Wednesday, September 07, 2005

On the Church

I’m one of those Protestants for whom the invisible/visible church thesis used to but no longer cuts it. That is to say, whatever the church is, it is more than or different from an invisible entity of which some visible parts are visible in the visible church.

This is not to say that I equate the church on earth with the church triumphant. Certainly, the church’s eschatological reality qualifies what we can say and what we believe about the church on earth. The church is not yet what it will be. That is an article of faith.

Furthermore, I cling to Augustine’s dictum that the church is a mixed body (corpus mixtum) because of the church I experience on a daily basis. The church is made up of saint sinners, individually mixed up, and so it is no surprise that the church as institution is itself a mixed body.

But the adage that the church is a mixed body is different than the old saw about the visible and invisible church. The invisible/visible distinction invokes a metaphysics foreign to our creeds and Scripture. To say that this body, this very body, is a mixed body, simply describes the reality we’ve known ever since the mixed up bodies of Adam and Eve, continuing with the patriarchs and matriarchs, the mixed up group we call the Israelites, and the mixical apostles.

God hasn’t secreted a perfect church around some place that peeks out here and there around corners and in window reflections. Rather, God establishes “New Creation” in the midst of the old. This very church, the one we know, is being made and created by God holy, catholic, apostolic.

And which church, you might ask? Good question. But the answer to that question is the same as the answer to this question- Which Jesus? There is only one Jesus, fully human, fully divine, born of the Virgin Mary, eternally begotten of the Father. Of course, if you survey the masses of humanity and ask who Jesus is, you’ll get a pantheon of figures, all claimants to the title. But just because they say so doesn’t make it so. It is a confession of faith that there is “one Lord”, not many. Getting right who Jesus is is a central task of the church in any age.

So, back to the question, which church? Obviously, many churches claim to be the one true church. This claim can no more be true than the claim all those who think Jesus Christ signifies this or that make, and then claim this to be the one true Jesus (see how all ecclesiological concerns are ultimately also Christological?) Jesus is who Jesus is, regardless of your or my personal views on the matter. This is what it means that Jesus truly is personal. The church is what the church is, regardless of our denominational differences, and it is a matter of considerable concern whether we know in faith who or what the church is.

So, not all who claim to know which church is the true church are correct, and yet there is one true church.

But I seem to be writing in circles. You can see why the invisible/visible church solution is so popular. It allows one to say that a) there is a “one true church”, but b) that we can’t see it, although it may manifest itself here or there by the grace of God in various denominations, churches, etc.

I’m afraid the problem with this approach is that since the church is invisible (or hidden?) then the actuality of the church and its importance becomes of no account. It doesn’t matter much what the visible church is like, because we all know its invisible. Never mind all those (Catholics, Orthodox, etc.) who are concerned about structure, ecclesiology, and visible unity. Or, alternatively, lets all get together and feel all right, because actual structures and denominations aren’t that important really, anyway. We all know what the church is, don’t we? Invisible.

All of this, then, is a long pre-amble towards my saying that when I put down Wallace Alston, and picked up John Meyendorff (an Orthodox theologian) I felt more at home. Although my training and practice are in Alston’s camp, my understanding of the relationship between Christology and ecclesiology puts me more firmly in the mix with Meyendorff and others who believe the actual structure of the church (as defined by history and gasp tradition) are matters of faith. The visible church matters, and this because the full divinity and humanity of Christ matters, so too the complete holiness of the catholic church on earth matters.

And on this point in particular, the Orthodox church has much to teach us about what it means to be church.


  1. I think Luther can say something here. In his "On the Councils and the Church" he makes a distinction between the hidden and revealed church, not visible and invisible. All told, I think Luther's distinction is much more helpful.

    The true Church is indeed a mixed body. However it is not hidden, since we know that there are places where we find it. Those who belong to the true Church will be revealed at the parousia, but in the meantime we may find the Church where it is revealed through the seven marks of the Church. Namely, Possession of the Holy Word of God (primarily as it is preached), Baptism, Eucharist, Office of the Keys, Office of Ministry, Public Worship, Possession of the Sacred Cross (Discipleship). If the true Chruch were truly hidden, we would never know where to find it. But since God hides the Church within the churches, we know that it is visible somewhere.


  2. Brian,

    Thank you. I had purposefully avoided employing Lutheran categories in this post so that I could address the invisible/visible dichotomy as such, but I believe you are correct, we can speak of the marks of the church as one way of knowing where the church is. Of course, the Catholics and Orthodox would also speak of these marks. See for example this article by then Cardinal Ratzinger:

  3. Clint,

    I understand. I just am not sure that we should use the visible/invisible categories. It might not seem like a big difference, but hidden/revealed is a much more interesting and useful dichotomy.

    One, it roots the Church in a vitally eschatological outlook, since the final revelation will only be at Jesus' return. And two, the Church is revealed in a way here and now, which still maintains a physical presence. An invisible understanding of the Church keeps folks with an internal perspective, privatizing the Church's presence. It just makes me nervous.