Tag Archives: church history

In Which I Am Surprised to Agree With John Nelson Darby

I just finished a book called The Scofield Bible: Its History and Impact on the Evangelical Church, by R. Todd Mangum and Mark S. Sweetham. I recommend the book. It is slightly repetitive at points, perhaps because of the joint authorship, and it might be more engaging if it offered more specific examples and fewer general observations. But it is a very informative and apparently fair discussion of both the Scofield Bible (1909) and the man who created it, Cyrus Ingerson Scofield (1843-1921).

Readers are sure to learn something new about one of the most powerful influences that have shaped the modern American evangelical landscape. I also noted parallels between Scofield’s project and the theological and publishing efforts of Mennonite fundamentalists of the same era, such as Daniel Kauffman. In both cases, I believe, the church was almost certainly better off thanks to the efforts of such leaders. Yet their best intentions and most helpful efforts were unintentionally marred by significant weaknesses only clearly visible after subsequent generations used their writings. This is both encouraging and sobering for writers today.

Scofield was a skilled Bible teacher, but rarely original. His many influences include the Geneva Bible (the first annotated English Bible, millenial in nature rather than ammillenial as Catholics of the time), James Ussher’s historical dating system (adopted by Scofield though modified by the “gap theory” in Genesis 1), European evangelicalism (perhaps including Isaac Watt’s musings on dispensations, which nearly match Scofield’s), John Nelson Darby (dispensational promoter of a two-stage return of Christ and a secret rapture), Southern Presbyterianism (turning from postmillenialism to the more pessimistic premillenialism after losses in the Civil War and advocating the curse of Ham—the idea that black people are destined to be servants), and the American fundamentalist-evangelical movement of which he was a part (which included prophecy conferences).

These are some of his most prominent influences, but I’m only providing a sample of examples of how these influences shaped Scofield.

For the rest of this post I want to focus on one of Scofield’s influences, J. N. Darby (1800-1882, a leader among the Plymouth Brethren in Ireland), and on only one of his themes, the nature of the church—since this theme directly relates to a main theme of my blog.

In short, Darby’s beliefs about the church shaped his beliefs about prophecy. And what surprised me is that, while I disagree with many of Darby’s beliefs about prophecy, I identify with some of his thinking about church.

First, some excerpts from the book by Mangum and Sweetam:

One of the most interesting things about the way in which Darby’s interpretation of prophetic Scripture emerged is that his development of dispensationalism was a result of his disaffection with the ecclesiastical status quo. Especially in light of his later complaints that those he spoke to during his visits to the United States enthusiastically absorbed his prophetic teaching while ignoring almost entirely his views on church order, it is important to not that with Darby eschatology followed from (and was an implication of) ecclesiology. (pp. 65-66, bold added)

In the years following his conversion, Darby became increasingly disenchanted with the Church of Ireland… The primary cause is clear. While studying Scripture, Darby became increasingly dismayed with the Erastian nature of the Church of Ireland—its status as the established church of the state. (pp. 64-65, bold added)

Erastian: “of, characterized by, or advocating the doctrine of state supremacy in ecclesiastical affairs” (Merriam-Webster dictionary). (The term is named after Thomas Erastus, a Zwinglian theologian who died in 1583.)

As I read this, I’m thinking: Darby sounds like a budding Anabaptist! The Anabaptists also rejected the church-state union promoted by magisterial reformers such as Zwingli.

More from Mangum and Sweetnam:

The Church of Ireland during this period enjoyed a unique position. Like the Church of England, it was the church established by law enjoying a special relationship with the apparatus of the British rule in Ireland. (p. 65)

This special relationship between the Protestant Church of Ireland and the British government led to oppression of the Catholic majority in Ireland, causing growing unrest.

Darby’s disgust and anger grew when his archbishop directed that oaths of allegiance to the British Commonwealth be imposed on anyone joining the church. Catholic conversions [which had been plentiful under Darby’s gospel preaching] completely dried up as religious faith became conflated and confused with political allegiance. (p. 65, bold added)

It was ecclesiological concern that led to Darby’s rethinking of prophecy. Up to this point, he seems to have held to [a] sort of postmillennial scheme… His own evangelistic efforts were a key part of the global spread of the gospel, which would eventually bring about the millennial bliss and the conditions for Christ’s return. His archbishop’s action and its consequences were probably not the only thing that changed this. But they did prove to be the legendary straw that broke the camel’s back. In the aftermath of these events, Darby became deeply pessimistic about the future of the world and disillusioned about the prospects of global evangelization and the growing success of the gospel…

Considerations on the Nature and Unity of the Church of Christ (1828) was Darby’s first tract, and it outlined his emerging understanding of the nature of the church. Christ’s church, Darby argued, was spiritual in nature. Its unity was not, could not, be the product of human effort—it was a work of the Spirit alone. The Church of Ireland was following a path well worn by the churches through the centuries, a path that led to involvement in human power and civil government and away from the pristine simplicity of dependence on the Holy Spirit. These churches had fallen from their original position because they had lost sight of their heavenly calling and had become mired in human mechanism…

Darby gave practical expression to these views by resigning his curacy… He was discovering an alternative ecclesiology shaped by insights similar to his own, which were emerging in the small gatherings of believers that were eventually to develop into the Brethren movement.

By the time Darby’s first writing on prophecy was published in 1829—Reflections upon “The Prophetic Inquiry” and the Views Advanced in Ithe had, in line with his pessimistic view of the health of the church, adopted a clearly premillennial position. (pp. 66-67, bold added)

Up to this point, Darby still sounds like he could be one of the early Anabaptists. They, too, insisted on separation of church and state, and at least some of them held premillennial understandings. (I am not informed enough to be more specific than this on Anabaptist prophetic understandings.)

But as Darby further developed his prophetic understanding, he developed views very different from the early Anabaptists—views which some Anabaptists today promote, however, thanks in part to the mediating influence of the Scofield Bible.

One of the most important features of the dispensationalism that developed from Darby and that would be embodied in Scofield’s notes is the recognition of a distiction between Israel and the church… The longer tradition of Reformed exegesis had postulated a supersessionist, or replacement theology, mode of exegesis. Broadly speaking, this suggested that Israel had been replaced by the church as the people of God, its promises and position handed over wholesale because of their failure of obedience. This understanding of the relationship between God’s people in the Old Testament and in the New Testament was a standard feature of most biblical interpretation from the medieval period, through the magisterial reformers, and down to the present day. (pp. 69-70)

While the Anabaptists agreed that it was now the church, not ethnic Israel, who were the people of God, they differed from the magisterial reformers in their understanding of the Christian’s relationship to the OT. The magisterial reformers looked to the OT to support practices such as military participation and infant baptism, but the Anabaptists insisted more strongly that Christ’s teachings superseded the Law of Moses.

Both the Anabaptists and Darby were concerned that the “flat Bible” approach of the magisterial reformers was a problem, and that it supported a state-church union, which was also a problem. The church did not hold exactly the same position as Israel had. But Darby’s theological solution to this misunderstanding was different from the Anabaptist solution.

In his view this conflation of two distinct groups [Israel and the church] whom God had dealt with in different ways was little sort of disastrous. It was this mistake that underwrote the Erastianism [state-church union] that had so concerned him in earlier years; it was this mistake that obscured the church’s heavenly calling and nature. Israel had been, continued to be, and eternally would be God’s earthly people—his purposes for them would be worked out on earth. The church was a heavenly entity, entirely separate from Israel, and with a prospect that was purely heavenly…

This distinction between the peoples of God and his deep pessimism about the prospects of the contemporary church led Darby to the dispensations that gave their name to dispensationalism. (p. 70, bold added)

In summary: For the Anabaptists, there was both continuity and discontinuity between Israel and the church. The continuity was rooted in the church’s identity as the children of Abraham, trusting in Christ just as Abraham trusted in God’s promise, thus becoming heirs of the promises given to Abraham. The discontinuity was found in how Christ and the apostles interpreted these OT promises, with the kingdom of God (spiritual Israel) being now not an earthly kingdom but a heavenly one. Like the magisterial reformers, the Anabaptists did not seem to see any special role for ethnic Israel after the coming of Christ. Unlike them, they did not believe that the church inherited the political and military role that national Israel had carried. (I am making generalizations here, and writing from memory as an amateur, so I invite your help if you want to add nuance to this historical summary.)

Darby’s solution to the church-state problem was different from either the Anabaptists or the magisterial reformers. Rather than positing an end to God’s special purposes for ethnic Israel, he separated the church and Israel entirely. God had contrasting but ongoing plans for both, so that the church and Israel run on separate but parallel tracks until the end of the age, each with different duties and hopes.

Thus Darby and the Anabaptists came to theological understandings that were very different. Yet both understandings accomplished one same result: the division of the church-state union.

I was familiar with Darby’s prophetic conclusions, but did not know about his concept of church. To complete this post, I’d like to share some excerpts I particularly enjoy from Darby’s first tract, Considerations on the Nature and Unity of the Church of Christ (bold added):

It is not a formal union of the outward professing bodies [church denominations] that is desirable; indeed it is surprising that reflecting Protestants should desire it: far from doing good, I conceive it would be impossible that such a body could be at all recognised as the church of God. It would be a counterpart to Romish unity; we should have the life of the church and the power of the word lost, and the unity of spiritual life utterly excluded. Whatever plans may be in the order of Providence, we can only act upon the principles of grace; and true unity is the unity of the Spirit, and it must be wrought by the operation of the Spirit… The Reformation consisted not, as has been commonly said, in the institution of a pure form of church, but in setting up the word, and the great Christian foundation and corner stone of “Justification by faith,” in which believers might find life… He is an enemy to the work of the Spirit of God who seeks the interests of any particular denomination; and that those who believe in “the power and coming of the Lord Jesus Christ” ought carefully to keep from such a spirit; for it is drawing back the church to a state occasioned by ignorance and non-subjection to the word, and making a duty of its worst and antichristian results. This is a most subtle and prevailing mental disease, “he followeth not us [Mark 9:38],” even when men are really Christians. Let the people of God see if they be not hindering the manifestation of the church by this spirit. I believe there is scarcely a public act of Christian men (at any rate of the higher orders, or of those who are active in the nominal churches), which is not infected with this; but its tendency is manifestly hostile to the spiritual interests of the people of God, and the manifestation of the glory of Christ. Christians are little aware how this prevails in their minds; how they seek their own, not the things of Jesus Christ; and how it dries up the springs of grace and spiritual communion; how it precludes that order to which blessing is attached-the gathering together in the Lord’s name. No meeting, which is not framed to embrace all the children of God in the full basis of the kingdom of the Son, can find the fulness of blessing, because it does not contemplate it—because its faith does not embrace it.

Where two or three are gathered together in His name, His name is recorded there for blessing [Matt. 18:20]; because they are met in the fulness of the power of the unchangeable interests of that everlasting kingdom in which it has pleased the glorious Jehovah to glorify Himself, and to make His name and saving health known in the Person of the Son, by the power of the Spirit. In the name of Christ, therefore, they enter (in whatever measure of faith) into the full counsels of God, and are “fellow-workers under God.”… The Lord has made known His purposes in Him, and how those purposes are effected. “He hath made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself, that in the dispensation of the fulness of times, he should gather together in one all things in Christ, whether they be things in heaven, or things on earth, even in him, in whom we also have received an inheritance” [Eph. 1:9-11]—in one and in Christ. In Him alone therefore can we find this unity; but the blessed word (who can be thankful enough for it? will inform us further. It is as to its earthly members “gathering together in one, the children of God who are scattered abroad.” And how is this? “That one man should die for them.” [John 11:50-52] As our Lord in the vision of the fruit of the travail of His soul declares, “I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will drawn all men unto me: this he said signifying what death he should die.” [John 12:32] It is then Christ who will draw – will draw to Himself (and nothing short of or less than this can produce unity, “He that gathereth not with him, scattereth” [Matt. 12:30]); and draw to Himself by being lifted up from the earth. In a word, we find His death is the centre of communion till His coming again, and in this rests the whole power of truth. Accordingly, the outward symbol and instrument of unity is the partaking of the Lord’s supper – for we being many are one “bread, one body, for we are all partakers of that one bread.” [1 Cor. 10:17] And what does Paul declare to be the true intent and testimony of that rite? That whensoever “ye eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.” [1 Cor. 11:26] Here then are found the character and life of the church, that into which it is called, that in which the truth of its existence subsists, and in which alone is true unity. It is showing forth the Lord’s death, by the efficiency of which they were gathered, and which is the fruitful seed of the Lord’s own glory; which is indeed the gathering of His body, “the fulness of him that filleth all in all” [Eph. 1:23]; and shewing it forth in the assurance of His coming, “when he shall come to be glorified in his saints and to be admired in all them that believe.” [2 Thess. 1:10] Accordingly the essence and substance of unity, which will appear in glory at His coming, is conformity to His death, by which that glory was all wrought…

Unity, the unity of the church, to which “the Lord added daily such as should be saved” [Acts 2:47]…, was when none said anything was his own, and “their conversation was in heaven” [Phil. 3:20]; for they could not be divided in the common hope of that. It knit men’s hearts together by necessity. The Spirit of God has left it upon record, that division began about the goods of the church, even in their best use, on the part of those interested in them; for there could be division, there could be selfish interests. Am I desiring believers to correct the churches? I am beseeching them to correct themselves, by living up, in some measure, to the hope of their calling. I beseech them to shew their faith in the death of the Lord Jesus, and their boast in the glorious assurance which they have obtained by it, by conformity to it – to shew their faith in His coming, and practically to look for it by a life suitable to desires fixed upon it. Let them testify against the secularity and blindness of the church; but let them be consistent in their own conduct.

While the spirit of the world prevails (and how much it prevails, I am persuaded few believers are at all aware) spiritual union cannot subsist… For, let us ask, is the church of God as believers would have it? Do we not believe that it was, as a body, utterly departed from Him? Is it restored so that He would be glorified in it at His appearing? Is the union of believers such as He marks to be their peculiar characteristic? Are there not unremoved hindrances? Is there not a practical spirit of worldliness in essential variance with the true termini of the gospel – the death and coming again of the Lord Jesus as Saviour?…

Unity is the glory of the church; but unity to secure and promote our own interests is not the unity of the church, but confederacy and denial of the nature and hope of the church. Unity, that is of the church, is the unity of the Spirit, and can only be in the things of the Spirit, and therefore can only be perfected in spiritual persons. It is indeed the essential character of the church, and this strongly testifies to the believer its present state. But, I ask, if the professing church seeks worldly interests, and if the Spirit of God be amongst us, will it then be the minister of unity in such pursuits as these? If the various professing churches seek it, each for itself, no answer need be given. But if they unite in seeking a common interest, let us not be deceived; it is no better, if it be not the work of the Lord. There are two things which we have to consider. First, Are our objects in our work exclusively the Lord’s objects, and no other? If they have not been such in bodies separate from each other, they will not be in any union of them together. Let the Lord’s people weigh this. Secondly, let our conduct be the witness of our objects. If we are not living in the power of the Lord’s kingdom, we certainly shall not be consistent in seeking its ends. Let it enter our minds, while we are all thinking what good thing we may do to inherit eternal life, to sell all that we have, take up our cross, and follow Christ…

So far as men pride themselves on being Established, Presbyterian, Baptist, Independent, or anything else, they are antichristian. How then are we to be united? I answer, it must be the work of the Spirit of God. Do you follow the testimony of that Spirit in the word as is practically applicable to your consciences, lest that day take you unawares?… Professed churches (especially those established) have sinned greatly in insisting on things indifferent and hindering the union of believers, and this charge rests heavily on the hierarchies of the several churches. Certainly order is necessary; but where they said, ‘the things are indifferent and nothing in themselves: therefore you must use them for our pleasure’s sake,’ the word of the Spirit of Christ says, ‘they are indifferent: therefore we will yield to your weakness, and not offend a brother for whom Christ died.’ Paul would have eaten no meat while the world endured, if it had hurt the conscience of a weak brother, though the weak brother was in the wrong. And why insisted on? Because they gave distinction and place in the world. If the pride of authority and the pride of separation were dissolved (neither of which are of the Spirit of Christ), and the word of the Lord taken as the sole practical guide, and sought to be acted up to by believers, we shall be spared much judgment, though we shall not perhaps find altogether the glory of the Lord, and many a poor believer, on whom the eye of the Lord is set for blessing, would find comfort and rest… Let believers remove the hindrances to the Lord’s glory, which their own inconsistencies present, and by which they are joined to the world, and their judgments perverted. Let them commune one with another, seeking His will from the word, and see if a blessing do not attend it; at any rate it will attend themselves; they will meet the Lord as those that have waited for Him, and can rejoice unfeignedly in His salvation…

Let me ask the professing churches, in all love, one question. They have often professed to the Roman Catholics, and truly too, their unity in doctrinal faith, why then is there not an actual unity? If they see error in each other, ought they not to be humbled for each other? Why not, as far as was attained, mind the same rule, speak the same thing; and if in anything there was diversity of mind (instead of disputing on the footing of ignorance), wait in prayer, that God might reveal this also unto them. Ought not those who love the Lord amongst them, to see if they could not discern a cause? Yet I well know that, till the spirit of the world be purged from amongst them, unity cannot be, nor believers find safe rest…

I would solemnly repeat what I said before – the unity of the church cannot possibly be found till the common object of those who are members of it is the glory of the Lord, who is the Author and finisher of its faith: a glory which is to be made known in its brightness at His appearing, when the fashion of this world shall pass away, and therefore acted up to and entered upon in spirit when we are planted together in the likeness of His death. Because unity can, in the nature of things, be there only; unless the Spirit of God who brings His people together, gather them for purposes not of God, and the counsels of God in Christ come to nought. The Lord Himself says, “That they all may be one; as thou Father art in me and I in thee, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them, that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.” [John 17:21-23]

Oh that the church would weigh this word, and see if their present state do not preclude necessarily their shining in the glory of the Lord, or of fulfilling that purpose for which they were called. And I ask them, do they at all look for or desire this? or are they content to sit down and say, that His promise is come utterly to an end for evermore?

Yet will He surely gather His people and they shall be ashamed.

I have gone beyond my original intention in this paper; if I have in anything gone beyond the measure of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, I shall thankfully accept reproof, and pray God to make it forgotten.


While I admit that I wish some of Darby’s prophetic teachings would disappear (including from among Anabaptists), I am thankful that this tract of Darby’s was not forgotten. I might nuance a few things differently. But what a powerful call to examine our own hearts! Are we conformed to Christ’s death in a manner that will make true Christian unity possible?

I invite your response. Did you learn anything that surprised you about Darby or Scofield? Do you resonate with Darby’s words about the unity of the church? Share your insights in the comments below.


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125 Years of Seven Ordinances — Rough Draft

When a baby is born at 10 months, we don’t usually call it premature. When a writer has been promising for that long to release an essay, however, his “baby” may still be scarcely ready for the light of day. But everyone likes babies. (Right?) And everyone handles newborns gently. (Right?) And one can definitely only handle being pregnant for so long. So I’ve decided it’s time to release this overdue, unfinished essay into your hands.

Here it is, then: “that paper on the ‘ordinances.'” Click here to download, or find it on my Essays page.

Oh, isn’t he cute! He looks just like his daddy!

Now that I’ve given birth, I’d like to do two more things in this post: (1) Explain what I mean by “rough draft.” (2) Summarize the essay.

What Do I Mean by “Rough Draft”?

Though I’ve been working intermittently on this essay since the fall of 2011, I am aware of improvements that still should be made. For example:

  • My survey of pre-Reformation history is very brief.
  • I have still more Anabaptist-era primary sources I could peruse, to weigh my current survey for representative accuracy.
  • I could include more discussion of how the Coffman/Kauffman era was a time of transition, institution-building, and doctrinal formulation.
  • I should weigh more carefully whether the concept of ordinances is found in the NT, apart from the question of whether the word ordinance is used there as we use it. (In other words, is ordinance biblical in the same sense that Trinity is?)
  • A more nuanced discussion of sacramental theology would help, assessing it and contrasting it with other options such as a strictly symbolic understanding of the “ordinances.” I really don’t want to get too deep into this heated question (of which whole books are written!), but it is unavoidably related to the central questions of this essay.
  • My tone could be improved in places, better anticipating possible difficulties or challenges of readers and avoiding overstatement.
  • Technical details need help: Cleaning up footnotes, adding a bibliography, perhaps another appendix or two, switching to ESV as the primary translation, including Greek NT words in my exegetical discussions, etc.
  • Most importantly, I need to answer the “So what?” question. For this draft version of my essay I’ve included a list of problems possibly exacerbated by our concept of seven ordinances (see page 28). But I’m saving my discussion of these problems to share later. And should I note some benefits as well as problems?

I have been invited to share this essay at the Forum for Doctrinal Studies, probably in July 2017. After that I hope to post a fuller version here.

Your feedback is most welcome as I continue writing! Post your thoughts in the comments thread here or send me a private message.

Summary of the Essay

First (pp. 1-5) I summarize the pre-Reformation history of ordinances by noting three developments:

  1. The growth of formal ritual instead of simple obedience to NT commands;
  2. The development of the theology and vocabulary of sacraments; and
  3. The formation of a defined list of seven Roman Catholic sacraments.

Next (pp. 5-14) I discuss the early Anabaptist era, including their rejection of ritual and sacramental theology, their failure to fully restore all NT practices related to ordinances, and their various lists of sacraments/ordinances. This section is full of primary source quotes, including this gem from the Martyr’s Mirror, from the trial of an Anabaptist named Jacob de Roore:

Jac. If you want to imitate all the things which the apostles did, and regard them all as sacraments, why do you not also regard your aprons or handkerchiefs as sacraments, and lay them upon the sick, as Paul did? For what greater sacredness was there in the oil of which James writes, than in Paul’s aprons, by which he also healed the sick, as is written in the nineteenth chapter of the Acts of the apostles?

Fr. Corn. If the devil does not wag your tongue, I do not understand the matter. You accursed Anabaptists may yourselves make a sacrament of your filthy handkerchiefs or aprons; for you people have no sacrament, but we Catholics have seven sacraments; is it not enough, eh?

Jac. Yea, in troth; for since the term sacrament is not once mentioned in the holy Scriptures, you have only seven too many.

The third section (pp. 14-24) finally explains the origin of our own seven ordinances. I survey ordinances among early American Mennonites, then focus on J.S. Coffman and Daniel Kauffman, who appear to be primarily responsible for formulating and codifying the list we have inherited. (Thus the “125 Years” in my title, dating from 1891.) This section ends by asking what Kauffman meant by the term ordinance.

The fourth section (pp. 24-27) continues this linguistic focus by comparing Kauffman’s use of ordinance with biblical vocabulary.

The fifth section (pp. 27-30) proposes some responses to the previous historical and biblical discussion. I ask whether we can redeem the term ordinance and whether our inheritance of a theology and practice of seven ordinances is really anything to be worried about. (In other words, is this essay merely much ado about nothing?)

Finally, I’ve included three appendices (pp. 31-34) with more technical data:

  1. “Words Translated ‘Ordinance” in the King James Version”
  2. “Who Baptizes in the New Testament?”
  3. “Who May Anoint With Oil?

Again, I warmly welcome your help with this project! Those of us who are conservative Anabaptists have inherited these seven ordinances as a shared legacy. Our response to this heritage will also be a shared project.

How can we hold onto the best of the past while also making needed changes? How radical dare we be in our changes? How can we avoid overreacting? How can we let Scripture speak anew in our generation? What understanding and practice of “ordinances” do we want to leave to our children?

Please share your comments here or, if you prefer, in a private message.

For Christ and his Church,
Dwight Gingrich


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Ecclesiology of the Reformers (7): Conclusions and Questions

How should we live today, as children of the Reformation? Should we celebrate the Reformation, looking to its heroes as a foundation for our churches? Should we continue debating and dividing among ourselves in our search for truth, emphasizing our post-Reformation denominational distinctives? Should Anabaptists read the Christian world primarily through an “Anabaptists are not X (especially Protestant)” lens?

Should we see the Reformation primarily as a tragedy, dividing the seamless robe of Christ, cutting his Bride in two? Should we focus our efforts on reuniting the broken Church, looking for common ground? Should we set aside secondary theological matters as we join arms with all who name Christ’s name, trying to undo the damage triggered by Luther?

Should we—as some today seem to be doing—try to do church as if the Reformation never happened? Is it ancient history that we are wisest to ignore, acting instead as if our parents or grandparents lived among the apostles? It has been almost 500 years since the Reformation; may we safely forget it as most of us have forgotten other momentous events in church history (such as the division of Eastern and Western churches, the decline of Christianity in the Middle East, the writings of Thomas Aquinas, or the tragedy and glory of European colonization)? After all, we who are Anabaptists are just biased in thinking that the historical period of our birth was exceptionally important, right?

While some of these questions are deliberately off-balance, I don’t think a simple yes or no answer will suffice for any of them. History abounds with reactionary responses to history.

This post is a (very belated) final installment in our series surveying the ecclesiology of the reformers, quoting from Timothy George’s excellent book, Theology of the Reformers. (See the introduction to this series and posts about the ecclesiologies of Luther, Zwingli , Calvin, Simons, and Tyndale.)

In this post I want to do two things: (1) Quote some of George’s summary reflections on Reformation ecclesiology and (2) add a random and non-representative sample of some of my own questions and conclusions.

Summary Reflections from Timothy George

The abiding validity of Reformation theology is that, despite the many varied emphases it contains within itself, it challenges the church to listen reverently and obediently to what God has once and for all said (Deus dixit) and once and for all done in Jesus Christ. How the church will respond to this challenge is not a matter of academic speculation or ecclesiastical gamesmanship. It is a question of life or death. It is the decision of whether the church will serve the true and living God of Jesus Christ, the God of the Old and the New Testaments, or else succumb to the worship of Baal. (Kindle Locations 8173-8177, emphasis added)

I agree: The Reformation helped to refocus the church of Christ upon Christ himself, not only in its soteriology (theology of salvation) but also in its understandings of the definition of the true church. This lesson must not be forgotten. This next quote underscores the same theme:

The different Christological nuances among the reformers were substantial and significant, but Menno’s favorite text (1 Cor 3:11) could serve as the basic theme for each of them: the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is the only foundation, the only compelling and exclusive criterion, for Christian life and Christian theology. (Kindle Locations 8253-8255)

A second essential lesson of the Reformation is that Scripture—the Scripture that in its entirety gives witness to Christ—must be given primacy over both church tradition and personal experience:

In the sixteenth century the inspiration and authority of Holy Scripture was not a matter of dispute between Catholics and Protestants. All of the reformers, including the radicals, accepted the divine origin and infallible character of the Bible. The issue which emerged at the Reformation was how the divinely attested authority of Holy Scripture was related to the authority of the church and ecclesiastical tradition (Roman Catholics) on the one hand and the power of personal experience (Spiritualists) on the other. The sola in sola scriptura was not intended to discount completely the value of church tradition but rather to subordinate it to the primacy of Holy Scripture. Whereas the Roman Church appealed to the witness of the church to validate the authority of the canonical Scriptures, the Protestant reformers insisted that the Bible was self-authenticating, that is, deemed trustworthy on the basis of its own perspicuity [clarity]… evidenced by the internal testimony [i.e., witness in our hearts] of the Holy Spirit. (Kindle Locations 8278-8286, emphasis added)

This emphasis on Scripture carried practical results for church life, resulting in a biblicism that has been both incredibly freeing but also—given (a) human interpretive fallibility and (b) pragmatic retreats to other sources of authority—a trigger point for much unfortunate division:

The reformers… were convinced that the proclamation of the Christian church could not be derived from any philosophy or any self-wrought worldview. It could be nothing less than an interpretation of the Scriptures. No other proclamation has either right or promise in the church. (Kindle Locations 8300-8302, emphasis added)

The second of the “Ten Conclusions of Berne” (1528) [Reformed] expresses this positive biblicism that governed, albeit with different results, both Reformed and Anabaptist ecclesiology: “The Church of Christ makes no laws or commandments apart from the Word of God; hence all human traditions are not binding upon us except so far as they are grounded upon or prescribed in the Word of God.” (Kindle Locations 8292-8294, emphasis added)

To the above I say a hearty “Amen,” while affirming with Paul and others (Acts 16:6-10, etc.) that the belief in the still-speaking Spirit is also “grounded upon… the Word of God.” (The Bible provides guidance for the church of all time; the Spirit continues to give more specific, limited guidance that is in full agreement with the new covenant gospel Word found in the Scriptures.) Let us press on to ever more faithful biblical interpretation and living, while also extending gracious patience toward those who disagree on what should be identified as “human traditions.”

The following excerpt gives George’s summary of the Reformation definition of the church, followed by a lesson he draws for us today:

In the perspective of the Reformation, then, the church of Jesus Christ is that communion of saints and congregation of the faithful that has heard the Word of God in Holy Scripture and that, through obedient service to its Lord, bears witness to that Word in the world. We should remember that the church did not begin with the Reformation. The reformers intended to return to the New Testament conception of the church, to purge and purify the church of their day in accordance with the norm of Holy Scripture. Even the Anabaptists, who felt that an absolutely new beginning was called for, retained–even as they transmuted–more of the tradition and theology of the church of the Fathers and the creeds than they imagined. While we must not forfeit the hard-won victories of the reformers in the interest of a facile ecumenism, we celebrate and participate in the quest for Christian unity precisely because we take seriously the Reformation concept of the church–ecclesia semper reformanda, not merely a church once and for all reformed but rather a church always to be reformed, a church ever in need of further reformation on the basis of the Word of God. (Kindle Locations 8294-8300, emphasis added)

George also summarizes some Reformation church practices—changes, especially in worship practices, that resulted from changes in their theology:

As a part of their protest against clerical domination of the church, the reformers aimed at full participation in worship. Their reintroduction of the vernacular was itself revolutionary because it required that divine worship be offered to almighty God in the language used by businessmen in the marketplace and by husbands and wives in the privacy of their bedchambers. The intent of the reformers was not so much to secularize worship as to sanctify common life. (Kindle Locations 8315-8318, emphasis added)

In discussing these worship practices, George acknowledges differences among the reformers but seeks common ground:

We have seen how the reformers pared down the medieval sacraments from seven to two. We have also noted how, with regard to these two, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, differences among the reformers became a major obstacle to unity among them. The Anabaptists insisted that baptism be consequent to faith and further denied that infants could be the proper recipients of faith whether presumed (Luther), parental (Zwingli), or partial (Calvin). Thus they returned to the early church practices of baptism as an adult rite of initiation signifying a committed participation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The ecumenical significance of the Anabaptist doctrine of baptism is recognized in the Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry statement of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches. While admitting the validity of both infant and believer’s baptism, it is stated that “baptism upon personal confession of faith is the most clearly attested pattern in the New Testament documents.”1 (Kindle Locations 8320-8327, emphasis added)

George discusses lessons we can learn about baptism from the reformers:

As a corrective to the casual role assigned to baptism in much of contemporary church life, we can appropriate two central concerns from the Reformation doctrines of baptism: From the Anabaptists we can learn the intrinsic connection between baptism and repentance and faith; from the mainline reformers (though more from Luther than from the others) we can learn that in baptism not only do we say something to God and to the Christian community but God also says and does something for us, for baptism is both God’s gift and our human response to that gift. (Kindle Locations 8330-8335, emphasis added)

…and laments that baptismal differences still divide the church:

Even for many churches that are able mutually to recognize their various practices of baptism, full participation in the Eucharist can only be hoped for as a goal not yet achieved. There is no easy side-stepping of this serious ecumenical problem, nor is it possible to ignore the scars that remain from the sixteenth-century disputes over the meaning of “hoc est corpus meum [this is my body].” (Kindle Locations 8340-8343, emphasis added)

George also draws lessons from the Reformation about the Lord’s Supper. Again, a desire for unity helps shape George’s discussion:

What can we learn from the Reformation debates on the Lord’s Supper? First, we need to reclaim a theology of presence The Lord’s Supper is not “merely” a symbol. To be sure, it is a symbol, but it is a symbol that conveys that which it signifies…
Second, we need to return to the practice of more frequent Communion. The earliest Christians may have celebrated the Lord’s Supper daily (Acts 2:42, 46), and they certainly did so weekly… If the Lord’s supper is given to us for “daily food and sustenance to refresh and strengthen us” (Luther); if it “supports and augments faith” (Zwingli); if it is a “spiritual banquet” (Calvin); the “Christian marriage feast at which Jesus Christ is present with his grace, Spirit and promise” (Menno); and if it is the “spiritual food and meat of our souls” (Tyndale), then to neglect its frequent sharing in the context of worship is to spurn the external sign of God’s grace to our spiritual impoverishment.
Third, we need to restore the balance between Word and sacrament in Christian worship. The reformers did not invent the sermon, but they elevated preaching to a central role in the divine service… [Since] Vatican Council II (1963)… many Roman Catholic congregations have emphasized the decisive importance of the Liturgy of the Word in Christian worship. At the same time many Protestant congregations have regained a new appreciation for the central role of the Eucharist in Christian worship. Each of these trends is an encouraging sign. (Kindle Locations 8345-8375, emphasis added)

I find myself agreeing with most of George’s comments here about church worship practices. For example, I wish our churches weren’t so lackadaisical (or fearful?) about observing the Lord’s Supper more often.

George’s reflections about the ethics of the reformers are also relevant:

There is a kind of adulation of the reformers of the sixteenth century that divorces their theology from their ethics. This perspective rightly recognizes the reformers as great heroes of the faith but fails to discern their prophetic role and their revolutionary impact on society.  However, Reformation faith was concerned with the whole of life, not merely with the religious or spiritual sphere. (Kindle Locations 8388-8391)

I am tempted to launch a very Anabaptist-style critique of George at this point. I notice that in his subsequent discussion of Reformation ethics (four lengthy paragraphs, one each for Luther, Zwingli/Calvin, Menno, and Tyndale) he focuses to a large extent on what each man said about ethics, not what he actually did. This is natural in a book about theology, yet it is also a potential weakness, one we Anabaptists are keen to point out as we contrast the Luther of the Peasants’ Revolt with the Anabaptists who refused to bear the sword. In fact, George’s paragraph on Anabaptist ethics does indeed focus on deeds as much as on words, and he observes that “the Anabaptist vision is a corrective to the ethics of the mainline reformers. It reminds us that to sanctify the secular must never mean simply to sprinkle holy water on the status quo but always to confront the culture with the radical demands of Jesus Christ” (Kindle Locations 8417-8419, emphasis added). So I’ll end my brief critique and acknowledge that George shares my concern.

After summarizing the ethical emphases of various reformers, George continues:

Which of these ethical directions is right for the church today? No one of them is sufficient alone, for each is susceptible to its own distortion. The Lutheran emphasis on the priority of faith to works can degenerate into mere formalism because pure doctrine without holy living always results in dead orthodoxy. The Reformed emphasis on involvement in the world can turn the church into little more than a political action committee or a social service organization, while the Anabaptist critique of culture can lapse into a sterile separatism that has forgotten its sense of mission. We have much to learn from each of these traditions, but we are bound to none of them. We are bound only to Jesus Christ. The church is communio sanctorum, a communion of saved sinners, founded on the gospel of the free grace of God in Jesus Christ, sent into the world for which Christ died, ever to confront that world in witness and service with the absolute demands of Christ. (Kindle Locations 8427-8433, emphasis added)

Several things are noteworthy to me in the above excerpt. First, we see again George’s admirable desire to learn from everyone and to seek common ground in Christ. George’s ecumenical friendliness, though rooted strongly in devotion to Christ, probably makes some of us at least slightly uncomfortable at times. (George not only “chairs the Doctrine and Christian Unity Commission of the Baptist World Alliance,” but he also “is active in Evangelical-Roman Catholic Church dialogue.” See here.) But I think George’s keen sense of the unity of all true believers is sorely needed in our conservative Anabaptist churches. His account of the Reformation provides healthy balance to the narrower Anabaptists-focused story we usually hear.

Second, the above excerpt provides George’s own definition of the church. It is a remarkably good definition. I might quibble with his use of the word “sinners” to describe Christians (it depends in part on what you mean by “sinner”). But I like how George’s definition (a) is structured around repeated references to Christ, (b) is rooted in the gospel of grace while also affirming good works, (c) distinguishes the church from the world based on the “absolute demands” of Christ, and (d) emphasizes both word and deed as part of the church’s responsibility to the world.

Random Conclusions and Questions

One reason why it took me so long to write this final post in this series is because I feel utterly unqualified to properly “wrap up” this subject. I am only a student, and a very part-time and forgetful one! So, at the risk of repeating a redundant redundancy, let me remind you that what follows is only random thoughts that have popped into my head that I managed to write down before they flew.

First, some of my own conclusions:

  • It is inaccurate and unfair to describe American evangelicals today by quoting Luther. Some conservative Anabaptists regularly lament that we are so different from the first Anabaptists. Yet some of these same people regularly summarize Luther on church-state relationships or Calvin on predestination and imply that evangelicals today believe essentially the same thing, unchanged across 500 years. The truth is, some do and most don’t. One example: most American evangelicals today are roughly half way between Luther and the early Swiss Brethren (Grebel and Mantz, etc.) on the relationship between church and state. They have inherited ideas on this topic indirectly from both and also from a host of other sources. In fact, Luther might not even consider most evangelicals today to actually be true Christians! (Calvin would have his concerns about many American Christians, too.)
  • Our assumptions about church are powerfully shaped by our historical and ecclesiological contexts. The obvious lesson here is that we should be humble. We should intentionally allow our assumptions to be tested by others from different times and church traditions. This means that I, as a 21st-century Anabaptist living in the microcosm that is my local church—a very tiny slice of Christ’s church across time and space—this means that I must hold onto Christ and the Scriptures tightly but hold onto my particular ways of doing church lightly. It also means that I would be wise to listen regularly to voices from outside my own church heritage.
  • I am thankful for my Anabaptist heritage. Everyone grows up somewhere, and denying our roots does not make them disappear.  I think my various Anabaptist predecessors were wrong on multiple points: Conrad Grebel should not have forbade singing in church, Melchior Hoffman was wrong to predict the date of Christ’s return, Dirk Philips was too rigid in his application of the ban, and Menno Simons was confused about the incarnation. Anabaptists since have added other errors, some of which remain entrenched to this day. But I am deeply grateful to have been born into a stream of Christ’s church that clearly teaches believer’s baptism and a believers’ church, suffering love and nonviolence, and brotherly love and accountability. I want to humbly rejoice in such blessings while identifying with all of the people of Christ.
  • Christ must be central in everything, including all efforts to unify the church. Any true unity, any true theology, any true understandings of the church, any true brothers and sisters—all will be found in increasing measure only as we draw ever nearer to Christ. Ephesians 4:1-16 is so helpful here, with its description of two aspects of church unity: First, we must eagerly “maintain the unity” that the Spirit has already created between all who are in Christ, nurturing the bond of peace between us (v. 3). It is already an established fact that there is only “one body” (v. 4); we don’t have to create that reality! Second, we must also harness all the Spirit-given gifts (vv. 11-12), each member working properly (v. 16) and speaking theological truth in love (v. 15), all with the goal of “building up” the one “body of Christ” (v. 12) until we all “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” Maintain unity… attain unity. Both tasks are essential. And both truth and love are essential for both tasks. And both tasks occur with Christ as initiator and Christ as goal (vv. 5, 7, 13, 15).

 Finally, here are some questions that I think we should be asking—some rhetorical, some open-ended:

  • What can I do to imitate the reformers in testing all my received understandings and practices by Scripture? (I have heard that the first self-identity of the Swiss Brethren was “Bible students.” That is an Anabaptist identity that I eagerly embrace.)
  • What intentional steps can I take to both “maintain” and “attain” unity among all of Christ’s disciples who live in my local town or community, regardless of denominational affiliation?
  • How can I help other people groups worldwide enjoy the biggest single blessing of the Reformation–the Bible in their own language?
  • Am I wise and bold enough to know the right times to confront error within my own church, ready to “stand alone on the… B-I-B-L-E” when necessary?
  • Am I wise and humble enough to learn from my brothers and sisters, expecting Christ to teach me through them?
  • How can we restore greater room for the priesthood of all believers, giving more trust and voice to individual members during times of gathered worship and decision-making?
  • Given our Anabaptist emphasis on believer’s baptism, how can we do a better job of teaching our children to believe and welcoming them into our churches? Does our theology equip us to understand the needs of children, or only of adult converts?
  • If believer’s baptism is so important, then should we change our baptismal practices so that not only all who are baptized believe, but also all who believe are baptized? Do we have a biblical basis for withholding baptism from those who believe? If the church is the school of Christ (to borrow Calvin’s term), is baptism the entrance ticket or the graduation certificate?
  • If believer’s baptism is so important, replacing infant baptism as the entrance into the true church, then should we change our church membership practices so that not only all who are members are baptized, but also all who are baptized are members? Or is baptism not that significant after all?
  • How can we capitalize on the blessings of freedom of religion that the early Anabaptists lacked (open doors for evangelism and extended biblical study, to name only two) while also regaining the fiery zeal that marked the words and deeds of the martyrs?

My last question is more complicated, so I’ll present it in paragraphs:

Is it possible to divide Christ’s church by treating “marks of a healthy church” as if they are essential “marks of the true church”? The magisterial reformers identified a handful of key marks of the true church; typically correct preaching of the Word and the proper administration of the sacraments are cited, although Luther mentioned as many as seven. Calvin’s heirs added church discipline, which the Anabaptist also affirmed. Menno Simons listed “six marks by which the church is known: (1) an unadulterated, pure doctrine; (2) scriptural use of the sacramental signs; (3) obedience to the Word; (4) unfeigned, brotherly love; (5) a bold confession of God and Christ; (6) oppression and tribulation for the sake of the Lord’s Word” (George, Kindle Locations 6431-6436).

More recently the 9Marks ministry has identified “nine marks of a healthy church,” citing preaching, biblical theology, the gospel, conversion, evangelism, membership, discipline, discipleship, and leadership. On the website these nine marks are called “the nine marks,” but I know I’ve heard founder Mark Dever explain that he actually prefers to leave the “the” off, for this list was not intended to be exclusive. In other words, there are additional things that a healthy church will also focus on, besides these nine marks. And I am certain Dever does not intend for this list to be marks of the true church; rather, he knows that many churches are weak in some of these areas. They may be weak churches, but they are still expressions of Christ’s church. (See here and here for more on marks of the church, past and present.)

I’m saying all this to return to my initial question. Clearly, there is a difference between a list of marks of the true church and a list of marks of a healthy church. After all, in Revelation we see a list of churches that were still part of the true church, but not currently healthy! This means, therefore, that any list of marks of the true church should be shorter than any list of marks of a healthy church. Thus, some questions: Which kind of list was Menno’s list? How “unadulterated” and “pure” must a church’s “doctrine” be for that church to be part of the true church? How full an “obedience” must her members demonstrate? How much “oppression and tribulation” must they endure? And what about our lists, written or unwritten, of the true church today? Are we confusing the two kinds of lists? And does our confusion ever cause us to reject as “untrue” any part of Christ’s church that might be merely “unhealthy” and in need of nurture rather than isolation?

I think I’ve written enough to tip my hand: I’m a child of the reformers, and I pray that we will be continually reforming our churches to better follow Christ and honor his written Word.

I’d love to hear from some of you. What questions do you think we should be asking ourselves, in light of our Reformation heritage? Maybe we could compile a longer list! What conclusions for today do you draw from your reflection on our history, Anabaptist or otherwise? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


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

  1. Leith, John H., Creeds of the Churches, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 610.

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