Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Communion of Saints in the Reformation

One of the insights of the Reformation that is sometimes overlooked today is its articulation of the biblical doctrine of the communion of the saints. Not only was it an important doctrinal issue, being one of the twelve points of the Apostles Creed, but it was one with immense implication for Christian life and community.

The Reformers rejected as unbiblical the idea that the communion of saints allowed the saints to share their merit with others, or that we can or should communicate with the deceased by prayer. They critiqued the idea that only certain believers were saints, emphasizing that all Christians are saints. Yet, they did see the communion of saints as not only a true doctrine, taught in passages like Romans 12:4-8, Ephesians 4:1-6, John 15:1-12, Acts 2:42, and 1 John 1:1-7, but they also viewed it as a great benefit to believers. John Calvin summarized the doctrine by saying that “saints are united in the fellowship of Christ on this condition, that all the blessings which God bestows upon them are mutually communicated to each other" (Calvin, 4.1.3). This meant that by being a member of Christ, one could claim a share in all God’s promises to the church. Even the diverse gifts of the Spirit were given to us to be shared with each other. Calvin saw this as an important means of assurance and consolation that enabled the individual believer to appropriate to one’s self all the blessings God bestows on His members. Calvin described it as an aspect of the invisible church, a unity received and perceived by faith.

While Calvin only spent one long paragraph on the doctrine in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), it continued to be explained and used by Protestant theologians, often in the context of expounding the Apostles Creed. For example, question 55 of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) understood the communion of saints to mean that
“First, that believers, all and everyone, as members of Christ have communion with Him and share in all His treasures and gifts. Second, that everyone is duty-bound to use his gifts readily and cheerfully for the benefit and well-being of the other members.” 
This describes two parts, the indicative (what is) and the imperative (what should be). We share in Christ’s treasures and gifts together, therefore we should use His gifts for each other. Unlike the medieval doctrine of the communion of saints, which led Christians to seek help from the dead, the Protestant doctrine taught them to give help to the living. When we come to the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), we can recognize the same indicative/imperative pattern. While the Westminster Confession is unique among statements of faith in having an entire chapter on the doctrine, the first section of chapter 26, “Of the Communion of Saints,” is essentially a restatement of the answer of the Heidelberg Catechism.
"All saints, that are united to Jesus Christ their Head, by his Spirit, and by faith, have fellowship with Him in his grace, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory: and, being united to one another in love, they have communion in each other's gifts and graces, and are obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, as do conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man." (WCF 26.1)
This argues that believers share in Christ’s benefits by virtue of their union with Him, and that they should use Christ’s gifts for the sake of each other. This is not a mere duty, but a duty supported by a fact: “they have communion in each other’s gifts and graces.” To have communion is to share something in common. We are each stewards of the grace given us, but all of it belongs to all Christians.

The second section of chapter 26 specifies the actions to which this communion binds us: common worship, mutual edification, and outward relief.
"Saints by profession are bound to maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God, and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification; as also in relieving each other in outward things, according to their several abilities and necessities. Which communion, as God offers opportunity, is to be extended unto all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus." (WCF 26.2)
It is to be extended to “all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus” because this obligation rests on our union with Christ. This paragraph realizes that we are limited as finite creature by our abilities and opportunities, but it rejects boundaries of denomination, race, geography, and age. Union with a particular congregation is important for the fulfilling of these duties - indeed, the creation of local congregations is an outworking of these duties - but this communion is not restricted to them. The foundation is Christ.

The third section adds two important qualifications. This union does not imply that we become divine, nor does our communion with the saints mean that private property is abolished.
"This communion which the saints have with Christ, does not make them in any wise partakers of the substance of his Godhead; or to be equal with Christ in any respect: either of which to affirm is impious and blasphemous. Nor does their communion one with another, as saints, take away, or infringe the title or propriety which each man has in his goods and possessions." (WCF 26.3)
Once one realizes the meaning of communion – that we have a claim to each other’s gifts – it becomes clear why private property would seem threatened. Anabaptists and others were ready to take this doctrine to what they saw as the logical conclusion. Yet, this qualification is not only valuable in practice, but also biblical (Acts 5:4, 2 Thess. 3:8, Eph. 4:28).

Among the Puritans who wrote the Westminster Confession of Faith, the communion of saints was applied as a way of life and conduct. Diane Willen, in her article, "'Communion of the Saints': Spiritual Reciprocity and the Godly Community in Early Modern England," argues that the doctrine of the communion of saints and its application through mutual edification became an important feature of Puritan spirituality, and one that encouraged a flourishing reciprocity among the laity. As Thomas Gataker, a member of the Westminster Assembly, would write, "For as there is none so learned, but he may learne something from the very meanest, even from those that bee farre inferiour in gifts to himselfe" (Gateker, 59-60). Edification was not a one-way street – everyone was called to participate. This doctrine gave women an important and active role, since, in the Puritan community, “spiritual counseling and edification assumed a surprising degree of reciprocity between men and women” (Willen, 40). Christians were not expected to be dependent upon the pastor for all edification, exhortation, and encouragement. Rather, the conversations, letters, and family gatherings of believers were to be opportunities to apply the duties of communion.

About fifteen years before the confession as written, John Winthrop proclaimed this doctrine for Puritan New England. His speech, “A Model of Christian Charity,” would lay down a vision for the “City upon a Hill” that rested upon the communion of saints. He argued for the duties of “giving, lending, and forgiving” from the law of nature and the law of the gospel, which obligates us to one another as “a brother in Christ also, and in the communion of the same Spirit" (Winthrop, 11-12). This meant that
“we must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities, for the supply of others necessities, we must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality, we must delight in each other, make others conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body” (Winthrop, 18). 
Thus, this doctrine would flourish and influence social life in Great Britain and early America for a time. Yet the communion of saints would decline as an important theological point in the 18th century. Not only did the Enlightenment privatize Christianity and cede the public sphere to natural principles, but the polemical debates concerning church government, liturgy, and sacraments would nearly monopolize some discussions of the church in the British and American traditions. Today it is more common to disparage organized religion and social duties, and to emphasize personal freedom and autonomy. American Christians, in their tendency towards individualism, have forgotten Winthrop's exhortation. Many heirs of the Reformation have developed a "me and Jesus" piety which would trouble the Reformers (not to mention the Apostles). May Christians of the 21st century learn from our Reformation forefathers, recover an understanding of this biblical doctrine, and zealously implement it with love for Christ and His people. 


Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008.

Gataker, Thomas. The spirituall watch, or Christs generall watch-word: A meditation on Mark 13.37. Printed by John Haviland for William Bladen, London, 1622. 

Willen, Diane. ""Communion of the Saints": Spiritual Reciprocity and the Godly Community in Early Modern England." Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 27, no. 1 (1995): 19-41. 

Winthrop, John. “A Model of Charity.” The American Patriot’s Handbook, ed. George Grant, 8-19. Naperville, IL: Cumberland House, 2009.


Unknown said...

Hi Peter. I'm a recently retired pastor in the Evan. Free Church, having served about a mile from Trinity Evan. Div. School. I'm a frequent writer for Preaching Today (from Christianity Today) and a couple of books from Moody. I am working on a short piece for PT where I've been thinking about the communion of the saints (thanks to a tip from Kevin Van Hoozer, a friend, not to drop names or anything). I spelled out to him what I explain here (below) and he said this was in the realm of "the communion of the saints" and suggested I check "the theologians." Having recently divested quite a bit of my library, I found myself on your blog here.

What I think I'm seeing here in your summary is that these key confessions the Communion of the saints don't actually speak much of the feelings of affection--what we today most readily think of when we read Jesus' command to "love one another." I've been thinking about this in the context of these how much I miss being with God's people in this distancing season.

I'd written to Kevin because of reading John 17. On the one hand, we see there Jesus' amazing teaching about our union with him and the Father and that is linked to our union/unity with one another. “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” Our union with one another does not have the immediacy--the actual presence with someone who we're not with--as we do with the Lord but there is more at hand than typical bonds of affection, as in a family. Furthermore, it seems that there is more involved than the somewhat unemotional descriptions in the confessions you've cited. (Does that make sense?) There seems to be little warmth in them; little affection, little depth of feeling which seems to be so characteristic of Christian love.

You happen to be standing here, as it were, as I am trying to sort this out and came upon your summary of the confessions re/ this doctrine. Care to weigh in and help me think this through?

Lee Eclov

Peter Bringe said...

Hello Lee,

Sure, I'll try to weigh in. I hadn't thought of these statements being unemotional, but I think the formal tone you observe in these statements is due to the genre of the documents they come from. I believe affectionate expressions of Christian fellowship by these men can be found in their sermons, letters, and diaries, more than in their confessional statements that are concerned with clearly articulating doctrinal foundations. It is true that that quote from Winthrop's lay sermon which I included is more a call to duty than an outpouring of feelings, but I think his passion is clearer to see in those words if imagined in its historical context (setting off together for the wilds of New England), and he does mention "delight...rejoice...mourn."

But more in line with you are are talking about, here is how Thomas Lye described the affection shown by ministers for their people because of their fellowship in Christ:

"From the terms of dearest affection, 'dearly beloved and longed for,' observe that it becomes the highest ministers, much more the lowest, to bear a more tender, vehement, ardent, strong, melting affection towards that flock or people that God has committed to their charge. Thus Paul to the Philippians in the text: 'my brethren, dearly beloved and longed for.' You find Paul in all his epistles, in a thawing frame to his people, melting in love unto them. The Corinthians were so in his heart, not only to live with them but, if God called him, to die for them; so abundantly did he love them that he would very gladly spend and be spent for them (2 Cor. 12:15). He carried them in his heart and earnestly longed after them all."

I find the confessional statements quite helpful in understanding this doctrine and its basic duties, but certainly the basic doctrine needs to be fleshed out. The epistles of the New Testament, as well as some of the Psalms, give many examples of what the communion looks like in practice, and several metaphors of the communion we share with each other: we are body parts of one body (with Christ as its head) and branches of a single vine or olive tree. We remain united through the bond of the Spirit despite physical distance (even death), but this union causes us to desire fellowship face to face (2 John 12 and 1 Thess. 2:17).

Peter Bringe said...

Oh, and the quote from Thomas Lye comes from "Sermons of the Great Ejection" (Banner of Truth, 2012).