An Answer to TE Rayburn, part 6

2. TE Leithart’s views on baptism also are out of accord with the Westminster Standards. Of course, as Jeff Cagle has pointed out, the issue of baptism hinges on the issue of the visible/invisible church distinction. TE Leithart is most clear on this in chapter 3 of his book. His position is that the body of Christ is the visible church, such that being baptized into the visible church means being united to Christ. He argues that 1 Corinthians 12:12 proves this, among other passages (see p. 55). He rejects the syllogism: 1. Baptism admits the baptized to the visible church. 2. The visible church involves an external, conditional, and legal covenant relationship with God. 3. Therefore, baptism admits the baptized into an external, conditional, legal relationship with God. He argues that this is not what the New Testament says (p. 56). Notice that TE Leithart pits the confession against the Scriptures immediately following: “The New Testament applies the language of intimacy to the visible church while the Westminster Confession confines it to the invisible church.” No doubt TE Leithart would only claim that he is going beyond the confession, not against it.

But the syllogism is present in Scripture. It is present in Romans 9:6-10, which plainly indicates an external, conditional, and legal relationship with God (physical descent) that is not equivalent to the internal, unconditional, intimate union (true believers) that the invisible church enjoys. If, however, TE Leithart were correct, then we would have to say that it is possible for a heretical-but-baptized person to have more than an external connection to God. I deny this utterly. This gets at the new category of people that the FV creates, called (not by them) the electrobate. I earlier used to call them geep and shoats.

Furthermore, the passages to which TE Leithart alludes do not support his claims. 1 Corinthians 12, for instance, is not talking about the visible church, but about the invisible church. The baptism by the Spirit in verse 13 points to the thing signified, not to the bare sign. This is clear at the end of the verse, where the same group of people is said to drink of the one Spirit. It is usually argued at this point that Paul is speaking to all the Corinthians, and that therefore Paul can’t be talking about the invisible church here. However, this is not the case, because Paul is speaking using the judgment of charity. He assumes them to be part of the invisible church unless they show themselves to be otherwise. I have yet to see, incidentally, a real attempt at a refutation of the judgment of charity argument. At any rate, it cannot be assumed that simply because Paul is writing to Corinth, that therefore everything he says has to be true of all the members. The same is true of verse 27 in the same chapter. He speaks using the judgment of charity there. TE Leithart thinks that I would be tying myself in knots here (p. 60). On the contrary, the language of the chapter indicates an organic union with Christ, which is not something that can be posited about the reprobate.

Why does TE Leithart’s views here contradict the standards? In a number of ways. Firstly, the special (as in, unique) benefits that the invisible church enjoys include union and communion with Christ in grace and glory (WLC 65), which indicates that the visible church does not in and of itself enjoy union with Christ. Secondly, WLC 68 indicates that those who have the common operations of the Spirit in the visible church “do never truly come to Jesus Christ.” This last phrase is completely unqualified, which means that there is no such thing as a true but lesser union with Jesus Christ that the non-elect can enjoy.

One of the problems here seems to be TE Leithart’s apparent denial that the invisible church is historical. He seems to be saying that those who oppose his view believe that the church is ahistorical (see p. 57). But how can the invisible church be ahistorical? Every member (or at least most members!) of the invisible church is at some point in time a member of the visible church, too. All members of the invisible church have lived their lives in space and time. The invisible church is not merely a way of saying that this is how God looks at the church. For I can know that I am a member of the invisible church. I can know in history that I am a member of the invisible church. The invisible church is not ahistorical.

The formulations of TE Leithart, especially in pp. 59ff, result in a denial of the visible/invisible church distinction. The best he can say for the distinction is that it “captures some of the reality of the church” (p. 59). TE Leithart undermines the distinction on p. 60, when he claims that there is no way to tell whether Paul is addressing the elect within the church or whether he is addressing the whole church. In other words, it is not a biblical distinction, for nowhere can one see it in action, supposedly.



  1. pduggie said,

    February 3, 2010 at 5:53 pm

    You might say you are a member of the invisible church, but you can’t identify any of the other members. They are invisible to you.

    Since the church in either case is supposed to be a community of people, you don’t actually know any members of this invisible club you are a member of. Your only experience of membership is in the visible church

  2. pduggie said,

    February 3, 2010 at 5:55 pm

    Your 4th paragraph you seem to be discussing things as if there were two churches. But you allegedly confess that there aren’t.

  3. Curtis Riley said,

    February 3, 2010 at 6:01 pm

    So where does the invisible church conduct its sessions and presbyteries? When does the invisible church gather together in worship, and how does the invisible church give witness to the world? When does the invisible church perform acts of charity?

  4. greenbaggins said,

    February 3, 2010 at 6:05 pm

    Paul, how do you figure that I am speaking as if there are two churches? In what way am I speaking about the church that is one whit different than how the confession speaks of the church?

    Curtis, how is your comment relevant to my criticism of TE Rayburn?

  5. pduggie said,

    February 3, 2010 at 6:07 pm

    “which indicates that the visible church does not in and of itself enjoy union with Christ”

    There IS no ‘visible church in an of itself’

  6. pduggie said,

    February 3, 2010 at 6:10 pm

    Curtis asks a good question. Surely the [visible] church doesn’t try to give witness to the world “in and of itself” with no union with her head. Surely the visible church isn’t just the spirit working on the natural capacities of human groups.

  7. greenbaggins said,

    February 3, 2010 at 6:59 pm

    Paul, how does “not enjoying union with Christ” equal “not existing at all?” I’m really not following this logic.

    I think I’ll wait on Curtis’s answer.

  8. Jeff Cagle said,

    February 3, 2010 at 7:12 pm

    Pduggie and Curtis: I would agree with Murray that there is one church, two aspects (visible/invisible) rather than two separate churches. In my view, Calvin teaches this when he speaks of “the church as God sees it” over against the Church that we see, both of which are to be regarded as the Church (Inst. 4.1.7 ff.).

    So the government of the church and the fellowship of the church really occur with the “church as we see it.” We are normatively obligated to view our elders and pastors as representatives of God — not in an absolute, authoritarian sense, but in the sense that, in the absence of compelling evidence otherwise, we should assume their legitimate authority.

    Likewise with (visible) church members: we should presume their salvation in our dealings with them, unless compelling evidence presents to the contrary.

    But in all things, we recognize the approximateness of our view: the church is sometimes more, sometimes less visible as WCoF 25.4 puts it.

    It is out of this view, a very “one church” view, that I offered up the criticism of the FVJS, in that it explicitly denies that the visible church is approximate.

    Clearly, our ecclesiology drives our understanding of baptism. As a one-church guy, I’m much more sympathetic to Kuyper’s “presumptive regeneration” than to Thornwell’s “presumptive Esauism.”

    Likewise, I think the FV view would also affect baptism, and move it in a more absolute direction. Since baptism is a mark of membership in the visible church (a given, Reformed thought), and since the visible church is not approximate but the true, historical church (in the FV view), it would seem to follow that all those baptized partake of the benefits of belonging to the true church — and we now arrive at the “in some sense” teachings of Wilkins.

    I say all this just to reassure that criticizing FV ecclesiology does not require us to move to a two-church position.

  9. John said,

    February 4, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    Lane, you write: “1 Corinthians 12, for instance, is not talking about the visible church, but about the invisible church.”

    The Westminster Divines understood it differently, however, judging from the Scripture texts attached to the Westminster Standards. They cite 1 Corinthians 12:18 as support for the statement that baptism is “for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church” (WCF 28.1) as well as for the description of the visible church as “all those throughout the world that profess the true religion” (WCF 25.2).

    Clearly, they thought that 1 Corinthians 12 had to do with the visible church, and if Leithart thinks the same, he’s in good Presbyterian company, isn’t he?

  10. Jeff Cagle said,

    February 4, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    John (#9), I would argue that 1 Cor 12.13 is precisely the kind of passage that works well with a one church / two views thesis.

    It is indeed baptism — effectual baptism through faith — that unites us to Christ. “Invisible aspect” is clearly in view here in 1 Cor 12.13. And that unity with Christ then drives our visible fellowship in the Church, which is what 1 Cor 12 is clearly about. After all, we imagine the futility of trying to apply 1 Cor 12 – 13 solely to the invisible church, honoring only those who are genuinely saved or loving only those who are genuinely saved. Who could ever function like that? It’s self-evident that the visible church is in view.

    So Paul in 1 Cor 12 appears to be speaking to both visible and invisible aspects of the church all at once.


    It’s also evident from the larger context in Corinthians that the visible church is not head-for-head saved. Thus we have the language of 1 Cor 5.11 — have nothing to do with a “so-called” brother.

    From this I conclude that Paul takes, and urges us to take, visible church membership as prima facie evidence, but NOT infallible proof, of membership in the invisible.

    I would need to read Leithart carefully to say, but the quote given does not seem to acknowledge the nuance here.

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