In a previous post, I alluded to the important matter of the marks of the church. Historically among the Reformed, these have been considered as Word and sacrament. Some have added a third mark, that of discipline, but I think this represents a small but significant confusion. This is a fallen world, which means that if you don’t have discipline you won’t have Word and sacrament for very long, but you can have them. Word and sacrament are what constitute the garden — discipline is the fence around the garden.
To use the classic terminology here, discipline is part of the bene esse of the church, not the esse of the church. If we try to make it the part of the church’s esse, we can make trouble for ourselves. Discipline, by its very nature, focuses on boundaries, fences, gates and doors. Lettuce grows in the middle of the garden, and the fence edges the garden. The only thing the fence cares about is marking the line between the deer zone and the no deer zone.
Of course, we must discipline. The edge is important. It is the duty of a priest to guard the perimeter of the sacred space. But we must not be all about discipline — lest we find ourselves with a garden that is nothing but fence posts from one side to another.
If we are all about discipline, we become consumed with the exact edges. But as Paul Avis points out in his fine work, The Church in the Theology of the Reformers, we do not recognize our friends by trying to determine the precise end of their shoe laces. If we are trying to recognize someone, we always look at their face. Define from the center out.
What is a Christian church? The answer is wrapped up in Word and water, bread and wine — faithfully preached, faithfully administered, faithfully received. But notice that this just pushes our problem back a step. What is the Word? What is a sacrament? We don’t get very far if we try to find the edges of those and work our way in. Go the other way.
Try to answer these two questions. What is the gospel? What are the edges of the gospel? I can answer the first — Christ crucified for sin, buried in accordance with the Scriptures, and raised again for our justification. What are the edges of the gospel? Are the Arminians in or out? The Jansenists? What about the monophysites?
All this is preliminary to a point that the New St. Andrews statement of faith raises. Let me quote a chunk of it, and then go back and quote the key sentence.
“The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are our only infallible rule of faith and practice. The Lord Jesus Christ committed these inspired Scriptures to His Church (1 Tim. 3 :15). We therefore defer to the witness of the historic Christian Church as a genuine but fallible authority, subordinate to the Scriptures themselves, in discerning what the Scriptures teach. Because they faithfully witness what is taught in the Word of God, we receive the great creedal statements the Church has affirmed throughout the ages: The Apostles Creed, The Nicene Creed, and the Definition of Chalcedon. Moreover, we believe that the reformational confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries (including the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort), of all historic statements, most fully and accurately summarize the system of orthodox Christian doctrine revealed in Scripture.”
Take particular note of that last sentence.
“Moreover, we believe that the reformational confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries (including the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort), of all historic statements, most fully and accurately summarize the system of orthodox Christian doctrine revealed in Scripture.”
At New St. Andrews, we strive to instruct our students in the light of a faith that is thoroughly Trinitarian, solidly Protestant and Reformed, and robustly evangelical. We do this because we believe these emphases to be true. When we want to identify Word and sacrament in a Protestant way, which is to say that we want to identify the church in a distinctively Protestant way, we look at the face. We do this by confessing that the historic Protestant statements are the best available summaries of what Scripture teaches. So we start there, working our way out, constantly checking our work against the template of Scripture.
This does not bypass Scripture. This does not diminish the authority of Scripture. This in no way violates sola Scriptura. If you believe that it does necessarily bypass sola Scriptura, then you are a restorationist and not a historic Protestant. In other words, you think the true church died with the last of the apostles and did not reemerge until the early 19th century somewhere in Kentucky, in possession of a mysterious black leather-bound book that had come from places unknown.
By way of contrast, a historic Protestant view of church, of Word and sacrament, is truly liberating. We can see the church of Jesus Christ sailing down through the entire course of church history, and we can recognize it as His beloved ship. We don’t have to count all the barnacles first. Neither do we have to deny the existence of the barnacles.