As a Catholic I believe that the Catholic Church was established by Jesus and given the authority to teach infallibly on the topics of faith and morals.

My understanding is that many Protestants believe that individual Christians have the grace to interpret the Bible for themselves.

For those who believe this, how do you understand major differences in the beliefs between various Protestant denominations? If any sincere believer who has "been saved" is able to read and properly interpret the Bible through the work of the Holy Spirit, why so many fundamental differences in belief?

For instance, there seems to be wide disagreement on the necessity of baptism for salvation. Some believe it to be the method of conferring sanctifying grace on the recipient, some believe it is merely symbolic, etc.


3 Answers 3


At the First Vatican Council (1869), the Catholic Church defined the doctrine of papal infallibility. The Church certainly believed in papal infallibility long before that, but there was some disagreement over the specifics. At that council, the long-held belief was codified as, itself, an infallible teaching.

First Vatican Council - Section 4, Chapter 4, Part 9

...we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable.

The doctrine of papal infallibility was one of the primary things against which Martin Luther fought. At the Diet of Worms, when he was questioned on the infallibility of the Pope, he stated, "I deny that he is above scripture." He argued that since Jesus rebuked Peter, Peter must have been fallible, and since Peter was fallible, it logically follows that all of his successors would be fallible too.

Martin Luther, and other reformers, did not believe that the Pope was the wrong person to be considered infallible. Rather, they believed that no person, not even Peter, was infallible (save Jesus, of course). Protestant churches do not believe that their church, leaders, or anyone else is infallible. They typically believe that only the scriptures (sola scriptura), in the form of its original writing, is actually inspired and infallible.

It is not only admissible, but even expected, among Protestants, that different people will come to different conclusions about the meaning of the scriptures, because, as they believe, we are all fallible people. It is expected that good-people will disagree for many reasons. Depending on which ancient manuscripts you are using, which translation of those original languages you are reading, which hermeneutical approach you are using to interpret its meaning, and the theological framework to which you are pinning your understanding, there are many possible ways to "properly" interpret the same passage.

Having so many theological differences does not contradict Protestant teaching. On the contrary, it confirms their teaching of the fallibility of all people. In Protestant circles, truthfulness of doctrine is not judged by who stated it, but rather by what methods they used in arriving at it.

  • I would add only that as individuals continue to study they will progress in their understanding of the infallible scripture, and sometimes the codifying of beliefs by denominations can advance beliefs up to a certain point but hinder advancing beyond that, when you start to see things in scripture that differ from your denomination's views.
    – rguy
    Commented Aug 6, 2013 at 15:52

The biggest issue that divides most Protestants isn't theology or Scripture, but rather church governance.

At the most radical end of the spectrum, Mennonites, Baptists, and other Anabaptists believe there is authority ceded to any priest beyond that which the local congregation gives it. As such, they have no bishops or eccelesicatical authority - Baptists have "conventions" i.e. meetings were churches will voluntary associate, but that's it. Indeed even the famous "Southern Baptist Convention" only technically exists for three days year. If these groups want to hire or fire a pastor, for example, they place an ad in the paper to get a new one.

In contrast, Methodists have Bishops and dicoeses, and a person who (at least in theory) can reassign priests amongst churches at his will and discretion.

Presbyterians and Lutherans have Synods which can make binding rulings on their own members. There are competing synods which have come down on certain issues (e.g. the PCUSA tends to take more liberal stances on issues like gay marriage, abortion, and social issues, whereas the PCA is a much more evangelical, conservative "bible-based" one) but neither would suggest the other is "clearly going to hell"

And, of course, you have the Episcopalians, who are basically Catholics in everything but the Pope. They may stress their independence from Rome, but if you attend an Episcopal service, as a Catholic, you'll feel very much at home.

Now, it would be an error to say there are no doctrinal differences - Methodists are Arminian (meaning they believe that a person must choose to be saved) whereas Presbyeterians are Calvinstic (and believe that God already elected those whom He presdestined to saved.) Alternatively, Baptists would say that the communion elements are strictly symbolic, whereas a Lutheran might argue consubstantiation or transubstantion- but candidly, these are all minor issues for most modern day Protestants. When compared to "You are going to hell if you aren't saved by Jesus Christ," these things appear to most Protestants as minor points of mechanism - not life and death issues.

Primarily, Protestant identity stems from a reliance on personal interpretation of Scripture (and hence a rejection of Papal infallibaility, no matter how awesome Francis might be), and a stress on what a Protestant would probably call "orthodoxy" over against sacrementalism. But again, even these differences can be seen as outgrowths of a rejection of governance, moreso than theology.

Jesus is Lord? Check

Saved By Grace? Check

Trinitarian? Hypostatic Union? Jesus is Way Cool, Dude?

Check, Check, and Check.

Finally, understand that "personal interpretation" does gloss over a lot. Contracts are written to be as precise as possible, specifically to avoid differences of opinion over what a thing "means." To ask, "why should personal interpretation lead to differences?" is almost silly one regard.

As an example, think not of doctrine, but of politics. Even a simple statement like:

"Congress shall make no rule regarding the establishment of a religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"

can have radically different interpretations. Is a student-led prayer coercion? Or is stopping that valedictorian prohibiting his free exercise thereof? What about people who think that drugs are part of a spiritual experience? That's why we have a Court - to officially interpret what those words mean - in the same way you have a Pope. That said, we also have people with strong opinions that guide that decision making. Is a Court less messy than the alternative? Sure. But last time I checked, nobody thought they were infalliable.

But, no American is saying we should have Sharia Law. Fundamentally, we can agree on the main points - that Jesus is Lord, that we are saved by Him, the Creeds, etc..., and still differ on shades of meaning and certain use cases. That's really all that divides us.

  • 1
    I appreciate the discussion of the differences as it helps flesh out my question, but I'm not sure that this answers my question. For something like what is necessary for salvation, there are fundamental differences between denominations as you point out between Methodists and Presbyterians. If you believe that both denominations are sincere in their belief in God, Jesus as the Divine Son of God, and the Trinity, then how do you explain a fundamental difference like this?
    – brader24
    Commented Aug 6, 2013 at 12:38
  • 1
    But it's arguing over a detail - the mechanism - not the fundamental essence. Neither a Calvinst nor an Arminian would say that anyone other than Christ was doing the work. Its merely difference between, as Augustine would say, First Order Violition and Second Order.-- It's really just a detail. Commented Aug 6, 2013 at 12:40
  • I posted that before your edit. With due respect, I don't see "people with strong opinions" as being authority to teach what is true and what is not. It also still leaves fundamental differences between denominations. I would look at the understanding of what is necessary for salvation to be very important to interpret correctly. If any sincere believer is able to properly interpret scripture, how can something this be interpreted differently?
    – brader24
    Commented Aug 6, 2013 at 12:43
  • That's just it, I don't see how understanding what is necessary for salvation being just a detail.
    – brader24
    Commented Aug 6, 2013 at 12:44
  • 1
    This really is a good question, and hard to answer in anything less than a book. Protestantism (and Christianity for that matter) is messy - but it works - when we concentrate on what binds us, rather than what divides us. Commented Aug 6, 2013 at 12:48

The number of Protestant denominations represent Americas religious freedoms.This country is a creation of the Protestant Reformation thinkers who rejected the superstitions and idolatry of Southern Europe.The founding fathers rejected the hierarchies who fed false doctrines to the uneducated masses.We do interpret doctrine differently in some cases but we have the historical record of Jesus Christ in the Gospels as our guide.Jesus said "thy Word is thy truth" "do not change a jot" but nothing about having it interpreted my priests or popes.

  • 3
    Except that most of the world's Protestant denominations aren't in the USA. Can you edit this to give an answer that applies to the whole world rather than one tiny corner of it?
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Sep 30, 2014 at 0:31
  • And preferably, give an answer that is supported by authoritative sources and refers definitively to a single denomination or group of denominations. Commented Sep 30, 2014 at 13:41
  • This answer would be a lot better if you could add references showing that this is a common understanding, and who teaches/believes it. On this site, we're not looking for personal interpretation or opinions, but rather focusing on what various Christian groups teach. See How we are different than other sites? and What makes a good supported answer? Commented Oct 1, 2014 at 2:09

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