What is the Church? [1: Basic Principles]

What is the church? A purely local organization? A worldwide organism? Both?

In the next couple of posts, we are going to think through the cultural contextual meaning of the word “church,” and think about what role this plays in how we should understand the concept of the church, and what that means for us today.

Foundational to the discussion of the doctrine of the church is the question of authorial intent. Thus, it is important to note a hermeneutical viewpoint before we delve into the study of the church. The hermeneutical question is this: “is it legitimate for the New Testament writer to deliberately cite an Old Testament passage, and in so doing assign to those Old Testament words a meaning entirely different than what the normal process of grammatical/historical exegesis would demonstrate that Old Testament author to have meant?”

I do not believe that the New Testament authors could arbitrarily assign new meaning to the words of the Old Testament which would have been entirely foreign to the original readers. However, I do think that progressive revelation plays a significant role in how the New Testament authors use the Old Testament. We must remember that with both the Old and New Testament authors, the “authorial intent” does not only apply to the human authors – that is, we must keep in mind the Author’s intent.

In other words, I do believe it is possible for there to be a deeper, or perhaps better, fuller meaning imbedded in a text. This is not to say that the original writers or readers could not understand anything of what was said, for certainly the perspicuity of Scripture would suggest that what was meant for them to understand, they did understand. But rather, I would argue that while the original audience understood what was applicable to them in their time, there may have been a fuller understanding to be gained by later revelation.

For example, how do we interpret things such as Jesus’ use of the serpent on the pole in the wilderness, Paul’s argument on the basis of one word (seed) in Galatians 3:16, or our understanding of the promise of the seed in Genesis 3:15 as prophesying a virgin birth? Can we allow for a fuller understanding due to progressive revelation that would not have been clear to the original context? I believe so.

However, it is still vital to remember that this progression is never from falsehood to truth, but always from truth to greater truth.

This issue relates to the doctrine of the church because of the impact it will have on how we interpret the concept of the “assembly” throughout Scripture. If we do not allow for developing or fuller meanings for words, then we must tie ourselves to the original concept of “church” in the context of the New Testament believers. However, if we allow for a meaning to develop or have a deeper or fuller meaning underneath, this may cause us to allow for a development of the concept of the assembly beyond what the original audience may have understood, and beyond the context of the original New Testament believers.

So, some of the most basic hermeneutical principles which I believe to be essential to the current study (and the study of Scripture as a whole) are as follows.


1: The text being examined must be interpreted within the context and construct of its literary genre, historical context, clear authorial intent, and the amount of revelation revealed up to that time.

2: A meaning should not be ascribed to a text that would be totally foreign to the ability of the original audience to grasp.

3: A meaning should not be ascribed to a text that is unnatural to the plain reading of the text – in context of all revelation given up to the time of interpretation of said text.

4: New revelation (progressive revelation) does not nullify, transfer, or reinterpret older passages in a way that violate or cancels the original authorial intent of the writers as determined by a plain, historical-grammatical hermeneutic.

5: God may expand the meaning, or do more than what prior revelation revealed, but God does not do anything less than, or contrary to the original meaning of the author.


With those simple yet essential principles in mind… Next time, we will begin looking at the historical context in which Jesus and the apostles used the word “church.” Specifically, we will start thinking through the cultural contextual meaning of the word “church,” and about what role this plays in how we should understand the concept of the church and what that means for us today.


About Topher

I'm a pastor, husband, and bookworm in northwestern PA. I started this site as a platform for creating and curating solid resources that make for solid men and women of wisdom, virtue, discipline, and faith. Become a patron and support my work at www.patreon.com/christopherpreston.
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3 Responses to What is the Church? [1: Basic Principles]

  1. Pingback: What is the Church? [2: the Greco-Roman ekklessia] | Cross-Current

  2. Pingback: What is the Church? [2: the Greco-Roman ekklesia] | The Cross-Current

  3. Pingback: Science and the Bible | The Cross-Current

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