Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Where in the World is the Church? - Part I: The Invisible Church

As I have been hinting at, whether one adopts a Catholic or Protestant view of ecclesiastical authority is largely contingent upon whether he sees the church as primarily visible or invisible. In other words, before you figure out what the church can say, you first must determine who she is.

"The idea of an infallible and hierarchical Church," writes Berkhof,

"... found no favor with Luther. He regarded the Church as the spiritual communion of those who believe in Christ.... He maintained the unity of the Church, but distinguished two aspects of it, the one visible and the other invisible.... The invisible Church becomes visible, not by the rule of bishops and cardinals, nor in the headship of the Pope, but by the pure administration of the Word and of the sacraments."
In the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the invisible church

"... 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 fullness of Him that filleth all in all."
Concerning the relation of the invisible church to the visible, the Confession goes on to say that:

"This [invisible] catholic Church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less, visible. And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them" (XXV.1, 4).
The ensuing dialogue, of course, will look like this:

Catholic: "If the 'Church' exists wherever the Word is rightly preached and the sacraments are properly administered, who determines whether those things are happening?"
Protestant: "The Holy Spirit speaking through the Scriptures."
Catholic: "And who determines what it is that the Holy Spirit, through the Scriptures, is saying?"
Protestant: "The sheep who hear his voice."
Catholic: "Who, then, are the sheep?"
Protestant: "Those who gather to hear the Word rightly preached and the sacraments properly administered."

Is there any way off this merry-go-round?