Reviewed by Nathan Finn
Jesus prayed for the unity of all believers in his High Priestly Prayer of John 17. And yet, we live in a world where dates such as 1054 and 1517 stand out precisely because they represent milestone divisions within the visible church. In the years since the European reformations, Protestants have divided into various denominations, each with numerous sub-denominations. For much of the past century, countless independent and “nondenominational” churches have formed with no significant ties to historic Protestant traditions. Jesus’ prayer request is still awaiting an answer, at least in its fullness.
Gerald Bray is sensitive to the divisions within the Body of Christ, lamenting, “if the church is the body of Christ, it has the wounds to prove it” (p. viii). His own life testifies to various divisions in the church. He is a theologian in a Reformation tradition: the Anglican Communion. He has been active in evangelical renewal efforts within the Church of England, often networking with non-Anglican evangelicals who share his view of Scripture, salvation, and mission. For many years, Bray was a faculty member at Beeson Divinity School, an interdenominational evangelical school affiliated with a Baptist-related university. Because of his background, Bray is perhaps uniquely suited to offer an evangelical ecclesiological primer for a church divided.
Bray has written on ecclesiology at various points in his career, most recently in his fine textbooks God is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology (Crossway, 2012) and God Has Spoken: A History of Christian Theology (Crossway, 2014). He also contributed a chapter discussing his evangelical Anglicanism to Why We Belong: Evangelical Unity and Denominational Diversity (Crossway, 2013), edited by Tony Chute, Chris Morgan, Robert Peterson. The ecclesiological themes he discusses in those works coalesce in The Church: A Theological and Historical Account, which represents Bray’s mature thinking on ecclesiology. The subtitle is correct: this is indeed a theological and historical account. I would also add it is also a pastoral account, as evidenced in a more prescriptive final chapter.
A Theological Account
Bray opens his book with two chapters that survey the biblical material related to the church. Chapter one focuses upon the origins of the church in God’s covenants with Israel. Despite the anti-Jewish tendencies of some early Christians and many later Christian interpreters, Jesus himself, as well as the earliest Christian theologians who wrote what we now call the New Testament, saw significant continuity between Judaism and emerging Christianity. “From the very beginning, Christians saw themselves as the true heirs of the Old Testament people of God and regarded Jews who had not accepted Christ as blind to the truth” (p. 8). Early Christians accepted the inspiration and authority of the Jewish Scriptures, reinterpreting them in a Christological manner. Christians are the true spiritual children of Abraham, even when they are ethnically Gentile.
Yet, Bray suggests there is also discontinuity between Israel and the church. Though Bray argues that believing Israel and new covenant Christians are part of the one people of God, he offers a number of points of departure between Israel’s faith and practice and that of Christianity. “In the church, God was doing a new thing, and while knowledge of the old pattern might have been useful at times, it was not essential in the new dispensation” (p. 24). Bray’s appreciation for both continuity and discontinuity represents the consensus that has emerged among most modern evangelical scholars, including those rooted in traditions that historically have leaned toward one end of the spectrum or another. He also offers a helpful argument for the belief that Jesus intended to establish the church, commissioning his disciples and sending the Holy Spirit for that very purpose.
Chapter two discusses the earliest church as it is represented in New Testament writings. Bray pushes back against Catholic interpretations of Peter’s apostolic primary and egalitarian interpretations of alleged female apostles. Though the church was built on the testimony and teaching of the apostles, their disappearance from the scene didn’t mark the end of apostolicity. Though the shape of ordained ministry was arguably fluid in this era, apostolic authority was conveyed through the subsequent transmission of their message through the New Testament canon. In terms of early church organization, Bray rejects the notion that the New Testament is so clear on this point that it establishes hard-and-fast patterns of leadership, polity, and worship, despite the efforts of various denominations to read their own preferences back into the earliest churches. However, he believes the church’s mission to spread the gospel was far less ambiguous; the church was a missionary movement by definition. This admission of the church’s missional nature resonates with much of modern scholarship, though one could question Bray’s labeling early church generosity as a form of “primitive communism” (p. 55).
While I’m in basic agreement on Bray’s point that the New Testament doesn’t offer a fully developed ecclesiology, I would suggest there is enough material in the New Testament that one can discern prototypical forms of various traditions. Bray himself acknowledges this when he makes the case for a combination of local church autonomy (proto-Congregationalist) and apostolic guidance (proto-Episcopal, proto-Presbyterian) among New Testament congregations. The questions facing us today is, which traditions (if any) have most faithfully adopted and adapted those prototypical forms? While doctrinal development (including ecclesiological development) necessary involves some degree of innovation, if it is to be faithful it must also be rooted in considerable continuity with what we can discern about the New Testament church. I would suggest we can discern a bit more than Bray concedes, though again, I agree with his basic premise.
A Historical Account
The bulk of Bray’s chapters are dedicated to historical developments in ecclesiology. I believe these are Bray’s strongest chapters. Each is dedicated to ecclesiological developments within a particular era. Though I would quibble with some of Bray’s interpretations, I learned much about the history of ecclesiological developments. While this material is covered piecemeal in surveys of church history or historical theology, it is normally interspersed with discussions of other historical and theological developments, meaning the reader must labor to dig the desired ecclesial nuggets out of the stream of historical narrative. Here, the stream and the nuggets are more or less the same.
Chapter three addresses the “Persecuted Church,” which more or less coincides with the period between 100 and 300 AD. After the disappearance of the apostles, the bishopric began to develop, in part to defend apostolic faith against heretical innovations and overly charismatic patterns of leadership. Doctrinal formulae were put forth, worship forms increasingly evidenced greater consistency, and the church spread among both common people and intellectual elites—despite increasing persecution and the growing threat of martyrdom. As the church became culturally acceptable and eventually occupied a place of cultural privilege, the persecuted became the persecutors, a phenomena that Bray curiously commends for the sake of mission, comparing it to modern efforts to impose universal vaccination for the common good (p. 83).
Chapter four focuses on the “Imperial Church,” a period that spans roughly from the fourth century to the thirteenth century. Two phenomena—cooperation between church and state and the imperial (universal) councils—defined the trajectory of the church. The Catholic West and Orthodox East were still formally unified, even though differences were causing them to drift apart. The more conservative East developed a close connection between church and state and after the seventh century lay under the shadow of Islam. In the less conservative West, the rise of the papacy and monastic orders, the imperial aspirations of the church itself, and the development of canon law represented ecclesiological innovations that contributed to the differences between Catholicism and Orthodoxy that ultimately resulted in a formal schism in 1054. In the West, the sacramental system represented the intersection between ecclesiology and soteriology, while missionary expansion remained a priority, especially in the monastic orders. Though many questioned these developments in the Catholic West, the western church remained united because a critical mass of dissent had not yet been reached.
Chapter five examines late-medieval developments in the West into the time of the reformations. Schismatics and some scholastics alike challenged the western Catholic consensus related to ecclesial authority (especially the papacy) and sacramentalism. Monasteries declined numerically and a short-lived conciliar movement failed to initiate lasting reforms among the clergy. A revival of papal authority in the fifteenth century arguably contributed to further moral declension among the higher clergy, while doubts about aspects of sacramentalism and papal abuses remained largely unaddressed by the earlier conciliar reforms. These concerns precipitated the reform movements that became Lutheranism, the Reformed tradition, and the Church of England. Bray says little about it, but we might also add that the rise of modern nation-states and doubts about elements of Scholastic thought also contributed to these reform movements. For these reasons and more, Western Catholicism fractured in the sixteenth century.
A lengthy sixth chapter focuses upon the results of the Reformation divisions. Bray divides western Christians into three groups. Conservative reformers, often referred to as the Counter-Reformation, responded to the some of the concerns raised by Protestants while also codifying many of the beliefs and practices popularized in the late-medieval era. Pragmatic reformers, especially the Lutherans and Church of England, allied themselves closely with local secular rulers and negotiated contextual ecclesiologies. Radical reformers, a group that for Bray includes Anabaptists, Pietists, and “moderate” radicals such as the Reformed tradition (p. 183), rejected imperial alliances and allowed for greater religious toleration. While Bray’s taxonomy is helpful, it seems awkward to group the Reformed tradition with the radicals rather than the pragmatic (or “magisterial”) reformers. Perhaps a stronger case could be made that some in the Reformed traditions were more pragmatic (Zwingli, Calvin, Knox. Cromwell), while others inched closer to more radical movements (Separatists/Independents, Particular Baptists, even English Presbyterians prior to Westminster). Bray seems to acknowledge this distinction, at least implicitly, in his discussion of Puritanism (p. 195).
The holiness of the church became a greater concern for many post-Reformation movements than it had been for medieval Catholics, though there was no single strategy for securing ecclesial holiness. Movements with close ties to state authorities often blurred the line between church and culture, while radical movements could tend toward sectarianism. The Reformation clearly undermined earlier notions of the universal church, at least in the West, where catholicity was tied closely to the Church of Rome. The Catholic Church continued to think of catholicity in the institutional sense, while Protestants, despite forming international denominational networks, applied catholicity primarily to the Patristic consensus related to the Trinity and Christology. The Reformation also transformed how apostolicity was conceived. Rome continued to appeal to organic apostolic suggestion, a view also affirmed by many Lutherans and Anglicans absent the appeal to papal authority, while more low church and free church Protestants identified apostolicity with the gospel message itself rather than the ordained ministry. Bray concludes the chapter with a helpful discussion of how changing concepts of baptism, Eucharist, the clergy, and church polity helped create a third churchly tradition, “Protestantism,” with a variety of sub-traditions (denominations) that differ in how they nuance these matters. Protestantism continues to evolve in our increasingly post-denominational era.
A Pastoral Account, Too
In his final chapter, Bray turns from (mostly) description to prescription. He assumes an evangelical Protestant readership, organizing the chapter around various theses related to church health. These include: 1) the Lordship of Christ over the church; 2) the supreme authority of the Word in matters of ecclesiology; 3) the importance of faithful celebration of the sacraments; 4) the importance of church purity; 5) the necessity of members cultivating and practicing their spiritual gifts; 6) the importance of public worship; 7) the necessity of recognizing all individual congregations and denominational traditions are part of the one universal church. He also lists some challenges to the faithful pursuit of these priorities: 1) a lack of ecclesiological clarity in the New Testament; 2) the apostles are no longer with us; 3) we live on the other side of all the historical developments he previously discussed; 4) the global church is more diverse than it has ever been at any point in Christian history.
Bray advocates for evangelicals to strive for Christianity unity, though a unity based on voluntary cooperation between substantially like-minded churches rather than the mostly atheological, yet institutional twentieth-century ecumenical movement among Mainline Protestants. He also speaks to the importance of witness, which includes gospel proclamation, the pursuit of social justice, and what one might call faithful cultural engagement. Churches should also be welcoming, by which Bray means a church for all people, from any context, who bow the knee to the Lordship of Christ, as well as cultivating closer relationships with other Christians with whom we disagree on secondary and tertiary matters of faith and practice. (Some of this discussion would probably fit better in the previous section on unity.) Finally, Bray addresses the need for a renewed orthodoxy that reaffirms not only the core doctrines of the faith, but is courageous enough to address thorny issues such as gender and sexuality. As a point of reference in this pursuit, he includes an appendix that summarizes the key decisions made by the historic ecumenical councils.
It’s difficult to categorize Bray’s ecclesiological treatise. While it is introductory, it isn’t a comprehensive ecclesiology textbook such as Gregg Allison’s Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church (Crossway, 2012) or even Edmund Clowney’s The Church (IVP Academic, 1995), which is roughly the same length as Bray’s book. While Bray is an Anglican, and at times his biases can be inferred, this isn’t an introduction to Anglican ecclesiology in the same way that Everett Ferguson’s The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (Eerdmans, 1997) or John Hammett’s Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches (Kregel Academic, 2005) are apologies for their denominational traditions. And while Bray’s evidences considerable learning in matters of ecclesiology, he hasn’t written a creative monograph such as Brad Harper’s and Paul Louis Metzger’s Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction (Brazos, 2009) or Robert Sherman’s Covenant, Community, and the Spirit: A Trinitarian Theology of Church (Baker Academic, 2015).
Perhaps it is best to say Bray has written an account that briefly surveys the biblical material related to the church, digs deeply into historical debates about how to best interpret and apply that material, and then offers some pastoral/practical observations for contemporary evangelicals. The biblical survey is solid, though not as substantive as Allison’s work or the biblical chapters in Chris Morgan and Ken Easley’s edited volume The Community of Jesus: A Theology of the Church (B&H Academic, 2013). The systematic engagement with this material, though helpful, is more implicit rather than fully developed, especially in the first two chapters and the final two chapters. Again, Allison or Clowney are better introductions to ecclesiology as a locus of systematic theology.
The real contributions of the book are two-fold. First, Bray assumes throughout the priority of the church universal, a spiritual reality that has been increasingly hard to experience as the visible church has become increasingly fractured. In other words, he writes as if denominations and local churches are contextual expressions of the one church, a theological priority that seems biblical, even if in our experience we relate to the universal church through membership in particular local congregations. Second, Bray’s historical material is far more extensive than is found in most similar books. He is a first-rate historical theologian who manages to craft a coherent narrative about the development of ecclesiology. Furthermore, as is his pattern, Bray has written a winsome, at times even punchy narrative that should appeal to scholars and pastors alike. The Church: A Theological and Historical Account is a welcome contribution to evangelical ecclesiology that makes an excellent companion text for a systematic theology course or a primary textbook for an elective course in ecclesiology, especially if it is paired with a volume that focuses more on the nuances of a particular denominational tradition.
Nathan A. Finn is Dean of the School of Theology and Missions and Professor of Christian Thought and Tradition at Union University in Jackson, TN.
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The Church: A Theological and Historical Account