Prima scriptura.

There are a lot of ways God reveals himself to people. Obviously there’s the fact Jesus appears to people, either in the real world or in dreams, and talks to them. Obviously there’s prophecy; the Holy Spirit will speak to a person firsthand, or speak through a prophet secondhand.

And obviously these two situations aren’t good enough for most people. Because either they don’t want Jesus to appear to them—they claim they do, or think they do, but if he ever actually showed up, they’d freak the f--- out, same as the Hebrews when the LORD did it.

Exodus 20.19 KJV
And they said unto Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die.

Same with prophecy: They either refuse to believe the Spirit’s actually speaking to them, or refuse to believe those prophets are real prophets.

Hence there are a lot of skeptics—Christians included—who insist God doesn’t speak in such ways to people. Not anymore, anyway; maybe back in bible times. Fortunately for them, we have a record of how God spoke back in bible times: The bible.

What about those folks who recognize God still communicates with us the other ways? Well, the bible’s still mighty useful.

First of all, we humans aren’t always the best at actually listening to the Spirit. Usually we don’t know the difference between the Spirit and our own inner voice, and we’ve been following and sharing that all along. Just as often it’s like a kid who never calls her mom: Some of us don’t take the time to listen. Or to comprehensively listen: We grab the first thing we’re told, “hang up” and never bother to listen to anything else the Spirit says, and run wild with the little half-message we have. Or we skip everything the Spirit says which we don’t like, and ignore him till he tells us what we want to hear—and if we don’t care to hear anything good, we might be waiting a mighty long time for that message.

So when the Spirit “isn’t talking,” we have the bible. Read it!

Secondly, when he is talking, he’s not gonna say anything inconsistent with his own bible. (The rare times he is inconsistent, it’s only because he’s checking to make sure we’re paying attention.) He inspires us; he inspired that. Same inspiration. Often the bible’s gonna confirm what he says, and often it’ll also fill in a lot of the blanks.

So this is how we know whether a “prophecy” or “revelation” or any unfamiliar doctrine is actually a God thing, or whether it’s a clever idea some scholar came up with… or whether it’s wrong, or outright heresy. We double-check against the bible. It’s our primary reference about God.

Or as Paul reminded Timothy,

2 Timothy 3.16-17 KWL
16 Every God-inspired writing is profitable;
it’s for teaching, proof, restoration, and instruction in righteousness,
17 so God’s person might be completely qualified,
equipped for every good work.

The scriptures are useful for:

  • TEACHING (διδασκαλίαν/didaskalían, KJV “doctrine”). Instructing Christians and the world about who God is, what he does, and what he wants of us.
  • PROOF (ἐλεγμόν/eleymón, KJV “reproof”). Yep, proof texts. Those who translate it “reproof” fixate on using these texts to rebuke those who get it wrong, but we all get it wrong. We also use the scriptures to prove we do understand God correctly—or that we have heard him speak.
  • RESTORATION (ἐπανόρθωσιν/epanórthosin, KJV “correction”). And once we realize we’re wrong, the scriptures help set us straight. Right? Those who translate it “correction” tend to be way too interested in punishment, and that’s hardly a fruitful attitude.
  • INSTRUCTION IN RIGHTEOUSNESS (παιδείαν τὴν ἐν δικαιοσύνῃ/pedeían tin en dikeosýni). You wanna learn to be a right-minded, God-following individual? You gotta read that bible.

Those who don’t read bible, who aren’t familiar with what the apostles and prophets taught, who throw out big sections of it because they don’t care for what it teaches, are not qualified, not equipped for good work. They might imagine they are because they have other talents. I’ve seen more than one church musician who figured he didn’t have to be up on his bible; he only needed to know how to play well—and know how to play all the popular songs from K-LOVE so the people at church could rock out to ’em. As a result they made some of the most basic mistakes whenever they talked about God… and their personal behavior wasn’t far different from newbies and pagans. (Which got more than one of ’em quickly fired.) If you minister in any capacity, from emptying wastebaskets to preaching, get to know your bible. It’s gonna come up!

Bible only?

Recognizing the bible’s important to the Christian life, and oughta be a central part of Christian growth and teaching and religion, tends to get described by Protestants as either sola scriptura or prima scriptura.

Yep, those terms are in Latin; theologians came up with ’em back when Europeans used Latin for everything. And because they’re Latin, Christians inevitably find ways to misdefine them. Sola scriptura means “solely [the] scriptures,” and therefore anything and everything that’s “bible only” has been used to describe it. When your average Protestant uses the term, they don’t always mean the Protestant reformers’ doctrine.

Properly, the doctrine of sola scriptura means only the scriptures are our ultimate earthly authority for Christian faith and practice. Not church councils. Not popes, nor bishops, nor expert theologians and teachers. (Not even theologians like the Protestants’ favorites, be they Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, or C.I. Scofield.) They don’t get to claim, “Well yes the scriptures, but only after I explain it to you properly”—we shouldn’t need to have anything first filtered through another authority figure. Any Christian should be able to crack open a bible and read the scriptures for themselves. And if they disagree with everybody’s favorite authority figures, we’re allowed to. Right?

Well… in practice not always. Too many churches, including Protestant churches, still insisted the bible oughta be interpreted their way, and if people didn’t agree they were kicked out as heretics. And since back then there was no separation of church and state, it was against the law to be heretic. Sometimes you’d get the death penalty. Or jail, or torture, or exile. In general you were required to conform to Christianity as the local church leaders defined it. Sola scriptura only applied to them; apparently they were free to question the positions and traditions of other churches, and Roman Catholics in particular. But if anyone dared question their church, they’ll burn you at the stake like the medieval Genevans did Miguel Serveto. (Oh he was definitely heretic; he didn’t believe God’s a trinity. Still, getting burnt to death? Unacceptable.)

In nations today which do have separation of church and state, yeah we can legitimately practice sola scriptura and follow bible as we individually see fit. And some Christians do. But more Christians recognize there’s something seriously defective with interpreting bible without any feedback from fellow Christians. Iron’s supposed to sharpen iron, y’know. Hence most of us don’t actually follow a pure “bible only” religion. We join a church. Or seek the advice of more knowledgeable, mature Christians, who’ve studied grammar and history and can interpret the bible more accurately than we can. We get mixed up in one religious tradition or another. In practice it’s not bible only; it’s prima scriptura.

The pure “bible only” folks? In practice they get weird. And culty. They “find” stuff nobody else has; they claim stuff nobody else does; they teach stuff that sounds way different than orthodox Christianity. And insist they have every right to, ’cause sola scriptura: They read the bible for themselves, and this is what they discovered. Funny; a lot of their “discoveries” are the very same false ideas other go-it-alone Christians discovered back in antiquity. Times change, but human nature doesn’t; we keep digging up the same old heresies.

Lastly lemme remind you about those folks who define sola scriptura wrong. The most obvious are those people who insist the bible is our only authority for faith and practice. I know; this sounds exactly like the definition I just gave you, but there’s one very vital word missing: Earthly. To these folks, the bible’s our only authority period.

What about the Holy Spirit? Oh, um, yeah sure… they’ll concede the Holy Spirit’s an authority. But you’ll find a lot of these “bible our only authority” folks don’t actually know the Spirit. Seriously. To them, the trinity really consists of Father, Son, and Holy Bible: The only thing the Spirit does anymore, that they know of, is illuminate the bible. We read it; he makes it feel living and active and mighty and authoritative; we respond, “Oooh”—and that’s it. That’s all he does. He’s so intertwined with the bible, they don’t really make a distinction anymore between Spirit and bible. No surprise, they usually wind up worshiping the bible.

What about Jesus? Oh, he’s in heaven preparing a place for us, but he left us the bible. (Not, as he overtly stated in the very bible these folks revere, the Holy Spirit. Jn 14.16-17)

Yeah, this is a largely cessationist point of view. Even though a lot of these theologians aren’t cessationist! They still believe Jesus talks to his church. But they still insist the bible’s our only final authority—because when Jesus talks, if you wanna be sure it’s Jesus talking, you gotta double-check his prophecies against the bible. And if the bible contradicts him, it can’t really be Jesus, because Jesus isn’t gonna contradict himself.

Matthew 5.14 KJV
Ye are the light of the world. …
 
John 8.12, 9.5 KJV
I am the light of the world…

Well, not gonna contradict himself much. Or in context.

The other misinterpretation of sola scriptura is to purge Christianity of anything which isn’t in bible. Christian art: Get it out of the church building; it needs no decoration. Christian hymns: If it didn’t come directly from Psalms or other bible passages, they refused to sing it. Christian doctrines, if the “bible only” folks can’t find them overtly stated in bible, also go out the window—which is why too many of them become anti-trinitarian.

Here’s the thing about iconoclasm: Yes, a lot of our customs and ikons can become idols. (Even wholly biblical ones! Note people who worship bible.) But too often, iconoclasm goes overboard. And too often, iconoclasm itself becomes an idol: People are so vigilant against error, we suck all the fun out of following Jesus. And the peace, and patience, and grace, and other fruit of the Spirit. Be on your guard, but don’t be paranoid.

Bible first.

The other Christian alternative is prima scriptura, “first [the] scriptures.” It’s to recognize the Holy Spirit primarily uses the scriptures to instruct and correct his church. But yes, he also uses other things as he sees fit. He’s hardly limited to bible.

Just so you know: Prima scriptura is the position I come from when I teach theology.

Because the church, the communion of saints, the practices of submitting to one another and loving one another, are all Jesus’s idea. He wants us to interact with bible in community, because he wants us to follow him together. And keep one another accountable.

I can’t accept the modern views which limit God’s revelation to only bible. In so doing, these people are deliberately leaving out fellow Christians, and any accountability we hold to one another, so that they can reinvent all the Christian doctrines from scratch. And because unaccountable Christians tend to be spiritually immature Christians, you realize their reinvented doctrines are gonna have a whole lot of errors and fruitlessness to them. Not to mention heresy.

In prima scriptura the bible’s still a primary authority. Our traditions have still gotta jibe with bible! When they don’t, they’ve gotta go. But we needn’t throw them out preemptively. Some things about our traditions, experiences, and thinking, is correct. In most Christian traditions, God actually did tell the founders and leaders to do stuff, and really did inform the preachers and teachers when they taught newbies. Don’t just toss that stuff out just because you get to read and study the bible for yourself.

A lot of people who claim they’re sola scriptura Christians aren’t really: They do have traditions they follow as well. Independent Baptists are still Baptists after all! Nondenominational Christians have favorite Christian authors whose advice they follow, and the result is their churches are gonna look an awful lot like certain denominational churches: They’re following the very same traditions, “bible only” or not.

Let’s just admit we have baggage. All of us have external influences outside of the bible. They color the way we read the bible, whether we’re aware of them or not. Best to become aware!

So when I read bible, I realize I have all sorts of Protestant interpretations running through my mind. Some come from my Fundamentalist upbringing, some from my Calvinist theological training and my current Arminian beliefs, some from my current Pentecostal practices, and some from my academic studies of first-century Phariseeism. I’m also aware these traditions don’t know everything, which is why I also look at what Orthodox and Catholic believers think about these scriptures. Hey, they might’ve caught something we Protestants missed. It happens.

True, some things about our traditions, experiences, and thinking, is wrong. Hence we’re on a seek-and-destroy mission to find out what’s good and what’s not. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you where your blind spots are.

As Paul taught about prophecy, test it all, keep what’s good, 1Th 5.21 and throw out what’s bad. Not just throw out everything as bad—or claim you do, but don’t really.