One way of summarizing the distinctive Christian teachings that emerged 500 years ago with the Reformation is through a collection of Latin slogans known as the “five solas” (from the word sola, meaning “only” or “alone”). In regard to how salvation is achieved and received, the solas answer:
sola Scriptura: “only by Scripture”
sola fide: “only by faith”
sola gratia: “only by grace”
solus Christus: “Christ alone”
soli Deo gloria: “glory to God alone”
It can be tempting to regard these doctrinal statements as smug, ritual methods of self-congratulation, ways of saying, “Yup—those late-medieval Christians sure were wrong.” Yet the danger there is we begin to sound like the Pharisee of Luke 18. (“God, I thank you that I am not among the misguided...”) What if, instead, we were to take up the five solas as calls to the ongoing conversion of our own lives? Can we experience the five solas as fresh calls to sanctification here and now, as we open ourselves to the continually re-forming power of God’s Spirit moving among us?
In order to engage in that kind of spiritual exercise, we need tools that can tell convicting stories in the languages and images of our contemporary cultural imagination. Here, then, is a reading of the five solas through five films.
The Book of Eli | Sola Scriptura
In The Book of Eli, the title character (Denzel Washington) makes his way across a postapocalyptic America, a hostile and illiterate wasteland burned out by an event referred to only as “the flash.” Although Eli is adept at fighting off the roving bandits who rule the land, he restrains himself from getting involved in saving other people. Even as he watches a helpless person being ravaged, he repeats to himself, “Stay on the path; it’s not your concern.” His path, as it turns out, involves carrying a Bible all the way across the country to the sea, where someone will be waiting who can put it to rightful use.
Along the way Eli encounters a town boss ironically named Carnegie (Gary Oldman). Unlike the historic Andrew Carnegie, the great patron of American libraries, this Carnegie is a sola Scriptura kind of guy: he has his goons on a specific search for a copy of the Bible. He is convinced that with it, he can control others. “It’s not a book,” Carnegie says, “it’s a weapon, a weapon aimed right at the hearts and minds of the weak and the desperate. ...People will do exactly what I tell ‘em as long as the words are from that book.”
This offers a terrifying vision of what sola Scriptura, taken merely as a rallying cry and not as a call to continual counter-formation, can amount to: a single-minded focus on holding onto and exploiting the Bible’s authority to motivate and direct people toward one’s own purposes. In battling Carnegie and his henchmen, Eli discovers a seemingly paradoxical truth about Scripture: sometimes it is only possible to live into and pass on the Bible’s wisdom by giving up control of the book itself. As he says, “I got so caught up with keeping it safe that I forgot to live by what I learned from it.”
Get on the Bus | Sola fide
This Spike Lee film depicts 20 African-American men riding a charter bus from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., for the 1995 Million Man March. The men represent a wide variety of political, social, and religious orientations: Muslim and Christian; police officer and former gang-banger; straight and gay; young and old; liberal and conservative. Although the March has drawn them all together, their faith is fragmented. Each of the pilgrims has a personal agenda, something in which he is placing his own faith. As the film unfolds, the situations they encounter confound what each one thought he could trust in, and their own individual missions crumble. They are more and more challenged to have faith in each other.
The demands of that transforming faith are starkly focused by the crisis of trust between two characters, set against unsettling reminders of slavery’s violent destruction of human trust. After the opening credits offer multiple images of a 19th-century black slave in chains, the first scene shows a present-day African-American teenager (De’aundre Bonds) chained to his father (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) as they board the bus. Each has a stubborn faith in his own rightness. The father has his son confined in court-ordered chains after a misdemeanor shoplifting conviction, confident in his own ability to turn his son’s life around. Yet those same chains perpetuate the son’s mistrust of his father, who has abandoned him in the past, and drive him deeper into his faith in his own chosen path.
Father and son only arrive at a mutual and hard-won faith when they both set aside these individual agendas. This, too, is conveyed by the imagery of chains. In the final shot, the son’s chains are shown left on the floor at the Lincoln Memorial. The music for the closing credits that follow is gospel musician Kirk Franklin’s “My Life is in Your Hands.” Yes, a deep and committed faith in our individual projects is necessary, but deeper faith is found—for father and son as well as for all the pilgrims on the bus—in the trust that we are thrown upon when our projects do not turn out as we had intended.
Arrival | Sola gratia
In this Best Picture nominee from last year, the world is faced with an unexpected and perplexing situation: 12 spaceships arrive at various locations over the Earth’s surface and simply hover. The nations of the world—many of them inclined not only to be fearful of the visitors but also to be suspicious of each other—struggle to interpret what is happening and what they should do about it. An American colonel (Forest Whitaker) states the question everyone is wondering: “What do they want and where are they from?”
To help find an answer, he enlists a linguist (Amy Adams) to attempt to communicate with the aliens. Ultimately, she is challenged to accept (and to get her fellow human beings to accept) the radically non-reciprocal reality of a gift. The aliens are not here to take something, but rather have come to offer something new and unexpected, a gift that can deliver humanity from its self-destructive patterns of mutual antagonism. The dramatic tension of the film’s climax suggests the similar tension that is at work in our human encounter with God’s grace. Can we really accept a gift and submit to what the linguist describes as a “non-zero-sum game?” Can we “welcome every moment of it”?
Jesus of Montreal | Solus Christus
Jesus of Montreal begins predictably enough. Actor Daniel Coulombe (Lothaire Bluteau) is hired to enliven a tired and stiff Passion play staged annually at a shrine in the title city. He and his band of theatrical misfits replace the pious set-pieces and dramatic declamations with scholarly informed doubts about the historical Jesus, while also retaining Jesus’ own unsettling words and actions as offered in the Bible. This new version provokes both excitement from the audience and shock on the part of the sponsoring ecclesiastical authorities. As the priest who was responsible for the original version (Gilles Pelletier) complains, “I asked you to freshen up a play that worked for 40 years. I didn’t ask for this.”
Jesus of Montreal really gets interesting after the confrontation between those two parties has mostly played out. Unexpectedly, the identity and story of Jesus begin to take over the lives of Daniel and his fellow dramatists. Jesus’ life and mission turn out to be stronger and more compelling than anyone’s attempts to control it, from the priests to the dramatists to the critics who praise the production as part of their own agendas. Even the broader society fails to contain the Christ-energy once it is unleashed on Montreal. Ultimately, the power of Christ overwhelms their individual lives, purposes, and projects. Solus Christus turns out to lead to far greater risks, but also far deeper glory, than anyone had imagined.
Amadeus | Soli Deo gloria
Ostensibly the story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce), Amadeus is nevertheless narrated and framed by his older, contemporary composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham). Salieri has promised God that he will give up everything as long as his music succeeds in giving glory to God. Everything, that is, except his own dignity. Salieri, who has sacrificed the carnal pleasures of life in service of his supposedly transcendent goal, is disoriented, disturbed, and deeply offended when he encounters Mozart—who, in spite of his heavenly music, which is far better than anything Salieri can produce, turns out to be a far less worthy vessel. On hearing Mozart’s work after having encountered him as a “giggling dirty-minded creature … crawling on the floor,” Salieri complains: “God was singing through this little man to all the world, unstoppable, making my defeat more bitter with every passing bar.”
Salieri’s devotion to God’s glory turns out to be hollow. If there is no glory in it for Salieri himself, he renounces his vow: “Because you are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block you. I swear it. I will hinder and harm your creature as far as I am able. I will ruin your incarnation.” When God chooses to glorify God’s self by other means of which Salieri does not approve, Salieri abandons God’s glory and commits himself to his own manageable hell as the “patron saint of mediocrities.”
Sola Scriptura: not our own control and handling of God’s word, but what that word calls us to. Sola fide: not our own plans or right sense of things, but the increasing demands of trust. Sola gratia: not what we can achieve or understand, but a gift. Solus Christus: not what we think Jesus should be, but the awkward and scandalous surprise of his message and presence. Soli Deo gloria: not the way we would choose for God to be glorified, but God’s own good pleasure. These five solas not only help us to remember what the historic Reformation achieved, but call us to ongoing renewal, the continuing re-formation of our lives and our imaginations.
Editor's note: For further Reformation coverage from our partner programs at ReFrame Media, check out Family Fire's article on "Five Blessings from the Reformation;" Today's Reformation-focused month of devotionals; and Groundwork’s podcast series Salvation: Five Insights from the Reformation.