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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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Ecclesiology of the Reformers (6): William Tyndale

The idea of Tyndale having an ecclesiology is new for me. Tyndale is famous for being the father of the English Bible, not for having founded any church. Yet Tyndale did have an ecclesiology, and he did help to found a new church. Just as Tyndale’s translation work lies hidden in plain site within the King James Version Bible–about 80% of the KJV NT matches Tyndale’s–so his influence on ecclesiology lies hidden in plain sight in the many branches of the English Protestant church.

Tyndale’s ecclesiology was hammered out in the context of his experience, a scholar on the run, a theologian in exile… Even Menno Simons, who faced harassment and persecution, seems to have had a respected leadership role among the scattered Anabaptist communities in the Low Countries. He was able to get married and have a family. Not so William Tyndale. He lived hand to mouth, so to speak, depending on the generosity of a few friends, never knowing when the creak on the stairs or the turn of the lock would be his summons from the authorities. And yet he thought and wrote a great deal about the church, which he frequently referred to as God’s “little flock”: “The Kingdom of heaven is the preaching of the Gospel, unto which come both good and bad . But the good are few. Christ calleth them therefore a ‘little flock’ (Luke 12:32).” (Kindle Locations 7737-7744, emphasis added)

This post continues our series on the ecclesiology of the Reformers, quoting from Timothy George’s excellent book, Theology of the Reformers. (See past posts about the ecclesiologies of Luther, Zwingli , Calvin, and Simons. See also the introduction to this series, and stay tuned for, hopefully, some wrap-up thoughts.)

One of the first things I noticed while reviewing George’s survey of Tyndale’s theology was that Tyndale’s Bible translation had ecclesiological effects. Even if Tyndale would have had no conscious theology of the church himself, he still would have shaped the ecclesiology of the English world simply through his translation. This happened in at least two ways: (1) through the gatherings that were formed by readers of his translation and (2) through the vocabulary choices he made as he translated.

Tyndale didn’t aim to produce a new church through his translation work:

At first Tyndale tried to accomplish his mission by working through official channels of the established church… The decree of 1408 forbidding English Bible translations provided only one loophole: Such a project could be undertaken with the permission and supervision of a bishop. (Kindle Locations 7176-7179)

Though the established church denied him support, Tyndale refused to deny the common plowman the chance to read “God’s Word.” Tyndale’s declared goal was to work for spiritual renewal of both individuals and the English nation at large:

Tyndale believed that the translation of the Bible and its dissemination into the hands of ordinary people were the means God had appointed to bring about genuine reformation and spiritual renewal in his time. In his brief epistle “To the Reader,” Tyndale commended his translation of the New Testament in this way: “Give diligence dear reader (I exhort thee) that thou come with a pure mind and as the Scripture saith with a single eye unto words of help and eternal life: by the which (if we repent and believe them) we are born anew, created afresh, and enjoy the fruits of the love of Christ.” (Kindle Locations 7225-7233)

Tyndale longed for God to use his translation to create new creatures in Christ Jesus. It did more than that; it also created new gatherings of believers.

Tyndale’s 1526 New Testament entered England as contraband and began to circulate in this way. Literacy was on the rise but still not common. Those who did not know how to read gathered eagerly around others who did to hear for the first time the words of the New Testament read aloud in English. Here and there, in the dark corners of the land, common folk gathered for such secret readings of Tyndale’s New Testament. Imagine being in such a group and hearing for the first time these words from the Gospel of John: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son for the intent, that none that believe in him should perish: But should have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world, to condemn the world: But that the world through him, might be saved” (John 3:16–17 Tyndale).(Kindle Locations 7215-7221, emphasis added)

King Henry VIII banned Tyndale’s translation; it was burned in St. Paul’s churchyard; and Tyndale remained on the run throughout the continental Europe. Yet his translation continued to find readers and to gather these readers into groups.

The case of William Malden illustrates the impact of Tyndale’s New Testament as it began to circulate throughout England in the late 1520s. Malden was a teenager, fifteen years of age, who lived with his family in the town of Chelmsford. At that time all of the services in the parish church there were still conducted in Latin. But, as Malden later recalled, “Divers poor men in the town of Chelmsford . . . bought the New Testament of Jesus Christ and on Sundays did sit reading in the lower end of the church and many would flock to hear their reading.” When Malden’s father found out about his son’s attendance at these Bible-reading sessions, he forbad him to participate anymore, insisting that he could get all the Bible he needed by going to Latin matins. Contrary to his father’s wishes, young William learned to read so that he could have access to the Scriptures for himself and not depend on its being read to him by others. (Kindle Locations 7259-7266, emphasis added)

Given this result of Tyndale’s efforts, it is interesting how he has been compared to the Paul the apostle and church planter:

Tyndale had enemies in high places, but he also had his champions, among whom there was none greater than John Foxe. In his Acts and Monuments, Foxe referred to Tyndale as one “who for his notable pains and travails may well be called the Apostle of England in this our later age.” Foxe invited one to think of Tyndale as a kind of apostle for his time, like Paul. The parallels between the two are, in fact, striking. Both were unmarried celibates who had no family of their own. Both Tyndale and Paul skirted danger in the fulfillment of their mission. Both were betrayed by untrustworthy companions, both spent time in prison and produced letters in their confinement, both were shipwrecked and finally put to death at the hands of imperial power . What Paul said about himself in his “catalog of sufferings” could be echoed by apostle Tyndale in the sixteenth century… (Kindle Locations 7241-7248)

A second way that Tyndale’s translation had ecclesiological effects was through the vocabulary choices that Tyndale made as he translated.

Tyndale’s desire to put the Scriptures into “plain plowman’s English” led him to introduce a new biblical vocabulary. As we have seen, charity became love. He turned penance into repentance and rendered confess as acknowledge. And, just as Luther preferred Gemeinde (community) to the German word Kirche (church), so Tyndale translated the Greek ekklesia as congregation. (Kindle Locations 7748-7752, emphasis added)

According to George, Tyndale recognized that there were four ways that the terms church and congregation were used. Tyndale didn’t approve of all these uses:

…Fourth, in Tyndale’s day the word church was used in a technical and exclusive sense to refer to all the clergy, who were also known as “the spirituality.” Tyndale called them “a multitude of shaven, shorn, and oiled.” Tyndale pointed out that this use of the word is found nowhere in the Scriptures; it represents a false institutionalization of the people of God.

So, what did Tyndale mean by congregation?

Congregation, as Tyndale often used it, refers to the true remnant, the “little flock,” Christ’s elect church, which is

The whole multitude of all repenting sinners that believe in Christ, and put all their trust and confidence of God; feeling in their hearts that God for Christ’s sake loveth them, and will be, or rather is, merciful unto them, and forgiveth them their sins of which they repent; and that he forgiveth them also all the motions unto sin, of which they fear less they should thereby be drawn into sin again.

Upon the rock of the faith that Peter confessed in Matthew 16, Jesus said that he would build his congregation. “And against the rock of this faith can no sin, no hell, no devil , no lies, nor error prevail,” Tyndale declared. It is this knowledge and faith that “maketh a man of the church.” Furthermore: “And the church is Christ’s Body (Col. 1); and every person of the church is a member of Christ (Eph. 5). Now it is no member of Christ that hath not Christ’s Spirit within it (Rom. 8); as it is no part of me, or members of my Body, wherein my soul is not present and quickeneth it. And then, if a man be none of Christ’s, he is not of his church.” (Kindle Locations 7753-7772, emphasis added)

Given this emphasis on knowledge and faith, we can see that Tyndale’s translation work was urgent and essential. He rested his hopes for individual salvation and for church renewal on the power of the written Word. To put it another way, Tyndale’s beliefs about the Word and about salvation shaped his understanding of the true Church. The Word awakens faith in the individual, and the gathering of the faithful is the Church:

“In as much as the Word is before the faith, and faith maketh the congregation, therefore is the Word or Gospel before the congregation.” (Kindle Locations 7777-7778)

Once again, as we’ve seen before in this series, ecclesiology rests on soteriology–that is, what we believe about the church is based on what we believe about the gospel and how it saves us. Differences in soteriology (doctrine of salvation) inevitably led to division between Tyndale and the Roman Catholic Church:

Both Thomas More [Catholic English statesman] and William Tyndale, like all Catholics and Protestants engaged in sixteenth-century salvation debates, believed in both faith and works. But how these two dimensions of the Christian life are related, which came first, whether either involves the accrual of merit, and what role each plays in the economy of grace—these were church-dividing matters that could not be resolved. (Kindle Locations 7607-7610, emphasis)

So what did Tyndale believe about salvation? In summary, according to George: Tyndale “was the first English-speaking theologian to give” justification by faith “due attention” (Kindle Locations 7495-7496). He emphasized the covenants God made with humanity, God’s work of electing and granting faith to his chosen ones, and how God grants sinners “totus Christus, the whole Christ: ‘His blood, his death, all that he ever did, is ours. And Christ himself, with all that he is or can do, is ours.’” (Kindle Locations 7581-7582)

At some points Tyndale sounds very Anabaptist:

None of this happens apart from the Holy Spirit. Tyndale’s emphasis on regeneration, the new birth, resonates more with Menno Simons and the Anabaptist vision than with the other reformers studied in this book. (Kindle Locations 7581-7584)

Unlike Luther, Tyndale placed a high value on the letter of James and quoted from it often. Tyndale saw no real contradiction between Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith apart from the works of the law and James’s statement that one is justified by works and not by faith only (Jas 2:14–24). James was not opposing works to true faith, Tyndale said, but rather works to a false conception of faith. (Kindle Locations 7682-7684)

And at other times not so much:

In his prologue to Romans, Tyndale declared that “predestination, our justifying and salvation are clean taken out of our hands, and put in the hands of God only, which thing is most necessary of all. For we are so weak and so uncertain, that if it stood in us, there would be of a truth no man be saved, the devil no doubt would deceive us.” (Kindle Locations 7538-7540)

Now may not we ask why God chooseth one and not another; either think that God is unjust to damn us before we do any actual deed; seeing that God hath power over all his creatures of right, to do with them what he list, or to make of every one of them as he listeth. (Kindle Locations 7545-7547)

Tyndale’s soteriology–with its ecclesiological ramifications–was not just communicated subtly through vocabulary choices in his translation:

Tyndale was not only a translator of the Bible, but he was also a teacher of the church.

In the preface to his commentary on 1 John, he gave this as the reason for writing that book and everything else he produced : “to edify the layman, and to teach him how to read the Scriptures, and what to seek therein.” In addition to translating most of the Bible into English from Hebrew and Greek—a formidable task no one had ever done before or has been required to do since—Tyndale produced an amazing theological corpus: prologues, introductions, expositions, and commentaries on the Bible as well as polemical and doctrinal treatises, not to mention sermons , letters, and liturgical writings, only a small portion of which have survived. (Kindle Locations 7334-7338, emphasis added)

Nor was Tyndale afraid to directly criticize the established church:

Among many complaints registered by Tyndale against leaders of the church, two stand out as especially offensive. The first was their avarice, greed, and exploitation of the flock over which they had been placed as shepherds… Every priest took his cut, as Tyndale wrote with sarcasm: “The parson sheareth, the vicar shaveth, the parish priest polleth, the frier scrapeth, and the pardoner pareth; we lack but a butcher to pull off the skin.” (Kindle Locations 7788-7794, emphasis added)

Tyndale also excoriated religious leaders for their moral laxity and sexual sins. Although he did not regard marriage as a sacrament—only baptism and the Lord’s Supper were New Testament institutions with a “promise”—he held a high view of married life… He strongly opposed the imposition of enforced clerical celibacy. This practice, Tyndale believed, invariably led to two extreme responses: On the one hand, the shunning and despising of all women—an attitude he detected in Jerome among others—and, on the other hand, a “false feigned chastity” that resulted in lust, lechery, and sexual abuse. (Kindle Locations 7801-7807, emphasis added)

Tyndale’s criticism of the established church clarifies that his vocabulary choices as a translator were very intentional, loaded with theological significance:

In criticizing late medieval religious practices, Tyndale made the priesthood of all believers the basis of his own ecclesiology. William S. Stafford has pointed to the significant change signaled by Tyndale’s choice of the term congregation over church. It amounted to “the re-evaluation of the laity, a religious, social and political relocation of the multitude who were baptized but untonsured.”1 (Kindle Locations 7816-7819, emphasis added)

Tyndale’s emphasis on the priesthood of all believers reminds me of Luther. The similarities between the two men go beyond the fact that both permanently shaped their respective national languages through their exceptional linguistic and translational skills. Tyndale was strongly influenced by Luther’s theological writings and may have even studied directly under him for a time. The following, though written of Tyndale, equally accurately describes Luther:

He believed that everyone in the congregation, informed by the Scriptures, had the right to admonish teachers and pastors when they went astray. All walks of life are holy callings. (Kindle Locations 7827-7829)

However, we should not imagine that Tyndale had no concept of an ordered ministry. Certain persons, mostly men, Tyndale thought, but also women (in case of emergency) were charged with preaching openly to the entire congregation. Tyndale opposed the idea that “the wagging of the bishop’s hand over us” had some supernatural power to make a preacher where there was none before. What mattered most was neither the ceremony of induction nor degrees earned at a college or university and certainly not the social status or rank of the preacher. Rather, what mattered most was the integrity of the message and the endowment of the Spirit. “When a true preacher preacheth,” wrote Tyndale, “the Spirit interrupts the hearts of the elect…” (Kindle Locations 7831-7837, emphasis added)

I want to end this survey of Tyndale’s ecclesiology where I began–by observing how fellowship around the Bible was central to his ecclesiology. Yet this fellowship, for Tyndale the “true preacher,” was not a self-centered withdrawal from the world, but one more way of sharing the love of God with all he met.

For nine months before his arrest, Tyndale lived in the English Merchants House in Antwerp… On Sundays he could be found in one of the largest rooms in the house reading a portion of the Scriptures, no doubt from his own translation. These readings would have included expositions of the text and pastoral applications as well. He repeated this exercise after dinner, “so fruitfully, sweetly, and gently” that he brought heavenly comfort to his listeners. On Mondays he would visit the English refugees who had come to Antwerp. On Saturdays he would walk around the city, looking into “every corner and hole” for those especially destitute—the elderly, women, children, the outcast. He gave liberally from the means he had to help those in need. He maintained a study in Merchants House and on all other days gave himself “wholly to his book.” In this brief sketch we see something of the pastoral calling at the heart of Tyndale’s work. (Kindle Locations 7850-7860, emphasis added)


Postscript

Although the theme of this series is ecclesiology, I am so impressed by Tyndale’s words about loving our neighbors that I cannot help sharing them also. And where better to begin loving our neighbors than right in our own churches? Listen and live:

“For as a man feeleth God in himself,” Tyndale wrote, “so is he to his neighbor.” Behind this principle is a view of Christian sociality that denies private ownership of one’s possessions in any absolute sense. This is how Tyndale put it: “For if my neighbor need and I give him not , neither depart liberally with him of that which I have, then withhold I from him unrighteously that which is his own.” And again: “Among Christian men love maketh all things common: every man is other’s debtor, and every man is bound to minister to his neighbor, and to supply his neighbor’s lack, of that wherewith God hath endowed him.”

But who is my neighbor? Tyndale answered that our neighbors are, in the first place, the members of our own family and household. Second, our neighbors include all those who live in proximity to us, “them of thine own parish,” as Tyndale put it, or, as we might say, the folks in our neighborhood. But our indebtedness to our neighbors extends far beyond this close circle, even to “the brethren a thousand miles off,” and, beyond that, “to the very infidels.” All these “have as good right in thy goods as thou thyself: and if thou withdraw mercy from them, and has wherewith to help them, then art thou a thief”! …“Neighbor is a love word,” he wrote. Loving our neighbors means that we pray for them, extend help and mercy to them in their need, and also share with them the message of Christ’s gospel. “Them that are good I love, because they are in Christ; and the evil, to bring them to Christ.” (Kindle Locations 7710-7724)

Tyndale extended the scope of Christian witness to include those outside the bounds of Christendom: “I am bound to love the Turk with all my might and power; yea, and above my power, even from the ground of my heart, after the example that Christ loved me; neither to spare goods, body, or life, to win him to Christ.” (Kindle Locations 7726-7728)


(Next up: some of my conclusions and questions as I reflect on the ecclesiology of the reformers.)

What did you learn from this survey of Tyndale’s ecclesiology? What should we learn from Tyndale yet today? Do we need to relearn the importance of choosing sound vocabulary when talking about the Church or our congregations? How does our ecclesiology line up with our soteriology? Are our churches gathered around the reading of the Scriptures? Share your insights and questions in the comments below!


PS: If you are enjoying this series, be sure to buy Timothy George’s book! He has 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.)

  1.  William S. Stafford, “Tyndale’s Voice to the Laity,” in Day, Lund, and O’Donnell, Word, Church, and State, 106.

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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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