The doctrine of universal competence to interpret Scripture means that theoretically there could be as many different Churches as there are people. But, in practice, the great majority of Protestants are contented merely with the recognition of their right to private interpretation, and do not take the trouble to exercise the right in any systematic fashion. Rather, they form organizations under the leadership, past or present, of the more active minds among them who actually have engaged in interpretation to work out statements of belief for which they have sought to win adherents.
Originally, the older Protestant denominations had separate and distinctive interpretations of the Gospel and Creed to serve as some justification for their separate existences, and they showed great enthusiasm and vigor in maintaining their special beliefs. But because all of the denominations were based on the doctrine that each individual can construct his own beliefs according to his own ideas, it was impossible for any single denomination to claim forthrightly that it alone was the one true Church. For this reason Protestant theologians took the line that the one true Church includes everyone who belongs to Christ, regardless of membership in a particular organization, and that Christ alone can truly tell who they are. The ONE Church, they said, is invisible.
At the very heart of Protestantism, therefore, is planted in germ the popular modern idea that anyone can believe as he pleases, and on his own sole authority. Because no one knows who or what is right, the Church, composed of those who are right, must be invisible. And if the Church is invisible, with its members scattered among all denominations, and known only to Christ, who could oppose the idea that a believer’s chances are likely to be as good in one denomination as in another? Indeed, those who believe that one denomination is as good as another often believe also that the chances of Mohammedans and Buddhists are likewise good enough. And Sunday School Lessons have appeared which present heathen religions as quaintly different and interesting, but not as clearly and positively wrong.
By our time, the earlier enthusiastic particularism of the Protestant sects has disappeared. They are mostly indistinguish- able from one another, because freedom to believe as one pleases means freedom to believe in not very much. They all tend to believe as little as possible and to subtract continually even from that little. So, inevitably the doctrine that each person can be his own supreme authority in religion is working itself out into sheer atheism for an increasing number of people. If it doesn’t matter what church you belong to, how can it matter if you don’t belong to any church at all? If it doesn’t matter which or how many churches you reject, how can it matter if you reject them all? If it doesn’t matter what you believe about Christ, how can it matter if you don’t believe anything at all about Him, or even if you deny that He ever existed, as many have done? Of course, in their progress toward atheism people move without haste — they may begin with broad-minded questioning of the Virgin Birth of our Lord, and not arrive at denial of the Resurrection until quite a while later.
To put the case plainly, the reasoning which leads to the doctrine that the Church is invisible, must also lead finally to denial of the Church invisible, as well as of the Church visible, for all minds that do not stop thinking. And in due time comes the denial, first of Providence, and at last of God’s own existence.
—Father Michael G. H. Gelsinger, Ph. D., (in the monastic tonsure, Theodore, monk). From his treatise, “The Creed.”
*According to recent surveys, Protestantism has disintegrated into over 28,000 denominations and sects, which are increasing by an average of five every week, thanks, primarily, to their “private interpretations.” A minefield indeed.