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Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Federal Vision: Homogenizing the Church Since 2002!

One of the disturbing things about the Federal Vision (FV) theology is its tendency to blunder things that should be Reformed Doctrine 101 due to the fact that much of what is driving FV is the effort to conceive of those within the covenant in a manner that is as undifferentiated as possible and to homogenize the nature of the church as much as possible (or as much as is plausible to confessionally-Reformed types, anyway). This is especially apparent in the conversation going on over in the combox at Green Baggins' blog, where Wes White has written an excellent article defending the distinction between the invisible and visible church against the re-formulations of FV.

FV embarrasses itself in trying to recast this doctrine in terms of a historical/eschatological distinction, making the distinction chronological rather than ontological. And then mighty works of sophistry, mental gymnastics, intellectual contortions, and academic jumping jacks ensue in order to defend this view in light of what the Westminster Standards say. But, in the end, their square peg isn't going to fit into the round hole, as we'll see.

In the next two posts, I'm going to go over the various evidence that indicates that the prevailing Reformed notion of the invisible church conceives of it as existing now, on earth, and not exclusively in the future. This being the case, the concept of the eschatological church cannot be made to substitute for it. This also makes it highly unlikely that the Westminster divines would have intended for their doctrine of the invisible church to be taken this way, unless we are prepared to believe that their Standards on this point are an anomaly in the Reformed tradition.

The first post will list quotations from various confessions from the Reformed tradition, and the second will list treatments from various Reformed authors.

Just a word of warning, these next two posts are not for the faint-hearted. They're crazy long, actually. So make sure you have a caffeinated beverage of choice onhand and click the "Read More" link below to continue.

The Current Controversy

Instead of holding to a distinction within the church as to its nature, visible (those who profess the true faith outwardly) and invisible (those regenerate who have true faith inwardly), FV prefers a chronological distinction: between the historical church (the church as it exists now) and the eschatological church (the church as it exists at the eschaton).

Here are some of Douglas Wilson's comments on the visible/invisible church distinction that originally helped spark the FV controversy:

If we abandon the Hellenistic ontological division between invisible and visible and adopted a more Hebraic biblical way of thinking and toppled the whole thing on its side, the invisible church is the eschatological church and the visible church is the historical church. Now notice what this now does, if I toppled the whole thing on its side and it is now in history, the eschatological church is now the historical church and it is at the culmination of history, all right, and the visible church is that same church at an earlier point in time.

Wilson, Visible and Invisible, 2002 AAPCPC lecture. As cited in The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology, Guy Waters.

It would be better to consider the one Church under a different set of terms, discussed earlier, and which preserve the necessary distinction made by visible and invisible – historical and eschatological. Because time is taken into account, we preserve the understanding of just one Church, and at the same time preserve the necessary distinction between those Church members who are ultimately saved and those who are ultimately lost. The historical Church is the counterpart to the visible Church, and consists of those throughout history who profess the true faith, together with their children. The eschatological Church is the elect, but it is not invisible. At the last day, every true child of God will be there, not one missing and every false professor will have been removed. At the resurrection of the dead, this Church will be most visible.

Wilson, “Reformed” Is Not Enough, pg. 74. As cited in The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology, Guy Waters.

Wilson thinks that, since the WCF talks of the invisible church as including the "whole number of the elect" that this rules out the possibility of the invisible church existing now, here on earth. In other words, the invisible church can only exist in the future (thus his equating this concept with the eschatological church) since it includes the "whole number of the elect, that have been, are or shall be gathered into one..." (WCF 15.1).

The problem with relegating the invisible church to the future only is that the Westminster Larger Catechism views the members of the invisible church as enjoying present, earthly saving benefits in Q&A 65, 69, 82, & 83.

Xon Hostetter speculates, in Green Baggin's combox (linked to above), that the Westminster divines could have been speaking of present members of the invisible church even if the invisible church does not yet exist.

This is problematic, considering that it would imply that the catholic or universal church, also, would exist exclusively in the future (according to the language of 15.1).

Yet this ignores the whole history of doctrine that the Westminster divines derived their teaching from. I have included below the most relevant portions of various Reformed confessions and articles that can only be understood as teaching explicitly or necessarily implying or assuming that the invisible church exists, at least in part, on the earth in the present.

The Invisible Church in the Reformed Confessions Outside of the Westminster Standards

For as without Christ Jesus there is neither life nor salvation, so shall there none be participant thereof, but such as the Father has given unto his Son Christ Jesus, and those [that] in time come unto him, avow his doctrine, and believe into him (we comprehend the children with the faithful parents). This kirk is invisible, known only to God, who alone knows whom he has chosen, and comprehends as well (as said is) the elect that are departed (commonly called the kirk triumphant), as those that yet live and fight against sin and Satan as shall live hereafter

Scots Confession (1560), Chapter 16

THE CHURCH APPEARS AT TIMES TO BE EXTINCT. Yes, and it sometimes happens that God in his just judgment allows the truth of his Word, and the catholic faith, and the proper worship of God to be so obscured and overthrown that the Church seems almost extinct, and no more to exist, as we see to have happened in the days of Elijah (I Kings 19:10, 14), and at other times. Meanwhile God has in this world and in this darkness his true worshippers, and those not a few, but even seven thousand and more (I Kings 19:18; Rev. 7:3 ff.). For the apostle exclaims: "God's firm foundation stands, bearing this seal, `The Lord knows those who are his,' " etc. (II Tim. 2:19). Whence the Church of God may be termed invisible; not because the men from whom the Church is gathered are invisible, but because, being hidden from our eyes and known only to God, it often secretly escapes human judgment.

Second Helvetic Confession (1564), Chap. 17

There is but one Catholic Church (out of which there is no salvation) containing the universal company of all the Saints that ever were, are, or shall be gathered together in one body, under one head Christ Jesus: part whereof is already in heaven triumphant, part as yet militant here upon earth. And because this Church consisteth of all those, and those alone, which are elected by God unto salvation, & regenerated by the power of his Spirit, the number of whom is known only unto God himself; therefore it is called Catholic or universal, and the Invisible Church.

Irish Articles (1615), Article 68

Finally, a modern confession describes the invisible church thusly:

God has his church in every age, and under every dispensation. It consists of all the people of God in heaven and earth, and may, therefore, be regarded as militant and triumphant. That portion of the church which is on earth, the church militant, consists of all professing Christians throughout the world, and may be divided into the visible church and mystical church

Confession of Faith of the Calvinistic Methodists or the Presbyterians of Wales (1823), Chapter 35

Category: Theoblogia


  • David:

    It looks like you forgot our beloved Three Forms of Unity. For shame sir!

    Probably the clearest statement is from the Belgic Confession, Article 29:

    "We believe that we ought diligently and circumspectly to discern from the Word of God which is the true Church, since all sects which are in the world assume to themselves the name of the Church. But we speak not here of hypocrites, who are mixed in the Church with the good, yet are not of the Church, though externally in it.”

    They are some members (hypocrites) who are not of the Church but 'externally in it.'

    Furthermore the Heidelberg Catechism defines the church as the elect (preserved “unto everlasting life” Q&A 54 ) but then later says in Q&A 74 that infants of believers are to be baptized because they “belong to the covenant and people of God” without reference to their personal election or salvation.

    Canons of Dordrecht, 2.9
    “This purpose, proceeding from everlasting love towards the elect, has from the beginning of the world to this day been powerfully accomplished, and will henceforward still continue to be accomplished, notwithstanding all the ineffectual opposition of the gates of hell; so that the elect in due time may be gathered together into one, and that there never may be wanting a Church composed of believers, the foundation of which is laid in the blood of Christ; which may steadfastly love and faithfully serve Him as its Savior (who, as a bridegroom for his bride, laid down His life for them upon the cross); and which may celebrate His praises here and through all eternity.”

    The Church here is defined as those for who Christ died to save/to justify - i.e. the invisible church (cf. 2.8)

    By Blogger Daniel Kok, at 12:18 PM  

  • Daniel, thanks for stopping by!

    Never fear. I certainly did not forget our beloved 3 Forms of Unity. I do believe that the concept of the invisible church is taught in them at least by implication (although not explicitly) and in other Reformed confessions that I did not cite.

    In this post I only included the Reformed confessions that use the "invisible church" terminology explicitly because they can serve as a hermeneutical key to understanding Westminster's use of the "invisible church."

    Cheers. - Dave

    By Blogger David Gadbois, at 12:28 AM  

  • I wanted you to know that I didn't intend to berate you; I was just joking around (but it looks like you got that already). I just thought any reader who stopped by should also read from the 3FU.

    I appreciate the post however!

    By Blogger Daniel Kok, at 2:02 PM  

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