We have seen how 17th/18th century Dutch theologian à Brakel rejected Westminster’s distinction between the visible and invisible church as two distinct societies with two distinct memberships, in favor of seeing one church of Christ viewed infallibly by God or fallibly by man. We have also seen 20th century John Murray make the same criticism or 19th century Scottish theologian James Bannerman. And now a reader of blog (Craig) has pointed us towards a 19th century Scottish Presbyterian critique of Bannerman to the same effect.
James Currie, M.A. wrote a short pamphlet (~25 pages) “SOME REMARKS ON DR. BANNERMAN’S WIEW OF THAT WHICH CONSTITUTES THE CHURCH OF CHRIST, AS SET FORTH IN HIS LATE WORK ON THE CHURCH” in 1869. If the identification is correct (thanks Craig) Revd James Currie was principal of the Church of Scotland Training College, Edinburgh (see here and here).
Currie’s work is interesting because he confirms my previous observations that Westminster differed from the earlier Continental reformed view on the nature of the visible church (and thus the nature of infant baptism). Currie says he quotes “in nearly every instance, from foreign Presbyterian Confessions of Faith, or their leading expositors. In Scotland itself, though what I here treat as error is very generally received as truth.” (16) He quotes extensively from a 17th century French reformed theologian Jean Claude who had a famous debate with French Roman Catholic Bishop Jacques Bénigne Bossuet about the nature and authority of the church (see here and my summary here). He quotes extensively in the Notes from the Continental reformed confessions on the church. He also commends “The True Idea of the Church, by Dr. Hodge of Princeton College, reprinted in Edinburgh some few years ago.” This appears to be a full compilation of three essays written in the Princeton Review (see my summary Hodge’s (Baptist) Understanding of the Visible/Invisible Church), wherein Hodge argues for two Abrahamic covenants.
What is even more interesting is that Currie also commends John Cameron’s treatise on the church (De Ecclesia). When faced with the question of the nation of Israel’s relationship to our understanding of the visible church, Currie adopts a very Cameronian explanation of the nation of Israel as typological of the Church. As Samuel Renihan explains in From Shadow to Substance, Cameron developed the subservient covenant theology view adopted and built upon by 17th century Congregationalists and Particular Baptists in their rejection of Westminster’s covenant theology and ecclessiology.
Visible Church Distinct from the Invisible Church
To the query, then, why I stand forth as an objector, I allege, as an adequate motive, the desire, even though the point were far less momentous, to clear the truth of God from misconstruction. (19)
The focus of Currie’s criticism is Bannerman’s view that the Visible Church is in fact distinct from the Invisible Church.
He thus introduces this part of his subject (pp. 8, 9), “Over and above that unseen society, consisting of the whole number of the Elect spiritually united to Christ, there is set forth to us in Scripture, another society externally connected with Him, and standing out visibly before the eyes of the world… having a character and a membership altogether different from the first.”… [W]hatever may be “its symmetry of plan,” the superstructure does not seem to me to rest upon a scriptural basis… [H]is assertion that the Church thus defined is “invisible” (pp. 7, 8), nay, “purely invisible” to us (p. 74), is, I think, not scriptural. (8, 4-6)
He acknowledges that Bannerman claims that he does not mean there are two churches. Bannerman said
It is not to be identified with the Invisible Church, for men may belong to the one society who do not truly belong to the other. Neither are the two to be wholly placed in opposition to each other, for they do not form so much two separate Churches as one Church under two distinct and different aspects (Note I). (8)
However, Currie (like à Brakel) argues Bannerman is trying to have his cake and eat it too.
Professor Bannerman’s self-contradictory statements in this sense, though uttered more or less falteringly, are so many and so obvious as not to need specification… The epithet “another Church” is of frequent recurrence, and the following extract will show his self-inconsistency still more clearly. In vol. i. p. 29, he writes, “It is not unimportant to remark that when we speak of the Church Invisible and Visible, we are not to be understood as if we referred in these designations to two separate and distinct Churches, but rather to the same Church under two different characters. We do not assert that Christ hath founded two Churches on earth, but only one.” That a duality of Churches founded by Christ, though frequently taught by the Professor in equivalent phraseology, is not asserted by him in these ipsissima verba, is not alleged, but how are we to reconcile what he goes on to say with the substance of his disclaimer? He proceeds, p. 30, “There is an outward government established for the order and regulation of the elect, outward ordinances adapted and blessed for their improvement, outward discipline for their purification and protection. All this necessarily implies an outward and visible society, embracing and encompassing the inward and spiritual, in other words, an outward Church within which the Invisible Church of real believers is embosomed, protected, and perfected. (18)
The present Dean of Ripon (Lectures on the Church, p. 19, 8th edition) says, “Thus there are two Churches, or the Church in two senses,” as if these phrases were synonymous. So, p. 18, he writes,—“There were two Israels, or Israel in two senses.” If the Church, however, mean the aggregate of those who comprise it, it would be difficult to show how one and the same Church or society, viewed in any number of senses or aspects, could be, as the word or implies, a second, i.e., another Church or society, so as to constitute “two Churches.” The sentence here quoted is but a specimen, though a glaring one, of the loose mode of treating the question of the Church. Were the Scriptures resorted to in the first instance to learn there what our opinions ought to be, and not simply to prove extra-scriptural views, grounded on human and conventional teaching true, such mistakes could not be made. (Note I)
I would observe, then, that whereas God has seen fit to institute but one Church Universal, Dr. Banner man and the Westminster Confession define two such. This accusation, urged so persistently by Romanists, is strenuously denied, but cannot, I think, be disproved by those who accept the teaching on this head, here called in question. That the august title, “the Visible Church of God, or of Christ,” is very popularly given to an heterogeneous and in fact a hybrid aggregation, composed of mere outward professors as well as of the elect, is sadly true; but does Scripture sanction such an application of the title? If it do, let the permissive passage be shown. (17)
Outwardly Christ’s but Inwardly Satan’s
NOTE H, p. 8.
“Not only true believers, but hypocrites.” Whilst Augustine says, “Christus non potest habere damnata membra,” and Zanchius, “that hypocrites and reprobates,” “membra sunt Satanae non Christi,” I find it asserted in Fulwood on the Visible Church, p. 54, that “the same person may at the very same instant of time, be both a member of Christ and a member of Satan, in divers respects. A member of Satan internally, of Christ externally, and yet both really ; a member of Satan by obedience, of Christ by profession ; of Satan habitually, of Christ relatively; of Christ by covenant, of Satan by service; a member of Christ’s visible kingdom, of Satan’s invisible kingdom, and both really and truly so. As a man that is openly and really the husband of an honest wife may yet be the member of a harlot by a close and unreserved course of uncleanness with her; even so, one that is really and openly in covenant with Christ, and truly a member of his body, may yet, by a secret course of unfaithfulness to Him, be also a member of Satan.”
I once thought that Hooker’s saying (Ecclesiastical Polity, book iii. sec. 7), founded probably upon one of Bullinger’s in his Decades, that “the imps and limbs of Satan.” (why not Satan himself?) “provided they make an eacternal profession of Christianity, even as long as they continue such, may be, and often times are, constituent members of the visible Church of Christ,” was the ne plus ultra of profanity. What I here quote is at least an imp and limb of Hooker’s dictum, more foul and filthy even than its parents, to one of whom (Hooker) it appeals for countenance. And yet Fulwood’s book, published in 1657, is recommended by the Moderator of the Devonshire Presbyterian Association in the name of his brethren, of whom the author in all probability was one… Augustine, as we have just seen, denies that Christ can have any damnata, or putrid or dead members; and so, most assuredly, do the Scriptures, as, e.g., Eph. iv. 16.
The Visibility of the Invisible Church
Rather than two separate constitutions, memberships, societies, or churches, the distinction between the visible and invisible church is to be understood in terms of perspective – God’s vs man’s.
[T]he Church is, as to its constituent elements, that which it is as seen of God. We are bound, in the judgment of charity, to treat as members of the Church those who make a credible profession to be such, but owing to our fallibility the judgment of charity may not always be that of truth, whilst those who merely seem to be God’s chosen people, contribute nothing to the Church’s visibility as respects itself or us… God’s Church is that which He sees to be such, and our judgment neither adds to nor takes from it a single member. (29, 15)
He quotes Jean Claude
Having defined it to be the society of true believers only, he adds (Answer to Bossuet’s Dis course of the Church, p. 31), “This true Church, being a society of men, and so a body that hath its external order, as all other Societies have, has likewise consequent to that a visibility common to it with all other bodies. Thus much is necessarily supposed, for those who believe are not angels nor invisible spirits, but in this respect like the rest of mankind.” Further on he says, “The true Church is visible, and truly visible. For, first of all, it cannot be denied that it is visible at least materially as they say, because true believers are men who appear visibly in public assemblies, partake of the same sacraments, and live in the same external order.”
I ask, if the Church of those “who are written in heaven” cannot be discerned by us, how can Christ’s disciples, as such, be truly likened to “a city set on an hill, which cannot be hid”? or be commanded, as “the light of the world,” to let their light shine before men?… [T]he graces of the Spirit, planted in the soul, though themselves invisible, yet discover their life and being, in the tract of a Christian life, his words and actions, and the frame of his carriage. Thus faith shows that it lives, as the apostle James teaches at large” (chap. ii. 14-26)… Visibility has its degrees of more and less, nor is our discrimi nating faculty invariably accurate, yet after these necessary deductions we have still that “probability of knowledge,” which our daily experience, as well as Bishop Butler, assures us is “the very guide of life,” and not unfrequently rises into the region of “moral certainty.”* Thus it was that Barnabas (Acts xi. 23), “when he had seen the grace of God,” was not merely gladdened, but quickened by it to further labours of love. He saw it, not, doubtless, in its essentially constitutive principle, but in the tempers and conduct of the Antiochian converts. Let me add, that if (Note F) no such limited but practical visibility existed, Christians, unable to distinguish from others their brethren in Christ, could not do the special good enjoined (Gal. vi. 10) “towards the household of faith,” nor add to god liness brotherly love as distinct from charity (2 Pet. i. 7), nor admonish one another (2 Thess. iii. 6, 15), nor discharge to Christ’s brethren the offices of love by which our faith will here after be tested (Matt. xxv. 35-45), with any satisfactory evi dence that they were carrying out His injunction. As, then, to the real though modified visibility I seek to uphold, I aver that, as there is nothing in God’s Word to favour the notion of “a purely invisible Church,” so there is in it nothing whatever that “may not well be reconciled” with the fact, that in its militant portion the Church of the Elect is discernible by man, imperfectly indeed, but really and practically. (7-8)
The Nation of Israel
In behalf of the mixed composition of that Church to which alone the Professor attributes visibility to men, viz., one which may be made up of “hypocrites as well as true believers” (p. 32)… he urges two things: the dealings of God with the nation Israel as such, and also some of the New Testament parables. This is his argument from the first of these (p. 33), “There was a Church Visible standing in an external relation to God, and embracing in it many who belonged to God only after the flesh; and within the bosom of that external Church there was another, the Invisible, standing in a spiritual relation to God, and em bracing in it none but His spiritual people.” He continues, “That former dispensation has passed away, and another has succeeded it of a wider range and more elevated character, yet the principle of God’s dealings with His people is still one and the same. He still provides for the benefit of His own believing people an outward framework, so to speak, of ordinances and external administration, within which His invisible Church is hid.” (12)
Carrie adopts a subservient covenant view to answer “the Scottish Presbyterian view” on this point.
The Jewish nation was, in a sense of the term, an Ecclesia. It was a body composed of all the human beings who sprang, from Abraham’s loins, irrespective of any other consideration, and consisted therefore of Israelites after the flesh only, as well as of such as were also the children of his faith. But under the New Testament, where is there anything analogous to this temporary and typical state of things to be found?… [T]o say that professing Christendom at large has been divinely substituted for the outward Israel, is simply to beg the question at issue. Under the Sinaitic covenant, an outward Church sheltered and promoted the development of that of the the shell of a nut to its kernel, but the object of that relation having been attained, the shell has been broken, and, for a time at least, cast away. They are declared (Phil. iii. 3) to be “the circumcision now, which worship God in the spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh;” or, as the Holy Ghost elsewhere (Gal. iii. 26-29) writes, “They that are Christ’s, whether Jew or Greek, are ‘Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.’” Since then the outward Ecclesia under the Law exists no longer, and has not been replaced by Him who alone is competent to do so (Note L), Dr. Bannerman, though his reasoning requires it, cannot argue from that which obtained under the Law to what now exists under the Gospel. If I am mistaken when thus speaking, let my error be scripturally demonstrated. (13)
From Note L:
“Under the New Testament God did not constitute any typical or figurative Church, as He had done under the Old. His Dove is one, and consists of true believers only.” “It is true the enemy scatters his tares among God’s good corn, but this neither makes a true Church nor a typical one, for the typical Church was of God’s own institution, but these tares are not so.” Claude thus concludes—“viz., that under the Old Testament there was a typical Church, of which God Himself was the Author and Founder, whereas under the New there was to be a spiritual Church, composed of His elect, and to be no other besides that.”—Bossuet’s Reflections Examined, pp. 84,85.
Dr. Bannerman, confounding together, as is unhappily so com mon, the very distinct ideas of that which constitutes the Church, and the condition on earth of its militant portion, speaks of it as “described by our Lord under the expressive title of the kingdom of heaven,” adding, that “on one occasion He said that the kingdom of heaven” (that is, according to Dr. Bannerman, the visible Church) “is like unto a net that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind.” Daillé (Catéchisme des Eglises Réformées, tom. i. 543) affirms that “It is nowhere said in Scripture” (Note M) “that the Church is represented in these parables (Matt. xiii.), but simply its state in this world, where we allow that it is often mingled with hypocrites living in the same locality, or on the same threshing-floor, meeting in the same place of public worship, and making the same profession, but who are not on that account the Church. The chaff is indeed on the same floor with the good grain, but nevertheless is not the grain. The tares, though growing together with the wheat, are not wheat. The goats are sometimes penned in the same fold with the sheep, but who would be silly enough to say that hence they are sheep? It is thus as regards the wicked, who, in the same mass as the good, are not therefore themselves good. We say then that the threshing-floor spoken of in the Gospel signifies the present dispensation, during which hypo crites and profane persons mingle themselves with the faithful so speciously, that the Lord alone in many cases can separate them from it. The net we maintain to mean, not the Church” (if it do, what do the fishes signify),” “but the preaching of the Gospel, which attracts both the good and the wicked, but which transforms and brings into the Church the elect only, the rest remaining in their natural corruption. The field in which the tares and the wheat grow together is not the Church, but the world, as the Saviour explains it, whilst the room in which the hypocrite was found seated at the table with those invited, is each particular assembly, in which the wicked often deceive the eye of men, and pass for good and faithful, who, however, as St. John witnesses, are not such, for he says, “They are not of us, though they went out from us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us.” If, however, we believe our adversaries, they were of us, since they professed to be so, and since also, according to their” (the Romish) “teaching, profession suffices to make a man a true member of the Church. They have nothing else of moment on this subject to object to us, and we conclude, therefore, that the faithful are the mem— bers of the Church, and that the hypocrites and the profane, whatever they profess, are not of it, unless they are changed.”
Mr. Arnot on the Parables (p. 82), writes:—“‘The field is the world,” said the Lord; “The field is the Church,” say the interpreters. It is wearisome to read the reasonings whereby they endeavour to justify their assumption.”
In response to Bannerman’s claim that “there are external privileges which he [the unbeliever] may and does obtain in consequence of his mere outward profession and observance” (p. 31), Currie responds
This statement seems to me very melancholy, and as much opposed to the truth of God, and as suited to lead astray in a matter of very great if not of vital moment, as though an enemy to His truth had penned it. My notice of it must needs be very elementary, but it does strike me as utterly irreconcilable with the inspired declaration (Rom. viii. 9), that “if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His,” and consequently not a member of His one body the Church. Again, to those whom He is said to have invited to join His Church, who complied with the invitation, and who were then “made par takers by Him in the external privileges and ordinances of a Church state” (p. 31), how will He be able to say with truth, as we know (Matt. vii. 23) He will say, “I never knew you,” that is, evidently, I never acknowledged and owned you as Mine?… (20)
Daillé may well ask, “How canst thou range in the Church” (thus supposed by thee to be in great measure constituted) “those against whom the gates of hell are con tinually prevailing” (Matt. xvi. 18), “or how say that in all ages hypocrites, for such compose the Church, etc., as well as His believing people, shall be protected and preserved by Him, notwithstanding the opposition of all their enemies?” (22)
If glory to God is to be given in His Church by Christ Jesus (Eph. iii. 21), not only in heavenly places (Eph. iii. 10), but on earth (Luke ii. 14, 1 Pet. ii. 9-12), and if, consequently, men created anew in the moral likeness of the Deity and acting under the leadings of the Holy Spirit, are to be the instruments in thus glorifying Him by the living out the Gospel, then to teach that those are members of His Church who are still in reality the bond-slaves of sin and Satan, is to thwart the very design of God’s Ecclesia. Dr. Bannerman writes, p. 78, “The Visible Church can never be completely, and in all its parts identical, in this world with the Invisible,” but unless God have seen fit to interpose a physical inability additional to the moral, it is still our bounden duty to tend in honest effort at least towards the ideal of the Church militant, as composed only of believers imperfectly but truly regenerated. Sinless perfection will not be attained on this side the grave, but on that account to aim at anything less would be to sin; nor will our obligation to give glory to God in His Church be discharged by lowering its prescribed standard. Though forbidden the use of violence in the attempt to pull up the tares, and though the strictest discipline may have only a partial success, it must still be enforced; but its failure in a measure will not warrant our placing by the side of the one holy Catholic Church one of our own imagining. (24)
Addendum – Continental Reformed Confessions
Currie provides the following in an end note
NOTED, p. 7. “The Reformed Confessions.” The Tetrapolitan (A.D. 1539) Art. xv., “Of the Church,” having defined it as consisting of true believers only, says, as to the Church’s visibility, “Although that whereby this congregation hath obtained to be called the Church and company of Christ (to wit, faith itself cannot be seen), yet the fruits of that faith can be seen and known, and of them a certain Christian conjecture can be made. These fruits be chiefly a bold profession of faith, a true love offering itself to do humble service to all men, and a contempt of all things.” It further speaks of those fruits as visible “that in the same we may be instructed, admonished, and help one another.”
The later Helvetic Confession, teaching that the Church is “a company of the faithful, who do truly know and serve the true God—by the Word and by the Spirit,” adds (sec. 8) that “they do thereby declare (i.e. clearly show) themselves to be the disciples of Christ by continuing in the bond of peace and holy unity.” To harmonize with such a statement, the declaration of the Confession (sec. 9), “Whereupon the Church of God may be termed invisible,” etc., must refer to such seasons of persecution and comparative obscurity, as it had just mentioned, and is explained by the words that immediately follow —“not that the men whereof it consisteth (i.e. the Church) are invisible, but because being at such times hidden from our sight, and known only to God, it cannot be discerned by the judgment of man.
The Bohemian Confession (given Reformation of Bohemia, vol. i. p. 101), says, “We believe that there is one holy Catholic Church, always abiding and the same, while here in this world is a visible assembly of believers (not merely outward professors) who in all places adhere to the true and pure doctrine of Christ.”
The Basle Confession (1532) makes the “holy Christian Church, i.e. a communion of saints (Rom. i. 7), a gathering together of the faithful in spirit, to consist of such as show forth their faith by the works of love,” whilst the English Article 19 terms “the visible Church of Christ a congrega tion of faithful men.” Archbishop Whately and Mr. Litton would make the Article to say “a visible Church of Christ,” and would reduce the term “faithful” to mean simply a profession of faith, not necessarily working by love; but the definition of the Anglican Church in the nearly contemporaneous Homily for Whitsunday, Part ii., which describes it as composed of the faithful and elect people, surely does away with the objection. Even as late as 1618 the Synod of Dort, Article 27, speaking of the Church as consist ing of such as are washed in the blood, and sanctified and sealed by God’s Holy Spirit, goes on to say that “the company of hypocrites which are mixed among the godly in the Church, yet are not of it,” and further states, “but as touching the members of the Church, they may be known by the marks of a true Christian, i.e., by their faith, and when having received Jesus Christ their only Saviour, they flee from sin and follow righteousness, and crucify the flesh with the works thereof.” I would here add a Scottish Confession as much to the point of my argument as any of those just quoted, though as being of the 16th century it must, according to Dr. Bannerman (p. 62), be viewed as “a somewhat loose and popular definition.” Compared with the Westminster definition, it seems to me to justify the charge Dr. Bannerman relates of a fundamental, but not progressive change of view as to what constitutes the Church :—
“The Holy Catholic Church the Communion of Saints.
“We constantly believe that there is, was, and shall be till the coming of the Lord Jesus, a Church which is holy and universal, to wit, the communion of saints. This Church is holy because it receives free remission of sins, and that by faith only in the blood of Jesus Christ. Secondly, because it being regenerate it receiveth the Spirit of sanctification and power, to walk in new ness of life and in good works which God hath prepared for His chosen to walk in.’ Not that we think the justice of this Church, or any member of the same, ever was, or ever yet shall be, so full and perfect that it needeth not to stoop under mercy; but that because the imperfections are pardoned, and the justice of Jesus Christ imputed to such as by true faith cleave unto Him; which Church we call universal because it consisteth and standeth of all tongues and nations, yea, of all estates and conditions of men and women whom of His mercy God calleth from darkness to light, and from the bondage and thraldom of sin to His spiritual service and purity of life; unto whom He also communicateth His Holy Spirit, giveth unto them one faith, one head and sovereign Lord, the Lord Jesus Christ, one baptism and right use of sacraments; whose heart also He knitteth together in love and Christian concord.”—Book of Common Order, received and used by the Reformed Kirk of Scotland, ch. ix., Order of Baptism—Exposition of Creed before Baptism.
For further reading: