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Protestantism

This tag is associated with 5 posts

Ecumenism and Lutheranism – Reformation 500

2017 marks the 500th anniversary of what is hailed by many as the start of the Reformation: Luther’s sharing his 95 Theses. I’ve decided to celebrate my Lutheran Protestant Tradition by highlighting some of the major issues that Luther and the Lutherans raised through the Reformation period. I hope you will join me as we remember the great theological (re)discoveries that were made during this period.

Ecumenism and Lutheranism

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Franz Hildebrand, two German Lutherans in the early 20th Century, wrote a catechetical statement in response to the question: “Why are there so many churches?”-

We are really supposed to be one church. In the midst of our incredible divisions we urgently seek communion among all Christians. It will only be possible for us humans ever to have it if we keep waiting and believing [in Christ] who is faithful to his church. (Cited in Schlingensiepen, 80, cited below)

Bonhoeffer and Hildebrand’s response is brief, but shows key aspects of ecumenism that we can continue to seek today. The first point is to realize that the true church of Christ ought to be one both in spiritual and in temporal reality. The second point is that we remain divided, but seek such unity. The third point is eschatological: we must realize that no human efforts will succeed in uniting the church; instead, we hope for Christ’s return to bring about the ultimate unity of His Church.

Elsewhere, Bonhoeffer points out that ecumenical movements must never disregard that real differences in belief and doctrine and practice exist among the present day church. Nevertheless, Bonhoeffer followed his own catechetical statement and urgently sought unity and communion among all Christians. Ecumenism does not mean ignoring all differences or agreeing they don’t matter; instead, we acknowledge our differences and seek to find unity where it does exist.

The church body to which I belong, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has recently made an ecumenical statement that both acknowledges continued difference and shows points of unity with the Roman Catholic church: the Declaration on the Way. I believe this document is an important one, particularly as we continue to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The ultimate prayer for ecumenism, I believe, is “Come quickly, Lord Jesus!”

Sources

Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance translated by Isabel Best (New York: Continuum, 2010).

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Please check out my other posts on the Reformation:

I discuss the origins of the European Reformations and how many of its debates carry on into our own day.

The notion of “sola scriptura” is of central importance to understanding the Reformation, but it is also hotly debated to day and can be traced to many theological controversies of our time. Who interprets Scripture? 

The Church Universal: Reformation Review–  What makes a church part of the Church Universal? What makes a church part of the true church? I write on these topics (and more!) and their origins in the Reformation.

The Continuing Influence of the Reformation: Our lives, our thoughts, our theology– I note the influence that the Reformation period continues to have on many aspects of our lives.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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Book Review: “Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment” by Gregg R. Allison

rctp-allisonGregg Allison’s work, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment, provides a point-by-point look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church along with commentary and critique throughout from an evangelical perspective. The book thus provides an enormous number of avenues exploration, so we’ll focus on just a few topics here.

Evangelicalism in Dialogue

One issue that some may see rising from Allison’s approach is the notion of “evangelical thought” or perspective. Allison himself notes how difficult it would be to pin down one specific approach. He does, however, do a good job of approaching the various aspects of Roman Catholic theology in a way that allows for different evangelical voices to get a say. For example, in his discussion of the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist/etc., he critiques Roman Catholic teaching from a number of different evangelical positions. That said, Allison is Reformed and focuses much of the space for critique on offering a specifically Reformed criticism. This means that at some points those outside of the Reformed tradition may feel they have differing criticisms to offer that are not fully covered.

One can hardly fault Allison for this approach, however, because the space needed simply to cover the Catechism and offer a critique is large.

Roman Catholicism Outlined and Critiqued

The value of the book for many will be found in the fact that it does present Roman Catholic teaching as found in their official Catechism. Allison does a great job simply presenting what the Catechism teaches in each section before he offers a critique.

Allison’s critique often focuses on either the Church-Christ identification or the nature-grace interdependence in Roman Catholic theology. It is the latter which is the most prominent critique offered. Roman Catholicism sees human nature and grace working together whereas evangelicalism sees human nature as corrupted through the fall and not working together with grace. Allison does an excellent job showing numerous difficulties with the Roman Catholic view on this topic and then showing how many doctrines of Roman Catholicism are dependent upon this faulty premise.

Allison’s critique of specific doctrines is also helpful. His criticisms of papal and magisterial infallibility are on-point, concise, and decisive. His outline and critique of Mariology, justification, etc. are each valuable and insightful. Again, however, readers may be left hoping there was more space to dedicate to each individual topic.

Some other issues

One issue that happens a few times is that Allison seems to inadequately ground his critique. This is particularly the case in a number of places in which the criticism amounts to “evangelicalism dismisses x.” Such a “dismissal” happens frequently through the book on minor topics, but it leaves the reader wondering on what grounds such ideas are dismissed. Often, the only grounds provided is something like not having sufficient biblical warrant or because of its reliance on one of the above mentioned overarching themes (Church/Christ or nature/grace).

Another issue is that Allison sometimes offers critiques that do not seem very convincing or are products of his theological presuppositions. For example, his discussion of baptism and his denial that Jesus is speaking of baptism in John 3:5ff seems confused, to say the least. Indeed, he confirms that the discussion of “water and the spirit” are being used in such a way as to refer to the same thing. However, no real alternative to baptism is given of this water- and spirit-filled notion. It is simply asserted that it cannot be baptism because that would mean an anachronistic notion (baptism) was in the text. But of course John the Baptist was around before Jesus, and he baptized with water… and the spirit. Now, I am Lutheran, so my perspective on baptism certainly differs from that of Allison’s, but his treatment of this passage seemed exegetically impossible.

Conclusion

Gregg Allison’s interaction with Roman Catholicism is enormously helpful in that it walks readers through the beliefs of Roman Catholics from their own Catechism. The strength of the work is its broadness, which is also its weakness as individual topics are sometimes skimmed over too briefly. That said, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment is a simply fantastic book for those looking to learn more about Roman Catholicism and the issues that divide it from evangelical theology. Allison has done a service to the church with this book that provides both a reference and a critical perspective when dealing with Roman Catholic theology.

Disclaimer: I received a review copy of the book through Crossway. I was not obligated by the publisher to give any specific type of feedback whatsoever.

Source

Gregg Allison, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (Downers Grove, IL: Crossway, 2014).

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more.

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

By Whose Authority? The question of authority in the church

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The Question of Authority

One cannot question that perhaps the most central issue which divides the Roman Catholic Church from Protestants is the question of authority. The issue touches upon a number of others. Who has the authority to interpret Scripture (ultimately)? What is the structure of a church? How do we learn doctrines? It must be acknowledged by all that the Roman Catholic Church’s claims to authority are paramount. It is possible for the Church to claim infallible authority for its teachings, however few claims they have actually made.

The question of authority persists in its importance today. If one church body–the Roman Catholic Church–is capable of infallibly defining doctrine for the whole of the Christian world, and some deny these doctrines, then that automatically means that those who deny these doctrines are in some sense denying God. It is important to note what the Church itself has said regarding this doctrine. Here is part of the definition of infallibility from the First Vatican Council (Section 4, Chapter 4):

[W]e teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.

What is to be said about those who deny any teaching that the Pope declares infallible? Again, I’ll allow the Church to speak for itself:

So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema.

Because I personally do reject some of the infallible teachings of the Church (such as the Marian Dogmas of perpetual virginity, immaculate conception, and the asumption), I, by virtue of this teaching, am anathema. Thus, it should be clear that the authority of the church is at the core of the divide between Catholics and Protestants.

Discordant Voices

The problem of authority is often pressed by Roman Catholic thinkers as a kind of argument against Protestantism. The way in which it is is presented is often through an argument for unity. For example, the claim is made that the Magisterium is capable of preserving doctrinal unity to a higher degree than the Protestant denomination. The claim is also often accompanied by an offhand remark about the number of Protestant Denominations. What is the implication? The discordant voices within Protestantism are, in some way, to be viewed as a discrediting piece of evidence when it comes to the nature of the truth claims of these churches. The implication (as quoted here) that some Roman Catholic apologists draw is that this proves the necessity of an infallible interpreter of doctrine/Scripture.

Infallible Magisterium?

Initially, the claim sounds a bit appealing. One may trust in the infallible Church to settle the debate on various theological topics once and for all. One need not try to draw out the implications of specific texts for themselves, leading to any number of diverging interpretations and arguments and ultimately, the splitting of the church into ever-smaller units each warring against each other and saying they have the truth.

There’s one major problem, though. By whose authority does one make the decision to trust in the infallible magisterium? This question should be on the mind of any individual who chooses to join the Roman Catholic Church based upon the argument from authority. After all, it is the decision of the individual to trust the Church which leads to accepting the Church as the infallible authority.

One must then ask the question: are you infallible? That is, is your [fallible] decision to make the Roman Catholic Church your infallible authority itself an infallible decision? Could you be mistaken? If the answer is that you are indeed fallible and you may be mistaken, then it must follow that any trust placed in the allegedly infallible Church must be equally fallible and stand upon shaky ground. For it is the person who joins the church who has joined the Church, not vice versa. The decision rests upon the individual, and it is therefore a fallible decision to make the Church infallible for one’s faith.

This argument therefore tears down any grounds one might have for asserting that one should trust the infallible Church in order to eliminate the discordant voices of Protestantism or choose-your-own-theology which may be the case outside of the Roman Catholic Church.*

*This is not to mention the often discordant voices within the Roman Catholic Church itself and the fact that fallible persons must interpret allegedly infallible statements in order to discern what they mean. Are you an infallible interpreter? Surely not.

Sola Ecclesia?

Moreover, suppose it is correct that the Church is the infallible interpreter of the Bible and tradition. Does this not mean that any allegations that one is under the authority of the Bible, Tradition, and the Church really boil down to the authority of the Church? After all, the last and final authority in interpreting the Bible, Tradition, or the Church is the Church. If one has a dispute about the meaning of a biblical teaching, the Church may (but does not have to) make the ultimate, infallible decision regarding its meaning. If one argues that tradition hints at something which the Church does not teach, the Church is the ultimate arbiter of tradition as well. Thus, it seems like the final authority in every case lies with the Church. The system, I would argue, ultimately boils down into sola ecclesia.

A Final Note for my Roman Catholic Readers

I want to end with a call to my Roman Catholic readers. First, I would note that in this post I have not sought to insult or denigrate Roman Catholics or their beliefs. I have allowed the Vatican to give its own definitions and presented them, I hope, without distortion. Second, I think that we need to be honest about the differences that we have rather than covering them up. Third and finally, these differences should not, I hope, lead us to be incapable of working together in social and yes–at times–even theological issues. I hope that you will be comfortable interacting with me on this topic and others. I appreciate whatever insight you would like to share.

Links

The Church Universal- Reformation Review– I discuss the possibility of maintaining a universal church in light of the breakup of the church into ever smaller groups. I place this discussion against the background of Reformation theology.

“20,000 denominations”– an in-depth analysis of the claims of those who wish to use denominationalism as an argument against sola scriptura. The link for the article the author evaluates is now down.

Much of the argument found herein has been learned from listening to or reading James White, and although I do not directly quote his work I am greatly indebted to him. A particularly helpful work was The Roman Catholic Controversy.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

The Continuing Influence of the Reformation: Our lives, our thoughts, our theology- Reformation Review

The Reformation has had a lasting impact upon our lives. You may not realize it, but from the economy to politics, from theology to family life, the debates of the Reformation resonate through to today. Here, we will investigate in very broad strokes the influence the Reformation continues to have on our daily lives.

Family

The Reformation period led to a development of thought about the family. Praise of the family over and against celibacy was ubiquitous throughout the Reformation thinkers (Diamard MacCulloch, The Reformation, 647ff). Erasmus was one of those spearheading this critique. Along with this notion of the importance of the family, the notion that marriage was sacred was reaffirmed. Although not a sacrament according to Protestant thought, marriage was still a sacred institution created by God (Ibid, 648).

The Reformation’s thought on marriage was largely patriarchal. Men were the heads of the family both spiritually and in society. This was less a development of the Reformation as it was a continuation of the view of marriage in contemporary cultural thought. Interestingly, Protestantism led to a relaxation of two aspects of marriage. First, the clergy was allowed to marry; second, divorce was legally established in many Reformation contexts (MacCulloch, 660). By allowing for divorce, the Reformers undercut the notion of marriage as a sacrament (as above), but they also helped draw a distinction between the moral law of the Bible and the law of the land. Whether this was for better or worse, one may debate.

Economy

Capitalism had already begun before the European Reformations, having its renewal start in Italian city states in the 12th Century (for a detailed and extremely interesting discussion of this, see Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason71ff). The Reformation, however, provided a place for capitalism to flourish. John Calvin’s thought touched upon nearly every contemporary problem, and one of these was usury (money lending at interest). Focusing upon the cultural context of the prohibition of usury in the Hebrew Scriptures, Calvin argued that his contemporary cultural context provided a way for usury to work without being necessarily wrong. Lending money in such a fashion was essential for the later development of capitalism (Alister McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 259-260).

The Reformation also paved the way for a “Protestant Work Ethic.” Martin Luther’s notion of the “priesthood of all believers” demolished the hard distinction between the “temporal” and “spiritual” realm which dominated the thought of the church at the time. By breaking down this barrier, hard labor was elevated. It was no longer seen as an inferior life to that of monastic withdrawal; rather, any type of work could be pleasing to God (McGrath, 256-258). In contemporary churches, one can often hear about how the engineer, the retail worker, the auto worker, and the like should all utilize their skills to the glory of God. Such thinking came directly from the Reformation.

Theology

Clearly, the most pervasive influence of the Reformation has been upon theology. I have already written on a number of these aspects. The Reformation thought necessarily reflected upon the church. How do we define the church, and who belongs in the church? These questions drove the Reformers to a number of views on the role of the church universal. I discuss these at length in my post on the Church Universal. Central to the Reformation was the notion of sola scriptura. However, it quickly became apparent that without any specific way to interpret Scripture, radical individualism would follow. I’ve written on the Reformers views on these topics and the continuing debate today in my post on Sola Scriptura. To try to list all the areas of theology that the Reformation touched upon would be impossible for a post of this size, so suffice to say I will be discussing these more in the future.

Other Aspects

Diarmard MacCulloch, in his magisterial study of the Reformation, aptly named The Reformation, notes a number of other aspects of contemporary society that remain influenced by the Reformation. Briefly, these include aspects of life like dying (ha!), discipline, manners, love and sex, and religious diversity. In short, no aspect of society remains untouched by the Reformation.

Counter Reformation

It would be remiss of me to write this without noting that one of the huge continuing influences of the Reformation was the Roman Catholic counter-reformation. The Reformation did not go by unnoticed by Roman Catholics, by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, the Catholic Church reacted against the Reformation and, in part, did so by incorporating many aspects of the Reformation.

Interestingly, some of the debates that played out within Protestantism were mirrored within the Roman Catholic Church. For example, a debate similar to the Calvinist-Arminian arguments became pervasive in Banezian and Molinist schools of thought. It is intriguing to note, however, that the Catholics largely allowed these debates to remain internal without dividing. The Catholic Church, it seems favored doctrinal humility over unity on a number of levels (for a discussion of doctrinal humility/unity, check out my post on the Church).

That is not to say, however, that the Roman Catholics were eager to affirm every aspect of the Reformer’s theology. Part of the counter-reformation included the Inquisition and the formation of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Ignatius of Loyola founded the Society of Jesus to counter what he saw not as doctrinal aberration but lives that were not conformed to the moral standards of the church (Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations333ff).

Finally, it could easily be argued that the modern innovation of Vatican II has its roots within the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. The changes brought about by Vatican II reflect a development of thought that has occurred since the Reformation on many of the issues brought up by the Reformers.

Conclusion

The Reformation’s influence on today’s society is pervasive. Our thinking on family, economy, working, theology, sex and sexuality, and more are all reflections of the influence of Reformation thought. In many ways, these aspects of our lives are just further reforms on the thoughts of the Reformers. The aspects in which we have changed dramatically since the Reformation, it could be argued, are areas in which the Reformation laid the groundwork for exploration. Our thoughts are Reformation thoughts. Our debates are Reformation debates. Our God is the Reformation’s God.

Regardless of your own feelings on the Reformation, these comments are undeniable. The way you think is largely formed by the debates that happened during the Reformation. Your freedom of expression was opened by Reformation developments on the value of every human being. Investigating the Reformation is a worthy endeavor because it opens up new avenues for exploration of our own era.

Links

Please check out my other posts on the Reformation:

I discuss the origins of the European Reformations and how many of its debates carry on into our own day.

The notion of “sola scriptura” is of central importance to understanding the Reformation, but it is also hotly debated to day and can be traced to many theological controversies of our time. Who interprets Scripture? 

The Church Universal: Reformation Review–  What makes a church part of the Church Universal? What makes a church part of the true church? I write on these topics (and more!) and their origins in the Reformation.

Sources

Alister E. McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2010).

Diarmaid MacCulloch The Reformation (New York: Penguin, 2003).

Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason (New York: Random House, 2005).

Thanks

Alister McGrath’s Reformation Thought: An Introduction was a gift from an anonymous donor. I was blown away when I saw it show up at my door and I have to say Thank you so much for being such a blessing! Whoever you are, you made my day. Well, more than just one day actually. This series of posts is a direct result of your donation. Thank you!

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

The Church Universal: Reformation Review

Perhaps the most crucial debate of the Reformation Era was over the nature of the universal church. During the Reformation, the church had split into numerous separate bodies. But were each of these bodies truly “the church”? Was salvation only found through membership in the Catholic Church? Finally, how did one determine what church bodies were part of “the church” if there were some new criterion for establishing what counted as “the church”? Having found their origins prior to the Reformation and a spectrum of answers during the Reformation, these questions continue to be debated into our own time.

The Church Universal

The key to understanding the emerging doctrine of the church within the Reformation is to note a distinction in meanings for “apostolic continuity.” On the one hand, one could note a literal apostolic continuity in which the authority of the Apostles themselves was passed from one person to another. On the other hand, some argued that the authority of the church was found in continuity with apostolic doctrine, not with a literal continuity of passed-on authority (McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction 141ff, cited fully below).

The Protestants began to view church authority as a consequence of right doctrine. This view allowed them to divorce themselves from the Roman Catholic church (and thus potentially lose the literal passing down of authority from one to another from the apostles) while still maintaining that their own churches remained part of the church universal.

Yet this was not the only question facing those trying to distinguish which churches were “true” as opposed to “false” churches. Surely there ought to be some signs of a “true church” to distinguish it from those that had fallen away. Martin Bucer and Martin Luther offered ways forward on this: the marks of the church. Luther insisted that what made a true church was “right administration of the sacraments and true preaching of the Gospel” while Bucer held that there was a third mark: discipline (Diarmaid MacCulloch The Reformation, 181, cited below).

The Background to the Reformation Debate

Alister McGrath notes how important it is to note the origins of the reformation debate regarding the church here. Specifically, the debate can be traced back to the Donatist controversy in the earlier church (third century). Essentially, this controversy centered around the very nature of the true church. The Christian church had been persecuted, and many had renounced their faith in order to avoid persecution. The question was asked: should these persons be allowed back into the true church? Could they still administer the sacraments and interact with the true body of Christ?

The Donatists said that those who had lapsed had become apostate and could not be allowed back into the church. However this belief was eventually considered to be incorrect and detrimental to the unity of the Church. Augustine argued against the Donatists and pointed out how the church is a “mixed body” of sinners and saints (McGrath, 144ff).

The concept of a sinner-saint was utilized by Martin Luther and other Reformers to note that the church was a body in which the Holy Spirit was actively working sanctification. That is, God was working to make the Church holy, but that did not mean that each individual in the church was absolutely devoid of sin.

How did all of this fit into the Reformation discussions on the true church? Simply put, the Donatists were radically schismatic. They sought to divorce themselves from “sinners” within the church. The Donatists were condemned for their schismatism, and so the Reformers had  to deal with the fact that they themselves had either been forcibly removed from or split from the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, the importance of apostolic authority through theological unity became central in understanding the continuity of the Church.

The Modern Debates

The notion that right doctrine delineates the true church as opposed to literal apostolic continuity has a number of interesting outcomes which are very relevant for today’s church bodies.

First, it introduces a great difficulty for many church bodies in determining with whom one can fellowship. If the authority of the church universal is based upon true teachings rather than a passing down of authority from one person to another, then where is the line for how much teaching must be correct in order to remain as the true church?

Different church bodies offer different answers. Some church bodies err on the side of openness and humility and allow many into their fold who hold radically differing views. People in these organizations may hold to different views on things like the ordination of women, the age of the earth, and the like. Other church bodies err on the side of unity in doctrine and restrict membership to those that affirm sound doctrine as taught by their own body. For these church groups, a certain creed or body of work is referenced as the authoritative teaching of the church. If one differs from these teachings, then one is not part of their church body. (For more on the notion of using creeds or bodies of teachings as authoritative interpretations, see my post on “Who Interprets Scripture? Sola Scriptura, the Reformation, and the modern era.”)

To be frank, some Christians fail to recognize the diversity of these answers and simply assume that anyone who has a differing organizational structure is “liberal” or “conservative”–using the words in a derogatory manner. Such an attitude does not contribute to discussions on church organization. By failing to recognize the commendable attitude of humility in the churches that emphasize the unity of faith as opposed to the unity of individual doctrines, some unfairly label other church bodies as unbiblical or apostate. Similarly, by failing to recognize the commendable need for unity of belief in church bodies that emphasize right belief, some unfairly label these church bodies as schismatic or unchristian.

It also seems to me that both of these groups should learn from each other. Too many church groups vary too far one way or the other on these issues. Church bodies that emphasize humility in doctrine can often undermine their own church’s teachings. Similarly, church bodies that emphasize unity in doctrine can undermine their capacity for outreach and cooperation with other church bodies.

The Roman Catholic Church, following Vatican II, officially viewed non-Catholic churches as separated brethren–other bodies of true believers who were practicing independently. Such an affirmation ultimately undermines part of the debate that has raged since the Reformation: are Protestants saved, according to Roman Catholic teaching? This debate was hot during the Reformation and beyond, as the Roman Catholic church continued to deny salvation outside of the Catholic Church. Now, however, it is acknowledged that salvation can be found within Protestant circles as well.

Finally, the options Luther and Bucer offered to describe the “marks of the church” continue to be extremely important. Bucer’s emphasis on independent church discipline has–insofar as I can tell–largely fallen by the wayside, though it remains a point of interest in Anabaptist and other traditions. Although I would be hesitant to make a structured church discipline one of the marks of the true church, it would appear to be greatly important to have a system for disciplining those within the church who do not adhere to basic moral and/or doctrinal norms. However, this must be consistent with the notion that all believers are sinners being formed into saints through the process of sanctification. The modern church in the West perhaps does not have enough emphasis on the importance of church discipline, but caution should be taken so that a reform in this area does not lead the church back to a Donatist-like position.

Conclusion

So what makes a church a true church? The Reformers do still speak to us on this issue. Continuity with apostolic teaching is that which designates a true church. It is not easy to know where to draw the line between unity and humility, but over-emphasizing either leads to great difficulties for a church body. Of utmost importance, however, is the acknowledgement that though not all church bodies agree on every topic (there’s an understatement!), these church bodies are part of the saving body of Christ and therefore part of the salvific work of the Holy Spirit. Remembering this simple fact might help to spur on a bit of humility and unity among the Church Universal.

Links

Please check out my other posts on the Reformation:

I discuss the origins of the European Reformations and how many of its debates carry on into our own day.

The notion of “sola scriptura” is of central importance to understanding the Reformation, but it is also hotly debated to day and can be traced to many theological controversies of our time. Who interprets Scripture? 

Sources

Alister E. McGrath a, Reformation Thought: An Introduction (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

Diarmaid MacCulloch The Reformation (New York: Penguin, 2003).

Image: credit to Beatrice- http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:San_Pietro_e_Ponte_SAngelo_(notte).jpg

Thanks

Alister McGrath’s Reformation Thought: An Introduction was a gift from an anonymous donor. I was blown away when I saw it show up at my door and I have to say Thank you so much for being such a blessing! Whoever you are, you made my day. Well, more than just one day actually. This series of posts is a direct result of your donation. Thank you!

SDG.

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