Some will suggest that the Christian church was united in its understanding of the Faith until the Protestant Reformation, when the likes of Martin Luther and John Calvin abandoned the authority of the church and placed the responsibility of interpretation in the hands of every individual. It is no wonder, therefore, that ten individuals might have ten distinct interpretations of any given passage. “Obviously” they say, “this led to the multiplications of Christian sects, which causes many to loose their faith and embrace skepticism. The thing to be done is for the factious Protestants to return to Mother Rome.”
Cardinal Sadoleto relied on this argument when he tried to lure the city of Geneva back to the Catholic faith through a letter he addressed to them in March 1539. He appealed to the multiplying Anabaptist sects teaching novelties and disrupting the peace. “For already, since these men began, how many sects have torn the Church? Sects not agreeing with them, and yet disagreeing with each other – a manifest indication of falsehood.”
John Calvin, then 30-years of age, replied that the sects were Rome’s stepchildren, rather than those of the Protestant Reformers. All sects, he argued, believe that the Holy Spirit leads their guys, and not the other guys, into the correct interpretation. Calvin wrote,
“We are assailed by two sects, which seem to differ most widely from each other. For what similitude is there in appearance between the Pope and the Anabaptists? And yet, that you may see that… the principle weapon with which they both assail us is the same. For when they boast extravagantly of the Spirit, the tendency certainly is to sink and bury the Word of God, that they may make room for their own falsehoods. …For, as if those who seek the way of God were standing where two ways meet and destitute of any certain sign, you are forced to introduce them as hesitating whether it be more expedient to follow the authority of the Church, or to listen to those whom you call the inventors of new dogmas.”
Calvin pointed out that the issue of Biblical interpretation is not as difficult as it first seems. There are two fundamentally different approaches. There is the “Bible and” approach, and the “Bible only” approach. There are many Christian sects today. They differ widely from each other, but they all agree that the “Bible and…” guides their interpretation. “We know the Catholic faith is correct,” the priest says, “because the Holy Spirit guides our church into all truth.” This is essentially the same argument I heard growing up in Pentecostal and Charismatic circles. “We know we are correct because the Holy Spirit guides our church into all truth.” When the Mormons came knocking on my door they appealed to the multiplication of sects resulting in religious confusion. They then said “we know we are correct because the Holy Spirit guides our Church into all truth.” I told them that this is the same line all the other sects are feeding me. I also pointed out that their dogma had not prevented them from dividing into sects among themselves.
The “Bible only” approach means that “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men” (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6). We believe that Biblical interpretation follows the ordinary rules for interpreting other literary or historical texts. We have no private pipeline to ultimate reality and we do not look for secret or private messages from God on the pages of Holy Scripture.
There are not many Christian groups that accept the “Bible only” approach – the formal principle of the Protestant Reformation. Those who hold to the “Bible only” are mainly conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Some Reformed Baptists and a small number of other Baptist groups also strive to discover the meaning from the Biblical text, rather than reading meaning into it. Among these groups there is broad agreement. There are still some differences, but they are few when compared to the astonishing variety among the sects. In every academic discipline there is variety among experts. But we do not despair of all historical knowledge because historians have different interpretations on the finer points. It is the same in the field of Biblical scholarship.
The “Bible only” view is the Bible’s own teaching. Jesus promised his Apostles that he would send his Spirit to them and said of the Spirit, “He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (Jn 14:26). The Spirit cannot bring to remembrance Jesus’ words to those to whom Jesus never spoke! It is only to apostles that Jesus promised to lead into all truth and to give divine recall. Witnessing the totality of Christ’s ministry was the prerequisite for apostleship. The criteria for the replacement apostle were that he accompanied Jesus from the time he was baptized by John until the resurrection, having witnessed that also (Acts 1:22-24).
The Apostle Paul also refers to himself as the last Apostle, “as to one untimely born” (1 Cor 15:8). For this reason in the Apostle John’s Book of the Revelation he sees the New Jerusalem coming out of heaven. It had twelve gates, which represent the 12 tribes of Israel and twelve foundation stones, which represent “the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Rev. 21:14). There is no reason to believe that the Church is ruled by a group of Apostles in every generation, or that their foundational ministry continues in every age.
Neither does the prophetic ministry continue in the Church, but it passed away with the Apostles. Ephesians 2:20 states that the Church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” When Paul compares himself to a “skilled master builder” who lays the foundation he teaches that this was done once and for all. “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid” (1 Cor. 3:11). Jesus the cornerstone has ascended to the father. The Apostles and prophets, our foundation layers, related to us the “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). We do believe in an apostolic succession, but it is not a succession of persons, but of doctrine. Our job is to hold fast the teaching that we received directly from them (2 Thess. 2:15).