Tag Archives: John Wyclif

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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Ecclesiology of the Reformers (1): Late Middle Ages

I recently finished an excellent book: Theology of the Reformers, by Timothy George (republished in 2013 in an expanded 25th-anniversary edition).  This book summarizes the theology of the Reformation by focusing on five key characters: Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, Menno Simons, and William Tyndale. (Click on the names above for my posts on each, and click here for my final post in this series.)

Among the many topics surveyed in George’s book is the topic of ecclesiology (the theology of the Church). Since ecclesiology is one of the primary themes of this website, I want to post here some key excerpts from George’s book on the topic.

This won’t be a book review, nor will I attempt to systematically summarize everything George writes about the ecclesiology of the Reformers. Rather, look for about six or seven blog posts containing a semi-random collection of quotes–anything about the Church that seems especially interesting or significant to me as I look to sharpen my own ecclesiological vision.

History is important! If we want to understand ourselves and our churches well, we will need to learn at least a little about our roots. In fact, we should look beyond our own roots to examine the branches that grow beside us on the great tree of the Church. No, we do not look to history for the last word about what the Church is or how church should “be done.” We look to Scripture and the Word-wielding Spirit for that. But the study of history can equip us to see ourselves and our churches more clearly in the mirror of the Word.

To that end, let me begin in this post by sharing some excerpts from Timothy George about the church of the late Middle Ages–the church that gave birth to each of the Reformers, the church against which they hammered out their own ecclesiological conclusions.

Timothy George:

We have said little about the notorious abuses of the pre-Reformation church: simony, nepotism, the misuse of benefices, clerical concubinage, and so forth. All of the reformers— Catholic, Protestant, and radical alike—strenuously opposed such practices. However, some among them also realized that something more than a general housecleaning was demanded. It would do no good to sweep out the cobwebs if the foundation itself was rotten. What was needed was a new definition of the church based on a fresh understanding of the gospel.(Kindle Locations 577-581, emphasis added.)

Unlike the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology, which were subjects of official conciliar definitions in the early church, the doctrine of the church had never received such dogmatic status. Neither Peter Lombard in his Four Books of Sentences nor Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica has a separate locus for the church in his systematic theology. However, from the fourteenth century onward, numerous treatises bear the title De ecclesia. This explosion of interest in ecclesiology coincided with extensive institutional changes within the church… (Kindle Locations 582-587, emphasis added.)

The Reformation is often portrayed as having shattered the unity of the medieval church , bequeathing to the modern world the legacy of a divided Christendom. When we look closer at the centuries preceding the Reformation, however, we discover a plurality of ecclesial forms and doctrines… The Reformation of the sixteenth century was thus a continuation of the quest for the true church that had begun long before Luther, Calvin, or the fathers of Trent entered the lists.(Kindle Locations 587-591, emphasis added.)

Timothy George describes “five competing models of the church in the late Middle Ages.” Here a few excerpts for each:

1. Curialism

In medieval times the Curia Romana referred to the papal court, including all of the officials and functionaries who assisted the pope in the governance of the church. Curialism thus was a theory of church government that invested supreme authority , both temporal and spiritual, in the hands of the papacy. (Kindle Locations 593-595, emphasis added.)

Building on the work of his predecessors, Pope Boniface VIII set forth the most extravagant claims for papal sovereignty in his bull Unam Sanctam ( 1302 )… “We declare, state, define and pronounce that it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”(Kindle Locations 615-619, emphasis added.)

[The Italian poet] Dante, who placed Boniface in one of the lowest circles of hell with two other simoniac [buying or selling church privileges] popes, described the consequences of the curialist position: “Since the Church has sought to be two governments at once [temporal and spiritual swords], she sinks in much, befouling both her power and ministry.”(Kindle Locations 623-625)

2. Conciliarism

The specter of the body of Christ divided into three papal obediences, each hurling anathemas and interdicts at the other two, gave urgency to the call for reform. Out of this crisis emerged the conciliar view of the church, which affirmed the superiority of ecumenical councils over the pope in the governance and reform of the church. At the heart of the conciliar theory was the fundamental distinction between the universal church (representatively embodied in a general council) and the Roman Church (consisting of pope and cardinals). (Kindle Locations 630-634, emphasis added.)

In the case of multiple schisms, who was qualified to hold the popes accountable? William of Ockham had declared that any Christian , even a woman, could call together a general council in a time of emergency. (Kindle Locations 638-639)

The death knell of conciliarism can be heard in the papal bull Execrabilis, promulgated by Pope Pius II in 1460.

A horrible abuse, unheard-of in earlier times, has sprung up in our period. Some men, imbued with a spirit of rebellion . . . suppose that they can appeal from the Pope, Vicar of Jesus Christ . . . to a future council . . . . Desirous, therefore, of banishing this deadly poison from the Church of Christ , . . . we condemn appeals of this kind, reject them as erroneous and abominable, and declare them to be completely null and void.(Kindle Locations 650-654)

3. Wyclif and Hus

Both Wyclif, “The Morning Star of the Reformation,” and Hus are often referred to as forerunners of the Reformation. Indeed, Hus’s treatise, De Ecclesia, played an important role in Luther’s eventual break with the papacy. At one point Luther was forced to confess: “We are all Hussites now.” 35 He later realized that his affinity with Wyclif and Hus was only provisional; neither of them approached his radical understanding of justification by faith alone . Nonetheless their own radical ecclesiologies contributed significantly to Luther’s developing doctrine of the church.(Kindle Locations 661-666, emphasis added.)

Wyclif’s strident anticlericalism issued from his definition of the church as the predestined body of the elect. Hus later echoed Wyclif’s idea: “The unity of the Catholic Church consists in the bond of predestination, since her individual members are united by predestination, and in the goal of blessedness, since all her sons are ultimately united in blessedness .” (Kindle Locations 670-672, emphasis added.)

Wyclif divided the church into three parts: the Church Triumphant (including the angels) in heaven, the Church Militant on earth, and the Church Dormient in purgatory. As the Church Militant contained both wheat and tares, and as no one could know for sure in this life which of those one was, neither affiliation with the institutional church nor the holding of clerical office guaranteed membership in the invisible church, whose “chief abbot” was Christ. It was thus possible to be in the church without being of the church.(Kindle Locations 676-680, emphasis added.)

4. Spiritual Franciscans

The power of their appeal sprang from two sources: Francis’s ideal of poverty, which the Spirituals understood from reading his Rule to be absolute, and the philosophy of history set forth by Joachim of Fiore (d. 1202), which they applied to their own order and to their own times. In combination these elements provided an explosive critique of the contemporary church. Joachim divided history into three ages associated respectively with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The dawn of the Third Age would be heralded by the coming of a new order of barefooted spiritual men who would oppose the false hierarchy of the church and prepare the way for a millennium of peace that would continue until the last judgment. (Kindle Locations 696-701)

As Wyclif and Hus opposed the empirical church of their day with the concept of the invisible church of the elect, so the Spiritual Franciscans held out the ideal of the church of the future, the church of the soon-coming Third Age of the Spirit, of which they were forerunners. In the later Middle Ages, the intensity of eschatological expectations and calculations increased. This “pursuit of the millennium” carried into the Reformation, especially among the radical reformers…(Kindle Locations 714-717, emphasis added.)

5. Waldensians

Whereas the Spirituals looked forward to the church of the coming new age, the Waldensians, devoid of apocalyptic fervor, harked back to the ecclesia primitiva, modeling their congregations on the simplicity of the early church.(Kindle Locations 718-720, emphasis added.)

The Waldensian view of the church was characterized by a strong perfectionist tendency and an antisacerdotal bias. They believed that the Roman Church had lost all of its spiritual authority when Pope Sylvester I received a gift of property and worldly power from Emperor Constantine in the fourth century.(Kindle Locations 726-728)

The Waldensians were able to survive frequent persecutions because of their separatist model of the church and their practice of clandestine worship. Their obvious affinities with the Protestant movement made them prime candidates for conversion. Indeed, at the Reformation many of the Waldensians merged with the Reformed Church without giving up their own identity.(Kindle Locations 733-736)

After surveying these “five competing models of the church,” George concludes:

From the foregoing survey of late medieval piety and ecclesiology, it should be clear that the church on the eve of the Reformation was beset by diverse models of spirituality and Christian community. The old idea that the Reformation burst asunder the undisturbed unity of an undivided Christendom must be set aside in the light of what one historian has called the “pregnant plurality” of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. (Kindle Locations 738-740, emphasis added. B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

And that’s all for this post! Next up: the ecclesiology of Martin Luther.

What did you learn in this post? What did you see that still impacts the way we think about the Church today? What do you have to add to (or balance) Timothy George’s observations? Share your insights in the comments below!


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