Ears Alone: A Neglected Reformation "Sola"?

Use of the "five solas" -- sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, solo Christo, and soli Deo gloria -- to collectively summarize Reformation theology is apparently a twentieth-century thing. The reformers, to be sure, used these phrases (or very similar ones) to communicate distinct truths about Scripture's authority, God's initiative in salvation, the sufficiency of Christ's work for sinners, and faith's role in appropriating Christ and his benefits. They just never listed them the way we do today (or referred to them as the "five solas") to summarize the content of their objections to both Roman Catholic and radical perspectives of their day. Employed thus in our day, the solas -- like most summaries of the teaching of a given thinker or movement (think TULIP) -- can be simultaneously useful and misleading. Such summaries can, of course, lead us to overlook important aspects of a thinker or movement's teaching. The five most commonly noted solas, for example, fail to reflect in any substantial way Reformation gains made in ecclesiology and/or sacramentology. Noting as much, some recent persons have argued that sola ecclesia (at the very least) should be included in recitations of the solas, thus acknowledging the reformers' joint commitment to the (true) visible church's indispensability for salvation (see for example WCF 25.2).

If voting on who or what might make the solas cut is still open, I'd like to nominate "ears alone" for inclusion in the cast. I base this on Luther's observation in his biblical commentaries that "the ears alone (solae aures) are the organs of a Christian man." Such a claim might initially surprise present day evangelical Christians, since ears can neither read the Bible, nor pray, nor perform positive works of service towards others, things Christians presumably do. Why honor the ears thus?

Luther's privileging of the ears rested on his recognition that "faith comes through hearing" (Rom. 10.17). It rested, in other words, on his observation that God has appointed preaching as the peculiar means of creating and sustaining faith in those whom he has purposed to save. After all, the very same God who spoke the world into existence (Gen. 1.1-2.7) brought life to dead bones through the instrument of his prophet's proclamation (Ez. 37.1-14). That same God brings life to dead hearts, thereby creating faith, in our age of redemptive history through the proclamation of properly ordained ministers (those "sent" to "preach" in Rom. 10.15). "For if you ask a Christian what the work is by which he becomes worthy of the name 'Christian'," Luther's comment reads in context, "he will be able to give absolutely no other answer than that it is the hearing of the Word of God, that is, faith. Therefore, the ears alone are the organs of a Christian man."

The slogan "ears alone," then, emphasizes the critical role that preaching occupies in God's economy of salvation. It also, however, reinforces the truth that salvation is God's gift, not something we earn or seize through any endeavors of our own. Luther contrasts the ears not primarily with the eyes (by which we read) or mouth (by which we pray), but with the hands and feet, by which we work. "God no longer requires the feet or hands or any other member; He requires only the ears." Hearing is a passive enterprise, at least in comparison to the things we do when we put other body parts to use (hands, feet, mouth, etc.). The (relatively) passive posture we assume when God's word is preached is most appropriate, since that word's content is a stark reminder that we contribute nothing to our salvation.  

In sum, then, "ears alone" -- with its emphasis upon the method God employs (and the corresponding posture we should assume) in translating sinners into the Kingdom of his Son -- stands to complement the others solas with their emphases upon the message (namely, that we are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to God's glory alone) and Scripture's unique status as the source and norm of that message. Solae aures may not, admittedly, roll off the tongue quite so smoothly as sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, solo Christo, and soli Deo gloria. But, if added to the solas roster, it would serve to preserve important Reformation emphases that are ever susceptible to neglect or abandonment.