Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Church: invisible

This is one of a few topical notes I'm creating by means of several conversations I am engaging on some points of Reformed doctrine.

The invisible church:

The word church is used to denote those "called out" of the world, as Berkhof notes in his Summery of Christian Doctrine. This can mean both those in the physical, local church or it can refer to the church in its essence -- those who throughout all ages are the spiritual body of Christ, in which there is no unbeliever, hypocrite or false confessor.

It is important to mention that we cannot say these are two different churches. That would be one way of confusing the terms. The only point of the word "invisible" is to recognize the fact that as a sin-tainted institution the visible body or local church is not perfectly able to reveal all of those written in the Lamb's book of life.

From what I can see, some of the reasons many bristle at this is because of its misuses. For instance, if someone is struggling with assurance, it is not helpful for them to ponder whether they are "one of the elect" or "part of the invisible church." These are questions that belong to the secret will of God and not helpful to our faith and practice. The facts and promises of God's REVEALED will (scripture) are enough to give us the boldness to come before the throne of grace, knowing full well that if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us and cleans us.

Am I elect? Kind of a pointless question, just like asking if I am a part of the invisible church.

This doesn't make the term "invisible church" an erroneous term. It simply recognizes that God effectually calls out of all eternity an elect people which we as fallible men cannot know.

The Westminster Confession is one of the sources that uses this term. Here is how it reads: "The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all." (CHAPTER 25, section 1)

Personally, I don't see why this should be problematic. People can misuse any doctrine. People can overlook the reality of the covenant just as easy as they can overlook the doctrine of election. Just because there is an apparent need in reformed churches to understand the covenant, doesn't give reason for us to cast aside other historically reformed doctrines. The fact is, one of the reasons the visible/invisible distinction is made is because the Roman Catholic Church denies any difference. For them, the visible is all who are saved. Period. You get baptized and come to mass, you're good to go. They literally claim the authority to decide who is saved. The invisible church is invisible simply because we do not have eyes for what is secret.

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<< Home 3 Comments:
Blogger iMurphy said...

The real fatal flaw comes in when you mix Modernity with this doctrine. In an era where everything is thought to be improving, why not the church's discernment?! We wouldn't have discovered this doctrine if we weren't on the way to being able to parse the Body, would we?! Most Reformed Theologians aren't too far from saying that if we can recognize that the Church Invisible exists, then we're not too far from being able to see it.
The fact that God has let us in on His perspective shouldn't go to our heads. There will always be some people in the church who aren't in the Church and visa-versa. Our goal is not to become editors of the Book of Life.

3:01 PM, April 05, 2008  
Blogger Jennifer said...

From what I am learning and have come to understand, the reason the word 'invisible' causes confusion is because the church isn't invisible. I can SEE the church I attend and all the people in it. I do not claim to have read the book of life and know the names of all who are in it, but I do believe the church is Christ's visible gathering work. I can't see the whole church at one time, but it isn't invisible. I hope that made sense. :)

Perhaps your meaning of the word 'invisible' is what I have come see as the word 'catholic'. 'Catholic' refers to the worldwide, universal church. I haven't been all over the world and I haven't lived thousands of years, but I know and believe the church spans both time and place.

Church is first and foremost a gathering of believers and secondly all the elect who will eventually be gathered all together on the day of Christ's return. The church is incomplete right now. Jesus Christ is still in the process of gathering His true believers. His gathering work will continue until the day of His return, which will mark the completion of his work.

Christ gathers and preserves His believers through the church. This is evidenced by the opening and closing of the kingdom through the church. According to the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 31, people may be excluded from the congregation and from the kingdom of Christ through the church. In this way, the kingdom of heaven is very visibly open and closed.

I hope what I've written isn't more confusing, Mark! Please don't take it as more badgering, just food for thought :). I do think we agree on these things, but there is a 'language' barrier :). Perhaps we believe the same things concerning the church, but we are using different terminology. Confusing, eh?

Anyways, I hope you enjoy the rest of the week and I'll see you Friday!

Jennifer G

2:03 PM, April 07, 2008  
Blogger Mark said...

Robert, I appreciate your thoughts. You really hit on an important thread -- "Our goal is not to become editors of the Book of Life." That's a key point that some miss when they react to the "invisible" concept.

Jen, I have found the I agree with the Westminster Confession on this one. A nutshell summary of his explanation (which doesn't perhaps do justice to it), is that the catholic/universal church is both visible and invisible. "Invisibility" expresses more precisely the catholic church's extension beyond time and space. God alone sees the church perfectly in every age and place at once. We don't.

Here's a link to the confession -- I'd have to do more searching to find Williamson online.

1:17 AM, May 23, 2008  

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