The Church of God, we noted in our preceding article, is the gathering of believers, and as rooted in Divine unchangeable election. This is the Protestant view of the Church, which we are now discussing in these articles, and as in distinction from the Roman Catholic view. And that Church of God is also most emphatically an object of faith. Because of its catholicity, its oneness, its holiness, and the fact that it is destined for everlasting and heavenly glory and immortality it cannot be discerned with the natural eye. We can only believe an holy catholic church.
There are several aspects of the doctrine of the Church as we treat the historical development of this doctrine that are worthy of our attention. Worthy of note, for example, are the attributes of the Church and also its gathering as confessed according to the Protestant view according to the Word of God. We must also call attention to the marks of the Church of God, consisting of the preaching of the, Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of Christian discipline. However, we will begin by calling attention to the visible and invisible aspect of the Church of God, and attempt to show the historical development of this particular aspect of the Church.
The Protestant view of the Church differs sharply from Rome also as far as the Church’s visible and invisible aspect is concerned. Rome’s corruption of this feature of the Church is set forth by Dr. H. Bavinck in his Dogmatics, and we quote from him now as follows, Volume IV, 268-269 (the translation is of the undersigned): “And, therefore, in the first place, applicable to this ecclesia docens (the Church as consisting of those who rule, H.V.) are all the attributes which the Romish Christian acknowledges of his church. It is the one, only, alone Christian, catholic, descending from the apostles by regular succession, imperishable, infallible church, denying to all other so-called churches the right of existence, is intolerant by virtue of its essence, does not tolerate or acknowledge another church next to itself, to depart from which in doctrine or to separate oneself in life is always sin and never permissible. For, because Christ distributes all grace only through the office and the sacrament, therefore the ecclesia doyens, the Romish church institute, is the only mediator of salvation, the keeper or preserver and distributor of all grace for all men, the only ark of preservation for the entire human race. It (the Church, H.V.) alone leads man to the Scriptures, to the Person of the Christ, to the fellowship with God. The order of salvation is not such, that God by His Word leads man to the church, but, on the contrary, it proceeds from the church and then leads to the Scriptures, and to Christ. Therefore it is fitting for the church to be known, to be pointed out for all, and even to be demonstrated before all; it must become so plain by its attributes and marks, that no doubt can exist with respect to it and only deliberate and guilty unbelief can disregard and reject it. It (the Church, H.V.) is the first and most important source of the truth, and for this reason many Romish theologians treat it in the doctrine of the principles. The ecclesia audiens (the Church as it is ruled and taught, H.V.) is completely dependent upon the ecclesia docens; it (ecclesia audiens, H.V.) is only passive in participating in all the glorious attributes of the church; its only task it is to receive the supernatural grace out of the hand of the priest in the sacrament; to believe what the church believes, obedience to hierarchy, subjection to the pope is its greatest virtue and necessary unto salvation. The essence of the church does not depend upon the quality of this ecclesia audiens. To be sure, it is good and profitable that the members of the church should be believers. But the ecclesia docens, the objective institute of salvation, remains just as well the true church, even if all its members were unbelievers and ungodly. All those who are outside of the Romish church are no members of the church of Christ, as the catechumens, the excommunicated, the schismatics, etc. Their Christian faith, their pious walk does not profit them; they are without the only-saving church. But all those are truly members of the church, who remain in the fellowship with Rome, even though they be manifestly unbelievers and ungodly. These are not actual, but potentially the church; they do not belong to the soul, but to the body of the church; they are not as perfectly the church as are those who believe and live in the Romish church; but they are nevertheless members of the church and belong to it just as well as the body belongs to the essence of man. To belong in any way to the church, more or less perfect, no internal virtue of love or faith is necessary, but only the external profession of faith and the communion of the sacraments.” —end of quote from Bavinck.
This Romish conception of the church, setting forth that the membership of the Church is completely dependent upon the hierarchy, the priesthood and especially the pope, encountered considerable opposition. Greek Christendom never did recognize the absolute authority of the bishop of Rome, and therefore resisted all efforts unto absolute oneness and catholicity. Many opposed and denied this Romish conception of the Church in the Middle Ages. However, it did not occur until the Reformation that a principally different conception of the Church developed over against Rome. Luther found peace for his soul, not in the external operation of the sacrament, nor in the doing of good works, but only in the forgiveness of sins through faith alone. And it was from this point of view that he attacked the Church of Rome, rejected the priesthood, the sacrifice, the monks, the infallible church institute and the magical operation of the sacrament, proclaimed the liberty of the Christian, and conceived of the Church as a gathering of believers, as a communion of saints even as it is confessed to be the object of faith in the Twelve Articles of the Apostles’ Creed. It was for Luther a very severe struggle to break with the Romish church and its conception of the church; he surely did not take this matter very lightly; he did not have a program of reformation; it was his only concern to counteract the many abuses and wrongs that were rampant in the Church of Rome. But he found and maintained his firmness and steadfastness in the justification of the sinner only through faith, and from this principle he proceeded much farther than he originally had intended and anticipated. This principle also led him to another conception of the Church, a conception which he found in the Holy Scriptures.
Continuing to quote freely from the Dogmatics of H. Bavinck, Volume IV, according to Luther, the Church was not simply a gathering of those predestined unto eternal life, neither did it consist merely of those who walked according to some of the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount. But the Church was a gathering of believers, of people who through faith had received the forgiveness of sins and were children of God, prophets and priests of the Lord. It is, of course, true and a self-evident fact that the Church had an invisible and a visible side or form. Seeberg contends that this distinction (visible and invisible church) was made first by Luther and not by Zwingli. When Luther made this distinction he did not mean two churches, but two sides or aspects of the one and the same church. The church was not for Luther a merely philosophical conception, an idea without its corresponding reality, but it consisted for him very concretely in people, who live and through faith have become partakers of the forgiveness of sins. Viewed from the one side or aspect, the church of God is invisible, an object of faith, inasmuch as we do not see what we believe. However, viewed from the other side or aspect, the church is visible, because it becomes known and is recognizable. And, the church can be known, not from its papacy, bishops, and all the other external things that characterize the Romish Church, but from the pure administration of the Word and of the sacraments. Where the administration is of the Word and of the sacraments the true believers must be present, even though they be present only in the cradle as little infants (incidentally, it is well to bear this in mind when we attempt to distinguish between the True and False Church, to which we will call attention later). Luther also maintained that there are and can be unbelievers in a church, even as strange and foreign elements can penetrate into a human body, but the essence of the church is determined by the believers, the whole is named according to its most important part. As Protestant Reformed people, we recognize this distinction, do we not, namely that the “whole is named according to its most important part?” This must surely remind us of that which we have preached and taught in our Protestant Reformed Churches, and so beautifully set forth in Rev. Hoeksema’s pamphlet: De Geloovigen en Hun Zaad.
From this we may conclude that the distinction between visible and invisible church was originally never merely intended to declare over against Rome that the essence of the church lay in the invisible, in faith, in the fellowship with T Christ and His benefits through the Holy Spirit, but that it most emphatically did not intend in any way to deny the visible aspect of the church. Soon this distinction, between the invisible and visible church, began to be used in a different sense. One could not deny the fact that there were many in the church who really were no children of God but belonged to the kingdom of this world and of darkness. Hence, the church could be viewed in a narrower and a broader sense. Luther, at times, spoke of two churches, and later theologians began to apply the distinction between invisible and visible church to this fact. The church, then, was called invisible, not because it had a spiritual side and was therefore an object of faith, but because the circle of true believers could not be known by us; and the church was called visible, not from the viewpoint of the believers’ walk and confession, but from the viewpoint of the unbelievers who in the past had been viewed by Luther as belonging to the kingdom of the devil. The believers constituted an invisible church in the visible church.
The Reformed conception of the Church agrees principally with this Lutheran conception of the church. However, it does reveal certain peculiarities which are not unimportant. In the first place, the conception of the institute of the church is somewhat different in the Reformed view and conception. Luther, it is true, understood the church to be the communion of saints, but nevertheless sought its oneness and holiness more in the objective institution of the office, word and sacrament than in the subjective communion of the believers which often left so much to be desired. More and more, according to the Lutheran conception, the church became a Divine institute which had to realize the oneness and holiness of the believers. And it is truly Reformed doctrine that the Lord ordinarily bestows the benefits of Christ by means of the Word and sacrament, but is nevertheless not bound to them, and, be it rarely, also bestows salvation outside of the institute of the church.