The Church and the Sacraments, The Time of the Reformation, Views on the Church, The Protestant View

In our preceding article we called attention to the Reformed view of the church with respect to the church’s visibility and invisibility. This Reformed position identifies the church invisible with the elect and the church visible with the appearance of the church in the midst of the world as consisting of both elect and reprobate. This view, we noted, is maintained by both Ursinus and Calvin. The church, therefore, could be called invisible in a three-fold sense of the word. First, the church is invisible as the church universal, because one person cannot discern or see the church as it exists in other places and localities. Secondly, the church is invisible as a body of the elect which will not be completed and therefore become visible until the day of our Lord Jesus. Christ. And, thirdly, the church is invisible as a body of called elect, inasmuch as we cannot distinguish in the church upon earth the true believers from the hypocrites.

Also the Westminster Confession speaks of the invisible and visible aspects of the Church of God. Chapter XXV of this Confession is devoted to the subject of the Church. Chapter XXV, I and II speaks as follows, and we quote: “I. 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. II. The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation as before the law) consists of all those, throughout the world, that profess the true religion, and of their children; and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.”—end of quote.

However, the Reformed position in re the distinction between the invisible and visible aspect of the church was not confined to the view that the church invisible is the gathering or body of the elect, whereas the church visible is the church upon earth as consisting of the elect and reprobate, true believers and hypocrites, wheat and tares. Rome, we understand, maintained that outward membership, historical faith, the keeping of the commandments and subjection to the pope constituted the essence of the church. This Reformed position of the church visible and invisible is set forth by Dr. H. Bavinck in his Dogmatics, Vol. IV, pages 287-289, and we quote: “Against this view (that of Rome, H.V.) the Reformation placed itself in opposition and established the distinction between the church visible and invisible. Augustine had already spoken of “name-Christians,” and it is simply a fact that Rome could not have an objection against this distinction and maintains the same distinction inasmuch as it also distinguishes in the one church between two generations of men, two parties. But the distinction between the visible and the invisible church can be understood in different ways. Most of these conceptions are to be rejected and do not come up for discussion in dogmatics. The church is not to be called invisible because Christ, because the church triumphant, because the completed church at the end of the ages cannot be discerned by us; neither can the church be called invisible because the church as upon earth cannot be seen by us as in other places and lands, or because it is in hiding during times of persecution, or as it at times is denied the administration of the word and of the sacraments. The distinction of visible and invisible church is to be applied only to the church militant, and it expresses the idea that the church is invisible from the viewpoint of its spiritual side or aspect and in its true members. Both of these meanings have merged into one among the Lutherans and the Reformed, and they cannot be separated. The church is an object of faith. The inward faith of the heart, regeneration, the true repentance, the hidden communion with Christ, etc., are spiritual goods which cannot be discerned by the natural eye, and which nevertheless give unto the church its own proper form. And the Lord has not given to any individual an infallible measuring staff, according to which he can judge the spiritual life of another. The Lord alone knows who are His. And thus it is possible, and it has always been a fact within the Christian church, that there is chaff among the corn and that hypocrites are hidden among the true believers. The name Church, as used of the church militant, as applied to the gathering of believers upon earth, has therefore a figurative meaning among all Christians, Romish or Protestants. It is called Church, not according to the unbelievers who are in it, but according to the believers, who constitute the essence of it and give unto it its essence and being. The whole is called according to the part. A church is and remains a gathering of true believers of Christ.”—end of quote, translation by the undersigned. With this we conclude our discussion of the Reformed view or conception of the church, in re the distinction between the church visible and invisible.

Of interest also, in our discussion of the Protestant view of the Church, are the attributes of the Church. The attributes of the Church are its unity or oneness, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity. It is also in this field that we encountered a marked and drastic contrast between the Romish and Protestant conceptions of the Church. This, of course, is understandable. Prior to the Reformation of the sixteenth century, there was only one church, but one Western or Latin church (the Eastern half had broken from the Western half in the eleventh century). With the Reformation many Protestant churches came into being. The Romish church remained one. But Protestantism broke up into countless fragments.

The Romish Church is surely one. And we can easily understand that Rome prides itself in its unity, particularly because of all the segments and fragments which characterize Protestantism. Rome, of course, has an absolute and exclusive conception of the church. Rome can never recognize the administration of the Word and of the sacraments to be an earmark of the church, inasmuch as this administration is also found outside of the Roman Catholic Church, and no other church can be recognized by it. The only marks which Rome can possibly recognize as marks of the true church are those marks that apply exclusively to the church of Rome. All other churches are false. And it certainly must be admitted that, from the viewpoint of the appearance of things, the unity of the church of Rome presents a most imposing spectacle. There is no division in the church of Rome. Only, the unity of the church of Rome rests exclusively in its institutional and hierarchical structure. This unity must not be sought in the believers. Superstition and ignorance are rampant in the church of Rome. This unity must be sought in the clergy, in the Romish hierarchy, in the pope. Rome’s unity is exclusively an organizational, institutional, hierarchical unity. It is not internal, spiritual, but external, residing in the hierarchy.

How vastly different is the Protestant conception of the unity or oneness of the Church! Ursinus speaks of the unity of the church in his explanation of Question 54 of Lord’s Day 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism, and we quote from his answer to the question: “Why The Church Is Called One, Holy, And Catholic?”: “The Church is one, not because those who are members thereof dwell together, or because the rites and ceremonies to which they conform are the same; but on account of their agreement in doctrine, and faith . . . That there is but one church at all times, from the beginning to the end of the world, there can be no reasonable doubt; for it is manifest that the church has always existed, even before the time of Abraham. It is not to be supposed that the family of Abraham did not worship God before his calling, and that he was only after his calling the servant of the Most High. For even before he was called, he held fast to the fundamental principles of the doctrine of the true God, although they were not clearly understood, on account of the false notions and superstitions which were mingled with them. Melchizedek, who was the priest of the most high God, also lived at the same time. Hence there were besides, and before Abraham, other worshippers of the true God, whose priest Melchizedek was. (Ursinus, therefore, evidently would not subscribe the ‘Common Grace’ explanation of Melchizedek by the late Dr. Abraham Kuyper—H.V. Kuyper explained Melchizedek as a product of Common Grace, as a remnant of the original priesthood of Adam which did not immediately disappear but which complete disappearance was restrained and checked by the operation of Common Grace, so that Melchizedek was nothing else than a natural man. Ursinus, however, declares of Melchizedek that he was a worshipper of the true God, and that there were other worshippers of the true God, besides Abraham, whose priest Melchizedek was). That the church will always exist is evident from these declarations of Scripture: ‘My words shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed.’ ‘If the night and the day may be changed, my covenant may also be changed.’ ‘I will be with you always, even to the end of the world’ (Is. 5:9, 21Jer. 33:20Matt. 25:20). Christ, moreover, always has been, and always will be king, head and priest of the church. Hence there is always has been, and ever will be, a church. And hence it is also evident that the church, both of the Old and the New Testaments, is one and the same; which is also confirmed by the following article of the Creed. For Christ is the sanctifier of His church, and is common to those who have believed on him under each dispensation.”—end of quote from Ursinus.

From this explanation by Ursinus we may briefly conclude the following. First, the unity of the church is a spiritual unity. It is not an outward or external oneness, that members simply dwell together, or that they are one because the rites or ceremonies to which they conform are the same. This evidently refers to the unity of the church of Rome. Secondly, the unity of the church means that there always was a church, from the beginning to the end of the world. The church has always existed, even before the time of Abraham. The premillennialist or dispensationalist, as we know, does not agree with this Reformed position. He makes separation between the Old and the New Dispensation, distinguishes between the kingdom (the Jews) and the church (the Gentiles), between the seed of Abraham in the real and natural sense of the word (the Jews) and that in the spiritual and figurative sense of the word (the Gentiles). And there are those who view Pentecost as the birthday of the Church. The Reformed conception of the unity of the church, however, emphasizes that there is but one church of God throughout the ages. And, thirdly, the unity of the Church of God must be sought in Christ. He always has been, and ever will be, king, head, and priest of the church. Christ is the sanctifier of the church, and is common to all those who have believed on Him under each dispensation. And this conception of the church rests surely upon the Word of God, as in Paul’s epistles to the churches at Corinth, Galatia, and also at Ephesus.