If Scripture is as clear as Protestants claim it is, and we Christians are left with sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”) to determine the authentic content of the faith, why can no two groups of Protestants seem to agree what exactly our beliefs as Christians are supposed to be?
In response to yesterday’s post, Drew (a sola Scriptura-believing Protestant who’s taking the claims of the Catholic Church seriously enough to move towards converting) commented:
On the matters of baptism and the Eucharist, at least following the limited definitions of Schaff and Kelly, are not Lutherans aligned with Catholics? That is, is not baptismal regeneration and the real presence of Christ in the [E]ucharist taught and believed by orthodox Lutherans?If I’m thinking straight, they do, and that, more than anything else troubles me about Protestantism. It is no surprise that I disagree with Catholics and Eastern Orthodox who have a different interpretive paradigm than I do about these sacraments. It is a sad surprise that I disagree with good Lutherans about them.
I wondered why Lutherans disagreeing with Evangelicals troubled him more, and he explained:
What I meant with the end, there, is that, as a sola scriptura Protestant, my disagreement with Catholics and Orthodox, who possess additional sources of equal and infallible authority, is not surprising, since the other sources might well clarify the doctrines in a direction not naturally (in my estimation) suggested by Scripture. That Lutherans, who have the same hermeneutical (sort of) approach and same authority (a 66 book Bible) as I do, come to different conclusions about the interpretation of the sacraments from the Bible is truly troubling. I said “good” Lutherans because they’re faithfully reading the Word by the light of the Holy Spirit like I try to do. “Bad” Lutherans, or members of any other denomination, for that matter, with whom I disagree doctrinally can have their interpretations dismissed as unorthodox because the Christians themselves are, well, unorthodox. That I disagree with emergent church Protestants, for example, doesn’t keep me up at night.
Had Protestantism been monolithic among faithful Christians, even from its earliest times, it would be a stronger suggestion than it now is. But since Luther and Zwingli fought over the Eucharist and Calvin and the Anabaptists over baptism, and that continues today among faithful Christians of each of those traditions (though seemingly without a Martin Bucer to encourage cooperation), I find myself saddled with the responsibility of being my own pope. And I don’t look very good in hats.
As Drew acknowledges, this problem isn’t new, at all. Here’s how St. Francis De Sales put it, in response to the Calvinists of Geneva, back in the sixteenth century:
You have not one same canon of the Scriptures:
- Luther will not have the Epistle of St. James, which you receive.
- Calvin holds it to be contrary to the Scripture that there is a head in the Church; the English hold the reverse:
- the French Huguenots hold that according to the Word of God priests are not less than bishops; the English have bishops who govern priests, and amongst them two archbishops, one of whom is called primate, a name which Calvin so greatly detests:
- the Puritans in England hold as an article of faith that it is not lawful to preach, baptize, pray, in the Churches which were formerly Catholic, but they are not so squeamish in these parts. And note my saying that they make it an article of faith, for they suffer both prison and banishment rather than give it up.
Is it not well known that at Geneva they consider it a superstition to keep any saint’s day? – yet in Switzerland some are kept; and you keep one of Our Lady. The point is not that some keep them and others do not, for this would be no contradiction in religious belief, but that what you and some of the Swiss observe the others condemn as contrary to the purity of religion.
Has not one of your ministers lately confessed the reality of Christ’s body in the Supper, and do not the rest deny it?
Can you deny me that as regards Justification you are as much divided against one another as you are against us: – witness that anonymous controversialist.
In a word, each man has his own language, and out of as many Huguenots as I have spoken to I have never found two of the same belief.But the worst is, you are not able to come to an agreement: – for where will you find a trusted arbitrator?
You have no head upon earth to address yourselves to in your difficulties; you believe that the very Church can err herself and lead others into error: you would not put your soul into such unsafe hands; indeed, you hold her in small account.
The Scripture cannot be your arbiter, for it is concerning the Scripture that you are in litigation, some of you being determined to have it understood in one way, some in another.
Your discords and your disputes are interminable, unless you give in to the authority of the Church. Witness the Colloquies of Lunebourg, of Malbron, of Montbeliard, and that of Berne recently. Witness Titman, Heshusius and Erastus, to whom I add Brenz and Bullinger.
Take the great division there is amongst you about the number of the Sacraments. Now, and ordinarily amongst you, only two are taught; Calvin made three, adding to Baptism and the Supper, Order; Luther here puts Penance for the third, then says there is but one: in the end, the Protestants, at the Colloquy of Ratisbonne, at which Calvin assisted, as Beza testifies in his life, confessed that there were seven Sacraments.
How is it you are divided about the article of the almightiness of God? – one party denying that a body can by the divine power be in two places, others denying absolute almightiness; others make no such denials.
But if I would show you the great contradictions amongst those whom Beza acknowledges to be glorious reformers of the Church, namely, Jerome of Prague, John Hus, Wicliff, Luther, Bucer, Oecolampadius, Zuingle, Pomeranius and the rest, I should never come to an end: Luther can sufficiently inform you as to the good harmony there is amongst them, in the lamentation which he makes against the Zuinglians and Sacramentarians, whom he calls Absaloms and Judases, and fanatic spirits (in the year 1527).
So from the beginning, well-meaning Protestants, seeking to understand the Scriptures and the will of God, have disagreed vociferously on even the most basic principles of the Christian faith. At the time of his writing, Anglicanism, Lutheranism, Calvinism, Anabaptism, and the rest were all new denominations, yet St. Francis saw even then that these controversies would never go away, unless Protestants submitted to the authority of the Church.
In Numbers 27:15-17, we read:
Moses said to the LORD, “May the LORD, the God who gives breath to all living things, appoint someone over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the LORD’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.”
So even in the time of Moses, an earthly leader was necessary to prevent the LORD’s people from acting like sheep without a shepherd, wandering as they will. God didn’t say, “they have the Law, they don’t need an earthly shepherd.” He didn’t even say, “they have Me, they don’t need an earthly shepherd.”
Instead, He instructed Moses to lay hands on Joshua, to “have him stand before Eleazar the priest and the entire assembly and commission him in their presence,” and to “give him some of your authority so the whole Israelite community will obey him.”
The crisis of sheep without a shepherd wasn’t solved through Scripture alone, but with a single visible leader over the entire people of God. We see the problem of sheep without a shepherd in the New Testament (e.g., Mark 6:34), and in Protestantism today. If it’s true that God has left us with a single earthly shepherd, a Joshua for our time, there’s no serious question who that is: it’s Pope Benedict or no one. He’s the public face of Christianity, and the man at the head of the world’s billion-plus Catholics.
This same Catholicism has clear and defensible answers to the questions of the number of sacraments, the Books of the Bible, the structure of the Church, and the rest. If we’re not to be like the tower of Babel, or like a shepherdless flock, he’s the one to follow.