The Visible Part of the Invisible Visible Church

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On an earlier post, Green Baggins posted a link to his blog, marking a place where Andy Gilman had responded to something I had written on Scott Clark’s blog. Andy had responded to it on yet another blog, and then sent a copy of it over to Green Baggins, and so GB came over here and asked me what I thought of it. Isn’t the Internet great?

So here’s Andy:

Doug Wilson posted something on Scott Clark’s blog back in early January regarding the visible/invisible church distinction. Here’s something I wrote to another forum after that exchange:

Doug Wilson:

[begin quote]

. . . if you want to have the invisible church existing “in history,” in a way that is distinct from the visible church, then you are out of accord with the Confession. That is because the invisible church “consists of the whole number of the elect.” A partial number of the elect is not the invisible church because it is not the whole number of them. It would make sense to speak of the whole number of the truly regenerate at this moment of 2007, but this is just a partial congregation within the invisible church. It is a subset of the invisible church, not the invisible church itself — just as Christ Church here in Moscow is a congregation within the visible church; we are a subset.

If the invisible church includes the whole number of the elect, then it exists right now in the mind of God. I affirm this, as does Wilkins. If you want it to exist right now in history, then you have to do something about the “whole number of the elect,” which includes current atheists who will be converted tomorrow and saints yet unborn. In short, you cannot have the invisible church, as the WCF defines it, in history. You can have a invisible congregation of the invisible church, but how helpful is that?January 4, 2007 [end quote]

Back to Andy:

According to the WCF definition, says Doug Wilson, the invisible church is an abstraction which exists only in the mind of God. “A partial number of the elect is not the invisible church because it is not the whole number of them.” To speak of anything less than “the whole number of the elect” as the invisible church is contrary to the WCF definition of the invisible church. Yet when the WCF defines the visible church as consisting of “all those throughout the world that profess the true religion,” or when the LC says the visible church is “made up of all such as IN ALL AGES and places of the world do profess the true religion,” Doug seems to have no problem allowing the visible church to exist in history, and to be subdivided. He seems to have no qualms about referring to Christ Church in Moscow (which I’m sure he will allow is not “all those throughout the world that profess the true religion”), as a partial expression of the visible church, without doing injury to Westminster’s definition of “visible church.”

My point is that the “visible church” according to the WCF definition is no less an abstraction than is the “invisible church.” If Doug is going to be consistent he will have to limit himself to talking only about “particular churches,” like Christ Church in Moscow.

But if he takes that logical step, then he should be careful not to talk about the members of his “particular church” enjoying “union and communion” with Christ, because, according to LC 65, “union and communion” with Christ is reserved to those who are members of the invisible church, an entity which doesn’t exist in history according to Doug’s reading of Westminster. It would follow then that “union and communion” with Christ is occurring only in the mind of God, where also the invisible church actually exists. LC 82 and 83 speak of the “communion in glory which members of the invisible church have with Christ,” IN THIS LIFE. So by Doug’s reading of Westminster, we would have members of the invisible church, a thing which doesn’t exist in history, somehow enjoying communion with Christ “in this life.”

And now, back to me:

To review some of the essential issues here, let me just assert a couple things at the outset. I could cite numerous places where I have said these things in my published writing on this subject, but I have done this enough now that I think the average reader will just let me say them again.

1. I agree with the the substance of visible/invisible distinction. That is, I agree that there is a “whole number of the elect” and that the word Church is an appropriate way to speak of these people. I agree that there are professors of the true religion, together with their children, not necessarily elect, scattered throughout all ages, who also should be called by the name Church.

2. In agreeing with the doctrine set forth in the Westminster Confession, I have said that the terms visible/invisible are susceptible to misunderstanding at the popular level, and that I believe the terms historical/eschatological captures the same substantive meaning and are not susceptible to the same misunderstandings. That is my point. Okay so far?

Now, having said this, I agree with Andy’s point about the definition of the visible church in the Westminster Confession. It is an abstraction. But this does not hurt my point at all — it reinforces it. If my point is that the language of visible church and invisible church is clunky, how does it undermine my point to show another area where it clunks?

Andy said this, “My point is that the ‘visible church’ according to the WCF definition is no less an abstraction than is the ‘invisible church.'” But Andy, Lane . . . anybody! Doesn’t this reveal that according to this definition the visible church is just as invisible as the invisible church is? When we use a descriptive adjective like visible, it naturally raises the questions, “Visible to whom? From what vantage? When is it visible? Who can see it?” If the answer is that only God can see the visible church, and this is what we have set up by definition, wouldn’t it be good to find a phrase that points to the same group of people, but does not mislead in this way? To define it in a way that combines the limited perspective of human eyes, but then extend it way past the point where human eyes can take it in, is, it seems to me, clunky. I say this while agreeing that the elect deserve the name of the true Church, the ultimate Church, the real Church . . . dare I say it? the eschatological Church. I say this while agreeing that there are people who do not have a connection to this ultimate Church, but who have professed the true religion and are attached to the Church in time and in history. Let’s call them the historical church.

It seems to me the problem should be obvious. We could illustrate this problem, if we wanted, by speaking of the audible church and the inaudible church. Only God hears the inaudible and genuine cry of the heart, and hypocrites can join themselves to the church, and offer up their lengthy (and very audible) prayers. We are not accustomed to this kind of language, and we have to think about it. Isn’t it obvious that it creates the problem of vantage point? Audible to whom? When?

Now if someone wants to work with the terms visible/invisible church distinction, and bring it down into history by means of stipulated definitions, that is absolutely fine with me. On these issues, I am not trying to grab anybody where the pants hang loose and frogmarch them out of the Reformed faith. What I am saying is that these stipulated applications of the Westminster definitions have to be carefully applied because the application is not nearly as easy as it looks. If the confessional definition of invisible church is “the whole number of the elect” and you bring it down to April 7, 2007, are you staying with the elect, or are you shifting to the regenerate? This is not a simple move, and missteps are common.

That said, I agree with Andy that the visible church in 2007 is a subset of the visible church as Westminster defines it. But I would prefer to use words to describe this that won’t collapse when we put pressure on them. If I say the historical church in 2007 is a subset of the historical church generally, I don’t have to change definitions of historical in mid-discussion. It means the same thing throughout. But the visible church in 2007 is a subset of the visible church throughout all ages, which is invisible to everyone except God. The visible church now is the visible part of the invisible visible church, because most of the visible church doesn’t exist to be visible yet. But when I say historical church, it does not create these questions and situations, and, brethren, please believe me, I am referring to the same people. I just believe it is a more effective way to make the same distinction, and it is not subject to the same objections.

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