"Sola Fides" is not Sola Fide

sola-fide-flagI’m reading Rowan Williams on Arius. Early in the book he uses the expression “sola fides.” In context, he seems to be making an indirect reference to the Protestant doctrine of sola fide. I’ve seen this in other writers. When I first noticed this a few years ago I was puzzled and assumed that the writer must have simply used the wrong Latin expression. Now I’m not so sure and as I thought about it, I wondered if in fact some folk are not simply confused about the difference between the two expressions. Perhaps some people don’t know the difference?

The first expression, which occurs in the nominative (subject) case means “faith alone,” but in context it does not mean “by faith alone.” That’s in a different case and has a different meaning. In the subject/nominative case it means essentially, “a faith that is alone.” This struck me as interesting because this is the very thing of which the moralists have always accused their critics of promoting. The paradigm used by Norm Shepherd and his followers has always been “antinomianism” (or “easy-believism”) vs. the true Reformed faith. Despite 30 plus years of explanation, they still see their critics as promoting essentially the same sort of soteriology as Zane Hodges or those who deny the third use of the law. This is why they constantly appeal to the language of WCF that jusifying faith is ever accompanied by various other graces, essentially sanctification. They do so becuase they believe that their critics hold to “sola fides” instead of sola fide.

The critics, however, do not hold to sola fides but to sola fide. The grammatical difference is that the latter phrase is in the ablative or instrumental case. In this instance it means, “by faith alone” or perhaps “through faith alone” (properly per solam fidem). The point is that, sola fide is a shorthand way of saying that “faith, receiving and resting in the perfect, finished, whole, active and passive obedience of Christ for his people, is the alone instrument through which a sinner is justified before God.”

That faith is never alone, but it does not justify because it is not alone. Those graces that accompany justifying faith do not constitute faith justifying. Only Christ, the object of faith, makes faith justifying. This is the difference between Rome and the Reformation. For the Reformation, the accompanying graces are evidence and fruit of true faith. They tell us that one has a living faith. In that way, they are necessary.

As I understand the “easy believism” view or the denial of the third use of the law, fruit and evidence are not seen as necessary but as a sort of second blessing. This is not what the confessions teach nor is it what those Reformed churches believe which have rejected the Federal Vision and other forms of moralism.

The way to sanctity is not to build it into justification. The way to sanctity is to preach the gospel and the law in its third use as the norm for the Christian life. To try to generate sanctity by making justification or even salvation (more broadly conceived to include sanctification) contingent upon our law-keeping is a temptation and a form of rationalism. It seems reasonable but the it’s trap and a lie and it doesn’t work. The gospel mystery of sanctification is that the gospel is the only power for the Christian life.

This post first appeared in August, 2008.

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  1. “That faith is never alone, but it does not justify because it is not alone. Those graces that accompany justifying faith do not constitute faith justifying. Only Christ, the object of faith, makes faith justifying. This is the difference between Rome and the Reformation.”

    Thank you for stressing this vitally important distinction between true justifying faith and those graces which necessarily accompany and flow from that faith. It seems that those of a moralistic, hyper-covenantal and/or neo-legalist persuasion either react to such distinctions with the (false) accusation of “antinomianism!” (i.e., “easy-believism”), or they think such distinctions are nit-picky hair splitting and straining out gnats. But few distinctions are more important when it comes to guarding the integrity and purity of the biblical gospel.

  2. And then there’s solafidelity but that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.

    Hey, so maybe you can answer a question I’ve had for a long time; there’s ‘sola scriptura’, and I’ve also seen bandied about a term for its backwoods biblicist cousin ‘solo scriptura’. Can you explain the latin difference there too?

  3. @RubeRad: “sola” is either nominative (short a at the end) or ablative (long a at the end, with a macron). Dr. Clark has already illustrated those uses. I should also point out that either of these would be if “sola” was modifying a feminine noun. “solo” would not be permissible to modify “fides”, because “fides” is feminine. On the other hand, Christus is masculine, so you could say “solus Christus”. If the noun was masculine or neuter, and in the dative (indirect object) case or the ablative case (instrumental, or several other uses), and singular (not plural), then you would have “solo Christo”.

  4. @RubeRad: Keith Mathison is, I think, mixing English and Latin there on purpose to make a point. “Solo” is the English word, and Mathison’s point is that some are taking “sola scriptura” to an extreme it doesn’t warrant, and obliterating all subordinate authorities. The Reformed position is that Scripture alone is the only ultimate authority, but there are lots of subordinate authorities to which we should listen. So Mathison needs a different term to refer to this idea that there are no subordinate authorities, and he’s calling that “solo scriptura”.

  5. OK, that’s the answer I’ve been looking for for a couple years. I understood the sola/solo distinction in terms of meaning, I just always wanted to know if/how that distinction was supported by Latin grammar, and I guess the answer is: not at all.

  6. Rowan Williams is a scholar who chooses his words carefully; I for one do not know what is in his mind, not least much of the time also not knowing what is in his words!

    I have always thought that ‘SOLA’ is best if awkwardly translated as ‘solitary’. That better captures the ambiguity of whether faith is devoid of siblings (or ‘companions’ like roman works), or devoid of children (fruit), which otherwise only becomes clearer in Latin with the cases

    To avoid the risk of trusting in our own faith (‘faith in faith’), presumably we can also equally expand the ‘sola fide’ shorthand to read ‘justification by the grace of Christ, through the instrument of – or possibly even with the accompaniment of – faith’

    (There are those who say that faith is the accompanying sign and seal of saving grace which, incidentally, makes it easier to say a believer is still a believer even if he is so discouraged as to have given up on his faith. After all, Christ is faithful even when we are faithless)

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