Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Baptism in the Theology of A. H. Strong - A Christocentric Church - Summary of Ecclesiology Part I

Unlike his contemporary, B. H. Carroll,[5] Strong does not base his definition of the church on the understanding of the Greek term εκκλησια, but on several Scripture passages on the church.[6] From them Strong concludes that "the church of Christ, in its largest signification, is the whole company of regenerate persons in all times and ages, in heaven and on earth."[7] Yet, Strong believes that "the Scriptures, however, distinguish between this invisible or universal church, and the individual church," and while he begins his study discussing the church in its "largest sense," he eventually focuses on what he deems to be the prevailing usage of the term εκκλησια in the New Testament, that of the "individual church, in which the universal church takes local and temporal form, and in which the idea of the church as a whole is concretely exhibited."[8]

Strong offers at least two lists of principles around which believers can unite themselves as individual churches,[9] but for him the "primary and most essential element in ecclesiology" is the concept of "regeneration which comes about through union with Christ," viz. regenerate church membership. Strong elaborates by quoting Leighton Williams: "the essence of the gospel is a new life in Christ, of which Christian experience is the outworking . . . Christian life is as important as conversion. Faith must show itself by works."[10] Therefore, the foundation and outworking of the church has to be Christocentric, and not anthropocentric, allowing Strong to state that the church cannot be "a voluntary association of believers, united together for the purposes of worship and edification," but has to be "formed from within. Christ, present by the Holy Ghost, regenerating men by the sovereign action of the Spirit, and organizing them into himself as the living center." This, for Strong, is "the only principle that can explain the existence of the church." This understanding of the doctrine of regeneration also demands a voluntary church where "union with the church logically follows, not precedes, the soul's spiritual union with Christ," for "union with the church is but the outward expression of a proceeding union with Christ."[11]

What do you think about Strong's Christocentricity in his understanding of the church?

[5] For B. H. Carroll's view of the church see: B. H. Carroll, Ecclesia: The Church - Bible Class Lecture, February, 1903, The Baptist Distinctives Series, vol. 38 (Louisville: 1903; reprint, Paris, AR: The Baptist Standard Bearer, 2006). The "primary meaning" of ecclesia, according to Carroll, is "an organized assembly, whose members have been properly called out from private homes or business to attend to public affairs." This concept of assembly forces Carroll to create a dichotomy between the "particular assembly of Jesus Christ on earth" and "his general assembly in glory" (15-6). These, according to Carroll, are not and cannot be co-existent (critiquing the creeds, 24), for the nature of the membership of the general assembly forces it to be an assembly only "in prospect" (17). Nevertheless, "each particular assembly is a representation or type of the general assembly" (29). He accepts applying the "figures" for the church to both the particular and the general assembly, but he denies the use of them for the "particular assemblies collectively" (19). As will be seen later in this paper, this is not the only point of ecclesiological disagreement between Carroll and Strong. To be fair to Strong's position, it should be noted that he does not totally dismiss the assembling nature of the church, for he states concerning the individual churches, that they were never so large that they could not assemble (see Strong, Systematic Theology, 891). But, unlike Carroll, he does not see this assembling concept as an invalidation of the concept of the universal church, as is seen below.

[6] Matt 16:18; Eph 1:22, 23; 3:10; 5:24, 25; Col 1:18; Heb 12:23; see Strong, Systematic Theology, 887.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 889; 892. In his discussion of the invisible church, while Strong prefers the terminology of invisible church, the sources he presents oscillate between the use of the term invisible church, universal church, and the kingdom. Unfortunately, the terminology used in Strong's sources here obfuscates the understanding of Strong's beliefs. On p. 887, Strong first equates church and kingdom, and then cites Andrews's differences between the church and the kingdom, which Strong prefers to refer to as the visible and invisible church. Yet, two pages later, he cites A. J. Gordon in stating that the church and the kingdom are identical, if by the kingdom one does not refer to "the visible reign and government of Jesus Christ in earth" (889). While Strong's citing of other authors is beneficial in allowing the reader to see which theologians shaped his theology and which theologians he was reacting against, this is one of many examples where the reader is left with a feeling of uncertainty on exactly how Strong would have articulated his position on some issues.

[9] One such list is: 1) sufficiency and sole authority of Scripture; 2) regeneration as a pre-requisite of church membership; 3) immersion only; 4) the order of the ordinances; 5) congregational church government; 6) independent churches; 7) freedom of the individual conscience and independence of the church and state (Ibid., 890).

[10] Ibid. Strong quotes Leighton Williams (possibly the pastor of the Amity Baptist Church on West Fifty-Fourth Street in New York) twice in Systematic Theology, but does not offer any bibliographical information for him.

[11] Ibid., 893.


Alan Knox said...


I'm a little confused. You said that Strong states the church cannot be "a voluntary association of believers." But, later you said, "This understanding of the doctrine of regeneration also demands a voluntary church." Are you using "voluntary" in different ways, or am I missing something?

I'm not sure that I follow Strong's understanding that the union with the church follows union with Christ, especially given 1 Corinthians 12:12. What do you think?


Maël said...


I think Strong is dealing with what associates the believers: us or Christ. So, for him, the church cannot be "a voluntary association of believers," for Christ is the one who is "organizing them into himself as the living center."

We do voluntarily associate, viz. we cannot be forced by the government or others to associate, but that act does not constitute the church. What constitutes the church is that Christ associates us.

As for 1 Cor 12:12 ... let's see if note [12] in the next post answers your question.

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