I'm the kind of person who thinks he can 'carry his own' in casual debates about philosophy, theology, and Catholic apologetics. But it seems that every now and then I am reduced to silence by an innocent question from someone seeking a real answer. This happened the other day when a friend who is trying to find a church to attend asked me why there are so many Christian denominations. Oh, I could answer that question easily enough...for someone initiated to all the terms. In other words, for someone who probably already had an answer to the question! But this guy didn't have an answer. And I wanted to give him one. And how could I possibly do that without making his head spin? Well, I thought I'd give it a shot.
The quick 'n' dirty answer for the reason why there are so many denominations centers on the revolution that took place at the Protestant Reformation in the year 1517. That revolution was the change in the "rule of faith" from the Church to the Bible. "Rule of faith" is a term which is used to denote the the standard or measure for knowing what is true or false in matters of faith. Up until the Protestant Reformation, the Church was the rule of faith. What was the Church? It was the Catholic Church--the only one that had been around since the time of Jesus. Jesus gave His Apostles a share in His very own authority, and they passed this authority on, and those guys passed it on, etc. And everyone was united under the pope, who is the Successor to the Apostle Peter, to whom Jesus said he would build His Church upon, as on a rock. "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (Mt 16:18-19). So the Church was governed by guys who got their authority passed down to them--ultimately--from Jesus Himself, who promised to protect them from error so that people could rely on the Church to teach the truth. Is God three persons in one divine nature? Did Jesus have two natures (human and divine) united in one divine person? What books were supposed to be in the Bible? Are these books really the infallible and inspired Word of God? These questions--which are beyond the capacity of the human mind to answer with reason alone--where answered by the Church because it was given Christ's authority and ability to do so.
Then Luther turned everything on its head in 1517. He said to forget the Church as the rule of faith. Instead, he declared the Bible as the sole rule of faith. Furthermore he declared that each man must interpret the Bible for himself. Instead of looking to the Church, many people began making up their own rules according to their own interpretation of the Bible. One problem with that is that when people followed the Church (as Christ intended) the Church could tell them when they were wrong. The Bible couldn't. So more and more people had their own ideas of what the Bible was really saying. There were lots of disagreements and lots of people starting their own "churches". That pebble in the pond produced a ripple effect that, 500 years later, gave us over 30,000 Protestant denominations. Most of them claim to follow the Bible...and they all find something different there.
So basically, the reason we have so many denominations today is because 500 years ago a huge portion of people quit obeying the Church which Jesus put in charge and promised to protect from error; and, instead, started making up their own rules according to their own interpretation of the Bible.
So what's wrong with making the Bible your rule of faith instead of the Church started by Jesus?
- First of all, the biggest problem is that it goes against what Jesus established.
- Jesus didn't write anything down (except in the sand). What He did do was start a Church and give the apostles His very authority to govern it.
- He didn't even command the apostles to write anything. Instead, he told them to preach the truth and administer the sacraments (baptism, communion, confession, etc.) to the ends of the earth, until the end of time.
- The Church gave us the Bible.
- It's illogical to put the Bible over the Church:
- The Church wrote the Bible
- The Church compiled the Bible (several books were left out)
- The only way I can know that Bible is the inspired Word of God is to take it on the authority of the Church. You have these letters written by human beings...how do I know that they are the Word of God? God didn't tell me! There's no way I can possibly tell on my own! But the Church, who is vested with the very authority of Christ could know something like that.
- An effect cannot be greater than it's cause. The cause: The Church. Her effect: The Bible. How can an Church capable of error tell you with certainty that the Bible is comprised of exactly the right books and that they are a divinely inspired and infallible?
- It's anachronistic to put the Bible over the Church: People think that we should look to the Bible and build the right kind of Church from what they find there. But it was the Church which gave birth to the Bible, not vice versa
- It's not very smart: We don't pass out the Constitution to every American citizen and tell them to govern themselves according to what they find there with their own Private Judgment. No, we have the Supreme Court to tell us what the Constitution says. Without that, we'd have chaos. And that's exactly what we've gotten from doing away with the Church and following the Bible on our own.