The last of Zondervan’s The 5 Sola Series Christ Alone is written at a time when many celebrate the 500 anniversary of the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation. Here is a basic and rather succinct explanation of Solus Christus through the lens of particular Reformers. While Christ Alone acknowledges that Reformation Christology is much more complex and therefore lies beyond its scope, it nonetheless focuses on two aspects of Christology that it considers essential “if the church is to proclaim the same Christ as the Reformers” (20), namely: the exclusivity of his identity and the sufficiency of his work. These two comprehends the first two parts of the book respectively followed by a final section that focuses on “why the Reformers taught Christ alone and how intellectual shifts over the last five hundred years have created a different cultural context for us” (26). Christ Alone offers five reasons to defend its claim that this Solus Christus “is at the center of the Reformation solas and at the heart of Christian theology”; Christ alone is “linchpin of coherency for Reformation doctrine”; “Scripture places Christ alone at the center of God’s eternal plan for his creation”; Christ alone of the Reformation reflects the self-witnesses of Christ himself”; “the Reformers emphasized the centrality of Christ alone because they accepted the apostolic witness to the person and work of Christ”; and “Christ alone is the linchpin of coherency for all Christian theology” (20-24).
First, Christ Alone considers the exclusive identity of Christ by grounding it in the structure and storyline of Scripture. Emerging out of a consideration of the Bible’s own structures, categories and intratextual dynamics particularly the biblical covenants, the author builds the case for the Scriptures as both Christocentric and Christotelic. To this biblical identity of Christ is added the self-witness of Christ. Christ is God the Son incarnate is implicitly manifested by “his baptism, the kingdom he inaugurated, his life and ministry, his death and resurrection and the worship he received” (59) and explicitly demonstrated by Jesus’s own statements as they relate to “his unique relationship with the Father and connections with his works” (67). The Apostles also witnessed Christ as God the Son incarnate. This is defended by the claim that theological studies do not need to erect the dichotomy between ontological and functional Christology for “Scripture holds them together to bear witnesses to both Jesus’ identity and humanity” (84) and then illustrated by the selection and brief explanation of four key texts in the New Testament (Romans 1:3-4; Phillipians 2:5-11; Colossians 1:15-20; Hebrews 1:1-3). Finally, in this first part the author turns its attention to the work of Christ instead of the person by discussing not only the interrelationship but also the inseparability of Christ’s incarnation and atonement, a piece that centers on unpacking Hebrews 2:5-18 to understand and appreciate the biblical rationale.
Second, Christ Alone focuses on the sufficiency of the work of Christ. The nature and the necessity of his sacrifice is explained in terms of his threefold office as prophet, priest and king. This discussion is rooted in covenantal typology and guided by two questions: the basic function of the prophet, priest and king in the biblical storyline and the reasons why they are necessary. Following this threefold office of Christ discussion, the author turns his attention to the atonement in historical perspective. Various atonement theologies are described in particular church history eras (patristic, medieval, Reformation, current modern). Recent and newer views of the atonement suffer the neglect, “dismissal or revision of the Reformation’s central theological insight: God cannot forgive sin without the complete satisfaction of his own holy, righteous, and moral demand” (191). Central to this historical review is Reformation’s God-centered focus and penal substitution as key to “our understanding of the why and how of the cross” (191). In the next two chapters (7, 8) that make up for the remainder of this second part the author moves from historical theology into biblical theology to explain and describe “why is penal substitution the best way to capture the central means of the cross?” (193). The case for penal substitutionary atonement is first made by the biblical facts in regards to the cross as well as by the way the problem of divine forgiveness in relation to the cross is resolved. In addition, penal substitutionary atonement is defended as critical for the reasons the cross is necessary in light of the problem of forgiveness by alluding and discussing two texts (Romans 3:21-26; Hebrews 9:15-28). “Penal substitution – the Reformation theology of the cross – is the best way of capturing and making sense of all the biblical data … best captures[ing] the Bible’s own explanation for why Christ had to die as our Lord and Savior” (243).
In its third and last part, Christ Alone seeks to describe and explain how the Reformers taught Solus Christus and then delves into some of the intellectual shifts that have taken place in the last five hundred years and its resulting cultural contexts. Christological orthodoxy (by Chalcedonian definition) is shared by both Protestants and Roman Catholics. However, the Reformers disagreed with Rome in terms of the sufficiency of Christ particularly for their opposition to sacramental theology. In the last two chapters, the author laments what he affirms to be a current challenge: the loss of the exclusivity of Christ and invites and exhort the reader to reaffirm Christ alone today. This is argued to be the result of a “massive shift in plausibility structures,” (277) “the secularization and pluralization of the West” (277) and the ideas and consequences derived from the Enlightenment that have impacted the church’s confession of Christ alone. The ideas are two-fold: “from a revelational to a rational epistemology” (282) and “from Christian theism to naturalistic theism” (284). The consequences are the loss of Christ’s exclusivity and the loss of Christ’s exclusive history. An exhortation to reaffirm Christ alone today is done after explaining the impact that the Enlightenment has had in terms of its epistemology and theology when people’s ability has been impaired to accept the plausibility of Christ alone resulting in subjectivism and non-personalization of God. The way forward is not to work “within the contemporary views on the nature of knowledge and the relationship between the autonomous individual, the world, and the divine (Christology from below)” (307) but to do a Christology from above i.e. establishing Christ alone by starting with Scripture …” (308) and to “build on sola Scriptura” (309). The author claims that Scripture alone does not entail ignoring tradition and historical theology but understanding and appreciating these as hermeneutical servants” (309). “Scripture alone has magisterial authority” (310) and “tradition functions in a ministerial capacity to aid our interpretation and application of Scripture” (310). Concluding, the author reflects on how the exclusivity and sufficiency of Christ relates and applies to the life of the Christian. “Doctrinal truth must affect the entirety of who we are” (312). Growing in the knowledge, love and devotion of Christ demands and requires total allegiance and commitment to the truths re-discovered by the Reformers as the center of the Reformation solas and at the heart of Christian theology, Christ Alone.
Christ Alone is extremely easy to read and therefore accessible to the average reader. Some things stand out in this text. First, Christ Alone is saturated by Scripture. In fact, the author discusses particular Scriptural passages and the meanings of particular concepts from grammatical structures to the diversity of language for the cross that appears in the Bible (obedience, sacrifice, propitiation, redemption, reconciliation, justice, conquest and moral example). Second, Christ Alone (the author a professor of Christian theology) engages with some of the debates that pertain to key doctrines of the Christian faith such as the atonement. Third, Christ Alone delves into some of the most formidable challenges that faces the Christian church postmodernity. Finally, Christ Alone invites the Christian not only to reaffirm his or her faith but also communicates that doctrine is paramount for spiritual formation and growth.