Most, if not all Christian protestant-evangelical groups claim the Bible as their only standard of faith and practice. With one authoritative and final source of truth, certainly all Christians should be united in one faith, one baptism, and one Lord. How, then, can one explain the vast differences in doctrine, worship, practice, church ethos/culture, and ecclesial structure that is found in Christendom? For example, the Bible is said to be clear on such matters as baptism, salvation, church leadership structure, sin, spiritual gifts, last things (eschatology), Lord’s Supper, law and grace, the Trinity, and the gospel. Yet, denominations, groups, or individual churches themselves disagree about these matters, sometimes vehemently.
Calvinists square off against Arminians, Charismatics against Baptists, Lutherans against Methodists, Non-denoms against everyone, and Anglicans against nobody. Each group asserts, at some level, their adherence to one source, the scriptures.
This post is written not to promote the ideas of “agree to disagree” or to say “it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe in Jesus” or to say that the scriptures are not truth. My purpose is to challenge the notion that the scriptures are the only source of truth for the Christian and, more importantly, to illustrate that apart from Jesus who is Truth and the Church which is the “pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3.15) there is great confusion, disagreement and ignorance. For most Christians, this division doesn’t matter.
What makes all this confusion possible is the notion of “Sola Scriptura” (scripture only) which does not hold up under scrutiny. First, the Bible does not teach sola scriptura. Second, there was no such doctrine in the church for 1500 years until the Reformers invented it. Thirdly, due to the idea of sola scriptura, diverse and contradictory interpretations of scripture has spawned thousands of Christian groups each claiming to be based on the Bible.
Here are statements from very diverse groups defending their doctrines and practices based on their loyalty to scripture:
Seventh-Day Adventists (Sabbath/Saturday worship, adhere to OT law, divergent eschatology; founded in 1863, Battle Creek, MI)
The Holy Scriptures are the supreme, authoritative, and the infallible revelation of His will. “We consider our movement to be the result of the Protestant conviction Sola Scriptura — the Bible as the only standard of faith and practice for Christians.” https://www.adventist.org/en/beliefs/god/holy-scriptures/
Calvary Chapel – (neocharismatic, “non-denominational,” founded 1965, Costa Mesa, CA)
We believe that the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God, fully inspired without error and the infallible rule of faith and practice. The Word of God is the foundation upon which the church operates and is the basis for which the church is governed. We believe that the Word of God supersedes any earthly law that is contrary to the Holy Scriptures. http://calvarycca.org/statement-of-faith/
Presbyterian Church in America – (Reformed, Calvinist, semi-sacramental; founded 1973, Birmingham, AL)
The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him. The Bible itself being the only infallible rule of faith and practice (though the Westminster Confession of Faith is adopted as its secondary standard). https://www.pcanet.org/
Conservative Baptists of America ( beliefs, practices vary church to church; founded 1943/1947)
We believe the sixty-six canonical books of the Old and New Testaments are the divinely inspired, infallible Word of God, without error in the original manuscripts, and God’s complete, written revelation to humankind. The Bible is sufficient and trustworthy for life, faith, conduct, and practice, and is the supreme and final authority in all matters to which it speaks. We further believe there is but one true interpretation of Scripture, although there may be several applications. The true meaning lies in the text and is that which the divinely-guided author willed to convey. It is recoverable through careful application of a literal (grammatical, historical, contextual) method of interpretation under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and in the community of Christ. The Holy Spirit illumines the text, enabling the reader to embrace the significance of what God has communicated, and to see the glory of Christ in the Word of God. http://cbamerica.org/identity/what-we-believe/
Southern Baptist Convention (beliefs, practices vary church to church, reject infant baptism, must immerse; non-sacramental, various eschatology’s; founded 1845, Augusta, GA)
The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God’s revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation. http://www.sbc.net/aboutus/basicbeliefs.asp
United Methodist (Wesleyan, semi-sacramental and semi-liturgical, Arminian theology, practices vary church to church; organized 1968)
In early times and over many generations, the sixty-six books were thoughtfully used by faithful people. In the process their merits were weighed, and the community of believers finally gave them special authority. Tested by faith, proven by experience, these books have become sacred; they’ve become our rule for faith and practice. http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/our-christian-roots-the-bible
Assembly of God USA (baptism of the Holy Spirit evidenced by speaking with tongues; divine healing is integral part of the gospel; origin 1914, formal organization 1989)
The Scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments, are verbally inspired of God and are the revelation of God to man, the infallible, authoritative rule of faith and conduct. https://ag.org/Beliefs/Statement-of-Fundamental-Truths#1
Church of Christ/American Restoration Movement (baptism necessary for salvation, non-liturgical, non-ecclesial, non-creedal; various practices church to church; beginning of 19th c.)
Wikipedia writes this (which could be applied to most denominations or associations of churches): “Members of the Churches of Christ believe that Jesus founded only one church, that the current divisions among Christians do not express God’s will, and that the only basis for restoring Christian unity is the Bible. Churches of Christ seek to practice the principle of the Bible being the only source to find doctrine (known elsewhere as sola scriptura). The Bible is generally regarded as inspired and inerrant. Churches of Christ generally see the Bible as historically accurate and literal, unless scriptural context obviously indicates otherwise. Regarding church practices, worship, and doctrine, there is great liberty from congregation to congregation in interpreting what is biblically permissible, as congregations are not controlled by a denominational hierarchy. Their approach to the Bible is driven by the “assumption that the Bible is sufficiently plain and simple to render its message obvious to any sincere believer”. Related to this is an assumption that the Bible provides an understandable “blueprint” or “constitution” for the church.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Churches_of_Christ
Campus Crusade for Christ (representative of many “para-church,” evangelical organizations)
The sole basis of our beliefs is the Bible, God’s infallible written Word, the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. We believe that it was uniquely, verbally and fully inspired by the Holy Spirit and that it was written without error (inerrant) in the original manuscripts. It is the supreme and final authority in all matters on which it speaks.
We accept those areas of doctrinal teaching on which, historically, there has been general agreement among all true Christians. Because of the specialized calling of our movement, we desire to allow for freedom of conviction on other doctrinal matters, provided that any interpretation is based upon the Bible alone, and that no such interpretation shall become an issue which hinders the ministry to which God has called us.
Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (conservative; 1847, Chicago)
We furthermore teach regarding the Holy Scriptures that they are given by God to the Christian Church for the foundation of faith, Eph. 2:20. Hence the Holy Scriptures are the sole source from which all doctrines proclaimed in the Christian Church must be taken and therefore, too, the sole rule and norm by which all teachers and doctrines must be examined and judged. — With the Confessions of our Church we teach also that the “rule of faith” (analogia fidei) according to which the Holy Scriptures are to be understood are the clear passages of the Scriptures themselves which set forth the individual doctrines. https://www.lcms.org/about/beliefs/doctrine/brief-statement-of-lcms-doctrinal-position#holy-scriptures
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (moderate/liberal; From website: “This is Christ’s Church;” 1988)
Anglican Church in North America (2009)
We confess the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments to be the inspired Word of God, containing all things necessary for salvation, and to be the final authority and unchangeable standard for Christian faith and life. http://www.anglicanchurch.net/index.php/main/Theology/
Episcopal Church (From website: “The Episcopal Church is a spiritual home free of judgment and inclusive for all;” 1789 in USA)
“Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 236).
[Scripture] is our foundation, understood through tradition and reason, containing all things necessary for salvation. Our worship is filled with Scripture from beginning to end. https://www.episcopalchurch.org/page/bible
VineyardUSA (neocharismatic, emphasis on kingdom of God, worship, spiritual gifts; 1982)
We believe that the Holy Spirit inspired the human authors of Holy Scripture so that the Bible is without error in the original manuscripts. We receive the sixty‐six books of the Old and New Testaments as our final, absolute authority, the only infallible rule of faith and practice. https://vineyardusa.org/about/core-values-beliefs/
Oneness Pentecostals (nontrinitarian, baptism in Jesus’ name only, receipt of Holy Spirit evidenced by speaking in tongues; 1914)
Oneness Pentecostalism subscribes to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. They view the Bible as the inspired Word of God, and as absolutely inerrant in its contents (though not necessarily in every translation). They specifically reject the conclusions of church councils such as the Council of Nicea and the Nicene Creed. They believe that mainstream Trinitarian Christians have been misled by long-held and unchallenged “traditions of men.” For a look at how their nontrinitarian doctrine is “proved” by scripture see: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/oneness-god-biblical-explanation-denis-mercier/ This is heresy.
Mennonite Church USA (roots in 16th c. Radical Reformation, Meno Simons (1536), USA: 2002)
We acknowledge the Scripture as the authoritative source and standard for preaching and teaching about faith and life, for distinguishing truth from error, for discerning between good and evil, and for guiding prayer and worship. Other claims on our understanding of Christian faith and life, such as tradition, culture, experience, reason, and political powers, need to be tested and corrected by the light of Holy Scripture. mennoniteusa.org/confession-of-faith/scripture/
American Baptist Churches (USA) (beliefs and practices vary from church to church, 1907, Washington DC)
Holy Scripture always has been for us the most authoritative guide to knowing and serving the triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer). As the divinely-inspired word of God, the Bible for us reveals our faith and its mandated practice…we have tended to avoid embracing prepared creeds or other statements that might compromise our obligation to interpret Scripture as individuals within the community of faith under the guidance of the Holy Spirit…Cherishing our own God-given gift of freedom has motivated us to support religious freedom for all to seek God’s will. Although this has allowed for distinctive opinions within our congregations both on aspects of our faith and their application within society, most of us would admit that dialog is a healthy means of spiritual growth. As it encourages its members to seek continually the mind of Christ in all matters, American Baptist Churches USA respects the variety of theological understandings that its members, and other Christians, have embraced.Believing in the priesthood of all believers, the ABCUSA avoids using creeds, affirming the freedom of individual Christians and local churches to interpret scripture as the Holy Spirit leads them. The ABCUSA affirms the ordination of women. http://www.abc-usa.org/what_we_believe/the-bible/
Messianic Congregations (observe and celebrate Jewish Holy Days, “Biblical Judaism”)
That the BIBLE, consisting of the Tenach (Holy Scriptures) and the later writings commonly known as the B’rit Hadasha (New Covenant), is the only infallible and authoritative word of God. We recognize its divine inspiration, and accept its teachings as our final authority in all matters of faith and practice. http://iamcs.org/about-us/belief
- Since individual Christians can interpret the Bible for themselves, they believe what they want as long as they can find some Bible verses to back it up.
- Christian churches can believe very different doctrines but still claim be one church in the faith.
- The Bible is not clear in what it teaches or people are terribly poor at interpreting it.
- Many of these churches “maintain historical, Biblical orthodoxy and embrace the authority of Scripture” yet disagree with one another. How can this be actually true? The principle of noncontradiction – that truth cannot contradict truth – is not applied to doctrinal issues, apparently.
- The Bible can be used to prove almost any doctrine, even a heretical one.
This theological malaise makes it extremely difficult to challenge people to know God. Many don’t know what to believe or are confused as to who’s actually proclaiming the truth. Plus, it’s acceptable to “pick and choose” according to one’s individual understanding. When there are thousands of authorities, there are no authorities…except one’s own self.
It’s beyond the scope of this post to offer any solutions. It’s enough to hope you will wrestle with the reality of a fragmented, dis-unified, and defective Western Christianity as if it matters…because it does.