Most Christian churches would say that they base their beliefs on the Bible. Some even stress that they “teach the Bible and nothing but the Bible.” There are over 30,000 denominations today with scores of doctrinal disputes. How did Christianity get so fragmented? If everyone claims to derive their beliefs from the Bible and nothing but the Bible, why so many interpretations, churches, and disputed doctrines?
First, interpretative and doctrinal pluralism is a reality within Scripture. Scripture is not univocal on all subjects but is open to various interpretations. Biblical interpretation has a long history. This history reveals not only are differing interpretations of biblical passages but also a great deal of disagreement among those interpretations. Scripture has been likened to a well with an infinite depth. New interpretative discoveries are the natural result. In addition, we are finite beings with a limited perspective; we read, see, and understand partially and in diverse ways. No human has a God’s-eye view of reality. Moreover, we use different methods of interpreting Scripture. There are many ways to critically read and approach the text of Scripture. These diverse ways of critically reading Scripture yield different insights and emphases. Additionally, interpretative differences result from the fact that we recognize different interpretive authorities to decide what a text means. For example, if we recognize the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church as authoritative, then we will interpret texts in ways congruent with that authority. Southern Baptists, Methodists, and other denominations, while not having a formal magisterium, tend to interpret Scripture along the lines of their interpretative traditions. Finally, there is “a multilayered pluralism” within Scripture (Brueggemann’s phrase). There are different sources, communities, editors, and theological emphases within Scripture. There is continuity but also discontinuity within Scripture. Discontinuities may be seen in Scripture if we examine what is said about kingship, sacrifice, temple, the Law, violence, and many other themes. If we take seriously the above considerations, is it any wonder that interpretative and doctrinal pluralism exists? Some Protestant Reformers thought that sola scriptura would settle matters. Obviously they were wrong about the sola scriptura principle.
Second, given the fact that interpretive and doctrinal pluralism is a reality, how does one decide which interpretation or doctrine to believe, teach, and preach? Roman Catholics have a clear answer to this question—the teaching office of the church, the magisterium, judges what are the official teachings of the Roman Church. In the absence of such an official teaching office in Protestant churches, how should Protestants decide? Protestant churches should consult the ecumenical scholarship of trained biblical scholars who adhere to agreed-on exegetical methods and hermeneutical principles and look for points of consensus. Also, the history of biblical interpretation and the doctrinal consensus of the historic church councils and creeds should yield some guidance as to what to believe, teach, and preach. In addition, it is important to point out that not all interpretations or doctrines and beliefs possess the same level of importance. There is a hierarchy of truth status among doctrines. Not all doctrines and beliefs have the same level of significance.
How do we decide what is and what is not important? Theologians have devised a taxonomy or classification of various levels of doctrinal importance. First, there are “dogmas”—beliefs that are absolutely essential to the essence or core of the Christian faith based solidly on divine revelation and wide acceptance in the Christian tradition (e.g., God is the creator and Christ is the savior). Second, there are “definitive doctrines”—doctrines that may not be explicit in Scripture but are logically necessary inferences of biblical teaching (e.g., the Trinity and the two natures of Christ). Third, there are “disputed doctrines”—highly important beliefs that do not affect the essence of Christian faith or salvation and may have significant biblical support, yet may be disputed by other Christians on the basis of other biblical passages (e.g., predestination and free will). Fourth, there are “adiaphora” or “opinions”—non-essential to Christian core beliefs or to salvation and open to various interpretations with little biblical evidence and/or no consensus within historic Christianity (e.g., mode of baptism). Finally, there is “heresy”—teaching that is completely incompatible with or directly contradicts essential Christian dogma (e.g., denial of Jesus’s bodily resurrection).
The question remains: Who has authority to say which beliefs are dogma, definitive doctrine, disputed doctrine, opinions, and heresy? This is one of the critical tasks of theology. It must be conceded that not everyone’s essential and non-essential list of beliefs will be the same. It is a task for a community of diverse interpreters, ecclesial officials, and theologians to hash out. It should be noted that interpretive and doctrinal plurality is not necessarily negative. We just might learn something from those who interpret Scripture and believe differently than we do. The reality of interpretative, ecclesial, and doctrinal pluralism should also develop the spiritual virtue of humility. Pluralism just might be a spiritual gift!