The Bible is Essential: What's That Mean?
The main term that describes this role of the Bible is essential [ < Latin essentia < esse (to be; is) ]. That means you can't get the task done without it. The New Testament has by far the most reliable sources to teach us about Jesus, His ministry, and the start of the Christian church. That makes the New Testament the essential record for those who would follow Christ, or even to know what that means. The Hebrew Scriptures are essential, too, since they are what Jesus said he came in fulfillment of.
For anyone who wants a close relationship with God (to the extent we can want such a dangerous thing), the one and only essential place to turn is the Bible. It is the one 'must-have'. If you don't, you won't even learn what such a relationship looks like, or how it works. The Scriptures are where the Spirit is most at work.
Another word in the same direction is indispensable. (You can't get rid of it and still hope to get to your goal or rightly do your task.) In common talk, the Bible is "a must".
How Does the Bible Rank As 'Primary'?
The phrases about the Bible's effective place tell us just about its role in making things happen. They don't tell us of its rank among everything else that God uses to grow us and change us. Rank is a matter the Bible itself rarely speaks about. Its writings speak of the importance of heeding Jesus and the Prophets, and it shows the people of the Scriptural world respecting or disrespecting the Torah. But there is not much direct comment about the rank of the whole thing compared to everything else. In part, that's because while they were living it, there was no whole thing yet. In part, that's also because Scripture's not into itself, it's into you and your living a life that pleases God.
In the Church's early years, thoughtful Christians noticed how the Spirit led them down Christ's path primarily through certain writings beyond any others. This led them to gather them together and recognize their role (that is, recognize them as the Scripture they were already proving themselves to be). This collection or Holy Library, which we call "the Bible", was thus given rank as the #1 place from which to draw our thoughts and visions of God and Godly living.
Rank and Importance
There are words which are used for describing this rank. Two of these are primacy and 'primary' [ < Latin primus (first) ]; they mean 'first in rank', 'on top', above all others. Anglicans are most keen on this. Many other Christians find some of these ranking terms to be excessive. Some are used merely to pile on more unneeded superlatives. Some are much more helpful than others. Other words include:
- foremost (the one that is most in front or out-front; most prominent, of first rank.)
- incomparable (having nothing that compares to it in quality, impact, beauty, or other describable characteristic.)
- chief (most important, top, head, highest in authority or command.)
- go-to (a source that is the one you turn to when you need to find out.)
- leading (of first rank; something that foreshadows coming changes)
- on top (first among others, head of a grouping.)
- paramount (of primary concern or importance.)
- peerless (without equal in importance or stature.)
- pre-eminent (excelling above all others; that which stands out above the others.)
- principal (foremost in rank and in use).
- supreme (biggest, highest, most powerful, and most commanding.)
- unequaled (having no equal.)
- unmatched and matchless (no one and nothing else can achieve as much or be valued at the same level.)
- unrivaled (having no rival for dominance.)
The inference on most of these words is that this Holy Library is not first 'by a nose' or by a tiny bit, but is the rather clear champion and master of the task.
"Most Important" not "Exclusive"
The adjective form 'primary' or the noun 'primacy' both infer that there are others ranked below it. It stands on top of a list, not by itself. We learn from living, doing, reading other people's works, practicing our traditions, listening, and paying attention. This includes those of other philosophies and religions. Our relationship with the God of the Bible teaches us how to dialogue with those other sources, and how to discern what the truth is, wherever it is found. The rest can have much truth, but it is the written Word where we find the answer to Pilate's question, "What is truth?"
Because the Scriptures are specially inspired by God for the task of communicating God's ways, they are the home base from which all other matters of life and spirituality travel. The Scriptures rank:
- over the other writings of the Jewish and early Christian faiths (even such hallowed works as the Didache or Sirach or the Mishnah).
- over tradition as a whole.
- over your spiritual experiences.
- above anyone else's spiritual experiences.
- over moral codes, canon law, or the rules of an organized religion.
- over what you think 'can' or 'must' be done in the current situation of your life. in the sense that Scripture is what you are to use for shaping the way you see your life or your world.
- over your conscience, in that Scripture is what you are to use for training and shaping your conscience.
- over theologies, psychologies, sociologies, and ideologies; indeed, above all -ologies and -isms.
- over culture and trends.
- above mystic dreams, insights, and prophecies.
- over logic, methods, and deduction.
- greater than saints and popes and councils and assemblies.
Not that any of those are unimportant, but those are all less important. The Bible is what you check these other resources against to see where God is and isn't at work. The Spirit uses it to tell us what and how to do as God wills, and when and how we are going astray. It has primacy above the rest. The other resources are at their most useful for figuring out what to do with what you learned from Scripture.
The Bible has primacy for its purpose, but not for other purposes. When it comes to history, for example, it is not what historians would call a 'primary' source. In a scientific field, the word has a somewhat different meaning: it means a source from the time of the event that tells what happened. The Bible (mostly) is not, it is usually the literature of others reflecting second-hand on an event's meaning. The closest parts to it are the New Testament letters and some of the Prophets. Even in those, it has gone through some amount of editing as it was transmitted through the generations. The historical reports are mostly done in the literary form of story, which is by its nature a 'told by' form and is second-hand, thus it is not a primary historical source. On that front, it can be used as a good secondary source, which backs up or fills in what primary sources say. It's highly accurate at many points, less so at others.
Don't Use This Word
One term that must never be used for the Bible is 'sovereign'. It means 'one who rules' or 'ruling over all'. It is only used of a being or entity, not an object, and in the Christian faith it is strictly reserved for the Trinity. Especially, it is used for Jesus, who Christians call our 'Lord', a term of sovereignity applied to the rulers of his day. God alone is sovereign, over us and over the Bible. The Bible's authority for Christians is totally derivative and not its own. It is an authority only because it bears God's Word, and thus God stands behind it. The church discovered this mostly by daily practice, and gave these books their due, so the church stands behind it too. You live by the relationship with God which the Spirit uses the Bible to shape in you. You do not live by the Bible or any other book.
back to the descriptive term glossary
Scripture Alone: What's That About?
Only [ < assumed Germanic ānlik (one-like) ] means alone in its purpose; sole. It's usually used with words like 'norm', 'rule', and 'source', and often comes in the form of the Latin 'sola' (alone). It's most often used by Lutherans, who got addicted to the term by using it with 'grace' and 'faith'. When 'sola scriptura' is used about the Bible, it means that no other documents, creeds, sources, resources, and such, and no leaders individually or collectively, can act to define the way Christians have faith (belief), think and speak of God (theology), teach Christian beliefs (doctrine), act as a church (practice), honor and praise God (worship), develop a relationship with God (devotion), communicate the good news of Christ (witness), and carry out their daily activities and relationships within an unbelieving world (Christian living). It is the central source from which you discover what you are to do as a follower of Christ (vocation), and who/what we are together as followers of Christ (identity).
Only the Bible fills those specific essential roles. "Only" grates against the ear of today's people -- we hate exclusive claims. But, truth be told, the 2000-year experience of Christ's followers is that no other source actually gets the job done. The Bible is the source the Spirit chose to use for this purpose.
Not The Only Source, But The Only Definitive Source
True, the Spirit also speaks through other books, arts, resources, events, experiences, and people, but the Spirit doesn't use them definitively to set the course or direction, or give you what you're to measure or guide current actions and happenings by. Through Scripture the Spirit tells you how to use everything else, and why the Spirit is working in the world around you. The historic creeds of the Church are often said to have a role in defining Christian beliefs, but their role is derivative - that is, they define by distilling in a short form the central matters of belief originally found in the New Testament. This Holy Library is essential to be able to rightly discern when God is speaking through those other sources, because that's where the life and purpose of Jesus Himself is shown. That said, the Bible's role is also derivative: it derives from the Holy Spirit that works through it and the Christ it tells you about.
Now, think about what I wrote above about 'primary'. Among other things, the Bible teaches you how to recognize what the Spirit is doing in other sources. That means the Spirit is working through other resources. Thus, to use 'sola scriptura' to exclude the other sources entirely is both foolhardy and futile. The Bible itself makes no such claim. Neither does the long record of church tradition's use of Scripture. Instead it shows the people of earlier times weighing other information according to the previous Word of God or the prophets who speak with God's authority, and then using the other stuff accordingly. You can't use "only the Bible" for life even if you wanted to. Life is bigger than that, God's Kingdom is bigger than that, and so are you.
The Bible Is Unique
Another word with a slightly different shade of meaning is unique [ < Old French < Latin ūnicus < Latin ūni- (one, only)]. It means unlike anything else; distinctive, alone in kind, standing apart from the rest. There are many musicians, most of which are in some sense special, but only a few produce a body of work that truly stands out as memorable and different from the others. The latter few musicians are 'unique' in the sense meant here. Another word like it is 'singular'. The Spirit worked in a unique way to create the unique Bible. The Spirit operated in a unique manner to spread it around. The Spirit acts uniquely on you when you read or hear it. The Bible is unique, just as each person who reads or hears it is unique. These things are each true in a way that is true of no other book. That makes it 'one of a kind' - unique - not just one among a bazillion other equal books on spirituality, holiness or philosophy. Many Christians would rather use the words 'unique' and 'singular' to 'only', since they do not imply the exclusion of other sources. (But when used as the mainstream Christian theological traditions use it, neither does 'only'.)
Related Words to 'Unique'
There are other words that speak to the Scriptures' effective place among the other sources and forces that shape a Christian's faith :
- central (in the middle of it all; of basic, core, or controlling importance) and centrality.
- hub (the center of activity or interest; focal point.)
- important (having a strong effect on what happens.)
- key (that which unlocks or provides access to something.)
- significant (something whose presence is a sign of what direction is being taken.)
- telling (sharply effective in a way that shows the core or real reasons of the matter, or reveals the direction of a continuing event.)
- vital (that which gives life, energy, or activity). This is used most by Charismatics.
- weighty (of much consequence; being so massive that it has considerable effect on what surrounds it or contacts it.)