Book Review: People of Promise, by Joseph Minich and Bradford Littlejohn (eds.)
Joseph Minich and Bradford Littlejohn, eds. People of the Promise: A Mere Protestant Ecclesiology. Lincoln, NE: The Davenant Press, 2017. 194 pages.
What is the essence of the church?
According to the contributors in People of the Promise, the church is simply the people who trust in God’s Word and who rest in his gracious offer of salvation. As Joseph Minich states in chapter one, “The church, at its most basic, is just the people of the promise. . . . The church is the community of those who have been claimed by God’s promise—who have said ‘yes’ to the gospel message” (9). This understanding of the church is an outworking of Luther’s key insight that justification is by grace alone through faith alone. For those who have been united to Christ by faith, they simply are part of Christ’s body and members of his church.
People of the Promise seeks to explore and unpack this key principle of Protestant ecclesiology: the church is a spiritual reality hidden from human eyes, a reality that transcends any of its visible, institutional forms. The church, no less than the other articles of the Apostles’ Creed, is an object of faith. While Protestants have traditionally recognized certain “marks” as indicating where to find the true church in its visible expression, the church ultimately exceeds any of these institutional forms. The essays in this volume, though covering diverse subjects, often emphasize the importance of this visible/invisible distinction and the implications that flow from it.
Overall, People of the Promise is a stimulating work with key insights into Protestant ecclesiology. For pastors and interested laypeople, this book will prove a useful entry point for thinking more deeply about the nature of the church, even if some readers of 9Marks might wish that more had been said about polity and the matters that make the church visible.
THE PROTESTANT DOCTRINE OF THE CHURCH
People of the Promise divides into four main sections. Part one introduces the Protestant doctrine of the church. Parts two and three tackle Protestant ecclesiology in Scripture and history respectively. Part four offers a few points of contemporary relevance.
It is important to note what this book does and does not attempt to do. Some readers might stumble over “mere Protestant” in the subtitle, thinking that the contributors want to downplay or minimize theological distinctives. But as Bradford Littlejohn notes in the preface, “The task of the present volume is, at first glance, a simple one: to present the core of the Protestant doctrine of the church, shorn of the distractions of the secondary disputes about polity, ministerial offices, sacramental efficacy, liturgy and more that have so often preoccupied discussions of the church” (ix).
While not minimizing the differences that exist between various Protestant denominations, the contributors want to set out the theological framework for the church that unites Protestants of various confessions.
In his opening essay, “The Church Question in a Disoriented Age,” Joseph Minich reminds us that our contemporary questions about the church are asked from a particular historical setting—namely, late modernity. Given the tenuous nature of modern identity, we can unwittingly look to the church as the answer to our weakened communities and our collective loss of confidence in external authority. But, as Minich helpfully observes,
While . . . these might be considered legitimate concerns, theological and pastoral formulations shaped around them will only tend to be their alter-ego. It is not, of course, that these problems and the questions they pose cannot be a spring-board into the reality at stake in the doctrine of the church. But it is precisely reality, fine-grained observation, and first principles which must be sought if we are to develop adequate theological and pastoral tools to navigate our modern situation in all of its difficulty. (9)
Minich’s essay offers an apologetic of sorts for theological retrieval, suggesting that sustained interaction with the Protestant tradition can free us from the tyranny of our own narrow questions and assumptions. Moreover, he offers a salutary reminder that Protestant ecclesiology dignifies the individual believer since it calls for Christians to grow up into maturity and to form sound judgments.
In the chapter “The Protestant Doctrine of the Church and Its Rivals,” Bradley Belschner highlights some of the key fault lines in ecclesiological discussions. His essay nicely summarizes the main options that have been offered throughout church history. By distinguishing historic Protestantism from Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anabaptist models, Belschner concisely shows what lies at the heart of the Protestant understanding of the church. The key distinctions include the role of priests and mediating structures in the church (sacerdotal vs. evangelical) and the relation of the church to the wider society and the government (papal vs. magisterial vs. anarchic). Historic Protestantism can be labelled “magisterial evangelicalism” because of how it parses these questions (16–25). Belschner concludes:
Evangelical doctrine defines the church as the people of God, not as an institution or a hierarchical structure like Catholics and Orthodox believe. For Protestants, the church is not limited by the workings of man or his structures. The church moves as the Holy Spirit moves in the hearts of men. Wherever men profess Christ, there the dominion of Christ’s body reaches. (37–38)
In subsequent essays, People of the Promise unpacks the classical Protestant doctrine of the church, weaving biblical, historical, and dogmatic considerations into a satisfying treatment. Some of the essays are especially worth highlighting, including Steven Wedgeworth’s fascinating discussion of ‘the church’ in the Old Testament (“Finding Zion: The Church in the Old Testament”), Bradford Littlejohn’s very helpful summary of the Reformation understanding of the church (“Simul Justus et Peccator: The Genius and Tensions of Reformation Ecclesiology”), and Jake Meador’s enticing discussion of how the notion of the Christian commonwealth can inform current debates about the church’s role within the larger society (“Protestant Ecclesiology Among Contemporary Political Theologies”).
As noted above, the invisibility of the church appears repeatedly in these pages, serving as something of a melodic line. Littlejohn summarizes this point well: “The Christian Church cannot seek its identity in its outward form or practices, but only by receiving its being from Christ by the Word proclaimed in its midst, and trusting that its true life too is hidden with Christ in God” (100). The tension of how to relate the visible church to the invisible church is raised at various points but never resolved. Indeed, Littlejohn says that this tension “defies any conclusive, once-for-all resolution” (101). Additionally, many of the contributors demonstrate a nuanced two-kingdoms view that distinguishes between the temporal and spiritual kingdoms without dichotomizing them (16–25, 168–170).
A FEW CRITICAL NOTES
On the whole, People of the Promise provides a surprisingly cohesive account of the core tenets of Protestant ecclesiology. The issues addressed in these pages might appear, on the surface, to be irrelevant to the pressing concerns of church life. Yet, these essays, if properly digested, can help to cultivate the kind of historical and theological perspective that is invaluable amidst the demands of ministry. Pastors and other interested readers would do well to develop the biblical, historical, and theological instincts displayed by the contributors to this volume, though it will not be an easy task.
A minor criticism of the work regards the unnecessary inclusion of some topics and the notable absence of others. While the essays are theologically-informed and well-written, some of the topics were too specific for the intent of the book. For instance, Andre Gazal’s essay on ordination in the English Reformation, though historically interesting and illustrative of the overall argument of the book, could have been replaced by something which spoke more directly to the book’s overall purpose. Additionally, part two, entitled “Protestant Ecclesiology in Scripture,” offers chapters on the Old Testament, the etymology and usage of the word “church,” and the significance of Pentecost. But why not more from the New Testament, especially for a book on Protestant ecclesiology?
READING PEOPLE OF THE PROMISE AS A BAPTIST
A final note for Baptists. Like me, I trust you’ll find a good deal in this book that’s edifying. But among Protestant traditions, Baptists will probably be the most put off by some of the arguments found here. Baptist convictions are either ignored or not differentiated from the Anabaptist model. On the rare occasions that Baptist church practice is mentioned, it is criticized.
For those of us who have benefitted from 9Marks and its emphasis on structures conducive to healthy churches, People of the Promise can provide a needed reminder that Christ’s heavenly and end time assembly—the invisible and universal church—is not finally reducible to any of these outward structures. In saying that, we must not pit two good things against each other. We should both affirm the separability of the invisible church from its structures and strive to structure our visible churches in the most biblically faithful way. The Bible cares about this latter job, too. In other words, don’t read this as an excuse to wave off the significance of polity. The topic of polity might cause an argument or two among Protestants, but it’s the very thing given by God to preserve this precious and beautiful invisible church from one generation to the next, to say nothing of making the church visible to itself and the world. Still, Minich and Littlejohn’s book helps us to be wary of repeating Rome’s mistake of trying to restrict the church to what we can observe with our eyes. The truth that “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7) can apply equally well to the church as it can to the Christian life.
People of the Promise helpfully captures the core of the Protestant doctrine of the church. In the preface, Littlejohn offers a good encapsulation: “The church is, quite simply, the people of the promise, the gathered assembly of all those who call on the name of the Lord, with institutional trappings playing a supportive rather than constitutive role” (xii). Understanding that the word “constitutive” was chosen with respect to the invisible church, then, as a Baptist, I say “Yes and Amen!” Though surely to the chagrin of my Reformed and Presbyterian brothers, I submit that Baptists are actually the best-positioned to make good on this Protestant vision for the church.