Editor’s note: This is the fifth post in a series that discusses the five central doctrinal themes of the Protestant Reformation (the Five Solae) five hundred years after its beginning in 1517.
“Goodness is praised as beauty,” wrote a man long honored by the Church, East and West, though nobody is exactly sure who he is.
“Salvation and glory and power belong to our God,” wrote the apostle John.
“Soli Deo gloria”—“Glory to God alone,” cried the Reformers. And they were right, or sort of. In their desire to exalt the glory of God above all else, they were right. In their yearning to defend God’s glory from all dilution or fracture, they were right. But they were not right to forbid God from sharing his glory with his creation. Of course, I do not mean to say that this is exactly what they intended to do. But in understanding this last of the five Solae we should ask a broader question: “what is glory, and where do we find it?”
Let’s build the image from the ground up. When someone is good, then that person is worthy of praise. For him or her to receive praise, however, someone has to know this goodness and recognize it as good. For instance, before I praise the bravery of a soldier and the patience of a mother, I have to see them in action or at least hear about them. And if these people are especially good, beyond common experience, then probably a great many people will hear about them, and probably a great many people will see how good they are, and hopefully these people will say so. Imagine a news story about a local hero or praising a great teacher, for instance.
That loudness that belongs especially to good things, the splendor and renown that belongs to something praiseworthy, is called glory. The greater the good, the louder it is, and the louder it is, the more praiseworthy. The greater the good, the more glorious it is. This is how the Church has thought about glory. This is how the Scriptures speak, though with the nuances and poetry appropriate to each place.
So there are different kinds of glory just as there are different kinds of good. This is what the Reformers forgot in their zeal. In wanting to single out God for worship, we should never forget God’s love in sharing his goodness. God is infinite in his goodness. Creatures have a limited share. God is infinite in his glory. Creatures have a limited share in that too. The Holy Trinity is glorified by worship and adoration, and long before the Protestant Reformation, the Church gave this worship the name latria. God can never be given too much glory. The highest of created persons, Mary and all the other saints, are glorified with a lesser honor, which the Church has named dulia. And traditionally, some saints are seen to be higher than others. Mary, the Mother of God, is the very highest. After her come the apostles, who were sent forth by Christ as the seeds of the Church.
These saints are honored, or given glory, because of a good that they have, the great good of grace, which is a share in God himself! And lesser, simply human goods, like a great leader, can be glorious in their own small ways. All these goods, however small, are shares in God’s goodness. And all these goods, from the bottom to the top, are given by God. Jesus says to the Father, “The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them” (John 17:22). Paul encourages us to seek this glory, speaking of God’s judgment: “to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Rom 2:6-7). So what is the vision of the world that we are left with?
The world is filled with the glory of God! This is because he chose to fill the world with his goodness. All of it is traced back to God, the source and the giver, as the finite is compared to the infinite. Glory belongs to God alone, but he chooses to share it with us. To declare that only God has glory, or to understand those three Latin words (Soli Deo gloria) in this way, is to make God more separate from his creatures than God himself wishes to be.
How beautiful is the sun, how splendorous, how good! It is too bright even to look upon. But it does not keep its light to itself. The sun shares its light with the moon. It is imitated by every twinkle of the stars. And the sun gives life to all below it. From the bottom to the top, the heavens and the earth shine with the light of the sun: truly, though not equally.
“There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory,” wrote the apostle Paul (1 Cor 15:41).
Image: Samuel Palmer, Kornfeld im Mondenschein.