Q: If sola scriptura is the only proper foundation for biblical interpretation, how would you justify or explain the diversity and division between Christian denominations? Does sola scriptura leave room for differences of interpretation, or is really as simple as Catholics, Baptists, and Methodists make it out to be?
A: I want you to think about two garages; one is a single car garage filled with gages and tools required to help the car run the other is a two-car garage with one stable car used for the majority of transportation but with another car sitting next to it ready to go should the need arise. These garages represent two different approaches to the uses and means of the Judeo-Christian book known as Scripture and both have their place amongst fabulous people within the Christian community. The first garage with only one car in it represents Sola Scriptura and the two car garage represents Prima Scriptura. Sola Scriptura literally means: Scripture only, while Prima Scriptura typically means: Scripture first. It is a slight difference in wording with untold amounts of pragmatic differences. The first garage with only one car shows us the only way the owner of the car will get anywhere. In this scenario they have no alternative means of transportation and the car is the only thing they will use. They do however have tools and equipment in the garage to help them take care of it appropriately and help the owner in understanding how his car is running. This demonstrates to a point how Sola Scriptura works. It takes Scripture to get to all theological understanding but the owner has tools available to use at their discretion to ensure the car is working properly. For most these tools involve Bible dictionaries, word studies, christian tradition, etc. These things all help the car of Sola Scriptura to run smoothly. Prima Scriptura differs in how there is now another vehicle in which the owner can take to theological understanding. It works just as well as Scripture but is an alternative way to get there and the real key point is how this other option is just as valid as Scripture.
This distinction is important because the few denominations listed at the end of this question two of them go by Prima Scriptura and the other stands with Sola Scriptura. Part of how I would answer the first question is many denominations do not rely solely upon Scripture to get to theological truths. Roman Catholicism and Methodism typically rely on other means along with Scripture to help believers get to where they are going. Roman Catholicism relies heavily upon Christian tradition and the Pope’s teachings to determine theology and Methodists come from a background of using personal experience and basic human rationale to bring people theologic truths. Baptists, however, sprung from the reformation with the belief that only Scripture can speak to us about the deeper things of God and everything else is a tool for helping us. It is differences such as this which have created the beginnings of many new denominations.
As for why there are multiple denominations within denominations, a lot of it has to do with preferences. Individual churches are typically made up of a community who share a common goal or ideal they wish to see uplifted. For instance the Acts 29 and Foursquare denominations places a high value on church planting and creating christian communities while a local church in Eugene named Ekklesia places a high value on discipleship and being a part of helping christians mature. All are correct in what they do and I think we would all agree these are important, but their emphasis is different. Another example of preferences would be worship style, Lutheran Churches are known to be a high tradition church meaning they follow rituals throughout the ceremony, the congregation typically dresses up for service, and they sing hymns with simple instrumentation while many Baptist churches now incorporate various service types, have full bands, and many of the congregation brought their Starbucks with them.
If it’s not preferences it’s politics. Some denominations allow the church to run its internal affairs autonomously (ie. most Baptist denominations) while others have a hierarchy overseeing much of the services rendered by the church (ie. Episcopalians). Neither of these policies are bad in and of themselves. Both have been found to be successful models of church implementation. These are just a few main reasons why churches will create an offshoot denomination. Some make more sense than others, but the church is after all made up of humans who are still learning what it means to follow God.
In the end, Sola Scriptura while a major player in church relationships, it is not the only horse pulling the cart of believers around. Church splits, denominations, beliefs, and practices are confusing and often heart wrenching for those involved. After years of growing up in the church as (an associate) pastors kid and then helping to start a church while getting a degree in Biblical studies and being surrounded by future pastors, it’s been my experience that there are some hills worth dying on and some hills worth walking by.
Next Monday: Let’s Lighten Up the Mood: Do Blondes Really Have More Fun?