Derek Thomas contributes a chapter on ‘The Doctrine of the Church in the Twenty First Century’ in Always Reforming: Explorations in systematic theology. The aim of the essay collection is to assess different areas within systematic theology with a view to semper reformanda. Where is development, clarification and progress possible? Is it necessary to restate doctrines? Or encourage further theological reflection? Can this take place within a confessional orthodox framework?
An introduction surveying the current postmodern mix of doctrinal approaches to church gives way to a discussion of the marks of the church. Unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity all prove difficult for Thomas to appropriate given that they come from the fourth, not the twenty first, century. By definition, a Protestant can only affirm the unity of the invisible church at best. But that hardly helps when leading lights (e.g. John Murray) question the legitimacy of defining an invisible church over against the visible one. Following Calvin, Thomas wants to defend church as Mother, and the extra ecclesiam nulla salus formula.
Thomas is on apparently easier ground with two other marks of the church: preaching and sacraments. He also makes the helpful suggestion that suffering should be considered too. But without developing this the essay moves on to the mix within Reformed churches on issues like the nature of the Lord’s Supper, the place of children at the Supper, the number and nature of church offices, the use of Matthew 16:13-19, the continuation or otherwise of spiritual gifts, and the question of women’s ordination to office. This survey leaves the reader bewildered at how any of these areas can form true marks of the church. The RPW is then defined and defended, a section that on its own deserves a blogpost in response.
Eight(!) prerequisites for future Reformed ecclesiology are suggested in a conclusion. We must return to the Bible. We must embrace Reformed theology at its best while re-evaluating the discoveries of biblical theology. We must hold to fundamental doctrines before embracing ecumenicity. We must be committed to historic formulations of (confessional) Christianity. We must foster biblical spirituality. We must reconsider the role and significance of the (two) sacraments. We must find a way to express the church’s unity in Jesus Christ. We must assert the corporate nature of the Christian life.
Restless and Reforming verdict: We think all the big issues are mentioned in the essay. But we’re concerned at the lack of progress towards a clear statement defining the church, especially when worship war and sacramental strife is escalating within confessional Reformed churches.