United Methodists affirm “sola scriptura”

One of my favorite bloggers, an evangelical theologian from New Zealand named Dr. Glenn Peoples, recently left (or so I gather) a non-liturgical Reformed church in order to become an Anglican. Is this, as some critics have wondered, a step toward “crossing the Tiber” to Roman Catholicism?

No, he says emphatically. And surely one doctrine that would prevent him from doing so more than any other is Rome’s view of the authority of scripture. He highlights this and other important distinctions between Anglican and Catholic theology and doctrine in this blog post, using the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion as his guide.

Methodism, as you may know, is steeped in Anglican theology. In fact, our movement’s founder, John Wesley, adopted, with little revision, 25 of the Church of England’s 39 articles for the independent American church after the Revolutionary War. (Among those articles excluded are those that pertain to the monarchy and British politics.) But Wesley himself lived and died happily Anglican, and his reluctant endorsement of the American Methodist church was a concession to life in post-war America.

In this blog post, I want to highlight what Peoples writes about Article VI of the Thirty-Nine Articles (which is Article V of the Methodist Church):

The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.

This article goes on to affirm the 66 canonical books of the Protestant Bible.

I like what Peoples writes because, however briefly, he demonstrates that the Roman Catholic Church’s dual-authority model (in which scripture and church tradition are of equal weight) represents a later innovation.

The Anglican affirmation that the Scripture stands alone, without peer in authority and is sufficient for instruction in the faith, was no novelty. Instead it was the perpetuation of an ancient school of Christian thought. Many theologians (bishops, in fact) among the Church Fathers have expressed the same conviction. Basil the Great held that in principle all instruction for a righteous life could be derived from Scripture and the help of the Holy Spirit:

Enjoying as you do the consolation of the Holy Scriptures, you stand in need neither of my assistance nor of that of anybody else to help you comprehend your duty. You have the all-sufficient counsel and guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead you to what is right.2

Of course, Basil did offer his assistance even in telling people that in principle Scripture and the Spirit supplied all that we strictly need. Like Anglicans, Basil had a great love of tradition, but only where he believed that the tradition was derived from the Apostolic tradition that we find preserved in Scripture. Speaking of the Trinity, he says: “But we do not rest only on the fact that such is the tradition of the Fathers; for they too followed the sense of Scripture, and started from the evidence which, a few sentences back, I deduced from Scripture and laid before you.”

Anglicans cannot accept a doctrine only on the grounds that it is taught by the Church. Instead they say with Gregory of Nyssa:

We are not entitled to such licence, I mean that of affirming what we please; we make the Holy Scriptures the rule and the measure of every tenet; we necessarily fix our eyes upon that, and approve that alone which may be made to harmonize with the intention of those writings.4

Anglicans agree with Augustine that “among the things that are plainly laid down in Scripture are to be found all matters that concern faith and the manner of life.”

“We make the Holy Scriptures the rule and the measure of every tenet.”
Gregory of Nyssa

This ancient Christian way of thinking about authority and doctrine finds clear expression within the Anglican Church, setting it apart from the Catholic view in which the Church has the authority to infallibly declare doctrine as binding on the Church, even when it is not expressed in Scripture. Article 20 expresses the contrary Anglican view of Church Authority: “although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.” The Church has no authority either to decree anything against Scripture, nor does it have the authority to enforce anything as necessary when Scripture does not teach it.

13 thoughts on “United Methodists affirm “sola scriptura””

  1. We as United Methodists do not and never have affirmed sola scritura. We affirm prima scritura, “Scripture first”. The very fact that you appeal to John Wesley for any reason shows that you appeal to tradition for insight. But you are correct in that we do not give tradition anywhere near the weight that the Catholic Church does.

    1. I disagree, Eric. I mean sola scriptura in the same sense that Luther meant it. It doesn’t mean scripture in the absence of tradition. In the classic Protestant sense, sola scriptura doesn’t deny an important role for tradition. It just says that tradition is subordinate.

      In other words, Methodists don’t understand tradition (not to mention reason or experience) as having a veto over scripture.

      1. Ok, so here is a quote from this text:

        John Wesley was a child of both pietism and the Church of England. His father and mother had been born into dissenting families, but both had somewhat dramatic returns to the Church of England. The Church of England gave them their roots in the ecumenical tradition, but their pietistic upbringing gave them deep roots in the Reformation. Wesley was an avid reader of Luther. Both Charles and John had read Luther’s commentary on Galatians just prior to their respective conversions. Wesley had his famous heart-warming experience at Aldersgate on May 24th 1738 while listening to Martin Luther’s preface to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. We are rooted in the five great solas of the Reformation: Sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, soli Deo Gloria: Scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone, to the glory of God alone!

        The First Restrictive Rule at the birth of the Methodist Church established the Articles of Religion, Wesley’s canonical sermons and Wesley’s notes on the New Testament as the doctrinal standards of the Methodist movement. All of these materials clearly demonstrate the orientation of Methodism within the great stream of the Reformation.

        (End quote)

        This dude says that we are rooted in the five solas of the Reformation, but then says we are built on a foundation of tradition. And it seems we agree on this, that Scripture is not interpreted in a vacuum. But this is what the doctrine of sola scritura teaches, that we cannot use outside materials, such as Wesley’s sermons, as authoritative. But our Discipline indeed establishes these.

        Maybe we are defining “sola scritura” differently. But I assure you that the word “sola” means “alone” or “only”‘ and that is why I said that as Methodists we follow a doctrine of “prima scritura”, which means “Scripture first”. It is mostly now just an issue of semantics, but these are very important.

        And yes, I know Luther uses the term differently, but in today’s world we have more refined theological terminology which delineates fine differences between words. And without citing very specific reference to early Reformation texts to explain, almost anyone would understand “sola scritura” to be as I described. And that doctrine is dangerous, poisonous and prideful!

      2. Who cares what “almost anyone” would understand? For all I know, “almost anyone” would think that the Trinity implies that there are three gods. What does that matter? We have a theological phrase that has a technical meaning. We have to explain it.

        It’s simply not the case that sola scriptura means we don’t get to use anything outside of scripture to inform our Christian practice.

        In the 16th century, Richard Hooker had this same debate with the Puritans of his day—iconoclasts who wanted to rid the English church of any ecclesial tradition not found explicitly in scripture. Hooker won the argument, yet he did so while remaining committed to sola scriptura.

        Sola scriptura means that when a tradition comes into conflict with the Bible, the Bible wins. “Scripture alone” has a veto (if you want to think of it that way). We Methodists affirm the articles of religion and Wesley’s sermons because we believe they’re consistent with the Word of God. If we believed they weren’t, then, as a matter of conscience, we should reject the articles of religion and Wesley’s sermons.

    1. I’m shocked that a Wikipedia article doesn’t know what it’s talking about! For one thing it speaks of the Quadrilateral as if it’s something Wesley came up with. Read Article V of our Articles of Religion. That’s sola scriptura! Scripture is the only rule by which every ostensibly “Christian” practice or belief is judged.

      Is that principle controversial for us Wesleyan Christians? Would Wesley himself disagree? Do you disagree with the principle of sola scriptura as I’ve defined it? Or do you merely disagree that I’ve called it “sola scriptura”? (Please note: I’m confident Tim Tennent knows more about these matters than anonymous Wikipedia authors.)

      In other words, I can’t figure out what your strong reaction against what I’ve written means.

      Again, if we Methodists believed that the sermons of Wesley were inconsistent with God’s Word, would we not be obligated to reject them because of our commitment to the authority of scripture? Call it sola scriptura or prima scriptura.

      But let’s not kid ourselves: we don’t get to say, “Let’s see what scripture says first. OK, tradition, reason, and/or experience disagree with scripture. So let’s disregard scripture.” The problem with “prima” is that it might mistakenly lead us to believe that there’s a second.

  2. Well I suppose we will agree to disagree on the terminology. It seems that even citing how I’m not crazy does not affirm for you the theological significance between the two. Sola scriptura allows for fundamentalism, which is poison and is a heresy that needs to be purged from the UMC. This is why for me this is an important issue. No prima scriptura does not lead us to disregard Scripture, it means what you are talking about, that we regard sources outside of Scripture to inspire us.

    While it is easy to disregard Wikipedia, perhaps you could appeal to Scott Jones’ book United Methodist Doctrine: the Extreme Center. As the former Dean of Duke Divinity School and incredible Methodist scholar, he affirms that we hold to prima scriptura. Not enough? All right, take a gander at Randy Maddox’s Responsible Grace. Dr. Maddox is the one who you claim is mistaken, when you say United Methodists do not hold to prima scriptura.

    The fact is Wikipedia has been shown to have an incredibly high degree of accuracy, and since I wasn’t in my office last night to confirm printed sources, I used this shortcut to illustrate my point. Notwithstanding, your claims run against the current of the most prominent United Methodist scholars alive today. I think you are entitled to your opinion, but it is at least important to see and recognize that yours is easily a minority opinion, and one which needs more fleshing out before posting claims about the whole connection to the world.t

    1. I won’t “agree to disagree” until I understand what we’re disagreeing over. Is it over the principle I’ve described or the nomenclature? Because I couldn’t care less about whether we call it “sola” or “prima” scriptura, so long as we understand that our best understanding of scripture gets a veto over any other authority.

      Do you agree with that principle (regardless what we call it)?

      Also, can you cite some examples of “fundamentalism” within United Methodist institutions?

  3. St Basil also said, “Concerning the teachings of the Church, whether publicly proclaimed (kerygma) or reserved to members of the household of faith (dogmata), we have received some from written sources, while others have been given to us secretly, through apostolic tradition. Both sources have equal force in true religion. No one would deny either source -no one, at any rate, who is even slightly familiar with the ordinances of the Church. If we attacked unwritten customs, claiming them to be of little importance, we would fatally mutilate the Gospel, or rather, we would reduce the Gospel teachings to bare words.

    St. Basil
    “On the Holy Spirit” 27:66
    As for St Gregory of Nyssa, it is necessary not to quote him out of context, but to read what came directly before as well as read what he has written concerning Sacred Tradition, such as “Against Eunomius, IV, 6 and On “Not Three Gods”
    When you only cite one aspect of their beliefs and writings and omit equally important portions about Tradition and the authority of the Church, apostolic succession and even Purgatory (yes, St. Basil wrote strongly affirming the existence of Purgatory), it’s easy to mislead people into thinking they held the Protestant view. As Blessed John Henry Newman said (and I am paraphrasing), To read history is to cease to be Protestant.

    1. I disagree, Elaine. I would modify Newman and say, “To study history is to realize how incredibly complex it is.” The Fathers do not speak with one voice about any number of issues, and they are nevertheless fallible when they do speak.

      Regardless, all the traditions that make up the capital-T Tradition of the Catholic Church and inform the traditions of most Protestant churches are written down. The Catholic Church does not have a secret repository of oral apostolic teaching to which the rest of the world—including us Protestants—do not have access. So we judge all teaching and all traditions against the one infallible standard, which is holy scripture. Basil might have disagreed with us; the apostles wouldn’t. And neither would many Fathers besides Basil.

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