The English Reformed on the “Marks of the Church”

In my post on Wednesday, I identified as “one of the classic Reformed beliefs on the nature of the Church” the idea of a primarily-invisible Church which can be visibly identified only by subjectively divining 3 marks. Since this week, we’ve focused on Matthew 13 at Church, which talks at length about the Church as Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, I decided to make a series of posts examining the individual claims on the subject made by various Reformed Confessions. Today, it’s the 1556 Confession of the English Congregation at Geneva, an English Reformed [Calvinist] Confession, which says as follows [for readability reasons, I’ve removed the various Scriptural footnotes, except where it was relevant to my point; in those cases, I’ve included the Scriptural citations in brackets]:

“I believe therefore and confess one holy church, which (as members of Jesus Christ, the only head thereof) consents in faith, hope, and charity, using the gifts of God […] to the profit and furtherance of the same. Which church is not seen to man’s eye, but only known to God [Rom. 2:28-29] […]”

So, like I said, the Chuch is defined as primarily invisible. The only Scriptural support they cite for this passage is Rom. 2:28-29, which is a bizarre choice: the ” man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly” passage. He says you’re saved not by what you appear to be externally, but who you are internally. If you assume what you mean to prove (that the Church is only the collection of the saved), then this passage is great support. But that assumption, in addition to not being proven by Romans 2:28-29, is flatly contradicted by the whole of Matthew 13: the Church is the Kingdom of God on Earth, but it has weeds among the wheat, bad fish among the good; it is compared to visible, tangible things like a pearl of great price and a mustard seed which grows into the largest of all the plants. In other words, the Bible describes the Church as (eventually) becoming a large religious body with both saved and unsaved members. Those attempting to prove that the Church is really just an invisible whatever-we-say-it-is have some serious Scriptural obstacles to overcome.

“But that church which is visible […] has three tokens, or marks, whereby it may be discerned. First, the word of God contained in the Old and New Testaments, which […] is above the authority of the same church [Eph. 2:19-21; Matt. 17:5; John 10:3-8], and only [alone] sufficient to instruct us in all things concerning salvation, so is it left for all degrees of men to read and understand. For without this word, neither church, council nor decree can establish any point touching salvation.

This is a really classic sola Scriptura fallacy. Namely, “all of God’s word is vested in Sacred Scripture,” therefore, “Sacred Scripture created the Church, rather than the converse,” therefore, “the Church can’t determine the meaning of Scripture.” But if God’s word isn’t vested only in Sacred Scripture (which is, after all, what they’re trying to prove), then the argument is wrong. Because the Scriptural passages that they rely upon for the second premise, Sacred Scripture created the Church, would only work if their original premise were correct. Those passages are Eph. 2:19-21, Matt. 17:5, and John 10:3-8 (click here for all on one screen). The first says that the Church is built “on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone,” with no reference to Scripture at all. The second (and this is just bizarre) is God the Father’s declaration, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” at the Transfiguration; the third is a chunk of the pastoral parable of the Gate for the Sheep. It’s not even the part where Jesus says He’s the Good Shepherd — it’s the part where He says that He’s the Gate who lets in authentic Shepherds. It’s a better argument for Petrine primacy (based upon His later words in John 21:15-17) than for sola Scriptura.

In reality, the various books of the New Testament are written to churches, so written Scripture cannot precede the Church. Many of these letters (known as the “Catholic Epistles”) were written to the entire Church, which presupposes a universal Church preceding written Scripture. It was this Church universal, and these churches local, which received, compiled, and recognized as God-breathed, the various letters. The individual letters didn’t come bearing a God-approved stamp; it was left to the churches to realize their authority. And when they were confused, the matter was resolved at a higher level: that of the Church council. While the Church didn’t make them God-breathed, it did certify them as such, and is the only reliable indicator, since everything else, from competing traditions to disagreeing Church Fathers, falls short.

Certainly, it’s true that the Church is founded upon the word (both oral and written) and the Word (made flesh) of God, and cannot go against Her commission by Him. But that’s a totally different thing than “the Bible created the invisible Church.”

The second [mark] is the holy sacraments []: to wit, of baptism and Lord’s Supper;
which sacraments Christ has left unto us as holy signs and seals of God’s promises. […] Neither must we, in the administration of these sacraments, follow man’s fantasy, but as Christ himself has ordained, so must they be ministered; and by such as by ordinary vocation are thereunto called. [Heb. 5:4; John 3:27] Therefore, whosoever reserves and worships these sacraments, or contrariwise contemns [despises] them in time and place, procures to himself damnation.

By this standard, the Early Church Fathers were damned heretics and idolators, because by no later than 110 A.D., St. Ignatius of Antioch was using the fact that the Gnostics “do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ” as a litmus for orthodoxy. And, oh yeah, no church prior to the Sixteenth Century meets this definition — none of the schismatics who remained even vaguely recognisable Christians (which is to say, excluding the weirdos like the Gnostics) rejected the worship of the Eucharist. There’s not a word written against the worship of the Eucharist by orthodox Christians in the Early Church (and plenty of words written for it).

Strangely enough, in this section, where they claim that anyone with an “ordinary vocation” is capable of performing the sacraments, they also include a citation to Hebrews 5:4, which warns against giving oneself a priestly office (in this case, the high priest’s office, occupied by Christ; but nevertheless, some great irony). The passage reads, “No one takes this honor upon himself; he must be called by God, just as Aaron was.” And yet they use it to mean that you don’t need a sacerdotal priesthood (like Aaron’s was), but that the average people are sufficient. Incidentally, this was the position of Korah, contra Aaron, in Numbers 16. He declared, “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the LORD’s assembly?” (Numbers 16: 3). And then proceeded to offer sacrifice to God by his own authority… and was swallowed up by the Earth (Numbers 16:31). If they’re trying to draw an Old Testament parallel to the Aaronic priesthood, it’s very effective.

The third mark of this church is ecclesiastical discipline, which stands in admonition and correction of faults. The final end whereof is excommunication, by the consent of the church determined, if the offender is obstinate. And besides this ecclesiastical censure, I acknowledge to belong to this church a political magistrate, who ministers to every man to every man justice, defending the good and punishing the evil; to whom we must render honour and obedience in all things, which are not contrary to the word of God.

It’s interesting that the same anti-Catholics who criticize (rightly, to an extent) Catholics of old for injustices during the Inquisition don’t get quite so riled up about this, but it’s worth noting that here’s an English Reformed Confession that says any Chuch which doesn’t employ political (and not just eclessiastical) punishment isn’t part of the true Church. So if your local church doesn’t burn heretics, it’s out of consideration. Or perhaps, history has proved that the English Reformed were wrong about the most basic of elements in their disputes with Catholics: what constitutes the Church. (Certainly, Protestants can forever redefine what makes the “true” Church, but it’s at least instructive to see how well previous non-Catholic attempts have fared).

What’s perhaps more interesting is that the Catholic Church, even while such thinking was in vogue, never fell into this trap. By interesting, I mean here, “additional evidence of infallibility.” It’s also worth noting that the early ecumenical Church Councils did not suffer from these sorts of embarassing anachronisms – they could speak with authority, and not need to be disavowed by their later adherents.

Ok, one down, numerous others to go. Message me (one way or the other) to let me know if this is interesting or not, because if no one is gaining anything by looking at these, I’ll gladly stop. My interest in them is that these Confessions are still a pretty fundamental part of many non-Catholic Christians’ creedal religious foundation, as well as their ecclesiastical history: these Confessions are the root which sprouted forth numerous Protestant denominations, and so it seems practical to examine the Scriptural foundation upon which these belief system were originally founded.

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