The Church in the Theology of the Reformers (Avis)

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Puritanboard Clerk
Avis, Paul D. L. The Church in the Theology of the Reformers. Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1981.

This is not a full review. I think it is better served by highlighting the political gains and tensions of the English Reformation. If the gospel concerns inward and eternal things, which must exclude church government, and if society is understood by all sides as a Christian society, then something like a godly prince or an international pope is necessary.

Thesis: The marks of the church bridge the visible/invisible aspect (Avis 6). Early Reformers were more interested in defining the Christological center of the church than its wider circumference. The Reformers supplemented the earlier Lutheran idea by seeing the church as a visible society (7).

Problem under consideration: do we define the nature of the church by its visible marks, or do the marks indicate where it actually exists?

Prince and Bishop

The Reformed Episcopate

Main idea: the English Reformers realized the alternative to episcopal jurisdiction “was the assumption of this power by the magistrate, the godly prince” (114).

Avis is here missing a premise which he will supply later: society was already seen as a Christian society. Who would rule it: prince or pope? If that premise is granted, then there are really only two options. Rule of the church by presbyters, while perhaps more biblical, could not practically, at least consistently, accept this premise. Because their rule was spiritual and distinct from the civil magistrate, they could not directly touch society. That leaves open the question: who is going to rule this societas christiana? We are back to the original problem: prince or pope?

Interestingly enough, if the bishop’s power of jurisdiction flowed from the prince (although not his right of sacrament), there was not much need for apostolic succession (115). We Reformed today might look at the Anglican bishopric as “popish leftovers.” The historical reality, however, is quite the opposite. The godly prince “weakened the role of the episcopate in the doctrine of the Christian ministry.”

Even the primary champion of a Reformed episcopate, Richard Hooker, ultimately concludes that the superiority of bishops is “a power of order only” (121).

The Godly Prince

As would have been common in Christian reflection at that time, the godly prince was modeled after the godly Israelite kings (131). This would have been the norm for classical Protestant reflection. Although muted somewhat by papalism for Rome, similar claims could be found for Orthodox Tsars.

For the early English Reformed it was not a merely theoretical concept. It was an existential one. As J. J. Scarisbrick noted, “we must remember that, to such as Cranmner and doubtless many others, it was real and compelling–both a revelation and a liberation–and that for them the king’s headship was a holy thing which demanded obedience as to a father in God” (quoted in Avis, 132). The alternative to a godly prince was not a secular Jeffersonian republic, but the role of the Pope.

And here we come to the crucial premise: hard to argue for in our day, but undeniable in its own: “the Reformers are not adumbrating a theory of the state at all…theirs is a view of society, not of the state; of church government, not of political theory. The background is the theocratic corpus Christianum of the medieval synthesis of Church and commonwealth” (132).

If the “things of God” are simply the gospel and “internal and eternal things,” everything else, including church government, must be Caesar’s. I suppose the question is now “Is Caesar, then, a pope?” The English Reformers, following in the train of Wyclif, did an end run around this question: the emperor (or king) preceded the pope in history. And for Elizabeth and her successors, this meant defending English liberties from papal claims.

Church and Commonwealth Revisited

What happens, as has happened today, if church and commonwealth are separate? For Hooker, those who argue for this must either affirm rule by the clergy and incompetence of the laity or make “a radical separation between church and commonwealth” (139). I still think there is something missing in this argument. For the more theocratic Presbyterians today, there is a formal separation between church and commonwealth, but the line between the two is blurry. Assuming that a magistrate, in determining which doctrines to apply, is not omnicompetent, he will have to consult the clergy. The clergy now have an informal rule, or at least an informal judicial role, in society. It seems we are now back, if by an extremely circuitous route, to a corpus Christianum. We are back to our original question: prince or pope?
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