In the Enchiridion Theologicum Niels Hemmingsen includes a discussion of the church that is remarkable for both its lucidity and its brevity. Several important Reformation emphases emerge, and he avoids the mistake of identifying the church with her hierarchy or institutional structure. I plan to serialize it here, because it has not been available in English up until now.
Text and Translation
Ecclesia graeca vox est, ab ἐκκαλεῖν, hoc est, evocando dicta, cuius vocis usus apud Athenienses fuit. Coetus enim civium voce praeconis de reliqua turba evocatus ad audiendum sententiam senatus, ἐκκλησία dicebatur. Hinc vocabulum Apostoli transtulerunt ad suum institutum, propter similitudinem. Est enim Ecclesia apostolico usu coetus hominum, voce praeconum verbi evocatus e regno mundi, ad audiendam et recipiendam sententiam Dei, de salute generi humano parta per Christum Pontificem. Huius rei pulcherrimum exemplum in Abrahamo habemus, qui cum esset idolatra apud Caldeos, inde voce Dei evocatus in terram Canaan, cui obtemperavit, et cultum iuxta eius voluntatem praestitit, etsi in eadem terra non pauci impii et hypocritae fuerunt. (Classis III, Caput II)
“Church” is a Greek word, formed from the verb ἐκκαλεῖν [ekkalein], that is, “to call out,” which was the word’s usage among the Athenians. For a gathering of citizens, called out by the voice of a herald for hearing the determination of the assembly was called an ἐκκλησία [ekklesia]. From here, the Apostles transferred the word to their own practices, on account of their similarity [to the Athenian assembly]. For the church, in the apostolic usage, is a gathering of men, called out from the kingdom of the world by the voice of the heralds of the Word, in order to hear and receive the determination of God concerning the salvation obtained for the human race through Christ the High Priest. We have a most beautiful example of this thing in Abraham, who, when he was an idolater among the Chaldeans, was called out by the voice of God into the land of Canaan, which he obeyed, and he performed worship according to his [i.e., God’s] will, although there were not a few impious and hypocritical men in the same land.1
- The church is first and foremost the assembly, the gathering, the coetus. Thus the Apostles borrowed the word ἐκκλησία from the Greeks, where it meant the same thing in relation to their political assembly.
- The church is the gathering of the called out–those called out from the kingdom of darkness. It follows that ministers are chiefly heralds. They call men to assemble and they testify to the works of God. The calling is purposive: they are brought to listen. The church is fundamentally the hearing church.
- What does it hear? The gospel: “the determination of God concerning the salvation obtained for the human race through Christ the High Priest.” This is not only to be heard, but also received.
- Abraham is an exemplum of the call and of obedience to it, a church in nuce. Note the substitution of voce Dei evocatus (“called out by the voice of God”) for the earlier voce praeconum verbi evocatus (“called out by the voice of the heralds of the Word”). The heralds of the Word, in calling out the church, stand in the same relation to their addressees as did God himself to Abraham. Why? Not because of anything in themselves or because of some status inertly bestowed upon them by ritual consecration to be possessed as by quasi-independent archons of authority; the heralds of God are perceptible rather only in their activity, their referentiality, their pointing to something else: that is to say, they stand in the above-mentioned relation to the voice of God because they speak the very Word of God, the gospel.
- Even in the land of Canaan there were impious men and hypocrites, and as any Augustinian knows the same is true of the visible church. The church at its most basic, however, is the gathering of those who truly hear and truly obey the call of God, who trust in God and worship him according to his will. In this way, Abraham is the Christian’s forefather in the faith.
- The translation is my own. ↩