Category Archives: Theology

Reviving the Doctrine of Church Studies

 

It’s been a few months since we visited our ongoing study regarding the form and function of church.  We left off with an introduction to the universal concept of church as defined by the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646.  Recall that generally speaking, the doctrine of the universal church finds chief support in Matthew 16:18 as compared with Matthew 18:17, though as we’ll soon see, whether rightly or wrongly some other verses are brought into the mix for support as well.

Additionally, in that last post, we looked at three key issues which have been the source of debate and disagreement regarding the nature of a universal church theory.  They were:

  1. The theory of the universal church conflates the concept of the people of God (church) with the concept of ekklesia (gathering), the New Testamen Greek word that is translated as church in our English bibles..
  2. The theory of the universal church, at its core, asserts too much continuity between Israel and the Church.
  3. The theory of the universal church is rooted in equating the church with the kingdom of God and the church with the family of God.

We left that post with anticipation of a historical look at this theory’s development and to hopefully determine whether any of these objections have merit.  That is where we find ourselves today, reviving our studies on the doctrine of the church.

In order to accomplish this historical review, we’ll lean heavily on the overview provided in the Systematic Theology of Louis Berkhof who provides a succinct history on the doctrine of the church.  I’ll be quoting him extensively as a solid, well-respected, point of reference, but ultimately to show how some of the conclusions we may reach are not unique, but have at least been mentioned in times past.  It of course does not mean that by citing him that we necessarily have come to agreement with his conclusions.  Generally speaking, Berkhof’s conclusions are typical of the Reformed tradition.

By way of continuing our review, in order to resume our series here, and as an introduction to Berkhof, we will follow his outline beginning with a well thought out introduction to the meaning and use of ekklesia in the New Testament (Old Testament as well).  For an expanded study, our post on this issue may be found here: What is an Ekklesia?

Berkhof writes,

“The New Testament also has two words derived from the Septuagint, namely, ekklesia, from ek and kaleo, “to call out,” and sunagoge, from sun and ago, meaning “to come or to bring together.”  The latter is used exclusively to denote either the religious gatherings of the Jew or the buildings in which they assembled for public worship, Matt. 4:23; Acts 13:43; Rev. 2:9; 3:9.  The term ekklesia, however, generally designates the Church of the New Testament, though in a few places it denotes common civil assemblies.” Pg. 555-556

As in our study, Berkof points out the two significant terms in the New Testament which find their roots in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint), sunagoge (synagogue) and ekklesia, which as we’ve mentioned is translated into English as church.  After doubting the validity of deriving the meaning of ekklesia from the compound of ek and kaleo, Berkhof adds,

“Deissmann (1866-1937, German Protestant) would simply render ekklesia as ‘the (convened) assembly,’ regarding God as the convener.  Because the idea of the Church is a many-sided concept, it is quite natural that the word ekklesia, as applied to it, does not always have exactly the same connotation.  Jesus was the first one to use the word in the New Testament, and He applied it to the company that gathered about Him, Matt. 16:18, recognized Him publicly as their Lord, and accepted the principles of the Kingdom of God.  It was the ekklesia of the Messiah, the true Israel.  Later on, as a result of the extension of the Church, the word acquitted various significations.  Local churches were established everywhere, and were also called ekklesiai, since they were manifestations of the one universal Church of Christ.”

Here we may observe a few noteworthy points, namely the recognition that ekklesia refers to the “convened assembly” and that Christ’s use of ekklesia, from Matthew 16:18, alluded to those who were “convened” or gathered around Him.  That’s an important point that is often neglected and may aid to ones understanding of whether Matthew 16:18 is a universal church reference or not.  Remember that this particular verse is often championed as evidence of universal church, i.e. that Christ’s use of ekklesia here necessarily implies that He is talking about the whole community of God’s people.  Contrary to this, Berkhof is describing it as the actual fellowship of those around Him, beginning with the twelve.

After this, Berkhof begins his descriptions of these various uses or connotations of ekklesia in the New Testament, the first of which he discusses is the most frequent usage.  According to him the most frequently used meaning of ekklesia “designates a circle of believers in some definite locality, a local church, irrespective of the question of whether these believers are or are not assembled for worship.”  Here, Berkhof concludes that an ekklesia may be an ekklesia, even if they are not actually gathered together.  Additionally, he concludes that regardless of whether they are gathered or not, geographic location is still a determinant factor.  He then lists several passages as examples for gathered and ungathered, which I’ve included below.[1] This of course brings up an interesting point of discussion, which we’ll take up another time, namely, is a church a church when it is not gathered.

The second use of ekklesia in the New Testament, he concludes, sometimes “denotes what may be called a domestic ekklesia, the church in the house of some individual,” citing instances of this word in Rom. 16:23; I Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15, and Philemon 2.  Along a similar line, Berkhof notes that at least once, Acts. 9:31, the word is used in the singular to denote a collection of churches from Judea, Galilee, and Samaria.  This usage is a debated passage and as he points out, “this does not yet mean that they together constituted an organization such as we now call a denomination.”

His final two uses, again by way of review for our own study here, are critical towards understanding the issue at hand, namely whether it is accurate to speak of an universal church, and if so, what exactly this should refer to.  He states, “in a more general sense the word serves to denote the whole body throughout the world, of those who outwardly profess Christ and organize for the purposes of worship, under the guidance of appointed officers.”  With some hesitancy, Berkhof suggests this is found in 1 Cor. 10:32; 11:22; 12:28 and possibly the intention for the use of ekklesia in Ephesians.  Interestingly, he doesn’t cite Matthew 16:18 as so many do, so we’ll need to examine these additional references if we’re to find evidence of a universal theory of church.  Finally, he states that the word in its “most comprehensive meaning signifies the whole body of the faithful, whether in heaven or on earth, who have been or shall be spiritually united to Christ as their Savior.”  He cites some examples that I’ve listed below.[2]

Wit this point, let’s recall the actual meaning of the word under discussion here, namely ekklesia, which refers to a gathering and note too the most frequent usage cited above.  Would it therefore be proper or accurate to refer to the whole body of the faithful, whether in heaven or on earth, or whether or not they have been united to Christ or not (saved) as the ekklesia, i.e. church?

Summarizing then these uses of ekklesia in the New Testament, at least according to Louis Berkof, we have the following

  1. A convened assembly with God as Covener.
  2. First used by Christ in Matthew 16:18 – a reference to those convened about Him.
  3. A circle of believers in a definite geographic location.
  4. May or may not be gathered together (for worship), meaning that they may be called a church whether they are physically present together.
  5. Ekklesia in the New Testament often referred to a gathering in a particular house of an individual.
  6. Ekklesia may generally refer to the collected body of believers throughout the world.
  7. The most comprehensive meaning of ekklesia refers to the whole body of believers, whether in heaven or on earth, who have been united to Christ.

After giving an overview of how the meaning of the English word “church” was transferred to the use of ekklesia, which we looked at earlier in this post, Berkhof overviews other scriptural concepts that refer to the people of God (i.e. Body of Christ, Temple of the Holy Spirit, New Jerusalem/Jerusalem above, Pillar and ground of the truth) and then opens up his section on The Doctrine of the Church in History.  Here is where we will pick up in the next post for the purpose of understanding how this concept of the universal church has developed in history.

In the meantime, you can get caught up on this series here:

[1]Assembled: Acts 5:11; 11:26; 1 Cor. 11:18; 14:19,28,35; Not assembled: Rom. 16:4; 1 Cor. 16:1; Gal. 1:2; 1 Thess. 2:14

[2]Eph. 1:22; 3:10, 21; 5:23-25, 27, 32; Col. 1:18,24

The Reformation of Luther

 

Today, October 31, 2017 is the day that will be universally celebrated as Reformation Day, specifically the 500th Anniversary of the day when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door at Wittenburg with the goal of generating an academic debate.  What followed were a series of events wherein Luther rejected the unscriptural practices of the Roman Catholic Church, upholding Scripture alone as the sole instrument of faith and practice.  As we’ve already seen, on the day when Luther nailed his theses there is a high probability that he was yet to be genuinely saved.  So, before God could use Luther in the way that He intended at the time and place that He intended for the purposes that He intended, Luther was in need of a reformation of his own, a personal reformation, one that could only be wrought by a divine work of God in the heart.

It has often been said that before God uses a man to do a widespread work of revival and reformation, He first does a work of reformation in that same man’s heart.  Such is certainly the case with Luther.  The controversy in which Luther eventually found himself, namely questioning the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and her leaders brought about by their improper use of indulgences strictly for the sake of financial gain, forced him to the Scriptures to search for support of this teaching and subsequently support of his own position.  Once here, Luther concluded that Scripture was the ultimate authority, not the Church.

Recall that in his own words, Luther considered himself a faithful son of the Roman Catholic Church and a faithful servant of the Pope, as of 1517 at least (though as we will see later, possibly as late as May 1518).  By October 1518, Luther was in direct defiance of the Pope.

Citing Luther’s interviews with Cardinal Cajetan on October 12, 13, and 14 in 1518, Phillip Schaff writes, “Catejan treated Luther with condescending courtesy, and assured him of his friendship.  But he demanded retraction of his errors, and absolute submission to the Pope.  Luther resolutely refused, and declared that he could do nothing against his conscience; that one must obey God rather than man; that he had the Scripture on his side; that even Peter was once reproved by Paul for misconduct (Gal. 2:11), and that surely his successor was not infallible.”

By March 13, 1519 Luther had declared, regarding the Pope, “I know not whether the Pope is antichrist himself, or his apostle; so wretchedly is Christ, that is the truth, corrupted and crucified by him in the Decretals.”

How then can Luther make such a drastic turn about in 18 months?

Our answer is coming.

Finally, for the point of our discussion here, on April 18th, 1521 Luther stood before the new Emperor Charles, 6 Electors (Princes over City-States; including his own), “The Pope’s legates, archbishops, bishops, dukes, margraves, princes, counts, deputies of the imperial cities, ambassadors of foreign courts, and a numerous array of dignitaries of every rank; in one word, a fair representation of the highest powers of Church and State.  Several thousand spectators were collected in and around the building and in the streets, anxiously waiting for the issue.” (Schaff, Vol. 7, pg. 300)

What began as a “innocent” attempt to generate academic debate had now morphed into the entire Roman empire against one man who once claimed them as his own.  It was here, at the Diet of Worms, that Luther uttered his now famous defense and for us, answers the question of how reform was conducted in his own heart.  Schaff again recounts the moment for us, “Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments (since I believe neither the Pope nor the councils alone; it being evident that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound in the word of God: I can not and will not recant any thing, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do anything against the conscience.” (Vol. 7, pg. 304-305)

Before Luther could act as the spark that would ignite God’s reformation, he was first in need of God to do a work in his heart.  This work was performed by God’s Spirit working through the Word of God to enlighten and illumine the mind of Luther to the truth’s of Scripture.  The overflow of this is seen in Luther’s words above, “I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures…my conscience is bound in the word of God.”

Much like Josiah 2100 years earlier and every other “reformer” that God has raised up for His own glory, Luther was the product of divine grace working in the heart.  This work of grace was and always is the first reformation and for Luther, it was his most lasting reformation.  From beginning to end, reformation, whether internal in the heart or on the world’s stage, is entirely a work of God.

To God Alone be Glory.

The Motivation of Luther

 

In our first post on the Reformation, in this broader series on church history, we simply introduced the Reformation with a few general thoughts on how some of the events surrounding this historical occasion have been subjected to tradition.  Here, we’ll discuss Luther’s 95 Theses as well as some correspondence surrounding the event to gain additional insight into his motivation.

When articulating Luther’s nailing of his 95 Theses, we often hear his motivation presented as a desire to uphold “justification by faith alone” or sola fide.  However, it should be noted that Luther posted his theses, intended for academic debate only by the way, in 1517, while his doctrine of justification likely evolved and developed from at least that time (possibly a year or two earlier) until its full gestation around 1531 when he formally taught Galatians and penned its commentary.  Despite this, it’s probable that for Luther, “justification by faith alone” became part of his vernacular in 1519, two years after posting his theses, and the year which he taught the Psalms for the second time.  At the very least, it was likely this year that Luther became a Christian, at least as he describes in his own words.

Additionally, as we look to Luther’s own 95 theses, we would find them to largely espouse Roman Catholic doctrine and not, as we may have been led to believe, a protestation against her doctrine, instead upholding it.  Regarding the theses, Phillip Schaff writes, “They sound very strange to a modern ear [1858], and are more Catholic than Protestant.  They are no protest against the Pope and the Roman Church, or any of her doctrines, not even against indulgences, but only against their abuse.  They expressly condemn those who speak against indulgences (Th. 71), and assume that the Pope himself would rather see St. Peter’s Church in ashes that have it built with the flesh and blood of his sheep (Th. 50).  They imply belief in purgatory.  They nowhere mention Tetzel.  They are silent about faith and justification, which already formed the marrow of Luther’s theology and piety.  He wished to be moderate, and had not the most distant idea of a separation from the mother church. “  Citing Luther’s own comments on the republication of these theses in his collected works, Schaff writes, “I allow them to stand, that by them it may appear how weak I was, and in what a fluctuating state of mind, when I began this business.  I was then a monk and a mad papist, and so submersed in the dogmas of the Pope that I would have readily murdered any person who denied obedience to the Pope.” (Vol. 7, pg. 157)

Luther’s first correspondences regarding these 95 Theses was to the Elector, Archbishop Albert of Hohenzollern (Brandenburg; Mayence/Mainz) on October 31, 1517, the same day he posted his theses, where he decries the selling of indulgences without the Electors knowledge and consent.  The excerpt below summarizes the situation well.

“With your Electoral Highness’s consent, the Papal Indulgence for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s in Rome is being carried through the land. I do not complain so much of the loud cry of the preacher of Indulgences, which I have not heard, but regret the false meaning, which the simple folk attach to it, the poor souls believing that when they have purchased such letters they have secured their salvation, also, that the moment the money tingles in the box souls are delivered from purgatory, and that all sins will be forgiven through a letter of Indulgence, even that of reviling the blessed Mother of God, were any one blasphemous enough to do so. And, lastly, that through these Indulgences the man is freed from all penalties ! Ah, dear God ! Thus are those souls which have been committed to your care, dear father, being led in the paths of death, and for them you will be required to render an account. For the merits of no bishop can secure the salvation of the souls entrusted to him which is not always assured through the grace of God, the apostle admonishing us ” to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling,” and, that the way which leads to life is so narrow, that the Lord, through the prophets Amos and Zechariah, likens those who attain to eternal life to brands plucked from the burning, and above all, the Lord points to the difficulty of redemption. There fore, I could be silent no longer.”

As mentioned earlier, this letter affirms the motivation of Luther in calling out those who were preaching the sale of indulgences for salvation from purgatory as being out of step with the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church.  He therefore was not protesting against the RCC, but was appealing to her in order to correct these perceived deficiencies. Boiling down Luther’s focus, essentially he was shining a light on greed and corruption of the Roman Catholic Church and it was this, the love of money, not a disagreement over the pure doctrine of Scripture or even the inconsistent application of Rome’s corrupt doctrine, that would warrant such a strong response from the Pope.

He concludes his letter above, which accompanied a copy of his 95 Theses, with these words

“What else can I do, right reverend father, than beg your Serene Highness carefully to look into this matter, and do away with this little book of instructions, and command those preachers to adopt another style of preaching, else another may arise and refute them, by writing another book in answer to the previous one, to the confusion of your Serene Highness, the very idea of which alarms me greatly. I hope that your Serene Highness may graciously deign to accept the faithful service which your insignificant servant, with true devotion, would render you. The Lord keep you to all eternity. Amen. Wittenberg, the night before All Saints’ Day 1517.

If agreeable to your Grace, perhaps you would glance at my enclosed theses, that you may see the opinion on the Indulgences is a very varied one, while those who proclaim them fancy they cannot be disputed. Your unworthy son, Martin Luther”

This letter isn’t earth-shattering, but it does go along way in showing that Luther wasn’t initially acting as a revolutionary, nor was he acting in isolation from his superiors, rather he was appealing to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church to bring resolution to the errant ways of the indulgence preachers.  Remember that Luther posted these theses for academic debate.  The problem was that not one single professor or academic responded to the challenge.  For Luther, the real reformation, namely an internal one, was yet to come.  However, the match that the Lord would use to ignite the reformation had been nailed to the door.

Soli Deo Gloria.