Lord’s Library editors explore various Christian traditions by comparing Sola Scriptura vs. Prima Scriptura.
Christians around the world agree that the Bible is an irreplaceable and sacred source of truth that every person needs. Our faith is based on this foundational truth. But a place where everyone is not in agreement is the role of church tradition that has arisen alongside Scripture. Does it have divine authority to aid in determining how we practice our faith?
The debate between Sola Scriptura vs Prima Scriptura directly confronts this debate. We are going to dive into both doctrines in detail, then compare the differences between the two.
Sola Scriptura vs. Prima Scriptura
What is Sola Scriptura? Sola Scriptura Definition
Sola Scriptura is the belief stating that Scripture is the sole authoritative source for Christian doctrine and practice. This doctrine was declared during the Protestant Reformation and helped fuel that movement. It was presented as a counter doctrine in light of the corruption and traditions of the Catholic Church that were contrary to the teachings in the Bible. Examples of Catholic tradition that the reformists opposed were praying to saints, the immaculate conception, transubstantiation, infant baptism, indulgences, and the authority of the Pope. Reformists used the doctrine of Sola Scriptura in an attempt to bring reform to these practices of the Catholic Church.
The argument against Sola Scriptura is that the Bible never specifically teaches this doctrine. Those in opposition to it state that the Bible never deems itself the sole, authoritative resource for Christian faith and practice. On the contrary, they believe that the Bible clearly shows that God has chosen to work in other ways alongside the Bible throughout the years and that He continues to do so to this day. That’s exactly why certain Christian groups such as the Catholics hold the Apostolic Tradition on equal ground with the Bible in terms of divine authority.
Another argument against this doctrine is that the canon of the Bible was not officially agreed upon for roughly 250 years after the founding of the church. How then, were Christians throughout church history supposed to practice and follow Sola Scriptura, especially when for roughly the first 1500 years of the church, the Bible was not even available to your average Christian? Today, this argument would also cite those who are illiterate around the world. How are they to live out Sola Scriptura for themselves?
This argument is countered by the reality that Scripture’s authority cannot be based upon availability. God’s Word is God’s Word, and it doesn’t change its role in the church based upon who has read it or not. All that does it make it even more of a priority to get it into the hands of as many people as possible.
Those who support Sola Scriptura will point to verses such as 1 Corinthians 4:6 and Mark 7:6-9, both of which point to the sole authoritative status of the Word of God. Verses like these prevent a sad but common tendency over the years to build traditions upon old traditions instead of building them upon the Bible. Sola Scriptura was declared in an effort to ensure that Christian practice always stays in line with the standard set for by God’s Word.
Sola Scriptura Defined
What is Prima Scriptura? Prima Scriptura Definition
Since Sola Scriptura didn’t arise until the 1500s, Prima Scriptura was the sole doctrine regarding the authority of church tradition for the majority of church history. Prima Scriptura is the doctrine that the Bible is the “first” or “primary” source of Christian authority. In the framework of Prima Scriptura, Scripture is still the highest authority in the life of the church, but it also leaves an opening for things such as the Apostolic Tradition and the writings of the church fathers to hold authority in the life and faith of God’s people.
Prima Scriptura would serve to be a more acceptable doctrine to many if it wasn’t for the abuse that has stemmed from it over the years. Very few Christians, if any, take issue with church traditions that are based upon God’s Word. But sadly, over the years, many traditions arose in the church that were blatantly defying Scripture and offense to those that held the Bible close to their hearts. This discouraging history is what led to the need for another doctrine to arise in opposition to it. It’s crucial to note that the doctrine itself didn’t fail the church, but rather those that chose to abuse its influence for ungodly reasons. But no matter the reasons for why it happened, church tradition became corrupt to the point that it was challenged.
Prima Scriptura honors the legacy of the saints of the faith and the history that came before us in the church. There were many prominent Christian thinkers throughout the years that contributed a great deal to how we understand and live out our faith today. Prima Scriptura allows for their influence to be prominent alongside God’s Word, as proponents of Prima Scriptura believe that God still works through people in this way.
Prima Scriptura Defined
Sola Scriptura vs. Prima Scriptura; What’s the Difference?
The main argument between these two doctrines is not the Bible’s authority: Both deem God’s Word as the highest form of authority for the Christian life. The debate comes in the understanding of the role of other traditions in the life of the church and God’s people. Is the Bible the only guide for how we are to structure our faith? Or does our church history have a part to play?
This debate has largely become a Protestant vs Catholic/Orthodox debate. Few protestants would argue for Prima Scriptura, and few Catholics/Orthodox would argue for Sola Scriptura. In short, the differences between these two doctrines have come to define the main overarching contrasts between the two largest branches of Christian church tradition: Catholicism and Protestantism.
Common ground can be found in the understanding that church traditions are healthy and acceptable as long as they are based upon the authority of God’s Word and do not contradict the truth God has revealed to us through His Word. Both ideas can coexist as long as corruption and human-made doctrines in opposition to the Bible are kept at bay.
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