Sola gratia, Sola fide, sola scriptura, solus christus (grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone, Christ alone). In these four soli Martin Luther summarized his Reformation. Or so most people think.
This year, the soli were the topic of the Theological Study Days of the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Mennonitischer Gemeinden in Deutschland (Association of Mennonite Congregations in Germany). It was a revealing conference.
The first insight: The soli do not derive from the 16th century at all, but from the 19th. At least in this crisp version of eight words.
The theological beliefs behind the soli are central themes of the Reformation: grace, faith, the Bible, Jesus Christ. But the four short formulas were a Protestant public relations idea of the 19th century: catchy, concise and easy to remember.
Second: Lutherans as well as Anabaptists in the 16th century might have found these four short formulas frustrating because they don’t say enough. The soli are like vessels that must be filled with content. They must be expanded and defined more precisely. Yes, sola scriptura implies that the meaning of Scripture does not depend on interpretation by a priest. Yet Anabaptists believed that collective interpretation of the Bible by the community of believers was indispensable.
Third: The Anabaptists were part of the Reformation and shared basic convictions with Lutherans and Reformed. Yes, sola gratia means we do not attain salvation through works. But living the faith was important for all. The Anabaptists called this discipleship. For Luther it was “new obedience.”
Yet there were differences. For the Anabaptists, defenselessness, or nonviolence, was an essential part of discipleship. The Lutherans had a different opinion. The soli can fit into different identities.
The handling of the soli shows how beliefs and words shape identity. But identity is never static.
In five years we will celebrate 500 years of Anabaptism. Special occasions invite us to reflect on identity. Mennonite World Conference has proclaimed the celebration motto “Renewal.”
Looking ahead is a good perspective for a commemoration that deals with the past.
What will our world look like in five years? Where will Mennonite congregations be in 2025? The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating developments that have already become apparent. Don’t we need to rethink church and our forms of fellowship in general? Does our Sunday-morning service in the church building perhaps no longer have the fellowship-building function it was intended to have? Are new places of worship necessary? When will the first digital Mennonite church be established? Perhaps it will have members worldwide!
Change is in the air. This is good and necessary, even if it comes on the wings of a health crisis.
But wasn’t change already in the air? Many Mennonite churches are experiencing decline, at least in Europe. In broader society, people are asking: How well does democracy still work? Here in Germany, traffic regularly clogs the urban centers, and rampant tourism restricts the locals.
And don’t even get me started on how we treat nature and the environment.
The only question was: How could change be brought about? Has the coronavirus become a stimulus to find sustainable answers?
Surveys show that there is indeed a willingness to think about change. In Germany, 51% of those questioned would not like to see everything go back to the way it was before the pandemic. In other countries the numbers are even higher. On the other hand, the summer of 2020 also showed how quickly people fall back into old patterns after a crisis.
And yet we cannot go back. Church services are held online. Home offices are established. Less traffic — whether on the ground or in the air — is proving to be beneficial. Where will we be in 2025? Let us reflect on necessary changes and take steps toward them.
A look at history always helps answer questions of identity. But the Anabaptists of 2020 are different from those of 1525. Each time has its own challenges, and each must find its own answers.
Astrid von Schlachta is a historian at the Mennonite Research Center in Weierhof, Germany, and the University of Regensburg.