An Argument for Prima Scriptura

This post originally appeared as a contribution at Conciliar Post.

One of the great privileges of being a part of the Conciliar Post community is the opportunity to have meaningful conversations about substantive theological issues while remaining charitable toward our interlocutors. Not that we are the only website that promotes this type of dialogue. But in an era of increased incivility and rhetorical debauchery, it is a welcome relief to have a conversation rather than a shouting match.

In this post, I hope to contribute to the ongoing Conciliar Post conversation about the relationship between Scripture and Tradition in Christianity (a conversation that I have lovingly dubbed the “Authority Wars”). To summarize this conversation, which is (of course) by no means limited to our own time or place, all Christians ask and answer the question, “How do we access the revealed truths of the Triune God?”1 In practice, this typically takes the form of “When I have a question about this doctrine or practice, where do I look for answers?”

As demonstrated by Jeff Hart, Alyssa Hall, Matthew Bryan, Christian McGuire, Ben Winter, John Ehrett, Timon Cline, and myself here on Conciliar Post, Christians basically fall into three camps on this issue. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians generally affirm the authority of both Scripture and Tradition, often with Scripture being understood as emerging from the tradition of faith. The descendants of the Magisterial Reformers (Lutherans, Reformed, Presbyterians) typically call their position sola scriptura, affirming the supremacy of Scripture while allowing for the secondary authority of other sources or statements. As recently argued by Timon Cline, these Christians may be understood as inhabiting the position of “sola-but-not-solo scriptura.” Finally, there are Christians who take the sola scriptura dictum at (more or less) face value and affirm Scripture as the only sufficient and entirely supreme source for guiding Christian faith and practice.2

Pushing Back

Here I want to push back against the sola-but-not-solo camp and suggest that this language is increasingly insufficient and often inaccurate for explaining a theological position and encapsulating an answer to Authority Wars questions. Jaroslav Peliken summarizes the historical problems with the sola viewpoint:

“As a matter of historical fact (and therefore of theological accuracy), the Christian Scriptura has never been sola. When the Christian movement began, it had the Tanakh (in most cases the Septuagint) as its Scriptura and, alongside it, the primitive proclamation of Jesus as its fulfillment. Then, by the time this proclamation had itself been written down and fleshed out into the New Testament Scriptura, the church also had the creeds and the liturgy, on the basis of which it decided what the New Testament, and behind it the Tanakh, meant for Christian faith and life.”3

In this view, advocating a plain sola scriptura viewpoint ignores the realities of the early church. If the Apostles and other earliest followers of Jesus could not advocate sola scriptura but instead utilized the (often still developing) Scriptures in concert with other sources of authority, why should today’s church behave differently? In practice, the sola-but-not-solo camp recognizes and agrees with this explanation. Yet in articulation, the terminology of sola continues to be used. In what follows, I outline three arguments that problematize the use of sola (in the sola-but-not-solo model) to articulate the place of the Scriptures in the Christian life.

Contra Sola

First, the argument from language. Words have meanings. While meanings are often contested and change over time, why not use a word that clearly conveys the meaning you intend when talking about the authority of the Bible? If you do not wish to convey the idea of “solo” or “alone,” why not force your language to convey that clearly? As a historian, I will be the first to say that continuing to use sola allows for nice continuity with the Magisterial Reformers and enables Protestant theologians and bloggers to talk about the “Five Solas” (instead of, say, “The Four Solas and One Prima”). However, for traditions that regularly stress the importance of theological (and biblical) accuracy and continual reformation, this seems a curious language decision.

Second, there is the reality of pastoral care. Clear articulation of doctrine remains important, perhaps more so now than ever given the realities of shrinking attention spans and the fact that many people do not read unless they have to. If church leaders expect their congregations to be able to understand and express their faith (1 Peter 3:15), why use anything other than clear and precise language? Do we really think that the average person in the pew (or church chair) is going to catch the nuance between sola and solo? Even without an understanding of Latin, most people in the congregations I have been a part of know that “sola” means alone or solely. And if that is what they hear (from the pulpit) or read (in a doctrinal statement or on a website), is it fair to expect them to be able to articulate that “tradition and community and reason are important too”?

Finally, there is theological concern for the sola-but-not-solo camp. Nomenclature of “alone” has subjugated other theological points to the supremacy of Scripture. Particularly significant and concerning is the reality that many contemporary Protestant Christians subject the Godhead to the Scriptures, rather than the other way around. I cannot count how many times in the past five years I have heard congregants quote the Bible or talk about the “Word” as if New Testament writers were self-referential rather than speaking about the Incarnate Word. Jesus is the fullest revelation of God, not the Bible. But the language of sola has overemphasized the supremacy of the Written Word at the expense of the Incarnate Word. We must learn to talk about the authority of Scripture without denigrating the ultimacy of the Godhead.

An Argument for Prima Scriptura

In place of sola scriptura, I advocate the expression prima scriptura, “Scripture first.” Anglican and Methodist readers will rightly note that I am not the first person to utilize this term. Language of prima scriptura, while not without its own potentials for theological confusion, more accurately represents the sola-and-not-solo position with respect to the problems outlined above. Regarding language, prima designates the importance and authority of Scripture without over communicating this reality. Among the sources available to followers of Jesus today for guidance on questions of faith and practice, Scripture stands in primacy of place, being supplemented by creeds, the Great Tradition of the Church, experience, and plain reason.

Likewise, the language of prima clearly communicates to congregants the proper place of Scripture in the Christian ordering of authorities. Confusion may be allayed (and, dare I say, perhaps even differing interpretations and divisions thwarted) by recognizing the superstructure of Christian wisdom which supports the reading and practice of Scripture. Finally (and perhaps most importantly), the language of prima will remind us that Scripture stands not alone and, consequently, cannot unthinkingly stand at the top of our doctrinal statements. When we learn to articulate the relationship of Scripture to other sources of authority, we will more readily realize that all our sources point toward the Source himself. In answer to the question, “How do we access the revealed truths of the Triune God?”, we will continue to place Scripture at the top of the list, but always in subjugation to the one who has spoken through those very writings.

This articulation does not intend to reject of the authority of Scripture, attempt to denigrate Scripture, or usurp the foundational character of Scripture for articulating and living the Christian life. Rather, it is a plea for a more theologically precise expression of the authority of Scripture. In the practice of adopting this corrective, I think most sola-but-not-solo Protestant churches (unless they explicitly use the term sola scriptura) would be able to keep their doctrinal statements “as is”, perhaps only reordering (if the doctrinal statement on scripture appears above the statement about God) or reemphasizing (the place of Scripture at the top but not alone). Recognizing that sloppy language makes sloppy thought possible, let us pursue clear language along with theological accuracy, as we seek to understand God and answer the questions of the Christian life.


1 While all Christians ask and answer this question, for many Christians this process is unconscious and inarticulate.
2 The point of this article is not to approach the concerns of sola scriptura or the Scripture and Tradition viewpoint, which, I believe, are treated here and here.
3 Jaroslav Pelikan, Whose Bible Is It?: A History of the Scriptures Through the Ages (New York: Viking, 2005), 180.

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