Saturday, March 16, 2019
Not imaginary. . .
The hidden or invisible church is a doctrine of comfort that acknowledges one cannot see the fullness of the church with the eye, nor can one separate the faithful from the hypocrite. This emphasizes the expanse of the church throughout the world, among all nations, peoples, races, and jurisdictions but also beyond the scope of time and place and it acknowledges that until the Lord separates, these remain together in the visible assembly. This church is one, one in Christ and one through Christ and not through human intention, work, or agreement. Yet this una sancta is united with the visible church where the marks or signs are present.
The visible church is where the Word and the Sacraments are, where there are people who hear and believe the Gospel, where there are pulpit, font, and table. Luther put it this way: “Not Rome or this or that place, but baptism, the sacraments, and the gospel are the signs by which the existence of the church in the world can be noticed externally. Wherever there is baptism and the gospel no one should doubt the presence of saints—even if they were only children in the cradle.” Against, from Luther: “And even if there were no other sign than this alone, it would still suffice to prove that a Christian, holy people must exist there, for God’s word cannot be without God’s people, and conversely, God’s people cannot be without God’s word.” “Nor indeed are we dreaming about some platonic republic, as some have slanderously alleged. Instead, we teach that this church truly exists, consisting of true believing and righteous people scattered through the entire world. And we add its marks: the pure teaching of the gospel and the sacraments” (Ap VII:20).
Luther insists that this distinction is one that comes from the Lord Himself: “The Lord Christ commands us not to embrace the false church and he himself distinguishes between two churches, a true one and a false one, in Matthew 7:15: ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing,’ etc. Where there are prophets, there are churches in which they teach. If the prophets are false, so also are the churches that believe and follow them.”
Luther appeals to the early church and insists that the confessors [the Lutherans] had the same baptism, sacrament, keys, preaching office, Creed, Lord’s Prayer, etc. as the ancient church. and concludes “Thus we have proved that we are the true, ancient church, one body and one communion of saints with the holy, universal, Christian church.” What Luther and the Lutherans who are his heirs have refused to say is what Rome insists: that outside this visible fellowship there is not salvation.
Part of the marks of the Church is not only adhering to the true doctrine (catholic) but also condemning false doctrine (heresy). In contrast to other reformers, Luther does not equate purity of life with a sign or mark of the church. The life of the church may leave much to be desired but the doctrine must not be sinful or reproachable. Among the Pietists, this emphasis is reversed; the holiness of life is held perhaps even higher than pure or true doctrine and they held the visible and outward body to be less important and more subjective than did Luther. The church is never invisible because the Word and Sacraments are never invisible though her boundaries may remain hidden and until Christ returns in His glory.
Rome and its defenders begin with the presumption that the church is only rightly visible and that its borders (visible or hidden) are coterminous with those in communion with the Pope. They leave a small crack in the door that those outside the true visible church of Rome might be saved. Some of Luther's spiritual heirs have wrongly overemphasized the hidden or invisible church to the point where the visible church is somewhat of an afterthought or secondary. That is an abuse not only of Luther but especially against the Confessions which do not explicitly use either term. In essence, if the church is everywhere it is nowhere. And to those who follow this dead end, the invisible church is imaginary and there is no compelling move to live beyond this hidden kingdom. For Luther and his rightful heirs, the church is where Christ is -- where His Word speaks, where He absolves, where He baptizes, and where He feeds us His body and blood. We posit the church in the means of grace, the Word and the Sacraments with the pastoral office that preaches this Word and administers these Sacraments, and not an office alone (the papacy) or a man (the pope).
Chemnitz, the second Martin, spends a great deal of ink on the terms visible and invisible. “The church is the assembly of men who have been called and gathered through the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments out of the world to the kingdom of God. In this assembly the elect according to the foreknowledge of the Father are found, namely, those who truly and perseveringly believe in Christ, among whom are mingled the nonsaints, who nevertheless profess the same doctrine.” In other words, this helpful distinction acknowledges that it is God's eye and His judgment that alone discerns the heart and that it is not our duty to harvest the wheat or, as our Lord warns, we would be unable to distinguish them and end up tearing up the wheat with the tares. This distinction is temporary until the Lord would send His reapers into the harvest and separate the wheat from the chaff. So, as I began, speaking of the hidden or invisible church is a doctrine of comfort, like election, and not something which places duty or responsibility upon those who see the church where Christ means her to be seen -- around His Word and Sacraments.
Christians rejoice that wherever the gospel is found, there is the Church. “God be praised,” writes Luther, “a seven-year-old child knows what the church is: holy believers and ‘the little sheep who hear the voice of their shepherd’ [John 10:3]” (SA III:12, 2). In a very real sense and not in some abstract or imaginary sense, then, the church enjoys this complete and perfect unity wherever anyone hears the voice of Christ, even if we rarely see or experience this unity here in time.