When a Mark Isn’t a Mark: Discipline and Disciplinarianism

Anyone who’s had a good Reformed Theology 101 class has likely heard of the old debate in the Reformed tradition between the “two-markers” and the “three-markers,” usually with the narrative being that the three-markers rightly prevailed.  The dispute concerns the classic Protestant doctrine of the notae ecclesiae, the “marks of the Church,” by which Protestants sought to define what constituted a Church (against the Catholic doctrine that it could be straightforwardly recognized by institutional union with and obedience to Rome).  The original answer was that there were just two marks, the Word and sacraments; or, as often more fully expressed, “the Word faithfully preached and the sacraments rightly administered.”  In these qualifications, however, lay the germ for a third mark, “discipline”—for how, some asked, can we ensure that the Word is faithfully preached and the sacraments rightly administered unless such things be policed in some way?  The Church also needs discipline, it was concluded by some, and this third mark found its way into a number of Reformed confessions from the latter part of the sixteenth century on, with varying degrees of emphasis.   

To some, it may seem like an arcane semantic dispute, and yet the question has gained new prominence for recent debates about two-kingdoms theology.  For modern Reformed-two-kingdoms advocates, the inclusion of the third mark was the particular, crucial contribution of Reformed theology, since it sets apart the visible church as a distinct polity over against the state.  In recent posts, Matthew Tuininga, continuing his campaign for Calvin, (though without actually engaging with the recent essay on the Calvinist International), has drawn repeated focus to the importance of discipline as a mediation of the spiritual kingdom, as he takes it, in Calvin’s theology.  In this emphasis, he is treading (although in reverse, as it were), a path blazed by noted Reformation scholar Torrance Kirby (and before him, by Paul Avis).  Torrance Kirby, in his works on Hooker, has argued that the introduction of the third mark was a decisive move, creating a new understanding of the two kingdoms; of course Kirby argues that this engendered a “radical” ecclesiology (similar to Anabaptism), that moved away from the magisterial Reformation, undoing Protestantism’s gains vis-a-vis Rome.  For Kirby, it is absolutely wrong to identify this new view with Calvin, though he does have a culprit: Bucer.  

Having at various times and various places made use of Kirby’s narrative, I would like now to suggest an important revision (though without altering the substantive point).


The problem with Kirby’s narrative was suggested to me by an article by renowned Vermigli scholar Emidio Campi, which Jordan Ballor was kind enough to bring to my attention.  Campi argues that Vermigli, unlike Calvin, was staunch in his insistence that discipline was a third mark of the Church.  Of course, this is noteworthy as testimony (over against VanDrunen, Tuininga, et. al.) that Calvin was a two-marker after all, but problematic since Kirby, also a major Vermigli scholar, has placed Vermigli front and centre as a representative of the “magisterial” tradition which Hooker harks back to (though I do not recall Kirby ever making particular claims about Vermigli and the notae ecclesiae).  Let’s look at Kirby’s claims a bit before turning to Campi and then proposing a solution.

Kirby’s fullest discussion comes in his early book Richard Hooker’s Doctrine of the Royal Supremacy: He begins by emphasizing that this question is a hinge on which all else depends, that the marks “are the means whereby the true visible Church is discerned.  They constitute the substance or esse of the Church, that part of the visible Church through knowledge of which membership in Christ’s mystical body is attained.  The notae ecclesiae are of crucial significance in the overall doctrine of the Church in so far as they are the meeting point of the mystical and external aspects of the Church.” 

The key issue, then, “centres upon the inclusion of Discipline as a third essential sign of the existence of the true visible Church.”  Kirby insists, following Francois Wendel, that Bucer is the source of all the mischief here, deviating the magisterial Reformation in a “radical,” Anabaptistic direction.  Calvin, says Kirby, forcefully rejected this, together with Luther, Melanchthon, and “the Zurich divines”—it is this group he labels “the magisterial reformers [who] hold in common the view that the Word and Sacraments constitute the essential marks of the Church.”

In singling out Bucer, Kirby is following not just Wendel, but Avis, who identifies “a tradition of ecclesiology, extending from Bucer both to the Puritans and to the Anabaptists and the Separatists, which attempted to avoid the anomalies manifested when the reformers tried to come to terms with the position of Rome, not by broadening but by narrowing the definition of the Church” (Avis, Church in the Theology of the Reformers, 45).  Beza, says Kirby, followed Bucer rather than Calvin in this, as did Knox and the Scottish Presbyterians, and Cartwright and the English Presbyterians; Whitgift and Hooker followed Calvin and the magisterial Reformers.  Kirby goes on to expound how Hooker shows that Protestant doctrine of Christian liberty, ultimately, is at stake in this dispute, since the elevation of discipline to a third mark makes something external binding on the conscience and part of the esse of the Church. 

A tidy narrative (although it seems to lay an awful lot of blame on the shoulders of Bucer), but problems arise.

For one, it’s notable that in his recapitulation of this argument in Richard Hooker: Reformer and Platonist 15 years later, Kirby concedes that “others profoundly influenced by the more radical ecclesiology [as he calls it] were the Heidelberg Calvinists (Zacharias Ursinus, Kaspar Olevianus and Girolamo Zanchi).  Now this isn’t starting to look very good.  Bucer, Beza, Knox, Cartwright, Ursinus, Olevianus, Zanchi?  That’s virtually an honor roll of fathers of the Reformed tradition.  You’re telling me that all these guys represent some “radical,” sub-Protestant innovation, and that the true Reformed tradition lies elsewhere?  This seems dubious.  Moreover, if Kirby is right that Calvin and the Zurich theologians did not take this tack, then this casts more doubt on his narrative.  For if so much (fidelity to the magisterial Reformation!) hinged upon the retention of just two marks, then how did the two-markers and the three-markers seem to get along so well?   Do we have evidence of a major rift between Calvin and Beza on the issue?  Or Bullinger and Bucer?  or between Whitgift and Ursinus?  Kirby says in RHRP: “Thus Whitgift’s exchange with Cartwright in the Admonition Controversy and Hooker’s own further contribution to the debate can quite plausibly be viewed as a continuation in England of the continental debate between the proponents of magisterial and radical reformation”—but what exactly is this continental debate he is referring to?  If “radical reformation” means what it normally does, then it’s clear enough, but Kirby has enlarged the term immensely.


So what about Vermigli?  Again, while I’m not sure that Kirby explicitly mentions Vermigli in relation to this issue, he has repeatedly argued for understanding Vermigli as a representative of a “Zurich theology” along with Bullinger, and in RHDRS he classes “the Zurich divines” with Calvin, Luther, and Melanchthon on this issue (although in his footnote there, he only mentions Zwingli and Bullinger).

In his essay “John Calvin and Peter Martyr Vermigli: A Reassessment of Their Relationship” (in the book Calvin Und Calvinismus) Campi argues, however (I will quote at length):

In effect, the Anabaptists insisted on considering discipline to be an indispensable mark of the church, while Calvin judged that belief to be dangerously confused and established a much clearer differentiation between distinctive marks (notae ecclesiae) of the church, on the one hand, and discipline or church government, on the other.  The distinctive marks, which should serve to distinguish true from false church, are the pure preaching of and listening to the Word of God and the lawful administration of the sacraments, while discipline belongs within the ambit of the organization of the true church.  Discipline, Calvin averred, is nothing but ‘a kind of curb to restrain and tame those who war against the doctrine of Christ.’ (Inst. 4.12.1)  Its end is not in the exclusion of imperfect members of the communion of believers so as to be able to follow a perfect purity and holiness, but rather to incite sinners to repent and to restore communion within the body of Chirst, although everyday experience shows what and how many difficulties get in the way of realizing that end.  In summary, in the context of resurgent Catholicism, which vaunted itself as the true church on the basis of its institutional unity, and of radical sectarianism, which suggested a model of separatist churches composed only of visible saints, Calvin took a middle path between the extreme ecclesiology of Rome and that of the Anabaptists.  Calvin saw in the two notae ecclesiae the distinctive character of a church and in discipline an organizational instrument to use following a ‘judgment of charity’, according to which one presumes that members of the church are those who profess the Christian faith, behave appropriately, and take part in the sacraments (Inst. 4.1.8)

What according to Vermigli might the true church be? . . . Vermigli declares, ‘among the churches the one we should embrace is the one that most greatly flourishes for its spirit, doctrine, and holiness.’  He sets forth, moreover, that ‘we say that the Church is the assembly of believers, the reborn, whom God gathers in Christ by means of the Gospel of the Holy Spirit, and who by means of the ministers directs them in the pureness of doctrine, in the lawful use of the sacraments, and in discipline.

Alongside the Gospel and the sacrament, Vermigli numbers discipline among the distinctive signs of the church. One is not dealing here with an isolated text, as with Calvin’s Reply to Sadoleto. Vermigli is utterly resolute on the question of discipline. One does not see an evolution in his thought on this; his conviction when he arrived in Strasbourg remained unchanged until his death. In fact, in 1561 a year before his death, in reply to a question posed to him by Polish Reformers on ways of building the Church, Vermigli was explicit in indicating three distinct signs: the pure preaching of the Gospel, the lawful administration of the sacraments, and the immediate introduction of discipline, which he calls Evangelii regula de correctione fraterna.


And yet it should be made plain that it is Vermigli (together with Oecolampadius and Bucer), rather than Calvin, who offers the arguments for the inclusion of discipline among the notae ecclesiae, an ecclesiological stance which was to have considerable relevance to Reformed confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries, e.g the Catechism of Emden, the Scottish Confession (1560), the Belgian Confession (1561), and the Westminster Confession (1648).

Campi, then, has added Vermigli (and Oecolampadius) to the already-long list of those who espouse what Kirby calls a “radical ecclesiology” at odds with the magisterial Reformation.  This just doesn’t sound right.  And yet, on the other hand, you will see from the first paragraph that I quoted, that Campi is clearly with Kirby (and indeed, appears to be influenced by Kirby) in seeing Calvin as a forthright defender of just two marks, and indeed on the significance of this affirmation as a bulwark against Rome and Anabaptism.  Moreover, Campi goes on to make an intriguing further observation, although he doesn’t develop it much—that “there is a substantial theological commonality between what Calvin and Vermigli mean by discipline” for Vermigli too insists that the “end of excommunication is only salvation through penitence and the certain forgiveness of God.”  


The key to making sense of all this, I suggest, in is realizing that not all “marks” are created equal, so to speak.  Something may, after all, be said to be a “mark of the Church” in more than one sense.  For instance, in a certain context we might very well say that “love is the chief mark of the Church” (in fact, John Locke said just this now that I think about it, interestingly enough; but we can save that for another day).   By this we would not mean that love is constitutive of the Church (not our love, at any rate, thank heaven), but that love is something that Christians will display, by which the Church will be recognized.  Indeed, it can be said to be necessary for the Church in a sense, inasmuch as love is something that Christians must show if they are to live as faithful disciples.  But we would not want to say (or at any rate, we should not want to say) that without Christians showing love, the Church would not exist; love is not necessary in that sense, for the Church depends upon Christ, not us.  We could thus speak of love as a descriptive mark of the Church, not as a constitutive mark.  

And just the same could be said for discipline.  Indeed, I would suggest that just the same is being said for discipline for Vermigli, and the analogy with love is not a coincidence.  From Campi’s description, both Calvin and Vermigli understand discipline to be functioning as an exercise of love; the purpose is to win back the erring brother, even if it takes hard words to do so (the analogy with parental discipline, to this extent, is close).  This being the case, discipline is something that something that churches must do if they are to live as faithful disciples, and hence a church should be marked out by discipline.  But seen this way, discipline is a descriptive mark, not a constitutive mark.  Which explains why it is that in many contexts, theologians like Vermigli, Bucer, Oecolampadius, Ursinus, etc., could list a third mark without thereby overturning the whole edifice of Protestant ecclesiology that depended on Word and sacrament as the essence of the Church, and why they could more or less get along with theologians who tended to speak in terms of two marks.  It explains moreover why Calvin could have such a high view of the importance of discipline (as folks like Tuininga are keen to emphasize) without abandoning the fundamentally Lutheran ground that Kirby insists he stands on.  Moreover, it is worth emphasizing that on this understanding of discipline, since love was the important thing, the particular form was fairly flexible.  Different structures for church discipline, some involving the magistrate more, some less, were arranged; indeed, some three-markers were Erastian, and some two-markers were anti-Erastian.  There was, in short, a spectrum of opinion on the importance of discipline, sometimes expressed in the language of two marks, sometimes of three, and on the form, all of which could function together fairly well on common ecclesiological premises.

Where was the problem, then?  Whence the “radical ecclesiology” that Kirby is concerned about, and that Whitgift and Hooker were combatting?  Does it not exist?  Well no, it does.  Disciplinarianism did arise, and it was a problem.  But the problem wasn’t that it thought discipline was important, per se.  The problem was that it understood this discipline differently.  For folks like Cartwright, the concept of discipline was not so much as a fraternal exercise of love toward erring brothers, but a judicial act of exclusion to maintain the purity of the church (which is the Anabaptist concept).  There are many churches today that still think in such terms, and many that operate with a weird hybrid.  But it’s important to understand the difference.  On the one hand, discipline is understood as an exercise in tough love, and the object is regaining of the lost brother.  On the other hand, discipline is an exercise in moral and social purification, and the object is the preservation of the integrity of the organized body.  This latter concept has a politicised flavor, and becomes a coercive ordinance transgressing on the domain of the civil magistrate, confusing the two kingdoms and setting them in rivalry.  This way of thinking, of course, makes discipline “necessary” in a different sense from the necessity of the Church love.  If the Church is a polis, it must be policed, and if it is not so policed, it will cease to be.  So the Disciplinarian thinks.  On this understanding, discipline is in fact a constitutive mark and not merely a descriptive mark.  Moreover, on this understanding, since the need to preserve the integrity of the visible body looms so large, the particular form that discipline takes will tend to be much less flexible.  Hence the emergence of the concept of “the discipline”—the right way to do things, so that not merely the exercise of discipline generically, but a particular form of discipline becomes part of the esse of the Church.  


At any rate, there’s my theory so far.  Further reflections on this front will no doubt emerge at intervals in the coming months.

6 thoughts on “When a Mark Isn’t a Mark: Discipline and Disciplinarianism

  1. Brad,This is excellent and all very helpful. I've never thought that a credible case could be made that Calvin was opposed to his own immediate students, many of whom he worked alongside of, even, I would argue, the Heidelbergers. And Bucer was beloved by Calvin. I don't think we can do the "connect the dots" thing by way of strict teams defined by location. Calvin loved Bucer, yet didn't say everything Bucer said. And Zanchi and Ursinus certainly loved Calvin. And still more complicated, there was an important political alliance between Frederick the Elector Palatinate and the English Crown, thus there was also a sort of alliance between the C. of E and the Heidelberg Reformed. They certainly were free to disagree and state things differently, but the one thing that they obviously did not do is unchurch one another.Even Cartwright himself is tricky. His arguments clearly did carry the force of churching and unchurching, but he ended up staying in the institutional Church of England. No doubt he underwent plenty of tumult and even intellectual change, but it would be easy enough to imagine his students and followers retaining his stricter ideas yet also taking notice of his own final ecclesial affiliation, thus themselves attempting something of the same. To me this proves the messiness of history and that it is not defined by the ideas espoused by its characters. Still, those ideas do matter and do carry eventual consequence, which is why we need to be so careful to locate the actual principles of these disputes and evaluate them on their own terms.


  2. Thanks for this. I remember discussing this issue (two versus three marks) in my Systematics class in seminary. My professor basically told us that the third mark of discipline was implicit in the other two because if you preach the word properly, you will be compelling people to reflect on their errors and if you fence the table, then you do the same thing as in preaching the word. He, however, did not go into the differences that you draw out here of discipline versus disciplinarianism. He emphasized though that discipline whose goal is merely to get the sinners out of the church is not proper discipline that the reformers would have approved of, but that discipline was to be based on loving the brother and giving him the benefit of the doubt.I'm glad that I have found your website again! I discovered your entries on Hooker's Christology awhile back, but lost them. Looking forward to following your blog and reading up on your past entries!


  3. I don't know what relevance you think the "one essential mark" view has, but here is Hodge and Bannerman on that:See parts of the essay by Charles Hodge entitled "Is the Church of Rome a Part of the Visible Church?" (Princeton Review, April 1846) where he states:"…By a definition we do not mean a description including a specification of attributes which properly pertain to the thing defined; but an enumeration of its essential attributes and of none other….We may say that a church is a society in which the pure word of God is preached, the sacraments duly administered, and discipline properly exercised by legitimate officers. This, however, is a description of a pure and orderly church, and not an enumeration of the essential attributes of such a body. If we use that description as a definition, we must exclude all but orthodox Presbyterians from the pale of the church….This distinction between a description and definition, between an enumeration of what belongs to a pure church, and what is necessary to the being of a church, is often disregarded….the church consists of all those throughout the world who profess the true religion, together with their children. This is a legitimate established meaning of the term. In this view of the church, nothing is essential to it but the profession of the true religion….[particualarly, a church is] an organized society professing the true religion, united for the purpose of worship and discipline, and subject to the same form of government and to some common tribunal….By the true religion cannot be meant all the doctrines of the true religion, and nothing more or less. For then no human society would be a church unless perfect both in knowledge and faith. Nor can it mean all the clearly revealed and important doctrines of the Bible for then no man could be a Christian and no body of men a church, which rejects or is ignorant of those doctrines. But it must mean the essential doctrines of the gospel, those doctrines without which no man can be saved."This same view is also articulated by James Bannerman in his book "The Church Of Christ" (1869). See chapter 5, on the Notes Of The Church, where he states:"First, there is an important distinction between what is necessary to the being of a Church, and what is necessary to its wellbeing… there is a distinction not less important to be borne in mind, in connection with this matter, between the things for which the Church was instituted, and the things that have been instituted for the Church….to hold to and preach the true faith or doctrine of Chirst is the only sure and infallible note or mark of a Christian Church… other things, such as sacraments and ordinances, the ministry, and the outward administration of the Church, are not essential to it, but only accidental."


  4. Brad Littlejohn

    My sincere apologies for being so slow in replying to these very helpful comments!Steven, yes, the more I look into all this, the more it seems clear that, for all the important differences on this subject, the Reformers involved basically knew (at least till around 1560 or 1570) that they were dealing with adiaphora, and so rarely made an issue of their different approaches to this question. Even regarding Cartwright, you are right to make these qualifications. By the mid-1580s, as Cartwright is faced with the spectre of separatism, trying to take his arguments to their logical conclusions, he pulls back from some of the earlier language of the Admonition Controversy and makes a grudging admission that Presbyterian discipline is of the bene esse, not the esse, of the Church. When I refer to "Cartwright and Co." I'm more referring to the set of ideas advanced in and around the Admonition Controversy, rather than attempting to make a statement about the whole corpus of Cartwright's work. Jeremiah, I think this is well said, and makes sense of how Calvin could highlight as much as he did the preaching of the word as the one essential thing, and yet considered the fencing of the table so important.Gregory, these quotes are spot-on! Who would've expected such excellence from Charles Hodge? Well, I know some people would've, but not necessarily me. What Hodge is doing here is essentially articulating Richard Hooker's verdict on the notae ecclesiae; this, at any rate, is what Paul Avis has argued. Avis argues that the doctrine of the notae became convoluted and counter-productive as the 16th century wore on, and, in trying to use the notae as a polemical weapon against Rome, a surefire test of distinguishing the true church from the false, many Reformed tended to forget they were describing a pure church not defining the being of a church. Avis argues that it was Hooker and Richard Field who sought to rescue the tradition from this dead end by articulating the concept that the visible Church is simply recognized by profession of faith in Christ and his gospel, however inadequate it is in living up to this profession. There are better and worse visible churches, faithful and unfaithful ones, but there is no point trying to come up with a criterion beyond denial of faith in Christ that disqualifies one from the name "church." Thus Hooker and Field, and thus, it appears, Hodge as well. Fascinating.


  5. Brad, I hope you'll give jure divino Presbyterians some credit for recognizing this point. I don't know how to put it best, but I sense you have/had somehow identified jure divino Presbyterianism (maybe along with a 'Thornwellian' view of regulative principle, etc) with the neo2k view.


  6. Brad Littlejohn

    Gregory, I see that all this relates to that email correspondence we had 8 months ago which I never followed through on. For what it's worth, I had that email flagged to reply to for months before I finally just realized I wasn't going to find time for it. Perhaps if I'd done so, some of these matters would have been cleared up.Certainly, to the extent that jure divino Presbyterians qualify their jure divino-ness by saying, "Well, all we really mean to say is that we think that God thinks it would be best for everyone to be Presbyterians, not that it's strictly necessary," then yes, I will give them some credit. Of course, this is a concession that they have almost always been forced to make, lest they unchurch even all their fellow Protestants, though the rhetoric has often tended in a different direction, toward a mindset of superiority that may not unchurch, but radically disparages all other churches. How could a jure divino claim not tend toward such disparagement? Really, all that the qualification is saying is that "Yes, Presbyterianism is necessary, because God commands it. But God is merciful, so he forgives other churches for violating this absolute command."In any case, as far as the link to the neo2K view, well no, I certainly wouldn't claim that as a matter of fact, all jure divino Presbyterians go that route—clearly not. But I would argue that, in principle, the R2K error is a predictable conclusion from jure divino premises. Once you treat the external polity of the Church as matter of faith, as something necessary (again, in the sense that God has absolutely commanded it, not in the sense that he will allow no church to survive without it) and unchangeable, you have confused the two kingdoms by making the outward institutional form part of the identity of the Church. Bannerman wants to distinguish between "the things for which the Church was instituted" and "the things which have been instituted for the Church." But to the extent that the latter are understood as part of the Church's unchangeable constitution, they become inseparable from the former, it seems to me.


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