This post was edited July 16, 2014. Edits appear in red italics.
Of the Five Solae (Five Alones) that are said to sum up the basic doctrine of the Reformers, Soli Deo Gloria is not generally listed first. In determining where to begin examining these ideas, however, I thought it best that we look to the source of all theology: God.
Soli Deo Gloria – to the glory of God alone; for God’s glory alone
“Glory” can be a difficult concept to nail down. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word kabod, derived from kabed (to be heavy), “lends itself to the idea that the one possessing glory is laden with riches (Gen. 31:1), power (Isa. 8:7), position (Gen. 45:13), etc.” (1) This certainly describes the Lord, and yet leaves out the important aspect of His “inherent majesty.” (2) God is majesty itself, unmatched in splendor, by virtue of His being. He need not do anything to achieve this glory. This idea is carried over into the New Testament, the Greek word doxa denoting “His majesty [and] perfection.” (3)
There is another sense in which “glory” may be used:
The intrinsic worth of God, His ineffable majesty, constitutes the basis of warnings not to glory in riches, wisdom or might (Jer. 9:23) but in the God who has given all these and is greater than His gifts. (4)
Here we move from description to action. When we are instructed to “glory in God,” we are being told to take great delight in Him. To find Him as the source of all our pride and pleasure. Material possessions are not our security, nor is wealth or notoriety. Our satisfaction, identity and sense of safety is to come in knowing He who is glorious.
In essence, then, every aspect of a Christian’s life is to be lived in recognition and reflection of the glory of God. We worship and honor Him because we love Him and understand our place before Him. We know who He is and know that this is what He is due.
Up to this point, orthodox Christians on both sides of the Reformation aisle agree.
The argument exists in the divide between Protestant doctrine, which does not distinguish between different sorts of glory or honor, and Catholic doctrine, which does. Catholics use three levels or degrees (for lack of better terminology) when describing the verb sort of glory. There is latria, the supreme worship reserved for God alone; dulia, the reverence (deep respect for someone or something) accorded to saints and angels; and hyperdulia, higher than dulia but less than latria, properly reserved for the Virgin Mary. These distinctions appear to be based in passages such as Exodus 20:12, where God commands children to honor their parents. Catholic authors point out that the word for “honor” here is the same one used to describe God’s glory, and thus, to their thinking, renders Soli Deo Gloria false.
I do not have time to get into each of the Marian dogmas; that will have to be reserved for another post. But let me say here that I’m thankful that Mary submitted to God. I’m thankful that she chose to cooperate with God’s plan to save humanity and set the cosmos to rights. And I certainly respect all faithful Christians who have gone before me, who can rightly all be called saints, just as we who live today can be called saints (1 Cor. 1:12). I appreciate the example of their obedience.
Here is the key question in all of this: What is the relationship between honor, glory and worship?
Yes, we are told to honor our parents. Yes, we should be thankful for and inspired by the obedience of Mary and other Christians. But the respect I owe to my parents by virtue of their position is nowhere near the same thing as the respect I owe to God by virtue of His. The language may use the same words, but the concepts are totally different. As an adult daughter, I respect my parents by seeking out their wisdom, speaking with love, doing as they ask when I am in their home (admittedly not always without a grumble) and, as they age, taking care of them. Yet I can (and do) disagree with them. Our views and habits diverge in many ways. Despite these differences, we are able to maintain relationship.
By contrast, when I disagree with God, it’s called sin and it has enormous repercussions. Certainly there is room for asking God questions, for seeking clarification of His will on this or that matter. And, to the everlasting praise of His name!, He does forgive us when we sin if we confess and ask. But, ultimately, I as a Christian will do what God wants me to do – and I’ll do it His way. Period. No exchanges or refunds.
There is a huge difference between the two cases.
Further, the fact that we are commanded to worship God (Deut. 6:13) indicates an intimate relationship between giving Him glory and worshiping Him. In fact, we might say that the two are synonymous. We thus tread very dangerous ground with the categories of latria, dulia and hyperdulia. There is no human being, no matter her outstanding qualities, who deserves greater respect than another. There are not various pedestals on which to place the people in our lives, past or present, some lower, some higher.
In short, the more we focus on another person, the more we hone in our attention upon him, the more likely we are to begin worshiping. The teaching of the Catholic Church on the “degrees” of glory paves the way to this idolatry.
There is one pedestal, and only One who can rightly be upon it.
Nowhere in Scripture are we told that certain people are to occupy a space somewhere between ourselves and God. There are people and there is God. People below and God above. That’s it. We are to worship God alone, an idea outlined nicely here:
We worship God because he is God. Period. Our extravagant love and extreme submission to the Holy One flows out of the reality that God loved us first. It is highly appropriate to thank God for all the things he has done for us. However, true worship is shallow if it is solely an acknowledgement of God’s wealth. Psalm 96:5-6 says, “For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the LORD made the heavens. Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and glory are in his sanctuary.” In other words, our worship must be toward the One who is worthy simply because of His identity as the Omnipotent, Omniscient, and Omnipresent One, and not just because God is wealthy and able to meet our needs and answer our prayers. We must focus our practice of worship on the worthiness of God and not his wealthiness.
So we give glory to God alone.
The examples of Mary and the saints, past and present, should drive us to live lives that glorify God alone. These believers certainly offered respect where respect was due (to their parents, to civil authorities), but I see no evidence of anyone other than God being at the center of their existence. Consider the Magnificat, Mary’s worship song, recorded in Luke 1:46-55:
And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for He has been mindful
of the humble state of His servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is His name.
His mercy extends to those who fear Him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with His arm;
He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped His servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as He promised our ancestors.” (NKJV)
Over and over again Mary glorifies the Lord. She rejoices in Him. She is thankful for His mindfulness. She will be called blessed because of what He will accomplish through her, because of what He has done for her. He is holy, merciful, mighty. He lifts up the humble, fills the hungry, helps His servants. This is entirely about God.
The Lord fashioned this world and everything in it (Gen. 1). He knew us before we were born (Ps. 139:13). He placed a longing for eternity in our hearts (Ecc. 3:11). We were made to worship God alone (Ps. 29:1). We were made to live for His glory. Our lives only make sense when oriented around the Lord.
Best to let Him occupy the pedestal and keep every person on the same, earthly level we ourselves occupy.
For all posts in the Sola What? series, go here.
1 E. F. Harrison. “Glory,” in Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. by Walter A. Elwell. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 484.
2 Ibid., 484.
3 Ibid., 484.
4 Ibid., 484.