The Reformed Scots always had a high regard for the church visible and her privileges.
It was, in large part, the efforts of the Scots commissioners at the Westminster Assembly that Chapter 25 of the Confession maintains that not only the church invisible, but the church visible
"is also catholic or universal under the gospel" and likewise "is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation" (25.2).
In this section, then, the Confession goes further than most earlier Reformed confessions, including even the Scots Confession (1560) which maintained only that all true believers are part of one Kirk, "which Kirk is Catholic, that is, 'universal' because it contains the elect of all ages, all realms, nations, and tongues, be they of the Jews, or be they of the Gentiles" (Chapter 16). While the Scots Confession states that "this Kirk is invisible, known only to God," it also confesses that "we comprehend the children with the faithful parents."
In general, many English Puritans thought of the visible church in terms of particular congregations and typically applied the term "catholic" to the invisible church of the elect. This was even more the case among the Independents, several of whom registered their dissent from the Westminster Confession at this point.
So, then, how did the Confession's affirmation of visible catholicity arise? (Much of the following is drawn from R.D. Anderson's "Of the Church
: An Historical Overview of the Westminster Confession of Faith
, Chapter 25" in WTJ
59.2, Fall 97.)
As I noted above, it was due in large part to the efforts of the Scots at the Assembly. Debate first arose in the Assembly on the topic, not so much in connection with the Confession itself, but in the construction of the Westminster Form of Church Government, which was to espouse Presbyterianism over against Episcopacy or Independency (i.e., congregationalism).
In the course of discussion, the question arose whether it was even proper to speak of "the church" of England or Scotland, rather than simply of particular local congregations. The English Presbyterian, Edmund Calamy, responded by citing several places in Acts (8:1; 9:31; 12:1, etc.) where "church" refers to a visible collection of particular congregations or, indeed, of the church visible in general.
Under debate was a proposition that spoke of "one general visible church," the Independents objecting that this would make the church into something akin to a body politic, like a people or nation.
Samuel Rutherford, one of the Scots commissioners, argued that this was indeed precisely the case, citing 1 Corinthians 12, which, on his understanding, must refer to a "politic body...for verse 28 so explains it," when it speaks of the church's visible government, that "God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers" and so on. Ephesians 4 was cited to similar effect with Gillespie and Baillie supporting such a perspective, along with their English Presbyterian colleagues.
In the end, the language of both the Form of Government and the Confession were approved, affirming the notion of a catholic church visible. Debate, however, continued with regard to proof texts, which were taken up immediately in the case of the Form of Government, particularly the use of 1 Corinthians 12, especially verses 13-14: "For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many."
Ephesians 4 was also at issue in this connection, with both passages speaking of the "one body" of Christ as sharing "one Spirit" and "one baptism" and to which is given the ministerial authority of outward church government. Thus, according to the Presbyterians present, the passages had the church visible in view, even if not to the exclusion of the church in her invisible aspect. In the end the text of the Form of Government was approved, speaking of "one general church visible" with 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4 appended as biblical proof.
The Independents argued, however, that 1 Corinthians 12 could not be speaking of the church visible since it made reference to baptism by "the Spirit" and so the "body" in question must be the invisible body. The Scots commissioners and a number of English Presbyterians objected stridently to such an interpretation, seeing outward profession and baptism as works of the Spirit drawing individuals into the outward church as Christ's body and, thereby, into the ordinary means by which God's salvation was enjoyed. Thus John Downame, appointed by the Assembly to license ministers and grant imprimatur, wrote,
"No man says 'Jesus is the Lord,' but by the Spirit of God" (1 Cor 12:3), that is, the grace even but outwardly to profess him, is a work of the Holy Ghost. And so does the Apostle there go through the rest of the parts: gifts of knowledge, faculties and ministries. "All which," he says, "one and the same Spirit works." (from The Sum of Sacred Divinity 1630)
He goes on to add, "the same Apostle calls Christ 'the foundation' even of the visible Church (1 Cor 3:11)."
Along similar lines, Thomas Blake, a prominent English Presbyterian whose influence formed part of the indispensable context for the Assembly, wrote,
It is the external Covenant, not the inward, that exactly and properly is called by the name of a "covenant": and to which priviledges of Ordinances and title to Sacraments are annext. (The Covenant Sealed 1655)
Thus Blake maintained that "the outward part of the Covenant" contained "a promise of the Spirit" and was a necessary "step in God's ordinary dispensation of the inward." Blake, therefore, denied "that saving grace could be had, in God's ordinary way, without this privilege" of membership within the catholic visible church (Infants Baptisme
The language of the New Testament, with regard to the church, was interpreted as referring to the church in both its visible and invisible aspects. Thus, in addition to various references to 1 Corinthians 12 on the floor of the Assembly, Stephen Marshall cited Ephesians 4 in upholding the importance of the unity of the catholic church visible: "he doth exhort everyone so to walk as that there may be no rent in the body of Christ, which body is granted by him to be the general body."
According to the Presbyterians at the Assembly, then, it is to the catholic church visible that God grants various privileges and benefits, which are then exercised within the local congregation and administered through the word and sacraments.
Richard Vines, for instance, asserted, "That when Scripture speaks of our duties to be done, it speaks of a particular church; but when it speaks of God’s benefits or blessings given, that is of the catholic church, which is according to the proposition" (that is, the "catholic church" in the sense of the general visible church, the proposed language for the Form of Government). In answer to an objection from an Independent, Marshall added, "while it is true that it is local congregations that actually use the ordinances, they do so legitimately only as members of the one true church."
Along similar lines, Downame writes,
I call it a "visible Church," because it may be seen and known who are such professors, though the Church of the elect cannot be seen. This outward Church universal, is further to be considered in the beauty it receives by companies and assemblies, drawn by the power of Christ's Spirit to associate and join themselves together in the profession of his Name, which is a singular ornament and marvelous gracing of the whole, thus to be distinguished into particular meetings, as it were, the field of the Lord into several closures or garden into several beds or alleys, whereby God's glory is much the more conspicuous. (from Sum)
A couple main points follow from these observations about the Westminster Assembly and its context.
First, it is quite proper and confessional to regard the visible catholic church as the "body of Christ." The omission of "body of Christ" from Westminster Confession 25.2 cannot reasonably be taken to exclude such terminology from its teaching without rendering it inconsistent with the Form of Government and its own prooftexts. As Anderson notes, "The omission of the image of the body in WCF 25.2 is probably either stylistic, or an oversight, especially since 1 Cor 12 is included as a prooftext at this point" (187, note 39).
This perspective can be substantiated as a common Presbyterian perspective in a variety of ways. For instance, the old Scottish Book of Common Order, in its rite of excommunication, prescribed the following form of words:
It is clearly known to us that N., sometimes baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, and so reputed and accounted for a Christian, hath fearfully fallen from the society of Christ's body...We, having place in the Ministry, with grief and dolour of our hearts, are compelled to draw the sword granted by God to His Church; that is, to excommunicate from the society of Christ Jesus, from His Body the Church, from participation of sacraments and prayers with the same, the said N....
Elsewhere in the rite, the Minister is instructed to explain further:
It cannot be but dolorous to the body that any member thereof should be cut off and perish: and yet, it ought to be more fearful to the member than to the body, for the member cut off can do nothing but putrefy and perish, and yet the body may retain life and strength...Lawful excommunication is the cutting off from the body of Jesus Christ, from participation of His holy Sacraments, and from public prayers with His Church, by public and solemnal sentence...
Overall, the rite repeatedly presents the act of excommunication from the outward, visible church as a cutting off from the body of Christ, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. The rites, at several points, allude to 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4, which present outward ministerial authority as pertaining to the one baptized body of Christ, in both its visible and invisible aspects.
It is unsurprising then that we should read Scots divine Thomas Boston writing in the 18th century, again with an allusion to 1 Corinthians 12, that,
Christ has not two Churches, one invisible and the other visible; but one Church, that in one respect is visible, and in another respect is invisible. Christ is a not a Head with two Bodies, but we are "all baptized into one Body"...(from Works, volume VIII).
And so the current Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America is quite in keeping with traditional Presbyterian understandings, when it states,
Our blessed Saviour, for the edification of the visible Church, which is His body, has appointed officers not only to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments, but also to exercise discipline for the preservation both of truth and duty. ("Preface" II.3)
On the Presbyterian understanding, then, the one church of Jesus Christ is, in its visible aspect, the Body of Christ and household of God, given for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, to which the privileges of the ministry of word and sacrament pertain, and outside of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.
Second, when we look at Westminster Confession 25.2 in its historical context, the insistence upon one visible catholic
church has a particular force and intent: that there should be visible unity. Local congregations, as shown earlier, were seen by the Assembly as legitimately administering the word, sacraments, and other privileges only by virtue of their membership within the catholic church visible. And so, Westminster Confession 25.3 states that Christ gives the "ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God" to the catholic
visible church, then to be exercised in the local congregation.
Part of the intent of Confession 25.2 and 3 was to exclude the possibility of Independency, that is, congregationalist separation from the given church structures of any particular area or nation. Indeed, early on the Assembly voted to exclude from licensure to the ministry anyone who considered the Church of England to be a false church or who harbored similar separatist tendencies.
In the Assembly's view, to be a local congregation of the visible catholic church of Jesus Christ required maintaining visible fellowship and unity with other local congregations regionally (that is, in the presbytery or diocese), nationally (in this case, in the churches of England and Scotland), and internationally (that is, at least, with other Reformed churches on the Continent).
Thus, Samuel Rutherford wrote in his 1644 work, Due Right of Presybteries
There ought to be a fellowship of Church communion amongst all the visible Churches on Earth; Ergo de jure and by Christ his institution there is an universall or catholick visible Church. I prove the antecedent: Because there ought to be mutuall fellowship of visible Church-duties, as where there is one internall fellowship, because Eph 4.4. we are one body, one spirit...
Thus, Rutherford maintained that there should be "externall fellowship" among churches locally, nationally, and internationally, through acts of mutual prayer, discipline, and sacramental fellowship. These acts all "are Church-acts of externall communion with the reformed catholick visible Churches."
While many Reformed Christians today may see the primary form of catholic unity to be the fellowship of the Spirit enjoyed by the invisible church, thereby rendering visible unity unimportant and separatism permissible, it was just such views that the Westminster Confession sought to exclude. Of course, we exist in a different context, where denominationalism has grown up and become prevalent in a way never countenanced by the Assembly and the possibility of which it was seeking to foreclose.
This makes the American revision of the Westminster Confession rather ironic since, in its re-working of 23.3, it assumes denominationalism as virtually normative: "it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the Church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest." One might well see this revision as in implicit tension with 25.2.
At the very least, it is not possible to claim to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith 25.2 and 3 while failing to work for visible unity in sacraments and discipline among at least all Reformed churches locally, nationally, and throughout the world. In light of that, it is good to see organizations such as the World Reformed Fellowship
undertaking just such a task. We might also consider ways in which such visible unity might take form even across the barriers that divide Reformed Christians from their non-Reformed sisters and brothers.