Are Methodists Sola Scriptura or Prima Scriptura, and what’s the difference?

June 1, 2016

I’ve read more than a few Methodists recently who have sought to distinguish what Methodists believe about the Bible from what Martin Luther and the other Reformers believed about the Bible. These Methodists say that we hold to the doctrine of Prima Scriptura (“scripture first”) rather than Sola Scriptura (“scripture alone”).

Is this true? And what is the difference?

First, let me apologize for not knowing these answers already. I went to Candler, after all. I’m always playing catchup.

I suspect that when a Methodist says that we are Prima Scriptura, what he means is that we also hold in high regard other authorities for guiding our Christian lives—for example, tradition, reason, and (ugh!) experience, even as these authorities mustn’t contradict what God’s Word plainly reveals. If a Methodist insists that he’s Prima Scriptura, then he is likely basing it on Wesleyan scholar Albert Outler’s misbegotten or badly misconstrued Wesleyan Quadrilateral, a formulation that he himself lived to regret.

But what Protestant doesn’t at least believe that tradition and reason aren’t important or necessary in guiding our theology and behavior?

O.K., I know there are a few, at least in theory. Congregations within the Church of Christ tradition, for example, refuse to use instruments in worship because the Bible, or at least the New Testament, makes no explicit reference to instruments in worship. The New Testament’s silence on the subject, instead of permitting us the opportunity to think it through, must mean prohibition. That represents an extreme edge of “scripture alone,” but only insofar as we disregard the Old Testament.

Another example: The Church of England had an ongoing debate with Puritan nonconformists over the issue of iconoclasm, which is why, even today, a typical Presbyterian church sanctuary is less ornate than most other churches. Puritans believed that the Bible’s silence on many traditional elements in Anglican (not to mention Roman Catholic) worship prohibited these elements. Again, while this Puritan view represents an extreme interpretation of Sola Scriptura, it’s a small minority opinion within Christendom, and it wouldn’t have been shared by most of the Reformers, all of whom (to my knowledge) affirmed Sola Scriptura.

I know for certain that Luther, who believed in Sola Scriptura, also accepted tradition and reason. So why do some Methodists insist that we are, contra the Reformers, Prima Scriptura?

I have my suspicions, but at least a part of me is sincerely curious: What’s the difference between Prima and Sola Scriptura?

23 Responses to “Are Methodists Sola Scriptura or Prima Scriptura, and what’s the difference?”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Well, I don’t know about the terminology, but what I believe is that the Bible can be “supplemented” by reasoning, observation, and experience, as well as “Church practice,” but not “controverted” by those. One key thing I believe in that regard is that these “other sources” may act as a “check” on our “interpretation” of scripture. In other words, if the way I am reading a biblical passage “on its face” suggests a certain understanding to me, but what I see from these other sources suggests something else, then I may need to go back to the drawing board on how I am interpreting the passage. Saying the Bible is “true” means that it will “match up” with “reality.” So, I can err on the one side or the other–my biblical interpretation or my understanding of nature (or whatever). I need to keep both in mind as I try to ascertain “the truth.”

  2. Michael Hester Says:

    Since some interpretation is impossible to avoid, even those that claim “Sola Scriptura” would have to have some “Prima Scriptura”. The Bible is very complex and a wide variety of simplified “formulas” can be derived from it even from people who all claim Sola Scriptura. There are certainly plenty of things that we cannot reconcile with a reason human understanding…there is plenty of paradox. And I think that is a good reminder that our understanding is limited and that we cannot fill in all of the blanks ourselves. But we can try to understand and utilize what we have been given.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I agree, but everything you’re saying would be affirmed by the Reformers, too, who held to Sola Scriptura.

  3. Jessie O Says:

    I know of Anglicans who also say they hold to “Prima Scriptura.”

    I use prima instead of sola for what I believe, but there’s not much of a difference in what I mean and what Luther meant by “Sola Scriptura,” For me it’s more of a reaction to other people I’ve engaged with who say they hold to “Sola Scriptura” and reject tradition. Elements of tradition have been important enough to my growth in faith that it’s a distinction I want to make, even if the terminology should be unnecessary.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Of course, everyone comes from a tradition, no matter what they say… In my tradition, the UMC, I fear that its advocates are using “Prima” as a way of demoting the authority of scripture down a notch. If scripture is truly first, however, then that ought to still mean that it has the final say, and all secondary sources are intended to help us decide what scripture is saying to us.

  4. Jim Lung Says:

    There’s no such thing as “Sola Scriptura” in practice. The Church gave us the Canon. Scripture tells us that the Church is the “pillar and ground of all truth.”

    • brentwhite Says:

      That’s certainly what Catholics tell us. I disagree in a couple of ways. First, Luther and the other Reformers never used Sola Scriptura in a way that implied that tradition wasn’t a useful guide. Second, the Holy Spirit gave us the canon.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      What verse says the Church is the “ground of all truth”? Also, the Canon was written by men inspired by God, not the “Church” in general. Simply because the “Church” recognized the inspiration in selecting the Canon does not mean the “Church” can do no wrong, any more than the Pope is infallible speaking “ex cathedra.” And, which “denomination” of the “Church” are you talking about?

      • brentwhite Says:

        I agree, Tom. Moreover, when we study the history of the early church, we see that the canon emerged “de facto” over time, as churches were using these gospels and these letters. It’s not as if Christians were without a clue until a particular church council ruled on the subject.

      • brentwhite Says:

        1 Tim 3:15 is the reference. But it doesn’t say “of ALL truth,” which might suggest a kind of infallibility or inerrancy of the Church itself.

      • 1Tim 3:15

        No time for discussion of ecclesiology but try the rule of St. Vincent: Always, everywhere, and by all. There are no denominations.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        The problem with “no denominations” is that there are at least several dozens of them. The point being, they disagree with each other on many, many points. How can such contradictory positions all the “true”? Of course they cannot be. So “Church tradition,” while sometimes somewhat informative, obviously cannot be of equal or greater weight than Scripture itself as a source of “truth.”

  5. Tom, I said “no denominations” as a confused short-hand attempt to dismiss the objection you raise. There are, of course, tens of thousands of “denominations,” all of them protestant. While it would be a waste of time, one could wade through all of the “contradictory positions” and find that there is a very wide body of consensus. I’m a bible-thumper from way back and am probably pretty close to accepting the Bible as inerrant. There are a couple of billion Christians on planet earth. The vast majority reside in Rome or the various branches of Eastern christendom. Protestants, and rightly so, are hardly a blip on the radar.

    Church Tradition, again in the Vincentian sense of that which the church has always and everywhere believed, taught and confessed based upon the Word of God, is always a far more reliable guide to truth than the opinions of cowboy christians, cafeteria christians, or the various denominations. “Somewhat informative” . . . . Really?

    • brentwhite Says:

      Jim, I assumed you were Methodist, or at least Protestant. Where is all this pro-Catholic propaganda coming from? Honestly, I’ve heard Catholic apologists like Scott Hahn pull out the “tens of thousands” of Protestant denominations—a number that’s been widely debunked. Google James White and Alpha and Omega Ministries. He’ll give you an earful on that very subject.

      Moreover, there are at least hundreds of millions of Protestants—far more than a “blip on the radar,” especially when you throw in the rapidly growing Pentecostal movement in the Global South.

      You also speak as if Catholics (and E.O.s) are monolithic in their beliefs. That’s hardly the case. Notice how competing factions within Catholicism argue about everything the Pope says.

      • I am United Methodist, kind of Wesleyan Anglo-catholic. As you surmised, I’m kind of down on the Reformation, although I highly respect some reformed theologians such as Peter Leithart. As for the number of denominations, when I took a course under Sam Hill at Carolina in the 1960’s, I remember the number being in the tens of thousands; the high number merely reflects my disdain for one of the results of the reformation, the disintegration that inevitably results when each person is his or her own Pope and professor of ethics. The other pitfall is what seems to me to be a proclivity for apostasy. The Pilgrims ended up being Unitarian in three or four generations. I mean, look at the UMC. A theological and ecclesiological disaster.

        American Catholicism is in many ways more protestant than catholic. I have no problems with most of the Marian doctrines (they are, after all, consistent with a high Christology.) I believe Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist though I don’t believe it’s necessary to explain everything about how that actually happens. Obviously I have problems with Rome, because I’m still separate. I pray Rome and the East will bury the hatchet.

        In my defense, I’ll just play the victim card. Just as there are persons wounded by the excesses of Fundamentalism, I’m a victim of an exaggerated reaction against the liberal protestant project. And I guess my mind has been twisted by all the junk I read: Pro Ecclesia, Touchstone, First Things.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Besides, Jim, surely you’re not suggesting that your “Vincentian rule” applies to many beliefs that the RCC has dogmatized over the past 500 years or so—the Marian doctrines, papal infallibility, transubstantiation. If, in applying this rule, you end up picking and choosing among these various doctrines and dogmas—even in a well-intentioned effort to be true to scripture—then you’re as much of a Protestant as any of us!

      • brentwhite Says:

        Fair enough, Jim. But whether you’re Christology is high or low, it has to also be faithful to scripture—so the bodily assumption of Mary, Mary as co-redemptrix, her sinlessness through the Immaculate Conception—none of these are compatible with our best understanding of scripture. Yet Rome tells us we “have” to believe these things to be a good Christian. No thanks.

        I have no problem with calling Mary “theotokos” (the God bearer), even though it’s corrupted into “Mother of God.” But that’s a statement about the divinity of Christ, not the “special-ness” of his mother, who was as sinful and in need of grace as anyone else. That Mary was the “grace-filled one” (not “dispenser of grace” as Catholics generally construe her), in the Annunciation, is itself an indication of the fact that she doesn’t deserve the blessings that God bestows on her.

        And don’t get me started on asking her to intercede for us on the basis of her “special relationship” with Jesus (based on a fanciful reading of John 2). Why speak to someone outside of the throne room when, through Jesus, we can go directly to the throne?

        You probably don’t disagree with much of what I’m saying, but—again—if you’re picking and choosing based on your best interpretation of scripture, you’re still a good Protestant. You’re affirming Sola Scriptura as classically construed.

        I agree that Protestantism is a disaster. But it’s a necessary one. And at its best it’s less disastrous than its alternatives.

        Peter Leithart is great and all, but there are plenty of other great Protestant scholars out there, you know? They just don’t happen to write for First Things.

  6. You’ve pointed out my achilles heel: I’m still a protestant, because I pick and choose my beliefs; I’m a cafeteria christian who limits myself to the main course.

    As I read Revelation, Mary and the rest of the Saints are in the throne room, and I don’t have a problem asking a Saint to intercede for me. That’s what they’re probably doing up there anyway.

    I’ve enjoyed the conversation. Thanks for taking the time to remind me I’m just as protestant as the rest of we protestants. Blessings.

    • brentwhite Says:

      You’re welcome, Jim.

      As for asking saints to intercede, it’s so highly speculative. We have to believe that these saints are also outside of time, like God, and that they are endowed with godlike omniscience—being able, as they supposedly are, to hear and respond to everyone who is asking them to do intercede.

      What power enables them to hear, from heaven, what we on earth are saying—even assuming they could sort through and tackle each request one at a time?

      I can’t buy it… not without a shred (in my opinion) of biblical evidence. Needless to say, I disagree that Revelation implies that we should pray to the saints. Nor do I think that it has anything to say about Mary.

      I know it’s an argument from silence, of course, but it’s a very LOUD silence from our Lord, not to mention the apostles in Acts and the Epistles, regarding this practice. John’s brother James died early in the Christian movement; Stephen died early. Who in Acts or the Epistles was praying to them? Who was venerating them? I know it’s silence, but it’s conspicuous.

      Whether or to what extent there is a literal throne room, however, we are told explicitly that we can go directly to God, alongside any angel or saint who may also happen to be in his presence at the moment. N.T. Wright, for one, who’s generally sympathetic with Catholicism, doesn’t budge on this point.

      God’s Word commands us to pray to our Father. It seems like someone would have also said something in scripture about praying to saints.

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