Growing up Presbyterian I was taught Sola Scriptura: scripture alone. In other words, the only authority when it comes to our faith is the Bible. Interestingly enough, the Bible doesn’t claim to be the only authority. In fact, in 1st Timothy 3:15 the Bible calls the Church “the pillar and foundation of truth”. The problem with the premise of the Bible being the sole authority is that every single protestant denomination has their own interpretation of most scripture verses.
At the Reformation there were over eighty different interpretations of the verse in John 6:51 when Jesus declared “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die...The Jews quarreled among themselves asking ‘How can this man give us (his) flesh to eat”. Jesus reiterated his meaning by saying “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. “
Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists interpret this verse to be symbolic; when they receive communion it ‘represents’ Christ, but doesn’t actually become his flesh and blood. The Lutherans and Episcopalians believe the Eucharist truly becomes the flesh and blood of Jesus, but that it retains it’s properties of bread and wine. For 2,000 years the Catholic Church has interpreted Jesus’ words to mean the Eucharist is completely transformed, becoming his flesh and blood, and that it is no longer bread and wine.
So the million dollar question; whose interpretation is correct? Jesus emphasized his meaning again when he said “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink”, yet many protestant ministers claim we can’t take Jesus literally; of course he didn’t mean for us to eat his flesh! But in the first century Ignatius of Antioch, who was appointed bishop by John the Evangelist, warned the Gnostics they were in danger of losing their salvation if they denied the Eucharist was the flesh of Jesus.
I’m assured by protestant ministers the Bible is crystal clear, but it seems to be easily understood only if you agree with their interpretation. Look at all the confusion between so many different denominations concerning the meaning of just one scripture verse; and the controversies didn’t end after Jesus was crucified. In Acts Chapter 15 the question of circumcision arose; some were teaching the Mosaic law that one had to be circumcised in order to be saved. Paul and Barnabas and the others argued over the question of circumcision, and finally they decided to go to Jerusalem to meet with the presbyters and apostles to resolve the issue.
Their gathering became known as the Council of Jerusalem, and it was the first council to hammer out doctrine for the new church. Through much discussion they decided new converts did NOT have to be circumcised, thus establishing a precedent for resolving further issues. Notice they didn’t examine scripture, or claim scripture had the sole answer; instead they discussed the matter until Peter reminded the assembly that salvation came through grace, and they were able to reach a consensus.
Emphasizing the importance of the magisterium, in 2nd Timothy 2, St. Paul advises Christians to stay faithful to the doctrine he has given “And what you heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will have the ability to teach others as well.”
In the following years each century would bring fresh disputes and new councils. From the Kerinthians at the end of the first century, to the Valentinians in the second century, who believed Christ’s body was an optical illusion, the teachings of the apostles have been disputed. In the fourth century the Church lost three-fourths of it’s members to the Arianism heresy, which taught that Christ was created, so there was a time when he didn’t exist. Ergo, Arianism denied the doctrine of the Trinity.
Thankfully St. Augustine’s mentor, St. Ambrose, was able to lead many of the strays back into the fold. The result of the challenge to the doctrine of the Trinity was the Council of Nicaea, which took place in Asia Minor. In those days travel was difficult, so the Pope sent representatives, and some of the the western bishops were unable to attend, resulting in a larger number of Eastern bishops. After heated debate, the assembly formulated the Nicene Creed, affirming the existence of the Trinity from the beginning of time. Can you believe it took four centuries to hammer out the doctrine of the Trinity?
But there was still some controversy over the term “one in being with the Father”. Did the Holy Spirit proceed from the Father and the Son, or from the Father alone? This question would haunt the Church forever, rearing it’s ugly head in 1054, when the Eastern Church split from the Western Church, in part over this very issue.
Disputes continued with the Appolinarists in the fourth century (denial of Christ’s two natures), Donatism in the fifth century (belief that validity of the sacraments depended on the holiest of the priest, rather than on Christ’s grace), Monophysitism in the sixth century, Monothelitism in the seventh century, Manicheism in the eighth century, and on and on to this century and the Feeneyites. Presently there are dozens of mainstream protestant denominations and tens of thousands of non-denominational churches, all with their own interpretation of the Bible.
The book “Dissent From the Creed” lists every disputed doctrine from the beginning of the Church to the present day. After the apostles died, there was tremendous confusion and every Tom, Dick and Harry had their own version of Christianity. After much discussion, it was decided only doctrine personally received from the apostles would be acceptable; if it wasn’t personally handed down by an apostle, it was rejected. The writings of some of these first bishops are still available in a book titled “Early Christian Writings”.
Just as the Constitution of the United States has the Supreme Court to interpret it’s meaning, so too the Bible by itself can be confusing and hard to understand. In Acts 8, when Philip came upon the Ethiopian eunuch, he found him reading the Old Testament and asked “Do you understand what you are reading?” The eunuch replied, “How can I, unless someone instructs me?“
Before one word of the New Testament was written, the Church was active and vibrant, vigorously teaching and admonishing new converts. The bishops compiled the New Testament in the decades after the creation of the Church. The earliest books of the New Testament were written around 60 AD, but a complete list, or canon, of books wasn’t compiled until the second century. The list was not officially accepted until the year 393 at the Synod of Hippo. So it doesn’t make sense the Bible is the sole authority, since it was the Catholic Church which put the New Testament together!