Some Vossian Thoughts on the Visible-Invisible Church Distinction

I’m reading the 5th volume of Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics right now, and he has a very interesting analogy for the relationship of the visible aspect to the invisible aspect of the church:

The invisibility of the Church must be further defined: a) It is not ascribed to the Church in an absolute sense, as if the Church raised to its perfection and having reached its goal would still be an invisible entity-that is, something that by its nature cannot be seen. Such a dualism would be completely intolerable. The invisible is oriented toward the visible and vice versa, as the soul to the body and the body to the soul. When the Church is perfect, it will also be entirely visible as well as invisible, and the former will be an adequate manifestation of the latter…Believers do not have a different body than unbelievers. If they did, we could easily distinguish between the two, and the invisible church would coincide with the visible. In this respect, Rome, accordingly, anticipates the heavenly and the perfect as it in other respects repristinates-that is, draws out the old again from the days of the old covenant (pp. 15-16, emphasis added).

Further on, he makes some very important qualifications vis-a-vis the overlap of the visible and the invisible. The analogy given above of the body’s relationship to the soul, after all, could be misleading if not qualified carefully. They are not two separate churches:

If then it is established that one may not identify the invisible church with the visible, the question still remains unanswered: What is the connection between the two? One may not place them beside each other dualistically as if there were two churches. The Reformed have always taught that the distinction between the visible and invisible church is not a bifurcation of a generic concept into two species, but simply the description of one and the same subject from two different sides…The visible thus everywhere presupposes the invisible, rests on it, derives from it is right of existence…Someone has quite rightly observed that although sand is mixed with gold, still the gold is not therefore called gold because of the sand mixed in it but because of its own quality (pp. 18-19).

So, as has been pointed out on this blog before, there are several errors to avoid, and several truths to emphasize. Error 1: the idea that the true church is entirely visible. This is the Roman Catholic error, and the error towards which the Federal Vision tends. Error 2: the idea that the true church is entirely invisible. This is the error of the Anabaptists, as well as some Baptists. Error 3: the idea that there is little to no overlap between the visible and invisible church. This is the error of the Hebrew Roots Movement, and other conspiracy-oriented sects.

Truths to emphasize: 1. There are visible and invisible aspects to the church. 2. These aspects are not separate churches, but have a large amount of overlap. 3. The visible and invisible do not entirely overlap: there are many false sons within her pale, and some true believers outside her administration. 4. As the church matures towards the eschaton, the visible and invisible will approximate each other more and more closely. Eventually there will be a one-to-one correspondence between those in the visible and those in the invisible church, even though there will still be some aspects of the church that will be invisible.

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23 Comments

  1. Richard Lindberg said,

    November 14, 2016 at 10:17 am

    The 1689 London Baptist Confession addresses both the invisible and visible church. The invisible church is made up of all the elect who have been gathered into Christ. The visible church consists of believers who confess the faith of the gospel and live obediently unto God. Of such are particular churches to be constituted.

    The 1644 London Baptist Confession addresses only the visible church.

    As for the Anabaptists, the Dordrecht Confession confesses only the visible church

    Anabaptists and Baptists have historically emphasized the visible church as the true church.

  2. Ron said,

    November 14, 2016 at 5:41 pm

    Years ago I interacted with this FV statement: “We affirm that there is only one true Church, and that this Church can legitimately be considered under various descriptions, including the aspects of visible and invisible.”

    I remarked:

    This is one of the most troubling statements of the FV. The statement communicates that there is only one church, which can be described in terms of its being visible and invisible. The implication of such a construct is that the invisible church and the visible church are the same church. From that false premise comes much confusion and outright error. To make the point more clearly, consider the following modification of the statement: We affirm that there is only one true God, and that this God can legitimately be considered under various descriptions, including the aspects of transcendence and immanence. The modified statement, which uses the same construct of the FV statement, clearly communicates that the one transcendent God is the same God as the immanent God. That is true. Transcendence and immanence are simply two aspects of the one God. Is the FV statement true in this way? Is the visible church the same church as the invisible church? The FV statement clearly implies that they are one and the same; for it states that there is “only one true Church” that can be described in various ways, like visible and invisible. How can they claim such a theology and also claim to be Reformed?

    ——–

    Regarding “Truths to emphasize: 1. There are visible and invisible aspects to the church.”

    What is meant by “the church?”

  3. Ron said,

    November 14, 2016 at 6:52 pm

    In order to avoid looking like FV, which posits “one true church,” wouldn’t “the church” in the GB post have to be neither the visible nor invisible church but rather a third consideration comprised of the visible plus the invisible church? This seems to me to blur the useful visible-invisible distinction. My 2 cents.

  4. greenbaggins said,

    November 14, 2016 at 8:21 pm

    I think what Vos is getting at, and what I would certainly agree with, is that there is significant overlap between the visible and invisible aspects of the church. Many in the visible church are also part of the invisible church, and some in the visible church are not part of the invisible church. There are some in the invisible church (a very few) who are not part of the visible church. Vos makes these qualifications. I do think, with Vos, that they cannot be regarded as two completely separate churches laid alongside one another. There is not complete overlap, as the FV and the RCC would claim. Neither does one have to be part of the invisible church to be part of the visible church, as the Anabaptists believed (and many Baptists).

  5. Ron said,

    November 14, 2016 at 10:13 pm

    Many in the visible church are also part of the invisible church, and some in the visible church are not part of the invisible church. There are some in the invisible church (a very few) who are not part of the visible church.

    I agree, Lane. I, also, like that the distinction between the visible church and the invisible church is maintained.

    It’s this I find troublesome.

    I think what Vos is getting at, and what I would certainly agree with, is that there is significant overlap between the visible and invisible aspects of the church.

    I don’t think you would deny that when you speak of the church in that way, you are no longer referring to the visible church or to the invisible church, but rather you must be referring to the inclusive set of the invisible church + the invisible church. (If not, then what?)

    Therefore, wouldn’t your statement reduce to: “there is significant overlap between the visible and invisible aspects of the invisible church + the invisible church.”

  6. Ron said,

    November 14, 2016 at 10:17 pm

    I apologize for typos. This should be correct…

    Many in the visible church are also part of the invisible church, and some in the visible church are not part of the invisible church. There are some in the invisible church (a very few) who are not part of the visible church.

    I agree. I, also, like that the distinction between the visible church and the invisible church is maintained.

    It’s this I find troublesome.

    I think what Vos is getting at, and what I would certainly agree with, is that there is significant overlap between the visible and invisible aspects of the church.

    I don’t think you would deny that when you speak of the church in that way, you are no longer referring to the visible church or to the invisible church, but rather you must be referring to the inclusive set of the invisible church + the visible church. If not, then what?

    Therefore, wouldn’t your statement reduce to: “there is significant overlap between the visible and invisible aspects of the invisible church + the visible church.

  7. Ron said,

    November 15, 2016 at 7:42 am

    I’m clear now. Yes, I think understand.

  8. Ron said,

    November 15, 2016 at 7:58 am

    “As the church matures towards the eschaton, the visible and invisible will approximate each other more and more closely.”

    Agree. I’d extrapolate back that churches that are more faithful today should approximate this ideal more than churches that are less faithful.

    “Eventually there will be a one-to-one correspondence between those in the visible and those in the invisible church, even though there will still be some aspects of the church that will be invisible.”

    I’m assuming you’re speaking of the final consummation. The invisible aspects wouldn’t be discernible saints but something else?

  9. rfwhite said,

    November 15, 2016 at 6:18 pm

    Green Baggins: what is the basis of your assertion that “as the church matures towards the eschaton, the visible and invisible will approximate each other more and more closely”?

  10. Ron said,

    November 15, 2016 at 10:04 pm

    Fowler,

    I’d like to take a crack at that if I may.

    First, I believe for this discourse to be sensible the church must be referring to the invisible church (or at least the converted) lest, I think, we have tautology on our hands and much confusion.

    As the church (in that respect) *matures* it’ll mature in worship and preaching; the broad evangelical tent will look much different than today. It’ll look more Reformed. Many of the unconverted will lose interest in a God centered, rather than man centered, worship. This should lead toward a one to one correspondence. The unconverted would be miserable if heaven and less comfortable being part of a mature congregation that reflected the forstaste of the age to come. Darkness avoids the light.

  11. rfwhite said,

    November 16, 2016 at 2:02 pm

    10 Ron: thanks. I’m wanting to think this through with GB and others. I’m not sure what GB’s claim is based on. Is it based on explicit statements of Scripture, or is it based on good and necessary inference (consequence) from the text of Scripture? Why should I believe that “the visible and invisble will approximate each other more and more closely”?

    Moreover, as you — and GB too — have picked up on, it looks to me that we have to take care to avoid equivocation in our use of the term “church.” So, as it relates to the statement that got my attention, I’m asking about whom exactly are we talking when we say “the church matures”? Is “the church” who matures the covenant community composed of all who profess the true religion together with their children, or is it all the elect who have been, are, or shall be gathered into one under Christ its head? Regardless, again, why are we to believe that “the church matures” such that “the visible and invisible approximate each other more and more closely”? I’m wondering if eschatological assumptions are emerging in that statement.

  12. Ron said,

    November 16, 2016 at 8:55 pm

    By way of review, I can make sense of the post by defining “the church” as the invisible church that is largely seen and experienced corporately on Sunday. That said, yes, I do think there is an optimistic eschatology at play. From my vantage, it need not be an eschatology of quantity per se but rather one of quality If the church matures in practice, I’d expect her message to become less appealing to the unregenerate. I hadn’t thought of that before yesterday, how maturity might effect the one to one correspondence.

  13. Kevin said,

    November 17, 2016 at 8:24 am

    For those interested in further interesting writings on the church, I highly recommend Tim Kauffman’s ” The visible apostolicity of the invisibly shepherded church” an 8 part series worth reading. Tim is a Reformed apologist presenting a new look at eschatology and the church. Probably the greatest apologist on the history of the church in comparison to the Roman Catholic religion today. His article ” The rise of Roman Catholicism warrants reading. His site is ” Out of Hid Mouth ” Whitehorse blog. This was a great article Greenbaggins. K

  14. Kevin said,

    November 18, 2016 at 7:28 am

    Jesus said my kingdom is not of this world nor comes with observation. As with the Augustine concensus, even when the Reformed enforced orthodoxy and orthopraxy it resulted in sin. Jesus could have summed many armies, but instead called men to a spiritual relationship with God. I believe the 5th earthly kingdom was passed on from Rome to Roman Catholicism as per 2 strikes of the stone in Daniel. It is the beast who receives the earthly kingdom, while the saints received a heavenly kingdom and won’t receive an earthly kingdom until He returns.

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  17. November 29, 2016 at 7:41 pm

    Apropos of this topic, now that I’ve acquired all five volumes, I can start reading them through, slowly and carefully. I hope they get republished some day as a nice, fat, one-volume hardback.

  18. greenbaggins said,

    December 9, 2016 at 7:44 pm

    Dr. White, sorry for taking so long to respond. It has been a difficult few months to do much of anything online. Only the church militant can mature. And there is surely an eschatological view coming into view.

    What I am trying to say is that the visible church gradually loses more and more of the false sons in her pale, while the true sons become more and more sanctified. As time goes on, then, the church becomes more and more pure, approaching (but never in this age attaining) the perfection of the church triumphant.

    The possibility of confusion enters in when distinctions between invisible/visible and militant/triumphant are blurred. I hope I am not doing that. Let me know if there is still anything unclear.

  19. brandonadams said,

    December 28, 2016 at 1:11 pm

    I had a comment about a month back that never came through. It has a link – can you check if it got stuck somewhere? Thanks

  20. greenbaggins said,

    December 29, 2016 at 11:25 am

    Brandon, I checked through the spam and the trash, and found nothing. I am sorry about that. It could have been moderated if the tone was too sharp. But I just don’t remember. First time comments are always moderated. You shouldn’t have any trouble posting now.

  21. brandonadams said,

    December 29, 2016 at 1:05 pm

    No problem. Thanks for checking. I think it went something like this:

    Ron highlights a really important point. If the visible/invisible distinction refers to two different aspects of the same thing (the church), then “The implication of such a construct is that the invisible church and the visible church are the same church.” He sees that as a problem from which “comes much confusion and outright error” like FV. He says the only way to avoid this is to define “the church” in terms other than “the invisible church” or “the visible church” but rather as something above the invisible and the visible which embraces both. In other words, he argues the only way to avoid seeing the visible/invisible as the same church is to define “the church” as a generic concept of which “visible” and “invisible” are two species. He is correct.

    But Vos says that Ron’s solution is not an option.

    If then it is established that one may not identify the invisible church with the visible, the question still remains unanswered: What is the connection between the two? One may not place them beside each other dualistically as if there were two churches. The Reformed have always taught that the distinction between the visible and invisible church is not a bifurcation of a generic concept into two species, but simply the description of one and the same subject from two different sides.

    So “the church” may not be defined as a generic concept that equally embraces both “the invisible church” and “the visible church.” Therefore, apart from a third definition of “the church” as a generic concept which embraces both visible and invisible, “the church” must be defined as either the invisible church or as the visible church. There is no other option.

    On this point one must be careful, because here many are caught in a great misconception. There are not two churches, (a) an invisible and (b) a visible, but there is one Church that must be defined from the one side as invisible and from the other as visible.

    Vos is getting close to a resolution, but notice what he has just done. He has said there is this thing called “one Church” that can be defined from one side as “invisible” and from the other as “visible.” But the question that must be answered is “Which side is the correct definition?” Recall that one or the other must provide the correct definition of the church, otherwise we must provide a third definition of “the church” that embraces both. So, which “side” is the correct “side”?

    Vos says “Protestants start from the concept of the invisible church… since also union with Him is something spiritual, not in the sphere of the sensible-visible.” The invisible church is “the church.”

    the essence of the Church, faith, does not come within the scope of the senses, that therefore we can never specify determinatively and infallibly this or that person belongs to the Church in the deepest sense of this judgment. Only for God, who sees and knows all things, is the Church manifest according to this form, according to this its essence. He sees and searches out the entire organism of the body of Christ in all its parts. We see only here and there a trace of a few points on the surface from which we can form an idea of its shape in general, but we do not see the body as such… The terms by which the Church is designated in Scripture are such that they do not coincide with outward, visible things.

    The invisible church is “the church” because it is “the church” as perceived by God “who sees and knows all things” not “the church” as perceived by fallible man’s sensible perception.

    If “the church” is defined as the invisible church, then what are we to make of the visible church? How can it also be “the church”? The answer is because it is “the church” from man’s fallible sensible perception. It refers to the same entity, but from a fallible perspective. That is why it is not the definition of “the church” but only an approximation of it.

    The visible thus everywhere presupposes the invisible, rests on it, derives from it its right of existence. It is called “church” because it is thought to stand in connection with what the essence of the Church is, to be a manifestation of the body of Christ. By that it is not at all denied that in such a visible church members can appear who do not belong to the invisible church. But this coheres inseparably, as we will see, with the unique calling and goal that the visible church has on earth. Someone has quite rightly observed that although sand is mixed with gold, still the gold is not therefore called gold because of the sand mixed in it but because of its own quality.

    The visible church is called “the church” because it is assumed to consist of members of the invisible church. If only unbelievers are found in a particular church, it is not a church. The “unique calling and goal that the visible church has on earth” is for fallible men to gather together as members of the invisible church. They won’t do it perfectly, thus the discrepancy between the visible and the invisible.

    Believers do not have a different body than unbelievers. If they did, we could easily distinguish between the two, and the invisible church would coincide with the visible

    Note, the only difference between the visible and the invisible church is man’s fallible perspective. If true believers were identified by some visible, outward mark, there would be no distinction between the visible and the invisible church.

    This is what Stuart R. Jones refers to as “the viewpoint interpretation of visible-invisible church” (WTJ 59:1 (Spring 1997)). He quotes James Ussher

    Sith God doth not reveal the covenant of grace, nor afford sufficient means to salvation to the whole world, but only to the Church: explain here what you mean by the Church?

    We speak not here of that part of God’s Church which is triumphant in glory; who, being in perfect fruition, have no need of these outward means of communion with him, (Rev. xxi; xxii; xxiii;) but the subject here is the Church militant. And that we consider also, as visible, in the parts of it: consisting of diverse assemblies and companies of believers, making profession of the same common faith: howbeit many times, by force of persecution, the exercise of the public ordinances may for a time be suspended among them.

    But are none to be accounted members of this Church, but such as are true believers, and so inseparably united unto Christ their head?

    Truly and properly none other. (1 John 2.19) Howbeit because God doth use outward means with the inward, for the gathering of his Saints; and calleth them as wel to outward profession among themselves, (Acts 2.42. Cant.1.7) as to inward fellowship with his Son, whereby the Church becomes visible: hence it is, that so many as partake of outward means, and join with the Church in league of visible profession, are therefore in humane judgement accounted members of the true Church, and Saints by calling, (1 Cor 1.1) until the Lord (who only knoweth his) do make known the contrary. As we are taught in the Parable of the Tares. Mat. 13.24 & Mat. 13.47, &c. and of the draw net, and the threshing floor, where lieth both good corn and chaff.

    Body of Divinity

    This same “viewpoint” explanation of the visible and invisible church is found in the Second Helvetic Confession.

    Whence the Church of God may be termed invisible; not because the men from whom the Church is gathered are invisible, but because, being hidden from our eyes and known only to God, it often secretly escapes human judgment.

    NOT ALL WHO ARE IN THE CHURCH ARE OF THE CHURCH. Again, not all that are reckoned in the number of the Church are saints, and living and true members of the Church… And although while they simulate piety they are not of the Church, yet they are considered to be in the Church, just as traitors in a state are numbered among its citizens before they are discovered

    Chapter XVII

    Again, a Brakel provides a very lengthy defense of this explanation.

    As one person cannot be divided into an invisible and a visible person, one may not divide the church into a visible and invisible church, for then it would seem as if there were two churches, each being a different church.
    One may also not divide the church into a visible and invisible church as far as the members themselves are concerned, as if the one had different members from the other…
    If one understands the differentiation between the external and internal church to be but a twofold view and perspective of one and the same church, and does not hold to a twofold membership relationship, all is well and our proposition is confirmed: The differentiation between an external and internal church on the basis of membership and relationship is not good. One and the same church, consisting of true believers only, can either be viewed in reference to her internal spiritual condition, or in reference to her external manifestation in the world. This is what we have stated…

    The church is a congregation of true believers. The unconverted, even though they have made confession of faith, have been accepted into the fellowship of the church, live without offense, and have been admitted to the use of the sacraments, the unconverted, I repeat, are not true members of the church. This is so whether the church is viewed in her internal, spiritual condition or in her public gatherings whereby she manifests herself externally to the world. The unconverted are not members of the external, visible church. Believers only constitute the true church. They alone are members of the church, regardless of how one views them.
    This is clearly stated in articles 27 – 29 of the Belgic Confession of Faith…

    This confirms the conviction of the Reformed church that only believers are members of the church, while the unconverted are not members of the church, though they be externally in it…

    It is one thing to associate with the church and to be accepted as members, and another thing to be true members. The latter does not proceed from the first, for the acceptance of men as members is performed by men, who see only what is before their eyes and cannot judge according to the heart, leaving this to Him who knows the hearts… Therefore they are no members, even though men view them as such externally…

    The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol 2 (starting on page 5)

    I see that as the only logically possible way to explain the visible/invisible church distinction.

  22. rfwhite said,

    December 29, 2016 at 5:42 pm

    18 GB — As far as I can tell, I’m tracking with *what” you are trying to say; I’m just not sure of the exact basis of your claims. I’m presuming that the basis is something like the analogy of the days of Noah. During those days we might say that, though the boundary between the world and the visible covenant community had been pretty much obliterated, the remnant (the invisible church still in the world but not of it) persevered while completing the building project that God had given them. Something like that?

  23. December 31, 2016 at 4:32 pm

    […] Keister, at the Green Baggins blog, offers some comments on Vos’ explanation of the visible-invisible church distinction. His point is that there are visible and invisible aspects of the church, noting that Anabaptists […]


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