I am grateful to Alastair Roberts, Brad Littlejohn, and Carl Trueman for their contributions to this Theopolis Conversation. I’m grateful for our common devotion to Jesus Christ and His church, for the shared passion for deeper and broader unity in the church, for the recognition that our understanding of the church can erode that passion and our unity. Carl Trueman puts it best: “the distinction between the invisible and visible church has too often been used as an excuse to justify the fragmented nature of the status quo or the fissiparous pathology of modern conservative Protestantism.” I lament with Carl that “too many of us are complacent in our denominationalism.”
I affirm some of what each said. Yet we have differences, and, given the nature of this exercise, the bulk of this response will focus on those differences.
Brad accurately discerns a two-level concern in my original paper. On the one hand, I call attention to misuses of the distinction between the invisible and visible church. On the other hand, I argue that we have no biblical grounds for using the adjective “invisible” to modify the word “church.”
These objections operate at two levels, with the latter the more serious and fundamental claim. Yet the two levels are related. Our language exerts theological pressure. Once we’ve formulated a category of “invisible church,” we risk being bewitched by it. Can we evade bewitchment? Of course; but why put ourselves in the way of temptation? If we can say everything that Brad, Alastair, and Carl want to say without the unbiblical category “invisible church,” why shouldn’t we?
None of the biblical arguments in the responses come close to making a case for an invisible church.
Alastair refers to Paul’s image of a church-under-construction (1 Corinthians 3:9-17), but what is “shown” is not a hidden churchbut the ultimate value of each man’s contribution to the church (v. 13). Of course, as Alastair says, we “cannot yet distinguish [what belongs to the completed Temple] from what will be burned up.” But the fact that some wings haven’t been built yet, or that some walls will eventually need to be demolished, doesn’t make the Temple invisible.
Brad cites a number of phrases from Ephesians 1, which, he claims, “we could not say” if church is defined as “a historical or sociological reality.”[i]But the phrases Brad cites are descriptions of “us.” Who is “us”? The “saints at Ephesus,” a local, visible community of believers in a known ancient city. Brad doesn’t think I’m capable of applying Ephesians 1 to mixed, visible communities. But that’s just what Paul does.
Changing the Subject
At several points, the respondents stop talking about the distinction of invisible and visible church and start talking about related things.
As noted, Alastair uses the image of a building site: The visible church is the church-in-construction, with all its mess and clutter, while the invisible church is the completed building, the eschatological church. The completed building is presently invisible because it’s not yet appeared in full glory.
This is such a rich image that we’ve folded an aspect of it into our promotional materials at Theopolis: Inspired by Alastair, we’ve starting saying that Theopolis isn’t the church but scaffolding to help build and rebuild the church. We look forward eagerly to our eventual obsolescence, when the scaffolding can be removed, along with the backhoes and the cement trucks.
In using this picture, Alastair changes the subject. He turns the visible/invisible distinction into a temporal sequence, a distinction between the presently-visible and the not-yet-visible. I very much like that shift. In fact, “historical/eschatological” is my preferred alternative to “visible/invisible.” But it is an alternative, not a restatement of the same distinction.
Alastair cites the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF 25.1) in support. To be sure, the Confession defines the “invisible” church as the eschatological city of God, but that doesn’t mean that the Confession equates “invisible” with “eschatological.” For the Confession, visible/invisible bears additional freight.
The writers of the Confession have an admirably high view of the visible church. It’s the “kingdom . . . house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (25.2). Yet all the organicbiblical language about the church is applied to the invisible church, which is the “spouse” and “body” of Christ, “the fullness of Him that fills all in all” (25.1).
The New Testament applies each of those descriptions to the presently-visible church. The Bride is the church still in need of sanctification cleansing; one day, she will be without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but before she is perfected, as “visible” or historical church, she’s still Bride (Ephesians 5:25-27). In Paul’s writings, “body of Christ” invariably refers to the “visible” church, the community of believers gifted by the Spirit, the body with many members who teach, serve, lead, prophesy, speak in tongues, heal (Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4:11-16). The “fullness of Him who fills all in all” is Christ’s body (Ephesians 1:23), notthe completed church of the eschaton but the present church-under-construction.
Thus, for the Confession, the “visible/invisible” only partly maps onto the historical/eschatological. “Visible/invisible” also captures a more qualitative difference between a “political” (institutional) visible church and a “spousal/somatic” invisible church. Am I mistaken to detect a hint that the visible church is a crysalis from which the invisible church will one day emerge?
A similar problem lurks in WCF 26.1-2, also cited by Alastair. “Saints” are united to “Jesus Christ their Head, by his Spirit” (26.1). Alastair says that the Confession “closely connects” that union with Christ to “our communion with one another in the visible Church.” But the connection is more ambiguous than Alastair indicates. WCF 26.2 refers to “saintsby profession,” who are duty-bound to maintain fellowship in worship, service, and mercy (26.2). The language of “profession” gestures to the fact that these saints may be mere professors; it’s not at all clear that the saints in 26.2 are united to Christ the Head. They may or may not be. It’s not hard to see why the Confession would introduce this distinction: On its premises, the visible church isn’t united by the Spirit; only truesaints are, and there are false saints in the visible community.
There’s no such ambiguity in Paul, no such duality of holy ones v. professed holy ones. Paul addresses entire churches, including the church at Corinth, as “saints.” Communion in holy things is the “visible” church’s communion in the Spirit and His gifts. Communion among saints is possible because of the Spirit’s bond of peace.
Alastair’s analogy fails for another reason. Imagine this conversation:
Did you hear about the invisible building downtown?
The invisible building, you know, the one with all the scaffolding.
It’s not invisible. I can see the scaffolding and the walls.
But we can’t see the finished building yet.
That doesn’t mean the building is invisible. It means it’s unfinished.
Yes, that’s what I mean. It’s invisible.
Why do you talk so strangely?
The answer to that last question may be, “Because I’m a theologian.”
Theologians use specialized language. Well and good. “Trinity” is rightly used as shorthand for the Bible’s revelation concerning the Father, Son, and Spirit. But our technical vocabulary should capture biblical teaching (which “invisible church” doesn’t). Besides, theologians are supposed to talk about the real world. When the Bible talks about the world, it uses everyday, non-technical language. When it says “God is invisible,” it means God is invisible. If things aren’t invisible, we doesn’t pretend that they are. Why would theologians want to do differently? If we want to talk about the church in different phases of its construction (as we must), let’s talk about the church in different phases of construction. Let’s not confuse everyone by introducing a distinction of visible/invisible that doesn’t apply to buildings.[ii]
Alastair changes the subject again by shifting from the distinction of “invisible/visible church” to a distinction between “divine and human work.” He argues that the former distinction helps us keep the latter in mind. Perhaps. But wouldn’t it be easier to keep the distinction of divine and human work in mind by talking about the distinction between divine and human work?[iii]
Some of the responses come under the “What about?” rubric.
Brad asks, in effect, What about enforcing doctrinal boundaries? This is possible, he says, only if the church has “an infallible magisterium” or “a universal Christian magistrate.” I’m not sure why a magisterium needs to be infallible to enforce boundaries. The Council of Nicaea wasn’t infallible, but it had authority to formulate and enforce Trinitarian orthodoxy. Why couldn’t a future council resolve disputed questions of our time?
Of course, a fallible magisterium wouldn’t be able to end doctrinal disagreement once-and-for-all. Its decisions would be disputable and disputed. That only means that the church’s teaching authority is the teaching authority of a church-under-construction.
Brad wants to know, What about unregenerate members of the church? He insists that “properly speaking, those who are not members of Christ are not members of the church” and asks me to clarify whether “the unregenerate are indeed true members of the church.”
Brad pre-loads every key term in his question. What does it mean to be a member of Christ? What does “unregenerate” mean? What is the force of “true” in the phrase “true members”?
We need something more nuanced than a binary of regenerate/unregenerate to do justice to the New Testament’s witness, which includes such data as: Christ the Vine has branches that are in the vine yet are eventually cut off for their fruitlessness (John 15); some seed falls in shallow ground, springs up with life, only to be choked out (Matthew 13); some taste the heavenly gift and the powers of the age to come and yet fall away (Hebrews 6); some regard as unclean the blood that sanctified them (Hebrews 10:29); some escape the defilements of the world through the knowledge of Jesus only to become entangled and defeated by the world (2 Peter 3:20-22). Ultimately, there are only two destinies – the bridal city and the lake of fire. Along the way, the Bible makes clear that things are more complicated.
Carl asks, What common confession should we use as a basis for a unified church? Several issues are knotted up here. We should distinguish between a starting line and a finish line: A modern ecumenical council may, for instance, make adherence to the Nicene Creed a baseline for entry, but it would want to fill out the common confession. We may begin at the “lowest common denominator,” but we don’t want to end there. Should we relativize doctrinal differences? Of course. Some doctrines are more fundamental than others, and some doctrinal differences may persist mainly by inertia and tribal pride. But churches differ about which doctrines are fundamental and which are not, and so the question of which doctrines to relativize will itself be a disputed question.
Carl also wants me to clarify how major church divisions happen. He doesn’t think it enough to say that they arise simply from divergent readings of Scripture. I agree; even where there are different interpretations, they are bound up with other intellectual commitments, political circumstances, personal pressures. Carl suggests that I’m relativizing differences in a way that belies history and makes it hard to see a way forward.
Let me attempt to answer that question with a brief discussion of post-Reformation Protestantism, and especially of the set of institutions and practices that recent scholars have labeled “confessionalization.” That process involved not only the writing of confessions to clarify the convictions of the different branches of the Reformation, but various institutions and practices that enforced and perpetuated the confessional position.
To ensure that approved doctrine would be taught in churches, each church set up its own training institutions, procedures and standards of ordination, mechanisms for continuing oversight. To ensure that confessional traditions would persist into the future, pastors catechized members, especially the young. Rulers deployed these confessional practices to ensure confessional uniformity in their realms; confessional unity preserved social harmony.
At each stage, the church’s tradition was defined, in part, over-against other churches. Future Lutheran pastors were taught why both Roman Catholic and Reformed were wrong; Reformed ordinands were tested to make sure they weren’t crypto-Lutherans; children were taught differences between consubstantiation and Spiritual real presence. Theologians defended and extended their own confessional traditions.
In the best of circumstances, if every pastor, teacher, and theologian gave his opponents’ views their most charitable interpretation, the system was set up to perpetuate barriers to confessional, liturgical, practical. And we know that the church is never blessed with the best of circumstances. We can be confident that pastors, theologians, and lay members exaggerated differences.
Luther and Zwingli read the Bible differently, but the difference between Lutheran and Reformed traditions was sharpened and by these practices and institutions. Minor liturgical differences, for example, were magnified to reinforce doctrinal differences. The Reformed broke the bread at communion to proclaim, among other things, that they didn’t believe in consubstantiation.
What is to be done? The answer certainly involves “relativizing” certain doctrinal differences. We cannot do that in a way that ignores the history of division. But certainly five centuries after the Reformation it’s a fair question whether the sacramental differences between Zwingli and Luther might be embraced within a wider unified Protestant church.
Beyond that, what’s needed is a different set of institutions and practices that will draw Lutherans and Reformed into deeper unity rather than stressing differences. Theologians, as Robert Jenson says, can start writing for the unified church that the Spirit has promised to give, rather than for their own tribe.
Institution and Ekklesia
At several points, my respondents question whether “institutional” unity is desirable. Brad warns about the consequences of “confusing visible and institutional unity.” Efforts at unity can create new divisions. Besides, Jesus stresses the unity of love, not institutional unity.
A salutary warning. But Brad’s way of stating the question (unintentionally?) polarizes institution and love. What, after all, isthe institutional church? Institutions have leaders or officers, organized activities, administrative habits, budgets and calendars, regularized forms of interaction with other churches. “Institution” refers to people and groups, acting according to established patterns. Or, more theologically: “Institution” names the manifestation of certain Spiritual gifts.
Can’t these institutional activities be done in love? Can’t institutional regulations be formulated in a way that expresses compassion?
What might “institutional” unity among churches mean? It would mean using the institutional gifts of the Spirit for the common good of the whole church. A prosperous Lutheran congregation might devote part of its large budget to help a poorer Methodist church repair its roof. A Presbyterian church with a vibrant youth group might invite members of neighborhood Bible churches to share its activities. Institutional unity means churches using the resources, activities, skills, gifts of a congregation to benefit the whole church, not merely other churches within the denominational family.
Since “institution” implies “leadership,” institutional unity would also involve pastors of different churches loving one another – loving one another in the way they speak to and about each other, loving one another by praying for one another, loving one another by leading the institutions of their churches to serve their brothers in another congregation or denomination.
More fundamentally, the church is institutional in its essence. If the church is to be unified at all, it will be unified as an institution.
Alastair closed his response with an appeal for local unity, unity in the neighborhood. He’s absolutely right. Theorizing is necessary. Sorting through doctrinal differences is essential. But the rubber must meet the road, and the key to the future is, as Alastair says, “a practical rediscovery and pursuit of Christian communities characterized by the virtues of real neighborhood.”
Peter Leithart is president of Theopolis Institute.
[i]I use “sociological” and “historical” to emphasize the this-worldliness of the church. I don’t mean that the church is “merelysocial.” That was plenty clear in my original paper, where I devoted several paragraphs to explaining how the church is uniquely related to the Triune God. Besides, nocommunity is merely social.
[ii]Brad makes a variation of the same point when he says that the church, made up of visible members, is knit together by an invisible thread. Yes; that’s what I said in my article. But we wouldn’t say that the hidden steel girders of a building render the building invisible.
[iii]Alastair is rightly worried about the danger of turning unity into a Pelagian project of human activism and will. Me too, which is why I stressed throughout The End of Protestantism that church unity is God’s gift. But, as Alastair would agree, it’s a mistake to oppose divine and human work as if they were mutually exclusive. That the Spirit of Jesus has knit and will knit the church into one body doesn’t mean that human members of the church need not exert themselves. “Work out your unity with fear and trembling,” we might say, “because it is God who works in you to will and to do according to His good pleasure.”
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