Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Divisions: Severity and Cause

A Roman Catholic friend of mine posted a list of teachings Protestants cannot agree upon due to sola scriptura. (link)  Along with the list were these comments:

“The following is a ‘open’ list of teachings (subject to further expansion) which Protestants cannot agree upon due to the doctrinal relativism caused by Sola Scriptura. Though many Protestants today would “solve” this problem by tossing a lot of these into the “non-essential” category, I believe the doctrinal issues I’ve mentioned have been clearly seen to cause division among Protestants…


…As a Catholic, it is easy for me to treat this list as a “checklist” of sorts. All I have to do is go down each point and reference the matter in the Catechism. The Catechism is chock full of Bible citations, references to the Church Fathers and council documents, etc. wherein I can read the reasons behind why the Church teaches what it does on these matters.”

‘Division’ does not mean the same thing to Protestants and Catholics. Typical, ‘infallible’, Catholic documents (decisions of ecumenical councils or ex cathedra statements by the Pope) anathematize dissenters. But this is not the case with Protestants; it’s not like credobaptists anathematize paedobaptists. We worship separately and organize separately due to practical difficulties. But we consider all true believers as part of the Body of Christ. So while lists of disagreements may seem like sola scriptura is causing divisions in the Church, really the very reverse is true. Rome’s anathemas of dissenters on doctrinal matters causes real divisions.

Paul speaks of non-essential doctrinal differences in Romans 14: 1-10.

Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.


One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.


For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.

Note that Paul himself takes a side by calling one side weak and the other strong in the faith. But he doesn’t just blast the weak. He doesn’t even want them to doubt their inaccurate views; he tells them to be fully convinced in their own minds. What he does not want is divisions over non-essentials, because God will make the weak stand, and we all serve the same Lord and we are all individually accountable to God.

But Rome anathematizes those who say indulgencies are useless (Council of Trent, Chapter 21). We could ask Rome the same question Paul asks: why do you judge your brother?

A second point here is that the argument assumes that sola scriptura is the cause of all disagreements among Protestants. But then how do we account for disagreements among Catholics? Catholics can’t just look up all disagreements in the catechism and find the truth. Not all topics are addressed and of those that are, not all positions are supported by sources supposed to be infallible by Rome. Often Catholics disagree among themselves. For example, one of the items on the list is freewill/predestination. But when the Molinists and Dominicans disagreed on this topic and asked the Pope to decide it, he did not. So sola scriptura was not the cause nor was the Pope the solution. Rather disagreements often stem from either varying presuppositions, degree of education, study, spiritual maturity or frankly, the sinfulness of the individuals involved.

Some disagreements among Christians will probably not be resolved this side of the grave. In other areas I think significant progress can be made with the right approach; which must be founded on scripture alone.

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