Prima scriptura

Prima scriptura is the Christian doctrine that canonized scripture is "first" or "above all" other sources of divine revelation. Implicitly, this view acknowledges that, besides canonical scripture, there are other guides for what a believer should believe and how he should live, such as the created order, traditions, charismatic gifts, mystical insight, angelic visitations, conscience, common sense, the views of experts, the spirit of the times or something else. Prima scriptura suggests that ways of knowing or understanding God and his will that do not originate from canonized scripture are perhaps helpful in interpreting that scripture, but testable by the canon and correctable by it, if they seem to contradict the scriptures.

Contrast with sola scripturaEdit

Prima scriptura is sometimes contrasted to sola scriptura, which literally translates "by the scripture alone". The former doctrine as understood by many Protestants—particularly Evangelicals—is that the Scriptures are the sole infallible rule of faith and practice, but that the Scriptures' meaning can be mediated through many kinds of secondary authority, such as the ordinary teaching offices of the Church, antiquity, the councils of the Christian Church, reason, and experience.

However, sola scriptura rejects any original infallible authority other than the Bible. In this view, all secondary authority is derived from the authority of the Scriptures and is therefore subject to reform when compared to the teaching of the Bible. Church councils, preachers, Bible commentators, private revelation, or even a message allegedly from an angel or an apostle are not an original authority alongside the Bible in the sola scriptura approach.


The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation is clear on the total equality of Scripture with Sacred Tradition when it says that "both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence" because together they "form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church."[1] So, in one sense, Scripture has no primacy over Tradition, but an ancient tradition holds that the word of God, though equally authoritative in whichever form it comes, comes primarily in the form of Sacred Scripture, and thus we should seek for Sacred Doctrine primarily in the Scriptures. As Thomas Aquinas said:

...[S]acred doctrine...properly uses the authority of the canonical Scriptures as an incontrovertible proof, and the authority of the doctors of the Church as one that may properly be used, yet merely as probable. For our faith rests upon the revelation made to the apostles and prophets who wrote the canonical books, and not on the revelations (if any such there are) made to other doctors.[2]

For this reason, some sources say that prima scriptura is the normative Catholic approach. Yves Congar referred to prima scriptura as the "normative primacy of Scripture" as he described the work of Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas. Pope John Paul II in an address to academics in 1986 said, "Theology must take its point of departure from a continual and updated return to the Scriptures read in the Church." This statement has been taken by some as support for interpreting the Church's teaching in terms of the prima scriptura perspective.

In his book, James F. Keenan reports studies by some academics. A study by Bernard Hoose states that claims to a continuous teaching by the Church on matters of sexuality, life and death and crime and punishment are "simply not true". After examining seven medieval texts about homosexuality, Mark Jordan argues that, "far from being consistent, any attempt to make a connection among the texts proved impossible". He calls the tradition's teaching of the Church "incoherent". Karl-Wilhelm Merks considers that tradition itself is "not the truth guarantor of any particular teaching." Keenan, however, says that studies of "manualists" such as John T. Noonan Jr. has demonstrated that, "despite claims to the contrary, manualists were co-operators in the necessary historical development of the moral tradition." Noonan, according to Keenan, has provided a new way of viewing at "areas where the Church not only changed, but shamefully did not".[3]

Eastern OrthodoxyEdit

Eastern Orthodoxy teaches that Scripture is neither above nor below Tradition, and that Scripture is part of the written Tradition of the Church.[4] An analogy is made where the entirety of church life is compared to a jeweled necklace, of which the most precious gem is the large diamond in the center, representing scripture. The other gems represent other parts of the Holy Tradition. While none of the other jewels are equal to the diamond, they nonetheless contribute to its beauty; the diamond looks best as part of the whole necklace (i. e., when viewed within the context of Church tradition). Sola scriptura, which is analogous to ripping the diamond out of the necklace because one prefers to view it on its own, only detracts from the diamond's beauty and value.[5]


Article VI of the 39 Articles, Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation states:[6]

Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the Holy Scripture we do understand those canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.

Of the Names and Number of the Canonical Books. Genesis, The First Book of Samuel, The Book of Esther, Exodus, The Second Book of Samuel, The Book of Job, Leviticus, The First Book of Kings, The Psalms, Numbers, The Second Book of Kings, The Proverbs, Deuteronomy, The First Book of Chronicles, Ecclesiastes or Preacher, Joshua, The Second Book of Chronicles, Cantica, or Songs of Solomon, Judges, The First Book of Esdras, Four Prophets the greater, Ruth, The Second Book of Esdras, Twelve Prophets the less.

And the other Books (as Hierome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine; such are these following:

The Third Book of Esdras, The rest of the Book of Esther, The Fourth Book of Esdras, The Book of Wisdom, The Book of Tobias, Jesus the Son of Sirach, The Book of Judith, Baruch the Prophet, The Song of the Three Children, The Prayer of Manasses, The Story of Susanna, The First Book of Maccabees, Of Bel and the Dragon, The Second Book of Maccabees.

All the Books of the New Testament, as they are commonly received, we do receive, and account them Canonical.[6]

The Anglican view of the role on sola scriptura can be best summarized by Richard Hooker. In his famous work "On the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity" he developed a view that would be known in the Anglican tradition as the "3-legged stool". This consists of scripture, tradition and reason. Scripture is the source of all revelation in the Christian tradition. At the same time Hooker also saw the necessity of tradition, while not on the same level as scripture, as being an important mediating principle in interpreting. He specifically critiques the Puritan interpretations of sola scriptura that were present at the time in Elizabethan England. This is followed by what Hooker calls the "law of reason". Hookers' 3-legged stool would become the basis of the Methodist quadrilateral as well as form a via media between the Catholic and Lutheran understandings on the relationship between scripture and tradition.

Wesleyan MethodismEdit

Another version of the prima scriptura approach may be the Wesleyan Quadrilateral for the Methodists, which maintains that Scripture is to be the primary authority for the Church. Nonetheless, it is best interpreted through the lenses of reason, personal experience, and Church tradition, although the Bible remains the crucial and normative authority for Christians. According to the United Methodist Church, which adheres to this notion:

"Scripture is considered the primary source and standard for Christian doctrine. Tradition is experience and the witness of development and growth of the faith through the past centuries and in many nations and cultures. Experience is the individual's understanding and appropriating of the faith in the light of his or her own life. Through reason the individual Christian brings to bear on the Christian faith discerning and cogent thought. These four elements taken together bring the individual Christian to a mature and fulfilling understanding of the Christian faith and the required response of worship and service."[7]


The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) accepts the Bible as the word of God "as far as it is translated correctly," [8] and it regards parts of the Apocrypha,[9] some writings of the Protestant Reformers and non-Christian religious leaders, and the non-religious writings of some philosophers - and, notably, the Constitution of the United States of America[9] - to be inspired, though not canonical.[10]

Jehovah's Witnesses believe that the interpretation of scripture and codification of doctrines is considered the responsibility of the Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses.[11]

The Quaker concept of the Inner light or the charismatic views of the Holy Spirit as an active force in the life of the believer may be examples of the prima scriptura approach.

While most Pentecostals and Charismatics believe the Bible to be the ultimate authority and would not say that any new revelation can ever contradict the Bible, they do believe that God continues to speak to people today on extra-biblical topics as well as to interpret and apply the text of the Bible.[12]

Besides the Holy Scriptures,[13] the Seventh-day Adventist Church hold Ellen White's writings to be "a continuing and authoritative source of truth which provide for the church."[14]

Christadelphians believe that the Bible is the sole source of instruction from God in terms of the way that they should conduct their affairs.[15] However they do note that some translations of the bible into non-original languages have changed the message, so study of the original texts are important.


  1. ^ Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation - Dei verbum
  2. ^ Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1:1:8.
  3. ^ James F. Keenan (17 January 2010). A History of Catholic Moral Theology in the Twentieth Century: From Confessing Sins to Liberating Consciences. A&C Black. pp. 45–46. ISBN 978-0-8264-2929-2.
  4. ^ "Scripture & Tradition | Orthodoxy | Northeast American Diocese of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church".
  5. ^ "The Bible and Holy Tradition".
  6. ^ a b "Articles of Religion of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America". 30 June 2019. Retrieved 7 July 2019.
  7. ^ "Wesleyan Quadrilateral". The United Methodist Church. Retrieved 2007-06-24.
  8. ^ See Articles of Faith 1:8 ("We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly.") Joseph Smith wrote, "I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers" (Teachings of The Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 327).
  9. ^ a b See D&C 91.
  10. ^ "LDS FAQ:Frequently Asked Questions about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints". Archived from the original on April 29, 2008. Retrieved 2008-06-03.
  11. ^ "Christ Leads His Congregation". Watchtower: 13–16. 15 March 2002.
  12. ^ Lee, Edgar R. (2007). "Pentecostals and Subordinate Revelation". Enrichment Journal. Assembly of God. Retrieved 22 February 2014.
  13. ^ "Fundamental Belief 1 - Holy Scriptures". Official Site of the Seventh-day Adventist World Church. 1980. Retrieved February 25, 2014.
  14. ^ "Fundamental Belief 18 - The Gift of Prophecy". Official Site of the Seventh-day Adventist World Church. 1980. Retrieved February 25, 2014.
  15. ^ "Christadelphians". 2009. Retrieved June 25, 2019.

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