“The 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 faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.”
Let me begin by saying that yes, it is perfectly possible to find truth using the sola scriptura, that is the Bible alone, methodology to approaching scripture. Nothing that I say here should lead you to believe otherwise. There are some criticisms that will be made of the approach, but those criticisms do not mean, nor should they be taken to mean, that if you happen to go with the sola scriptura approach that your eternal destiny is in danger or anything silly like that. I personally know many faithful Christians who ascribe to this. What I do want to present, for your consideration, is a brief explanation of why prima scriptura matters, and why it is that I find it to be the best expression and methodology of approaching scripture.
First, I must admit that prima scriptura is what I was raised with. I was brought up in a Methodist home that recognized the via media of the Anglican church and believed that Methodism is, at it’s best and in it’s most honest expression, an extension of that. Prima scriptura fits into this as it combines the best aspects of the Catholic view with the best aspects of the protestant view. While there is nothing unique about any individual aspect of the approach, there is uniqueness in the way that they are brought together. This is the faith of my fathers so to speak. While I have examined and looked at other approaches, I have not drifted from the faith taught to me from the time of my youth. Ideas have changed, as have understandings, but the faith itself has not.
One of my issues with the strictest understanding of sola scriptura, is that is trusts the church to have, under the guidance of the Spirit, to have written the canon, then to, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, have formed the canon, but it then doesn’t trust the church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to interpret the canon. While many protestants of this nature do (and rightly so) refer to the early fathers and what they taught, they often, especially in these modern times, do so only in support of what they believe, rather than as a source of believe. This removes some of the greatest Christian thinkers in our history from their rightful place of authority in the understanding of scripture. A teacher that only teaches what you already know is of little value after all. At the same time, especially given the abuses of some in the Catholic church of the day, one can easily understand rejecting the authority of the church as it was engaged in practices that were not cogent with scripture. What then is a person to do?
The best answer, in my estimation, is the via media of the Anglican way. The ideas of Prima Scriptura allows us a connection to the historic church catholic, it allows us the rich teachings of the early fathers on the faith, it allows us the authority of the church, it allows us the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit. But wait, there’s more! Not only does it allow us all of these things, it provides us with protection against being misled by a spirit that is less than holy by holding us accountable to the church and her teachings, it protects us from the great heresies (Arianism, Modalism, Gnosticism, etc) that sola scriptura does not, and it combines the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit with the rich tradition of discernment within the corporate body holding in tension our personal belief and the belief of the church protecting both and ensuring truth. But wait, there’s more! It also allows for the church to be mistaken in it’s beliefs, it allows for the early fathers to be wrong about things, it allows for us to be wrong as well. What it does not do, is allow for scripture to be wrong. The scriptures are held as sacred, with every syllable existing to teach us something. Indeed, scripture is still the standard of truth that all else is measured by. It gives us all that is good and right with the sola scriptura approach, while eliminating the dangers of it. It gives us all that is good and right about sola ecclesia, while eliminating the abuses of it.
I have undoubtedly left out things in this. A single blog post is not nearly enough to go into detail about such things. The approach of prima sciptura is a fairly unique thing, it is distinctly Anglican, and is very much a part of the heritage of the Methodist church that I was educated in. I think that we, and by we I mean those in the Anglican, and by extension the Methodist, tradition, lose not only an important part of our heritage when we drift to far form this, we lose a part of what makes us distinct, and a part of what makes us truly via media. We lose the protections that the prima scriptura approach gives us. If you doubt this, examine the current situation in the United Methodist Church. A proper prima scriptura approach to scripture simply does not allow for it to play out as it has.
Prima scriptura is not completely a Protestant thing, nor is it a distinctly Catholic thing, it is a unique expression that I, like Hooker, Wesley, and many others before me, feel is the truest witness to the early church. No, it is not distinctly Protestant, nor is it distinctly Catholic, but it is a via media approach that takes the best form both, so far as they are true, and combines them into a unique whole that best represents that church catholic.