The Reformation of Doctrine
Its Preservation & Progress

The following post is part of our ‘Principles of Reformation’ series. For the first post in the series, please click here.

The church is an offspring of Scripture. The Word of God does not exist because of the church; the church exists by the Spirit working with the Word of Christ. Properly conceived, the church dwells under Scripture, not over it.

Moreover, as a creatura verbi, Christ’s church is not a mere concatenation of individuals. The church is the one family of God, created by the Spirit of Christ, united to him and to one another by faith. The Spirit of Christ illumines the people of God to his Word collectively—visibly manifest in confessional solidarity, theological fidelity, and hermeneutical unity.

As the reformers discerned and affirmed, humble grasp of the biblical faith arises in the visible, confessing body of Christ. And such understanding comes not by mere reliance upon the collective wisdom of the interpreters, but upon the Spirit in Scripture speaking to the family of God in one voice. The Spirit of Truth is the Spirit of Christ’s church.

Though he distanced himself from Cyprian’s classic ecclesiastical assertions, Calvin unashamedly affirmed the central place of the visible church for gospel conversion, gospel provision, gospel preservation, and gospel advance. He confidently builds upon Cyprian’s metaphor, as he insists that the church provides the proper residence for care of the flock of God and stewardship of the Word of God:

But as it is now our purpose to discourse of the visible Church, let us learn, from her single title of Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels (Mt 22:30). For our weakness does not permit us to leave the school until we have spent our whole lives as scholars.[1]

Thus, the visible church is home for spiritual nourishment and worship and provides the proper domicile for scholarship. Mother church is the Christians’ home and the Christians’ school. In fact, as far as Calvin is concerned, all Christians are theologians, and as such, all theologians should be homeschooled.

Abraham Kuyper concurs, “The Holy Scripture and the Church . . . are no foreign phenomena to each other, but the former should be looked upon as the mother of the latter.”[2] Then he articulates the attendant theological stewardship implications embedded in this Word/church relationship: “…it is self-evident that the transcendental action of the regeneration of the elect had to go hand in hand with the noetic action of the Word in order to give rise to the Church and to maintain it.”[3] The church’s vocation as “pillar and ground of truth” (1 Timothy 3:16) thus obligates the community of faith to believe and to study, to preserve and to protect, to teach and to propagate the apostolic faith.

The Reformational doctrine of the church stands in contrast to its two contemporaneous and competing errors. On the one hand, Rome (“the Popish system,” as he calls it) sins against Scripture by denying the church the limits of its “proper and legitimate” authority. On the other hand, rationalism sins against Scripture by denying the church the extent of its “proper and legitimate” authority.[4] The reformers did not counter the unbiblical authority of the Roman Catholic magisterium by espousing radical individualism, solo Scriptura, as Heiko Obermann puts it.[5]

Herman Bavinck helpfully addresses how to avoid these two pitfalls by upholding the church’s proper relationship to Scripture. He is worth quoting at length here:

Scripture is the light of the church, the church the life of Scripture. Apart from the church, Scripture is an enigma and an offense. Without rebirth no one can know it. Those who do not participate in its life cannot understand its meaning and point of view. Conversely, the life of the church is a complete mystery unless Scripture sheds its light upon it. Scripture explains the church; the church understands Scripture. In the church Scripture confirms and seals its revelation, and in Scripture the Christian—and the church—learn to understand themselves in their relation to God and the world, in their past, present, and future.[6]

Accordingly, with a view to the inextricability of Scripture from the church and the church from Scripture, stewardship and development of doctrine, is the purview of the visible church, not individual scholars exercising unaccountable scholarship. Since the church is the “domain within which the Holy Scripture prevails and operates,” [7] making God’s Word truly a Family Bible, theological stewardship and theological advance must be restored to Mother church in her visible and confessional stewardship.

To exercise her prophetic and proclamatory function, Mother church preserves (defends the faith) and progresses (develops fresh formulations).

Theological Preservation

Under the mastery of King Jesus, doctrinal preservation is a Spirit-given, churchly calling. Indeed, “the factor of the church must be included in theological investigation.”[8] And in that theological investigation, as “pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Timothy 3:16), the church bears the responsibility to “guard the deposit” (1 Timothy 6:20; cf. 2 Timothy 1:14), and “to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Christian theology is never inventive, but receptive. Standing beneath the Word, the church thrives only when it self-consciously and openly operates in that subordinate place, as put so poignantly in the Westminster confession of Faith 1.10:

The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.

Accordingly, we must, on the one side, drop the anchor of the confessing church within the academy, and on the other side, to prevent sailing astray, openly insist that the theological academy submit itself and its theological labors to the confessing church. Disregard for the church’s confessions evidences modernist arrogance, even as it secures a functional denial of the value of the Spirit’s work in the life of the church through the centuries. Claims of individual reliance upon the Holy Spirit not only do not offer sufficient guidelines, even as such claims can cast dispersion upon the ear of the church to the voice of the Spirit over the course of the millennia.

Oft-repeated insistence that the invisible church sufficiently preserves theology fails on its own terms. How can an invisible identity provide visible accountability? Invisible connections to the invisible church lack both veracity and value. Accordingly, the stewardship of Scripture in each generation must occur in the context of the visible church, which openly confesses the faith given once for all to the saints—codified through the ages in the church’s historic confessional documents.

While accountability can happen in a variety of ways, theological scholars in our seminaries, universities and colleges should answer to the visible confessing church. Any scholar unwilling to subject his formulations to the visible church, even with the risk of his own ordination or employment, should be given credence neither in the academy nor the church. Though many publishers thrive on the provocative, the return to a churchly context for theological scholarship will reward the faithful over the flashy. Provocateurs may pad pockets, but the theological bottom line must be fidelity, not finances.

Theological Progress

To be sure the church must muzzle unaccountable scholarship; scholarly endeavors need the church’s vigilant guardianship. But the Spirit-given role of the church is never merely defensive. Theological scholarship erects walls and paves pathways.

In surveying the development of theology in the history of the church, John Murray writes, “there is a progressive understanding of the faith delivered to all the saints.” For Murray, this fact evidences the very teaching of Ephesians: “There is in the church the ceaseless activity of the Holy Spirit so that the church organically and corporately increases in the knowledge unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.”[9] Theology is not static. Development is essential to the life of the church. The church must deliver a fresh word to every generation.

But how can the church both protect doctrine and progress in doctrinal formulation? The game of tennis helpfully illustrates here. Among other things, tennis requires strength, finesse, precision, and endurance. In tennis, the lines, the net, the racket and the rules facilitate skillful play, and players train to hit the ball more precisely, forcefully, and innovatively. Removal of boundaries would rob the sport of decency, proficiency and creativity. In fact, elimination of the game’s restrictions would generate more chaos than John McEnroe ever did.

By analogy, elimination of all boundaries in the theological enterprise eviscerates any and all advance of doctrine. As expert tennis players learn to do in sport, scholars must function within the well-tested historic and confessional borders, and skillfully land their thoughts within biblically given boundaries as expressed in the church’s doctrinal confessions. Advancement almost always comes by precision within the lines, rather than brashly crossing them. To put it in Pauline terms, “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules”  (2 Timothy 2:5).

For the lines to be moved or the rules to be changed in tennis would require engagement of the whole Tennis Players Association, according to its collective institutional gravitas. Change to the rules must not and will not ensue by mere individual, even expert complaint—no matter how eloquent or loudly the complainant speaks. The game of tennis is bigger than particular, even markedly gifted, players.

Similarly, if the church determines that new theological assertions comport more precisely with the teaching of Scripture, the church may need to revise its confessional “boundaries.” But any such changes must occur within the context and according to the gravitas of the visible, confessing church. To put it in more overtly biblical language, the church’s confession must not change unless the visible church discerns the voice of her Master in these new formulations. Such changes must be neither reactionary nor flippant. And they must never be swift. Theological development may require confessional change, but such change should receive the ecclesiastical attention—time, debate, consideration and correction—it is due.

When developments or corrections occur from those aligned by faith and the Spirit within the confessing church, theology progresses and the church thrives. The church then faithfully paves the way for future generations of saints, who too are entrusted with the mysteries of God. Advance comes by submission to God’s Word, and never by autonomous treatment of it. In this way, the principle of semper reformanda flourishes.

How we practically restore church-accountable biblical and theological studies requires much more penetration than this brief essay can offer. The pathway forward is neither straight nor smooth. But walking down any paths, which isolate the academy from the church, ensure disaster—whether by the church’s petrification through theological laziness or by the unaccountable progressivism of the academy.

We close with Herman Bavinck’s poignant reminder:

The church has been appointed and given the promise of the Spirit’s guidance into all truth. Whoever isolates himself from the church, i.e., from Christianity as a whole, from the history of dogma in its entirety, loses the truth of the Christian faith. That person becomes a branch that is torn from the tree and shrivels, an organ that is separated from the body and therefore doomed to ide. Only within the communion of the saints can the length and the breadth, the depth and the height, of the love of Christ be comprehended (Eph. 3:18).[10]

Editor’s Note: This article draws upon and substantially modifies: David B. Garner, “Commending Sola Scriptura: The Holy Spirit, the Church, and Doctrine,” Unio Cum Christo 4.1 (April 2018): 117-132.

[1] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 4.1.4.

[2] Abraham Kuyper, Principles of Sacred Theology (trans. J. Hendrik DeVries; Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1968), 572, my emphasis.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “The Popish system, under whatever modification it is held, essentially sins against Scriptural principles on the subject of ecclesiastical authority in religions truth, by denying its proper and legitimate limits. The Rationalistic system, under whatever modifications it is held, no less sins against Scriptural principles on the subject of ecclesiastical authority in religious truth, by denying its proper and legitimate extent, ” James Bannerman, The Church of Christ: A Treatise on the Nature, Powers, Ordinances, Discipline and Government of the Christian Church (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2015), 303, my emphasis (see pp. 247–303).

[5] Heiko Obermann, Harvest of Medieval Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000).

[6] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 1.384

[7] Kuyper, Principles, 572.

[8] Ibid., 575.

[9] John Murray, The Collected Writings of John Murray, 4 vols. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976–82), 4:242–243 emphasis added.

[10] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1.83.