Saturday, March 16, 2019

Not imaginary. . .

The charge often laid against Luther and his spiritual heirs is that such talk of an invisible church is really an imaginary church -- something that does not have earthly reality but is only spiritual.  Others complain that this sets up a distinction between two churches -- one apparent where the Word is preached purely and faithfully and the Sacraments administered according to Christ's intention and the other one which is simply out there somewhere, inaccessible to eye or touch.  While it is true that later Lutheran dogmaticians made more of the terms visible and invisible than did Luther or can be explicitly found in the Lutheran Confessions, the roots of this distinction are ultimately Biblical and not Luther's.

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.


William Weedon said...

Like. And the later dogmaticians tried hard not to let things fall into two:

We do not hold that there are two churches, one true, real, and inner, the other nominal and outward, but we say that one and the same church, namely the whole assembly of the called is considered in two ways, namely inwardly and outwardly, or in respect to the call and outward fellowship consisting in profession of faith and use of the Sacraments, and in respect to inner regeneration and inner fellowship consisting in the bond of the Spirit. We grant that in the former way also hypocrites and unholy persons belong to the church, but we hold that in the latter way and respect only they who truly believe and are holy belong to it. -- Quenstedt, *The Church* p. 37

Because the ministry of teaching the Word and administering the Sacraments strikes the senses, therefore the assembly of the called is called the visible church; but because it is not visible to human eyes who then the true believers and pious are in that assembly, therfore in respect to them the church is called invisible.—Quenstedt, *The Church* p. 18

Carl Vehse said...

The sophistic wordplay accompanying a cutsy image) concerning the "terms visible and invisible," "being made more of," and "explicitly found in the Lutheran Confessions" are deceiving, because the Lutheran Confessions (e.g., Ap.VII.5,13,16-20; SA.III.XII) clearly explain that the Church is originally a fellowship of faith and of the Holy Ghost in hearts (i.e., not visible)that the Church is kingdom of Christ which has not yet been revealed, that the Church is not imaginary, and that this Church, a congregation of saints, is and abides truly upon earth.

And Martin Luther also explicitly explained that the Church was invisible, when he wrote (Dr. Martin Luthers Saemmtliche Schriften (St. Louis Ed., 1888, p. 1445):

"21. Gleichwie nun der Fels, der ohne Sünde ist, unsichtbar und geistlich ist: also muß auch die Kirche, die ohne Sünde ist, unsichtbar und geistlich sein, die man allein durch den Glauben begreift. Es ist je vonnöthen, daß der Grund Einer Art sei mit dem, das darauf gebaut ist; wie wir auch im Glauben sagen: „Ich glaube, daß Eine heilige christliche Kirche oder Gemeine in der ganzen Welt ist.""

(Now just as the rock, which is without sin, is invisible and spiritual, perceptible by faith alone, so also it is necessary that the church be without sin, invisible and spiritual, which one comprehends only by faith. It is necessary that the foundation be one with the structure, as we also say in faith, "I believe that there is one holy Christian church or congregation in the whole world.")

Luther also praised God that even a child seven years old understands this meaning of "eine heilige christliche Kirche."

As for those claiming to be Lutheran, but who sound like closet Romanists, here's what J.T. Muller had to say about them: "All who affirm that the Church is either wholly (papists) or partly (modern Lutheran theologians) visible destroy the Scriptural concept of the Church and change it from a communion of believers to an 'outward polity of the good and the wicked'."

Carl Vehse said...

Regarding his Protestation Thesis 8. "The true church, which we confess as the invisible church, is not to be superstitiously identified with the visible church," Dr. Carl Eduard Vehse wrote (trans. Fiehler, 1975):

"In the Third Article of the Apostles' Creed we confess, 'I believe in the holy Christian church.' The true veritable church which we confess must be the invisible church, for it would be a contradiction to confess a visible church when faith is the evidence of things not seen.

"Luther I, 444b, Jena ed. 'The church of Christ says, I believe in a holy Christian church. The muddled church of the pope says, I see a holy Christian church. The one says, the church is neither here nor there; the other says, the church is here and there.'

"Luther I, 445, Jena ed. 'Christ says Matth. 14, that the gates of hell shall avail nothing against the rock and against the church that is built on the rock.... Since neither a specific person or city can be singled out against which the gates of hell may not prevail (in which there could be no sinners) it is clear enough that the holy Christian church may not be physically defined, but must be believed in and must remain a Spiritual city which the Spirit has established on Christ as the rock.'

"To this true invisible church belong also individuals in various churches or congregations large and small, wherever in the world they may be, perhaps made up of only two or three who hold to outward confessions and have inner faith in Christ. It is therefore anomalous, though the expression is current, to speak of a true visible church. The true visible church is only a humanly political concept, referring to an external assembly of those who have the outwardly recognizable marks of the truth. For the true church is not visible, but invisible, believed in rather than seen. The evangelical-Lutheran church is called the true visible church, though within it true believers are comprehended together with hypocrites and godless persons in an external communion; thus the word 'true' relates only to outward evidences. Essentially, this true church in its full extent is invisible, and only the invisible church is actually the true church because more than any other church it holds to the external marks of the truth. With this church may stand also many other persons, not in outward association with her, who still have the true understanding of the evangelical-Lutheran church concerning Christ and also have faith in him. 'The Lord knoweth them that are his,' 2 Tim. 2:19. Only members of the invisible church are saved, for only they are in the inner communion of saving faith."

Anonymous said...

It is fun to watch Strickert react like a Pavlovian dog to all such posts. Has he nobody in his life he trusts to help him realize what a total jackass he always makes of himself? Apparently not.

Sad. But cheap entertainment.