Tag Archives: Church History

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.

What is an Ekklesia?



We have been slowly working our way through a study of church, or what some may call the doctrine of the church, simply stated, ecclesiology.  In this series thus far we’ve looked at:

We turn now from the English word church to the word used in the original Koine Greek, ekklesia.  After working through the meaning of ekklesia, we’ll need to ask whether the meaning and use of church corresponds accurately with ekklesia, whether church conveys the meaning of ekklesia, and what our Lord intended by using ekklesia over a similar word, sunagogue (synagogue).

In biblical translations, we arrive at our English equivalents in one of two ways: 1. Transliteration, or simply the English letter equivalent 2. Translation, inserting the near English equivalent in the place of the original language word.

In our Bible translations however, particularly English, this can be tricky because no word in the original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) has a single word that corresponds to its meaning.  There is usually a range (semantic range) of words and context is the best guide to determining which word fits best.  So even the best, formal equivalency (attempted word-for-word) translations have a bit of interpretation in them.

Sometimes we use transliterated words (our English letter equivalents and the Greek words you see here because I don’t have Greek fonts) from the original biblical languages in our modern parlance, such as Hallelujah or Messiah or Christ.  However, our usage doesn’t always match the words meaning:  Hallelujah = Praise Yahweh; Messiah = Anointed; but sometimes they are closer as in Christos = Christ.  Other common transliterated words in our New Testament are, Apostle (apostelos), Angel (angelos), Baptism (baptismo), Evangelist (euangeli), and Deacon (diakonos).  Note that these words have not necessarily been translated into an English equivalent, but because they are transliterated instead, they carry their original meaning over, sometimes avoiding unnecessary replacement, but sometimes failing to communicate the actual meaning, as in baptismo= immersion.

Our English word “church” is the most common translation of the Greek word ekklesia.  As Mounce’s dictionary affirms we find his definition of ekklesia as “church, congregation, assembly.”  Since ekklesia is the transliteration of the original Greek word, we can see clearly that it has no transliteration relationship with church.  Ekklesia is sometimes said to mean “the called out ones”, because it is a compound of ek (out of) and kaleo (called), while possible, it’s not entirely accurate.  We know that the combination of words into one doesn’t necessarily convey the meaning, as in our English words butterfly or greenhouse.

Likewise we can see that the other possibilities (semantic ranges) given by Mounce could have a greater bearing on what this word ekklesia actually means, neither a location, building, or event but rather an assembly or gathering.

Ekklesia is used as a noun ~114 times in the New Testament, first appearing canonically in Matthew 16:18.  Our Lord was not novel is His declaration to build an ekklesia, rather He was using or perhaps clarifying the Old Testament use and understanding of ekklesia.  Were you aware that the word so often translated as “church” was used in the Old Testament some 100 times?

In the Greek Old Testament, called the Septuagint (LXX), ekklesia is the most common translation of the Hebrew word qahal, meaning “assembly” or “to assemble”.  Of the 162+/- occurences of qahal (or maqhel), ~96 times it is translated as ekklesia.  However, qahal can also be translated as sunagogue or what we know as the transliterated word synagogue.  This translation choice for qahal occurs ~45 times in the Septuagint.  Commenting on the OT use of qahal, Louis Berkhof in his Systematic Theology, writes, “[Qahal] properly denotes the actual meeting together of the people.” (p. 555).  In other words, qahal wasn’t abstract, but took place when the people actually met together.

The remaining translations of qahal occur in a variety of ways.  As an aside, note how we have come to recognize the transliteration of synagogue and keep it in our English translations, but ekklesia is conspicuously absent.  It’s worth pointing out that unlike church, ekklesia doesn’t carry a specifically religious connotation, it simply means gathering or assembly (see Acts 19:32, 39, 41; now why isn’t it translated church in these verses!?!).  It gains its religious meaning when the phrase “of God” or “of Christ” is attached or implied.  We might say for our purposes that ekklesia simply means an assembly of God in Christ.

Ekklesia is used in at least of couple of different ways in the New Testament which has caused no little amount of tension.  As well as being used in the singular (church) and plural (churches), it’s use in the aforementioned Matthew 16:18 seems to be generic or what some have called a universal sense.  While it’s next use, the only other occurrence in the Gospels seems to be more specific, carrying a local application, Matthew 18:16.

Kittle, writing in volume 3 of the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament writes, “From the time of Thuc. [Thucydides, 460-395 B.C.], Plat. [Plato, 428-348 B.C.], and Xenoph. [Xenophon, 430-354 B.C.], and especially in inscriptions, ekklesia is the assembly of the demos [people, mass of people assembled in a public place] in Athens and in most Greek poleis [cities].  The etymology is both simple and significant.  The citizens are the ekkletoi, i.e., those who are summonsed and called together by the herald.”

Think again how we use the word church in our modern vernacular and even in the definition of church itself and ask whether it fits with what we’ve seen regarding ekklesia. As we saw, typically church means a people or building belonging to the Lord, but has also been applied to denominations, events, institutions, even businesses.  Ekklesia simply means an assembly or gathering.  Ekklesia is never used in reference to a building, ever.  Also, implied in the meaning of an assembly or gathering is a plurality, not individuality.

Translating ekklesia as church may have seemed like a fine idea if one is wanting to convey the idea of “belonging to the Lord”, but as we have seen so far, that is simply not the meaning of ekklesia and church is now a loaded term with baggage.  It would have been acceptable in our example we looked at last time from Revelation 1:10, John was in the Spirit on the church day, but not as a translation of ekklesia.

Our other word used in the original Greek, sunagogue (synagogue), seems to have overlapping meaning with ekklesia, i.e. they can both mean a gathering.  However, unlike ekklesia, synagogue can also refer specifically to a building, or the place where the gathering takes place.  On a surface level, it would appear that our English word church may more appropriately be related to synagogue, rather than ekklesia, particularly when we consider that synagogue carries with it a religious meaning.

However, let us be reminded that our Lord stated specifically in Matthew 16:18 that He would build His ekklesia, not His synagogue.  Both have meaning in the Old Testament, only one, synagogue, carries with it a specifically religious connotation as well as a strict geographic location that would have been easily recognized as such in the first century.  Ekklesia was much more generic, carrying with it the idea of a city council or local government.  Are these difference merely pedantic?  Or does understanding the meaning of church, ekklesia, and synagogue, respectively, influence the form or function of what we have come to call and participate in as church?

Let’s conclude with a final word from Kittle in his NT Theological Dictionary after stating that the use of assembly or gathering may be a more accurate way to translate ekklesia, “This does not mean that we should banish the words ‘Church’ and ‘congregation’ from our vocabulary. Apart from the impossibility of such an undertaking, there would be no sense in forfeiting the wealth of meaning proper to these terms. What is needed is that we should grasp the precise significance of the word ekklesia, since at this point linguistic sobriety will help us to the true meaning and bearing from the standpoint of biblical theology.”

Two main questions remain: 1. If it’s not the best-fit translation, how or why did church make it into our English bibles? 2. What, if anything, is the significance of all this?

A Survey of the History of Covenant Theology Part II


In a previous post we surveyed briefly the development of covenant theology in the 16th and 17th century (very generally).  In this post, we’ll pick up where we left off, with a transition out of 17th Century and into the 18th and 19th centuries.

This period in history has had a profound impact, not simply on covenant theology, or Christianity, but on the world as a whole.  It was during the 17th and 18th centuries that the Enlightenment period found her roots, thereby raising the need to question everything, including the revelation of Scripture, and replace it with rationalism.

Additionally other societal upheavals led to somewhat of a doctrinal wasteland; there was the schism in the Church of England by Baptists, Congregationalists, and Quakers, the colonization of America, the French Revolution, and generally speaking times of slumber for the church as a whole, out of which revival and the Awakenings were ushered in.

Getting back to the topic of covenant theology, little advancement took place during this period (for our purposes late 17th/early 18th centuries).  There were of course solid men whose sermons and writings reflect the continuation of covenant thought (Jonathan Edwards, John Gill, Benjamin Keach, and others to be sure), but because of the diversity of doctrinal confusion, rationalism, and doctrinal opposition, primarily to Calvinism and its Arminian response, its understandable that there were “bigger fish to fry” so to speak, than polemics between paedo and creedo baptists.

However, moving out of the 18th and into the 19th century is a different story.  The State Church of England now expanding, America now somewhat stabilized as a new country, the soil became ripe for novelty in the form of theological doctrines.  Central to these developments was the aforementioned French Revolution and the related fervor over the study of prophecy.  Enter on the scene in 19th Century England, Lewis Way, Edward Irving, and John Nelson Darby.

Way (1772-1840) is largely an unknown figure in church history, but his influence should not go unnoticed. Born in England in 1772 and the inheritor of a significant fortune along with vast theological resources, Way joined the fledgling London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews in 1809.[1]  After a visit to Devonshire in 1811, he was told of a “grove of trees concerning which the owner had left a will stipulating that ‘these oaks shall remain standing, and the hand of man shall not be raised against them till Israel returns and is restored to the Land of Promise.’”[2]

Sparking his interest in prophecy and an interest in the restoration of Israel, Way sought and found in the London Society an organization that suited his interests. In 1816, Way wrote and published his Letters which “stressed the connection between the return of the Jews to Palestine and their national conversion prior to the return of Christ.”[3]   It becomes clear then that Way’s theological view of the church and Israel would have a profound effect on how he viewed the covenants of Scripture, particularly the Abrahamic Covenant.

Way’s thoughts did not operate in a vacuum and he soon found platforms for the spread of this renewed interest in the Jewish return to Palestine in the form of Conferences, namely the Albury Conferences of the late 1820’s.  Capitalizing on the public fervor over biblical prophecy, Way along with his banker friend Henry Drummond, suggested that a private conference be held to discuss prophetic views.  Among the attenders of these conferences was a man who would wield much more influence than Way, though share in a similar ideology.  Edward Irving (1792-1834) was born in Scotland and raised Presbyterian.  A brilliant thinker and master orator, Irving drank the prophetic kool-aid and through his skill and personality spread it to anyone who would listen.

Irving’s reputation as a polished orator gained him large audiences and the attraction of men who needed a voice to promote their own agendas.  In Irving, a wildcard, men like S.T. Coleridge, who convinced Irving of his own pessimistic views of eschatology and Hatley Frere, who developed a “new scheme of interpretation” based on the present fulfillment of Daniel and Revelation and promoted an “imminent return of Christ”.

Historian Arnold Dallimore notes that Irving promoted allegorizations of the books of Daniel and Revelation with the surety and dogmatism that had established his popularity.  Of Irving he writes,

“One may read through Irving’s entire Works without finding anything that can truly be termed expository preaching. He takes a text, but uses it merely as a peg on which to hang his own numerous ideas, and the work of the true expositor – the study of the words in the original, and the discovery of the meaning of the text on the basis of those words – is virtually nowhere found.”[4]

Scripture aside, however, the most profound influence on Irving’s life would come in 1826 through  a publication that would radically impact his prophetic perspective and further cement the early background for what would become known as dispensational premillennialism.  This publication was written entirely in Spanish by a supposed Jewish convert named Ben Ezra, later identified as a Jesuit priest named Manuel De Lacunza (1731-1801), “a South American Jesuit whose eyes had been opened to the corruption of Rome.”

At the time of the Reformation, many of the Reformers had begun associating the rise of Antichrist with the papacy.  Not any one particular pope mind you, but the papacy in general, thereby applying their historicist view of prophecy, specifically as it related to Revelation.  In response, two Jesuits, Francesco Ribera (1537-1591) and Luis de Alcazar (1554-1613) published detailed studies of Revelation; the former with a futurist perspective and the latter with a more preteristic (fulfilled) perspective.  Both set out designs to “get the monkey of the back” of the pope.

For his part, Lacunza adopted the futurist position of Ribera, though with clearly a different outcome in mind.  His was to stir the priests to study their dusty Bibles and to champion a revival of Antichrist origin from the apostate Roman Church.  He published his scandalous views in The Coming of Messiah in Glory and Majesty, that called for a shift in the way one interpreted prophecy from what had been the more normative historicist view to a more futuristic interpretation. These views so profoundly influenced Edward Irving that he learned Spanish in order to translate Lacunza’s book into English and then appended his own 200-page preface to the work.

Writing on the history of dispensationalism, Mark Sarver notes that the significance of this publication

“lay in its futurism with reference to the interpretation of the book of Revelation (not only regarding the millennium of chapter 20 but also the tribulation of chapters 6 to 19).[5] In his prefatory remarks, Irving had asserted many of his own beliefs including views on the Gentile church, the future Jewish and universal church, and the personal advent of the Lord to destroy the one and build up the other.”[6]

This futurist view of end-time prophecy was virtually unheard of prior to the development and spread of the teaching of Irving, influenced by Jesuit Lacunza himself influenced by the futurist perspective of another Jesuit who had originated his view to remedy the pope-Antichrist connection.  Nearly to a man, the covenant theologians that had formulated their doctrine based on Scripture and expressed it through such monumental confessions as the Westminster and Second London Baptist, held to a historicist view of prophecy out of which their postmillennial views were derived.  Without question this new hermeneutic would profoundly effect how one would view eschatology and its relationship to the biblical covenants for centuries to come.

Continuing to advance his views at conferences, Ian Murray notes that Irving’s influence promoted a theology that was

“practically unknown in earlier Church history…namely, that Christ’s appearing before the millennium is to be in two stages, the first, a secret ‘rapture’ removing the Church before a ‘Great Tribulation’ smites the earth, the second his coming with his saints to set up his kingdom.”[7]

In Irving, we find the advancement of the Jewish return to Palestine and prominence given to Israel in prophecy, a futurist view of prophetic interpretation, the incipient doctrine of a secret rapture, an imminent return of Christ, and a 2-stage return of Christ.  It should also be pointed out that Irving’s influence did not rest in his eschatology alone, but by many accounts he may be called the Father of the Charismatic Movement.

Another prominent figure in the history of dispensationalism, who sat under the teaching and influence of Irving was John Nelson Darby,  referred by many as the Father of Dispensationalism.  Keep in mind through our historical survey and outline of dispensational origins that this doctrine is nearly at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Covenant Theology that was so prominently, dare I say exclusively, held at the time.

Darby gained much of his theological influence through the Powerscourt Conferences, where “the teaching of a pretribulation rapture of the Church took shape.”[8]  The role of Darby amongst a dissenting church group known as the Plymouth Brethren must at least be mentioned because of their influence on views of church membership and ecclesiology in particular.  Their dissatisfaction with the church was at least in part drawn from a publication by Edward Irving entitled, Babylon and Infidelity Foredoomed.

One particular Powerscourt Conference in 1833 was of special significance due to Darby’s advancement of the teaching that “the church as a parenthesis in the prophetic fulfillment between the sixty-ninth and seventieth weeks of Daniel” (Sarver), an obvious outworking of his ecclesiological position and understanding of the church’s pretribulational rapture.  Speaking on the development of this secret rapture teaching, Brethren member S.P. Tregelles wrote,

“It was from that supposed revelation [with Irving] that the modern doctrine [pre-tribulational rapture] and the modern phraseology respecting it arose. It came not from the Holy Scripture, but from that which falsely pretended to be the Spirit of God.”[9]

Commenting on this, Ian Murray writes,

“He (Darby) held that ‘the Church’ is a mystery of which only Paul speaks. She is Christ’s mystic body and will be complete at the ‘rapture’. The Jews and other Gentiles converted thereafter will never be Christ’s bride: ‘I deny that saints before Christ’s first coming, or after his second, are part of the Church.’ With breath-taking dogmatism Darby swept away what had previously been axiomatic in Christian theology.”[10]

Similarly Bass notes:

“Darby taught that the entire Christian church would be raptured, and the witness during the tribulation would be borne by a semi-Christian group, who, though not a part of the church, would be under a form of grace. He distinguished between the church (Pentecost to rapture) and the saints of the Old Testament, asserting that the church had a special glory and that the Old Testament saints had an inferior relationship to God. To explain the witness of the last days, as set forth in the Gospels, he taught that this was given to the apostles, not as the founders of the church, but as the representatives of the faithful remnant in the midst of an apostate Judaism. This involved a different view of the Gospels than was commonly held, and led to the practice of distinguishing certain parts of them as being ‘Jewish’.”[11]

Darby’s views were not met with a warm reception among all the Brethren members, notably B.W. Newton, who opposed what Darby had presented at the 1833 conference.  Regarding Newton’s position, Bass writes,

“Newton, on the other hand, taught that the ‘faithful’ who were to be persecuted were simply members of the church who would be on the earth at the time of the tribulation, and that the Old Testament saints were an integral part of the church, there being no ‘special glory’ for the post-Pentecostal saints.”[12]

Summarizing these views highlights the “dichotomy between Israel and the church [that] was forming in the thought of Darby, growing out of a rigidly applied principle of interpretation,”[13] while Newton’s view represented the common view of the time, i.e. continuity between the Old Testament and New Testament saints (generally held by both streams of Covenant Theology).

The fractured relationship between Darby and Newton, primarily over doctrinal concerns, would never heal. Through the writings and speaking occasions of Darby, Brethrenism would continue to spread throughout Europe, but it wasn’t until he began his international ministry that the course for dispensationalism’s zenith would be charted.

With this overview on the development of an alternative view to covenant theology, previously unknown in church history, brings us to the late 19th/early 20th Century and the spread of Darby’s dispensationalism to the United States.  A transition which would profoundly alter and perhaps forever change how prophecy and the covenants from Scripture would be approached and interpreted.  On this point we will pick up in the next post.


*Much of this post is derived, at least in part, from a paper submitted May 2014 to Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary titled “A Survey of the Historical Origins and Doctrinal Formulation of Modern Dispensationlism”

[1] http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14801-way-lewis (Accessed March 25, 2014).

[2] Mark Sarver, “Dispensationalism”Mark Sarver, http://www.sermonlinks.com/Sermons/Dispensationalism/DP_1.htm (accessed April 5, 2014)

[3] Ibid.

[4] Arnold Dallimore, The Life of Edward Irving: The Fore-runner of the Charismatic Movement (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1983), 59-60.

[5] Sarver, “Dispensationalism”

[6] Murray, Puritan Hope, 190.

[7] Ibid., 200.

[8] George Eldon Ladd, The Blessed Hope (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984), 41.

[9] Ibid, 40.

[10] Murray, Puritan, 200.

[11] Clarence Bass, Backgrounds to Dispensationalism: Its Historical Genesis and Ecclesiastical Implications (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1977), 76.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.