Tag Archives: Augustine of Hippo

“Red Letter Reductionism” Expanded

Recently I received word that someone might be interested in publishing my “Red Letter Reductionism” essay that I first shared in 2013—if only I could reduce it a little.

So I expanded it from 23 pages to 31 pages. Then, with great effort and the judicious advice of a friend, I cut it down to 14 pages. Now I have two red letter reductionism essays:

  • “Red Letter Reductionism” (expanded version, 31 pages)
  • “Red Letter Reductionism and Apostolic Authority” (reduced version, 14 pages)

This is all rather expansive for an essay about reductionism, but I am thankful for the results.

I’m not sure I want to post my abbreviated essay until it has been published in print (trusting it will be). But here is the expanded version of the original essay:

Red Letter Reductionism

What is this essay about?

Red letter Christians are any Christians who in some way prioritize the words of Jesus over the rest of Bible, including over the rest of the New Testament. While the words of Jesus are indeed important, I think that elevating the Bible’s red letters over its black letters is a bad practice that can lead to bad results.

In this essay I explain why, focusing especially on the authority Jesus gave to his apostles, including his promise to speak through them.

From the essay introduction:

This essay is about red letter theology and red letter Christians. It is about the authority of the New Testament and the nature of the gospel. First, we need an introduction to red letter Christianity. Then we will ask whether it is harmless. To answer our question, we will consider the promise of the Spirit, the limits of pre-Pentecostal revelation, and the nature of apostolic authority. We will take a close look at Paul, examining his gospel and his apostolic claims. We will examine John 3:16 as a test case for red letter theology and then ask whether this theology paints a shrunken, two-dimensional Jesus. We will consider the relationship between the Sermon on the Mount and the gospel and ask whether Anabaptists are truly excited about the gospel. Finally, we will consult Matthew’s opinion on red and black letters, then conclude with two clarifications and five suggestions for readers of this essay.

What is new in this edition?

First, I combed the entire essay, trying to improve clarity and weed out overstatements. Then I added significant new content.

I invite you to read the entire essay, even (perhaps especially) if you’ve read it before. Most paragraphs were tweaked at least a little.

But I don’t want you to miss some of the new material I’ve included, so I’ll share four excerpts here (minus footnotes).

1. On the term “the authority of Scripture”:

We must pause to examine what we mean by “the authority of Scripture.” First, following N.T. Wright, I believe that “the phrase ‘the authority of scripture’ can make Christian sense only if it is shorthand for ‘the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through scripture.’”[1] On the one hand, this definition prevents us from directing worship to a book rather than to its Author; on the other hand, it reminds us that reverence for Scripture as the word of God is not idolatry but essential fear of God. Second, the term authority is used variously to refer to both (a) the divine origin of Scripture and (b) the weight or influence that any portion of Scripture carries to shape our interpretations and behaviors. In this essay I am primarily addressing the question of the divine origin of Scripture, arguing that red and black letters alike are words from God and, in that sense, equally authoritative. But one question leads to another; those who question whether all black letters truly come from God will also not allow them to shape their interpretations and behaviors as strongly. So near the end of this essay I will briefly address the question of which passages of Scripture should rightly shape our interpretation of Scripture most directly and strongly.

2. On the self-awareness of the New Testament authors about the authority they exercised as they wrote:

At least some New Testament authors seem to have been aware of the authority entrusted to them as they wrote. Peter addresses his readers as “an apostle of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:1), declaring that what he had “written” was “the true grace of God” in which his readers must “stand firm” (1 Pet. 5:12). This self-identification as “apostle” is found at the beginning of many New Testament letters, and should not be missed. When an Old Testament prophet said “Thus says the LORD,” he was using a standard messenger formula—the same formula that was used by the herald of a king, who would preface his message by saying “Thus says king so-and-so.” This formula indicated that the prophet was on assignment, speaking God’s words.[1] A similar thing seems to be happening in the New Testament whenever an author claims to be an apostle. He is using this title to assert that he is God’s messenger—“the special envoy of Christ Jesus commissioned by the will of God.”[2]

…John… prefaces his prophetic visions with a blessing best reserved for the word of God (cf. Jesus’ statement in Luke 11:28): “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it” (Rev. 1:3a). At the end of Revelation, Jesus repeats this blessing on those who “keep” what John has written (Rev. 22:7; cf. 22:9), just as faithful saints elsewhere in the book are said to “keep” the commandments of God (12:17; 14:12) and the word of Jesus (3:8, 10).

John’s prophecy ends with a most solemn warning (that may come from the lips of Jesus himself):

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. (Rev. 22:18-19)

This warning adapts similar warnings found in the Law of Moses (Deut. 4:1-2; 12:32; 29:19-20), leading Oxford theologian Christopher Rowland to this observation:

In utilizing this prohibition from Deuteronomy John appears to regard his own revelations as being of equal importance with earlier communications from God given to Moses. There is no question here of this book being regarded by its author either as a series of inspired guesses or intelligent surmise. John believes that what he has seen and heard actually conveys the divine truth to his readers… John sees himself as the one who has been commissioned to write down the divine counsels for the benefits of the churches (Rev. 1:19).[3] 

3. On whether Paul undermines nonresistance:

Another reason some people are uneasy about Paul’s influence is because they fear he is not sufficiently clear on nonresistance. After all, a majority of Protestants historically have been all too quick to take up the sword and repay evil with evil. Does this endorsement of violence flow naturally from the Pauline Reformed theology that many of them embrace? More explicitly still, Romans 13 certainly has been and still is used by many Protestants to defend the Christian use of the sword. Isn’t it safest—even essential—to subjugate Paul’s ambivalent teachings on the sword to Jesus’ clear command that we must not resist evil?

Four brief responses can be given. First, Reformed or even Protestant theology simply does not explain most of the Christian use of the sword throughout history. Roman Catholics, too, have historically affirmed the Christian use of the sword, despite not being shaped by the Pauline theology of Luther which set the trajectory for Protestant doctrines. During the Reformation, Protestants and Catholics alike waged war and persecuted Anabaptists. And Christian just war theory is much older than the Reformation. It stretches back at least to Augustine (A.D. 354-430), was developed most significantly by the great Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (A.D. 1225-1274), and remains the official doctrine of the Catholic church to this day.

Second, Paul is not to blame for Augustine’s formulation of just war theory. Augustine believed that Jesus’ command to love our neighbor meant that Christians must normally not kill in self-defense. Yet, drawing explicitly upon Greco-Roman pagan thinkers—especially Cicero[1]—he made an exception for “just wars.” Romans 13 was not his “starting point,” despite the chapter’s later close association with just war theory by thinkers such as Aquinas and Luther.[2] Augustine concluded, as one scholar summarizes, that “‘times change’… pacifism was appropriate… in the time of the apostles [but] not… in a day and age when kings and nations have succumbed to the gospel” in fulfillment of prophecy.[3] Augustine was well aware of what both Jesus and the apostles taught, but concluded that new circumstances called for new behaviors. Augustine’s theology was too pagan, not too Pauline.

This leads to a third point: the influence of politics on theology. Catholics and Protestants alike developed their theology within the context of a Christendom that extended back to Constantine, the first Roman emperor to bear the sword in the name of Jesus. Political allegiances shaped the magisterial theology of Zwingli, Luther, and Calvin, with each relying on the sword-bearing support of city councils or German princes. The Swiss Brethren Anabaptists, in contrast, counted the cost of losing political legitimacy at the time they chose believers’ baptism. Living as a persecuted minority, they were free of political entanglements that might have hindered them from following Jesus’ teachings on nonviolent enemy-love. Yet they developed their nonresistant theology, it must be noted, while also wrestling meaningfully with Paul’s teachings in Romans 13.[4] This influence of political power over our theology of the sword continues to this day, as Reformed theologian Preston Sprinkle has observed:

It’s fascinating (one might say disturbing) to see how each person’s political context or position shapes his or her understanding of Romans 13. Christians living in North Korea or Burma tend to read Romans 13 differently than Americans do… Not more than a generation ago, Romans 13 was hailed as the charter for apartheid in South Africa. American Christian leaders did the same during the years of slavery and segregation.[5]

“Most now would see such a view of Romans 13 as going a bit too far,” Sprinkle continues. “But only a bit.” He notes how Wayne Grudem has applied this chapter to America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, assuming that America is the good government and that Iraq and Afghanistan are the bad governments. “Were it flipped around and Romans 13 was used to validate Afghanistan’s invasion of America as punishment for horrific drone strikes on civilians,” Sprinkle suggests, “most Americans would see this as a misreading of Romans 13.”[6]

Which brings us to our final point: Paul is far clearer on nonresistance than many Christians, red letter or not, tend to acknowledge. In fact, Paul’s writings are in line with the entire New Testament, which “highlights Jesus’s nonviolent response to violence as a pattern to follow more often than any other aspect of his ministry.”[7] Paul “has the Sermon on the Mount ingrained in his soul,” Sprinkle observes, and most of “Paul’s litany of commands… in Romans 12… has the scent of Jesus’s Sermon.”[8] “Repay no one evil for evil… never avenge yourselves… if your enemy is hungry, feed him… overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:17-21). The clarity of Romans 12 and other Pauline passages should remove all doubt that when Romans 13 puts the sword into the hand of the third-person government (“he,” not “you”), Paul cannot be affirming Christian vengeance. After all, “Paul explicitly forbids the church in Romans 12 from doing what the government does in Romans 13.”[9]

4. On whether Matthew—the favorite gospel of many red letter Christians—promotes red letter theology:

David Starling addresses such questions in his recent book Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship.[1] First, Starling notes that both the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel and the six “antitheses” of Matthew 5 give Jesus’ own words a prominence that matches and perhaps even exceeds the law of Moses. Similarly, at the center of Matthew’s Gospel we find the mount of transfiguration, where God the Father exalts Jesus with an assertion (“this is my Son”) and a command (“listen to him!”). Starling suggests that “the assertion and command… (echoed by Jesus’s own assertion and command in Matt. 28:18-20a) are the twin foci around which Matthew arranges the material of his Gospel.” Thus, there are “five big blocks of red-letter content (chs. 5-7; 10; 13:1-52; 18; 24-25) in Matthew,” each underscoring “the identity and authority of Jesus as the Son of God.” Starling summarizes what this reveals about Matthew’s purposes as a Gospel writer:

The bulk and the prominence of these five blocks of teaching suggest that Matthew intended not only to narrate Jesus’ story but also to preserve and propagate his teachings, so that his disciples might learn and obey them. Evidently, according to the shape and content of Matthew’s testimony, the redness of the red letters in his Gospel is of no small significance to Jesus, to Matthew, and to God himself, and ought to be of no small significance to the Gospel’s readers.[2]

So far, so good for red letter theology. But Starling continues:

But what exactly is the nature of that significance? How does Matthew want us to understand the relationship between Jesus’s words and the words of the Old Testament Scriptures (and, for that matter, Matthew’s own words as the writer of the Gospel)?[3]

Starling answers by examining both Jesus’ words and Matthew’s words. The first words of Jesus recorded in Matthew (at his baptism) implicitly appeal to Scripture (Matt. 3:15). The next recorded words (at his temptation) directly appeal to Scripture (Matt. 4:1-11). The Beatitudes “are soaked in recollections of the Scriptures,” and “it is harder to imagine a stronger claim for the enduring importance of the Law than the language Jesus uses” in Matthew 5:18: “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”[4] As we continue reading Matthew’s record of Jesus’ words, the pattern of quoting and honoring the Scriptures continues. So Starling concludes:

The red letters of Matthew’s Gospel can hardly be interpreted as an attempt to wrest authority away from the black. Any notion we might have that Jesus’s words could replace or supersede the words of Old Testament Scripture is dispelled as soon as Jesus starts speaking.[5]

Matthew’s own words have a similar effect. Starling suggests that Matthew is teaching a way of reading the Scriptures. He does this by using a “constant interleaving of biographical narrative [about Jesus’ life], typological allusions [from the Old Testament], and scriptural citations [also from the Old Testament].”[6] Craig Keener explains:

Matthew has constructed almost every paragraph following the genealogy and until the Sermon on the Mount around at least one text of Scripture. He thus invites his ideal audience to read Jesus in light of Scripture and Scripture in light of Jesus.[7]

The references to the Old Testament continue throughout Matthew’s narrative, “so that we might learn to read Scripture, and to understand Christ, accordingly.”[8]

Starling ends his chapter with insightful and mature reflections, worth quoting at length:

The red letters of Jesus’s teachings do indeed… fulfill a particular function in the economy of Scripture. Christians who… attempt to read the Scriptures as a timeless, undifferentiated compendium of divine commands, may revere Scripture but can hardly be said to have understood its message: those who faithfully trace the lines of Scripture’s black letters must inevitably be led to the place where they become hearers (and doers) of the red.

But the relationship between the black letters and the red is not a one-way street; it is a recursive, reciprocal relationship. The black letters of the Old Testament prophecy and apostolic testimony lead us to Jesus and urge us to listen to him; the red letters of Jesus’s teaching, in turn, commission and authorize his apostles as heralds of the gospel and send us back to the Old Testament to learn its meaning and its implications afresh in light of his coming. The red letters of Matthew’s Gospel are joined to the black in an indispensable, mutually authorizing, and mutually interpretive relationship; what God has joined together no interpreter should attempt to separate.

For evangelicals in our own time, confronted with the claim that we must choose between two different kinds of Christianity—one defined by the red letters of Scripture and the other defined by the black—the Gospel of Matthew provides a timely warning against false dichotomies and needless schisms. It reminds “red letter Christians” of the indispensability of the black letters and reminds “black letter Christians of the centrality of the red (or, more precisely, of the one who speaks them).[9]

To this exhortation I say “amen”—adding only a little more precision by reminding us that it is actually the risen Jesus himself who is speaking in the black letters of the apostolic writings, as we noted above. In summary, Christians who try to use Matthew’s Gospel to create a more perfect red letter version of Christianity do dishonor to Matthew and to Jesus himself.

May God help us all read and honor his written word and his risen Christ more faithfully!

The original version of this essay was much improved by the feedback of some readers—including some very rigorous ones on the crashed-and-rebranded former Mennodiscuss.com. (Thankfully, I downloaded and saved much of that feedback!) I welcome your feedback here, too, in the comments below. Thank you!


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The Church of Christ — Ferguson (4): Salvation and Church Membership

The third chapter of Everett Ferguson’s book The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today is perhaps my favorite chapter yet. This chapter is entitled “The Church and Her Savior: Salvation and Church Membership.” It is a rich read!

See also my series Introduction and my discussions of Chapter 1 (“Covenant, Kingdom, Christ”) and Chapter 2 (“What Is the Church?”).

Do you wonder what salvation and church membership have to do with each other? Hopefully this post will help you see that the two are very closely linked. Indeed, if you really grasp what salvation means, then you will think about church membership in a whole new way! Or, here is how Ferguson says the same thing, using theological categories: “Soteriology determines ecclesiology” (p. 136).

One thing I’m really enjoying about this book is that Ferguson does an exceptional job at letting the Bible shape the way he talks and thinks about the church. Some books on the church leave you feeling like the author had a predetermined concept of church—perhaps Baptist or Anabaptist—and then came to the Scripture to find evidence to support his ideas. Even if the author (say, a Baptist) lets the Scriptures challenge some parts of his ecclesiology (theology of church), it might feel that, despite some tweaking, it is still a predictable Baptist ecclesiology that he ends up with.

Perhaps this is because Baptists have the perfect ecclesiology! Or perhaps it is because our preconceptions always shape the questions we bring to the Bible. For example, a Roman Catholic might ask this question of the Bible: “In what spirit should a pope exercise his authority?” The question itself assumes something not found in Scripture: the office of the pope. Similarly, a Baptist might this question of Scripture: “How should the pastor administer the ordinances?” This question also assumes several ideas not taught in Scripture: that a church normally has only one pastor, and that there is a category of actions called “ordinances.”

Ferguson, though he is shaped by his Church of Christ heritage, does a better job than most theologians at hearing what Scripture actually says—letting the Bible shape the questions he asks and the truths he teaches. This means some of his ideas challenge our inherited theological categories. Wonderful! Disorientation enables learning.

Ferguson arranges most of this chapter under three headings:

  1. Human Need (human nature, sin)
  2. God’s Action (atonement, preaching)
  3. Human Response (faith, repentance, baptism)

Church membership might seem to be missing, but you will find it woven throughout, especially at the beginning and also near the end (such as here and here). Also included are fascinating discussions about baptism and about the spiritual condition of children. Dig in, and chew carefully!

Ferguson’s chapter introduction is worth quoting at length, and worth reading slowly:

The question of the membership or composition of the church is answered by the study of the nature of the church in the preceding chapter… One becomes a part of the church by being in the people of God, being incorporated into the body of Christ, and receiving the Holy Spirit… If, as studied in the preceding chapter, the nature of the church is that of Christ, then becoming a part of Christ, identification with his people, incorporation into him, answers the question of church membership

Another way of describing the nature of the church… is to say that the church is those persons who are saved from their sins. The church, therefore, may be defined as the community of the saved. In other words, soteriology determines ecclesiology…

Those who are saved from their sins are added by God to the number of his people (Acts 2:47)…

A negative way of saying the same thing about the church is suggested by 1 Peter 4:17-18. There the church is contrasted with those who are lost…

Such passages suggest the right way to describe the relationship between the church and salvation. The church does not save (Christ is the Savior), but neither does it have no connection with salvation. The church is the people who are saved. Some depend on the church to save them. Others make only the most minimal connection between salvation and church membership, saying that one is saved by one means and becomes a church member in another way. Both positions misunderstand the biblical teaching. God places the saved in the church, which is his people. The church is the community of the saved. (pp. 135-37, bold added)

This is a most unusual way to begin a discussion of church membership! Most discussions begin with the questionable assumption that we all already know what church membership is. If a definition is deemed necessary, usually the assumed or argued definition is something about entering into a covenantal relationship with a local congregation. Sometimes (and rightly so) there is a focus on the few NT passages that explicitly use the language of “member” (though these passages are often pasted onto preconceived modern concepts of membership).

Ferguson, in contrast, (a) doesn’t assume we know what church membership is, (b) shows that the concept is first rooted in the nature of the universal church, not the local congregation, and (c) defines church membership as “part of a broad doctrinal perspective” rather than based on existing church polity (government structures) or a narrow examination of NT passages about “members.”

1. Human Need (human nature, sin):

Ferguson begins this section by discussing “the paradox of human nature: greatness and wretchedness, majesty and misery” (p. 137).

Of all the competing worldviews, only the biblical doctrines of creation and fall account for the dual nature of humanity: aspirations, ideals, and moments of greatness; yet falling short, filled with frustrations and failures. (p. 138)

Ferguson discusses “four great realities of human nature” that he finds in Genesis 3: temptation, sin, punishment, and redemption. Under “redemption”:

Jesus Christ is the real, true man—what a human being was meant to be. He is the typical, representative person, the leader of the new humanity conformed to the Creator’s plan. (p. 143).

Ferguson adds some “further theological reflections on sin,” of which the following especially caught my eye:

Two opposing views have been maintained about the relation of humanity to sin: depraved in all his being versus inherently good. In spite of isolated texts that might be cited, neither view presents the overall biblical teaching. An alternative theological position will be set forth in the following sections… (p. 143)

“How is sin possible?” Ferguson asks:

God is good; he is not evil. He is not the author of evil… He does not want sin in the world, and he does not directly product it. Nevertheless, God maintains the conditions which make sin possible, and he has a purpose which appears to make it inevitable. In biblical language, when God sends or allows the influences that result in sin, he can be said to cause it (cf. Exod. 7:3 and 8:32; 1Sam. 16:14). (p. 144, bold added)

And “why is sin universal?”:

Christian theology has related this universality of sin to the doctrine of original sin. Although often reinterpreted, it refers historically to the teaching popularized by Augustine (5th century) that humanity shares the guilt of Adam’s transgression. This results from everyone inheriting a nature that is polluted. The transmission of sin occurs in the same way as the transmission of human nature, sexual generation. An alternative explanation current in Puritan theology is that Adam was the “federal head” of the human race; in that capacity he involved all his descendants in his transgression. Both of these views are theological explanations; neither has a direct biblical base, even if derived from selected texts. As far as express biblical texts go,the fall altered the human condition; it did not alter human nature. Human beings no longer live in Paradise and now struggle in surroundings where the influence of sin is great. Their nature is weakened by the generations who have sinned. On the other hand, the universality of sin cannot be simply blamed on human finiteness, ignorance, and environment.

The story of the first parents is also the story of everyone’s temptations and fall. Why everyone chooses to love self rather than God is left unexplained in scripture. It remains a fact… The effects of a weakened human nature inclining us to sin are intensified by the examples of sin about us. (p. 145, bold added)

I am heartened by Ferguson’s boldness in questioning, based on Scripture, a couple theological ideas that have become nearly sacrosanct. I have written before on the question of whether the idea of a sinful nature is truly biblical (see here, here, and here). Biblical or not, I am convinced that it has become so dominant in our thinking that we tend to miss other ways that the Bible talks about sin.

On the other hand, I am not ready yet to definitely assert with Ferguson that the fall “did not alter human nature.” So much depends on how we define terms. Even Ferguson, I note, is not entirely clear in how he talks about “human nature.” In the excerpt above, for example, he also says that our “nature is weakened by the generations who have sinned”; thus we have “a weakened human nature inclining us to sin.” I think I agree with Ferguson here, and I would want to add one more thing to the picture he paints: Paul says that when Adam sinned, “sin came into the world” (Rom. 5:12), thereafter ruling over us. I think this image of “King Sin” ruling from without pairs well with (and helps explain) the concept of a “weakened” human nature, such as Ferguson describes.

Ferguson ends his discussion of sin with an unattributed quote: “My pessimism about man is exceeded only by my optimism about God” (p. 148). Amen!

2. God’s Action (atonement, preaching)

Here, again, Ferguson’s effort to be biblical and not merely parrot denominational orthodoxies is clearly evident. I really enjoyed his approach to theories of the atonement:

Through Christian history thinkers have advanced various theories of the atonement—the ransom, satisfaction, and moral-exemplary having been the most prominent. The Bible, however, does not present a “theory of the atonement.” In many of its teachings, the Bible reveals a fact or declares a truth, but does not offer an explanation of why or how this is so. The saving significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus is one of these subjects. The Bible does not offer a systematic explanation of how the atonement works or why God accepts the death of Jesus as providing forgiveness of sins. The writers of the New Testament do describe the meaning of what God has done in terms familiar to the people of the time. They employ various images drawn from familiar experiences to convey a truth. These images describe a reality, but they do not actually explain how the reality works. (p. 149, bold added)

Ferguson discusses five such images:

Sacrifice—The Language of Worship…
Reconciliation—The Language of Personal Relations…
Redemption—The Language of the Marketplace…
Justification—The Language of the Law Court…
Victory—The Language of Warfare (pp. 150-59)

It seems to me that this approach of discussing varied biblical images is more faithful and fruitful than trying to defend one theory of the atonement as primary or even singularly sufficient. Jesus didn’t hand his apostles an outlined systematic theology, but he did present an example of using multiple images from common life to depict eternal truths about the kingdom of God.

Here are a few highlights from this section. First, regarding redemption and ransom: Ferguson notes that the Bible speaks of “the blood of Christ as the price of the purchase (Rev. 5:9)” (p. 154). But he argues regarding “the ‘ransom’ family of words” that “the emphasis in the Greek Old Testament and the New Testament is more on the resultant deliverance and freedom than on the price paid” (p. 155). Thus Ferguson notes “the difficulty with some expressions of the ‘ransom theory’ of the atonement”:

One must be careful not to extend the analogy beyond what the New Testament does. The biblical authors declare the fact or truth of the atonement under the imagery of a ransom. They do not go further to explain how this worked. That is what the ransom theory in some of its expressions sought to do. If God paid a price for human redemption, it was asked, to whom did he make the payment? It must have been the devil. If so, what is the claim of the devil over human life, and is it a just claim? And so the speculation goes. One finds it hard to give biblical answers to unbiblical questions. It is better to leave this description where the other imagery is, as a use of language familiar to people of the time to reveal the significance of what God did in Christ. To make any of these descriptions into a theory, or to extend them beyond the biblical usage, is, at best, to say more than can be confirmed, and, at worst, to say something the Bible does not say. (p. 155, bold added)

Influenced by E. P. Sanders and James D. G. Dunn, Ferguson affirms some “new perspective” thinking on justification in Paul. (If that sentence was gobbledygook to you, just breath deeply and move on.) Here I would like to agree with what Ferguson affirms, but perhaps qualify what he denies:

Paul’s emphasis on justification by faith occurs primarily in Romans and Galatians, that is, in a context of defending the reception of the Gentiles into the church without requiring them to submit to circumcision and other requirements of the law of Moses. Justification… is contrasted with the law as a system or principle of justification. Justification by faith, in the sense of human faith, is not absolutized in the way it often has been in Protestant theology. Rather it is a way of universalizing the gospel, for the response of faith is open to all, Gentiles as well as Jews. (p. 157)

I could quote much more, but will end this section with Ferguson’s last paragraph on atonement:

Military victory overcomes the evil powers, justification overcomes law and guilt, redemption overcomes slavery to sin, reconciliation overcomes hostility and chaos, and sacrifice overcomes the need for appeasement… Each image of the atonement emphasizes what God did: he makes the atoning sacrifice, he reconciles, he redeems, he justifies, he wins the victory. In all aspects God is triumphant. (p. 159, bold added)

After “further theological reflections on the atonement,” Ferguson ends this section by discussing “the preaching of the cross”:

The preaching of the gospel provide the connection between the once for all action of God at the cross [and empty tomb] and the continuing human appropriation of salvation.. Calvary had to be followed by Pentecost. The victory in the Christ-event must be communicated…

The word “gospel” means “good news”… Preaching the good news about Jesus is preaching what accomplishes the atonement…

The preaching of the gospel calls forth the human response, but even this human side of salvation is God-initiated. God instituted not only the salvation but also the proclamation of the salvation… So, preaching is a part of God’s plan of salvation…

Both medieval sacramentalism and modern revivalism’s doctrine of the direct operation of the Holy Spirit tend to blur the distinctive place of preaching in God’s plan. (pp. 161-63, bold added)

3. Human Response (faith, repentance, baptism)

This section contains many rich theological discussions, but I’ll only share highlights.

First, Ferguson discusses faith. After stressing the importance of faith, he asks how a person comes to believe:

One explanation, derived from the church father Augustine and passed on to Protestants by Martin Luther and John Calvin, is that God predestines those who will be saved and gives to them faith. The direct opposite of this teaching is the secular view that faith is an arbitrary attitude arising from a person’s own irrational, perhaps superstitious, decision. The biblical explanation falls between these extremes. (p. 163, bold added)

Ferguson’s explanation is based on his theology of preaching: “Saving faith comes by hearing the word about Christ” (p. 163). While this answer begs more questions (Why doesn’t everyone hear? Why doesn’t everyone who hears develop faith?), it remains true:

The consistent order of conversion is summarized in Acts 18:8, “Many of the Corinthians who heard Paul became believers and were baptized.”

Since faith comes from hearing the word, there is a sense in which one may say that faith is given by God… Faith is not human generated… Only the word that sets forth the mighty, loving, salvific action of God can do this… Since God supplies the content of faith and the means by which it is created, he is the one who gives faith… On the other hand, God does not directly create the response. He does not give faith to some and withhold it from others… The preached word produces faith. (p. 164, bold added)

Ferguson helpfully discusses of “the elements of faith”—intellectual assent, trust, and obedience. He also explains that faith is not “meritorious,” but simply a “grateful acceptance” of God’s gift of salvation, which is received “in the only way any gift is received” (p.167).

He then turns to the “relation of faith to its expressions,” beginning with baptism. Here we will slow down again, and I recommend slow reading:

Faith saves, but when? At the point of believing, or when the divine condition attached to the promise is met?

Baptism is act of faith, not a work in the sense of Romans 4… As a condition attached to God’s promise of salvation it is not opposed to faith… Faith is the reason why a person is a child of God; baptism is the time at which one is incorporated into Christ and so becomes a child of God…

One cannot define work in such a way as to include baptism and exclude faith. There is a sense in which faith itself is a work… “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:28-29)… So, if “work” is taken to mean something done by human beings, then faith no less than baptism is a “work”…

The teaching of baptism for the remission of sins… is not a contradiction to justification by faith. Indeed, baptism for the remission of sins is an expression of justification by faith. Baptism is an act of faith, dependent on the promise of God and a submission to him as the appointed way of claiming the promise. The death and resurrection of Christ are the basis of salvation on the divine side. Faith is the basis of salvation on the human side. Baptism represents the “when,” not the “how” (God’s action), nor the “why” (faith) of salvation. It is the appointed time at which that salvation offered to faith is applied and becomes effective in the person’s life. (p. 169-70, bold added)

This is difficult teaching for most of us, and we will be tempted to react, indeed, overreact, since we have likely been warned of the fallacy of “baptismal regeneration.” But before we react, let’s listen and try to understand.

First, we must note that Ferguson specifies that baptism is not the “basis” of salvation, just the “appointed time” when it becomes effective. Second, consider what we often hear regarding baptism—that it is “only” a sign or symbol of some prior spiritual reality. Is that really how Scripture talks about baptism? Can you find any verse that expressly talks about baptism in that way?

I think we should listen to Ferguson here. At minimum, we should let him push us closer to Scripture, which ties baptism and saving faith much more closely together than we often acknowledge.

If you would find it easier to read a Baptist’s take on this topic, I urge you to read an essay by Robert H. Stein: “Baptism and Becoming a Christian in the New Testament.” Here is Stein’s thesis:

In the New Testament, conversion involves five integrally related components or aspects, all of which took place at the same time, usually on the same day. These five components are repentance, faith, and confession by the individual, regeneration, or the giving of the Holy Spirit by God, and baptism by representatives of the Christian community.

Stein argues that when Scripture mentions any one of these five, it normally assumes the presence of the other four. Thus “all five components described in my thesis (repentance, faith, confession, regeneration, baptism) are mentioned in the New Testament as bringing about salvation.” This includes baptism, which Peter famously asserts “saves you” (1 Pet. 3:21). Stein admits his own Baptist tradition is weak on this point:

Baptist theology also deviates from the New Testament pattern. Although repentance, faith, confession, and regeneration are associated with baptism, baptism is separated in time from these four components. Thus baptism is an act which witnesses to a prior experience of repentance, faith, confession, and regeneration. As a result such passages as Romans 6:4, 1 Peter 3:21, Titus 3:5, John 3:3ff., and others, which associate baptism with the experience of conversion, are embarrassing to many Baptists and often receive a strained exegesis at their hands.

Again, I urge us to be sure we understand Ferguson and have compared him carefully with Scripture before we judge his perspective. Perhaps he isn’t perfectly right; but I’m certain that the popular Mennonite understanding isn’t, either.

Ferguson next discusses the relationship of faith and works (synthesizing the apparent contradiction between Romans and James). He ends this subsection with some mature observations:

Faith is no more meritorious than works. It is the acceptance of a gracious gift. The importance of accepting a great gift does not detract from the significance of the gift, unless one glories in the acceptance… Some forms of the doctrine of salvation by “faith only” end in the very thing the doctrine was meant to oppose, namely trusting in what one does (in this case in one’s faith), which is the same as trusting in oneself…

A person can be assured of salvation. There is nothing more certain than the promises of God… “Do I have the right kind of faith?” “Do I have enough faith?”… God has given an objective assurance in the condition of water baptism… the outward, objective expression of faith in Christ… If one has enough faith to be baptized, one has enough faith to be saved. If one’s faith is in Christ as Savior, one will follow him in baptism. It is trusting God and his word to be baptized. (p. 173, bold added)

There is much more to faith and assurance than baptism, and we all know of those who were baptized without possessing saving faith. But it is interesting to note that Paul, like Ferguson, was not above pointing people back to their baptism to remind them of their salvation (Romans 6:3-4, etc.).

The confession of faith, Ferguson notes, “will involve the whole self”:

There may be many occasions when one is called upon to confess faith in Jesus in addition to the initial acknowledgment of him. (p. 175)

But since the focus of this chapter is “how one is brought into this relationship” with Christ and his church (p. 135), Ferguson focuses on a convert’s initial confession of faith. So he soon pivots again to baptism, providing another definition:

The confession that “Jesus is Lord and Christ” is made by act as well as by word. The action of baptism is a confession of faith in the resurrection… One submits to immersion only if he or she has faith in the resurrection… Baptism acknowledges Jesus as Lord of one’s life and king of the universe… Baptism is a confession that Jesus is Lord, Christ, and Son of God. Submitting to baptism is identical to the faith that is confessed. (pp. 174-75, bold added)

Ferguson’s last paragraph on faith ends by showing its relationship to church membership:

Faith in the God who raises the dead, specifically Jesus Christ, is the heart of the Christian faith… This is the faith by which one becomes identified with Christ and so a part of his spiritual body, his people, who wear his name. (p. 175, bold added)

Ferguson next discusses repentance. He is brief here, so I will be too! Repentance, he suggests, broadly involves three elements: (1) godly grief, (2) change of will, and (3) reformation of life. Repentance also has a narrower meaning, focusing on the second element:

The inward change that results from godly grief and issues in a reformation of life is what constitutes repentance in the strict sense. (p. 177)

What is the relationship of repentance to conversion?

If a distinction is to be observed, “repent” refers more to the inward turning and “convert” to the outward acts of turning.

The literal meaning of turning suggests an illustration of the place of repentance in conversion. A person is walking in one direction, stops (the conviction of sin; godly sorrow), decides to turn around (repentance), turns around (conversion), and walks in the opposite direction (reformation of life). (p. 178, bold added)

And which comes first, faith or repentance?

In the two passages where faith and repentance are mentioned together, repentance precedes faith… (Mark 1:15… Acts 20:21)… Some would argue theologically and insist on the priority of faith as the root of all human response to God… Probably we should not think in terms of sequence at all but in terms of describing a total response to God… (pp. 178-79, bold added)

With that, Ferguson turns to systematically discuss one of his favorite topics, baptism. After discussing the historical background of Christian baptism, he considers the meaning of baptism.

“Baptism is associated with many key ideas involved in conversion” (p. 180). Ferguson’s discussion here reminds me of Stein’s article, though his list of related components is not identical: confession of faith, act of repentance, forgiveness of sins, gift of the Holy Spirit, new birth, death and resurrection, and membership in the church.

Here are some highlights:

Baptism is a “calling on the name of the Lord (Acts 22:16)… After baptism into Christ one wears the name of Christ. One now lives a Christian life because of becoming a Christian at baptism. (pp. 180-81, bold added)

Baptism is involved in the turning associated with repentance… According to the illustration offered [in the discussion of repentance and conversion] above, repentance is the decision to turn, and baptism is the turning around. Repentance is the inward turning, and baptism is the outward turning, which is followed by the new life of walking in the opposite direction. (pp. 182-83, bold added)

Baptism is the appointed time at which God pronounces forgiveness. Faith takes away the love of sin, repentance takes away the practice of sin, and baptism takes away the guilt of sin. (p. 183, bold added)

Here Ferguson notes the parallel construction between Acts 2:38 (“Repent, and be baptized… so that your sins may be forgiven”) and Matthew 26:28 (“This is my blood…, which is poured out… for the forgiveness of sins”). “Exactly the same construction and wording occurs” in Greek in the two passages, Ferguson asserts.

No one would suggest that Jesus’ blood was poured out “because of the forgiveness of sins.” He did not die because sins were already forgiven, nor was his blood poured out as a symbol of the forgiveness of sins. There was no doubt that the blood was shed “in order to effect the forgiveness of sins.” The same translation must be given to Acts 2:38… The blood provides forgiveness by the divine action; baptism appropriates that forgiveness for the penitent believer. (p. 183, bold added)

There is no magical power in the water nor merit in the act itself, for the value comes not from the water but from the intention with which the act is performed. The statement is not to be absolutized, but when placed in the total context of the gospel, it remains true: “Baptism saves.” [Citing 1 Peter 3:21.]… There must be an objective necessity about baptism, nor the New Testament writers could not speak of baptism in the way they do. (pp. 184-85, bold added)

Again, comments like this might make some of us uncomfortable, and they raise all sorts of questions. (What about the thief on the cross?) But I urge us to ask: Compared to Ferguson, is the way we often talk about baptism closer to the language of the Bible, or further? As we add nuance, let us be humble learners.

I find Ferguson’s reflections on the historical theology of baptism helpful, too:

The perspective outlined here makes problematic the designation of baptism as a sacrament… Roman Catholics have traditionally emphasized the inward grace, so much so that the benefits are applied in the rite if no resistance is offered (hence, an infant receives forgiveness of original sin in baptism)… Protestants, on the other hand, have emphasized the sign aspect, so baptism is a sign of God’s forgiveness that is given to a faith that has already happened (in the case of adult baptism) or will happen (in the case of infant baptism) and does not require the sign for it to happen (hence, the baptism is actually unnecessary). Against these ideas, the New Testament teaches that baptism has real value but draws that value only from the command of God and from an active faith. It is both necessary to the accomplishment of forgiveness under ordinary circumstances and the symbol of what is accomplished. (pp. 185-86, bold added)

I got excited when I read the next paragraph, for it confirmed something I concluded in my essay “125 Years of Seven Ordinances”:

This book has consciously avoided a separate category of “sacraments” in its organization of the material. Such a category is a later theological construct for which there is no explicit New Testament authorization. Moreover, it seems preferable to treat the actions sometimes called sacraments in the living context of their place in the church rather than to pull them out of that context and put them in a separate category. (p. 186, bold added)

Discussing John 3:3-5 and similar passages, Ferguson quips that “there are two elements of the new birth [water and Spirit], despite the efforts of some to dehydrate the new birth” (p. 188).

Is baptism a symbol? Ferguson addresses this while discussing death and resurrection:

The convert participates in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. There is a sharing in his experience. That makes baptism a richly meaningful act. More is involved than an imitation or repetition of what Christ did; what he did becomes operative in the life of the believer…

Baptism may be described as an act of dynamic symbolism, a symbol that partakes of the reality symbolized… Baptism began with John as an eschatological sign of cleansing; it was given deeper symbolism in Christianity by the death and resurrection of Christ. Anything but immersion destroys the symbolism of the act. (p. 191, bold added)

Ferguson’s language of “dynamic symbolism” reminds me of Bobby Jamieson’s term “effective sign” (see my review of his book Going Public):

The thesis of this book, then, is that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are effective signs of church membership: they create the social, ecclesial realities to which they point. (p. 2, bold added)

How does baptism relate to church membership? I find Ferguson’s discussion refreshing for its biblical integrity:

Baptism places one in the church. “For in [or by] the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body… and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13)… The Spirit places the person in the one body. Having the one Spirit is the means of sharing in the one body. (pp. 191-92, bold added)

The New Testament places no significance on the person who performs the baptism. The emphasis is always on the person’s response of faith and the divine action… The person doing the baptizing was not the important matter; what was important was the fact that it was done and the purpose that motivated it. (p. 194, bold added)

Since Christ is the body (1 Cor. 12:12), to be baptized into Christ is to be baptized into the body, that is, into the church as the people of God… Baptism serves as the act of initiation into the church. Any group or organization has to have some act which marks off its members from others, however informal this may be… Not only does the church need something to identify its members, but people need something they can look back on and say, “At that time I became a Christian, a member of the church.” God has designated something as the decisive act that only the truly converted will do. Baptism is the line between the church and the world. (p. 194, bold added)

Ferguson is certainly an idealist when he says baptism is something “that only the truly converted will do.” We all know this is not always true, and it would be wise for Ferguson to discuss what should happen when exceptions are discovered. (Perhaps he does later.) Nevertheless, I want to say here that it is important to properly recognize biblical ideals and use them as the foundation of our understanding of practices like church membership. Exceptions must be handled, but we must not use them as excuses to develop ideals and norms that are not biblical.

In my estimation it is not helpful, for example, to say that since not all who are baptized are Christians, therefore we will divorce baptism from either conversion, church membership, or both. Scripture ties all three together; it would be better to revise our membership paradigms to match Scripture more closely than to separate the three in order to preserve extra-biblical membership practices designed to ensure our members are truly Christians. Let’s hold to (or return to) the biblical ideal of a united conversion/baptism/membership experience and then invest the effort to actively disciple and discipline the “exceptions.”

Some final quotes on the meaning of baptism:

Membership in the church is more a result than the purpose of baptism. One is baptized not so much in order to join the church as to accept Christ and receive his salvation… God adds the person to the church, the community of the saved. The church is created by God. (pp. 194-95, bold added)

There can be a “subtle temptation to trust in baptism for salvation,” Ferguson notes. However, “there are [also] other things that can become misplaced objects of trust,” such as faith, experience, or doctrinal correctness. Thus this temptation is no reason to water down (pardon the pun) the Bible’s teaching on baptism. After all, “truly to trust in God includes responding to him in the appointed way,” which includes baptism (p. 195).

Who should be baptized? Baptism “is not a work by those already saved,” Ferguson notes. “Hence, the proper persons to receive baptism are penitent believers, or believing penitents.”

Ferguson lists three arguments against infant baptism:

(1) There is not mention of the baptism of infants in the New Testament. (2) Every account of baptism in the New Testament shows it to be a response by believers… (3) The evidence of church history places the beginning of infant baptism at the end of the second century. (pp. 195-96)

He then devotes three pages to refute four arguments often presented in favor of infant baptism:

The examples of household baptism…
[Giving] baptism the place of circumcision…
Jewish proselyte baptism…
The doctrine of original sin… (pp. 196-98)

I was impressed with the evidence Ferguson mounted to show that the accounts of household baptism do not reasonably describe infants. Regarding original sin, he argues that “infant baptism arose first on other grounds, and the idea that infants needed purification developed (at least in part) as a consequence of the practice.” Thus “original sin was not the basis of the practice [of infant baptism], but the practice was the basis of the doctrine” (p. 198). This historical sequence, if true, considerably weakens a key theological argument for infant baptism. (Some church traditions use other theological arguments, usually also redefining the purpose of baptism from forgiveness of sins to something less crucial.)

I really enjoyed Ferguson’s thoughts about the “condition of the child”:

The theology of the child is little developed in churches that practice believers’ baptism. Yet the status of the child is urgently in need of clarification as a foundation for religious education and as an explanation of the relation of the young person to the Christian community.

Sometimes there has been a tendency to come out where the old revivalism did: one must be lost in order to be saved, so the child is painted as a little sinner. Perhaps related is the tendency to baptize at a younger and younger age. (p. 199, bold added)

What, then, is a better theology and practice? Ferguson looks to creation and to the positive New Testament assessment of children, both by Jesus and by Paul.

The doctrine of inherited guilt from Adam was rejected above as lacking biblical support…

According to Matthew 19:13-15 the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as the little children…

Paul argues against a believer divorcing an unbelieving mate on the grounds that the believer sanctifies the unbeliever, a conclusion justified by this consideration: “Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy” (1 Cor. 7:14)… Salvation is not under consideration… The question is the legitimacy of the marriage relationship so that it is proper to remain in the marriage. A corollary is the condition of the children; are they in a state of purity as it relates to the Christian community? Paul indicates that the answer is “Yes.” Nothing is said here about baptism; the state of holiness comes from the believing parent not from baptism and no impurity requires the cleansing of baptism. If all children are born innocent, then the child of a Christian parent has an added advantage, for that child grows up… under Christian influence and in some contact with the Christian community… The child of Christian parents sustains a special relationship to the Lord that the child of non-Christians would not. [Citing Ephesians 6:1-4.] (pp. 199-200, bold added)

How might our practice reflect this theology?

There must be some way in which the religious experience of the child is not denied and treated as non-Christian but the real meaning of believer’s baptism maintained… It is proper to teach the child to pray, to study the Bible, and to practice Christian morality…

What then does baptism mean for the child who has grown up in a Christian home? It must still retain the positive significance that it has for the adult convert from the world, but it would not have the same sense of a radical break with the past… The baptism of a child of Christian parents should be seen in continuity with the childhood religious experience… At this time, one makes a profession of faith as his or her own… [Footnote: “One may compare the Jewish bar mitzvah, when the child becomes a ‘son of the commandment’ with responsibility to assume the duties of the law.] Baptism is the person’s acceptance of Christ and of responsibility for public involvement in the life of the church. (p. 200, bold added)

Ferguson resists the call to be more prescriptive:

At what time does baptism become appropriate? When can a decision for a life of faith be responsibly made? How long is a child in a state of “holiness”?… The Bible does not give an age. The person must face the consciousness of sin (which to some degree may come quite early) and the necessity of assuming responsibility for actions (that may be very much later). (p. 201, bold added)

As a parent of young children, I appreciate Ferguson’s biblical assurance that I need not call them quickly to a crisis faith decision. I want them to be conscious of the presence of the Lord from an early age, but do not feel an urgency to overwhelm them with a sense of responsibility for their own sins before they are developmentally equipped to handle it well.

Ferguson presents five lines of evidence for “immersion” or “dipping” as the proper mode of baptism:

The etymology of the word baptizó
Jewish practice in New Testament times for ritual washing…
The New Testament descriptions of baptism…
The symbolism of burial and resurrection…
The evidence of early church history… (pp. 201-203)

I already agreed with Ferguson that immersion is the biblical norm, and that other practices are post-biblical “exceptions.”

Ferguson winds down this chapter by discussing “three tenses of salvation” (p. 203). He notes that “if one loses faith and a penitent attitude, baptism loses its saving significance” (p. 204).

I get excited when I read the following sentences from the end of this chapter. Ferguson’s understanding of church membership is very different from the way we have been trained to think about church membership in our recent conservative Anabaptist tradition. But it matches so well what I have been concluding in my own reading of the New Testament! What would it look like if our churches understood membership in the following way?

Properly understood, “to be in the church is to be in Christ, and to be in Christ is to be in the church.”1 One is not “in Christ” because of being “in the church,” but one is “in the church” because of being “in Christ.” Membership in the church is not a matter of separate choice by the one joined to Christ (as if one could belong to Christ and not belong to his people). To be saved is to be in Christ, and to be a Christian is to be a member of the church. God by the same action that saves places the person in the redeemed community. (p. 205, bold added)

Ah, but Ferguson must be talking about the universal church, right? This would be quite impractical for a local church!

Not so fast. Here are the very next sentences, part of the same paragraph:

Nor is the church in the Bible an invisible body. It is always treated in the New Testament as a visible community of people, identifiable and distinct from the surrounding world… Not only is a visible fellowship part of God’s saving action, but it is also the context in which the salvation is lived out and the new life actualized. (p. 205, bold added)


And thus we return to where we began: soteriology determines ecclesiology.

If we are honest, I think we will admit what history shows only too clearly: we have some problems with our ecclesiology. Does this suggest that we also have problems with our soteriology? Might we not have a clear enough understanding of salvation? If we knew more clearly what it really means to belong to Christ, could we better recognize who actually belongs to him? And would we feel more deeply our spiritual bond with all who do, so that we would not dare to deny that bond by defining church membership in other ways (Eph. 4:3-4)?

Let us think on these things.


If you want to read more of Ferguson’s thoughts about baptism, check out his massive volume Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries. Meanwhile, it’s your turn: Share your responses in the comments below!


Ferguson’s fourth chapter (our post 5) is about worship and assembly. Subtopics will include things like attitudes toward worship, the day of assembly, and activities such as the Lord’s Supper and giving. I see in advance that I’ll disagree with Ferguson’s position on instrumental music, but I’ll do my best to learn as I disagree!


Note: I participate in an Amazon affiliates program, so if you buy a book using the link above, I will earn pennies. Thanks!

  1. Claude Welch, The Reality of the Church (New York: Scribner’s, 1958), p. 165.

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Ecclesiology of the Reformers (2): Martin Luther

Martin Luther, by almost anyone’s estimation, was the single most influential figure of the Protestant Reformation. (Gutenberg, with his printing press, is a serious outlying contender.) If Luther was the single most influential figure of the Reformation, the single most influential idea of the Reformation was surely Luther’s understanding of justification.

Luther did not set out to start a new church, and most children of the Reformation today do not belong to the Lutheran Church. Yet Luther’s understanding of justification has shaped the churches of all the children of the Reformation, just as it shaped his own developing conception of the church. Luther’s ecclesiology, then–and the ecclesiologies of each branch of the Reformation–was a by-product of a deeper concern: the nature of the gospel itself.

This, of course, is how it should be; if we define the gospel based on our churches rather than defining our churches based on the gospel, our ecclesiology will inevitably go awry. But this historical observation also reminds us that Luther’s ecclesiology was a work in progress. He, like us, did not possess a fully-formed and clear conception of the true Church and its temporal manifestations at the moment of his new birth. So as we consider Luther’s ecclesiology, let’s consider him a fellow student–not a complete novice, to be sure, but not an all-wise master, either.

Here, then, are some quotes about Martin Luther and ecclesiology from Timothy George’s excellent book, Theology of the Reformers. (For the introduction to this series, go here. For the ecclesiology of Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, Menno Simons, or William Tyndale, stay tuned. And here is my concluding post in this series.)

From Timothy George:

Far from attempting to found a new sect, Luther always saw himself as a faithful and obedient servant of the church. Thus his deep chagrin that the first Protestants, in England and France no less than in Germany, were being called “Lutherans”: “The first thing I ask is that people should not make use of my name, and should not call themselves Lutherans but Christians.” (Kindle Locations 1142-1145)

Luther did not see himself as an agent of ecclesiastical revolution, a sixteenth-century Lenin or Robespierre out to shake the world and overturn kingdoms. That the papacy and empire were shaken, if not overthrown, by the words of a simple German monk was, he thought, merely a providential by-product of his prior vocation. “I have done nothing. I have let the Word act.” What Luther did do, what he was called to do, was to listen to the Word. “The nature of the Word is to be heard,” he remarked. (Kindle Locations 1158-1161)

Protestantism was born out of the struggle for the doctrine of justification by faith alone. For Luther this was not simply one doctrine among others but “the summary of all Christian doctrine,” “the article by which the church stands or falls.”(Kindle Locations 1292-1293)

The person who has… received the gift of faith Luther described as “at once righteous and a sinner” (simul iustus et peccator)… [As his theological understanding developed], Luther [used] simul iustus et peccator… in the sense of semper (always) iustus et peccator. The believer is not only both righteous and sinful at the same time but is also always or completely both righteous and sinful at the same time. What does this mean? …Luther expressed the paradox thus: “We are in truth and totally sinners, with regard to ourselves and our first birth. Contrariwise, in so far as Christ has been given for us, we are holy and just totally. Hence from different aspects we are said to be just and sinners at one and the same time.” …Luther’s doctrine of justification fell like a bombshell on the theological landscape of medieval Catholicism. It shattered the entire theology of merits and indeed the sacramental-penitential basis of the church itself. (Kindle Locations 1459-1476)

The principle of sola scriptura was intended to safeguard the authority of Scripture from that servile dependence upon the church that in fact made Scripture inferior to the church… The church, far from having priority over Scripture, is really the creation of Scripture, born in the womb of Scripture. “For who begets his own parent?” Luther asked. “Who first brings forth his own maker?” Although the church approved the particular books included in the canon…, it was thereby merely bearing witness to the authenticity of Scripture, just as John the Baptist had pointed to Christ. (Kindle Locations 1640-1647).

At the same time Luther did not simply throw out the preceding 1,500 years of church history. In his treatise against the Anabaptists (1528), he said, “We do not act as fanatically as the Schwärmer. We do not reject everything that is under the dominion of the Pope. For in that event we should also reject the Christian church. Much Christian good is to be found in the papacy and from there it descended to us.” Sola scriptura was not nuda scriptura.
(Kindle Locations 1651-1655)

“Now if anyone of the saintly fathers can show that his interpretation is based on Scripture, and if Scripture proves that this is the way it should be interpreted, then the interpretation is right. If this is not the case, I must not believe him.” Thus Luther argued for the coinherence of Scripture and tradition , Holy Writ and Holy Church, while never wavering in his commitment to the priority of the former. (Kindle Locations 1662-1666)

The last thing in the world Luther wanted to do was start a new church. He was not an innovator but a reformer. He never considered himself anything other than a true and faithful member of the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church…. [Luther’s acts] provoked a schism in Western Christendom that has not yet been healed. Luther, however, was no mere iconoclast . He revolted against the church for the sake of the church, against a corrupt church for the sake of the “true , ancient church, one body and one communion of saints with the holy, universal, Christian church.” (Kindle Locations 1735-1743)

He said, echoing Cyprian, that outside the church there was no salvation. (Kindle Location 1747)

But what exactly is the church? Luther once responded impatiently to this question: “Why, a seven-year-old child knows what the church is, namely, holy believers and sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd.” We have in this answer a major thrust of Luther’s ecclesiology: the essentially spiritual , noninstitutional character of the church. Luther disliked the German word Kirche (which , like church in English, or curia in Latin, derives from the Greek kuriakon, the Lord’s house) because it had come to mean the building or the institution. He preferred Gemeine, “community,” or Versammlung, “assembly.” For him the true church was the people of God, the fellowship of believers, or, as the Apostles’ Creed has it, the communion of saints. (Kindle Locations 1756-1762)

Against the Roman conception of the church, Luther stressed the priority of the gospel. Luther insisted that the gospel was constitutive for the church, not the church for the gospel: “The true treasure of the church is the holy gospel of the glory and the grace of God.”(Kindle Locations 1782-1784)

Like Augustine, Wyclif, and Hus before him, Luther talked about the invisible church whose membership comprised the whole company of the predestined… Its invisibility derives from the fact that faith itself is invisible, “the evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11: 1 KJV). If faith were a measurable quantity, we could identify the church by its outward characteristics. But because faith as the radical gift of God is not definable in external terms, the church, too, is not a physical assembly but “an assembly of hearts in one faith.” (Kindle Locations 1784-1790)

In addition to “invisible,” Luther also spoke of the church as “hidden.” This is a more complex concept and carries several connotations. It means first of all that the church, while manifest to God , is hidden from the world… The hiddenness of the church also extends to its holiness. Unlike the Anabaptists, Luther never espoused a pure church composed only of discernible saints. In this age the church is a corpus permixtum containing at once sinners and saints, hypocrites and devout believers, tares and wheat. The purity of the church is not subject to examination, nor does it depend on the moral qualifications of the members or the ministers. “Our holiness is in heaven, where Christ is; it is not in the world, before the eyes of men, like a commodity on the market.” (Kindle Locations 1791-1806)

It seemed to some that Luther’s emphasis on the hidden, invisible character of the church would undermine its tangible, historical reality. However, Luther intended neither to dissolve the church into a fairy castle in the clouds nor to reduce it to a loose-knit association of like-minded individuals. The gospel remained the sole, infallible mark of the church but the gospel in a particular sense, as it was manifested in the Word rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered. Wherever these two “notes” are evident, the true church exists, even if it is composed only of children in the cradle. (Kindle Locations 1815-1819)

Luther did not invent preaching, but he did elevate it to a new status in Christian worship.(Kindle Locations 1824-1825)

Luther’s greatest contribution to Protestant ecclesiology was his doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Yet no element in his teaching is more misunderstood. For some it means simply that no priests are in the church— the secularization of the clergy… More commonly people believe that the priesthood of all believers implies that every Christian is his or her own priest and hence possesses the “right of private judgment” in matters of faith and doctrine. Both of these are modern perversions of Luther’s original intention. The essence of his doctrine can be put in one sentence: Every Christian is someone else’s priest, and we are all priests to one another.
Luther broke decisively with the traditional division of the church into two classes, clergy and laity. Every Christian is a priest by virtue of his baptism… The priestly offices are the common property of all Christians, not the special prerogative of a select caste of holy men. Luther listed seven rights that belong to the whole church: to preach the Word of God, to baptize, to celebrate holy Communion, to bear “the keys,” to pray for others, to sacrifice, to judge doctrine. (Kindle Locations 1909-1920)

All of this means that no one can be a Christian alone. Just as we cannot give birth to ourselves, or baptize ourselves , so neither can we serve God alone. Here we touch on Luther’s other great definition of the church: communio sanctorum, a community of saints.(Kindle Locations 1926-1928)

How did Luther relate the priesthood of all believers to the office of the ministry? While all Christians have an equal share in the treasures of the church, including the sacraments, not everyone can be a preacher, teacher, or counselor…
Strictly speaking, Luther taught that every Christian is a minister and has the right to preach. This right may be freely exercised if one is in the midst of non-Christians, among the Turks, or stranded on a pagan island. However, in a Christian community one should not “draw attention to himself” by assuming this office on his own. Rather he should “let himself be called and chosen to preach and to teach in the place of and by the command of the others.” The call is issued through the congregation, and the minister remains accountable to the congregation. Luther went so far as to say: “What we give him today we can take away from him tomorrow.” (Kindle Locations 1935-1944)

The exigencies of the Reformation did not conform to Luther’s early Congregationalism. If the church were to be reformed, the governing authorities had to play a role. Luther referred to the prince as a Notbischof, an emergency bishop. Through the institution of the visitation, the territorial prince assumed a larger role in the affairs of the church. Eventually a network of state churches emerged in Germany. (Kindle Locations 1948-1951. B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

Timothy George goes on to survey Luther’s understanding of the state and its relationship to the church. It is here that I have some of my strongest disagreements with Luther. Time does not permit me to discuss Luther’s conception of church and state, but I do want to note one point: Luther taught a doctrine of two kingdoms–the spiritual government of the Church and the worldly government of the state. This may surprise some of us Anabaptists. We emphasize our “two-kingdom theology,” and rightly so. But I don’t think we always remember that Luther, too, had a  two-kingdom theology (as did many other Reformers). In fact, it was a quite nuanced two-kingdom theology, well-versed both in historical and systematic theology, and based in part on biblical passages such as Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13–14. To repeat, I disagree strongly with important aspects of Luther’s understanding of the two kingdoms. But my point here is that I think we owe it to Luther and to ourselves to remember that we Anabaptists are not the only ones to have wrestled with such ideas.

Back to the quotes above. What do I like or dislike about Luther’s ecclesiology? First, some affirmations:

  • I like his humility and his desire to be a servant of the Church.
  • I think he was exactly right to stress the priority of the gospel in defining and creating the Church, and to insist that the Church was and is born in the womb of Scripture, not vice versa.
  • I like his preference of assembly over church, and his understanding that the Church is essentially a communion of saints, not a building or even primarily an institution.
  • I like his identification with the catholic Church across time and space.
  • I like his rediscovery of the priesthood of all believers.
  • I think he was right to say that there is no salvation outside the Church. (Of course, this statement hinges on your definition of the Church!)

What are some points where I might disagree with Luther’s conception of the Church? I’ll answer this question paragraph-style:

My biggest point of disagreement with Luther begins at my biggest point of agreement: I think he was exactly right to define the Church based on the gospel, but I don’t think his understanding of the gospel was perfect. Luther deserves great credit for helping to trigger a vast European discussion about the nature of the gospel, and I am eager to give him credit for this. His writings were very helpful to thousands of seeking souls, including many early Anabaptists such as Menno Simons. But this does not mean his understanding of the gospel was perfect in all respects.

For example, I think that Luther’s understanding of semper iustus et peccator (always or completely both righteous and sinful at the same time) weakened the biblical link between faith and works in ways damaged his ecclesiology. While faith may be invisible, as Luther insisted, it does not exist without visible manifestation. Luther based his conception of an invisible church on his understanding of invisible faith. While I agree with the concept of an invisible church in the sense of how the true Church extends across time and denominational lines without respect to either, I do not think that this true Church is invisible in the sense that it is impossible to recognize a member of this Church when you see one. Our human discernment on such matters will always be imperfect. Yet “by their fruits you shall know them” applies, I think, not only to false prophets but also to true Church members.

This leads me to also disagree somewhat with Luther on the concept of a corpus permixtum–a Church containing at once sinners and saints, hypocrites and devout believers, tares and wheat. After Jesus told the Parable of the Weeds (Matt. 13:24-30), he explained that the field that contained both wheat and weeds was “the world” (Matt. 13:38). This understanding of the parable matches Paul’s understanding of the church’s role in judging sinners (1 Cor. 5:12-13): “Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you.'” Thus, I think those Reformers were correct who added to Luther’s two “notes” of the church (right preaching and right sacraments) the mark of the proper exercise of church discipline. Luther was certainly right to root our holiness in Christ, but he was misleading to say that our holiness was “not in the world, before the eyes of men, like a commodity on the market.” Our holiness is not a commodity on the world’s market, for sure; we are not justified of damned based on the assessment of unregenerate observers. But the world around should indeed be able to “see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). (I will also add that I think some Anabaptists have fallen into the opposite ditch on the question of a pure church, but that is a topic for another post.)

I’ll end by repeating one of my favorite quotes from Luther, followed by one of my favorite statements of Jesus about the Church:

Luther: “Why, a seven-year-old child knows what the church is, namely, holy believers and sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd.”

Jesus: “There will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16).

(Next up: the ecclesiology of Huldrych Zwingli.)

What did you learn reading these excerpts from Timothy George about Martin Luther’s ecclesiology? Where do you agree with Luther? Where do you disagree, and why? What do you think our churches today should learn as we ponder Luther’s example and influence? Share your insights in the comments below!


PS: If you are enjoying this series, be sure to buy Timothy George’s book! He has so much more to say than what I am sharing here. (Disclosure: The link above is an Amazon affiliate link, so I’ll make pennies if you buy the book.)


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