The Visible Church and Theological Stewardship

June 11, 2018

by David Garner

Since the church is the “domain within which the Holy Scripture prevails and operates,” making God’s Word truly a “family Bible,” theological development must be rightly restored to Mother Church in her visible and confessional stewardship.

Theological reflection is never to be rogue speculation but instead a Spiritually discerning and therefore churchly accountable undertaking. Under the authority and guidance of the Spirit of the risen Christ, doctrinal development is a Spirit-given, Christ-centered churchly task. Semper reformanda flourishes only within this visible confessing body. I return again to Kuyper: “The factor of the church must be included in theological investigation.” That is, the visible church shares historic theological confession as the key to its Spirit-given identity, even as it exercises the visible marks of preaching and the administration of the sacraments. It also does so in keeping with the faith openly confessed, as a manifestation of its Spirit-birthed DNA.

Following the Reformation conception of the visible church’s stewardship of theology, we must, on the one side, drop the anchor of the confessing church within the academy, and on the other side, to prevent sailing astray, openly insist that the academy submit itself and its theological labors to the confessing church.

Theological reflection is never to be rogue speculation but instead a spiritually discerning and therefore churchly accountable undertaking.

Claims of individual reliance upon the Holy Spirit not only do not offer sufficient guidelines, such claims also effectively cast aspersions upon the Spirit who has faithfully illumined his people to Scripture over the course of the millennia. Disregard for the church’s confessions evidences modernist arrogance, even as it displays a functional denial of the value of the Spirit’s work in the life of the church through the centuries.

One clarification is in order here. Claims that the invisible church sufficiently preserves theology fail on their own terms. Invisible connections to the invisible church lack both veracity and value. How does an invisible identity yield anything other than impotent (and meaningless!) accountability? Accordingly, the stewardship of Scripture in each generation must occur in the context of the visible church, which openly confesses the faith given once for all to the saints—codified through the ages in the church’s historic confessional documents.

How do we return scholarship to the visible church’s domain? In brief, ordination requirements rise as the most obvious tool to secure the church’s role in theological research, writing, and theological study. Such reinstated churchly accountability could occur in numerous ways: denominationally run seminaries with licensure or ordination requirements for their faculty; nondenominational seminaries with licensure and ordination requirements of their faculty; ad hoc church oversight by ordained church officers of scholars doing biblical-theological research in a college or university setting, and the like. Any mechanism in which visible strings re-attach scholarship to the visible church would render welcome modifications.

To elevate this concern to its proper ecclesiastical import means that any scholar unwilling to subject his formulations to the visible church, even with the risk of his own ordination or employment, should be given credence neither in the academy nor the church. Theological scholars in our seminaries, universities, and colleges should eagerly operate with transparent accountability to the visible confessing church. Though many publishers might protest because they thrive on the provocative, a return to a churchly context for theological scholarship will reward the faithful over the flashy. Such a humble reorientation surely would honor the Head of the Church and his outpoured Spirit, even as it would rightly commend the doctrine drawn from the text of the Word of God.

This piece is adapted from David Garner, “Commending Sola Scriptura: The Holy Spirit, the Church, and Doctrine,” Unio Cum Christo vol. 4, no. 1 (April 2018), 117–132. Used with permission of the publisher.

Read More On Scripture, Visible Church

David Garner

Dr. Garner (PhD, Westminster) is associate professor of systematic theology and vice president for advancement at WTS.

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