Despite what you’ve heard, faithful Methodists believe in “sola scriptura”

September 19, 2017

I’ve been preaching a series on the five core convictions of the Protestant Reformation (often called the “Five Solas”), and describing why they remain relevant for us today. Last Sunday I preached the first of two sermons on 2 Timothy 3:14-17, and the doctrine of sola scriptura (“scripture alone”). In a nutshell, this means that the Bible is our ultimate authority guiding Christian belief and practice.

Notice I said “ultimate.” Many United Methodist thinkers want to distinguish sola scriptura from something called prima scriptura (“scripture first”). We Methodists, they say, affirm prima, not sola, scriptura. Frankly, when I hear this, I wonder if they don’t understand the doctrine of sola scriptura. Do they imagine that Martin Luther himself denied that there are other recognized authorities to guide faith and practice besides scripture? Compare a typical Lutheran worship service with a typical Methodist one: Lutherans are far more tradition bound! Most Lutherans invest traditions associated with Holy Communion, baptism, liturgy, creeds, and catechisms with far greater authority than Methodists. Yet orthodox Lutherans would be the last Christians to deny sola scriptura.

My point is, sola scriptura, properly understood, does not mean nuda scriptura—that scripture by itself is the only authority: that any Christian tradition or practice not derived from scripture alone must be rejected. For example, the so-called Restoration (or Stone-Campbell) Movement of the 19th-century is nuda scriptura. Today, this tradition is represented by the Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and their various offshoots.

While I wouldn’t deny for a moment that many of these churches are within the realm of Christian orthodoxy, some of them don’t allow musical instruments in worship. All singing (which is usually quite good in comparison to typical Protestant church singing) is a cappella. Why? Because in the New Testament (not even in the Old), there’s no mention of instruments in worship. Therefore, since the Bible doesn’t mention it in relation to Christian churches, these churches are prohibited from using them.

Also, many of these churches don’t use the word “Trinity” to describe the doctrine of God’s being three-in-one. Why? Because the Bible doesn’t use the term. Their theologians use the word “Godhead” instead—because that word is found in the Bible.

For most us Protestants, these are deeply eccentric practices, however much we agree on essentials of the faith. But for many Methodists, these eccentricities emerge from the doctrine of sola scriptura. They don’t.

Sola scriptura allows for traditions and practices so long as they are consistent with and not contradicted by scripture: For this reason, the vast majority of Protestants reject the worship of icons, statues, and the consecrated “host” of Communion as idolatry, while we accept iconography present within stained-glass windows and church architecture. Symbolism, we believe, can aid worship—even when scripture doesn’t specify it.

From my perspective, then—and I’m happy to be corrected—sola scriptura and prima scriptura, properly understood, mean the same thing. When most people refer to “scripture first,” they still mean that scripture gets the last word on any element of faith or practice. It has veto power.

But please note: I will never use the term prima scriptura if doing so might imply that I view scripture as less than the final authority in my Christian faith and practice. And since most Methodists I know who insist on prima scriptura will also speak of the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral like a wobbly four-legged stool—with tradition, reason, and experience nearly equal in authority (or worse) to the Bible—maybe it’s best not to use the term at all. This is just my opinion; we can agree to disagree.

Soon, I’ll tackle a concept that’s even more fraught (in Methodist circles), although I affirm it wholeheartedly: the infallibility of scripture.

One Response to “Despite what you’ve heard, faithful Methodists believe in “sola scriptura””

  1. Grant Essex Says:

    Amen! Scripture is the final word (pun intended). That does not mean that there is no room for lively discussion/debate on the meaning of certain passages, or the differences of opinion on how you reconcile apparent contradictions in Scripture.


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