Prima Scriptura

The title of N. Clayton Croy’s book, Prima Scriptura: An Introduction to New Testament Interpretation, is perfect because, instead of sola scriptura, he admits that what we actually do is prima scriptura. We go to the Bible first, but other dimensions enter into our interpretation. Too often sola scriptura means we go to the Bible alone, with over disregard for what others have said or without recognizing that other dimensions are actually influencing us. Thus, “nearly all Christian traditions employ one or more additional criteria such as tradition, reason, and experience. A more realistic motto, then, would be prima scriptura: Scripture as the primary authority, but in conjunction with and mediated by other authorities.”

What do you think of this “sola” vs. “prima”?

Croy’s book is a textbook for advanced college students but even more for seminary students but one that is not simply exegetical method but also involves sane engagement with hermeneutics. (Some discussions of hermeneutics get insane by getting so complex we forget we’re trying to interpret this here passage in Galatians!) And it takes us from the text into our modern world, in fact, smack dab into the middle of the local church, so he fits into the theological interpretation of Scripture model.

Everything that comes up in interpretation is here; the author somehow managed not to turn this book in to a 1000 page door stop and learned to summarize and simplify and move on. But interpretation is learned by doing, not by reading about it. But you need a good book to get you started, and Croy’s book is that book.

I highly recommend this book, which is broken into four major units:

1. Analyzing and Preparing the Interpreter, where he knows we have to reflect on our social and theological locations — as well as our life experiences.

2. Analyzing the Text, where he uses the basic [the right basic] method of observation and interrogation leading to more observation. And he expects the reader to use all the resources and methods and angles that are needed. The goal is to come to terms with the intention of the author conveyed in the text.

3. Evaluating and Contemporizing the Text — the Wesleyan quadrilateral is used (Scripture, tradition, reason, experience?).

4. Appropriating the Text and Transforming the Community. I like his use of the word “appropriate.”

(He includes samples of exegesis papers and pragmatic stuff.)

Here’s a line to ponder: “When we reflect on the NT theologically, we are engaging it in a manner that builds upon but transcends description of the text.” Agree?

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  • I’ve been using the term Prima Scriptura to describe my own view for a number of years now. This sounds like a wonderful book. I’ll definitely have to put it on my wish list.

  • Sounds like a really helpful book! If I understand that last line, then I totally agree. The NT gives us a window into ways the gospel came to bear upon the culture and issues of the day – our engagement with it must surely transcend the text. ‘Sola’ seems restrictive.

  • Deets

    My first thoughts support this sort of order of interpretation. However, I wonder how we examine tradition. As I recall, Jesus had more conflict with the Pharessees than any other group, and it seems that tradition was (almost) always the reason for the conflict.

    As we raise tradition up in our tools of interpretation, do we not become blind to our historic misunderstandings? How do we protect from that?

  • Transcends description of the text may have something to do with the Spirit helping the church to draw out the ramifications of truth from the text for the specific time and place. As in “contextualization.”

    Also it may have to do with reading in context of the entire Story with the Story’s End in view. So that we see in a way that the original readers of that text could not have seen, the place the text has in the overall Story. Where, perhaps, it is leading.

  • I’ve already adopted this as my main textbook for the basic Bible method book in our seminary. I just wish it covered the whole Bible instead of just the NT.

  • DanS

    I totally get what the author seems to be attempting to correct and have used the phrase “prima scriptura” myself, but on further reflection, I’d hate to discard the term “sola scriptura” for a couple of reasons.

    The “original intent” of sola scriptura was to say that scripture and only scripture is inspired – “God-breathed”. Only scripture is the “canon” or measuring rod, against which all subsequent teaching should be judged. And many reformation era statements said scripture “contains all things necessary for salvation”, meaning that there is no new revelation. So Sola scriptura, when defined, has a specific meaning different from the bible “in isolation”.

    But the point is well taken, that summaries, creeds, statements of faith, interpretive frameworks are valid and necessary. But such are not inspired and can teach nothing that is not rooted in scripture, which was one of the pillars of the reformation.

    Deets #3. Jesus objected to “traditions of men”, specifically teachings that went beyond the intent of the scripture, commanding what God had not commanded. I think “tradition” in the sense used by the early church meant to “pass along” or “hand down” what had been received, the key idea being we pass along the faith unaltered, unchanged, neither adding to it or taking from it.

    Prima scriptura is a well intended term, but Sola Scriptura, when defined, carries some very necessary meaning and should not be discarded.

  • Anyone who claims they can interpret Scripture without any cultural or theological bias is only fooling themselves. Sola scriptura is a really cool theology sounding cliche, but without the help of the Holy Spirit and extra-Biblical works such as commentaries, lexicons, dictionaries, Bible teachers, etc. to help guide the reader along, Scripture cannot stand alone. It must be interpreted in light of each and every situation within its proper context. Prima scriptura sounds to be more accurate. So, if we question sola scriptura, does this mean we also take another look at the other four solas?

  • I like “prima” over “sola”. In large part my preference comes from how misused I’ve seen “sola” over the last couple decades. I’ll add this book to my “wish list” and look for it in Kindle format.

    I think it would be helpful for books like this to add one more section – “Identifying the Readers Prejudices and Pre-suppositions”.

  • I would agree that “prima” is a better term than “sola” for communicating the original concept. I would also suggest that sola scriptura is simply not enough define a system of interpretation. My hunch is that sola scriptura is often confused with a specific hermeneutical method and people rely on it to defend their own pre-defined hermeneutic.

    I’m just finishing up a paper about sola scriptura and hermeneutics. Many authors have considered the apparent confusion surrounding the word “sola.” Several have come to the conclusion that for the Reformers the word “sola” does not refer to source but authority. The Reformers were amenable to using some tradition and reason was obviously necessary for interpreting the Scriptures.

    (See Anthony Lane “Sola Scriptura? Making sense of a Post-reformation slogan” in A Pathway to Scripter – P. Satterthwaite ed., D. Wright ed.; See also Kieth Mathison “The shape of sola scriptura”)

    Other writers have been critical (Hauerwas going beyond criticism to open prvocation) of a widespread misunderstanding of sola scriptura in North America which rejects all forms of tradition including the early creeds and favors a highly individualistic interpretation. Thy see this as a misunderstanding of how the reformers viewed sola scriptura and consider it to be dangerous. However, this individualistic view of sola scriptura is not a product of modern times. There was a radical wing during the Reformation period which did basically the same thing, namely rejected all tradition and teaching authorities.

    (See Alistar McGrath – “The intellectual origins of the european reformation” and Stanley Hauerwas – “Unleashing the scripture: Freeing the Bible from captivity to America”)

  • Rick

    Michael Patton threw another term into the mix: Nuda Scriptura.

    He sees Sola Scriptura as “Belief that Scripture is the final and only infallible authority for the Christian in all matters of faith and practice. While there are other authorities, they are always fallible and the must always be tested by and submit to the Scriptures.”

    Prima Scriptura, according to Patton, is “Belief that the Body of Christ has two separate sources of authority for faith and practice: 1) the Scriptures and 2) Tradition. Scripture is the primary source for authority, but by itself it is insufficient for all matters of faith and practice. Tradition also contains essential elements needed for the productive Christian life.”

    However, Nuda (or Solo) Scriptura is “Belief that Scripture is the sole basis and authority in the life of the Christian. Tradition is useless and misleading, and creeds and confessions are the result of man-made traditions.”

    So both Prima and Sola take tradition into consideration, but differ on how much weight is given to tradition.

  • Jon G

    Deets (#3) –

    I, too, share your concern about Tradition. There are so many obvious inconsistencies with it…so why do we hold it up so highly? Sure there is something to be said for standing on the shoulders of those that have come before us, but on how many shoulders can we stand before you come toppling down?

    I’m not a “sola” guy, but I do feel there is a large distance between what the Bible teaches us and what Tradition teaches us. The problem is that the two are intertwined in origin, which makes the whole question kind of messy.

  • T


    Patton’s take is interesting. It seems he’s attempting to rescue “Sola” from folks who use the term in what Patton calls a “Nuda” way. At the same time, he’s also pushing “Prima” to a more controversial ground (or framing) than is necessary. I honestly wonder how many “Sola” folks would define “sola scriptura” the way he does, or, more importantly, how many conflate their tradition with scripture under a “scripture alone” banner.

    The last concern makes me believe that before we use these labels to talk about what we should rely on to shape our faith and practice, we need to acknowledge more frequently and thoroughly what inescapably will shape our faith and practice and our interpretation/systemization of Scripture, even if we want scripture to be the highest authority. It needs to be acknowledged (much more often and with less fear) that however much we might want Scripture alone to form our faith and practice, such is impossible. I don’t hear that happening enough within “sola” communities to make “sola” a helpful term rather than a comforting lie we tell ourselves and others. Tradition (and Reason and Experience) will be relied upon by us all, for good and for ill. It is not the only “authority” in our lives. We are not shaped by text alone, and cannot be. (Why have any ordination process, any elders, etc., if people are not to be given any authority in matters of faith and practice?) Too many “sola” communities of faith give authority to tradition and/or head pastors that would make a pope blush, but keep their ecclesiology so underground and segregated from, for instance, the idea of “sola scriptura” so that the contradiction is never even seen, let alone addressed thoughtfully.

    So yes, let our traditions, reason and experiences constantly be brought to the Scriptures primarily and each other secondarily, for evaluation and correction. But I lean towards the idea that the label/banner of “sola scriptura” has become misleading and thereby unhelpful, especially as we low-church types start building a better ecclesiology.

  • Anderson

    DanS (#6)—I am a mainline Protestant whose church has an official “containeth all things necessary for salvation” statement. But I worry that the idea that “there is no new revelation” is contrary to the idea of serving a living God who is always among us in the person of the Holy Spirit. For that reason, I have learned to take tradition more seriously. If we reject tradition as a tool for discerning God’s will and interpreting Scripture, what are we saying about the Holy Spirit and the work of the Spirit during these last 1900–1950 years?

  • Rick

    Anderson #13-

    “I have learned to take tradition more seriously”

    So is it “inspired”, as Scripture is considered “inspired”?

    If not, then how much weight should we really give it?

    If it is, then should we consider it equal to Scripture?

  • T


    We can take tradition (or experience, etc.) seriously and even say that God was active within it without making it equal to Scripture.

    Case in point: We listen to our parents, to our elders, pastors, etc., at least to the point of taking them seriously without thinking they are infallible.

  • I’ve come to see Sola Scriptura as being something very close to heresy (Hauerwas has influenced me on this). Scripture should not be separated from the life of the Church. The claim that we can have a pure immediacy with the text, with which we can stand outside “Tradition” and judge it, is false. There is always an interplay between Scripture and Tradition. I guess the irony about all of this is that Sola Scriptura is based on the authority of the Protestant Reformers and their interpretive legacy: i.e. Tradition.

  • Joe Canner

    Something that has not been mentioned yet is the contribution of “general revelation” (nature) to our understanding of Scripture. Throughout history, attempts to interpret Scripture without taking into account the best understanding of nature have led to problems (geocentricism, young-earth creationism, etc.). Conversely, our understanding of the vastness of the universe and the complexity of the microscopic world can also enhance our understanding of God.

  • Rick

    T #15-

    I don’t disagree, but finding that line is tricky. You and I probably don’t disagree on much on this front (your Quadrilateral series was good!). However, I am not not yet sure where that line is, or should be, drawn: how “serious”? when? etc…

    I lean towards paleo-orthodoxy because of that, and see that has a helpful, safe, although still slightly blurred demarcation of “serious” tradition.

  • T


    It is tricky.

    I think the myth that sola scriptura is even possible, let alone desirable, makes it much harder though. Too many lower church folks give their own tradition and/or local church pastor a ridiculous level of authority, but it isn’t recognized as separate from the scriptures’ authority, as if everything they did as a body was right in I Corinthians. Acknowledging the depth and bredth of tradition’s role in all camps’ theology and (especially) praxis is the first step to being able to distinguish scripture from tradition to any meaningful degree, and only then thoughtfully and carefully pursue integration and allow each to have its unique voice in our lives.

  • Anderson

    Rick #14—

    It depends on what you mean by “inspired.”

    Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to teach us everything (John 14:26) and said that the Spirit would be with us forever (14:16). I don’t understand the basis for the idea that Spirit stopped teaching in the late first century (or later, when the canon was compiled).

    “Tradition” is a vague word, and I certainly don’t think that we should ascribe authority to everything the church has done or taught over the past 2000 years. But we have to take seriously our belief in a living God who is continuously present in the person of the Holy Spirit.

    Also the idea that Scripture is a singular authority is itself a product of tradition. The Bible doesn’t claim that for itself.

  • Deets

    DanS #6- I think the distinction between the traditions of men and the traditions handed down by the church is weak at best. I cannot imagine that there was a single Pharisee that thought he was doing anything other than handing down Jewish tradition. The Catholic church is certain that the Immaculate Conception of Mary is a tradition of the church. Women should be silent in church and subject themselves to the authority of men is in the fundamentalist’s mind a tradition of the church that should be handed down.

    I don’t want to say that tradition should not be considered, but it cannot be the second determining factor because tradition is unreliable and often based on conveniences of the past.

  • Anderson

    Deets #21—

    Were the Pharisees handing down tradition or Scripture? My understanding is that the Pharisees were the group that sought to obey the written law down to the letter, without appealing to an interpretive tradition.

  • Deets

    Anderson #22–

    Maybe the Pharisees thought they were handing down written law, but in Jesus’ eyes it was tradition. Matthew 15 makes this pretty clear:

    Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” Mt 15:1-2

  • Clay was a student of Robert Traina at Asbury Seminary, so he received his exegetical training from one of the best. It is also no surprise, again given Asbury’s Wesleyan background, that he invokes the Wesleyan quadrilateral. I’m looking forward to digging in to the book.


  • First, I agree with Ken (#5). For a foundational Bible hermeneutics class, students need to learn how to interpret the whole Bible. Second, a ‘higher view of Scripture’ places Scripture as truly prima over tradition, reason and experience, so there is a better chance that interpretation will remain biblically sound. The Wesleyan quadrilateral tends not to give primacy to Scripture over the other three.

  • Pat Pope

    I think he’s got it right. It’s probably the rare person who is “truly” sola scriptura.

  • Patrick

    My view on sola scriptura has always been not that I cannot be animated outside of Scripture by God, I know I can be.

    He removed racism from my heart in one instant as a young man looking at photos of dead black Marines from the Vietnam era.

    My view is what we get outside of Scripture cannot contradict it’s basis, if it does, it wasn’t God’s teaching.

    So, I tend to buy the new view posited here.

  • R Hampton

    Martin Luther himself provides us with a fine example of the problems with Sola Scriptura & Biblical literalism as evidenced by his dismissal of Galileo’s theory in favor of Geocentricism:

    “Scripture simply says that the moon, the sun, and the stars were placed in the firmament of the heaven, below and above which heaven are the waters… It is likely that the stars are fastened to the firmament like globes of fire, to shed light at night”

    “…We Christians must be different from the philosophers in the way we think about the causes of things. And if some are beyond our comprehension like those before us concerning the waters above the heavens, we must believe them rather than wickedly deny them or presumptuously interpret them in conformity with our understanding.”
    – Luther’s Works. Vol. 1. Lectures on Genesis, 1958

    If Martin Luther was led astray, what hope has the rest of his followers?

  • I have also started using the terminology prima scriptura as well. I think the thoughts you quoted in the first paragraph are spot on.