It is no secret that the Protestant cause has never had the advantage of the unity factor that the Catholic Church has been able to command. For this reason, many people look at Protestantism with suspicion. I once listened to a Protestant speaker who had been doing missions in Spain, and he was recounting the very hard time he had had with growing churches there. One Spaniard with whom he was speaking one day aptly summed up the problem that that country had with Protestantism: “If we aren’t going to go to the True [i.e. Catholic] Church, then why would we go to a sect like yours?” In the minds of many, Protestantism is defined by one word: sectarian.
Is it really that surprising that this should be so? The whole Protestant movement is based on the idea of protest and separation. To give credit where credit is due, Martin Luther never wanted to leave the Catholic Church, but merely reform it. However, once he was exc0mmunicated, he decided to continue in that vein of protest, thus setting a precedent for rebellion against the insitutional of the Church, and many began to follow his lead. (Ironically, Luther was not a fan of any of the other splits that came after him, and he and his followers violently surpressed them. He evidently felt that he was right in his refusal to bow to Catholic authority, but anyone group that decided to split and did not agree with him, was bad news.)
And so the main problem with Protestantism became immediately clear: in the absence of an instituional Church that is the keeper and interpreter of the Scriptures, upon what authority can any new group base its theology? Luther, John Calvin, and the Anabaptists all differed with the Catholic Church on what certain passages of Scripture meant, and backed up their new ideas by appealing to reason and to the doctrine of sola scriptura: that the Bible alone, unencumbered by some of that calcified medieval Catholic interpretive tradition, can speak for itself and be clearly understood.
That sounds all well and good on the surface, but the fact is that Luther, Calvin, and all the Anabaptist groups could never agree on what many scriptural passages meant. It was clearly not enough to claim that the Bible alone could guide one’s interpretation, because many people claimed this but came up with widely different ideas. So from the get-go the Protestant Reformation had a problem when it threw off the intepretive authority of the Catholic Church and replaced it with the Bible alone — and, in the case of many Anapabists, the inner witness and illumination of the Holy Spirit. Sola scriptura is a great battle cry, but it simply is not true in the sense that many Protestants maintain it is. Yes, we believe that the Bible should be the supreme voice by which we evaluate all doctrine and spiritual practice, and that on the basics it is understandable to all people, but we cannot treat it as a textbook of religious propostions that are self-evident. To read the Bible, one needs an interpretive framework, however we decide what that is and who has the authotity to make that decision. Sola scriptura in the strict, fundamentalist sense, is patently false.
As a Protestant, I affirm the work of Martin Luther and maintain the necessity of being able to break away from certain traditions as my conscience and my Bible dictate, but I cannot say that that doesn’t open up a Costco-sized can of worms. And there still need to be some rules in place that guide our interpretation of Scripture: creeds are a good starting point. The Nicene, Apostles’, and Chalcedonian creeds give us a good idea of what it means to be orthodox Christians. But what about theological developments that came after this? What basis do we have for rejecting or accepting other teachings of the Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches as normative for all Christ-followers? Well, reason is not entirely out of the question — sometimes certain things violate the intent of Scripture no matter how one slices it. But even then, I as a Protestant sometimes have to admit that there really are times when thumbing my nose at 2,000 years of Catholic tradition seems a bit gutsy.