[ GUEST POST]: Denominationalism and Sola Scriptura: Reflections on the Colloquy of Marburg



The glut of denominations, particularly in the so-called “Bible Belt” of the south, often causes us to ask of our fellow Christians, “What sort of Christian are you?” Where do these denominations come from? How do we understand the current Christian context that subdivides those who claim to live under one faith into scores of groups? I propose that the primary reason for the fragmentation of Christian denominations is the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura—Scripture Alone.

Before the Protestant Reformation, denominationalism was not a necessary part of one’s theological vocabulary. Christians were divided broadly into only two groups—Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. While drastic, the Great Schism—the break between the Roman and Eastern Church—did not continue to fracture into multiple splinter groups. Contra the break between Eastern and Western churches, the Protestant Reformation was not simply divisive, it was fractious. Luther’s rejection of Roman Catholic teaching did not simply result in a Lutheran group and a Roman Catholic group within Christian Europe but instead set off a chain reaction that resulted in the proliferation of denominationalism throughout Europe and the New World. As we look back on history, we must conclude that, whatever causes denominationalism, it is a uniquely Protestant phenomenon.

Discussing denominationalism is not a particularly desirous task. No one wants to explore how and why it is that the Christian faith tends to be so fractious. As Donald Tinder points out, no one is “eager to justify [denominations] theologically.”[1] Protestants would prefer to ignore denominationalism, much like your family will try to ignore your crazy uncle’s political rant at Thanksgiving. We all know it’s happening, but it is usually easier if we just let it go on and talk about something else. Understanding denominationalism, however, is necessary for participation in the present discussion of a Christian context and for understanding our own theological context.

So what is a denomination? Denominations are “distinct Christian group[s] that are self-governing and autonomous units.”[2] This means that, in order for a group of Christians to be defined as a “denomination,” they must not be beholden to any outside group for their governance or for their doctrinal positions.

Protestant expressions of Christianity lend themselves naturally to independence in doctrinal positions because of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Calvin revels in the authority of Scripture over human institutions, noting, “If true religion is to beam upon us, our principle must be, that it is necessary to begin with heavenly teaching and that it is impossible for any man to obtain even the minutest portion of right and sound doctrine without being a disciple of Scripture.”[3] When standing trial for heresy, Martin Luther based his decision to risk condemnation as a heretic upon the belief that Scripture is authoritative over church tradition. Period accounts of his confession at the Diet of Worms record Luther saying, “My conscience is a prisoner of God’s Word. I cannot and will not recant, for to disobey one’s conscience is neither just or safe. God help me.”[4]

So why does this bold commitment to the Scriptures lead to fractious denominationalism? If theologians like Luther and Calvin agree that all church teaching should come from the Bible, should not this lead to unity—two men in funny hats singing Kumbaya around one big, Protestant campfire? The problem is that the early reformers, and all of their Protestant successors, have not agreed on exactly what the Bible says. When Protestants disagree about doctrine, they de facto locate the disagreement in Scripture, so any disagreement becomes a disagreement over the very words of God. And so we fracture.

This may not be a reality upon which Protestant Christians—such as myself—wish to dwell when we consider one of our most prized doctrines. Sola Scriptura is, above all else, what separates Protestant and Catholic theology. Alistair McGrath understands Sola Scriptura as the central catalyst of Protestant theological development in the Reformation. He writes of the consequences of the doctrine on the theology of the reformers: “Beliefs which could not be demonstrated to be grounded in Scripture were either to be rejected or to be declared as binding on no one.”[5] The reformers, however, could not agree on which doctrines of the church should be rejected and which ones should continue to be embraced. Examining an early debate over how the Bible was to be interpreted in one of the only two ordinances maintained by Protestants—baptism and the Lord’s Supper—provides tremendous insight into how the doctrine of Sola Scriptura provides the catalyst for Protestant denominationalism.

In 1529, Phillip of Hesse (leader of the Protestant coalition known as the Schmalkaldic League) summoned Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli to Marburg castle. This meeting—known as the Colloquy of Marburg—was meant to be a forum in which Luther and Zwingli could settle their differences over the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. Luther, the famous Wittenberg reformer, held that the body of Christ was spiritually present in the Eucharist, i.e., consubstantiation. Zwingli, the chief reformer of the Swiss city of Zurich, was convinced that the Scriptures held no reference to the body and blood of Jesus being physically present in the Eucharist and taught that the physical elements were merely symbols and that the meaning of the sacrament was communicated spiritually upon believers through the Holy Spirit.

Luther and Zwingli debated, both in person and through pamphlets published before the Marburg Colloquy, which of their positions could be found to have Scriptural support. Luther doggedly asserted that when Scripture stated “The Word became flesh” (John 1:4) and “The one eating my flesh and drinking my blood remains in me and I in him” (John 6:56), it was to be taken literally. Not to believe this, according to Luther, “is to give the lie to Scripture.”[6] Zwingli argued that these passages were to be taken as literary personification that employs figurative rather than literal language. Certainly, Jesus had not meant that he was physically present in a door when he said, “I am the door” (John 10:9).

Despite three days of debate at Marburg, the Lutheran and Zwinglian factions could find no agreement on the issue of the Lord’s Supper. Phillip of Hesse realized that the conversation about the nature of the Eucharist was failing to produce a consensus and so he asked Luther to draw up a list of articles that could be agreed upon by both groups. Of the fifteen articles Luther produced, Zwingli could agree to fourteen. In the fifteenth, however, Luther insisted on stating that the body of Christ is physically present in the Lord’s Supper. The meeting ended with no resolution to the central issue dividing Protestants.

The impasse between Luther and Zwingli may seem like a small issue. Certainly, these two men shared more in common than they held in disagreement. Both were bold leaders, both stood condemned as heretics by the Roman Catholic Church, and both were convinced that the key to understanding God’s will for his church was found in Scripture. The divide on this one issue, however, was enough to destroy any hope of ecclesiological cooperation. Luther was especially harsh in his condemnation of Zwingli:

Whoever will take a warning, let him beware of Zwingli and shun his books as the price of hell’s poison. For the man is completely perverted and has entirely lost Christ. Other sacramentarians settle on one error, but this man never publishes a book without spewing out new errors, more and more all the time. But anyone who rejects this warning may go his way, just so he knows that I warned him, and my conscience is clear.[7]

The division between Luther and Zwingli on this one issue caused a fracture in Protestantism. Once there had been one church in Europe—the Roman Catholic Church. Luther and Zwingli separated from Rome by holding to the authority of Scripture over the authority of the Pope, then separated from each other over the authority of one interpretation of Scripture over another. Thus after Marbury, there were Lutheran and Swiss Reformed denominations within Protestantism. This fragmentation would not stop with Luther and Zwingli. Calvin and the Genevans interpreted Scripture and produced Reformed Calvinism. Cranmer and the English interpreted Scripture and founded Anglicanism. Knox’s interpretation of Scripture resulted in Presbyterianism. Wesley’s interpretation of Scripture led him to found Methodism, and so on and so on. Each Protestant denomination can trace its roots to the affirmation of Scripture as the ultimate authority—and to the affirmation that other Protestant groups are wrong about what Scripture means.

Protestant denominationalism ought to be considered when we reflect on the legacy of the Reformation. Five-hundred years after Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Castle Church door, there is much to celebrate—particularly the legacy of five-hundred years of the blessings that come from God’s church reading and celebrating the role of Scripture in corporate and individual life. The material produced by the Evangelical world in recognition of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is unanimous in the opinion that the doctrine of Sola Scriptura should be celebrated. Add my voice to this chorus. Sola Scriptura is a precious doctrine, one that has shaped and continues to shape my life. However, an important part of our celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation should also include a solemn reflection on the inability of Protestants to agree on what Scripture says.

Please understand, my argument is not that Sola Scriptura is a flawed doctrine. I affirm that at the Colloquy of Marburg all those years ago Luther, Zwingli, and their followers were right in coming together to discuss the teaching of Scripture on the issue of the Eucharist. My argument is, however, that this discussion—necessary as it may be—led to an unfortunate division among Protestants I wish could have called themselves family. While we are on the subject of wishing, I wish that, when Luther came before the Roman Catholic officials at Worms, they would have considered Luther’s teaching as biblical and that the Reformation might have been about the reform of one church rather than splitting one church into many groups. Sola Scriptura is a doctrine that has historically caused us to further the divide.

I have no solution to offer for ceasing the propensity of Protestants to divide over our separate communities’ interpretation of Scripture. I have tried. I have read books and prayed and spent time in contemplation, but I have no answers to offer, only a story and an omen. The story is one I have already told. Once upon a time, two men who, though having the opportunity to agree on fourteen points of doctrine mined from the precious source of Scripture (i.e., from Scripture alone), broke fellowship because they could not agree on the fifteenth. The omen is that if you take the doctrine of Sola Scriptura seriously—and may this be the case!—you will find yourself as a player in a similar story. You will disagree with your sisters and brothers on what the Bible means. You will walk the knife-edge path that on one side falls off into an endless and tragic division and on the other side plummets into the abyss of doctrinal compromise. I cannot tell you which way to go. I can only invite you to consider how, in future applications of Sola Scriptura, we can pray and passionately hope for unity over division.


[1] Donald Tinder, “Denominationalism,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 337.

[2] Donald K. McKim, Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 74.

[3] Calvin, Institutes 1.7.2.

[4] Cited from Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to The Reformation, Rev. and updated [ed.], 2nd ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 35.

[5] Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), 67.

[6] Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 2005), 260.

[7] Ibid., 260.

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