Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Thoughts on the Visible/Invisible Church Distinction


In the pietistic tradition, the distinction between a visible and invisible church is highly emphasized. This doctrine made its way into the Waltherian school of Confessional Lutheranism; sometimes it is confessed that the church is purely invisible, though it has certain visible "signs" of its presence. There is some wisdom in separating true faith from external ecclesial structures, since faith is a matter of the heart, but ultimately I think this tradition misses the intimate connection between the physical and transcendental within Luther's thought. In reading an article titled "Luther's Double-Faceted Concept of the Church" by Vilmos Vajta (in the volume: Manns, Peter et. al. Luther's Ecumenical Significant: An Interconfessional Consultation. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984.)I came across the following quote of Luther which explains the relationship between the visible and invisible rather well:

"Therefore, for the sake of better understanding and brevity, we shall call the two churches by two distinct names. The first, which is natural, basic, essential, and true, we shall call 'spiritual, inner Christendom.' The second, which is man-made and external, we shall call 'physical, external Christendom.' Not that we want to separate them from each other; rather, it is just as if I were talking about a person and called him 'spiritual' according to his soul, and 'physical' according to his body, or as the Apostle is accustomed, to speak of an 'internal' and 'external' person. So, too, the Christian assembly is a community united in one faith according to the soul, although according to the body, it cannot be assembled in one place since every group of people is assembled in its own place." (Luther's Works Volume 39, page 70)

For Luther, there is an essential connection between the two aspects of the church. It's not as if there are two separate churches, one visible and one invisible, but the church contains both a visible and invisible aspect. This is commensurate with Luther's sacramental theology which maintains the reality of the earthly and heavenly elements in vital connection to one another. Thus Luther's view of the church is not that of an ethereal Platonic reality as some allege, but is thoroughly incarnational. Not only is this more consistent with Luther's own theology, and that of the church catholic, but portrays the usage of ecclesia in the New Testament.

12 comments:

Nate Ostby said...

This is helpful, Pr. Cooper. It could go a long way in distinguishing Luther's view from the Reformed as well, no?

inga said...

Thanks for your article. Hermann Sasse, in one of his essays on the Church (the trilogy, I believe) treats very well this topic and also the temptations of the 19th century theologians (like Walther and other lutherans) to take this kind of language from the Evangelicals.

J. Dean said...

Didn't Luther agree with John Hus' understanding of the visible/invisible church? I always understood the difference to be that, just because somebody was sitting in a pew doesn't mean they're necessarily a believer.

inga said...

J.Dean, from my readings Luther DID definitely NOT agree or use these kinds of terminologies (visible and invisible). (as a former conservative Baptist) I can tell you that these kinds of terms form a basis for a pretty weak ecclesiology. I have seen lutherans use the terms NARROW and BROAD. I forgot the terms Herman Sasse used (and it is very late here in Denmark, for me to look it up in my library).

Jordan Cooper said...

J. Dean, it is true that Lutherans believe that external church membership does not mean that one is genuinely a Christian, but I don't think the language of visible/invisible church is the best way to express this.

Nate, this does point to some important distinctions between the Lutheran and the Reformed, though there is some debate among the Reformed about the nature of the relationship between the visible/invisible distinction.

David Gray said...

You have to have some kind of visible/invisible distinction to make sense of the Biblical teaching about the tares. The real question is what you do with it. Baptistic evangelicalism winds up draining the visible church of any meaning beyond that of a Christian version of the Elks Club. It is an error to associate the Reformed with the Evangelicals on that score.

Westminster teaches:

The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

inga said...

David, you look like an old acquaintance from Facebook (back in the days when I had an account, 2009) ... does Iunctum I Corpore Cristi ring a bell ? ...

I appreciate your last comment, and please understand that I do not mix Baptistic/Methodist Evangelicals with Reformed Christians, but merely use Baptists as a comparison/reference point, sometimes, because of my background (as I will use Jehovah's Witnesses also).

I will look for the quote/reference from Herman Sasse (my new favorite 20th century theologian, prev. one was Bonhoeffer) where he mentions the Presbyterian creed / Westminster.

Blessings,

Gabriel

David Gray said...

>> does Iunctum I Corpore Cristi ring a bell ? ...

I'm afraid not...

Jordan Cooper said...

David- What do you think of the historic church/eschatological church distinction that some Reformed theologians promote?

David Gray said...

>>David- What do you think of the historic church/eschatological church distinction that some Reformed theologians promote?

To the extent I'm familiar with it my take is that it is really aiming for a different way of describing the visible/invisible paradigm that is less prone to the sort of misinterpretation that we've seen in much of evangelicalism. Too often rather than addressing their actual church as the people of God, knowing that some may be tares, they address the entirety of the body as tares knowing that some may be elect. When Paul addressed the visible church he simply addressed them as the people of God.

Andrew said...

Jordan, what do you think of Leithart's historical church/eschatological church distinction in "The Baptized Body"? I found it to be quite helpful. Do you think it works with Lutheran theology?

Jordan Cooper said...

I like the distinction. I think it is useful, and less Pietistic than the visible/invisible distinction. I don't see any reason why it would be inconsistent with Lutheran ecclesiology.