Re: Some Vossian Thoughts on the Visible-Invisible Church Distinction

Lane Keister, at the Green Baggins blog, offers some comments on Vos’ explanation of the visible-invisible church distinction. His point is that there are visible and invisible aspects of the church, noting that Anabaptists and some baptists are therefore in error in holding that the true church is entirely invisible. Keister apparently didn’t put much thought into that point, since I don’t know any Anabaptists or baptists who deny there is a visible aspect of the true church. Interestingly, a commenter picked up on a very important point. He objected to Keister’s insistence that visible and invisible refer to two aspects of the same church because he felt that would lead to the Federal Vision error. I offered some comments.

Ron highlights a really important point. If the visible/invisible distinction refers to two different aspects of the same thing (the church), then “The implication of such a construct is that the invisible church and the visible church are the same church.” He sees that as a problem from which “comes much confusion and outright error” like FV. He says the only way to avoid this is to define “the church” in terms other than “the invisible church” or “the visible church” but rather as something above the invisible and the visible which embraces both. In other words, he argues the only way to avoid seeing the visible/invisible as the same church is to define “the church” as a generic concept of which “visible” and “invisible” are two species. He is correct.

But Vos says that Ron’s solution is not an option.

If then it is established that one may not identify the invisible church with the visible, the question still remains unanswered: What is the connection between the two? One may not place them beside each other dualistically as if there were two churches. The Reformed have always taught that the distinction between the visible and invisible church is not a bifurcation of a generic concept into two species, but simply the description of one and the same subject from two different sides.

So “the church” may not be defined as a generic concept that equally embraces both “the invisible church” and “the visible church.” Therefore, apart from a third definition of “the church” as a generic concept which embraces both visible and invisible, “the church” must be defined as either the invisible church or as the visible church. There is no other option.

On this point one must be careful, because here many are caught in a great misconception. There are not two churches, (a) an invisible and (b) a visible, but there is one Church that must be defined from the one side as invisible and from the other as visible.

Vos is getting close to a resolution, but notice what he has just done. He has said there is this thing called “one Church” that can be defined from one side as “invisible” and from the other as “visible.” But the question that must be answered is “Which side is the correct definition?” Recall that one or the other must provide the correct definition of the church, otherwise we must provide a third definition of “the church” that embraces both. So, which “side” is the correct “side”?

Vos says “Protestants start from the concept of the invisible church… since also union with Him is something spiritual, not in the sphere of the sensible-visible.” The invisible church is “the church.”

the essence of the Church, faith, does not come within the scope of the senses, that therefore we can never specify determinatively and infallibly this or that person belongs to the Church in the deepest sense of this judgment. Only for God, who sees and knows all things, is the Church manifest according to this form, according to this its essence. He sees and searches out the entire organism of the body of Christ in all its parts. We see only here and there a trace of a few points on the surface from which we can form an idea of its shape in general, but we do not see the body as such… The terms by which the Church is designated in Scripture are such that they do not coincide with outward, visible things.

The invisible church is “the church” because it is “the church” as perceived by God “who sees and knows all things” not “the church” as perceived by fallible man’s sensible perception.

If “the church” is defined as the invisible church, then what are we to make of the visible church? How can it also be “the church”? The answer is because it is “the church” from man’s fallible sensible perception. It refers to the same entity, but from a fallible perspective. That is why it is not the definition of “the church” but only an approximation of it.

The visible thus everywhere presupposes the invisible, rests on it, derives from it its right of existence. It is called “church” because it is thought to stand in connection with what the essence of the Church is, to be a manifestation of the body of Christ. By that it is not at all denied that in such a visible church members can appear who do not belong to the invisible church. But this coheres inseparably, as we will see, with the unique calling and goal that the visible church has on earth. Someone has quite rightly observed that although sand is mixed with gold, still the gold is not therefore called gold because of the sand mixed in it but because of its own quality.

The visible church is called “the church” because it is assumed to consist of members of the invisible church. If only unbelievers are found in a particular church, it is not a church. The “unique calling and goal that the visible church has on earth” is for fallible men to gather together as members of the invisible church. They won’t do it perfectly, thus the discrepancy between the visible and the invisible.

Believers do not have a different body than unbelievers. If they did, we could easily distinguish between the two, and the invisible church would coincide with the visible

Note, the only difference between the visible and the invisible church is man’s fallible perspective. If true believers were identified by some visible, outward mark, there would be no distinction between the visible and the invisible church.

This is what Stuart R. Jones refers to as “the viewpoint interpretation of visible-invisible church” (WTJ 59:1 (Spring 1997)). He quotes James Ussher

Sith God doth not reveal the covenant of grace, nor afford sufficient means to salvation to the whole world, but only to the Church: explain here what you mean by the Church?

We speak not here of that part of God’s Church which is triumphant in glory; who, being in perfect fruition, have no need of these outward means of communion with him, (Rev. xxi; xxii; xxiii;) but the subject here is the Church militant. And that we consider also, as visible, in the parts of it: consisting of diverse assemblies and companies of believers, making profession of the same common faith: howbeit many times, by force of persecution, the exercise of the public ordinances may for a time be suspended among them.

But are none to be accounted members of this Church, but such as are true believers, and so inseparably united unto Christ their head?

Truly and properly none other. (1 John 2.19) Howbeit because God doth use outward means with the inward, for the gathering of his Saints; and calleth them as wel to outward profession among themselves, (Acts 2.42. Cant.1.7) as to inward fellowship with his Son, whereby the Church becomes visible: hence it is, that so many as partake of outward means, and join with the Church in league of visible profession, are therefore in humane judgement accounted members of the true Church, and Saints by calling, (1 Cor 1.1) until the Lord (who only knoweth his) do make known the contrary. As we are taught in the Parable of the Tares. Mat. 13.24 & Mat. 13.47, &c. and of the draw net, and the threshing floor, where lieth both good corn and chaff.

Body of Divinity

This same “viewpoint” explanation of the visible and invisible church is found in the Second Helvetic Confession.

Whence the Church of God may be termed invisible; not because the men from whom the Church is gathered are invisible, but because, being hidden from our eyes and known only to God, it often secretly escapes human judgment.

NOT ALL WHO ARE IN THE CHURCH ARE OF THE CHURCH. Again, not all that are reckoned in the number of the Church are saints, and living and true members of the Church… And although while they simulate piety they are not of the Church, yet they are considered to be in the Church, just as traitors in a state are numbered among its citizens before they are discovered

Chapter XVII

Again, a Brakel provides a very lengthy defense of this explanation.

As one person cannot be divided into an invisible and a visible person, one may not divide the church into a visible and invisible church, for then it would seem as if there were two churches, each being a different church.
One may also not divide the church into a visible and invisible church as far as the members themselves are concerned, as if the one had different members from the other…
If one understands the differentiation between the external and internal church to be but a twofold view and perspective of one and the same church, and does not hold to a twofold membership relationship, all is well and our proposition is confirmed: The differentiation between an external and internal church on the basis of membership and relationship is not good. One and the same church, consisting of true believers only, can either be viewed in reference to her internal spiritual condition, or in reference to her external manifestation in the world. This is what we have stated…

The church is a congregation of true believers. The unconverted, even though they have made confession of faith, have been accepted into the fellowship of the church, live without offense, and have been admitted to the use of the sacraments, the unconverted, I repeat, are not true members of the church. This is so whether the church is viewed in her internal, spiritual condition or in her public gatherings whereby she manifests herself externally to the world. The unconverted are not members of the external, visible church. Believers only constitute the true church. They alone are members of the church, regardless of how one views them.
This is clearly stated in articles 27 – 29 of the Belgic Confession of Faith…

This confirms the conviction of the Reformed church that only believers are members of the church, while the unconverted are not members of the church, though they be externally in it…

It is one thing to associate with the church and to be accepted as members, and another thing to be true members. The latter does not proceed from the first, for the acceptance of men as members is performed by men, who see only what is before their eyes and cannot judge according to the heart, leaving this to Him who knows the hearts… Therefore they are no members, even though men view them as such externally…

The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol 2 (starting on page 5)

I think that is the only logically possible way to understand the visible/invisible church distinction.

One thought on “Re: Some Vossian Thoughts on the Visible-Invisible Church Distinction

  1. Trent

    Hey Mr. Adams,
    Do you think that Presbyterian covenant theology (single covenant) is more susceptible to the errors of NPP and the federal vision? How so? I am trying to learn more from both sides even though I consider myself an RB.


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