The Invisible Church of the “Westminster Confession of Faith” -- By: Stuart R. Jones

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 59:1 (Spring 1997)
Article: The Invisible Church of the “Westminster Confession of Faith”
Author: Stuart R. Jones


The Invisible Church of the “Westminster Confession of Faith”

Stuart R. Jones

I. Formulation Questioned

On the the Reformation’s eve, John Wycliffe attacked the corruption of the church by defining the true church as the congregation of all who are predestined to salvation.1 The cautious Philip Melanchthon would later answer criticism of the Reformation movement and its view of the church by stating:

We are not dreaming about some Platonic republic, as has been slanderously alleged, but we teach that this church actually exists, made up of the believers and righteous men scattered throughout the world. And we add marks, the pure teaching of the Gospel and the sacraments.2

That marks should be needed to find the church demonstrates an epistemological problem the Reformation faced in attacking the Romanist ecclesiology. Rome, by claiming the four Nicene attributes (unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity) defined in institutional terms, forced the Reformers to refine their understanding of those attributes. In rejecting the purely institutional approach of Rome, the Reformers emphasized a less institutionally tangible and visible notion of the church attributes.3 From this conception the formula “invisible church” eventually developed. Such a formula highlighted possible misunderstandings and difficulties that required theological attention. Concerns about this formula and doctrine continue to be voiced today but now by many within the Reformed community.

In an article cited by Jelle Faber (see below), John Murray questioned the wisdom of defining the church with the term “invisible,” while acknowledging that there are invisible aspects to the church and difficulties in viewing the whole church at once. More pointedly, he questioned the grounding of the visible-invisible church distinction in Scripture. In this article he cites various texts to demonstrate his exegetical concerns and he further notes the serious abuse such terminology can lead to in evading ecclesiastical responsibility.4 This does not appear to be Murray’s last word, however. When it comes to examining the Westminster Confession on this point, Murray’s criticism is more muted:

The distinction between the invisible church and the visible was current in the theology of the Reformation and has continued to be so in certain circles. The Confession states its doctrine of the church in terms of this distinction (Chap. XXV, Sects. I-III). While the distinction between visibili...

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