Some Vossian Thoughts on the Visible-Invisible Church Distinction

The Reformed have always taught that the distinction between the visible and invisible church is not a bifurcation of a generic concept into two species, but the description of one and the same subject

“1. There are visible and invisible aspects to the church. 2. These aspects are not separate churches, but have a large amount of overlap. 3. The visible and invisible do not entirely overlap: there are many false sons within her pale, and some true believers outside her administration.”

 

I’m reading the 5th volume of Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics right now, and he has a very interesting analogy for the relationship of the visible aspect to the invisible aspect of the church:

The invisibility of the Church must be further defined: a) It is not ascribed to the Church in an absolute sense, as if the Church raised to its perfection and having reached its goal would still be an invisible entity-that is, something that by its nature cannot be seen. Such a dualism would be completely intolerable. The invisible is oriented toward the visible and vice versa, as the soul to the body and the body to the soul. When the Church is perfect, it will also be entirely visible as well as invisible, and the former will be an adequate manifestation of the latter…Believers do not have a different body than unbelievers. If they did, we could easily distinguish between the two, and the invisible church would coincide with the visible. In this respect, Rome, accordingly, anticipates the heavenly and the perfect as it in other respects repristinates-that is, draws out the old again from the days of the old covenant (pp. 15-16, emphasis added).

Further on, he makes some very important qualifications vis-a-vis the overlap of the visible and the invisible. The analogy given above of the body’s relationship to the soul, after all, could be misleading if not qualified carefully. They are not two separate churches:

If then it is established that one may not identify the invisible church with the visible, the question still remains unanswered: What is the connection between the two? One may not place them beside each other dualistically as if there were two churches. The Reformed have always taught that the distinction between the visible and invisible church is not a bifurcation of a generic concept into two species, but simply the description of one and the same subject from two different sides…The visible thus everywhere presupposes the invisible, rests on it, derives from it is right of existence…Someone has quite rightly observed that although sand is mixed with gold, still the gold is not therefore called gold because of the sand mixed in it but because of its own quality (pp. 18-19).

So, as has been pointed out on this blog before, there are several errors to avoid, and several truths to emphasize. Error 1: the idea that the true church is entirely visible. This is the Roman Catholic error, and the error towards which the Federal Vision tends. Error 2: the idea that the true church is entirely invisible. This is the error of the Anabaptists, as well as some Baptists. Error 3: the idea that there is little to no overlap between the visible and invisible church. This is the error of the Hebrew Roots Movement, and other conspiracy-oriented sects.

Truths to emphasize: 1. There are visible and invisible aspects to the church. 2. These aspects are not separate churches, but have a large amount of overlap. 3. The visible and invisible do not entirely overlap: there are many false sons within her pale, and some true believers outside her administration. 4. As the church matures towards the eschaton, the visible and invisible will approximate each other more and more closely. Eventually there will be a one-to-one correspondence between those in the visible and those in the invisible church, even though there will still be some aspects of the church that will be invisible.

Lane Keister is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of Lebanon Presbyterian Church in Winnsboro, S.C. This article appeared on his blog and is used with permission.