Does Jehovah’s Witnesses follow Sola- or Prima Scriptura?

The short answer is: Not exactly.
For the official position of the leadership of Jehovah’s Witnesses, please contact the headquarters via or find information on jw.org. This article present the position of Jehovah’s Witnesses as it comes across to a publisher, that is a member of the organization.

In most congregations this issue has been a no-issue. In late 20th century, Acts 17:11 were read almost every third meeting and you could wake up any publisher at night and say ”Beroea”, and they would say something like ”aagh yea the noble-minded ones zzz”. Some speakers made clear that whatever is taught from the podium must agree with the whole bible and the listener was left with the impression that if somebody taught something unbiblical, they would no longer be scheduled to give public lectures. Few people considered the possibility that there would arise a public consensus in violation of the bible, or that Watchtower Society could ever teach something unbiblical. Maybe they can’t, for certainly God would take action when an organization carrying his name errs. Probably not immediately though, however the question of what we would be doing in the mean time would be a waste of time as it is more urgent for all of us to fantasize about what we will do in Paradise.

In spite of this, I have been baffled to hear heated discussions lately where some, mostly publishers who were baptized before year 2000, argue a sola scriptura position, while younger publishers argue a rather catholic version of prima scriptura, where the Pope is replaced with the Society.

Sola scriptura means: Only a predetermined canon of scriptures may be used to support claims of divinity for a certain statement, and all teaching, divine or human, must agree with the doctrine set forth in this canon. It implies that a Christian is personally capable of and liable to interpret the bible.

Prima scriptura could mean the same thing, adding that in interpreting the bible, a Christian should make use of reason, experience and other reliable sources, such as peer-reviewed scientific publications. However, usually prima scriptura gets mentioned in connection with the Roman Catholic Church which considers its tradition to be ”sacred”, not as authoritative as the bible, but worthy of more consideration than average human scripture.
The introduction of ”sacred tradition” makes the whole issue sticky, since what do we do when James and Bertil thinks the bible is clear in stating A, while John, Pernilla and Roger thinks it is ambiguous and tradition clearly states B? John will accuse Bertil of misunderstanding the bible and exhort him to read tradition rather than the bible, and James will claim that Roger is a coward who dare not challenge tradition when it contradicts the bible. Pernilla, for her part, will shout ”heretics! heretics!” until disciplinary action has been taken against someone.

Does Jehovah’s Witnesses have ”sacred tradition”?

We’re not supposed to have any ”sacred” tradition, but we do have tradition and it is certainly older than the organization itself. It originates both with the practices and teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses world wide, and from the Christian denominations and movements that preceded us. Actually, it is considered obsolete rather than sacred, as witnesses are advised not to bring up articles from the Society that were written long ago.
This means the recently published articles are set apart as more reliable.

Let us look at two statements on this subject that Watchtower Society has made:

”Whatever anyone asks you to accept as truth, be sure to require of him some clear basis for the teaching in Holy Scripture. Even as regards the religious association to which you now adhere, do not hesitate to inquire into the scriptural foundations for its teachings.
[…]
If you do not want to be exploited by selfish, wolflike men masquerading as sheeplike Christians, men who suavely discourage you from making a thorough study of God’s Word, why not associate with those who demonstrate a deep love for the written Word, and who are regularly studying it and applying its precepts in their lives? Shun the company of those who have dethroned Christ Jesus in their lives and set up in his place their own imperfect opinions.”
— Watchtower November 1, 1964.

”Does the ‘faithful and discreet slave’* support independent groups of witnesses who gather to discuss the Bible and research within it? (Matt. 24:45,47)
No, it doesn’t. And yet, some within the organization in various parts of the world, have formed independent groups to research subjects that have to do with the Bible.
[…]
It is commendable to want to use ones reasoning power in support of the good news. But what we our selves undertake may not detract our attention from what Jesus Christ carries out right now through his earthly organization. In the first century, the apostle Paul warned against doing exhausting and time-consuming research in for example ‘genealogies, which end up in nothing, but which furnish questions for research rather than a dispensing of anything by God in connection with faith’. (1 Tim. 1:3-7) All Christians should ‘shun foolish questionings and genealogies and strife and fights over the Law, for they are unprofitable and futile’. (Tit. 3:9)”
— km September 2007, back-translated from Swedish since I do not have access to the English original.

These two statements, though they do not contradict each other, seem to indicate a shift from don’t trust your religious leaders (them) to trust your religious leaders (us) — a shift from sola scriptura to prima scriptura and beyond. This impression is corroborated by the ”biblical” lectures held on weekends where the speaker used to say things like: ”This is not something I have made up. Look, it is right here in the bible …”. Recently one speaker said: ”This is not something I have made up. It is the Society that says so, right here in the disposition.”

The conclusion of the long answer then, is this:
Jehovah’s Witnesses started out in late 20th century from a position rather close to sola scriptura, but today we are in the process of making an agile leap over prima scriptura, and land in a position reminiscent of that of the one Holy and Apostolic Roman Catholic Church. Uh.

Please pray that everybody understand and respect the opinions of their brothers and sisters!

* Watchtower Society sometimes refer to itself as ”the faithful [and discreet] slave”, suggesting Matthew 24:45-47 is a prophecy which it fulfills, while verses 48-51 aren’t.

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