Hodge on the Visibility of the Church

I ran across a quote from Hodge a while ago and have been trying to track down the article ever since. I finally found it and wanted to share some snippets from it. [Update: I finally found it online as well in Hodge’s book “Church Polity“] Hodge’s essay in the Princeton Review, Oct 1853 was his response to threat from the Papists. I wish I had a bit more of the historical background, but here is how Thomas Curtis prefaces it: “The Old School Presbyterians began to be attacked by the Episcopalians, who plead the analogy of circumcision and of the ancient Jewish church in favor of admitting good and bad into Christian churches” (Thomas Fenner Curtis)

Hodge refutes the arguments by clarifying what it means for the NT church to be a church of believers, and in so doing raises some interesting consequences.

The Visibility of the Church

Our view of the attributes of the Church is of necessity determined by our view of its nature.

The Romanists argued that the church is the same in nature as an earthly kingdom. Hodge argued it is a spiritual kingdom. He said:

…if the Church is the coetus sanctorum, the company of believers; if it is the body of Christ, and if his body consists of those, and of those only, in whom he dwells by his Spirit, then the Church is visible only in the sense in which believers are visible.

He says the Church is visible in so much as:
(1) “it consists of men and women, in distinction from disembodied spirits or angels.”
(2) “Its members manifest their faith by good works. The fact they are members of Christ’s body becomes notorious… Wherever there are true believers, there is the true Church; and wherever such believers confess their faith, and illustrate it by a holy life, there the Church is visible.”
(3) “…believers are, by their “effectual calling,” separated from the world… The true Church is visible throughout the world, not as an organization, not as an external society [ie a “church” of believers and unbelievers], but as the living body of Christ; as a set of men distinguished from others as true Christians… The Church, in this sense, is a city set on a hill… How unfounded, then, is the objection that the Church, the body of Christ, is a chimera, a Platonic idea, unless it is, in its essential nature, a visible society, like the kingdom of England or Republic of Switzerland!
(4) “The true Church is visible in the external Church, just as the soul is visible in the body… So the external Church, as embracing all who profess the true religion – with their various organizations, their confessions of the truth, their temples, and their Christian worship – make it apparent that the true Church, the body of Christ, exists, and where it is. These are not the Church, any more than the body is the soul; but they are its manifestations, and its residence.”

If all those in every age who professed belief were true believers, then there would be no need of the visible/invisible distinction. However,

We know that in every subsequent [to the apostolic] age, the great majority of those who have been baptized in the name of Christ, and who call themselves Christians, and who are included in the external organization of his followers, are not true Christians. This external society, therefore, is not a company of believers; it is not the Church which is Christ’s body; the attributes and promises of the Church do not belong to it. It is not that living temple built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets as an habitation of God, through the Spirit. It is not the bride of Christ, for which he died, and which he cleanses with the washing of regeneration… In short, the external society is not the Church. The two are not identical, commensurate, and conterminous, so that he who is a member of the one is a member of the other, and he who is excommunicated from the one is cut off from the other…

If, then, the Church is the body of Christ; if a man becomes a member of that body by faith; if multitudes of those who profess in baptism the true religion, are not believers, then it is just as certain that the external body consisting of the baptized is not the Church, as that a man’s calling himself a Christian does not make him a Christian.

Hodge then appeals to Protestants to steer clear of Rome’s logic:

If that is so [the Church is an external organization], then such organization is the Church; then, as the Church is holy, the body and bride of Christ, the temple and family of God, all members of that organization are holy, members of Christ’s body, and partakers of his life… Then, moreover, as Christ saves all the members of his body and none other, he saves all included in this external organization, and consigns to eternal death all out of it… It becomes those who call themselves Protestants, to look these consequences in the face, before they join the Papists and Puseyites in ridiculing the idea of a Church composed exclusively of believers, and insist that the body to which the attributes and promises of the Church belong, is the visible organization of professing Christians.

Finally, Hodge addres “the most plausible argument of Romanists: the analogy of the old dispensation.”

That the Church is a visible society, consisting of the professors of the true religion, as distinguished from the body of true believers, known only to God, is plain, they say, because under the old dispensation it was such a society, embracing all the descendants of Abraham who professed the true religion, and received the sign of circumcision… The Church exists as an external society now as it did then; what once belonged to the commonwealth of Israel, now belongs to the visible Church. As union with the commonwealth of Israel was necessary to salvation then, so union with the visible Church was necessary to salvation now. And as subjection to the priesthood, and especially to the high-priest, was necessary to union with Israel then, so submission to the regular ministry, and especially to the Pope, is necessary to union with the Church now. Such is the favourite argument of Romanists; and such, (striking out illogically the last clause, which requires subjection to prelates, or the Pope) we are sorry to say is the argument of some Protestants, and even of some Presbyterians.

The fallacy of this whole argument lies in the false assumption, that the external Israel was the true Church… The attributes, promises, prerogatives of the one, were not those of the other. [If this is true] we must admit that the true Church rejected and crucified Christ; for he was rejected by the external Israel, by the Sanhedrin… Paul avoids this fatal conclusion by denying that the external Church is, as such, the true Church, or that the promises made to the latter were made to the former.

It is to be remembered that there were two covenants made with Abraham. By the one, his natural descendants through Isaac were constituted a commonwealth, an external, visible community. By the other, his spiritual descendants were constituted a Church. The parties to the former covenant were God and the nation; to the other, God and his true people. The promises of the national covenant were national blessings; the promises of the spiritual covenant, (i.e. of the covenant of grace) were spiritual blessings, reconciliation, holiness, and eternal life. The conditions of the one covenant were circumcision and obedience to the law; the condition of the latter was, is, and ever has been, faith in the Messiah as the seed of the woman, the Son of God, and the Savior of the world. There cannot be a greater mistake than to confound the national covenant with the covenant of grace, and the commonwealth founded on the one with the Church founded on the other.

When Christ came “the commonwealth” was abolished, and there was nothing put in its place. The Church remained. There was no external covenant, nor promises of external blessings, on condition of external rites and subjection. There was a spiritual society with spiritual promises, on the condition of faith in Christ. In no part of the New Testament is any other condition of membership in the Church prescribed than that contained in the answer of Philip to the eunuch who desired baptism: “If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” (Acts viii. 37)

So much for the unity of the covenants. And so much for paedobaptism founded upon circumcision.

10 thoughts on “Hodge on the Visibility of the Church

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