Reformation Doctrine Fuels Reformation Ecclesiology: A Brief History


The saloon comes as near being a rat hole for a wage-earner to dump his wages in as anything you can find. The only interest it pays is red eyes and foul breath, and the loss of health. You can go in with money and you come out with empty pockets. You go in with character and you come out ruined. … And then it will let your wife be buried in the potter’s field, and your children go to the asylum, and yet you walk out and say the saloon is a good institution, when it is the dirtiest thing on earth. It hasn’t one leg to stand on and has nothing to commend it to a decent man, not one thing.

— Billy Sunday

The language could scarcely ring out more vividly. Billy Sunday’s famous “Booze” sermon of the early twentieth century threw down the gauntlet against the liquor trade. Traveling the country, stalking the perimeter, even sliding into home plate on stage, Sunday preached the gospel of salvation even as he led a new social movement. [1] His sermons and his model helped create the “revivalist” pulpit and the revival-driven church. Gone were the staid tones and theological precision of First Great Awakening preachers; in rushed the colloquial maxims, tear-jerking stories, and fiery social commentary of Sunday and his peers. [2]

Sunday was not the first. Finney and Moody came before him; Graham came after him. These men fundamentally changed American ecclesiology, but not with direct intent. They did so by their discourse. Once, a young preacher-boy found his heart moved toward ministry through the 90-minute sermons of the Puritans, affective homilies grounded in the biblical text. Now, young preachers were drawn by down-home pronunciations and the revivalist’s explosive results. There was fire in that pulpit; there were catalytic conversions, immediate effects, and national headlines. Was seminary necessary for the future preacher? Should preachers invest in deep exegesis, systematic theology, and homiletics? What about training under a seasoned, godly pastor? The answer to these questions in the revivalist heyday—roughly the mid-nineteenth century—seemed to be a resounding no.

Something remarkable happened to the church in this period. In many congregations, the carefully constructed ecclesiological blueprint of the corporate body ended up stuffed in a box in the basement. With little formal discussion, the congregation adapted to this barnstorming spirit as the church came to see itself as a waystation on the revival circuit. [3] Drinking in the reports of “soul salvation” from the national newspapers, churches began to change their self-understanding. Pastors were not theologians, but revivalists-in-chief; corporate gatherings were about evangelism of the lost, not discipleship of believers; “success” in the ministry involved a multiplicity of hands raised to declare a “decision” for Christ, not a doctrine-driven church characterized by holiness. [4]

In Baptist churches in particular, the transformation was as striking as it was undiscussed. No one, after all, had formally decreed that these things come to pass, and yet you couldn’t miss it: revivalism was in, formal ecclesiology was downplayed, and Baptist churches morphed into something new—at least in their emphasis and formal practice. With the rise of church growth methodology, this model reached its peak.

The Doctrinal Counter-Revolution

Something of a doctrinal counter-revolution against revivalism emerged in the late twentieth century. The reasons for this counter-movement are many: the secularization of America made it tougher to sell soft Christianity; the bloating of church membership rolls made the lives of pastors who actually cared for their flocks difficult; and the dissolution of many marriages, families, and individual lives in the wake of the sexual revolution contributed to the dismantling of cultural Christianity. In addition, the ongoing creep of “moderate” theology in Baptist seminaries and universities meant that many ministers were trained not to trust the Bible, not to preach the whole counsel of God, and not to lead people into historic evangelical doctrine. [5] The Baptist movement developed an interest in strange ideas, new methods, and an errant Bible. The “no creed but the Bible” camp seemed to have won the day, as many evangelical schools (beyond the Baptists, but including them) made such disconnection a point of pride and, ironically, a mark of soundness. [6]

Enter J. I. Packer, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and the once-forgotten Puritans. [7] At the time when many Baptists, Presbyterians, and others struggled to discern who they were, Packer and Lloyd-Jones re-presented the wisdom and vibrant piety of these sixteenth and seventeenth-century pastor-theologians in the annual Puritan conference at Westminster Chapel, the site of Lloyd-Jones’s ministry. In America, figures like James Boice and Tom Nettles began calling both Presbyterian and Baptist pastors back to their theological roots. The Reformation hadn’t died, it turned out. [8]

This return to Reformation soteriology in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century is well-known and increasingly well-documented. But it wasn’t only Reformation soteriology that returned to the fore. Reformation ecclesiology came with it.

The Rediscovery of Ecclesiology

Congregations that begin taking the Bible seriously on the doctrine of salvation can scarcely help but take the Bible seriously on the doctrine of the church. The two cannot be separated; the Spirit who saves the individual through union with Christ is the Spirit who brings that individual into union with the blood-bought people of God. We’re not saved into isolation; we’re saved into a family, a collection of strangers and pilgrims rescued from the world and brought into the household of God our Father and protector (1 Peter 2:11).

As pastors realized the Bible spoke powerfully to the sovereignty of God in redemption, they also realized that the Bible presented itself as the very food of the people of God. This sparked a rediscovery of the pastoral office. The pastor was not revivalist-in-chief. Though he must intentionally address unbelievers in his sermons and unstintingly call them to repentance and faith in Christ, he now saw himself as fundamentally responsible to lend strength to the body of believers given him by Almighty God. He must “teach them all things,” bringing the whole counsel of God to bear on their minds, their affections, and their wills (Matthew 28:16–20).

What a sea-change this was. [9] This “new” model of ministry was actually old—very old. Doctrine was not for the cranky intellectual types who liked parsing hard-to-read books in the church basement. Doctrine was the very life-blood of the church. Doctrine—by which we simply mean biblical truth in collated and synthesized form—fed the people, blessed the people, guarded the people, and readied the people to meet their Maker. The pastor, it turned out, was not a life-coach, a CEO, an administrator, a therapist, or a heart-on-his-sleeve storyteller. The pastor was a theologian, and his call was to minister sound doctrine in the hospital room, in the marriage counseling session, in the youth group, in a lunchtime Bible study, in an evangelistic encounter, and yes—suprema gloriae—in the pulpit.[10]

The sermon, the height of Reformation worship, was not a homilette. It was a meal. It shepherded the people deep into the text of Scripture and its Christological significance. [11] While we often date the Reformation from Luther’s 95 theses, practically, the Reformation began on January 1, 1519, when Zwingli ascended the pulpit of Great Minster and began preaching—from the Greek—from Matthew 1. Thus the reformation re-introduced the lectio continua—verse-by-verse expository preaching of God’s Word.

The sizeable and ever-growing group of modern pastors who have been freshly awakened to Reformation theology and practice found themselves thinking, Could I do this? Do I dare exposit the text, week-by-week, moving steadily through a biblical book? Will I get fired? These questions weren’t silly. In the doctrinally weak, often man-centered context of American evangelicalism, this was live ammo.

Among many Baptist ministers, this rediscovery of the Reformation resulted in a Copernican revolution. As denominational seminaries and colleges moved away from “moderate” theology and began teaching sound doctrine once more, many future pastors began asking hard questions about the Reformation’s doctrine of the church. These pastors were exegetically convinced of credobaptism.[12] As a result, a large number found themselves unsettled by the paedobaptism of the Reformers whose theology they justly revered.

But even as Baptist pastors have broken with the Magisterial Reformers on some matters of ecclesiology, they found other first and second-generation Reformers who shared their concern for credobaptism and regenerate church membership. During the Reformation, Anabaptists advocated that the believers’ church fit the New Testament model. They also advocated that the church and state were separate institutions, and that the state was in no way to oversee or interfere with local assemblies (or broader denominations or networks).

The Anabaptists’ Radical Reformation, though usually placed on a lower shelf than the Magisterial, made an equally important contribution to the post-Reformation church’s doctrine—one we must continually re-apply in our day. While the Anabaptists are a crucial part of the family tree, the early English Baptists are the direct genetic forebear of the modern Baptist church. These faithful believers held to staunch Reformed theology, even writing it in stone in their earliest confessions (London 1644 and 1689, Philadelphia 1742). If the modern Baptist movement has moved in considerable measure toward Reformed theology, then we must conclude it has only moved closer to its roots. [13]

Conclusion: Where Are We Headed Today?

It is now 2019, precisely 500 years after Zwingli preached from Matthew 1. Evangelicals in the West are increasingly finding themselves called out for our exclusivism, our evangelism, and our sexual ethics. It is, we may say, getting harder to be a meaningful Christian in our time. Our children and grandchildren will face greater challenges still.

If this is true, then what on earth are we to do?

I submit that we need a Reformational pulpit, Reformational pastors, and a Reformational doctrine of our holy God. Revivalism did some serious good; it won souls to Christ, but it didn’t offer a sturdy and stable model of ministry, the church, or the Christian life. We need Reformational pulpits—pulpits that proclaim the glory of God and his Word in a demonstration of spiritual power (1 Cor. 2:4–5). [14] We need Reformational pastors—men who see themselves as theologians of the Word, under-shepherds of Christ’s sheep who love their churches and feed them the delicious food of God’s truth. Finally, we need a Reformational doctrine of God, to see afresh that our holy God desires a holy people for himself. We cannot settle for bloated, formless, unregenerate congregations. We need Reformation theology proper to drive Reformation soteriology and thus form true Reformation ecclesiology. [15]

What was old is new; what was once lost is now recovered; what seems pointless and offensive to the natural man is the very lifeblood of God’s people. The Reformation fire has not gone out, nor has the evangelistic zeal of the modern American church died. The Word still speaks—and the gospel still is mighty to save.

[1] To better understand Sunday, see Roger A. Bruns, Preacher: Billy Sunday and Big-Time American Evangelism (Urbana, Ill.: Univ. of Illinois, 1992).

[2] For more on these changes, see Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991).

[3] These developments can defy easy identification, but Brooks Holifield has done helpful work in tracing them in this period. See E. Brooks Holifield, God’s Ambassadors: A History of the Christian Clergy in America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).

[4] One exception to this rule: Park Street Church’s Harold John Ockenga. To better understand Ockenga, a singular figure, investigate Garth M. Rosell, The Surprising Work of God: Harold John Ockenga, Billy Graham, and the Rebirth of Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008); also Owen Strachan, Awakening the Evangelical Mind: An Intellectual History of Neo-evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2015). Handling Ockenga’s ecclesiology, it should be said, requires discernment, since he pushed for both good and ill in this regard.

[5] To get a solid grasp on modern Protestant liberalism, see Gregory A. Wills, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859–2009 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009); also Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805–1900 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001).

[6] You could argue with some accuracy that “no creed but the Bible” ironically became a creed—and a far more restrictive and narrow-minded one than any previous confessional statement.

[7] Mark Dever’s overview of the background of the Reformed Resurgence captures these and numerous other factors in the revival of Reformation doctrine. See Mark Dever, “Where’d All These Calvinists Come from?,” 9Marks, June 18, 2014, accessible at . Consult also the concise but richly incisive overview by Collin Hansen, Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Travels with the New Calvinists (Carol Stream, Ill.: Crossway, 2009). A full-fledged academic treatment (or two or three) awaits us; PhD students, take note.

[8] For short and readable introductions to Reformation doctrine see Michael Reeves’s marvelous The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation (Nashville: B&H, 2010); also Jason K. Allen, ed.,Sola: How the Five Solas Are Still Reforming the Church (Chicago: Moody, 2019). It may surprise readers to know that the Reformers never used the term “five solas” or the equivalent. Suffice it to say that Lutheran theologian Theodore Engelder and Emil Brunner (!) in the twentieth century summarized Reformation doctrine with the five solas. See Owen Strachan, “Glory to God Alone” in Sola, ed. Allen, 128–29n. 3.

[9] This sea-change deserves further reflection. To begin, read Thomas White and John M. Yeats, Franchising McChurch: Feeding Our Obsession with Easy Christianity (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2009), a brave book. Also consider the searing and paradigm-altering critique of much modern ministry offered by Eugene Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011).

[10] For a short and readable introduction to this model of the pastorate, see Jason K. Allen, Portraits of a Pastor: The 9 Essential Roles of a Church Leader (Chicago: Moody, 2017).

[11] To learn more on Reformation homiletics, consult Scott M. Manetsch , Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536–1609 , Oxford Studies in Historical Theology (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan, The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), 69–94.

[12] There are different streams of Baptist hermeneutics, including Baptist covenantalism of the London variety, New Covenant Theology, and Progressive Covenantalism (PC). Readers should engage all three as valuable contributors to Baptist theology. I find the PC model offered by Stephen Wellum, Peter Gentry, and Tom Schreiner (among others) to fit Scripture like a glove. See Stephen Wellum and Brent E. Parker, eds., Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course between Dispensational and Covenant Theologies (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2015). Schreiner’s chapter on the Sabbath in this volume is particularly insightful. Consider also Thomas R. Schreiner, Covenant and God’s Purpose for the World, Short Studies in Biblical Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2017).

[13] To better understand early Baptists, dive into the work of Tom Nettles and Michael Haykin, among others. Start with Thomas J. Nettles, By His Grace and For His Glory: A Historical, Theological, and Practical Study of the Doctrines of Grace in Baptist Life (Cape Coral, Florida: Founders Press, 2006); Anthony L. Chute, Nathan A. Finn, and Michael A. G. Haykin, The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2015). See also the “Baptist trilogy” by Nettles. in addition, see Jason G. Duesing, Counted Worthy: The Life and Work of Henry Jessey (BorderStone, 2012).

[14] This demonstration, we are at pains to say, comes not through an ability to perform signs and wonders on the spot, but through the supernatural ministry of preaching, which gives spiritual life and overcomes the world, the flesh, and the devil. This text is not therefore a “signs and wonders” text, as if any one movement can exclusively claim a text, but a homiletic text. The method and power given the post-apostolic church is not grounded in performance of wonders; we have no New Testament text that would instruct us in how to enact such miraculous acts. It is instead grounded in sound preaching and the ministry of the Word—see 2 Timothy 1–2. We cannot raise the dead and heal the sick as the apostles did. We can, however, do something yet more effectual in the supernatural realm (for physically-healed individuals are not necessarily spiritually-converted individuals): see souls saved from hell by the Spirit-powered ministry of the Word.

[15] The book that comes the closest to offering this sort of call is the classic study of the Puritans by J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990). Young theologians should pay considerable attention to Packer’s model and method. On these counts, see Leland Ryken, J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), which is filled with insights for theologians who would be faithful to God and the sacred text.

Owen Strachan

Owen Strachan is a theology professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of Reenchanting Humanity: A Theology of Mankind. You can find him on Twitter at @ostrachan.

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