In a recent post I summarized Scottish Presbyterian James Currie’s criticism of Bannerman/Westminster’s understanding of the visible/invisible church distinction. He quoted extensively from a 17th century French reformed theologian Jean Claude who had a famous debate (1678) with French Roman Catholic Bishop Jacques Bénigne Bossuet about the nature and authority of the church. Bossuet published an account of the debate, followed by Claude’s account of the debate, which was translated into English and printed in England in 1687. Claude wrote several other works including an account of the persecution of the reformed church by Roman Catholics in France (which was translated and printed in England, but ordered burned by James II), as well as a two-volume History of the Reformation – translated and printed in England in 1815. Claude is described as “a burning and shining light” whose “well-timed instructions and powerful example diffuse[d] moral and spiritual blessings all around him[.]” You can read a brief sketch of his life here.
What interests us here is that in his debate with Bossuet regarding the nature of the Church, Claude argues for an understanding of the visible/invisible Church distinction that would be dismissed today as an uninformed baptist misunderstanding of Scripture – and yet Claude shows this was the position of the French reformed confession. Claude’s book can be read in full here. Note: Claude refers to Bossuet by his title/position in the Roman Catholic church: Bishop of Meaux (thus Monsieur de Meaux) and previously of Condom (thus M. de Condom).
The debate centered upon the meaning of the statement “I believe in the holy catholic church: the communion of saints” from the Apostle’s Creed. Bossuet argued it refers to “A Society making profession to believe the Doctrine of Jesus Christ, and govern it self by his word” and “’tis consequently visible.” Claude argued rather that it refers to “the company of all those that are truly the faithful, separated from the world by the Word and Holy Spirit of God, according to the purpose of his Election from the beginning to the end of all things.” [Page 6]
Claude argues first that Bossuet’s definition incorrectly limits the “Church” to the its present manifestation on Earth, excluding those presently in heaven.
[B]y the Universal Church must be understood, not barely the visible body, or company of the Faithful at present upon Earth, but that body or company of all the Faithful, which have been, are, or at any time shall be, from the beginning to the end of the World. Thus the Universal Church is, That which is already triumphant in Heaven, that which is now militant on Earth, and that which is not yet in the world, but shall be in succeeding Ages. [Page 4]
Second, Claude argues that even limiting Bossuet’s definition of the Church to the Church presently upon Earth, it is still incorrect. The proper definition of the Church upon Earth is
A Society of such persons, as making profession to believe the Doctrine of Jesus Christ, do truly and effectually believe it; and making profession to govern themselves by his word, do really and effectually govern themselves by it. [Page 9]
Which he adds is “in agreement with all Protestants.”
That is to say, we are concerned to know, whether the nature and essence of the Church consist barely in externals and appearances; or whether something of reality be not required? whether Hypocrisy, and superficial Cheats can make men true members of the Church? or whether something of truth be not necessary also, to know whether wicked men, worldlings, and reprobates, provided they make an outward profession, and can but dissemble handsomely, are real members of Christ’s mystical body, or whether this priviledge do not belong to those that are truly the Faithful?…
The Question is, whether wicked men, let them dissemble never so well, and carry never so fair an outside, do truly belong to this Church, or whether it consist of sincere Believers only. ‘Tis a Church exteriour and visible, I acknowledg it, but it is also a Church interiour, and real; otherwise it would differ nothing from a Phantome, a cheating apparition. ‘Tis a Confessing Church, and publishes the Faith, but it is likewise a Church believing in what it confesses and publishes. ‘Tis a Church, to which not only St. Peter’s Confession must be attributed, but also the principle and ground of that Confession.Matt. 16. 17. Blessed art thou Simon Bar-jona, for flesh and blood hath net revealed this unto thee, but my Father which is in Heaven: And therefore whose Confession proceeds not from Flesh and Blood, but from Grace and Divine Illumination. ‘Tis a Church built upon a Rock, and not upon the Sand, therefore not a Church that Hypocrites are of. ‘Tis a Church built by Jesus Christ; a Church therefore of true Believers only, because such only are built by Christ. [Page 45] …
All our business is to know, what Church this is; M. de Condom will have it all that Society that makes profession to believe, &c. we think it to be that, which making profession to believe, does so really and sincerely.
Election and the Church
I. The Scripture represents the Church to us, as the product and execution of God’s eternal decree of Predestination, or Election; and besides it teaches us, that God in electing and predestinating men, does it not to a mere outward profession of Faith and Holiness, but to an effectual Faith, and true Holiness: And consequently, effectual Faith and Holiness are of the nature and essence of the Church, and not an outward profession only. [Page 9] …
My Church are thine Elect, and thy Elect are my Church; they who are mine, as my people, are thine, as thy Elect; my Communion, and thy Election, have the same measures, the same extent, and do both comprehend the same persons: So that the Election is nothing else but God’s design and project of the Church; and the constituting of a Church, is the putting that design of Election in Execution.
Appellations of the Church
II. The Scripture, when speaking of the Church with reference to God, gives it such appellations as can by no means be restrain’d to a more profession, or allow us to think it can be composed of wicked persons. It calls the Church,Gal. 4. 26. Jerusalem which is above, Heb. 12. 22. the Heavenly Jerusalem, the City of the living God, Ps. 2. 6. the Holy Hill of Sion, Gal. 6. 16. the Israel of God, 1 Pet. 2. 9. A Holy Nation, a peculiar people; Psal. 28. 9. the inheritance of God, Ephes. 2. 22. the habitation of God through the spirit, 1 Tim. 3. 15. the house of God, 1 Cor. 3. 17. the temple of God, 1 Pet. 2. 5. His holy Priesthood, His spiritual house, Ibid v. 9. His royal Priesthood, Eph. 1. 14. His purchased possession, 1 Pet. 2. 10. the people of God. Tell me now, I pray, if the energy of these expressions is not admirably answered, by being reduced to a bare external profession? Would God have sent us a new Jerusalem, a new Sion, a new City from above, and make this up of Righteous and Wicked, Hypocrites and true Believers indifferently? [Page 11] …
Can any man after all this grant, that the Church should be defined, A Society making profession to believe, &c. or imagine that Hypocrites belong to this mystical Divine Body?
Prophecy of the Church
IV. If we search the Scripture yet further, we shall find other Arguments in confirmation of this Truth. Among these I reckon the predictions concerning the Church of Christ, to be met with in the Prophets. Thus it is described by Moses; Deut. 30. 6. The Lord thy God will circumcise thy heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live… Isa. 34. 8, 9… And in another place Isa. 54. 13, 14. All thy children shall be taught of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of thy children, In righteousness shalt thou be established. In the same sense Jeremiah speaks of it Jer. 31. 33., They shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord, for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, for I will forgive their inquity, and I will remember their sin no more. Ezek. 36. 25, 26, 27. Ezekiel says as much; I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean. I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgements… Joel 3:17…
What can all these great and wonderful promises mean? This Circumcision of Heart? This way of Holiness where the unclean shall not pass over? This keeping out of Lions and ravenous beasts? This being taught of God? This universal knowledg, joyned with a pardon of sins? This pouring out of the spirit, which shall take away the hearts of stone, and change them for hearts of flesh? This Holiness of Jerusalem, so as to suffer no stranger, nor Canaanite in the midst of her? I say, What signifies all this, if the form and essence of a Church consist in a bare profession; and if this Communion can be composed of unjust, as well as just, of Bad as well as Good men? [Page 12]
A Supernatural Work of the Spirit
The Church is a Divine and Supernatural work, born only of the Blood of the Son of God, and animated only by his Spirit. [Page iv]
It is the spirit which the faithful receive, and whereof Baptism is a sign: For (says the Apostle) we are all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free, and have all been made to drink into one spirit. Thus you see the band and principle of the Churches Unity. The evident consequence whereof is, that inward regeneration is essential to it, and that as many as have not been washed by, nor made to drink into this heavenly spirit, cannot be parts of this body. [Page 13] …
If any man have not the spirit of Christ, he is none of his [Rom 8:9]. Words of such strength as will not allow us to acknowledg wicked men belong to the Church unless we should make a Church that is not Christ’s. If the Church formally, and as such, be Christ’s, this must be true of all that are of the Church, and participate of that which constitutes it such. Now according to M. de Condom’s definition, wicked men and reprobates may be of the Church; therefore in his opinion they may be Christ’s. Notwithstanding St. Paul avers, that they that are Christ’s, live not according to the flesh; and that as many as have not Christ’s spirit, are none of his; so that he is of a judgement different from M. de Condom’s… That one without Christ’s Spirit may still be his, directly contradicts Saint Paul’s assertion, which positively declares, That he who hath not Christ’s Spirit, is not his. [Page 15]
Hypocrites Not of Christ’s Church
IX. The sundry passages of Scripture concerning Hypocrites, who cloak themselves with such an outward profession, abundantly prove them not to be of Christ’s Church. 1 Joh. 2. 9… 1 Joh. 3. 10… 1 Joh. 4. 8… Jud. v. 12… Mat. 7. 23. Jesus Christ himself says, In the last day he will profess unto them, he never knew them. What colour then have we for making such members of the Church, which is Christ’s Body? But that place of St. John removes all the difficulty, 1 Joh. 2. 19. They went out from us, but they were not of us: for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us, but that they might be made manifest, that they were not all of us. What a plain difference is here made between being among us, and being of us; being among us, is proper for Hypocrites, that are mixed with the Faithful, and joyn in the same profession: Being with us, is sincerely and truly to be of the Church; for which something more than an outward profession is requisite…
[The] visible Church is that of the true Believers only, and that Hypocrites have no share at all in it.
The General Call Not a Call to Outward Profession
X. We read in Scripture of a twofold Call, one by the meer Preaching of the Word, commonly termed an outward Call; the other by the Preaching of the Word, and the Holy Spirit both, stiled an inward Call. Of the first our Saviour speaks,Mat. 22. 14. when he says, Many are called, but few chosen. Of the second St. Paul, Whom he did predestinate, them he also cased, and whom he called, Rom. 8. 30. […] them he also justified. Now the Church, whose very name implies a Call, must needs have been the effect of one of these two just mentioned. But if defined by a bare profession, it cannot refer to one or other of these, nor can it answer the design of either. It does not fulfil the end of the first, for the Preaching of the Gospel does not call men to a meer Profession of believing Jesus Christ’s Doctrine. A Hypocrite is so far from complying with this Call, that he rejects and mocks at it. It does not refer to the second Call, because the Spirit which calls with the Word, is a Spirit of Regeneration, and not bare profession. What Call shall we refer it to then? I know not any third, the Scripture mentions not any, and the nature of the thing will not admit of any. We can consider God in such a case but according to two different capacities, either as a Law-giver, commanding, exhorting, promising and threating, or as an absolute disposer of Events, and so bringing to pass in us the thing he commands us.
Sacraments Only For True Believers
But this is a Chruch which hath, and exerciseth such a Ministry. Who questions it? But does this Ministry belong to the wicked and hypocrites? No. It belongs only to true Behevers, the rest have no part in it; only as they sometimes exercise the external Offices, without any true right to them; or receive them unworthily, under the covering of hypocrisy, and being intermixt with good Christians.
Church Militant and Church Triumphant One Church
XI. I suppose it is a maxim among all Christians, That Jesus Christ hath no more Churches than one, and that this on Earth, together with that in Heaven, make but that one; thus much we learn from the Trent-Catechism it self. A sure method then of discovering the true nature and essence of the Church upon Earth, would be to search into that in Heaven; for it is plain, were these of different natures, they would be no longer one, but two Churches of a several species. Thus much, I think, must be granted, and so likewise must the Conclusion I deduce from it, viz. That either the nature of the Church Triumphant, must exist in a bare profession, or that of the Church Militant cannot.
Is the Church Visible, Invisible, or Both?
The thing then to be examined is, whether the Society of true believers, who only are the Church, be visible or invisible, or whether both in some senses and respects. [Page 23] …
[T]his true Church… hath… a visibility common to it with all other bodies… for the Believers are not Angels, nor invisible Spirits, but in this respect like the rest of mankind…
In this there would not be the least difficulty, had not God’s design, as to his Church, been disturbed by the enemy of our Salvation. For since God calls true Believers only, and since, as we have already shewn, such alone constitute the Church; were it not for what happens from some other thing, there would not be among the outward Professors of Christianity, either Hypocrites, or Hereticks, or Superstitious, or worldly, or profane persons. And thus none but such as are truly the faithful being to be found among them, this outward profession would be a sure means, and an univocal Character to know the true Faith and Regeneration by, and consequently to know the true Church of Jesus Christ as such. So that we need say only thus much, That although the Church were not immediately visible by its inward and essential form, because none can immediately see mens hearts but God only; yet it would be visible by its external form, as by a sure distinguishing Character. For it might be seen by its Ministery and profession of Faith in Christ, and known to such a degree that a man might infallibly and positively say, That is the Church.
But we all know, that is Jesus Christ sowed his good seed in the field of the world,Matt. 13 so to use the expressions in the Parable, the enemy hath likewise sown Tares. That is, that with the true Believers are intermixt vast numbers of men, who […] no more than the appearance and outside of Christianity, and so make the outward profession to be a note subject to mighty uncertainties and equivocation…
So that the Church now, like all other things liable to hypocrisy and dissimulation, cannot be truly known without much difficulty. And whereas, according to the nature of the thing, the Churches visibility and invisibility ought to lye here, that its essential and internal form cannot be seen immediately, and of it self, but may by the mediation of its external form; instead of this, they do now consist further, in a discerning between true and false, a distinguishing betwixt that which is real and sincere, and that which is counterfeit.
We must therefore examine, how this distinction is to be made, because in it consists the visibility or invisibility of the true Church.
[Judgment of Charity]
By the Judgment of Charity, we look upon all within the Body to be true Believers, indifferently; For the searching of hearts being not in our power, but peculiar to God, Charity makes no distinctions, but supposes that things are in truth what they should be; and upon this supposition, we call all that society the visible Church, speaking simply, and absolutely.
[Judgment of Reflection]
By the Judgment of Reflection, having consulted the Rules of Scripture, and the light of Experience, we come to know that there are Tares mixed with the Wheat, and that it is past a doubt, that among these outward Professours, are abundance of hypocritical, superstitious, ambitious, and prophane people. Hence we correct our first notion, and term this Society, a visible mixt Church. Thus in the same external body, we distinguish two different Bodies, one of true Believers, which we look upon as the true Church of Jesus Christ; the other of hypocrites and worldlings, who have only the shadow, and shell of Faith and Regeneration, and consequently do not belong to Jesus Christ’s true Church… [W]e judge of the true visible Church, by that other, termed the notion of Reflection, which excludes hypocrites and worldlings, and confines it self to true Believers only. He supposes without offering any proof for it, that there is no other visible Church, than this whole Body of Professors, and that That of the true Believers is invisible; which we deny…
II. By all I have said concerning the Visibility or Invisibility of the Church, you may know what an unjust accusation they load us with daily, of making the Church utterly invisible, upon pretence that we place it in true Believers only; for if this accusation were true, it would fall not upon us, but upon Scripture, upon the Fathers, and particularly upon St. Augustine, whose Principles we follow intirely. But as St. Paul never thought of making a Church perfectly invisible,2 Tim. 2. 19. though he said, The foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, the Lord knoweth them that are his; and let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity; so neither do we pretend to spoil her of her Visibility, when we say the same thing he did. As St. Augustin hath not made her invisible, though he said all that was related out of him; the same thing must be said for us. [Page 51]
The Visible Church All Who Profess Faith?
Was not M. de Condom in the right, to say, there was not actually any visible Church, but that which he defines, A Society making profession to believe the Doctrine of Jesus Christ, and govern it self by his word? And so no other than that which comprehends good and bad, true Believers and Hypocrites? And was it not fair then to make use of this notion in the Controversy? I answer, the true Church consisting of true Believers only, is not indeed visible, by any certain and distinct sight we can have of it, so as to affirm positively and personally, such or such are of the true Church. When we would carry on this distinction to particular men, disguise and hypocrisie put a stop to it, so that in this sence the true Church will always continue invisible, till Jesus Christ come to make a full and perfect separation betwixt his own Corn and the Enemies Tares, which shall not be done till the end of the World. Thus it is not visible, not only immediately by its internal form in mens hearts, but even by these external Characters, as to certain and distinct visibility, because dissimulation and deceit often makes these marks to be doubtful. All this I grant.
But for all this, we may and must say, that the true Church is visible, truly visible, in other senses and respects. For first of all; it cannot be denied that it is visible at least materially, as they say, because the true Believers that appear visibly in publick Assemblies, partake of the same Sacraments, and live in the same external Order: The faithful do not conceal themselves, nor decline the Holy Exercises of Religion, but on the contrary frequent them, and shew themselves more than other men, remembring that of St. Paul Heb. 10, 25., Not forsaking the assembling of our selves together. Besides, It is plain, that tho the true Church be mixt with wicked men in the same profession,Matt. 1 […]. yet is it visible in this very mixture, as the wheat is visible, tho in the same field with the tares, and the good fish in the same net with the bad, according to the parables in the Gospel; or as true Friends are visible, tho mixt with dissemblers and flatterers. This mixture indeed hinders us from an exact distinction of persons, but still we may with great certainty distinguish and discern two sorts of persons. We are not sure which particular men are true Believers, and which Hypocrites, but we are sure that there are true Belivers as well as Hypocrites; and this is enough to prove the Church visible, according to the Scriptures, and St. Augustin’s Hypothesis…
To talk of two true Churches even in Christ’s sight, one to which the Promises belong as such, viz. That of True Believers; and another to which they do not belong as such, viz. That, whose essence consists in the external profession; besides that it would be advancing a notion contrary to Scripture and Reason, which inform us but of one true Church; would be to argue to no purpose; for wherefore should we argue about a Church to which the Promises of Jesus Christ have no relation? Why should we invest with such glorious and divine priviledges, a Church to which Christ hath promised nothing at all?…
To say we ought to distinguish between two kinds of Promises, one such as respect inward Sanctification, and Salvation, the other respecting the perpetual Visibility of the Ministry, and its Infallibility in the external profession of the Truth; and that the first sort are peculiar to the Elect and true Believers in the Church, but the other belong to the whole Body of that Society making Profession; … this would be to start a Division of the Promises, which the Scripture divided not, for all made there, are made to one and the same Body, to one and the same Church, without distinction…
That we sometimes form an Idea of the Church, by a Judgment of Charity, so looking upon all external Professors in general to be true Believers, and by this Judgment we include in our Notion abundance of People who really and indeed are not of the Church, and consequently have no title to the Promises of Jesus Christ. But this Notion is rectified by a Judgment of Reflection, Exactness, and Truths formed from the Idea’s which Scripture and right Reason give us of the true Church, restraining it to true Believers only; and that the Promises of Scripture must be applyed to it in this last, true, exact Notion only. Add to this, that this true Church being intermixt with the counterfeit, is not indeed so distinctly visible, that we can say with certainly, this or that particular man is a true Believer; for this is proper to God alone; but that it is however visible, in a sure, though indistinct manner, which will go so far as to affirm, That there are true Believers in such an external Profession: Add further, that this Church thus visible, becomes more or less so, according as Corruptions and Disorders are more or less predominant in their exteriour Society; and that sometimes it is mightily eclipsed, partly through the prevalence of worldly, superstitious, and such like Persons; partly through the infirmities of most true Believers; but still that it never was absolutely invisible: Add once more, that this Church now upon Earth, together with that in Heaven, and that which shall spring up in succeeding Ages, are all three that Universal Church, we profess to believe in our Creed: Add, I say, these three last Propositions to the two foregoing, and so you will comprise all I have advanced hitherto; you will be furnished with certain uncontestable Principles grounded upon Scripture, upon Reason, upon the Fathers, and upon experience; by the help of which you will be able with great ease to throw off all those difficulties usually started by the Romanists upon this Subject.
God’s vs Man’s Perspective
To be a member of the Church, it is required that a man be so, not in the eyes of men only, but of God too, who as the Scripture expresses it, trieth the very hearts and reins, and will not be satisfied with a bare outside. [Page iv]
The French Reformed [Gallic] Confession (1559)
We never denied the visible Church upon Earth to be Christ’s Body; not the whole Body indeed, for there is one part of it collected in Heaven, and another not yet in being, but still that part upon Earth is Jesus Christ’s Body, so the Scripture calls it, and we are so far from thinking as he saies, that quite contrary, we prove Hypocrites and Worldlings to be really no part of the true visible Church, by this very Argument, that it is called in Scripture the Body of Jesus Christ. For this reason the visible Church is thus defined in the 27th Article of our Confession of Faith.
[XXVII. Nevertheless we believe that it is important to discern with care and prudence which is the true Church, for this title has been much abused. We say, then, according to the Word of God, that it is the company of the faithful who agree to follow his Word, and the pure religion which it teaches; who advance in it all their lives, growing and becoming more confirmed in the fear of God according as they feel the want of growing and pressing onward. Even although they strive continually, they can have no hope save in the remission of their sins. Nevertheless we do not deny that among the faithful there may be hypocrites and reprobates, but their wickedness can not destroy the title of the Church.]
The company of the Faithful agreeing to follow the Word of God, and that pure Religion grounded thereon, and who constantly make proficiency therein. Now, this Company of the Faithful thus described, is, and is called the Body of Jesus Christ… the visible Church is in our Opinion Jesus Christ’s Body, or which comes all to one, that the Body of Christ, which is the true Church upon Earth, is visible.
[O]f all the Fathers, there is not any that treats of this Subject with such exactness and perspicuity, as St. Augustin does; a Man might compile a whole Volume of what he hath written about it. This Father explaining that of St. John, They went out from us, but they were not of us.
They went out from us, (says he) we lament the loss: But hear the comfort, they were not of us. All Hereticks and Schismaticks go out from us; That is, depart from the Church; but were they truly any of outs, they would not have departed. They were not therefore out members even before they went out, and if so, then there are many within, who, tho they have not yet gone out, are Antichrists. [Augustin. Tom. 9. Tractar. 3. in Epist. Jonnis. Edit. Paris. 1531.] …
These Antichrists are in the body of Christ like ill humours, the voiding of which eases the body: Thus when the wicked go out, the Church finds refreshment; and when the body throws them out, she says, these noxious humours are gone out of me, but they were no part of me; that is, they were not cut away from my flesh or substance, but opprest my stomach while they lay there. They are gone from us then, but be not troubled at it, they were not ours. But how do you prove this? 1 Joh. 2. 19. St. John says, If they had been of us, they would have continued with us. So that you see, many people receive the Sacraments with us, which yet are not any part of us; They have Baptism administred to them, they receive that benediction which the faithful are sensible they receive truly and effectually, the Eucharist, and whatever is in the Sacraments. They communicate of the same Altar with us, and yet are no parts of us. Temptation discovers them to be none. When that arises they are carried away, as with a strong wind, because they are not the true solid Corn. Nothing can be more express. Evil men, tho within the pale of the Church; That is, making an outward profession, yet are not of his Body, nor ought to be reckoned among his Members. These are distempered humours within the Body, but not at all of the substance of the Body, such as do but annoy the Body, and must be evacuated in order to give its relief.
So that St. Augustine’s sense of the Church was, That it consisted only of Righteous persons, and true Believers, and that inward vertues were essential to it, and ought to make a part of its definition…
Observe again what he delivers in his Treatise of Baptism, against the Donatists. Aug. de Bapt. contra Donar. Lib. 1. Cap. 17.
Whether evil men be seemingly within the Church, or evidently out of it, still that which is flesh is flesh. Whether the barren Chaff continue in the floor, or be scattered by the blast of temptation, it is still but Chaff. Carnal and obdurate persons, tho they mix with the Saints in the same Assemblies, are still separated from the Unity of that Church which is without spot or wrinkle…
And in another place of the same Treatise Aug. de Bapt. contra Donatist. Lib. 3. Cap. 19.
Such as oppose brotherly love, whether they are plainly without, or whether seemingly within, are divided from that invisible Assembly which Charity knits together. Therefore St. John says, They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us. He does not say they alienated themselves by going out, but that they were aliens, and that this was the reason why they went out. Thus far this Father does not dissemble his opinion; He will by no means own any but the Saints to be Members of the Church, he totally excludes wicked men and hypocrites; he uses no such nice distinctions between dead and living members, as our modern Controvertists do; in the contrary, he explains what he said, That wicked men were in the Church, by saying, that they seem to be in it; but they only seem to be so, for in very deed they are more foreigners, and such as the Church does not acknowledg for hers…
This Holy Doctor thought it not enough to allow wicked men and hypocrites no place in his notion of the Church, and to make it up of just men only, but he does besides shew wherein the very essential form, that Unity which constitutes a Church, does consist; to wit, not in any thing external, but in the internal graces. In the Circumcision of the heart, and the Glory within: He goes farther still, and makes the Church to consist of the predestinated only, The number, says he, of God’s Elect, are his inclosed Garden, and sealed Fountain, that is, the Church of Christ. How shall we reconcile this Doctrine with M. de Condom,’s who distinguishes between the Church of Christ, and the predestinate, as between a whole and it’s part; who counts the reprobates in too, and blames us for retraining the Church to the number of God’s Elect alone?…
But if St. Augustin be to be believed, we must take the Church in a quite different sense; for a Society made up of none but righteous persons, and true Believers; because to such a one, and no other, do these passages belong. In his Opinion the just alone are the House built upon a Rock, the Spouse without spot or wrinkle, they only have the keys and power of binding and loosing, ’tis their censures only that men ought not to despise, if they would not be looked upon as Heathens and Publicans.
The Wheat and the Tares
[T]he Ministry and the use of it is common both to good and bad, comes to pass only by accident, and from the treachery of the Enemy. Of right it belongs to true Believers only, and its genuine design was for them. Jesus Christ gave it for the assembling of the Saints, and instituted it to increase and cultivate his good Corn. If the Tares use it, or to speak more truly, abuse it, this is contrary to his intention. For his hand never sowed these, but the enemy’s, who rose by night for that purpose. It is sure then that the Ministry of it self does not make up a Church composed of good and bad men, because such only as it was intended to gather, are to be reckoned of his visible Church. Now the Ministry is designed to gather the true Believers, and truly Righteous, not the worldlings and hypocrites in the least. If they thrust themselves into the Assemblies, it is not the Ministry that calls them, but the spirit of the world that sends them thither. An invincible argument that there is no other visible Church, but what consists of true Believers, because they are the only persons call’d to Religious Assemblies; and it is not Jesus Christ, but Jesus Christ’s enemy that thrusts others into them…
If you still desire an Argument of more strength, remember that the visibility attributed to the Church in Scripture, cannot possibly be any other than that we assign it. For as on the one hand we are taught there, that the true Church consists of true Believers only; so do we learn there also, that true Believers are mixt with wicked men and hypocrites: It is there we find the similitudes, of Chaff amongst the good Corn, of bad Fishes jumbled together with the good, of Tares sown among the good Wheat. Now whatever we deliver concerning the Churches visibility and invisibility, is grounded entirely upon these two principles…
III. Hence likewise you may perceive, how unjustly they put that question to us, Where our Church was before the Reformation? For if the Church consist of true Believers alone, as we have shown, ours was then just where it is now, i. e. in the common Field, where Jesus Christ hath sown his Wheat, and the Enemy by Night his Tares… The Field is the World (as Christ says) the good Corn are true Believers, the Tares are the Children of this World. Before the Reformation, the true Believers were mixt with the rest in the same exteriour Profession, as they are still
The Church a Civil Society?
The ground then of all this mistake is, that upon pretence of the Churches being a Society, they immediately suffer themselves to be possest at first with an Opinion, That we are to judg of it almost in the same manner, that we do of a Civil Society; and so never give themselves the trouble of enquiring into the differences by which these two are distinguisht from one another. Hence they have fancied, that the Essence of the Church consists intirely in something External; and that as a man need do no more to become a true Member of a Civil Society, than only live in an outward observance of the Laws; so to become a true Member of the Church, no more was required, than barely an outward Profession of the Faith and Religion; and that there was no necessity at all of any inward Virtues, such as Faith, Hope, and Charity. [Page ii]
[W]hat greater vanity can there by, than to go about to form an Idea of the Church, after the pattern of a Civil Society? [Page iv]
I repeat it therefore once again, That there is not in the World a greater falsity, nor a more sophistical imposture, than the framing such a notion of the Church, after the model of Civil Societies. [Page v]
[W]hen we discourse of a thing that is the work and contrivance of God, and must bear some proportion to the excellency of its Author, we must affirm that Faith, Hope and Charity, and in one word, all the parts of true Regeneration are essential to it; and that this consists of the Faithful and Elect only, excluding thence the Hypocrites and Reprobate. We must not afterwards fancy the Church so be a body or company of men, visible at the same rate that Kingdoms and Commonwealths are; Li […]an, so as to distinguish plainly, and without danger of mistake, the very persons whereof it is composed. [Page v]
National Israel the Church?
I acknowledg the word Church when used in a Civil sense, as for instance when spoken of the people of Israel, does most properly signifie an external and visible company, and so far I am of M. de Condom’s mind, both as to what he urges out of the Acts, and from the Septuagint Translation. But still I assert, that this word when applied to a Christian Society, does not properly denote a visible Congregation, or an outward profession of the Faith, and no more; but chiefly an inward calling, a spiritual communion, and such as that outward is only a consequence of, and does depend upon. [Page 6]
Would God separate to himself a new people, a new Israel, a new Nation, from all other Nations, and require from it no more than an outward profession, which alone works no regeneration at all? To shew that God himself never intended this, observe how himself speaks,Jer. 31. 32. This shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel, After those days (saith the Lord) I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts, and will be their God, and they shall be my people. We must take notice, that all these names above mentioned, are derived from the old figures of the Mosaical dispensation; this the very reading of them plainly testifies. Now this very thing makes directly against M. de Condom’s definition: For as it is essential to a figure, to consist of something External and Corporeal, so is it equally essential to the thing figured, to consist of something Internal and Spiritual. The Church therefore is no longer a Jerusalem, an Israel, a people linked together by outward bands only; this would correspond well enough with the figures of the old Law; but it is a people, an Israel, a Jerusalem, united and compacted by the inward hands of the same Faith, and the same Sanctification. This very term [the Church] is of it self sufficient to confirm this truth; M. de Condom acknowledges the Christians had it from the Jews, Conf. p. 5. which is true. He says the Jews made use of it to signify the visible Society of God’s people, the Assembly which makes profession to serve him. I agree with him in that too. He adds, That the Christians have kept it in the same sense. I am not of that opinion. This word, when applied to the figure, can signify no more than a visible outward Assembly; but when to the thing figured, it must of necessity imply something more, it must denote an inward community, a company, not of Bodies only, but Souls too; Rom. 10. 10. for it is not enough that a confession be made with the mouth, men must also believe with the heart unto Righteousness. [Page 11] …
[I]t may be said, These Prophets [Isaiah, etc] never proceeded so far as a positive Separation, and you [Reformers] have. I answer, The Reason they never separated positively, was peculiar to themselves, as M. de Condom himself acknowledges, to wit, that over and above the real and spiritual Covenant [Covenant of Grace], God had entred into with such as were true Believers among that People; there was besides another Exterior and Temporal one, in which the whole Nation were concern’d, founded upon their being the Blood and Progeny of Abraham, and all bearing about them the Mark of this Covenant (to wit, Circumcision) in their Flesh; so that the true Believers were obliged upon this account to continue in Communion with the People, and could not separate from them positively, by reason of that common Covenant which they might not break. But the case is otherwise with the Christian Church, which hath but one Covenant with God, and that a real and spiritual one, of true Faith, and sincere Regeneration; when, therefore we can no longer maintain this Covenant, by living amongst a People, and under a Ministry which is become contrary thereto, there lies a necessity upon us of separating by a positive Separation…
I confess, That carnal Generation was in that Ancient People, enough to keep up their Succession in Quality of Gods People, with Relation to that temporal Covenant common to them all. Tho it be true too, that this Quality was but very imperfectly discerned in times of general Prevarications; because, if they were then Gods temporal People, they were a vicious and prevaricating People. But, I say, that carnal Generation was not enough to maintain among them a Succession, with respect to the spiritual Covenant; because the Succession here, could be preserved no other way, but by a Participation of the same Faith, and the same Charity. Now the Covenant in which the new People live, is not any longer a carnal one, but purely and solely Spiritual; and consequently, the Succession in it, can only consist in this perpetual Participation of one and the same Faith, and one and the same Charity.
For further reading:
- Church Membership: De Jure or De Facto?
- 19th Century Scottish Presbyterian Criticism of Bannerman’s Visible/Invisible Church(es)
- Witsius: Baptism Belongs Only to the Elect
- John Murray (the Baptist) vs James Bannerman (the Presbyterian) on The Church
- à Brakel (the baptist) on the Visible/Invisible Church
11 thoughts on “The French Reformed Understanding of the Visible/Invisible Church”
Brandon, thanks for doing the digging on this and putting it together. It is edifying to read. I think the idea that Baptists are not in the Reformed tradition can pretty much be put to rest with this. I’m sure some Presbyterians will find it easier to cut the French Reformed out of the use of the term then they will to let us have it though. It is a shame in a way that so many of these historical groups no longer exist to make our point for us (French Reformed/Congregationalists). I feel particularly vindicated reading the sections on the way the church is designed to be visible, and how the hypocrites are never intended in that design. I was banned from the Puritanboard over a year ago for posting a thread titled “The Visible Church & the Invisible Hypocrite.” In it, I basically argued the same point, that the church revealed itself exactly as God commanded it to do so, by profession, and that the issue came from hypocritical professors, wolves concealed in lambs’ skins, who made profession against God’s command. I argued this was the meaning of the visible/invisible church distinction in Reformed theology, and that it was common to Baptists and paedobaptists. Of course, some poorly informed (but certainly conceited) individuals immediately jumped in to explain that I was denying the distinction, and that all Baptists do. Obviously Bannerman’s position is that of the Reformation (according to them). I asked for the claim about Baptists to be retracted given that it was a falsehood and no substantiation was provided. For that move I ended up banned. Anyways, I recount all of that to say I really appreciate your work, and found this very gratifying to read. I hope that it will be read and heeded by many for the sake of the peace of the church.
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I’m glad you found it edifying/gratifying. I was blessed by reading it too. I agree that it puts the issue to rest – or if not here, then definitely my next post 🙂
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