Prima Scriptura

Prima Scriptura May 26, 2014

In his recent book on Vincent of Lerins, Thomas Guarino observes that Vincent taught that Scripture is “perfect and sufficient for all matters – indeed, more than sufficient” (93). Vincent is, of course, more famous for his “canon” that provides a touchstone for distinguishing orthodoxy and heresy, and Guarino’s book emphasizes Vincent’s understanding of the development of doctrine. This combination of themes makes Vincent an important contributor to ecumenical dialogue today.

As Guarino sees his, Vincent’s affirmation of the sufficiency of Scripture isn’t so much sola scriptura as prima scriptura. He finds a “harbinger” of this position in Newman’s Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church, written when Newman was still Anglican: “We differ . . . from Roman teaching in this, not in denying that Tradition is valuable, but in maintaining that there is no case in which by itself, and without Scripture warrant, it conveys to us any article necessary to salvation; in other words . . . [tradition] is not a rule distinct and co-ordinate but subordinate and ministrative” (quoted p. 64). Guarino glosses this with, “no one looks first to tradition to find some article of faith that was hitherto unknown. One looks first to Scripture while using tradition as a supplementary aid” (64).

Guarino suggests that Kevin Vanhoozer also expresses a prima scriptura position when he denies that sola scriptura should mean “the Bible along apart form the church and tradition” but argues instead that “Sola scriptura is a protest not against tradition as such but against the presumption that church tradition (interpretation) and Scripture (text) necessarily coincide” (quoted on p. 94).

Guarino admits that Vanhoozer’s Protestant questions about Scripture’s role in confronting tradition are important, but thinks that recent trends in Roman Catholic theology meet some of the objections. For contemporary Roman Catholicism, “tradition itself must be underwritten, at least implicitly, by Scripture. The essential truth of prima scriptura, that the church must always be ecclesia audiens in order to be ecclesia docens, is never in doubt. Roman Catholic theologians do not hesitate to speak of the material sufficiency of Scripture for the truths of salvation. In fact, it is commonly held that Scripture is the essential touchstone for all statements, including papal and conciliar decisions” (95). Catholics have recently argued that the two-source theory of tradition is “largely a post-Tridentine phenomenon rather than rooted in the Council of Trent itself” (96). Vincent’s “multilayered” understanding of tradition prevents, he thinks, “any naive identity between Scripture and church teaching” (96).

Congar captures the point, as he so often does: “Scripture has an absolute sovereignty; it is of divine origin, even in its literary form; it governs Tradition and the Church, whereas it is not governed by Tradition or the Church” (96).

The devil’s in the details, of course. Is there “Scriptural warrant” for the claims of the Papacy, or Rome’s Marian doctrines? Catholics will have to claim as much; Protestants will continue to deny. But with its clear acknowledgement of the possibility that Scripture might confront and correct tradition, prima scriptura offers a promising starting point.


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