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

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.

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

  1. 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.

  2. The thing that Sola Scriptura says, functionally means nuda scriptura. Look at every apologist website or christian answers site.
    All church doctrine gleaned from the abuse of scripture is their authority. The “inerrant, infallible, immutable whole complete word of God Himself we-got-Jesus-trapped-inside-this-magical-book-of-all-life-answers.”

    Since our authority is God, and internet protestants (CARM, GTY, GQ, DG) don’t believe in apostolic succession or episcopal authority (I don’t blame them because of how immensely corrupt, disunified, suckering to the sways of the media, undiscerning, and selfish our bishops are.)
    And since man is so corrupt, then any authority that is made through man (like a globalist Pope) can’t possibly have godly authority over doctrine.

    So if no man can have doctrinal authority, then, since the Holy Spirit is (functionally) dead and can’t talk, there is no authority under the Bible either. Thus, outside of my interpreted doctrine of scripture, there is no authority under the Bible because it’s mad-made.

    Thus, the Bible isn’t just the highest authority, but since there are no prophesies, the Bible is now the only authority,
    and all else is speculation. Even if came words of the Holy Spirit with a miracle to prove it saying that some regulation Paul wrote doesn’t apply to today’s churches because the unwritten circumstances are different, we wouldn’t believe it.

  3. The problem is clearly a problem of definition. What do you mean by “Sola Scriptura”. Put “sola scriptura” in Google translate and you would see “Scripture alone.” Once we take the meaning to be its Latin origin, Methodists believe in prima scriptura, not scripture alone, though we Methodists say “sola scriptura.” It is a carelessness we need to divest ourselves of. It can only lead to confusion and needless waste of time in argument.

      1. He’s saying that it’s careless to lump yourself in with unthinking, hateful fundamentalist cults that blindly call their personal interperatation and translation of scripture to be inerrant and perfect, over-against each other, the conscience, and scientific facts.

      2. Since Sola Scriptura is a bedrock principle of the Protestant Reformation, affirmed by Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anglicans, I’m sure I’m not doing that!

      3. If Sola Scriptura were principle worked, there would be one, and only one, Protestant church. But it is made abundantly clear by each sect, clear enough to be stated more than 3,000 times upon itself, that God has not blessed the idea. The formula’s foundation comes firstly from Martin Luther, the same man who wrote “On the Jews and their Lies” and established the spiritual grounds for the Holocaust. The second listed was founded by the butcher of Geneva, who wrote its draconian laws, got the legislators to approve them, and had his fingers dipped in the blood of dozens of innocents for what goes down to thought crimes, and proximately taught America through Johnathan Edwards and Charles Spurgeon that God actually hates humanity. The third, founded for purely selfish reasons, was heavily infected by both of them, which plunged its whole land into a pointless civil war. Sola Scriptura is why the Anglican Church failed to become an ecumenical patriarchate along side with Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Moscow, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Mount Athos, andall of the other non-Papists bisphorics.
        Each and every denomination that claims to follow Sola Scriptura failing to join into a single church as is commanded by scripture is proof that Sola Scriptura doesn’t work on people who aren’t educated in the same way that Timothy was.

      4. No. A sympathizer for them in, and only in, internal Church matters. My sympathy fades seeing their aesthetic tastes and their treatment of the jews. All 3 branches ultimately demonstrate that the Holy Spirit is feeble and unmotivating, that Jesus is a failed leader, and that the church is not Holy.
        Christians once could cure the congenitally lame, the born blind, and psychopaths cured of the devil’s control. Now they can’t pray away a rash. They could discern the intentions and alignment of invisible spirits. Now they can’t discern a child diddler from their own ranks. They could prophesy and exposit on the meanings of scripture. Now they can’t agree on what scripture says while insisting that it explains itself and we’re just not trying hard enough.
        God healed and spoke to us out of compassion for the sick and the lost. Now he healed to verify his power and back up his threats to throw us into hell if we don’t choose the right church.
        Of all the supernatural gifts God stopped giving in favor of the “perfect”, the loss of Knowledge has brought the church low, and God leaving behind a book with a mute, weak ghost to replace his own presence doesn’t make for anything to be called “love”

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