The topic of the doctrine of the church in Reformed confessions is a timely one. If we ponder the significance of this issue, we think of the famous characterization of the twentieth century by Otto Dibelius who, already in 1926, called this century "das Jahrhundert der Kirche," the century of the church. If one sketches the development of the Roman Catholic doctrine, one finds as its apex the first and second Vatican Councils with the dogmas of the primacy and infallibility of the pope (1870) and of the sacramentality and collegiality of the office of the bishops (1964), dogmas concerning the church of Christ. The dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium is called the Magna Charta of Vaticanum II. Its chapters, for example, about the mystery of the church, the people of God, and the hierarchical structure of Christ's Church, are the basis of the decree on ecumenism, Unitatis redintegratio, promulgated on the same day as the dogmatic constitution concerning the church (Nov. 21, 1964).

By its statements and actions, Rome attempts to grasp the lead in the ecumenical movement of the twentieth century. On the other hand, there is the World Council of Churches with its Faith and Order paper, entitled Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, the socalled Lima document of 1982. This document, a fruit of study and discussion for almost fifty years since Lausanne 1927, shows the basic agreement in ecclesiology-the doctrine of the church-among the members of the World Council, and works toward visible unity. It is now in the process of being received by those member churches and it requires a response from truly Reformed and Presbyterian churches.

Apart from this development in the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council, the contacts that some of us had in the Reformed Ecumenical Synod, and all of us now entertain within this International Conference of Reformed Churches, ask for ecclesiological clarity-clarity in the doctrine of the church.

One would almost be inclined to speculate somewhat about the history of the church and the development of its dogma. In the first centuries the confession of the triune God was at stake, and especially the work of the Father in creation-over against Gnosticism. In the sixteenth century, the dominant issue was the work of the Son in redemption and its perfection and absoluteness-over against Roman Catholicism. And now the church is engaged in a struggle to understand better the Word of God concerning the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification. Of foremost importance in this broad pneumatological context "I believe in the Holy Spirit"-is the confession concerning the holy catholic church, the communion of saints. We have arrived at the struggle concerning the third part of the Apostles' Creed, over against false ecumenicity. It has been said that the struggle regarding the doctrine of the church will be the fiercest, because it is based in the trinitarian dogma and deals with the community. The conflict concerning the community can only end in a definitive separation, and therefore the end of this antithesis will coincide with the appearance of the Antichrist.

Scope of the Reformed Confessions

In this eschatological light, we as a generation upon which the end of the ages has come, now look at the doctrine of the church in the Reformed confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. For, although in this twentieth century we may have arrived at a period of further and decisive development of the third part of the creeds of the early church, we should not forget that already in the time of the Reformation the doctrine of the church had to be refined. We cannot now elaborate on the scope or the characteristics of the Reformed confessions in general. Let it suffice that I characterize them in a fourfold manner: They are Scriptural, catholic, anti-Romanist, and anti-spiritualist. Thetically speaking, they are Scriptural and catholic, for they intend to speak obediently, following Holy Scripture as the only rule of faith, and they stress the continuity of the church of all ages. Antithetically speaking, they reject Romanist doctrine, church government and ecclesiastical practices, which reaction is a specific characteristic of the doctrine of the church in the Reformed confessions. They also oppose spiritualism, especially as it had become manifest in the Anabaptist movement. Also in this antithetical context, there is a remarkable parallel with, for example, Augustine's struggle against Donatism. This reflects not only upon the Reformed doctrine of the sacraments-especially baptism but also upon the doctrine of the church. So the Scriptural and catholic character of the Reformed confessions is evident also in their anti-Romanist and antispiritualist tendency.

In their Scriptural, catholic, anti-Romanist and anti-spiritualist nature or scope, the Reformed confessions show a remarkable unity and harmony, although there are many variations in the manner of expression and even some discrepancies. In the various confessions there is unity of faith also with respect to the doctrine of the church.

Division of the Reformed Confessions

When we now come to a survey and a division of the Reformed confessions we must mention the twentieth-century German collections of E.F.K. Miller, Wilhelm Niesel, and Paul Jacobs as well as the English collection of Arthur C. Cochrane, Reformed Confessions of the 16th Century, complemented by the catechisms employed by the Church of Scotland since the Reformation, and edited by Thomas F. Torrance under the title The School of Faith. [2]

There is quite a variety in the selection and the number of documents collected. Miller gives fifty-eight, Niesel fifteen; and they have only six in common: four confessions the French, Scottish, Belgic, and Second Helvetic Confessions-and two catechisms-the Geneva Catechism and the Heidelberg Catechism. Five of these documents are also found in Jacobs; but he does not re-publish the Heidelberg Catechism. It is noteworthy that neither Wilhelm Niesel nor Paul Jacobs pays any attention to the Westminster Standards. Although Arthur Cochrane prints twelve confessions, he restricts himself to the sixteenth century and therefore omits the Westminster Confession.

One of the results of this sorry state of affairs is to be seen in the most elaborate study of our topic. Under the direction of Hans Kung, the Roman Catholic scholar Benno Gassmann wrote a doctoral thesis entitled Ecclesia Reformata: Die Kirche in den reformierten Bekenntnisschriften (The Church in the Reformed Confessions). [3] He utilized for his extensive study eighteen documents, namely, thirty-three from the sixteenth century, seven from the seventeenth century, five from the nineteenth, and three from the twentieth century. But again, he restricted himself to the European continent, and excluded therefore also the Westminster Standards. Thus, it is less useful for our purpose in this International Conference of Reformed and Presbyterian Churches.

If, in line with Gassmann, I were to give a division of the Reformed confessions, I would divide them into five periods:

1. There is the period of the first reflection and consolidation, in which period cities such as Zurich, Berne, Basel, and Strasbourg are in the center. At the beginning of this period stand Zwingli's Sixty-Seven Articles of 1523 and the Ten Theses of Berrie (1528), and the end is formed by the First Helvetic Confession of 1536.

2. Then follows the period of new orientation. It is the period of Calvin with his Geneva Confession (1536) and Geneva Catechism (1541), and of Bullinger with his Second Helvetic Confession (1562 or 1566).

3. In the meantime a third group of confessions arises: the confessions of the Reformed churches under the cross: the French, Scottish, and Belgic Confessions of Faith (1559, 1560, 1561).

4. The period of the Second Reformation brings us the Hungarian Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism (1563).

5. Then the last group is formed by the confessions of the Reformed posterity. To this period belong the Canons of Dort and the Westminster Standards.

When, after this division, we now try to come to grips with the broad contents of Reformed confessions as far as the doctrine of the church is concerned, we could approach these groups of confessions in chronological order. Gassmann does so and he provides his readers with many details. I prefer to take a more synthetic approach and to show that the four characteristics of Reformed confessions in general also apply to their doctrine of the church in particular. This doctrine is (a) Scriptural, (b) catholic, (c) anti-Romanist, and (d) anti-spiritualist. Thereafter we could deal with two specific distinctions: (e) the "visible" and the "invisible" church (in Reformed confessions), and (f) the true and the false church (in Reformed confessions).

The Scriptural Character

The Scriptural character of the doctrine of the church in Reformed confessions can be demonstrated in a twofold manner: first, as far as the relationship of Holy Scripture and church is concerned and, second, in the description of the nature of the church itself.

Zwingli's first thesis in 1523 reads: "All who say that the Gospel is nothing without the approbation of the Church err and slander God. " [4] And the first thesis, that led to the Reformation of the city of Berne in 1528, proclaims: "The holy, Christian Church, whose only Head is Christ, is born of the Word of God, abides in the same, and does not listen to the voice of a stranger." In this wonderful, typically Reformed thesis, we hear the confession that the church is creatura verb!, a creature of the Word of God, born out of it and living from it. The Word of God stands above the church, and the expression "Word of God" is identical to "gospel" or "Holy Scripture." The gospel is not dependent upon the approbation of the church, but with an allusion to the Gospel of John, chapter 10, the church is characterized as the flock of sheep that listens to the voice of the Good Shepherd and does not listen to the voice of a stranger.

Zwingli's theses 13 and 14 of 1523 are illustrative in this respect: (13) "When we listen to the Head, we acquire a pure and clear knowledge of the will of God, and we are drawn to Him by His Spirit and are conformed to Him." (14) "Hence all Christians should do their utmost that everywhere only the Gospel of Christ be preached."

In later Reformed confessions the marks of the true church would be enumerated, and the first mark would be the pure preaching of the gospel. One could state that this mark is indicated in a nutshell already in the first Reformed confessions. Negatively, it means that the church is not based on human ordinances, and positively that it is founded on the sovereign work of God, Who unites the believers with Christ through the gospel.

It would be an easy task to illustrate from later confessions this Scriptural character of the Reformed doctrine of the church as the subordination of the church to the Word of God, but I would like to move on to another point. We could also state that this Scriptural character shows itself in the definition or description of the church. One of the most important questions to be answered was: what is the church?

If one is to answer this question in a Scriptural way-according to the contents of Holy Scripture-one has to begin with the Old Testament terms for "congregation" or "assembly": the church in the Old Testament is the assembly or congregation of the people of God. In continuity with the Greek translation of the Old Testament, there is in the New Testament the noun ekklesia, "church" or "congregation," and this church is depicted in a trinitarian manner, as the assembly of the people of God (the Father), the body of the Lord Jesus Christ (the Son), and the temple of the Holy Spirit.

There was the temptation for the Reformed confessors to fall into an anti-hierarchical over-reaction and to approach the church individualistically. Now it is remarkable that already in the confessions of Strasbourg and Basel (the Tetrapolitan Confession of 1530, the First Confession of Basel of 1534, and the First Helvetic Confession of 1536), we find a stress on the church as communion or community, or fellowship of believers. The concept of the gathering comes to the fore, and the church is described as being gathered by the triune God and as coming together in the unity of true faith. This element of gathering is of utmost importance in the doctrine of the church in Reformed confessions. The First Confession of Basel (1534) states in Article 5: "We believe one holy, Christian Church, the fellowship of the saints, the spiritual assembly of believers which is holy and the one bride of Christ . . . ." And we read in the First Helvetic Confession (1536) about the holy, universal church as "the fellowship and congregation of all saints which is Christ's bride and spouse" (Art. 14; the Latin text speaks of a "sancta sanctorum omnium collectio"). This First Helvetic Confession characterizes the church as not only seen and known by God but "also gathered and built up by visible signs, rites and ordinances, which Christ Himself has instituted and appointed by the Word of God as a universal, public and orderly discipline" ("non solum cernitur cognosciturque, sed . . . constituitur"). In the present tense constituitur we see the church as an earthly, empirical assembly that is not finished yet, but is in the process of being gathered and built. At the same time the church itself is God's instrument in this ongoing process; there is a constitutum and there is a constituendum. The church's ministers are in these German, Swiss Reformed confessions time and again called God's co-workers (cooperarii), [5] and this striking epithet underscores the dynamic nature of the ongoing work of the gathering of the church.

In the period of Calvin and Bullinger, we find a similar stress on the church as a company of the faithful. The Geneva Confession of 1536 even stresses that this description is valid for each and every local congregation: "While there is one only Church of Jesus Christ, we always acknowledge that necessity requires companies of the faithful to be distributed in different places. Of these assemblies each one is called Church" (Art. 18).

The Second Helvetic Confession-that beautiful confession of Bullinger-puts the question, "What is the church?" and answers as follows: "The Church is an assembly of the faithful called or gathered out of the world; a communion, I say, of all saints . . ." (The Latin text says: "Ecclesiam, id est, a mundo evocatum vel collectum coetum fideli um."). The headings in Bullinger's confession are evidence of the Scriptural character of his doctrine of the church. The church is called the assembly of citizens of one commonwealth, the temple of the living God, and there are special paragraphs about the church as bride and virgin, as a flock of sheep, and as the body of Christ.

When we come to the confessions of what I called the "churches under the cross," we think of the French Confession of 1559, upon the formation of which Calvin exercised much influence. The true church is here called "the company of the faithful who agree to follow his [i.e. God's] Word, and the pure religion which it teaches" (Art. 27). In this historic city of Edinburgh, I cannot but quote the Scottish Confession of 1560 with its trinitarian foundation:

As we believe in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, so we firmly believe that from the beginning there has been, now is, and to the end of the world shall be, one Kirk, that is to say, one company and multitude of men chosen by God, who rightly worship and embrace Him by true faith in Christ Jesus, who is the only Head of the Kirk, even as it is the body and spouse of Christ Jesus [Art. 16; emphasis added].

When the Scottish Confession stresses that there is one church from the beginning of the world, it reminds this Reformed believer of his beloved Heidelberg Catechism and the familiar sentence "that the Son of God, out of the whole human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, defends, and preserves for Himself, by His Spirit and Word, in the unity of the true faith, a church chosen to everlasting life . . ." (Lord's Day 21). [6] Again the incomplete, unfinished character of the church is expressed; or rather, the ongoing, dynamic act of Christ's gathering His church: the verbs "gathers," "defends," and "preserves" are used in a progressive sense.

Let me end my list of quotations with the description of the church in the Belgic Confession of 1561: "We believe and profess one catholic or universal Church, which is a holy congregation and assembly of true Christian believers, expecting all their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by His blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit" (Art. 27).

The original French text has two nouns, "congrégation et assembleé,'' a fact which is neglected in most English translations. Festus Hommius rendered in his Latin translation "congregatio seu coetus." Dr. Klaas Schilder saw in congregatio -related to the noun grex, flock -the divine act, and in coetus -from co-ire, to come together-the human act. God in Christ brings us together and we in faith come together. 'this explanation may be deficient in historical and symbological respects, for "congregation" and "assembly" are used interchangeably in the French original of the Belgic Confession. Nevertheless, it is Scripturally and dogmatically sound reasoning, and in line with the Reformed confessions.

But the main point in my characterization of the contents of Reformed confessions in their description of the nature of the church is this: in line with the Scriptural terms for the church as congregation or assembly, Reformed confessions have emphasized the fact that the church is a gathering, and that this gathering is an ongoing, dynamic work of the triune God, which divine action should evoke our human response, so that, by the grace of God, we become co-operarii Dei, co-workers of God. I will not now make an application of what this means for this International Conference of Reformed Churches and its members, but I only express the conviction that this Scriptural confession is and remains a timely one.

The Catholic Character

As our second characteristic, we called the Reformed confessions concerning the church catholic. Everyone who is acquainted with Reformed confessions and the history of their doctrines, knows that in this second characteristic we enter upon a field that is almost as wide as the previous topic, the Scriptural character. Even if we limit the concept of catholicity now to its temporal aspect, we have to restrict ourselves in our exposition of the continuity of the church. Not only do the Reformed confessions repeatedly speak of the continuity of the church throughout the ages, but this continuity is evident in the very language of the confessions, even in their specific phrases.

By way of example, I mention the saying "extra ecclesiam nulla salus" --outside the church there is no salvation -well-known since the days of Origen and Cyprian. Reformed confessions also stress that God grants salvation in the church and through the church. In the catechism of the church of Geneva, the question is asked: "Why do you insert this article [i.e. the article concerning forgiveness] after the church?" The answer reads: "Because no man obtains pardon for his sins without being previously incorporated into the people of God, persevering in unity and communion with the Body of Christ in such a way as to be a true member of the Church" (Question and Answer 104).

The following question asks: "And so outside the Church there is nothing but damnation and death?" Answer: "Certainly, for all those who separate themselves from the community of the faithful to form a sect on its own, have no hope of salvation so long as they are in schism" (Question and Answer 105). [7]

Calvin's very forceful words remind us of the beginning of Book IV of his Institutes. They find an echo in Bullinger's Confession. We esteem fellowship with the true Church of Christ so highly, Bullinger says,

that we deny that those can live before God who do not stand in fellowship with the true Church of God, but separate themselves from it. For as there was no salvation outside Noah's ark when the world perished in the flood; so we believe that there is no certain salvation outside Christ, who offers himself to be enjoyed by the elect in the Church; and hence we teach that those who wish to live ought not to be separated from the Church of Christ.

Similar reasoning is followed in Article 28 of the Belgic Confession: everyone is bound to join himself to the true church, "since this holy congregation is an assemblage of those who are saved, and outside of it there is no salvation."

This confession is catholic, but not Romanist; it does not elevate the church in a positivist or triumphant manner. It should not escape our attention that the Second Helvetic Confession, in this context, spoke of "no salvation outside Christ." And in the Belgic Confession the phrase "extra ecclesiam nulla salus" is taken up in a normative sense. The Reformed believer does not attempt to occupy the place of God in the last judgment but ends this twenty-eighth article by stating simply: "Therefore all those who separate themselves from the same [i.e. the congregation] or do not join themselves to it, act contrary to the ordinance of God" (cf. Scottish Confession, Art. 16).

Augustine, especially, is the one in the ancient era to whom the Reformed confessions owe much in their use of terms and phrases. The distinction "in the church but not of the church," applied to hypocrites, is Augustinian. But even more important than this reference to so-called "church fathers" is the fact that the Reformed confessions are often structured according to the ecumenical creeds. The First Confession of Basel (1534) and the First Helvetic Confession (1536) followed, in the main lines, the Apostles' Creed. It goes without saying that especially the Catechisms, for example, the Geneva Catechism and the Heidelberg Catechism, deal with the church in their explanation of the Apostolicum.

It is appropriate in this context to mention a discrepancy with respect to the translation of the received text of the Apostles' Creed. In German confessions -for example, the Heidelberg Catechism -a medieval custom is sometimes adopted by replacing the word "catholic" with the word "Christian," or by adding the word "Christian" to the word "universal." The first thesis of Berne (1528) spoke of "the holy, Christian Church" instead of "the holy Catholic Church." The Dutch-speaking churches that are members of this conference, the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (Liberated), still have a version of the Apostles' Creed that slightly differs from the received text. The Canadian Reformed Churches even try to transfer this originally German version to the English-speaking world by using the words "I believe a holy catholic Christian church." I regret this development as slightly infringing upon the true catholicity of the church of God and its ecumenical creeds. May I, in this connection, suggest that this International Conference, or a subsequent one, appoint a committee to study this topic (the International Consultation Texts of the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed) in order to come to a common text of the ecumenical creeds that can be recommended to all members? But let me hastily return to the confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They showed their catholic character also in expounding the unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity of the church as confessed in the ecumenical creeds.

The Anti-Romanist Character

Right from the beginning in 1523, Reformed confessions were anti-Romanist. Zwingli's Sixty-Seven Articles attack the so-called clerical traditions with their pomp, riches, hierarchy, titles, and laws. They are "a cause of all nonsense, because they are not in agreement with Christ, the Head" (Art. 11). Especially in the beginning of the Reformation, Roman Catholic doctrine and abuses are attacked. Dispensations concerning fasting are called a "Roman fraud" for "no Christian is bound to perform works which God has not commanded" (Art. 24). In the description of the false church in the Scottish and Belgic Confessions we see a picture of the Roman Catholic Church of the sixteenth century, "the horrible harlot" (Scottish Confession, Ch. 18):

    She ascribes more power and authority to herself and her ordinances than to the Word of God, and will not submit herself to the yoke of Christ. Neither does she administer the Sacraments, as appointed by Christ in His Word, but adds to and takes from them as she thinks proper; she relieth more upon men than upon Christ; and persecutes those who live holily according to the Word of God and rebuke her for her errors, covetousness, and idolatry [Belgic Confession, Art. 29].

One could write an entire treatise on the government of the church and its offices to show the anti-Romanist character of Reformed confessions: Right from the beginning not the magisterium but the ministerium is emphasized, not the lordship over, but the service to, the gospel and the congregation. In 1523, Zwingli declared: (61) "The divine Scriptures know nothing of an indelible imprint [character] by consecration which the priests have invented in recent times." (62) "Furthermore the Scriptures do not recognize any priests except those who proclaim God's Word." There is no power in the church except for edification, the Tetrapolitan Confession says. "They who teach what conflicts with Christ's commands cannot represent the Church of Christ . . ." (Ch. 15).

The First Helvetic Confession acknowledges Christ Himself as the only true and proper Head and Shepherd of His Church: "We do not acknowledge or accept the head [of the Church] at Rome and those who are bishops in name only" (Art. 18). The French Confession is strongly anti-hierarchical:

We believe that all true pastors, wherever they may be, have the same authority and equal power under one head, one only sovereign and universal bishop, Jesus Christ; and that consequently no church shall claim any authority or dominion over any other [Art. 30].

This equality of ministers and churches, also stated in, for example, Article 32 of the Belgic Confession, is fundamental for Reformed church polity. It should be powerfully maintained in this twentieth century over against Roman Catholicism and false ecumenicity. We think of Chapter III of the dogmatic constitution on the church of Vatican II and its strong hierarchism. We also think of the Lima document of the World Council (Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry) which consistently neglects the office of elder (presbyter) and entrenches the diocesan bishopry as an indispensable instrument for the unity of the church.

In this context, I modestly ask our Presbyterian brothers whether they are willing to entertain a question concerning their beloved Westminster Confession. It is clear that the Westminster Confession is a good Reformed document and anti-Romanist. Chapter 25. VI says: "There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ: nor can the Pope of Rome in any sense be head thereof . . . ." [8] But Chapter 31 speaks of synods and councils and it states that their "decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission, not only for their agreement with the word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God, appointed thereunto in his word." [9] The question is this: does the juxtaposition "not only . . . but also" not give to synods and councils a power that is reminiscent of hierarchism?

The Anti-Spiritualist Character

Our last characteristic of Reformed confessions also concerning this doctrine of the church is that they are anti-spiritualist. Spiritualism in the sixteenth century was cognate to Donatism in the fourth century, and the Reformed confessions have recognized this fact, not only in the doctrine of baptism, but also in the doctrine of the church and its ministry. When the French Confession strongly condemns the papal assemblies, it acknowledges:

Nevertheless, as some trace of the Church is left in the papacy, and the virtue and substance of baptism remain, and as the efficacy of baptism does not depend upon the person who administers it, we confess that those baptized in it do not need a second baptism [Art. 28].

Calvin's concept of "some trace of the Church" in the papacy vestigium ecclesiae -is anti-Donatist and anti-spiritualist. Also the Belgic Confession is anti-spiritualist in its acknowledgment that no perfect church is to be found in this dispensation: there are "hypocrites, who are mixed in the Church with the good, yet are not of the Church, though externally in it . . ." (Art. 29). Those who are members of the church may be known by the marks of Christians. "But this is not to be understood as if there did not remain in them great infirmities." Reformed confessions do not promote a schismatic search for a perfect community. The anti-spiritualist tendency, is also recognizable in the manner in which the ministers of the Word are acknowledged as God's co-workers (First Helvetic Confession, Art. 15). Because we touched on this topic before, let it suffice to state that the antispiritualist scope of the Reformed confessions is of timely significance also in this twentieth century with its holiness movements and neo-pentecostal revivalism.

Visible and Invisible Church

We now arrive at our two last points: the distinctions between "visible" and "invisible," and "true" and "false" with respect to the church in Reformed confessions. Let me first again list some expressions concerning visibility and invisibility. The Tetrapolitan Confession (1530) says: "Although that whereby it is entitled to be called the Church of Christ-namely, faith in Christ-cannot be seen, yet it can be seen and plainly known from its fruits" (Art. 15).

The First Helvetic Confession of 1536 states: "And although this Church and congregation of Christ is open and known to God's eyes atone, yet it is not only known but also gathered and built up by visible signs, rites and ordinances . . ." (Art. 14). In my opinion, it is clear that in these early Reformed confessions not two churches are taught, one visible and another one invisible, but that there is spoken of an invisible aspect or of invisible aspects of the church. The emphasis is even on the visibility: the fruits of faith and the visible signs, rites, and ordinances of the church.

The Geneva Catechism mentions "the visible Church of God" and "the fellowship of those whom He has elected to salvation which cannot be seen plainly by the eye" (Answer 100). [10] From Calvin's Institutes (IV.i.7) we know that he heard Holy Scripture speak of the church in two ways.

Sometimes by the term "church" it means that which is actually in God's presence . . . . Then, indeed, the church includes not only the saints presently living on earth, but all the elect from the beginning of the world. Often, however, the name "church" designates the whole multitude of men spread over the earth who profess to worship one God and Christ. [11]

Thus, Calvin makes a distinction between that which is invisible to us and visible to the eyes of God alone, and that which is called "church" with respect to men. The Confession of Faith of the English Congregation at Geneva (1556) and the Scottish Confession of 1560 speak in a similar vein.

A somewhat different approach is found in Bullinger's Second Helvetic Confession. There we find the heading, "The Church Is Not Bound to Its Signs." "We know," Bullinger asserts, "that God has some friends in the world outside the commonwealth of Israel." Another heading reads, "The Church Appears at Times to Be Extinct," and under this heading we find the familiar reference to 1 Kings 19:10,14, about the days of Elijah and the seven thousand under the reign of Ahab. "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" (emphasis added). Here "invisible" is used in the sense of "hidden." Although the Belgic Confession does not use the word "invisible," Article 27 declares that the holy church sometimes for a while appears very small, and in the eyes of men to be reduced to nothing. This confession also refers to the seven thousand men who had not bowed their knees to Baal. Here again one could speak of the hidden church.

The Westminster Standards, however, formulated the distinction of the visible and invisible church in a pointed, systematic manner (Westminster Confession, Ch. 25, and Larger Catechism, Questions and Answers 64-66). Let me quote the Westminster Confession, Chapter 25:

I. The catholick or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.

II. The visible church, which is also catholick or universal under the gospel . . . consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with 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 . . . .

IV. This catholick church [that must be the catholic, visible church, mentioned in section II and III] has been sometimes more, sometimes less visible.

What shall we say now? First of all, from our list of quotations it may have become clear that Reformed confessions, even when they use the terms "visible" and "invisible" in connection with the church, are not identical. There are differences and nuances in usage. Nobody will deny that the church has invisible aspects. The actions of God in calling and regeneration are imperceptible to men. And faith in Christ has an invisible aspect, although the fruit of faith can be seen. In some confessions the fact that God alone knows His elect leads to a construction of an invisible church, as far as its membership is concerned. Further, there is what one could call the hidden church, the church in the days of persecution, which appears at times to be extinct (Bullinger). Finally, as the Belgic Confession rightly states, the holy catholic church is spread and dispersed over the whole world. It means that nobody on earth can bring the entire church at any particular moment within his purview.

But precisely these many and diversified considerations render the systematized distinction of the Westminster Standards, in my humble opinion, open to discussion. Allow me to say to my Presbyterian brothers, "One of yourselves, one of your own prophets, has said so." I refer to the essay of John Murray in his Collected Writings, vol. 1, entitled, "The Church: Its Definition in Terms of `Visible' and `Invisible' Invalid." His conviction was: "The distinction between the church visible and the church invisible is not well-grounded in terms of Scripture, and the abuses to which the distinction has been subjected require correction." [12] The term "church" in the New Testament designates what is visible. The term "church" in the singular is also used to designate the "churches" in their collective unity. This general and embracing use of the term "church" is found particularly in the epistle to the Ephesians. Professor Murray is of the opinion that "'the church' in the New Testament never appears as an invisible entity and therefore may never be defined in terms of invisibility." [13] He rightly deems this thesis to be of deep practical significance.

If Professor Murray is right -and I think that he is -the questions arise: do the Westminster Standards speak of the invisible church and the visible church as two definite subjects, two separate entities? Does this not infringe upon the truth of the Nicene Creed: "We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church"? Is it right to divide the Scriptural epithets of the church so that the invisible church is called the spouse and the body of Christ, and the visible church His kingdom, the house and family of God? For example, is the metaphor of the body in Scripture not applied to the one ekklésia with its invisible and visible aspects? What about the dynamic action of Christ in His ongoing church gathering work, so Scripturally confessed in the sixteenth-century confessions? Does it receive enough attention in the Westminster Standards?

Professor Murray alerts us to the danger of what I call a polarization of the so-called "invisible" and the so-called "visible" church. Some, who are disobedient to the obligation to foster unity and fellowship in the church of God, escape to the idea of the "church invisible." Also within this International Conference, there could be the danger that we meet one another in a faraway place, yet pass one another by in our own country, and in the meantime soothe our consciences with a distinction between visible and invisible church. In the contacts between the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Canadian Reformed Churches, the deputies of the latter have warned against a polarization of the visible and invisible church. It results in a low esteem for what is called the visible church, a weakening of church-consciousness, a lack of understanding of the seriousness of the calling to separate from the false church, and the rise of the theologoumenon of the pluriformity of the church, which is taught neither by the Scriptures nor by the Reformed confessions. This theologoumenon of the pluriformity of the church has proved to be an undermining factor in the fight against the sins of the church and for its reformation.

Let me immediately add, however, that the Westminster Confession does not show a low esteem for what is called the visible church. It is called "the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation." In section III, we read:

Unto this catholick visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints in this life, to the end of the world; and doth by his own presence and Spirit, according to His promise, make them effectual thereunto. [14]

The following Articles (26-31) all deal with the church: the communion of saints, the sacraments, church censures, synods and councils; and those articles show, in many striking respects, the Scriptural, catholic, anti-Romanist, and anti-spiritualist tendency of a typically Reformed confession.

True and False Church

We have come to our last point: the true and false church in Reformed confessions. The Geneva Confession of 1536 already made this distinction without using these specific terms:

    In as much as all companies do not assemble in the name of our Lord, but rather to blaspheme and pollute him by their sacrilegious deeds, we believe that the proper mark by which rightly to discern the Church of Jesus Christ is that his holy gospel be purely and faithfully preached, proclaimed, heard, and kept, that his sacraments be properly administered . . . . Hence the churches governed by the ordinances of the pope are rather synagogues of the devil than Christian churches [Art. 18].

The Second Helvetic Confession speaks of the notes, signs or marks of the true church, especially the lawful and sincere preaching of the Word of God:

Accordingly, we condemn all such churches as strangers from the true Church of Christ, which are not such as we have heard they ought to be . . . . Moreover, we have a charge from the apostles of Christ "to shun the worship of idols" (1 Cor. 10:14; 1 John 5:21), and "to come out of Babylon," and to have no fellowship with her, unless we want to be partakers with her of all God's plagues (Rev. 18:4; II Cor. 6:17).

The 1556 Confession of Faith of the English Congregation at Geneva lists three marks of the church of God: the pure administration of Word, sacraments, and ecclesiastical discipline. It is followed by the Scottish Confession with its powerful Chapter 18 concerning the notes by which the true Kirk shall be determined from the false. We read there about the pestilent synagogue of Satan and the horrible harlot, the false Kirk. "The true Kirk . . . always hears and obeys the voice of her own Spouse and Pastor, but takes not upon her to be mistress over the same" (Art. 19).

Let me be silent about Article 29 of the Belgic Confession and only point out that the Westminster Confession, in its unadulterated form, also knows of the dreadful possibility that churches "have so degenerated as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan" (Ch. 25 V.). Over against those-even within the Reformed Ecumenical Synod-who reject the distinction between the true and false church as obsolete, we maintain the deep Scriptural character and the catholicity also of this aspect of the doctrine of the church in Reformed confessions. These confessions basically began in 1523 with the Scriptural distinction of the Good Shepherd and the hirelings. The mark of a true church, also in the twentieth century, remains: "The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice" (Jn. 10:3,4). The gathering of these sheep by this Shepherd of John 10 is the true, catholic church of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the one God, to Whom be glory forever.


[1] Address delivered at the first International Conference of Reformed Churches in September 1985, in Edinburgh, Scotland. the speech was first published in Clarion 35 (Jan. 24, Feb. 7, 21, 1986), 31-32, 55-58, 78-79.

[2] E.F.K. Müller, Die Bekenntnisschriften der reformierten Kirche (Leipzig, 1903); Wilhelm Niesel Bekenntnisschriften and Kirchenordnungen der nach Gottes Wort reformierten Kirche (Zollikon, 1938); Paul Jacobs Reformierte Bekenntnisschriften and Kirchenordnungen in deutscher Ubersetzung (Neukirchen, 1949); Arthur C. Cochrane, Reformed Confessions of the 16th Century (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966); Thomas F. Torrance, The School of Faith: The Catechisms of the Reformed Church (London: James Clarke, 1959).

[3] Benno Gassmann, Ecclesia Reformata: Die Kirche in den reformierten Bekenntnisschriften, Diss. (Freiburg: Herder, 1968).

[4] Cochrane, 36. The translations given are from Cochrane, unless otherwise indicated.

[5] See Gassmann, 89.

[6] Book of Praise: Anglo-Genevan Psalter, 2nd ed. (Winnipeg: Premier Printing, 1984), 495.

[7] Torrance, 21.

[8] The Confession of Faith, re-issued by the Publications Committee of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland (1976), 109.

[9] Ibid., 122.

[10] Torrance, 21.

[11] John T. McNeill, ed. Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol.2, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960).

[12] Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), 1:232.

[13] Ibid., 234.

[14] The Confession of Faith, 108.


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