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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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