Reformation Retrospection

She departed the port, dressed in her best ceremonial regalia, with tassels and flags fluttering from her mast and rigging.

She stood tall, robed in mist, crowned in white, and backlit by the rising sun.

There she sat, shimmering and spotless; with a perfect ragtop, and a full tank of gas.

What splendid lady am I lauding? What woman of insurmountable charm and beauty am I praising? Of course, as you’ve no doubt guessed, these three sentences do not relate to a real woman at all, but to a ship, a mountain, and a car.

And we could think of a great deal many more instances of the use of feminine pronouns with relation to something inanimate. There’s “mother earth,” for instance. Or a large and stately manor house might be referred to as feminine. We speak of the sea as a woman who calls to a mariner. The country of our birth is our “motherland,” and the language we first learned is our “mother tongue.” We sometimes speak of men being “married to their jobs,” and Duke Ellington’s biography is entitled, Music is my Mistress.

Growing up in the farmlands of Pennsylvania, I often heard farmers refer to various farm implements, such as tractors, similarly. You know, “Head up to the barn and get her started, then come down and back her up right here.”

And who could forget Han Solo’s love for his lady, the Millennium Falcon, in Star Wars: “She’ll make point five past lightspeed. She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid.”

But today, this sort of speech is beginning to come under fire in certain sectors. In one instance, one woman decries this use of pronouns as evidence of sexism in our culture. She complains that it is, “a linguistic change that indeed reflects gender inequality in our society.”1 This sort of language, it is thought, downplays the strength of women by objectifying them as thoughtless machines which exist merely to do the will of men.

As the dust settles from this year’s quintecentennial celebration of the Reformation, the kick-off of which is remembered as October 31, 1517, I’ve continued to ponder the character of the Reformation and after-effects of it. Over time, church and salvation have become increasingly commonly connected to the individual: am saved by grace. The Gospel is for mebelieve in God, the Father Almighty.

We think of the Reformation, and we think of the “Five Solas”—Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus, and Soli Deo Gloria. We think of the recovery of these doctrines over and against the bloated Roman Catholic Church of the time, with its overly-hierarchical system of penance and its manipulative sale of indulgences. We get excited about the bold statement of Martin Luther, who was asked to recant of his teachings and refused, saying, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Our hearts swell at the thought of the recovery of God’s grace in our salvation, and the sole instrument of faith in order to take hold of it. We take joy in the wonderful freedom of these “Material” and “Formal” principles of the Reformation (Justification by faith and Sola Scriptura). As Philip Schaff says, the Reformers’ objective was to “bind man to the grace of God, and to lead his conscience captive to God’s word.”2 And we’re quite glad to laud these truths as individuals.

Indeed, as Princeton Theologian, Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield once said, the Reformation was “the triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the church.”3 Alister McGrath explains this, saying, “the ecclesiastical situation of that age made it impossible to hold to both Augustine’s doctrine of grace and his doctrine of the church in their totality. Something had to give — or be modified.”4 This was certainly a difficulty the Reformers faced: how to legitimize their work against the totally visible ecclesial claims of the Roman church on one hand, and the totally invisible ecclesial claims of some of the radical Reformation on the other hand.

However, I want to suggest that it may not have been the Reformers themselves who softened Augustine’s doctrine of the church, and the corporate-ness of salvation. Rather, this is something that followed in the later history of some sectors of Protestantism. To do so, I want to consider a feminine designation not mentioned at the beginning of this article: that of Mother Church.

In the first epistle of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, he describes the apostolic ministry among the Thessalonians in a striking way. He says, “But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.” (1 Thess. 2:7) This verse stands out, first, because St. Paul describes himself in feminine terms! Is he being sexist? Is he committing “gender appropriation”? Is he just some patriarchal neanderthal oppressing women by comparing himself to one?

Of course, he is not. But with this statement comes the hint at a larger truth which the historic church and the Reformers picked up on: that the Church is the mother of all who believe. St. Paul goes on to say that they were “affectionately desirous” of the Thessalonians, and were there to not only preach the Gospel, but to share their “own selves” with them (verse 8). Within the Church, we expect ministers and leaders who give of themselves, nourishing the congregation with the Word and Sacraments, as a nursing mother with her children. We also expect faithful church members, in imitation of their leaders and the Lord, to give of themselves in the nourishment of those around them. The Church is a place where we are fed and nourished, brought up as little children by a loving and caring mother. 

St. Cyprian, 1500 years ago in the 200s said it the earliest, or at least the most famously: he said, “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.”5

Later, St. Augustine said, “Behold the womb of Mother Church: see how she groans and is in travail to bring you forth and guide you on into the light of faith.”6 And he goes on in another place, “A man cannot have salvation, except in the Catholic Church. Outside the Catholic Church he can have everything except salvation.”7 Ignatius, around AD 110, said, “Anyone who follows a schismatic cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven.”8

This can make us Protestants squirm a bit, can’t it? This idea of “Mother Church,” with whom lies salvation can grate against our individualistic tendencies! But this is where a closer reading of the Reformation helps us.

Consider this quote from reformation hero Martin Luther: “I embrace the church, the communion of saints, as my holy mother, and in a conscious act of faith I make my own all the spiritual blessings that the church represents.”9 Luther says elsewhere that the Holy Spirit “has a unique community in the world. It is the mother that begets and bears every Christian through the Word of God.”10 For Luther, there was no break with Cyprian and Augustine. Justification hadn’t become merely personal. The Church was still Mother.

John Calvin, in the Institutes of the Christian Religion says this about the church: “I will begin with the church, into whose bosom God is pleased to collect his children, not only that by her aid and ministry they may be nourished so long as they are babes and children, but may also be guided by her maternal care until they grow up to manhood and, finally, attain to the perfection of faith. What God has thus joined, let not man put asunder (Mark 10:9): to those to whom he is a Father, the church must also be a mother.11

Sound familiar? Calvin has essentially quoted Cyprian from 1300 years before him.

Calvin also says (specifically about the “visible church”, even), “Let us learn, from her single title of Mother, how useful, no, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government.”12

While the later Reformed church has generally forgotten the title of “Mother” for the church, the same ideas have remained. We could fill volumes with quotes, but I will content myself with just a few more. First, from the Belgic Confession, article 28: “We believe that since this holy assembly and congregation is the gathering of those who are saved and there is no salvation apart from it, no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, regardless of his status or condition. But all people are obliged to join and unite with it, keeping the unity of the church by submitting to its instruction and discipline, by bending their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ, and by serving to build up one another, according to the gifts God has given them as members of each other in the same body.” While the confession doesn’t specifically call the Church our “Mother,” the same concepts come through. Life comes through her, no salvation is available outside of her, and she nourishes and grows her children in grace and faith.

In line with his discussion of Mother Church, Calvin agrees, saying, “We see that God, who might perfect his people in a moment, chooses not to bring them to manhood in any other way than by the education of the church,”13 explaining that this education is done especially by pastors. Heidelberg Catechism author, Zacharias Ursinus, writes that “no one can be saved out of the Church. . . . Hence although the elect are not always members of the visible church, yet they all become such before they die.14 The overarching sentiment is that there is no life outside of the Church any more than one can be born without a mother.15

What does the “Formal Principle” of the Reformation say? Space will not avail a full study of this. However, throughout the Old Testament, God’s people are repeatedly described in feminine terms.

Isaiah 40:2, “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

Lamentations 1:1, “How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow has she become, she who was great among the nations! She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave.”

Jeremiah 3:6, “The Lord said to me in the days of King Josiah: “Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore?”

Hosea 2:14, “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.”

Psalm 46:5, “God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns.”

And we could go on.

The New Testament tells us that “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 18:3) The obvious question is, of course, “Whose children?” Or, “Children of what mother?”

Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, saying, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matt 23)

Ephesians 1:22-23 says, “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

What does it mean that the Church is Christ’s “body”? Ephesians 5:25 and 28-29 answer, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, . . . In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.”

The Church is Christ’s Body, because she is his Wife. Just as Adam called Eve “Bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh,” so Christ calls the Church his “Body”, His flesh, because of the marital union with Him.

The Church is, as 1 Timothy 3:15 says, “the pillar and buttress of truth.”

In the Church is life, union with Christ, truth, nourishment by the Word and Sacraments. Outside of her there is no ordinary means of salvation.

Galatians 4:26 tells us that “the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.”

Why is it worth going to pains to argue for the recollection of the Church as Mother? Why does it matter that we call her that? Does this take away from the work of Christ? Not in the slightest, and there are three reasons I think this is so important. Far from setting up some barrier, these should point us to Christ all the more.

First, “Mother Church” helps us reclaim what the Reformation was about. The purpose of the Reformation was not simply to do away with the Pope and hierarchy. It was not to strip away all of the visible Church or get rid of church buildings, robes, organs, or church leaders. The purpose was not to distill Christianity into just “me and my Bible”. Rather, as Philip Schaff says, “the great point [of the Reformation] was to eradicate popedom from the heart itself, which is too prone . . . to make an idol of mere human authority.”16 The point of the Reformation, he says, is to tear down the idolatry of human position and prominence—exactly as St. Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8. The point of the Reformation was to return to a conception of Christ as the one true Head of the Church, and to remove those hierarchies and dogmas which set themselves in His place.

Recovering the conception of Mother Church is, in a sense, recovering the heart of the Reformation, for Mother Church, as the wife of the Head, restores the proper biblical hierarchy. In doing so, it also takes steps to connect the Reform movement with the previous 1500 years of church history, rather than conceiving of it as something different.

Perhaps we could suggest, along with the 5 famous Solas, a tentative or second-tier sixth: Sola Ecclesia, the Church Alone. Only in union with Christ, which necessarily flows into union with His Body on earth, are we the recipients of all the nourishment promised us through Christ.

Second, “Mother Church” makes steps to reclaim what true Biblical femininity means. Back to Augustine again, “Just as death comes to us through a woman, [Eve] Life is born to us through a woman; [Mary] that the devil, defeated, would be tormented by each nature: feminine and masculine, since he had taken delight in the defection of both.”17

Against the charge that the Bible is patriarchal in an oppressive way, reclaiming Mother Church reminds us that the crown of all creation; the last thing created on day 6 of Genesis 2; that thing without which the creation was incomplete and lacking, was a woman. It reminds us that the “New Creation” is centered on the Church, and that this great work of redemption is done for Christ’s Bride. And that means men in the Church are also part of the Bride.

We live in a culture now which lauds the success of women by how high up the corporate ladder they can climb, or how “like men” they can be. We tell them to go be Marines and Navy Seals. We tell them that being unfettered by family responsibilities is freedom.

But the principle of Mother Church shows us that giving life and nourishment to the next generation is among the greatest gifts and graces of God our Father.18 We ought to reclaim the glories of biblical femininity before a culture which—for all its posturing—is actually undermining the feminine.

Third, “Mother Church” encourages every member of the Body to use his or her gifts to the mutual betterment of the Church. Westminster Seminary president Edmund Clowney said, “While the church cannot be defined in terms of nurture alone, it cannot be understood without it.”19 In other words, without Godly nurture, we have no Church. This nurture is all ultimately a work of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, and all because of the salvation bought for us on the cross. But God has called us into the life of the cross, by uniting us with His Church. As mentioned, the Church nourishes us as a Mother in different ways: one by the Word and Sacraments, as marks of the faithful Church; but also through the mutual upbuilding of all her members.

Believing in the Church as Mother does not allow us to sit back and wait for some hierarchical structure, topped by the Pope, to nourish us. It means that all of us play a part in the nourishment all receive from her. St. Paul, describing himself as a “nursing mother” in 1 Thessalonians, says he was “affectionately desirous” of the Thessalonian church. But more than that, he says, “we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves.” We all play a part in the mothering of the Church. We must know one another. We must know each other’s struggles so that we can pray for and meet these needs, giving out of our own selves for the nourishment of one another.

That’s not a vain calling; it’s not one based on greed or selfishness or impurity or deceitfulness; no, it’s a high calling. The calling of a Mother.

Jon Herr is the pastor of Christ Covenant Church of Chicago.

References   [ + ]

1. Sarah Hall, “Your Car’s Pronoun is ‘It’, not ‘She’”. Accessed 10/31/2017. 
2. Philip Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism, transJohn Williamson Nevin (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2004), 79
3. B.B. Warfield, Calvin and Augustine (P&R, 1954), 322. Quoted in Alister McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 142.
4, 13. Ibid.
5. Cyprian of Carthage, “On the Unity of the Church,” in Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Novatian, Appendix, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Robert Ernest Wallis, vol. 5, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 423.
6. Quoted by Carl E. Braaten, Mother Church: Ecclesiology and Ecumenism (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1998), 3.
7. Augustine, Discourse to the People of the Church at Caesarea in William Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers, Volume 3 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1979), 130.
8. Ignatius, Letter to the Philadelphians in William Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers, Volume 1 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1970), 22.
9. Quoted by Braaten, vi.
10. Quoted in Ibid., 2.
11. John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008), 672. Emphasis mine.
12. Ibid., 674.
14. Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism(Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed), 292, 293.
15. Someone will object that the Westminster Confession of Faith says that outside of the Church there is “no ordinary possibility of salvation,” (25.2) and that modern science is rendering a physical womb unnecessary. I’m happy to grant the exception without making a rule.
16. Schaff, 78.
17. Jurgens, Volume 3, 50.
18. Caveat: this does not mean that all women without exception must have children. But it does mean, that we must not despise the life-giving, nourishing, and beautifying nature of womanhood, which even single or barren women can uniquely participate in, in whatever fields God has placed them.
19. Edmund Clowney, The Church (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1995), 138.