The Continuity of “the Church” Through the Reformation

What is “the church”?

Roman Catholic dogma about “the Church” leads to a misunderstanding of what Christ’s “church” actually consists of. For Roman Catholicism, Dogma #1 frequently seems to be “The Roman Catholic Church is God’s Great Gift to Mankind” – see this first sentence in the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church”, Lumen Gentium:

Christ is the Light of nations. Because this is so, this Sacred Synod gathered together in the Holy Spirit eagerly desires, by proclaiming the Gospel to every creature, to bring the light of Christ to all men, a light brightly visible on the countenance of the Church.

And by “the Church”, they mean hierarchy, dogmas and all. Here they say that we on earth see Christ’s light because it is “brightly visible” on the face of the Roman Catholic Church. “Where we see Christ in the world” is not seen so well in Scripture; nor in other Christians, but “on the face (countenance) of the Roman Catholic Church.

Rome thinks very highly of itself.

That is not how the Reformers saw “the church”, to be sure. And while there is a great deal more that needs to be said, the generations of the Reformed Orthodox saw “the church” of their day in continuity with “the church” of all time.

The intention of the theologians of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as witnessed both by their detailed positive construction of theological system and by their frequently bitter polemic against doctrinal adversaries, was to produce, in the context and frequently on the model of the great Protestant confessions, an entire body of true doctrine. This task was necessary to ensure the survival of Protestantism.

The first and second generations of Reformers, the teachers of the first half of the sixteenth century, had been trained in Christian doctrine on the medieval model and had, in their work as Reformers, rendered that model inadequate for the teaching of the next several generations of Protestants. The Reformers, however, did not provide those generations with a fully developed theological system. Even Calvin’s Institutes was no more than a basic instruction in the doctrines of Scripture and not a full system of theology written with the precision and detail of the systems of Calvin’s own Roman Catholic opponents.

The Protestant theologians of the second half of the sixteenth century—writers like Ursinus, Zanchi, and Polanus—took up the task of writing a complete and detailed system of theology both for the sake of positive teaching and for the sake of polemical defense.

This development of Protestant orthodoxy, like the doctrinal movement of the Reformation itself, did not occur in isolation from theological system or from the Western philosophical tradition. Although the Reformers and their orthodox or scholastic successors agreed that Scripture ought to be the sole absolute norm of doctrine, they never intended that the whole body of Christian doctrine be reconstructed without reference to the doctrinal developments and systematic constructions of the past—and even if that had been their intention, it would have hardly been possible.

The Reformers, after all, assumed the truth of the larger body of received doctrine and attacked only what they perceived to be errors. They did not intend to reconstruct the doctrine of the Trinity or of the Person of Christ or of the creation of the world and the providence of God.

The development of Protestant doctrine, therefore, in the great confessions of the mid-sixteenth century and in the orthodox or scholastic systems of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was not a development from kerygma to dogma but rather a development consisting in the adjustment of a received body of doctrine and its systematic relations to the needs of Protestantism, in terms dictated by the teachings of the Reformers on Scripture, grace, justification, and the sacraments (emphasis added).

Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 1: Prolegomena To Theology (2nd Ed., pp. 33–34). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Published by John Bugay

"We are His workmanship," His poiema, His "poetry." If you've ever studied poetry, or struggled to write a poem, you understand the care God takes to "work all things together for good" in our lives. For this reason, and many others, I believe in the Sovereignty of God. I have seen His hand working in my life, and I submit myself to His merciful will, with all my being.

5 replies on “The Continuity of “the Church” Through the Reformation”

  1. Spot on. Speaking about my own community, as a Reformed Anglican I grow so weary of the way Anglo-Catholic revisionists continually downplay, ignore, or reinterpret the English Reformation and put an inordinate stress on patristic theology in an attempt to make Anglicanism a “Catholic” church. I argue with these folks by pointing out that the Reformers were just as important as the Fathers, and no less Catholic than them. As one Anglican blogger puts it, “Anglicanism can, perhaps uniquely, lay equal claim to the appellations Protestant and Catholic and affirm both without any sense of inconsistency or incoherence. Indeed, strictly speaking, in proper understanding of each term, to truly be one, you must be both.” Non-Anglican Protestants will no doubt demur regarding Anglicanism’s unique claim, and that’s OK. The main point I want to stress here is that, for all magisterial Protestants, to truly be one, you must be both. What’s more, if it’s true, and I believe it is, that sola fide is the article by which the church stands or falls, then Protestantism’s claim to catholicity cannot be in doubt.


  2. Chris, you may or may not be familiar with this set of works by Muller — but he’s apparently reviewed very many of the works from this period (1550-1750), primarily for the purpose of situating them with respect to Calvin. But as you said, the value in doing that extends to all the Magisterial Protestants, I’m sure. The Lutherans have their “Post-Reformation Dogmatics” as do the Anglicans. I think it’s here that we’re going to find some genuinely solid meat that’s going to be highly appropriate for the church in our day.


  3. I happened to run across this on facebook. I would like to add that the Catholic Church is not speaking highly of “herself”. Rather, the Lord Jesus breathed His Spirit into the Church and established a supernatural society through the Apostles. The Church is the body of Christ, richly adorned with the sacred powers of her Head. These are gifts from God, not from men.


  4. Erick, you have made about eight assumptions in your little comment there, each one of which is easily contested. The article I linked to goes into quite a bit of detail about what the Roman Catholic Church actually says about itself.


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