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?