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

We concluded our preceding article, in connection with the distinction between the true and false church, with a quotation from John Calvin. In this quotation the noted Reformer, who is known for his severe condemnation of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, states that there are also some of the true marks in the Roman Catholic Church. And we know, for example, that we have always acknowledged the sacrament of baptism as administered in the Roman Catholic Church. Dr. H. Bavinck, as we might expect, has also expressed himself upon this subject. A few years ago, in Volume 34 of our Standard Bearer, the late Rev. H.H. Kuiper quoted from Dr. H. Bavinck, and we will now present this quotation (Vol. 34, page 262): “Although there may be some lack in the purity of doctrine or of the sacraments, although the sanctity of life and faithfulness of the servants (officebearers?) leave much to be desired, one may not therefore immediately leave the church . . . All saw themselves forced to acknowledge with Calvin, that in the true church much impurity in doctrine and life can appear, without this giving right to separation, and that often much good is found in separated churches. So the concept true and false church underwent a significant change. On the one hand one had to admit, that a true church in the absolute sense is impossible here upon earth ; there is not a single church that perfectly and in all parts, in doctrine and life, in the administration of Word and Sacraments, answers to the demand of God. And on the other hand it became evident that also a false church cannot exist in the absolute sense, because she would then no longer be a church; though Rome was a false church inasfar as she was papal, there remained yet many remnants of the true church. There was therefore difference between true and pure church (Vera and pura ecclesia). True church became the name, not of one church with exclusion of all others, but of many sorts (velerlei) churches, that still held to the cardinal truths of Christendom, the fundamental articles, but for the rest departed far from each other in grades of purity; and false church became the name of the hierarchical power of superstition and unbelief (bijgeloof en ongeloof) which raised itself in local churches and ascribed to itself and her ordinances more power and authority than to the Word of God.” end of quote.

Of interest is also the following quotation from Dr. Bavinck (Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. IV, Chapter IX, pages 303-304), and we translate: “The division of the church of Christ has (4) without doubt its cause in sin; in heaven there will not be place for it any longer. Nevertheless, with this all has not been said. God loves variation in unity. There was variation among all the creatures, also when as yet there was no sin. This variation has been degenerated and corrupted by sin, but it is good in itself and of significance for the church of Christ. Difference in generation and lifetime, in character and disposition, of mind and heart, of the gifts and goods, of place and of age has been beneficial for the truth which is in Christ. He uses them all in His service and adorns His church with them. Yea, although the division of people into nations and languages had its occasion in sin, it contains something good which is carried into the congregation and is thus preserved for eternity. Christ gathers His church upon earth out of many tribes and languages and nations and peoples. 5. If we therefore understand under churches the local church in the entire Christendom according to the N. Testament manner of speaking, then there are no true and no false churches in the absolute sense of the word. A church is a gathering of true Christ-believers in a definite locality. If at any place there be not a single believer anymore, either actual or potentially, then the Word of God is also unknown there, and there is no longer a church. And, vice versa, if the Word of God be somewhat known as yet in a certain place, it will certainly perform its work and there is a church of Christ, how impure and adulterated it may be. This does not imply indifference or syncretism. Nothing is indifferent, least of all in the truth, that is according to godliness. It is not so, that we can easily give up and deny the so-called nonfundamentals, if we but embrace the fundamental truths. Whereas, however, we would apply in relation to others the word of Jesus: whoever is not against Me, is for Me, it behooves us, as far as we ourselves are concerned, to maintain that other word: whoever is not for Me is against Me. There is great difference in the purity of the confessions and of the churches. And we must strive after the purest. Whoever, therefore, comes to the conviction that the Protestant Church is better than the Romish, and that the Reformed is purer than the Lutheran or Remonstrant or Baptist, has the calling to join the other church without judging his church to be a false church. And it remains our duty to remain in our own church, in spite of the much impurity in doctrine and in life, if she does not hinder us to be faithful to our own confession, and be it indirectly, does not force us to obey men more than God. For a church, which would force its members to do this, would at that very moment, insofar as she did this, reveal itself to the conscience of its members as a false church, which ascribed more power and authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God.

“With the names schism and heresy we ought to be therefore (6) very careful. It is undoubtedly true that both are great sins; one makes himself guilty of schism who, although permitting the foundation of the doctrine to remain intact, nevertheless separates himself from the church because of minor points of the order of worship or church government; they are heretics, who err in the substance of the truth; the one breaks the fellowship of the church, the other destroys the communion of doctrine. Nevertheless it is difficult, practically, to designate the exact boundary between lawful and dutiful breaking of the fellowship with any church and an unlawful separation. This is easy for Rome, because it acknowledges only one church and one confession and declares anathema upon everything outside of it. But Protestantism can, at best, give only some general rules and must leave the application of these rules in every concrete instance to the conscience of the believers. The concept of heresy and schism has thereby received an elasticity which admonishes us in its use unto carefulness. Since the Reformation the church has gone over into a period of pluriformity; and this fact compels us to seek the unity of the church more and more in the spiritual bond of faith than in the external form of government.” —end of quote from Dr. Bavinck.

This quotation of Dr. Bavinck is of interest. That we quote it does not necessarily mean that we agree with all that it expresses. We surely do not agree with all that is expressed in this quotation. However, it is of interest because it is evident that Dr. Bavinck completely disagrees with those who would make a distinction between the true and false church in the sense that our Protestant Reformed Churches alone constitute the true church and that all other churches are wholly false. And, I may add that this absolute distinction is not the position of our churches either. The quotation from Dr. Bavinck is surely of interest because it certainly indicates that the absolute distinction between the true and false church (one church is pure and all other churches are false) can hardly be viewed as the Reformed position (we will presently take a close; look at Articles 27-29 of our Confession of Faith). This, I repeat, does not mean that we are in complete agreement with Dr. Bavinck’s views on the church. We certainly do not agree with his conception of the pluriformity or multiformity of the church, as if the multiformity of the church means that all other churches, although differing from one another in the truth, each contribute toward the manifestation of the truth as it is in Christ Jesus, and that the day of our Lord Jesus Christ will ultimately reveal how each church has contributed toward this truth as it is in Christ Jesus. And, we certainly do not agree with him when he writes that we cannot distinguish between the true and false church in an absolute sense. Our Confessions state very plainly that the true and false church are easily known, and distinguished frolic one another. We certainly believe that there are “churches” today which we may unhesitatingly designate as “false church.” We would not know what other name we may give to modern day Modernism. And we certainly do not believe that it is so tremendously difficult to know when one should leave a certain church. O, we do not mean that it should be easy to leave a certain church. It is certainly true that a person, who easily leaves a certain church, will just as easily leave the church he joins. Church membership is and should be a serious matter, and the decision to leave a certain church must also be a very serious matter. Yet, we have maintained that we should leave a certain church when that church has made it impossible for us to confess the truth according to the Word of God and that liberty is our privilege and a possibility in another church. Deviations from the truth are always serious, although it must be conceded that Dr. Bavinck also writes against indifference and syncretism. He denies that we may easily give up and deny so-called non-fundamental truths. Strictly speaking, all truth is fundamental and no truth may be regarded as a non-fundamental. But, for the rest, I, too, will hesitate to call a church wholly false, a vast majority of its officebearers wicked and reprobate, and that our Protestant Reformed Churches constitute the one and only true church. Such a conception may become all the more impossible when it should become impossible for one to be affiliated with it any longer.

We wish to call attention to one more statement in these quotations from Dr. Bavinck which we consider noteworthy. We refer to this statement: “So the concept true and false church underwent a significant change.” Dr. Bavinck calls attention to the fact that although the Reformed and the Lutherans first maintained that they alone were the true church, the increasing impurity of their own churches and the appearance of other churches next to their churches made it increasingly difficult to maintain this contention in all its force. He writes that, from the beginning, the attitude which the Protestant churches assumed over against Rome was entirely different than the attitude which Rome assumed over against the Protestants. Rome did not acknowledge any church or churches except itself, designated all other churches as sects. Protestantism, however, although without reservation rejecting the ecclesiastical hierarchy of Rome, nevertheless continued to recognize that which is Christian in the Church of Rome. How corrupt Rome may have been, there were always some remnants of the church in it, and this was maintained by the Reformers. Of this Calvin speaks very clearly when he writes that there were some of the true marks in the church of Rome. The next time, the Lord willing, we will continue our discussion of this distinction between the true and false church.