Ecclesiology: The Doctrine of the Church

McGrath starts of his discussion of the doctrine of the church with a quote from B. B. Warfield that states that the Reformation was a victory of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over his doctrine of the church.  Although Augustine was 1200 years before the Reformation, his doctrines were heavily relied upon.  Luther was a strong advocate of justification through faith, which relied heavily on Augustine’s doctrine of grace.  However, Luther was unable completely reconcile Augustine’s doctrines of grace and church without losing his distinction between his reformatory cause and his Catholic and radical counterparts.

Augustine detested schism.  He fought against it in Carthage, where a faction rose against the Catholic church condemning it as being a false church.  Luther followed in Augustine’s footsteps.  Even during the early stages of the Wittenberg Reformation, Luther and his following firmly believed that the catholic church would reform itself within a matter of years.  Until then, they would remain a separate faction, ready to rejoin the whole when the reform was made.  When the Council of Trent in 1945 condemned the leading Protestant ideals, hopes of reunion were dashed.  Luther was left to reconcile his schismatic position that was resultant from his belief in justification by faith with his belief that breaks within the church were unacceptable.

Luther believed that the existence of the church was linked in a direct correlation to the Word of God being “preached, believed, confessed, and acted upon”.  An ordained ministry is not necessary for the church to exist; rather, the preaching of the gospel determines the existence of the church.  His view of the church was simple; unfortunately, this simplicity turned out to be inadequate as well.  Luther’s definition for the church included the radical reformers, who believed the earthly church was a false representation of what constitutes the real church.  To counter this apparent association with the radicals, Luther interposed the need for an institutional church.  However, this placed him to closely to his catholic opposition.  In addition, the Roman church was being compared to ancient churches like Galatia, which had departed from the gospel on many points, yet Paul did not hesitate to call it a Christian church.  Did Luther claim to be greater than Paul, to call the Roman church – surely no worse than the Galatian church – un-Christian?  Luther also adopted the “mixed body” approach that Augustine first developed.  This states that the church is a mixture of “saints and sinners”, and that it will always be this way until the end of time.  This belief, in and of itself, directly accounts for the corruption in the Catholic church, and begs the question: why is Luther so adamant about reforming something that is accounted for in his own beliefs?

Enter John Calvin.  Calvin approached the issue of the doctrine of the church more rigorously and systematically than did Luther.  To Calvin, the church existed “wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and listened to, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution”.  This two-fold definition safeguarded the evangelical reformatory movement from its Roman Catholic opponents, who did not administer the sacraments correctly according to the reformers’ definition of the sacraments.  Later on in the same work, Calvin states that “where both of these marks exist, [that church] is not to be rejected, even if it is riddled with faults in other respects.”  This indicates that there are two essential parts to a Christian church, but that there is flexibility in other areas.  Calvin also implies in a statement, also written in 1536, that there is also supposed to be a certain ecclesiastical institution and administration.  Calvin believes that God placed this institution to help with the sanctification of His people.  Through these assertions and more like them, Calvin defended the purpose and existence of the evangelical reformation church, stepping in and providing solutions where Luther’s explanations failed to suffice.


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