Differences In Christianities, Part 2

As I mentioned in a previous column, there are differences among the major forms of Christianity.

I usually can tell the Protestant Christians in my classes. They are the ones who have Bible verses memorized and want to preface and end their statements (and everything in between) with scriptural passages.

This is in stark contrast to my Catholic Christian students, who admit, “Well, I should read the Bible, but …” Their admission is the result of a history in the Catholic Church of ordinary Christians not reading the Bible because they couldn’t — Latin was the designated language of the Catholic Bible, and many Catholic Christians could not read in their own native language, much less in Latin, and there was no need to: They have a perfect spiritual leader (the pope) to guide them.

Protestant Christians were largely responsible for translating the Bible into the native languages of various peoples, rendering the Bible accessible and understandable to ordinary Christians. Prior to this, Latin (Catholic Church) and Greek (Orthodox Church) were the primary languages of the Christian Bible. (Jews have their own Bible, but that’s a matter for a different column.)

Enabling ordinary Christians to read the Bible on their own has had several consequences. On the positive side, this encourages Protestant Christians to be knowledgeable and responsible about their scriptural tradition. On the negative side, encouraging Protestant Christians to interpret the Bible for themselves has led to wacky (and sometimes dangerous) groups with extremist beliefs, i.e., snake handlers, polygamists, weapons collectors, Kool-Aid drinkers, comet chasers, certain MidWeek email writers, etc.

But the Bible never has been a single, unalterable unit sent down from heaven. It has been changed over time and altered to conform to and support the beliefs of the churches. This accounts for the numerous translations of the Bible available.

For example, the only passage in the Christian Bible that explicitly affirms the doctrine of the trinity is what is known as the Johannine Comma — so called because it is a short phrase found in a writing attributed to Jesus’ disciple John. Mention of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit can be found elsewhere in the Christian Bible, but only 1 John 5:7-8 unequivocally states, “and these three are one.”

The problem is that the Johannine Comma is not in the earliest and best Bible manuscripts. The passage was created later — centuries after the death of Jesus’ disciples — and inserted into the Bible, where it still exists in various forms in many (but not in all) translations. A survey of the different Bible translations bears this out. This problematic passage and the different ways different Bibles treat the Johannine Comma explain why different Christian churches hold different views regarding the Holy Trinity, some even going so far as to reject the doctrine altogether.

In short, different Christian groups use different Bibles. Orthodox Christians have 76 books in their Bible, Catholic Christians have 73 books in theirs, and Protestant Christians have 66 books. In the 16th century, Martin Luther and other Protestant Christians deleted several books from the Bible, including Maccabees, Tobit, Esdras, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch and other writings. (Atheists probably wish he didn’t stop there.) Protestant Christians rejected these books because they were written in Greek and not in Hebrew, the original language of the Bible. Interestingly, however, the entire New Testament was written in Greek, though it wasn’t the language of Jesus, either. Luther and his supporters also sought to remove Hebrews, James, Jude and the Book of Revelation from the Bible because they contradicted what he considered to be Protestant teachings. Alas, he was unsuccessful in removing them.

The biblical books that the Protestants did remove were important writings for the Catholic Church as they contained the underpinnings for its teachings on purgatory, prayers for the dead and the intercession of saints. As a result, Protestants reject these Catholic ideas as unbiblical. This is behind the Protestant charge that Catholics are not Christian because they observe beliefs and practices not found in the Bible. Yes, they are unbiblical from a Protestant perspective because they are not in their Bible — the Protestant Bible.

In the Protestant view, the Church should be based on the Bible; from the Catholic and Orthodox perspectives, however, it’s the other way around: The Bible is the product of the Church and the Bible supports the Church. The closing to John’s Gospel (21:25) reads: “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

In other words, the Bible does not tell us everything Jesus said and did. Could Lent, infant baptism and the veneration of saints be a part of this unwritten tradition kept by the followers of Christ? Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe so.

Not only do different Christian churches use different Bibles, but even the books within the same Bible differ from each other, some to such an extent that they produce contradictions.

For example, the gospels do not agree when Jesus died (was it before or after Passover?), what he taught (was it only one truth or many truths?), or how he taught (only through parables or without parables at all?).

These discrepancies account for the different and sometimes incompatible teachings and practices among the Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches. What exactly these differences and contradictions are, and the consequences such disparities produced, I will cover in part three.