Prima Scriptura, Sola Scriptura and Sola Ecclesia

bibleby Tony-Allen Cucolo

Does the belief in prima scriptura inevitably lead one to believe either in sola scriptura or sola ecclesia?

First, let’s define some terms:

Prima Scriptura is the name given by many as a counter for sola scriptura. The idea is that while scripture is not the sole rule of faith in the church, it is the primary authority. It refers to the primacy of scripture, or that scripture is primary among traditions and ecclesiastical decisions, although those also carry some authority alongside scripture. This teaching stems from the idea that when the apostles founded the church, they left a conglomerate of teachings, both written and unwritten, and the written portion became scripture. Therefore, while there are traditions and extra-biblical beliefs, scripture is still held the highest among them. However, because it is believed that scripture, traditions and church authority all come from the same source (that is, Christ and the apostles), they all carry varying degrees of importance.

One perspective on this, from the Eastern Orthodox church, writes:

The Church recognizes one and only one source of authority for Her faith and practice: the apostolic tradition. The Divine Scriptures are part – albeit the most important part – of that tradition. To set Scriptures up as something over and apart from tradition is to have the tail wagging the dog. [pg. 135-136. Carlton, Clark. The Way: What Every Protestant Should Know About the Orthodox Church. Salisbury: Regina Orthodox Press, 1997.]

Sola Ecclesia is a nickname roughly translated as “church alone.” It refers to a doctrine that teaches the church is the sole authority and rule of faith, and all is decided through the ecclesiastical body. One can see the more extreme and blatant versions of it in cults such as Mormonism or the Jehovah’s Witnesses, where the teachings of the group itself trump whatever scripture might have to say. So much so, in fact, that in some situations new scripture is added (as in Mormonism) or the very words of scripture are changed to suit the group’s theology (as in the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their New World Translation).

Sola Scriptura is the Reformation-era name for the doctrine of “scripture alone.” We must immediately point out here that the most common straw man presented of sola scriptura is of an Evangelical pastor beating his Bible and saying, “This is all you need!” This is not the case, however. Scripture alone does not mean scripture isolated or scripture by itself, which some scholars (such as Keith Mathison in his work The Spirit of Sola Scriptura) have referred to jestingly as “solo scriptura.” Sola scriptura acknowledges the presence and permits the use of history, language, contextual study, patristics and scholars. However, what it does teach is that all of this is held to the standard of scripture and scripture alone. The writings of godly theologians, the decisions of councils, and traditions claimed to have been passed down through the ages – while not necessarily useless in and of themselves – do not get to trump the writings of scripture. God’s word has the final say.

Now that we have established these terms, we return to our question: does prima scriptura inevitably lead one to follow sola scriptura or sola ecclesia? Long ago I made this chart to try to explain this further:

Prima-Scriptura-Train

The line of thinking is this: you start out with the presupposition of Prima Scriptura. So far so good. Now let’s say you bring in a tradition, doctrine or belief. Do we have a question regarding its validity? If no, there is nothing to worry about. Some things, such as the existence of a historical Christ or how many disciples there were, may not have any need to be questioned.

Let us say, however, that we have something worth asking a question about. We’ll take, as an example, the teaching of the repose and later bodily assumption of the Virgin Mary. The next question we must ask: is it able to be proven by scripture? In the case of the bodily assumption of Mary, the quick answer is no, it cannot be. The next question must be: is this an issue? If one answers No, for the church has spoken and thus it is so, then they are followers of sola ecclesia, for they are following church authority over scriptural authority. If they answer Yes, and so it cannot be part of our infallible rule of worship or faith, then they are following sola scriptura, for they are appealing to the authority of scripture.

Many might protest this example, because scripture is only silent about the bodily assumption of Mary and not exactly (though somewhat) contrary to it. Therefore, I will move on to another example: the celibacy of the clergy. In Roman Catholicism, priests and bishops are celibate in toto, whereas in Eastern Orthodoxy (and some other forms of Eastern Christianity) priests may be married provided they were married before ordination (after which they must be celibate) while all bishops must be celibate.

Now let us apply this same flow of thinking as before: is this mode of clerical celibacy affirmed by scripture? The answer, again, is no: Paul writes in Titus 1:5-6 that elders (or priests) can be married and have children; Paul likewise writes in 1 Timothy 3:2 that overseers (or bishops) can be married, and even says in verses 4-5 that one sign they are fit for their post is that their family household is in good order. He even records in 1 Corinthians 9:5 that James, Peter and other apostles, most of them considered to be bishops in “apostolic” churches, had wives. Now we must ask how we respond to this in light of the church tradition. If we say This is of no concern, the church has chosen in her prudence to instill this form of celibacy, then we are falling into sola ecclesia. If, however, we say This is of concern, for it contradicts the words of Paul, therefore this tradition must be thrown out, then we are following sola scriptura.

In both these examples, the tradition, belief or doctrine actually overrides the authority of scripture. Though many might protest this and assure us that the church is merely “interpreting” scripture, or that they are just enacting something in the prudence of time, the fact remains that the authority to change this is coming only from the church, and is bypassing the word of God. Even if one were to argue that the church is sourced to God as well, this only invites the problem of God contradicting Himself – first through the infallible words of scripture, then through the infallible council of the church. Infallible sources cannot be contradictory to one another.

This is why when one argues that elevating church authority or the authority of tradition does not negate the primary authority of scripture, they are merely not following this doctrine through to its logical conclusion. If in the end church authority has the final say, even in contradiction to the teachings of scripture, then who has the true authority? I write this not only with Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox in mind, but likewise Protestants and even groups such as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. If your church believes something, and yet you can find nothing in scripture to verify it – in fact it contradicts scripture – and yet you defend it with The church declares it to be, therefore it must be so, how much weight are you then placing upon the scriptures? At this point it is revealed that your church’s authority has the true power, and scripture is simply given a ceremonial nod. Note that I am not arguing for a kind of “ecclesiastical anarchy” here – church authority in and of itself is not bad. However, if we place authority upon the church that supersedes scripture and permits it to contradict scripture, then we have usurped the authority of God’s word. It would be no different than permitting Congress the ability to contradict the Constitution for some superficial reason similar to “both Congress and the Constitution are sourced to the Founding Fathers.”

I exhort any one reading this post to understand the importance of the authority of God’s word. Christ Himself responded to all exhortations from the Pharisees, scribes, lawyers – even the devil himself – by going to the word of God. Evil was met every time with “it is written.” As God said through the prophet Isaiah: “If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn” (Isa 8:20). If you encounter anyone or any group which works against the word of God – whether intentional or unintentional – seek to correct them, or, if this proves impossible, depart from them, just as the apostle Paul warned the Roman Christians to turn away from those teaching doctrines contrary to the Gospel (cf. Rom 16:17). Paul was so adamant about preserving the word of God, in fact, that he stated even an apostle or angel of God could be considered anathema for preaching a contrary gospel (Gal 1:8-9). Scripture is our highest authority because it comes from God, and with God we can find no other higher authority.

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