Is it really true that Protestantism is made up of thousands upon thousands upon thousands of hopelessly fragmented so-called churches with nothing uniting them?
A thread over at Theologyweb has had me thinking lately. I’ve added some of my own comments, and I thought I’d sum up some thoughts here.
From time to time, Catholic warrior apologists1 like to argue that since there are so many Protestant denominations, there must be something inherently wrong with Protestantism. In particular, so the argument often goes, the fact that there are so many denominations – about 33,000 of them we are told – shows that sola scriptura must be false, as it results in so many widely divergent interpretations of various parts of Scripture, and what we really need if we want unity is for people to accept Scripture and Tradition – specifically Roman Catholic Tradition, as passed on by the papacy.
I care a great deal about the unity of the Church and it troubles me no end to see people starting up new churches left, right and centre. This is not the way it should be.
I should say first of all that there is a fundamental misrepresentation of a historic Protestant attitude to unity that normally accompanies this sort of polemic tactic. Whether I am a Protestant or not, I care a great deal about the unity of the Church and it troubles me no end to see people starting up new churches left, right and centre. This is not the way it should be. I should also point out that these new churches have no historical connection to the Protestant Reformation, so it is polemical bluster to lump them in with the Protestant movement at all. But that said, I want to focus on the claim about 33,000 churches for now.
Using this source is disastrous to the anti-Protestant apologist’s cause at this point. The number actually includes all denominations – including 781 “Orthodox” Churches, and 242 “Catholic” Churches.
Firstly, when you hear an argument like this you should always check the source. 33,000 – that sounds like a lot, right? It is. Where did a number like that come from, you might be wondering. It came from the World Christian Encyclopedia. As it turns out, using this source is disastrous to the Catholic apologist’s cause at this point. The number actually includes all denominations – including 781 “Orthodox” Churches, and 242 “Catholic” Churches.
But isn’t the anti-Protestant argument supposed to be that sola scriptura is what causes diversity of denominations? Does this mean that there are 780 Orthodox Churches and 241 Catholic Churches that teach and practice sola scriptura? Surely not! The only option other than this for the anti-Protestant apologist is to say that the source he is using has multiplied the Orthodox numbers by 781, and the Catholic numbers by 242. That’s a pretty big margin of error! Let’s see, 33,000/781 = just over 42. It’s a little different from 33,000, to put it mildly. So it’s a fair assessment that using the “33,000 denominations” arguments will come back to haunt the anti-protestant apologist who uses it. The encyclopedia is treating all Catholic rites as separate denominations.
In fact this source gives the number of Protestant Churches as only 9,000. It also lists Anglicanism separately, containing 168 denominations – fewer than the Catholics. Oops.
How can we justify including on a list of churches that hold and practice sola sciptura, among other things, churches that believe in continuing revelation today, or churches that consider their organisation to be the sole true prophet in the world?
The second thing to address there is the unfounded assumption that sola scriptura is what caused this array of denominations. What is the evidence of this? How can we justify including on a list of churches that hold and practice sola sciptura, churches that believe in continuing revelation today, or churches that consider their organisation to be the sole true prophet in the world? Bear in mind that this figure includes hundreds of denominations from Mormonism, Gnosticism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses! Does it really seem fair to blame sola sciptura for this, given that these movements do not practice sola sciptura at all? Is there any honest sense in which we can assume that all non-Catholic (and non-Orthodox) churches are even Protestant? Answer: No.
The third thing to address is the skewed standard of unity that this anti-protestant argument assumes. By Catholic standards, if you are in communion with Rome, that is, if you can, in clear conscience and with the Church’s approval, take communion at Mass, then you’re not separated from Rome. If Catholic apologists applied this consistently, their argument against Protestantism would come down like a house of cards. Consider the fact that the source they draw on treats different Presbyterian branches as different denominations. The fact is, in virtually all cases, a member of one of those branches could happily take communion when visiting a congregation of a different branch. By Catholic standards, that means they’re in unity with them. The same holds, I daresay, for most evangelical Protestant churches worldwide.
Fourthly, the theological divides being supposed here simply are not as great as one might think. Ponder for a few minutes what the real theological disagreements between Protestants are:
1) Soteriology (i.e. Calvinist-type views vs. Arminian-type views)
2) The proper subjects of baptism (i.e. infant baptism vs believer’s baptism)
3) Church government (the main divide being between episcopal and non-episcopal forms)
4) Slight variation in the sacraments (particularly the case with Lutherans)
5) Pentecostal / Charismatic Churches on the one hand and… normal churches on the other.
You might be able to think a little harder and come up with more, but it’s not easy, and I think any one familiar with evangelicalism would agree that these are the main ones. It kinda whittles down the rhetorical impact of “Wow, thirty three THOUSAND denominations!” Moreover, consider that in all but fairly extreme cases, no difference on the issues outlined above is going to earn the charge of heresy. Then consider that between the “Apostolic” churches of Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy, there are disagreements on the nature of the Trinity, the authority structure of the church, the Catholic concept of a “merit” system, and other things beside, which are not small matters but some of which actually do carry the charge of outright heresy between the Eastern and Western Churches. In other words, the charges of doctrinal disunity here are really a case of using differing weights and measures.
Fifthly and lastly, logic can help us to deflect this argument without even considering the above counter-arguments. The fact (even if it were a fact) that sola scriptura enabled the creation of 33,000 denominations does not show that it is false. This is a monstrously invalid inference. The laws of physics also enabled the creation of every denomination that exists. But this hardly means that we should stop believing in, say gravity. It may well be that sola scriptura enables some things that are undesirable. This cannot show it to be a false belief. If it is a true doctrine, this only means that we need to be more careful and wise than others have been. When sola scriptura exists alongside arrogance or hubris, one can easily imagine how the arrogance and hubris, rather than sola scriptura, would be the catalyst more to blame in the case of people who feel free to start their own churches.
I guess the long and short of my advice to those who have heard this “33,000 denominations” argument is: Be unimpressed. Be very unimpressed.
- By this term I mean those Catholic thinkers whose apparent interest in Catholic theology is about making polemical attacks on Protestantism, rather than positive explanations of theology. Although they may prefer the term Catholic apologetics, in my experience their endeavour is anti-Protestant polemics. Fortunately, most Catholic theologians are not like this at all. [↩]