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Friday, April 13, 2007

The Federal Vision: Fitting Its Square Peg Into a Round Hole

In this post I want to supplement my effort in the previous post to demonstrate that the Federal Vision's (FV) conception of the visible/invisible church distinction is foreign to the Reformed tradition by going beyond the Reformed confessions previously cited.

Various Reformed advocates, expositors, historians, and commentators have seen the invisible church to exist on the earth, in the present (at the very least in part, if not in whole), and not solely in the future. Some pre-date the Westminster Confession, and others are later yet trustworthy theologians and historians who can cast light onto the traditional Reformed doctrine of the church with some authority.

The Invisible Church According to Protestant Theologians and Historians, from Ursinus to the Present

Ursinus' view is important (especially if the reader consults the Objections he considers subsequent to the discussion below), considering that he is a powerful representative of the continental Reformed view, proving that the doctrine of the invisible church is not peculiar to the British/Westminsterian view of the church:

The church militant [that is, here on earth-DG] is either visible, or invisible....

The invisible church consists of those who are chosen unto eternal life, who are also regenerated, and belong to the visible church. It lies concealed in the visible church, during the whole of the struggle, and conflict which is continually going on in this world between the kingdom of light and darkness. It is likewise called the church of the saints. Those who belong to this church never perish ; neither are there any hypocrites in it; for it consists only of such as are chosen unto eternal life of whom it is said [quotes John 10:28 and 2 Timothy 2:19]. It is called invisible, not that the men who are in it are invisible, but because the faith and piety of those who belong to it can neither be seen, nor known, except by those who possess it; and also because we cannot with certainty distinguish the godly from those who are hypocrites in the visible church.

And it is of this universal invisible church of which this article of the Creed properly speaks, saying I believe in the Holy Catholic Church. These properties are also attributed with great propriety to the church, because it is holy, and because it is here that we find the true communion of the saints with Christ, and all his members. The difference which exists between the visible and invisible church is very nearly the same as that which exists between the whole and a part; for the invisible church is concealed in the visible, as a part in the whole

Zacharius Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, pgs. 286-288

And Turretin comments:

For the invisible church.

(a) it is taken for the mystical body of Christ constantly and intimately united to him as its head according to eternal election and efficacious calling….This is the catholic church which we acknowledge in the Creed. It may be regarded either universally and all together (kath’ holou) with respect to the whole multitude of believers (of which it is composed of whatever place and time) or particularly and as to its parts (kata meros)(now concerning that which reigns gloriously with Christ in heaven; then concerning this which labors and pursues its journey in the world and inasmuch as it is distributed into various particular churches which are designated by the same name as the whole).

Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 18.2.7

Although the entirety of Turretin's treament of the 7th question of the 18th topic (18.7) supports the present reality of the invisible church, we will just cite a portion of it:

II. The true origin of the controversy must be sought from this – that from the beginning of the Reformation the Romanists disputed from the Scriptures against Luther and others concerning indulgences, justification and human satisfactions (concerning which the controversy was at first carried on) and since they could not easily extricate themselves, they wished to drag them to the tribunal of the church that these questions might be decided by her dictation. They did not recognize any other church than the visible assembly externally professing faith (consisting of bishops, clergy and others, over whom the pope presided as head). But Luther was not only unwilling to allow this, but denied also that such either are or ought to be called the church. The true church was not to be measured by an external profession or subjection to the Roman pontiff, but by faith and internal piety alone (which cannot fall under the senses). Bellarmine acknowledges this: “Luther in book 4 of his De servo arbitrio since Erasmus had objected to him that it was incredible that God had deserted his church for so long a time, answered, God had never deserted his church, but that is not the church of Christ, which si commonly so called, i.e., the pope and the bishops; but the church is the certain few pious persons whom he preserves as remnants” (“De Ecclesia Militante,” 3.11* Opera [1857], 2:94). Hence arose the question concerning the invisibility of the church.

III. Now although this question (the distinction between the internal and external state of the church having once been established; and the parts of the church constituted by the pious and elect and called believers alone) may seem less necessary (for if it is true that believers alone constitute the church, since they alone are known to God, nor can they be certainly and distinctly known by anyone else, it is clear that the church is rightly called invisible). This Bellarmine confesses, “If they who are destitute of internal faith are not and cannot be in the church, there will be no further question concerning the invisibility of the church between us and heretics” (“De Ecclesia Militante,” 3.10 Opera [1857], 2:91). For as he adds at once, “No one can certainly know how are truly righteous and pious among so many, who externally profess righteousness and piety.” Still because it is one of the most important questions here agitated and capable of multiple relations (schesin), on this account we must treat distinctly of it.

Robert Shaw comments on the Westminster Confession of Faith's doctrine of the invisible church as follows:

But there is a twofold calling; the one external, merely by the Word—the other internal, by the Holy Spirit, which is peculiar to the elect. Hence the Church may be considered under a twofold aspect or form; the one external or visible—the other internal or invisible. The Church, viewed as invisible, consists, according to our Confession, "of the whole number of the elect that have been, are, or shall be, gathered into one, under Christ, the head thereof." Of this Church the apostle speaks (Eph. v. 25-27): "Christ loved the Church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it, with the washing of water by the Word, that he might present it to himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish." Of the members of this Church some have already finished their course, and are now perfected spirits in heaven; others are still living upon earth, and engaged in the Christian welfare; which diversity of condition has given occasion for the ordinary distinction between the Church triumphant, and the Church militant. The invisible Church, viewed as comprehending the whole number of the elect, will not be completed until that day when "the Lord shall make up his jewels." This Church, viewed as actually existing on earth at any particular period, is composed of those who have been called by divine grace into the fellowship of the gospel, and sanctified by the truth; and these constitute one Church [emphasis mine], because, however distant in place, and diversified in circumstances, they are vitally united to Christ as their head, and to one another as members of the same body, by the bond of the Spirit and of faith.

Robert Shaw, The Reformed Faith: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith

The Reformers introduced the terminology “visible” and “invisible” Church. By this they did not mean two distinct and separate Churches, but rather two classes of Christians within the same outward communion. The invisible Church is in the visible Church, as the soul is in the body, or the kernel in the shell, but God only knows with certainty who belong to the invisible Church and will ultimately be saved; and in this sense his true children are invisible, that is, not certainly recognizable and known to men. We may object to the terminology, but the distinction is real and important.

Luther, who openly adopted the view of Hus at the disputation of Leipzig, first applied the term “invisible” to the true Church, which is meant in the Apostle’s creed. The Augsburg Confession defines the Church to be “the congregation of saints (or believers), in which the Gospel is purely taught, and the sacraments are rightly administered.” This definition is too narrow for the invisible Church, and would exclude the Baptists and Quakers.

The Reformed system of doctrine extends the domain of the invisible or true Church and the possibility of salvation beyond the boundaries of the visible Church, and holds that the Spirit of God is not bound to the ordinary means of grace, but may work and save “when, where, and how he pleases.” Zwingli first introduced both terms. He meant by the “visible” Church the community of all who bear the Christian name, by the “invisible” Church the totality of true believers of all ages. And he included in the invisible Church all the pious heathen, and all infants dying in infancy, whether baptized or not. In this liberal view, however, he stood almost alone in his age and anticipated modern opinions.

Calvin defines the distinction more clearly and fully than any of the Reformers, and his view passed into the Second Helvetic, the Scotch, the Westminster, and other Reformed Confessions.

Phillip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 8, p. 458-9

The CRC systematic and historical theologian Louis Berkhof (1873-1957) comments:

The Many-Sided Character of the Church

2. THAT BETWEEN A VISIBLE AND AN INVISIBLE CHURCH. This means that the Church of God is on the one hand visible, and on the other invisible. It is said that Luther was the first to make this distinction, but the other Reformers recognized and also applied it to the Church. This distinction has not always been properly understood. The opponents of the Reformers often accused them of teaching that there are two separate Churches. Luther perhaps gave some occasion for this charge by speaking of an invisible ecclesiola within the visible ecclesia. But both he and Calvin stress, when they speak of a visible and an invisible Church, they do not refer to two different Churches, but to two aspects of the one Church of Jesus Christ. The term “invisible” has been variously interpreted as applying (a) to the triumphant Church; (b) to the Church of all lands and all places, which man cannot possibly see; and (d) to the Church as it goes in hiding in the days of persecution, and is deprived of the Word and the sacraments. Now it is undoubtedly true that the triumphant Church is invisible to those who are on earth, and that Calvin in his Institutes also conceives of this as included in the invisible Church, but the distinction was undoubtedly primarily intended to apply to the military Church. As a rule it is so applied in Reformed theology. It stresses the fact that the Church as it exists on earth is both visible and invisible. [emphasis mine] The church is said to be invisible, because she is essentially spiritual and in her spiritual essence cannot be discerned by the physical eye; and because it is impossible to determine infallibly who do and who do not belong to her. The union of believers with Christ is a mystical union; the Spirit that unites them constitutes an invisible tie; and the blessings of salvation, such as regeneration, genuine conversion, true faith, and spiritual communion with Christ, are all invisible to the natural eye; - and yet these things constitute the real forma (ideal character) of the Church. That the term “invisible’ should be understood in this sense, is evident from the historical origin of the distinction between the visible and the invisible Church ion the days of the Reformation. The Bible ascribes certain glorious attributes of the Church and represents her as a medium of saving and eternal blessings. Rome applied this to the Church as an external institution, more particularly to the ecclesia representativa or the hierarchy as the distributor of the blessings of salvation, and thus ignored and virtually denied the immediate and direct communion of God with His children, by placing a human mediatorial priesthood between them. This is the error which the Reformers sought to eradicate by stressing the fact that the Church of which the Bible says such glorious things is not the Church as an external institution, but the Church as the spiritual body of Jesus Christ, which is essentially invisible at present, though it has a relative and imperfect embodiment in the visible Church and is destined to have a perfect visible embodiment at the end of the ages. [emphasis mine]

The invisible Church naturally assumes a visible form. Just as the human soul is adapted to a body and expresses itself through the body, so the invisible Church, consisting, not of mere souls but of human beings having souls and bodies, necessarily assumes a visible form in an external organization through which it expresses itself. The Church becomes visible in Christian profession and conduct, in the ministry of the Word and of the sacraments, and in external organization and government. By making this distinction between the invisible and the visible Church, McPherson says, “Protestantism sought to find the proper mean between the magical and supernatural externalism of the Romish idea and the extravagant depreciation of all outward rites, characteristic of fanatical and sectarian spiritualism.” It is very important to bear in mind that , though both the invisible and the visible Church can be considered as universal, the two are not in every respect commensurate. It is possible that some who belong to the invisible Church never become members of the visible organization, as missionary subjects who are converted on their deathbeds, and that others are temporarily excluded from it, as erring believers who are for a time shut out from the communion of the visible Church. On the other hand there may be unregenerated children and adults who, while professing Christ, have no true faith in Him, in the Church as an external institution; and these, as long as they are in that condition, do not belong to the invisible Church. Good definitions of the visible and invisible Church may be found in the Westminster Confession.

Berkhof, Systematic Theology, reprinted by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (1996), pgs. 565-6

Lastly, the contemporary systematic theologian John Frame says:

That leads us to the distinction between the visible and the invisible church. This language is from tradition, not the Bible (as in the Westminster Confession 25.1-2). But it does guive us language to express the presence of both believers and unbelievers in the church. We should not take this to mean that there are two churches. Visible and invisible are just two different ways of looking at the same church, two perspectives. The invisible church is, to use Wayne Grudem’s definition, “the church as God sees it.” God knows for sure who is truly jointed to Christ by faith, for he can see people’s hearts. We cannot, for the heart is invisible to us….

Are those unbelievers “in” the church? In one sense, no, for they are not united to Christ in a saving way. So, we say that they are not part of the invisible church. But in another sense, yes, because they have taken vows.

John Frame, Salvation Belongs to the Lord, copyright 2006 P&R Publishing Company, Phillipsburg, NJ, pgs. 236-7

Category: Theoblogia


  • Hi, David,

    The Frame quote sounds like what Wilson and I are saying, more or less. Two perspectives on the one Church; some people in the one Church are united to Christ in a saving way, and some people are not. I believe all of this! So what's the problem?

    The Berkhof quote, likewise, is unobjectionable in its main contention: "but the distinction was undoubtedly primarily intended to apply to the milita[nt] Church. As a rule it is so applied in Reformed theology. It stresses the fact that the Church as it exists on earth is both visible and invisible."

    Right, the one Church as it exists on earth has people in it who are mere professors and people in it who are truly everlastingly united to Christ. And who is who is "invisible" to us.

    Where I disagree with Berkhof is in his claim that the truly- everlastingly-united-to-Christ people are the "real" Church. He himself has just claimed that the Reformation doctrine is misunderstood when it is criticized for positing two churches, yet now he himself is telling us that the invisible is "more real" than the visible. Well, this kind of talk certainly seems to separate the two "aspects" from one another in such a way that they cannot remain mere "aspects" of one church, but in fact become two separate churches. After all, he says that one is more "real" than the other!

    I also disagree, of course, with calling the truly-everlastingly-united-to-Christ people a "Church". Why not just call them the everlastingly-united-to-Christ members of the one Church? Why take a subset of the one Church's current members and call them a "church?" It simply isn't necessary to speak this way; we can maintain the "ontological" distinction between the regenerate and unregenerate members of the Church without labelling them in this way.

    And this general comment applies to the other quotes you've provided as well. The substance of what these great lights are saying is still affirmed by my position; there are two different kinds of people within the one Church. But I don't think it is best or wisest to call these two groups "churches." I think speaking this way causes or at least threatens to cause us to miss some important things about the nature of the Church (it's oneness, especially). And since it's not necessary to speak this way in order to preserve the basic doctrine Reformed theology has been trying to preserve, I think it's better to stop speaking this way. Semper reformanda, and all that.

    And, while I honestly don't think my position contradicts the W Standards (which is the particular Confession under whose orbit I currently operate), even if it did I don't see how this is a vital matter fundamental to "true religion. In other words, telling me to go somewhere else when my theology is in 97% agreement with the Reformed confessions seems a little silly.

    By Blogger Xon, at 10:44 AM  

  • David, never (never, ever, ever) appeal to Frame when taking on Federal Visionaires for their non-Reformed nonsense.

    By Blogger sk, at 5:50 PM  

  • David: Thanks for posting from the Irish Articles of 1615. Archbishop Ussher insisted that those Articles and the 39 or the REFORMED Church of England were identical theologically.

    But with respect to the visible and invisible Church, while it is true that both believers and unbelievers hold membership in visible congregations, there are, (and you know this!) true visible Churches where the marks of the Gospel and the dispensing of the Sacraments and Church discipline are found. Charles

    By Blogger CB in Ca, at 7:04 PM  

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