The Reformation Solas

Today the Roman Catholic Church does not sound like the Roman Catholic Church of the Counter Reformation of the 16th century.  I am not talking about tone but rather content. For example, in the first canon of the twenty-second session of Trent the Mass is defined as a “true and proper sacrifice.” In the third canon Trent argues that the Mass is not “a bare commemoration of the Cross but is itself propitiatory.”  Now, I have spoken with and read Roman Catholics today who, having been influenced by the Bible, want to distance themselves from the idea of the Mass clearly communicated in the canons of Trent. 

The difference between Roman Catholic and the Protestant theology can be clearly and concisely summed up in terms of the material and formal principle of the Reformation.  A formal principle in theology is the source of authority and the material principle is the central teaching of the source.  Consequently, the formal principle of the Reformation had to do with authority and the material principle had to do with the way of salvation. 

Protestants like Martin Luther began to beat the drum of Sola Scriptura or Scripture alone as the Church’s source of authority.  When Rome protested against the Protestants at the Council of Trent they argued not for sola Scriptura but Scriptura et tradition or Scripture and tradition.  For Rome, there are two sources of authority not one. A friend once told me that when he talks with Roman Catholics who have read the Scriptures and realize that Trent’s view of the Mass is actually contrary to Scripture and so want to nuance or soften what the documents actually say in order to be consistent with Scripture, he tells them that there is a name for them.  It’s Protestant!

What is more, Roman Catholics and Protestants run counter to one another on the material principle as well and not surprisingly.  If your source of authority is wrong then your material principle will be wrong as well.  In the 16th century Luther’s eyes were opened to the alien righteousness that God imputes to us by faith in Christ. However, Rome taught that grace was infused through participation in the sacraments.  This infusion of grace enabled the partaker to do works that would culminate in their justification.  For Rome, sanctification precedes justification.  What is more, Trent anathematized the Protestants who believed that justification is on the basis of “the sole imputation of the justice of Christ.” Rome got the formal and the material principle wrong.

The next series on Theology for Everyone will explore the solas of the Reformation.  We will look at Sola Scriptura, Sola fide, Sola gratia, Solus Christus and Soli Deo Gloria.  These topics are not distant slogans from a bygone era.  They are much needed today. The Roman Catholic Church continues to teach that the work of Christ must be supplemented by our works in order to be finally justified. When Luther made his pilgrimage to Rome and climbed the Scalia Sancta he climbed the steps on his knees and kissed each step.  He was sorry that his parents were still alive because he could have dedicated the work of stair climbing to his parent’s time in purgatory.  He ended up dedicating the work to his grandparents account.  The story in and of itself is sad. Luther himself ascended the last step wondering if it was all true.  Later in his life he was more emphatic about the stupidity of it all. This story alone illustrates that the Gospel of Rome is bad news. Rome is wrong. The hundreds and thousands of people who still journey yearly to Rome seeking to climb the 28 stairs of the Scalia Sancta are a reminder of just how bad the gospel of Rome is. May the following articles be a blessing to you.  May they remind you of the Reformation’s great battle call, “Post Tenebras Lux!”   

Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA.  He is also Professor of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Jeff is also an online instructor for Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA. He is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and has published academic articles and book reviews in various journals. Jeff is the Senior Editor of Place for Truth ( an online magazine for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. 


Jeffrey Stivason