. “It’s the Word of God — not the sacraments, as in Medieval Catholicism — which was the primary means of God dealing graciously with His people.”

Trueman, a prolific church historian who has authored works on both Luther and the Reformation, including “Reformation: Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow,” also spoke at Southern Seminary chapel on Sept. 24.

In his conference presentation on the Reformation maxim “Sola Gratia”(“Grace Alone”), Trueman said the Reformation was for Luther a “mighty battle” over the nature of grace and a reenactment of fifth-century doctrinal debates within the church. The church itself, Trueman argued, is evidence of God’s powerful grace working to create His people.

“I’m convinced that a lot of mistaken thinking about the church today derives from the fact that people think the church is a response to God’s grace rather than an act of God’s grace,” he said.

Christian preaching was a primary means of communicating the grace of God during the Reformation, Trueman said. He used a shift in church architecture during the Reformation as an illustration of a shift in theology. While one’s eyes are drawn to the altar in a Catholic cathedral — placing the focus upon the Eucharist — a Protestant cathedral is designed with the pulpit as its centerpiece.

Just as the preaching of the Word was the center of the Reformation, so modern churches need to champion the pulpit as the place where God meets His people, he said.

“Preachers need to understand that what they do is to perform a theological action which requires care and earnestness because they handle the Word of God. … They bring the most important message of all to people’s ears,” Trueman said. “Nothing kills churches, I think, quicker than preachers who do not seem to understand what they’re actually doing.”

Thomas R. Schreiner, James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Southern Seminary, discussed “Sola Fide”(“Faith Alone”) and its central role in the Reformation’s continuing legacy, both in New Testament studies and the life of the Protestant church. Schreiner’s presentation was based on his forthcoming book, “Faith Alone — the Doctrine of Justification,” which is the first in Zondervan’s “Five Solas” series. Each speaker is also contributing a book in the series.

Theologians throughout church history have wrestled with the tension between the two poles of New Testament teaching on faith and works: the reality of justification by grace through faith on one hand and the necessity of good works for ultimate salvation on the other. Despite claims that the Protestant slogan of “faith alone” is explicitly contradicted by James 2:24, Schreiner contended a fully biblical view recognizes works as the fruit of true faith. “Faith alone” itself requires good works for ultimate salvation.

“What James rejects,” Schreiner said, “is a ‘saying’ faith, a claiming faith, where works are absent. It is this kind of faith that doesn’t save, for it is a faith marked by intellectual assent only.”

Early categories for what later became the Protestant doctrine of justification were not foreign to the church fathers, Schreiner argued.

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SOURCE: Baptist Press
Andrew J.W. Smith