Theology in the Reformation Era: Jason G. Duesing on The Church

Historical Theology for the Church is a new book from B&H Academic that treats the entire 2000 year history of Christianity with a focus on doctrinal development through major figures, events, and written works. By steering this work “for the church” this textbook shows the development of doctrine in history through congregations as well as provide a resource for contemporary congregations. The following is an excerpt from one of the contributing authors’ chapters.

Jason G. Duesing serves as professor of historical theology and as Provost at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.


In the twentieth century, C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) advocated for a “mere” Christianity in the main, but the notion of mereness also washed upon the shores of his doctrine of the church. In his Letters to Malcolm, Lewis, an Anglican Protestant, followed the workings out of the English Reformation as he suggested a simplified liturgy, one in which the priest minimized the distractions, the pomp, and the obstacles for the people of God. The sentiment here of a mere ecclesiology captures well the initial spirit of the Reformers in the sixteenth century. Their reforms were driven by doctrinal change and motived by a simplicity that pulled back layers of Roman complexity, especially in terms of the definition and practice of the church. Yet, as the Reformers focused on establishing their core solas in the church, over the ensuing decades their reforms of the doctrine of the church would vary in emphasis and thoroughness and lead to increased variance among their movements. As all Protestant and Free Church traditions trace their origins to the Reformation, this era serves as ground zero for the historical formation of ecclesiology and thus serves as a helpful era of study.

Historical Overview

As previous chapters have presented, with the advent of the Reformation era, the conciliarists and curialists represented competing definitions for the doctrine of the church. From Constantine to the fifteenth century, the conciliarists sought authority for the church from Scripture and the church councils and held influence and power over the curialists. However, following the Great Schism of the fourteenth century, the curialists came to power with Pope Pius II (1405–1464) and viewed authority as emanating from the pope. Thus, when Martin Luther (1483–1546) arrived, even in his early Ninety-Five Theses (1517) he called for reform of doctrine in the understanding of how man relates to God, and the error of indulgences as “nets ”with which one fishes for wealth (Thesis 66). Pope Leo X (1475–1521) permitted the sale of indulgences, which gave assurance to the masses that their purchase would aid their loved ones to see a quick release from purgatory. While at first Luther sought a reformation of the church’s understanding of the doctrine of salvation, those in power interpreted Luther as calling for reform of church authority. Such notice came as the result of the translation into the common language of Luther’s persuasive theses. To question doctrine is to question the church, and a call for a reformation of the doctrine of salvation is a call for a reformation of the doctrine of the church.

Case Studies

1. Pilgram Marpeck’s Correct Baptism

2. The Lord’s Supper

For the Church

The Reformers’ pursuit of a simplified doctrine of the church followed their initial decisions to pursue a reform movement that returned to the sources of authoritative Scriptures for the establishment of a biblical understanding of the doctrine of salvation. This resulted in a mere ecclesiology centered on notae ecclesiae that affirmed the church as an invisible collection of all believers and a visible gathering that upheld the centrality of the preached Word of God and the gospel and the regular practice of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as the ordinances instituted by Christ. Yet ecclesiological variances of practice and specific understanding of church doctrines abounded by geographic region, political influence from the state, and pressure from surrounding movements. With this variance, what is sometimes lost is the larger picture that the recovery of churches built around the gospel ensured that future generations received the same gospel. Had the Reformers not wrestled with the doctrine of the church, the recovery of the solas might not have lasted more than a generation. Therefore, in our own day, church reform needs to continue, not only for the quest of seeking to follow the Scriptures, but also to ensure there remain future visible communions of saints who will treasure and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ until he returns.

Historical Theology for the Church
Jason G. Duesing & Nathan A. Finn, editors
B&H Academic, 2021

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