Tag Archives: Origen

Quotable Church History: “Outside the church no salvation”

This is the second in a series on famous quotes from church history.  We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.

Today’s notable quote is found in article 28 of the Belgic Confession,

We believe since this holy assembly and congregation is the assembly of the redeemed and there is no salvation outside of it, that no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, no matter what his status or standing may be.

We’re especially focussing on those words in italics:  “there is no salvation outside of it.”  These words (or words similar) are not unique to the Belgic Confession.  You’ll find this notion expressed in other Reformed confessions like the Second Helvetic of 1566 (ch.17) and the Scottish Confession of 1560 (ch.16).  The idea is also expressed by John Calvin in Institutes 4.1.4, “Furthermore, away from her [the church’s] bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation…”  However, none of these are the original source for the saying.  In fact, the saying dates back to the early church.

Especially in scholarship the saying is often referred to in its Latin form:  extra ecclesiam nulla salus [outside the church no salvation].  It’s often attributed to the church father Cyprian (200-258).  Certainly Cyprian uses the expression in his book On the Unity of the Catholic Church.  However, the original source is slightly earlier.  Origen (185-254) used these words in a sermon on Joshua 2.  Rahab and her family had to remain within their house if they were going to be saved during Jericho’s destruction.  Origen explains this as a reference to the church:  “Outside this house — which means outside the church — there is no salvation.”  Not only Cyprian adopted this expression, but also Augustine.  From the church fathers, it was also taken up into the Reformation’s teaching about the church.

But is this a biblical teaching?  It must be said:  the extra ecclesiam quote has sometimes been understood in an unbiblical way.  It has been used by the Roman Catholic Church to claim that salvation depends on membership in their organization.  It has been understood by some Reformed people to mean that salvation does not exist outside of their own particular church or federation of churches.  In other words, if you are not a member of this church, then you are definitely lost.  That makes salvation conditional on the right church membership.  That goes not only beyond what the Scriptures teach, but against.  The Bible teaches salvation in Christ alone (John 14:6, Acts 10:43, 1 Tim.2:5).

However, there is a biblical way to understand these words.  These words, as used by the Belgic Confession and other Reformed confessions, should be understood in a normative sense.  The norm is that Christians experience salvation through the ministry of the church of Jesus Christ — especially through the preaching of the good news.  That is how God has ordained salvation to proceed.  Because that’s the norm, no one should ever forsake or ignore the church.  Her ministry is not superfluous, but necessary.  Article 28 of the Belgic Confession appeals to Matthew 16:18-19 as a proof-text here.  Christ entrusts the keys of the kingdom to Peter as the representative apostle.  The keys of the kingdom are given to the church through the apostles.  Binding and loosening happen through these keys:  the preaching of the gospel and the administration of church discipline.  Salvation is realized through the ministry of the church, not ordinarily outside of it.

This ancient saying is included in our confessional heritage to remind us that the church is not optional.  While our salvation is not based on our church membership, our salvation is ordinarily mediated to us through the church’s ministry.  The church and its ministry of Word and sacrament is where God has promised to be present to bless his people with life and growth in Christ.  If that’s where he has promised to be present, why would you want to be anywhere else?


Ten Things I Learned from Reformed Scholasticism (1)

Petrus Van Mastricht

Though not nearly as often as previously, I still sometimes see the word “scholastic” used as a pejorative – in other words, as a nasty term.  If someone is deemed “scholastic,” then he must be one of the bad guys in the history of theology.  It’s similar to the word “Puritan” for some people.  It’s an insult.  If someone is “Puritan” or “Puritanical,” then he must be, at best, suspicious.  It’s the same with “scholastic” – a dirty word that instantly casts a dark cloud.

At one point in time, these types of notions were wide-spread.  However, in the last two or three decades, there has been a shift in the way scholasticism is discussed.  This is owing especially to the influence of scholars like Richard Muller, David Steinmetz, and Willem van Asselt.  It’s now widely recognized that scholasticism was a method of teaching theology – it did not have content as such.  There were medieval scholastics, there were Roman Catholic scholastics, there were Lutheran scholastics, and there were Reformed scholastics.  Each used the scholastic method to teach the theology they considered to be correct.

I came to better appreciate this teaching method through my doctoral research on the Belgic Confession.  Medieval scholasticism is in the background of the Belgic Confession, especially in its structure (see ch. 4 of For the Cause of the Son of God).  Protestant scholasticism is even more so in the background of the Canons of Dort.  The Canons themselves are not scholastic – and that by design – yet they bear the marks of men who benefitted from the method.  It should be no surprise.  Many of the delegates to the Synod of Dort were either theologians who used the scholastic method or pastors who had been scholastically trained.

I’ve also benefitted from studying this method.  While I think it would be inappropriate to import the scholastic method into today’s world, there is still a good deal to be learned from it, especially as it was implemented by Reformed theologians in the post-Reformation era.  Let me share ten things that I’ve learned from Reformed scholasticism.

  1. The Best Theology Begins with Sound Exegesis

Reformed scholastics are sometimes dismissed as “proof-texters.”  Throughout their theology works, they make references to Scripture, but don’t always enter into exegetical discussions in those works (there are exceptions).  But that doesn’t mean that exegesis was completely out of the picture – far from it!  In fact, before writing works of theology, many scholastic theologians had first produced exegetical works.  Just on the book of Romans, the Post-Reformation Digital Library indicates 236 titles.  Not all of them are Reformed works, but many are.  Intensive biblical study was the foundation for Reformed theology taught using the scholastic method.

  1. History Matters

Ours is an age often indifferent to history.  As a method in the hands of Reformed theologians, scholasticism worked with the thoughts and conclusions of those long dead.  For example, I turned to a random page in an important scholastic text often referred to as The Leiden Synopsis.  Antonius Thysius is discussing what it means to be created in the image of God.  He refers to the view of Tertullian and others that “the entire man is propagated from the whole man.”  Later on the same page, he interacts with another church father, Origen.  That they were so intimately familiar with these church fathers demonstrates that their discussions were on a different level than many of ours today.

  1. System Matters

While they were not the first ones to understand this, Reformed scholastics maintained that biblical theology is an inter-connected system.  In this system, all the parts do relate in some way to all the other parts.  Moreover, it was clearly understood by most of these theologians that there is a “logic” built into Christian theology.  Therefore, when you read a text like Amandus Polanus’ Syntagma Theologiae Christianae, you can expect that he will begin with preliminary matters (prolegomena), move to the doctrine of Scripture, then to the doctrine of God, deal with creation, sin, redemption, and so on, up to the doctrine of the last things.  This pattern has been continued by many systematic theologians since.

  1. Asking Good Questions

If you want good answers, you have to ask good questions.  Reformed scholastic theologians were skilled at formulating questions that would lead one to helpful answers.  This was an essential part of the scholastic method of training.  Issues would be formulated in terms of either a thesis or a question.  While the Heidelberg Catechism is not a scholastic document, Zacharias Ursinus’ commentary on the catechism certainly is.  When he discusses QA 21 regarding true faith, he identifies six key questions that help clarify this doctrine:

  • What is faith?
  • Of how many kinds of faith do the Scriptures speak?
  • In what does faith differ from hope?
  • What are the efficient causes of justifying faith?
  • What are the effects of faith?
  • To whom is it given?

This method was also employed by Francis Turretin in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology – as well as by many others.

  1. Using Precise Definitions

Theologians often use the same words but with different meanings.  A Roman Catholic theologian will use the word “justification,” but he means something quite different than what a Reformed theologian means.  Hence, it is always important to precisely define important terms.  Going back to justification, we can note Petrus van Mastricht as an example.  In his Theoretico-Practica Theologia (6.6), he first gives an exegetical overview of the relevant Scripture passages (see point 1 above) and then moves into a dogmatic discussion based on that.  As part of that, he provides a precise definition of justification:  on account of Christ’s righteousness, God absolves believers of all their sins and pronounces them righteous to eternal life.  Justification, according to van Mastricht, includes God’s imputation of our sin to Christ and his righteousness to us.  He does not assume the definition of this key term, but makes it clear and proceeds on the basis of that.

(to be continued…)