Prima scriptura is the doctrine that Scripture, God’s Holy Word, is the “first” or “primary” way in which God’s revelation comes to us. We can compare and contrast prima scriptura with sola scriptura in order to see the theological differences between these two approaches to recognizing biblical authority.
Prima scriptura teaches that Scripture is merely “first” among other sources of divine revelation. In contrast, sola scriptura teaches that Scripture is the “only” source of divine revelation. Prima scriptura views the Bible as authoritative—it may even be the “most” authoritative source—but it leaves the door open for other authoritative sources of revelation. Prima scriptura holds to the primacy of Scripture, but the Bible becomes one of several rules for faith and practice in the Christian life.
Early Catholicism developed a belief in prima scriptura. The Catholic Church used its government-sanctioned monopoly on biblical translation, interpretation, and doctrinal formation to advance the idea that, in addition to the Bible, church leaders and tradition were also authoritative sources of divine revelation. This quickly led to the enforcement of unbiblical practices upon the populace. Parishioners were not allowed to read and interpret the Scriptures on their own. Prima scriptura was used to divide the church into a hierarchy of power. The pronouncements of church leaders—as authoritative as the Bible—imposed rules based on the subjectivity of an elite spiritual ruling class and papal authority.
The Reformation principle of sola scriptura pushed back against Catholic corruption. Sola scriptura holds not only to the primacy of Scripture but to the sufficiency of Scripture as the “only” supreme authority in all matters concerning the church. All truth necessary for one’s salvation and Christian life is taught explicitly or implicitly in Scripture. The Reformers recognized the need for secondary authorities such as teachers, preachers, church councils, and experience, but none of these dynamics were co-authoritative with the rule of Scripture. All secondary authority is subject to reform and must be held to the scrutiny of scriptural revelation (see Galatians 1:8).
At stake is the idea that Scripture is sufficient in itself to reveal and enable all that God wills for His children. Teaching sound doctrine is the product of proclaiming the Scriptures with the accuracy of its own revealed truth. John MacArthur puts it this way: “Scripture is . . . the perfect and only standard of spiritual truth, revealing infallibly all that we must believe in order to be saved, and all that we must do in order to glorify God” (“John MacArthur on Sola Scriptura,” accessed March 21, 2019). Those who promote prima scriptura introduce additional authorities and have a divided loyalty.
Through the years, an evangelical version of prima scriptura has developed. Most evangelicals acknowledge the Bible as God’s divinely inspired, authoritative Word. But they also accept, to varying degrees, certain other sources of authoritative truth: denominational traditions, the sign gifts, dreams and visions, angels, the workings of conscience, common sense, etc. The evangelical version of prima scriptura holds that we can know much of God’s will through what He has said in the Bible, but we may need other sources of information to fully understand what He wants of us. Being the “primary” authority, the Bible is still used to test and, if necessary, correct the “revelation” from other sources. Most Protestants who hold to prima scriptura believe in the primacy of Scripture but would argue that the Bible’s authority is conditioned upon “correct” translation or proper hermeneutics. This is theoretically plausible, but the fact is that the Bible is authoritative whether or not it is interpreted or understood correctly.
The Bible teaches sola scriptura. In 2 Timothy 3:15–17, Paul says to Timothy, “From infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Notice the scope of Scripture’s sufficiency in this passage: 1) it is sufficient for salvation, 2) it is God-breathed, and 3) it is able to equip us for every good work.
God says not to add to or take away from Scripture (Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32; Revelation 22:18–19), but prima scriptura subtly allows additions to be made. The church is to be under the authority of Scripture, not be a co-author of divine revelation. We are to preach and teach the Word, not our own opinions of what the Bible says. “The purpose of preaching is to preach the Scripture with its own insights, directives, and teachings. . . . The first great task of preaching [is] to preach God’s Word, and to let listeners sense its very authority” (Timothy Keller, Preaching, p. 29).
At the heart of the issue is the question “where does absolute authority reside?” Is it in the church, Scripture, tradition, last night’s dream, or some combination of all those? To what degree must a person be taught outside of the revelation of Scripture in order to be saved and follow Christ? Prima scriptura says that, to some extent, we can rely on something other than the Bible. Sola scriptura says we live under the authority of Scripture alone.