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Latin phrases and their meanings.

There are a series of Latin phrases that are widely used in theology such as sola scriptura, sola fide and ecclesia reformata semper reformanda. One thing they all have in common, apart from saying things that are theologically significant, is that their meaning needs careful unpacking if it is to be understood properly.

Thus the phrase sola scriptura (‘Scripture alone’) does not mean that the Bible is the only rule of Christian faith and practice in the sense that no Christian should either believe anything or do anything that is not explicitly mandated in the Bible. As Richard Hooker points out in the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, this is an extreme position which is it is impossible to live out in consistently in everyday life. ‘For in every action of common life to find out some sentence clearly and infallibly setting before our eyes what we ought to do, (seem we in Scripture never so expert,) would trouble us more than we aware.’[1]  Try deciding between a flat white and a latte in your local coffee shop on the basis of an explicit sentence in Scripture on the issue and you will see what Hooker is getting at.

What the phrase sola scriptura does mean that Scripture is the supreme authority in all matters of doctrine and practice. There are other authorities, such as Christian tradition and the exercise of sanctified reason, that the individual Christian and the Church collectively may rightly draw on to shape what they think and what they do, but all such other authorities are subordinate to, and subject to correction by, the written word of God.

In similar fashion the phrase sola fide (‘by faith alone’) does not mean that there is no need for the Christian to exercise the virtues of hope and love (1 Corinthians 13:13) or for the Christian to perform good works (James 2:14-17). What is does mean is that the means by which the Christian enters into , and remains in, a right relationship with God is through faith in the saving work of God in Christ (John 3:16) a faith which will be expressed in love, hope and good works.

Likewise the phrase ecclesia reformata semper reformanda (‘the Church, having been reformed is always in need of reformation ’) does not mean that the life of the Church needs to be in a state of perpetual revolution in which every aspect of faith and practice has to be continuously re-examined and thought out afresh. What it does mean is that visible churches are liable to error and that when they do err they need to be reformed in line with biblical teaching (reformanda secundum verbum dei as the final words of the full version of the phrase put it).

Another Latin phrase which is often used and which needs careful unpacking is the phrase lex orandi, lex credendi (‘the law of praying is the law of believing’) and it is this phrase which will be the focus of this paper.

The origin of the phrase lex orandi, lex credendi.

The phrase goes back to the work of the fifth century theologian St. Prosper of Aquitaine who wrote in the eighth chapter of a work entitled the Indiculus Gratia Dei (‘Index concerning the grace of God’): ‘Let us consider the sacraments of priestly prayers, which having been handed down by the apostles, are celebrated uniformly throughout the whole world and in every Catholic Church so that the law of praying might establish the law of believing (ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi) ’[2]

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