Whence the Reformation Solas?

From where do we get the  Reformation solas? I get this question with some frequency, usually around Reformation Day. Here is a preliminary answer: The ideas were present from the earliest stage of the Reformation, but the actual phrases developed over time. The earliest phrases were sola gratia (by grace alone) and sola fide and sola scriptura. These are easily found in early 16th century protestant texts.

Sola Gratia

Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, before he radicalized, used the expression sola gratia repeatedly in his 1519 disputation.

Martin Bucer used it in his 1536 commentary on the Gospels and again in a 1545 tract. The Italian Reformer, Peter Martyr Vermiligi used it in his 1558 lectures on Romans. Wolfgang Musculus used it in his lectures on Galatians and Ephesians (1561). Caspar Olevianus used it in his lectures on Romans (1579).

Calvin defended the notion and used the phrase, in Institutes 2.3.11—he was arguing against the Roman notion of “cooperating grace” in justification. See also 3.11.5; 3.14.5; 3.24.12.

Sola Fide

Luther used it famously in his translation of Romans 3:28. He also used it in his lectures on Galatians. (His defense of inserting “allein” is in the resources below). In 1521, Melanchthon used it in his Loci Communes (Common Places, his systematics text) exactly as we do today.

Karlstadt used sola fide also in 1519 in his disputation. The significance of this is that he was certainly reflecting, at this point, what Luther and Melanchthon were saying. The phrase is also found in the work of Francois Lambert (1524); Johannes Oecolampadius (1524, 1534), Martin Bucer (1527, 1534, 1536, 1545), Heinrich Bullinger (1534, 1557), Peter Martyr Vermigli (1549) and in Calvin (Institutes 3.3.1; 3.11.1; 1.11.19; 3.14.17 etc). It is also found, of course, in the Augsburg Confession Art. 6.

In Belgic Confession the the Reformed Churches confess Luther’s translation of Romans 3:28.

The Latin text of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) uses the expression sola fide in Q. 60 on justification.

Sola Scriptura

Sola Scriptura is certainly a 16th century phrase. The expression itself occurs among the Reformed as early as 1526 and Bucer used it in 1536. Calvin used it in Institutes 3.17.8.

Solo Christo and Soli Deo Gloria

I do not know the original dates for the phrases, solo Christo (i.e. “in Christ alone”) and soli Deo gloria (to God alone be the glory) but my guess is that their origins are probably a little later. Jim Renihan suggested that they might be traceable to Merle D’Aubigne. That seems like a good possibility but one which I have not investigated yet.

UPDATE (2023)

See the resources below on the roots and pedigree of sola Scriptura and the other Reformation solas. It has early and deep roots in the Reformation. David VanDrunen (see below) shows that soli Deo gloria is an early Reformed slogan. Thanks to Hefin Jones, who showed me that  Calvin used solo Christo in the 1559 edition Institutes 3.18.3 in the same sense in which we use it today. I do not yet see it in the 1536 edition. More work remains to be done. Listen to the Office Hours interview below with David VanDrunen on soli Deo gloria. It is earlier than I thought in 2008.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. Do you know when all five were first used in a list? It makes sense that you can find certain phrases that allude to each one of the solas, but none of the sources above include all five. Some may argue that the Scriptures themselves contain all five and have always been a part of the Church. But I’m interested in who bundled the five together in the form we know today. Who decided that there weren’t six solas? And what did that person/group mean when they stated each of these solas?

    Also is there a book or article you can point me to that has the best, most historically accurate definitions of all five solas?


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