In tracing the history of the idea of the Bible alone as the sole authority of particular significance is the Protestant Reformation. Prior to this the Bible was generally considered to be “one pillar” of church authority, but as discussed this was not easily available to the common man until the time of printing and the translation into the everyday languages.
The establishment of an authoritarian system of church authority in the Catholic church is of significance in understanding both why the Protestant Reformation occurred and also why the Bible was elevated to being the authority in theory of most Protestant churches. Heresies and challenges to the orthodox Catholic church did arise periodically in many different forms and with many different theologies, but were suppressed by the Catholic church. The suppression started when the early church moved from a position of being persecuted towards one of gaining power. It was allied with the establishment of ever more defined creeds and in turn the rise in power of the “Bishop of Rome” to being the Pope and head of the Church.
The Roman Empire was however a vast empire to rule and eventually it broke permanently into two parts. One part was ruled from Rome, the other part from Constantinople. The half which was ruled by Rome is the part which is significant to our thoughts in this section in particular. In concert with the divide in the political empire, the main orthodox church also divided in two parts and both excommunicated each other. One part continued with the Pope in charge and became Roman Catholicism, the other half established various patriarchs and was more prominent in the East or Byzantine Empire. This today is what forms the various Eastern Orthodox churches which never became quite as powerful or controlling as did the Roman Catholic system and which is central to our thoughts about Protestant Christianity. In contrast to these churches which have always emphasised apostolic origins and the value of tradition the Protestant churches have tended to claim “the Bible alone” which is what we are considering here.
In the Western Roman Empire an alliance between the rulers of the political nations of Europe and a centralised Catholic Church led by the Pope in Rome emerged that formed one of the most controlling systems to ever emerge in history. This emerged from the ashes of the Roman Empire as the empire developed fatal weaknesses in its structure. As a result it could not defend its borders and came under multiple attacks from invading, often nomadic tribes. These were actively converted by the orthodox church and so in the place of the Roman Empire a “Holy Roman Empire” was constructed. In fact it led to the orthodox church gaining more power. In the Roman Empire the emperor had the most power, but this moved to a situation where the Pope had the most power. In the theology of “the Church” (as it was described) the holding of physical authority by the emperor was considered to be “temporal power” whereas the holding of religious authority (by the Pope) was considered to be “spiritual power.” A significant event was the coronation of an Emperor called Charlemagne by the Pope which symbolically illustrated that the head of the orthodox church having spiritual power was above the emperor who simply had temporal power.
The Holy Roman Empire was not an empire like the Roman Empire. It was a group of nations which were sometimes called “christendom” because of the idea that this system represented God’s kingdom. The various nations were led by “Christian” leaders and were in a position of subjection to the power of the Catholic system and the Pope. So although they were individual nations it became known as the Holy Roman Empire. An emperor crowned by Rome played a significant role in keeping other nations in line and could gain support from other nations to do this. No nation could therefore easily step out of line without consequences. In particular Germany often had a significant role. All this today is behind the symbolism in structures and flags and buildings.
The power that “Rome” had also became allied with huge immorality, debauchery and wickedness. The values that the church claimed to uphold were in vast contrast to the behaviour of the leaders of that church. This troubled many spiritual men and women within the church and combined with the availability of the Bible caused the Reformation to occur. This was so widespread that it could not be stopped. In fact the sheer courage of the Reformers makes us consider whether God also empowered and led them, a claim which they also frequently made too. The primary appeal was to the scripture and the contrast between Jesus and the church which claimed to be his.
The Reformation did however occur in stages and much of the protesting was against very obvious abuses of power within the church and the obvious desire for money behind the operation of the church. In addition the Reformers stressed how the believers did not need the intercession of priests to gain forgiveness from God. They did however cling in the initial stages to retaining some form of political power. In other words many segments broke away from the Catholic Church to become State Churches. This was an alliance of mutual benefit in that many leaders wanted freedom from Rome and were able in turn to give some measure of protection to the Reformers in return.
However this was not enough for many reformers who wanted an entire break between church and state. These people became known as the “radical reformers” and all of the “free churches” which are non-state aligned owe something to the stance this group of folk took. Many were also called “anabaptists” because they believed only adults could be baptised, which to both the orthodox churches and the early Protestants was considered to be “rebaptising.”
The Reformation threatened the existence of the Catholic Church which responded with a series of brutal inquisitions. These had always occurred through history, but as a result of the Reformation they reached unprecedented intensity and is something we should never lose sight of because it is a reminder of the danger of institutionalised power. The reformers themselves were often not innocent either and were often guilty of in turn persecuting those who sought a deeper reformation that they did. After many centuries the inquisitions did finally come to an end and resulted in the freedoms of thought and speech which are often today rarely values as much as they should be.
A huge number of the folk who did not want to be part of the state churches in fact fled to the New World to gain religious freedom where the American Constitution was framed by both secular humanists and those who valued religious freedom. These freedoms set the stage for vast arguments over what the Bible said that has led to a huge number of the denominations. In particular groups emerged which focused on the soon return of Christ (often setting dates which then failed) and with a belief that they were the true restoration of Christianity. These include the Seventh Day Adventists, the Christadelphians, the Worldwide Church of God and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. A vast numbers of the denominations (particularly the highly exclusive ones) can be traced to this period and have shared links.