“Sola Scriptura,” “Prima Scriptura,” or “Scriptura et Doctrina”?

“Sola Scriptura,” “Prima Scriptura,” or “Scriptura et Doctrina”? September 23, 2013

I am working on lectures for my spring course called “Teaching Doctrine in the Church.” One of the first issues I will have to engage in is explaining why we teach doctrine at all. Isn’t doctrine for theologians? Isn’t doctrine an imposition on the text? Isn’t doctrine the work of mortals, while Scripture is the work of God?

I think most evangelical Christians (especially in independent churches) believe that Christian growth and vitality should be nurtured by Scripture and spiritual disciples (prayer, fellowship, maybe service). But doctrine? That is just sort of heady-stuff for curious intellectuals.

In many ways, this is a misunderstanding of Sola Scriptura, which is why I agree with Clayton Croy that it is better termed “Prima Scriptura” – not only Scripture, but Scripture as of central or primary concern in the discernment of truth and the will of God.

So, how do you explain the need for theological development and reflection for everyday Christians? How do you articulate the relationship between Scripture and theology, text and tradition?

A handful of resources that I want to mention.

Gary Parrett and J.I. Packer, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way (Baker, 2010). This is a winsome invitation from two evangelicals to re-claim catechesis for the evangelical tradition.

Edith Humphrey, Scripture and Tradition: What the Bible Really Says (Baker, 2013). A short exploration of this issue with a desire to show that “tradition” is not a dirty word in Scripture’s conception, despite the wider assumptions to the contrary.

Angus Paddison, Scripture: A Very Theological Proposal (Continuum, 2009). See below.

N.T. Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (HarperOne, 2012). Obviously this book is about the Gospels, but Wright spends quite a lot of time trying to work out the reason why we have come to forget the story of the Gospels (because of our filtering the Gospels too rigidly through the lens of the creeds), and how we can see the Gospels and creeds (both of which are important) in their proper relationship.

Markus Bockmuehl and Alan Torrance, eds. Scripture’s Doctrine and Theology’s Bible: How the New Testament Shapes Christian Dogmatics (Baker, 2008). A collection of academic  essays on the relationship between Scripture and theology.

Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters (2004). This will be one of the textbooks for the course. I thorough reflection on what “creed” does for the Church.

Robert Jenson, Canon and Creed (WJK, 2010). Few people have worked as productively in this arena as Jenson.

I want to dwell on Paddison’s work. He notes that Calvin himself fell under attack for using theological concepts not found in Scripture such as “persons” and “Trinity.” This was Calvin’s response

[if] they call a foreign word one that cannot be shown to stand syllable by syllable in Scripture, they are indeed imposing upon us an unjust law which condemns all interpretation not patched together out of the fabric of Scripture…[i]f anyone, then, finds fault with the novelty of words does he not deserve to be judged as bearing the light of truth unworthily, since he is finding fault with what renders the truth plain and clear. (Institutes, I.xiii.3, p. 124)

Here are some further reflections from Paddison:

…doctrine is not an imposition upon the texts but a leading out from the texts. Or better, it is a leading out that is always ready and able to turn back to the texts themselves. For, in regard to the Gospels, doctrine is not an improvement upon the narratives themselves, but it is only an attempt to turn our attention to the one who is spoken of. The testing ground for doctrine — talk about God dispossessed by its object of enquiry — is not the academic conference circuit but the church’s reading and proclamation of Scripture. Theology, insofar as it is nourished by attention to Scripture, turns to Scripture not once, as though ‘juicing an orange’ [quoting W.T. Dickens], but again and again….[T]he purpose of Scripture is not to lead us to doctrine as if it was there that our task was finished, but the purpose of Scripture, of which doctrine is an auxiliary, is to lead us to Christ. (p. 67)

This is a good place to start. Another helpful word comes from Packer in his book Taking God Seriously: Vital Things We Need to Know.

Who needs doctrine? Everybody needs doctrine if he or she is ever to know God…Doctrine is the map that guides us on our cross-country journeying through the thousand-odd pages of the Bible, on the one hand, and the complexities of godly living, on the other. Doctrine is the spectacles through which we discern the stepping-stones across the rapids and through the swamps that keep our feet on the path of life. Doctrine, indeed, is the surgical cure for the natural spiritual blindness that otherwise makes it impossible for us to find where the path of life begins. Doctrine is the data about the Lord Jesus Christ that makes faith in him possible. And then doctrine becomes, so to speak, the cookbook for life, giving the correct recipe for each venture in belief and behavior. (see Kindle!)

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  • After reading works by Thomas Oden and Robert Webber I have had to rethink my view of Scripture and Tradition. I think ‘prima scriptura’ is a proper and necessary route to develop a healthy relationship. Implicit in the term ‘sola scriptura’ is a fear of tradition, I’d venture ‘prima scriptura’ is a good rephrase–we’ll see if folks will let that part of their tradition drop..


  • Abe J

    Thank you for this very helpful annotated bibliography!

  • Edmund Fong

    Another interesting and thought-provoking resource is Amos Yong’s Spirit, Word, Community: Theological Hermeneutics in Trinitarian Perspective (Wipf & Stock: 2006 reprint ed.) In there, Amos shows the triangulation involved between Scripture, Spirit, and Community (Tradition) and is hesitant to give primacy to either sides of the triangle. Rather, he maintains any theological-hermeneutical enterprise always draws us into this dynamic triangulation between the three components.

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  • Truth2Freedom

    Reblogged this on Truth2Freedom's Blog.