Louis Berkhof

Systematic Theology:

I. Scriptural Names of the Church and the Doctrine of the Church in History


I. IN THE OLD TESTAMENT. The Old Testament employs two words to designate the Church, namely qahal (or kahal), derived from an obsolete root qal (or kal), meaning "to call"; and 'edhah, from ya'adh, "to appoint" or "to meet or come together at an appointed place." These two words are sometimes used indiscriminately, but were not, at first, strictly syn of Israel or their representative heads, whether assembled or not assembled.Qahal, on the other hand, properly denotes the actual meeting together of the people. Consequently we find occasionally the expression qehal 'edhah, that is, "the assembly of the congregation" Exo_12:6; Num_14:5; Jer_26:17. It seems that the actual meeting was sometimes a meeting of the representatives of the people, Deu_4:10; Deu_18:16, comp. Deu_5:22-23; 1Ki_8:1-3; 1Ki_8:5; 2Ch_5:2-6. 'Edhah is by far the more common word in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Joshua, but is wholly absent from Deuteronomy, and is found but rarely in the later books. Qahal, abounds in Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah. Sunagoge is the usual, almost universal, rendering of the former in the Septuagint, and is also the usual rendering of the latter in the Pentateuch. In the later books of the Bible, however, qahal is generally rendered by ekklesia. Schuerer claims that later Judaism already pointed to the distinction between sunagoge as a designation of the congregation of Israel as an empirical reality, and ekklesia as the name of that same congregation ideally considered. He is followed in this by Dr. Bavinck. Cremer-Koegel, however, takes exception to this. Hort says that after the exile the word qahal seems to have combined the shades of meaning belonging to both it and ' edhah; and that consequently " ekklesia, as the primary Greek representative of qahal would naturally, for Greek-speaking Jews, mean the congregation of Israel quite as much as an assembly of the congregation."6

2. IN THE NEW TESTAMENT. The New Testament also has two words, derived from the Septuagint, namely, ekklesia, from ek and kaleo, "to call out," and sunagoge, from sun and ago, meaning "to come or to bring together." The latter is used exclusively to denote either the religious gatherings of the Jews or the buildings in which they assembled for public worship, Mat_4:23; Act_13:43; Rev_2:9; Rev_3:9. The term ekklesia, however, generally designates the Church of the New Testament, though in a few places it denotes common civil assemblies. Act_19:32; Act_19:39; Act_19:41. The preposition ek in ekklesia (ekkaleo) is often interpreted to mean "out from among the common mass of the people," and to indicate in connection with the Scriptural use of ekklesia, that the Church consists of the elect, called out of the world of humanity. This interpretation is rather doubtful, however, for the preposition originally simply denoted that the Greek citizens were called out of their houses. Now it would not have been unnatural if that entirely Scriptural idea had been put into the word in God's revelation. But, as a matter of fact, we have no proof that this was actually done. The compound verb ekkaleo is never so used, and the word ekklesia never occurs in a context which suggests the presence of that particular thought in the mind of the writer. Deissmann would simply render ekklesia as "the (convened) assembly," regarding God as the convener. Because the idea of the Church is a many- sided concept, it is quite natural that the word ekklesia, as applied to it, does not always have exactly the same connotation. Jesus was the first one to use the word in the New Testament, and He applied it to the company that gathered about Him, Mat_16:18, recognized Him publicly as their Lord, and accepted the principles of the Kingdom of God. It was the ekklesia of the Messiah, the true Israel. Later on, as a result of the extension of the Church, the word acquired various significations. Local churches were established everywhere, and were also called ekklesiai, since they were manifestations of the one universal Church of Christ. The following are the most important uses of the word:

a. Most frequently the word ekklesia designates a circle of believers in some definite locality, a local church, irrespective of the question whether these believers are or are not assembled for worship. Some passages contain the added idea that they are assembled, Act_5:11; Act_11:26; 1Co_11:18; 1Co_14:19; 1Co_14:28; 1Co_14:35, while others do not, Rom_16:4; 1Co_16:1; Gal_1:2; 2Th_2:14, etc.

b. In some cases the word denotes what may be called a domestic ekklesia, the church in the house of some individual. It seems that in apostolic times wealthy or otherwise important persons often set aside a large room in their homes for divine worship. Instances of this use of the word are found in Rom_16:23; 1Co_16:19; Col_4:15; Phm_1:2.

c. If the reading of Tisschendorf is correct (as is now generally taken for granted), then the word is found at least once in the singular to denote a group of churches, namely, the churches of Judea, Galilee, and Samaria. The passage in which it is so used is Act_9:31. Naturally, this does not yet mean that they together constituted an organization such as we now call a denomination. It is not impossible that the church of Jerusalem and the church of Antioch in Syria also comprised several groups that were accustomed to meet in different places.

d. In a more general sense the word serves to denote the whole body, throughout the world, of those who outwardly profess Christ and organize for purposes of worship, under the guidance of appointed officers. This meaning of the word is somewhat in the foreground in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1Co_10:32; 1Co_11:22; 1Co_12:28, but was, it would seem, present also in the mind of Paul, when he wrote the letter to the Ephesians, though in that letter the emphasis is on the Church as a spiritual organism, cf. especially Eph_4:11-16.

e. Finally, the word in its most comprehensive meaning signifies the whole body of the faithful, whether in heaven or on earth, who have been or shall be spiritually united to Christ as their Saviour. This use of the word is found primarily in the Epistles of Paul to the Ephesians and the Colossians, most frequently in the former, Eph_1:22; Eph_3:10; Eph_3:21; Eph_5:23-25; Eph_5:27; Eph_5:32; Col_1:18; Col_1:24.

We should bear in mind that the names "Church," "Kerk" and "Kirche" are not derived from the word ekklesia but from the word kuriake, which means "belonging to the Lord." They stress the fact that the Church is the property of God. The name to kuriakon or he kuriake first of all designated the place where the Church assembled. This place was conceived of as belonging to the Lord, and was therefore called to kuriakon. But the place itself was empty and did not really become manifest as to kuriakon until the Church gathered for worship. Consequently, the word was transferred to the Church itself, the spiritual building of God.

3. OTHER BIBLICAL DESIGNATIONS OF THE CHURCH. The New Testament contains several figurative designations of the Church, each one of which stresses some particular aspect of the Church. It is called:

a. The body of Christ. Some in our day seem to regard this appellation as a complete definition of the New Testament Church, but it is not so intended. The name is applied not only to the Church universal, as in Eph_1:23; Col_1:18, but also to a single congregation, 1Co_12:27. It stresses the unity of the Church, whether local or universal, and particularly the fact that this unity is organic, and that the organism of the Church stands in vital relationship to Jesus Christ as her glorious head.

b. The temple of the Holy Spirit or of God. The church of Corinth is called "a temple of God," in which the Holy Spirit dwelleth, 1Co_3:16. In Eph_2:21-22 Paul speaks of believers as growing into "a holy temple in the Lord," and as being built together for "a habitation of God in the Spirit." There the name is applied to the ideal Church of the future, which is the church universal. And Peter says that believers as living stones are built up "a spiritual house," 1Pe_2:5. The connection clearly shows that he is thinking of a temple. This figure emphasizes the fact that the Church is holy and inviolable. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit imparts to her an exalted character.

c. The Jerusalem that is above, or the new Jerusalem, or the heavenly Jerusalem. All three of these forms are found in the Bible, Gal_4:26; Heb_12:2; Rev_21:2, cf. the Rev_21:9-10. In the Old Testament Jerusalem is represented as the place where God dwelt between the cherubim and where He symbolically established contact with His people. The New Testament evidently regards the Church as the spiritual counterpart of the Old Testament Jerusalem, and therefore applies to it the same name. According to this representation the Church is the dwelling place of God, in which the people of God are brought into communion with Him; and this dwelling place, while still in part on earth, belongs to the heavenly sphere.

d. Pillar and ground of the truth. There is just one place in which that name is applied to the Church, namely, 1Ti_3:15. It clearly refers to the Church in general, and therefore also applies to every part of it. The figure is expressive of the fact that the Church is the guardian of the truth, the citadel of the truth, and the defender of the truth over against all the enemies of the Kingdom of God.



a. In the patristic period. By the Apostolic Fathers and by the Apologetes the Church is generally represented as the communio sanctorum the people of God which He has chosen for a possession. The necessity for making distinctions was not at once apparent. But as early as the latter part of the second century there was a perceptible change. The rise of heresies made it imperative to name some characteristics by which the true catholic Church could be known. This tended to fix the attention on the outward manifestation of the Church. The Church began to be conceived as an external institution, ruled by a bishop as a direct successor of the apostles, and in possession of the true tradition. The catholicity of the Church was rather strongly emphasized. Local churches were not regarded as so many separate units, but simply as parts of the one universal Church. The increasing worldliness and corruption of the Church gradually led to reaction and gave rise to the tendency of various sects, such as Montanism in the middle of the second, Novatianism in the middle of the third, and Donatism at the beginning of the fourth century, to make the holiness of its members the mark of the true Church. The early Church Fathers, in combating these sectaries, emphasized ever increasingly the episcopal institution of the Church. Cyprian has the distinction of being the first to develop fully the doctrine of the episcopal Church. He regarded the bishops as the real successors of the apostles and ascribed to them a priestly character in virtue of their sacrificial work. They together formed a college, called the episcopate, which as such constituted the unity of the Church. The unity of the Church was thus based on the unity of the bishops. They who do not subject themselves to the bishop forfeit the fellowship of the Church and also their salvation, since there is no salvation outside of the Church. Augustine was not altogether consistent in his conception of the Church. It was his struggle with the Donatists that compelled him to reflect more deeply on the nature of the Church. On the one hand he shows himself to be the predestinarian, who conceives of the Church as the company of the elect, the communio sanctorum, who have the Spirit of God and are therefore characterized by true love. The important thing is to be a living member of the Church so conceived, and not to belong to it in a merely external sense. But on the other hand he is the Church-man, who adheres to the Cyprianic idea of the Church at least in its general aspects. The true Church is the catholic Church, in which the apostolic authority is continued by episcopal succession. It is the depositary of divine grace, which it distributes through the sacraments. For the present this Church is a mixed body, in which good and evil members have a place. In his debate with the Donatists he admitted, however, that the two were not in the Church in the same sense. He also prepared the way for the Roman Catholic identification of the Church and the Kingdom of God.

b. In the Middle Ages. The Scholastics have very little to say about the Church. The system of doctrine developed by Cyprian and Augustine was fairly complete and needed but a few finishing touches to bring it to its final development. Says Otten (Roman Catholic historian): "This system was taken over by the Scholastics of the Middle Ages, and then was handed down by them, practically in the same condition in which they had received it, to their successors who came after the Council of Trent."7 Incidentally a few points were somewhat further developed. But if there was very little development in the doctrine of the Church, the Church itself actually developed more and more into a close-knit, compactly organized, and absolute hierarchy. The seeds of this development were already present in the Cyprianic idea of the Church and in one aspect of the Church as represented by Augustine. The other and more fundamental idea of that great Church Father, that of the Church as the communio sanctorum, was generally disregarded and thus remained dormant. This is not saying that the Scholastics denied the spiritual element altogether, but merely that they did not give it due prominence. The emphasis was very definitely on the Church as an external organization or institution. Hugo of St. Victor speaks of the Church and the State as the two powers instituted by God for the government of the people. Both are monarchical in constitution, but the Church is the higher power, because she ministers to the salvation of men, while the State only provides for their temporal welfare. The king or emperor is the head of the state, but the Pope is the head of the Church. There are two classes of people in the Church with well defined rights and duties: the clerics, dedicated to the service of God, who constitute a unit; and the laics consisting of people from every domain of life, who constitute a separate class altogether. Step by step the doctrine of the papacy came to development, until at last the Pope became virtually an absolute monarch. The growth of this doctrine was in no small measure aided by the development of the idea that the Catholic Church was the Kingdom of God on earth, and that therefore the Roman bishopric was an earthly kingdom. This identification of the visible and organized Church with the Kingdom of God had far-reaching consequences: (1) It required that everything be brought under the control of the Church: the home and the school, science and art, commerce and industry, and so on. (2) It involved the idea that all the blessings of salvation come to man only through the ordinances of the Church, particularly through the sacraments. (3) It led to the gradual secularization of the Church, since the Church began to pay more attention to politics than to the salvation of sinners, and the Popes finally claimed dominion also over secular rulers.


a. During the period of the Reformation. The Reformers broke with the Roman Catholic conception of the Church, but differed among themselves in some particulars. The idea of an infallible and hierarchical Church, and of a special priesthood, which dispenses salvation through the sacraments, found no favor with Luther. He regarded the Church as the spiritual communion of those who believe in Christ, and restored the Scriptural idea of the priesthood of all believers. He maintained the unity of the Church, but distinguished two aspects of it, the one visible and the other invisible. He was careful to point out that these are not two churches, but simply two aspects of the same Church. The invisible Church becomes visible, not by the rule of bishops and cardinals, nor in the headship of the Pope, but by the pure administration of the Word and of the sacraments. He admitted that the visible Church will always contain a mixture of pious and wicked members. However, in his reaction against the Roman Catholic idea of the domination of the Church over the State, he went to another extreme, and virtually made the Church subject to the State in everything except the preaching of the Word. The Anabaptists were not satisfied with his position, and insisted on a Church of believers only. They, in many instances, even scorned the visible Church and the means of grace. Moreover, they demanded the complete separation of Church and State. Calvin and Reformed theologians were at one with Luther in the confession that the Church is essentially a communio sanctorum a communion of saints. However, they did not, like the Lutherans, seek the unity and the holiness of the Church primarily in the objective ordinances of the Church, such as the offices, the Word, and the sacraments, but most of all in the subjective communion of believers. They, too, distinguished between a visible and an invisible aspect of the Church, though in a slightly different way. Moreover, they found the true marks of the Church, not only in the true administration of the Word and of the sacraments, but also in the faithful administration of Church discipline. But even Calvin and the Reformed theologians of the seventeenth century in a measure fostered the idea of the subjection of the Church to the state. However, they established a form of government in the Church which made for a greater degree of ecclesiastical independence and power than was known in the Lutheran Church. But while both Lutheran and Reformed theologians sought to maintain the proper connection between the visible and the invisible Church, others lost sight of this. The Socinians and the Arminians of the seventeenth century, though indeed speaking of an invisible Church, forgot all about it in actual life. The former conceived of the Christian religion simply as an acceptable doctrine, and the latter made the Church primarily a visible society and followed the Lutheran Church by yielding the right of discipline to the State and retaining for the Church only the right to preach the gospel and to admonish the members of the Church. The Labadists and Pietists, on the other hand, manifested a tendency to disregard the visible Church, seeking a Church of believers only, showing themselves indifferent to the institutional Church with its mixture of good and evil, and seeking edification in conventicles.

b. During and after the eighteenth century. During the eighteenth century Rationalism made its influence felt also in the doctrine of the Church. It was indifferent in matters of faith and lacked enthusiasm for the Church, which it placed on a par with other human societies. It even denied that Christ intended to found a church in the received sense of the word. There was a pietistic reaction to Rationalism in Methodism, but Methodism did not contribute anything to the development of the doctrine of the Church. In some cases it sought strength in casting reflection on the existing Churches, and in others it adapted itself to the life of these Churches. For Schleiermacher the Church was essentially the Christian community, the body of believers who are animated by the same spirit. He had little use for the distinction between the visible and the invisible Church, and found the essence of the Church in the spirit of Christian fellowship. The more the Spirit of God penetrates the mass of Christian believers, the fewer divisions there will be, and the more they will lose their importance. Ritschl substituted for the distinction between the invisible and the visible Church that between the Kingdom and the Church. He regarded the Kingdom as the community of God's people acting from the motive of love, and the Church as that same community met for worship. The name "Church" is therefore restricted to an external organization in the one function of worship; and this function merely enables believers to become better acquainted with one another. This is certainly far from the teaching of the New Testament. It leads right on to the modern liberal conception of the Church as a mere social center, a human institution rather than a planting of God.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY: Does the history of the Church begin at or before the day of Pentecost? If it existed before, how did the Church preceding that day differ from the Church following it? To what Church does Jesus refer in Mat_18:17? Did Augustine identify the Church as a spiritual organism, or the Church as an external institution, with the Kingdom of God? How do you account for the Roman Catholic emphasis on the Church as an external organization? Why did not the Reformers insist on entire freedom of the Church from the State? How did Luther and Calvin differ in this respect? What controversies respecting the Church arose in Scotland? What accounts for the different conceptions of the Church in England and in Scotland? How did Rationalism affect the doctrine of the Church? What great dangers are threatening the Church at the present time?

LITERATURE: Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. IV, pp. 302-319; Innes, Church and State; Cunningham, Historical Theology, two volumes, cf. the Index; Hauck, Real-Encyclopaedie, Art. Kirche by Koestlin; Histories of Dogma, especially those of Harnack, Seeberg, Sheldon, and Otten, cf. the Indices.