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What Is Essential to the Doctrine of the Church? A Review Article

Ryan M. McGraw

The Loveliest Place: The Beauty and Glory of the Church, by Dustin W. Benge, Union series. Wheaton: Crossway, 2022, 198 pages, $19.59, paper.

As Christ promised, the church has stood firm through the centuries, and the “gates of hell” have not prevailed against her (Matt. 16:18). While Christians have fluctuated in their esteem of the church, the Triune God has not, always preserving the church as the sphere of the application of redemption in Christ. While there are many views about the nature and function of the church, it is important to grasp how and why the church is precious in God’s sight and why it should be so in ours. Such facts demand a “catholic” understanding of the church, which pulls in all believers regardless of denominational differences and convictions. Aiming to “awaken [our] affections” for the church, Dustin Benge notes, “This book is about the beauty and loveliness of the church” (14). Grounding this aim in the glory and beauty of the Triune God, the author lays a good foundation for pressing all Christians to value the church highly, seeing her beauty in light of the beauty of God. Though, as this review shows, this book does not fully achieve a catholic doctrine of the church pulling in all believers, it remains a helpful introduction to the topic in that it presents a doctrine of the church that is a bit off the well-worn path.

In fourteen chapters Benge unfolds the doctrine of the church under the theme of her beauty. Since her beauty lies in the beauty of the Triune God, he devotes more than half of the book to the glory and beauty of God and the persons of the Trinity, often treating divine persons in more than one chapter. Additionally, he highlights the officers and teaching ministry of the church in a way that attempts to avoid denominational distinctives. Finally, pressing believers towards the sacraments as exemplifying the unity of the church in the Triune God, he concludes his material by way of summary and exhortation, directing readers to see God’s beauty revealed in the church. Revolving the doctrine of the church around the theme of “beauty” is distinctive to this book, providing readers with an interesting and helpful perspective aimed to lead them to delight in the church and to look forward to her perfection in glory.

The questions to pose to this work are whether the material adequately promotes a catholic understanding of the church that can pull in all Christians and whether this depiction of the church is sufficient to foster delight in the visible and local congregations that believers belong to (or should belong to). Several ideological and exegetical points illustrate why this material needs augmentation and adjustment.

First, Benge asserts that we cannot define the church in institutional terms, “for the church belongs exclusively to God” (30). Yet, this point leads to some potential difficulties in fostering love for the church. Traditionally, the church has defined herself in terms of both institution, or organization, as well as organism. The church as a living organism results in the church as an outward institution. We can define the church both in terms of her internal life and in terms of her outward characteristics and organization. Like the relationship between body and soul, the church has internal and external marks, which are both invisible and visible to human beings. While the mode of church government should never rise to the being of the church, we need institutional as well as organic terms to describe her nature. Later, appealing to Ephesians 1:3–13, Benge defines the church purely in terms of election, effectual calling, and the sealing of the Spirit (33). One is left wondering whether room is left for the distinction between the visible and invisible aspects of the church. Ultimately, this point may reflect a distinction between Congregational and Presbyterian (though not only Presbyterian) definitions of the church, since Congregationalism traditionally defined the church in terms of elect believers covenanting with God and one another to the practical neglect of the external catholic organization of the church, consisting both of true believers and of people whose unbelief God alone knows. If the goal is to love the church, then the question is whether pitting the church as living organism against its outward organization can mean anything more than loving the invisible church. Readers could legitimately conclude from these pages that they love and belong to the invisible church without seeing the need for membership in the visible church. While countering the author’s intent, this all-too-common practice often results from pitting the church as organism against organization rather than holding them as two aspects of “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” church.

Second, the author too easily dismisses standard Christian interpretations and applications of key Scripture texts. For example, citing the much-debated Matthew 16:18, he states that it is “quite clear” that “Christ is the rock upon which the church is founded” (32). This assertion is too dismissive of the volumes of historical reflection on this text, which makes the proper view of the text less than clear on the surface. While it is true that Christ is the foundation of the church and that he alone builds and defends his church, the church rests on an apostolic foundation flowing from Christ as well (Eph. 2:20). Doubtless this apostolic foundation is at least partly, if not primarily, in view in Matthew 16:18, since Christ builds his church on apostolic revelation. The primary question throughout church history has always revolved around how Christ is the foundation of the church and how this related to Peter, the apostles, and the ongoing ministry of the church. Benge’s off-hand dismissal of such debates is both simplistic and bypasses the scope of Scripture regarding the church. We must grapple with the fact that as important as this text is about the church’s foundation and the “keys of the kingdom,” Jesus did not here define his central terms and ideas. Determining what the “rock” is on which Christ founded his church and how this relates to the “keys of the kingdom,” necessarily involves both exegesis and drawing from the rest of the New Testament. The resulting picture is that Christ founded his church on the inspired teaching of the apostles and prophets, with himself as the focal point, and that he continues to work through the “keys” in the uninspired ministry of the Word and sacraments. Though this is not the place here to establish these ideas clearly, this summary illustrates why it is inappropriate simply to dismiss alternatives that necessarily relate to “big-picture” New Testament issues.

A related example occurs with 1 Timothy 3:15. While Benge quotes 1 Timothy 3:15 to the effect that the church is “the pillar and buttress of the truth” (75), he eventually shifts to saying that “Scripture is the pillar and buttress of the church” (84). While this is true theologically, it is not true textually. The church is founded on the apostles and prophets, and thus on Scripture (Eph. 2:20), yet the epistle to Timothy addresses a different question. Christ as the truth, who communicates divine truth, founds the church, but the church also supports the truth by retaining, promoting, and proclaiming it. The church is born from Christ’s word in Scripture, but the church is also the Spirit’s means of sustaining Christ’s truth in the world. Both ideas are necessary for a balanced view of the church’s nature. This point illustrates the risk we all face of explaining away a passage rather than explaining it.

Ignoring classic readings of biblical texts occurs elsewhere as well, hindering the catholicity of the author’s doctrine of the church. A good example is his citing John 4:24 to the effect that we must worship the Father in Spirit and in truth, he simply dismisses the idea that John has worship through the Spirit and the Son in mind, stressing sincerity of heart in worship instead (90). Yet, John consistently made “truth” personal, revolving around Christ. He is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), and he is “full of grace and truth” (1:14). Likewise, the Spirit is “the Spirit of truth” (16:13) because, as “the Spirit of Christ” (Rom. 8:9), he takes what belongs to Christ and declares it to the church (John 16:14–15). Believers must be born of water and Spirit (John 3:5), and when Jesus asked the Father to sanctify believers by his word, which is truth (17:17), this was an applicatory prayer for the Spirit’s work detailed in chapters 14–16. The burden of proof from the gospel of John is that “Spirit” is the “Holy Spirit” and “Truth” is Jesus Christ, which we cannot detach from the Spirit’s work in believers’ hearts or from Christ’s revealing the Father in Word and in deed. This is why, historically, the early and medieval church asserted a reference to the Trinity in this passage. Like the example of Matthew 16:18, Benge dismisses classical Christian readings of key biblical texts too easily, hindering the catholic scope of his work.

Third, some theological issues arise with respect to the sacraments. In pursuing a broad-based Christian rather than denominationally-specific theology of the church, one should stress what is common both to Scripture and to Christianity. Yet, the author misplaces the emphasis of baptism. Without substantiating his claim, he assumes that “baptism” means immersion (133), which raises both theological and exegetical problems. Theologically, defining baptism as immersion confuses mode with meaning. Baptism means “to wash” rather than “to immerse.” Washing provides the theological key to baptism in relation to washing in Christ’s blood and in the renewing power of the Spirit. One exegetical example highlights the importance of this point. In Mark 7 the Pharisees complained that Jesus’s disciples ate with “unwashed hands” (Mark 7:5). Yet, the word used for “washing” hands, “cups, pitchers, copper vessels, and couches” in verse four is “to baptize.” Whether or not believers agree that immersion is the proper mode of baptism, we should all agree that baptism indicates washing and identification. Additionally, he assumes that baptism “demonstrates that you love Christ and are willing to obey him” (135). However, if sacraments are, as the church has often said, “the visible Word of God,” then, as with a sermon, the accent of baptism falls on what God says rather than what the church says in response. Likewise, on page 173, Benge adds that baptism is “a testimony that salvation has already taken place.” Yet, what if salvation has not taken place? Then is baptism not baptism, objectively speaking? If it is not, then what is it? If we define baptism by invisible spiritual realities, then how can the church ever be certain that she has baptized anyone? While it is the author’s right to hold and promote Baptist views of baptism, yet the wide scope of this book seems to demand focusing on what the church holds in common on baptism in relation to its function in telling us that God washes sinners through Christ’s blood by the Spirit’s power. Combined with most of the above examples, the result is that believers are left with the beauty of the invisible aspect of the church, loving and delighting in an organism consisting of elect regenerate people, without a clear and easy way of integrating the organization of the church in visible form. In other words, the author provides ample grounds for loving the soul of the church, but it is not clear how this necessarily includes loving her body as well.

In spite of these criticisms, Benge’s creative approach to presenting the doctrine of the church in light of her beauty as flowing from the Triune God is valuable in its own right. Yet, the church today needs something more. We should love the church as a living organism, as God’s family, united to Christ and indwelt by the Spirit. Yet, we should also love her organization, without going so far as to define her in terms of her government. Whether Episcopal, Presbyterian, or Congregational, believers should love the church in both her visible and invisible aspects. In order to do this, the church’s visible aspects must be integral to the definition of the church. Though the internal saving aspects of the church are primary and essential, her outward catholic form is not incidental or non-essential. The form of governing the church does not affect the church’s being, but taking outward form is part of her being. The church is a lovely place, reflecting the beauty of the Triune God, but God shows his glory in the church through her organization in light of her foundation and through her worship and sacraments, all of which tell us more about God’s work and words than about the character and profession of those within her walls. In short, this book is a good place to start considering the loveliness of the church in order to foster love for the church, but readers will need more than this to foster a broad-based biblical view of the church.

Ryan M. McGraw is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as a professor of systematic theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina. Ordained Servant Online, December 2022.

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