Monday, June 18, 2012

Lutherans vs. the Reformed on the Invisible / Visible Church

I was recently directed to a link on Cyberbrethren that consisted of a writing by the late Dr. Kurt Marquart. In that link, Dr. Marquart made an incidental comment on the invisible / visible church terminology:
If the sense is clear, one should not quarrel about words. The “visible/invisible” terminology in respect of the church is a case in point. Our Confessions do not use that language, but speak of the church in the “proper sense” and in the “wide sense.” Moreover, Calvinists mean something quite different and unbiblical when they speak of “visible” and “invisible” churches. Yet standard Lutheran theology since Gerhard has spoken of the church being “visible” and “invisible,” and meant the right, orthodox content by this terminology. Similarly one must assume—other things being equal—that when orthodox Lutheran theologians speak of “objective” and “subjective” justification, they mean to express biblical, confessional truth, and not Calvinist or other deviations.
Certainly Marquart's passing comment here is tangential to his overall presentation on a different topic. I did though pause and wonder exactly what was meant when it was said, "Calvinists mean something quite different and unbiblical when they speak of 'visible' and 'invisible' churches." I was then provided with another link that was supposed to explain what Marquart meant: The Church - Invisible and Visible. This link provides a paragraph from Marquart along with commentary from a Lutheran pastor. I'm going to work through the material in this later link. I do so not with the intent to prove Lutherans and Calvinists are saying the same thing, but simply to point out that it appears some Lutherans know as little about Reformed theology in the same way some Reformed people know very little about Lutheran theology. I'll put the original blog post in red. I'm going to compare what this blog entry says to a standard work in Reformed systematic theology: Louis Berkhof's Systematic Theology. Primarily I'll be using the revised one volume version, but I'll also make reference to the older volume II from the previous editions. I do so because Marquart cited this work by Berkhof, and should have been familiar with its contents.

The Church - Invisible and Visible
I've always been a little uncomfortable describing the Church as invisible because this is so easily misunderstood. There are not two churches, one invisible, made up of all believers in heaven and on earth, and the other one visible as the earthly institutional structure made up of believers and unbelievers (or elect and reprobate) alike. No, there is but one Church. That is what we confess in the Creed.

So, for this Lutheran pastor, Calvinists believe There are two churches: the invisible church comprises all true believers both earthly and heavenly. The visible church comprises those members on earth who can either be elect or reprobate. These are portrayed as two distinct entities. Here's what Berkhof states in his section, "That Between a Visible and an Invisible Church":
"The opponents of the reformers often accused them of teaching that there are two separate Churches...[Luther] and Calvin stress the fact that, when they speak of a visible and an invisble Church, they do not refer to two different Churches, but to two aspects of the one church of Jesus Christ" (p. 565).
So on a fundamental level, Berkhof places both Calvin and Luther against an unnamed opponent both teaching something akin to a visible / invisible distinction. That opponent of course was the Roman church.  Berkhof explains:
The Bible ascribes certain glorious attributes to 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 with 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 (p. 566).
Berkhof then is careful to say that the term "invisible church" applies to the militant Church ("The Church in the present dispensation is a militant Church, that is, she is called unto, and is actually engaged in, a holy warfare" [p.565]). This must be distinguished from the Church triumphant (the Church in Heaven). He states:
It should be borne in mind that the terms "visible" and "invisible" do not denote two Churches, but simply two aspects of the same Church; and that distinction is one that applies to the militant Church, so that it is impossible to regard the term "invisible church" as a designation of the Church Triumphant. The Church is called invisible, because she is essentially spiritual and cannot be discerned by the physical eye, and because it is impossible to determine infallibly who do and who do not belong to her. [Berkhof, Systematic Theology Vol. II,  p. 165).
So contrary to this Lutheran pastor, from a standard Reformed work, the distinction of visible and invisible is not speaking of two churches. Now perhaps a Lutheran could then claim the distinction of militant and triumphant church speak of two different churches. Berkhof though refers to the one church having "two stages of existence" (p. 565).

If this one Church is, as the Lutheran Confessions say, "holy believers and sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd" (SA III:XII:2, Tappert), then it cannot be visible to the human eye. But then how can one know where the Church is? The classic answer is in the marks, the Word, Baptism, the Supper, etc. In this sense, the Church is visible. The one Church, then, is both invisible and visible. It is a Lutheran paradox.

Berkhof goes on to say of the visible church: "This 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 is impossible to determine infallibly who do and who do not belong to her" (p. 565-566).  He then points out:
"The invisible Church naturally assumes a visible form. Just as the human soul is adapted to the 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" (p. 566).
But it is so important in explaining this paradox to distinguish this Lutheran understanding of the Church which is both visible and invisible from Calvin's understanding of an invisible Church that is related to and given birth by the visible Church, but distinct from it. Calvin's distinction between the two makes two churches. Both are important to Calvin. "Just as we must believe, therefore, that the former church, invisible to us, is visible to the eyes of God alone, so we are commanded to revere and keep communion with the latter, which is called 'church' in respect to men" (Institutes of the Christian Religion 2, John T. McNeill, ed. [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960] p. 1022). The invisible Church includes only the elect. The visible Church includes elect and reprobate alike.

Here the Lutheran minister cites Calvin. Berkhof though states:
"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 militant Church. As a rule it is so applied in Reformed theology" (p. 565).
In other words, Berkhof is stating that Calvin's view is not entirely representative of the Reformed view. Calvin indeed speaks of the visible / invisible church (Institutes IV, 1: 7-9), but Calvin does not refer to them as two different churches. Calvin says "that Holy Scripture speaks of the church in two ways." He doesn't say "That Holy Scripture speaks of two churches."

Once again, Dr. Kurt Marquart does an excellent job of clearly explaining the invisible/visible paradox in a way that avoids the Calvinistic error of makind [sic] two churches. 

So far, no Calvinistic error has been presented and properly substantiated.

He writes: "It is self-evident that the external marks define, constitute, and identify the church as outward fellowship in the means of grace. This outward fellowship, however, is not another or a different church from the inward fellowship of faith: it is that self-same church, in its visible 'mode.'

Note above,  Berkhof's comment "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" as well as the accompanying discussion of the Church taking a visible form.

That unbelieving hypocrites, who do not belong to the church, are nevertheless indistinguishably mixed up with the believers in their outward gathering round the means of grace, is of course a fact.

And even the Lutheran minister's caricature of the Reformed view that opened his blog post admits this.

We have here a sort of 'complementary principle': We can determine exactly who the church is and where it is, but we can never combine the two into an identification of the believing individuals in any given place.

I would agree. Simply because one may ostensively point to "the Church" it isn't possible to infallibly determine believing individuals. Berkhof states,
"It is entirely possible that some who belong to the invisible Church never become members of the visible organization... 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 unregenerate 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" (p. 566).
When we talk about who the church is, we must define it as the believers, whom we cannot observe or identify as such anywhere. And when we talk about where the church is, we must locate it by its public marks, but we cannot tell who the individual believers are. In other words, the marks always tell us where the believers are to be found, but they can never identify particular persons as believers (except of course by the rule of love, which is often deceived). The marks attach to the church, not to individuals.

I don't see any contradiction between this and what Berkhof has stated.

"The one conclusion that must not be drawn is that there are two churches" (The Church and her Fellowship, Ministry, and Governance [St. Louis: The Luther Academy, 1990] p. 22).

And, a standard Reformed systematic theology agrees.

I was trying to make this distinction between the Calvinistic understanding of visible/invisible Church and the Lutheran paradox between the Church visible/invisible. I think I failed miserably, and many were probably confused. Unfortunately I had not yet read these words from Prof. Marquart. I am profoundly indebted to my beloved teacher.

The blog entry I've critiqued is quite a number of years old (2006). Perhaps I'll drop this link over there, perhaps I won't. My gut tells me some Lutherans over react to Reformed theology and find problems that are not there. I would have no problem saying that the Reformed understand of visible / invisible church is of an entirely different nature than what standard Lutheranism says. However, of the Lutheran entry in question, it appears to me his blog entry failed just as miserably as did his earlier attempts.


Brigitte said...

I'm all for agreement.

But in the back of my head is a conversation with a very intelligent man who came to Christ later in life, after a rough upbringing, a lawyer in fact, through the witness of Lutheran friends we share, also, who belongs to a Reformed church, now together with his family.

What he said to me, once, was that one cannot be sure about anyone whether they are in Christ or not and whether they are saved or not. He can't know that his wife is saved for example.

So the whole idea of limited atonement and not knowing for sure about election runs into the not being sure that the assembled church is really THE church. ??? Perhaps?

James Swan said...

What he said to me, once, was that one cannot be sure about anyone whether they are in Christ or not and whether they are saved or not. He can't know that his wife is saved for example.


I'm so tempted to repeat the oft-used Lutheran rap that such a comment is applying human reason to the things of the Lord, and leave it at that. That would be though, passive aggressive. However, since we're friends- rather, I'm simply going to point out-

1) Your comment involves a different discussion (though related).

2) In another recent post this topic did come up, and since that time I've been putting together a post (I have multiple posts in draft at the moment). So such a topic will be forthcoming...

3)As I mentioned in the comment section of the other post:

I'm on the run this morning, but briefly, I'd like you to consider something. If the argument boils down to "Only those who believe in unlimited atonement can have assurance" I'd like to point out two things.

1. Romanists believe in unlimited atonement and do not believe one can have assurance.

2. For Arminian types, the question then becomes, "How do I really know if I've accepted Christ?" That is, the problem of assurance has not been solved by unlimited atonement. This is why many folks keep going forward at church with altar calls. In other words, the extent of the atonement argument is a red herring.

Over the next few days I'm hoping to get a few minutes to go through some Reformed sources on this topic, particularly:

The Heidelberg Catechism


and... the real Turretin (as opposed to TurretinFan). Turretin has an extensive section on this topic, but I don't have time for it now.

Brigitte said...

I did not meant to come across snide, though I can hear it read that way. :( . (I'm on the run, too, these days.)

James Swan said...

No- I didn't take it at all as snide. It's just not completely relevant to this post.

Here's a brief outline of part of my forthcoming post. The question you raise (in the form that it is in) is actually a question in the spectrum of two spheres:

1)God's Revelation.

2)Human epistemology.

What I mean by this is the answers will appear different, but are actually concurrent. For (1), the answer in classic Lutheran and Reformed theology will probably overlap in some ways, and may differ in other ways. Ultimately, we'll both say though (I assume) that God's promises are certain, and those promises have been communicated to us, and God keeps his word. For (2), I would argue the "how do you know" argument is a later development in human philosophy and is being hoisted upon (1). In many ways such a question has more to do with Decartes and Kant than Jesus Christ.

For instance:over on my other post on assurance, Nick states:

"Infallible Assurance is a myth, and once you stop and ask yourself how you know you are elect rather than simply thinking you're elect, you'll have no concrete basis to answer the question. So the Catholic position is right to say nobody has infallible Assurance."

If you read the statement carefully, you'll notice that it ultimately is an inconsistent argument because, Nick claims to know "nobody has infallible assurance." In other words, Nick is claiming infallibility himself. He's claiming he can infallibly know that... no one can know. How does he know that? Perhaps he'll say the Magisterium tells him, in which case we're back one more step: how does he know the Magisterium knows? Perhaps he'll say because Christ established the Roman Church. Well, isn't that ironic, if he argues in such a way he's back to (1) above, the same place you and I are.

natamllc said...

Being overly overly simplistic I say with zeal:::>

"The Righteous shall live by Faith"!

I have this infallible assurance. I know I did not know what I now know.

What do I now know?

"The Righteous shall live by Faith"

I know that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God and He is the One God sent to save His people from their sins.

I confess that the Lord Jesus is the Son of God, and He, by suffering death at the hands of ungodly men and the shedding of His own blood secured for me an Eternal Redemption having being raised from the dead and having been vindicated by the Spirit before Our Heavenly Father, God, Who sent Him to die for the sins of His people.

I believe Christ is the historical man "Jesus" and that He came born in the flesh, born of a woman, a virgin girl, Mary.

I know that I, at one time, consciously did not have this knowledge and now I do! I can cite the place, day and hour this revelation of Jesus Christ made me alive!

So, now, I come back full circle and assert that it is the Righteousness of Christ that has been imputed that I now live by, by His Faith, not mine, that Faith once delivered to the Saints. He continues to deliver this Faith to me daily by hearing the Word of God being made alive in Christ, conjoined to Him kept for the day of salvation by His power, not mine.

God has set His seal on His blessed assurance that lives and is active within His people who He calls by name and that seal is this revelation about His Son and the work He did, the finished work, that no one else is or ever will be asked to do for the sins of His people. It is God Who is sealing this knowledge in the hearts and minds of His foreordained and foreknown people in every generation; a people known before the foundation of the world by the Holy Spirit.

I would say if you do not have this clarity of knowledge perspicaciously in your heart and mind already and you are one of God's Elect, you will.

I would further say if you do not have this clarity of knowledge perspicaciously in your heart and mind now or in the future and you are not one of God's Elect, you will die in your sins and perish in the lake of fire with Satan and all his angels.

The sinful, made Righteous by the work of Christ and God, by regeneration, are made Righteous by no power of their own or our own. It is by Grace we are saved through Faith and not by any righteous work we have done or ever will do, but we are saved because of and by the Foreknowledge and Power of God done through Jesus Christ, once for all God's Chosen vessels of mercy and not vessels of wrath!

Is this comment a blessed assurance?

You be the judge.

I am going to walk out my belief that it is and continue to rejoice continually praying with all prayer and supplication giving thanksgiving to God the Father, Jesus the Lord and the Holy Spirit.

And if you are one of His own I trust that this is what you, too, will have come upon you in your lifetime, this very same revelation of Truth and before you pass from this veil of flesh to that House in Heaven, a house prepared for you already in the Kingdom of God through Jesus Christ the Lord.

James Swan said...

Being overly overly simplistic I say with zeal-

Rom. 8:15–17, “For ye received not the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye received the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit himself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are children of God; and if children, then heirs, heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ.”

steelikat said...

Thanks for the analysis. If you are able to get to it I look forward to more.

"My gut tells me some Lutherans over react to Reformed theology and find problems that are not there."

Me too.

natamllc said...

Again James, I have to comment I liked that article posted at (Assurance of Salvation, Roman Catholicism, and Calvinism). It added some clarity and depth to what is going on in here!