Just for Catholics

Disagreement Among Protestants and Sola Scriptura

Question: How can all these denominations claim to follow the bible yet all come to different conclusions? How can I possibly know which one of those above teach the truth when they can't even agree on what the Bible says? Protestants believe a variety of doctrines and all claim to take their doctrines from the Bible. That doesn't really sound like perspicuity to me. 'Bible alone' has created so much havoc in this world.

Answer: You rashly attribute the differences of opinions among Christians to 'Sola Sciptura' - namely, the Protestant belief that the Holy Scripture is the only infallible rule of Christian doctrine.

The fault is not in the Scripture but in the human heart. We need to distinguish between two basic facts. Firstly, the Bible is perspicuous (clear, understandable) - it is not some mysterious book that cannot be understood by common ordinary Christians. Otherwise why would the apostles address their epistles to them rather than the magisterium? Secondly, the human nature is such that people can misunderstand even the simplest of matters. This is true of Christians -- even the apostles were hard to understand! -- and it is even more so in the case of unregenerate people whose hearts are darkened.

So, it is unfair to say that since Christians have disagreements between themselves, and since they study the same Bible, the Bible is not clear. The problem is not with the Bible but with us.

The apparent unity of the Roman Catholic Church is illusory, as any informed Catholic would know. The unity is structural and organizational, but there are serious divisions at all levels, especially between the more liberal and conservative Catholics. Take the charismatic movement for an example. In Protestant circles, Charismatics form separate denominations (and so the distinction from other denominations is obvious). Whereas in the Catholic church, the charismatic groups remain under the Roman umbrella. Their differences from non-charismatic Catholics are hidden though they are just as real as in Protestant churches.

So, what is the cause of the differences among Christians? First of all, Christians are disciples (students); we are still learning and we have not yet arrived to a full and mature understanding of the Scriptures (see Ephesians 4:13). Therefore one expects to find differences among God's children. Secondly, Christians are not immune to error or the the deceptions introduced by false teachers. The apostle Paul had to correct the believers in Corinth, Galatia and Colosse for various errors. It is not any different today. Thirdly, and most importantly, the sin remaining in the Christian heart opposes the plain teaching of God's Word. Sometimes we find it hard to accept the teaching of the Bible because of practical implications we don't like or simply because it humiliates our natural pride. Many people did not receive the words of Jesus because of fear of the Jewish leaders and social isolation. Sometimes we do not receive the teaching of the Bible, not because we don't understand it, but because we are not willing to do so. There are differences because our beliefs and practices are not always consistent with our basic presupposition, namely, Sola Scriptura. We assert that the Bible is our only infallible rule of faith, and yet we sometimes misunderstand the Bible, or add, or take away, from the teaching of Scripture.

There is an analogous problem in the Roman Catholic Church. We find a similar constellation of opinions on any subject among the Catholic faithful, despite their 'infallible' magisterium and their rejection of sola Scriptura. For example, in a nationwide survey of fifteen hundred American Catholics,

The survey found significant gaps between individual values and the Roman Catholic Church's structure and teachings. When asked to make a moral decision on several issues, 50% said in vitro fertilization procedures are not wrong, and 61% would not condemn artificial birth control. The church opposes both. Although the church also opposes the death penalty, Catholics were evenly split on the issue. However, 61% agreed with their church's stand against stem-cell research that 'entails destruction of human embryos'; 68% agreed, 'that abortion is morally wrong under virtually all circumstances'; and 61% said 'homosexual behavior' is wrong. Nonetheless, 83% said it is wrong 'to discriminate against homosexuals. Most would let priests marry (54%), allow women to be ordained (53%), give the laity more leadership roles (72%) and make the church more democratic in its decision-making (62%) (Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY 11/16/2001).

The problem is not limited to the laity. There are serious differences of opinion among priests and theologians. For example, a Catholic lady wrote to me saying, 'I just visited your website, and couldn't believe that you would quote Richard McBrien as your source for a Catholic theologian. He is well known to be a dissenter.' When I asked whether he is censored or excommunicated, she replied, 'As far as him being excommunicated, right now, if every priest who dissented from Church teaching was ex-communicated, I guess it would be the majority, especially the older ones.' Another Catholic lady was frank enough to admit: 'Among Catholic theologians right now they are trying to interpret the meaning of the Vatican II documents. People who were there have disagreements on what Vatican II said!'

Evangelicals consider the Bible as their highest authority while Catholics submit to the magisterium. In theory there is a unifying principle in both camps. In practice, we find an assortment of opinions and beliefs within both groups.

You might respond that the disagreements and discord among Catholics is not the fault of the Catholic authority since the teaching of the magisterium is plain enough. You might add that there is a need to teach Catholics more clearly to correct their misunderstanding of Catholic doctrine. You might also say that some Catholics are willingly disobedient to the teaching of the Church. In principle, the same is true for evangelical Christians. The doctrinal differences among Christians are not due to our authority (the Bible) but due to the limitations and sinfulness of the human heart.

Copyright Dr Joe Mizzi. Permission to copy and distribute this article without textual changes. < BACK TO Q&A