by Anthony Bradley
Posted on Wednesday, June 29, 2011, at 8:04 pm
In the Protestant Reformation sola scriptura was meant to make the case that the Bible is the ultimate and final authority on matters related to salvation and faith. This often gets misunderstood as the Bible being the only authority Christians use for matters of faith in the Christian life. But as R.C. Sproul teaches in What Is Reformed Theology, the doctrine properly understood means that "only the Bible has the authority to bind the conscience of believers."
While the Bible is the primary and final authority of Truth and the Christian faith, our faith is also mediated, explained, and delivered through a particular tradition and perspective. For centuries Protestants have recognized the authority of their confessions of faith. These confessions, which remain subordinate to what is plainly taught in the Bible and are open to questioning in ways the Bible is not, are regularly used to evaluate pastoral candidates and church membership on the basis of subscription to those documents. For example, Presbyterians use the Westminster Confession of Faith, Lutherans use the Augsburg Confession of Faith, and Anglicans use the Book of Common Prayer.
The Wesleyan tradition takes a different approach, challenging the sola scriptura misapplications and pointing to what Christians do in practice, namely, follow Jesus while negotiating the authorities of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Wesleyans call it the Wesleyan Quadrilateral; I call it "honesty."
Wesleyans do not teach that these four authorities are all equal but that they describe the actual sources Christians use to situate faith in subordination to the primacy of the Bible. For example, we use our rational faculties (reason) to interpret and apply what we read in the Bible as well as the guidance provided by our particular traditions. We use reason to test what tradition teaches according to what is plainly revealed in the Scriptures. We use experience, as Steve Wilkens and Mark L. Sanford explain in Hidden Worldviews, not as something subjective but with the understanding that "an idea passes the test of experience if its claims are consistent with the facts, observations and actual life events." Experience, then, compliments the Bible and our God-given reason.
The Wesleyan approach has led Don Thorsen, a professor at the Haggard Graduate School of Theology at Azusa Pacific University, to prefer prima gratia, prima fide, and prima scriptura instead of the sola gratia, sola fide, and sola scriptura celebrated from the Protestant Reformation. Thorsen believes that the Latin word prima ("primarily") "makes more sense in describing the complex understanding of Protestant Reformers and their nuanced articulation of salvation and religious authority."
"Although the sola principles remain important for understanding the history of Protestant Christianity, they are best understood theologically from a Wesleyan perspective as representing prima principles because Protestants-past and present-think that salvation and religious authority include more than grace, faith, and scripture alone. Salvation should be thought of in terms of prima gratia-initiated primarily by God's grace-and prima fide-accepted primarily through faith. Likewise, religious authority should be thought of in terms of prima scriptura; scripture represents the primary religious authority of Protestantism but not its exclusive religious authority. Church tradition, logical reflection, and relevant experience all play important and authoritative roles in the founding and continuation of Protestantism."
While much of this may seem to be merely semantics, it seems that Thorsen is seeking ways to bring better unity among Christians by putting on the table what Christians do in practice. Claiming that your church or denomination's teaching is "biblical" and according to the Bible alone while another group's is not is neither intellectually nor historically honest according a Wesleyan perspective. No church or denomination uses the Bible as its only authority, and unfortunately it seems that only some are willing to admit that.
Perhaps being honest about our sources of authority, and how we use them, could foster a type of solidarity and humility that could unite Christians in what we share in the Kingdom instead of glorifying the distinctions that can create a posture of arrogance and pride about being "right."
Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.