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History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 100. The Visible and Invisible Church.


Comp. vol. VI. § 85, and the literature there quoted.


A distinction between real and nominal Christianity is as old as the Church, and has never been denied. "Many are called, but few are chosen." We can know all that are actually called, but God only knows those who are truly chosen. The kindred parables of the tares and of the net illustrate the fact that the kingdom of heaven in this world includes good and bad men, and that a final separation will not take place before the judgment day.657657    Matt. 13:24-30; 47-49. Paul distinguishes between an outward circumcision of the flesh and an inward circumcision of the heart; between a carnal Israel and a spiritual Israel; and he speaks of Gentiles who are ignorant of the written law, yet, do by nature the things of the law," and will judge those who," with the letter and circumcision, are transgressors of the law." He thereby intimates that God’s mercy is not bounded by the limits of the visible Church.658658    · Rom. 2:14, 15, 28, 29; Col. 2:11.

Augustin makes a distinction between the true body of Christ, which consists of the elect children of God from the beginning, and the mixed body of Christ, which comprehends all the baptized.659659    Corpus Christi merum, and corpus Christi mixtum. De Doctr. Christ. III. 32; De Baptismo contra Donatistas, IV. 5. The Donatist Tichonius used the less suitable designation of a twofold body of Christ (corpus Christi bipartitum). In the Middle Ages the Church was identified with the dominion of the papacy, and the Cyprianic maxim, "Extra ecclesiam nulla salus," was narrowed into "Extra ecclesiam Romanam nulla salus," to the exclusion not only of heretical sects, but also of the Oriental Church. Wiclif and Hus, in opposition to the corruptions of the papal Church, renewed the distinction of Augustin, under a different and less happy designation of the congregation of the predestinated or the elect, and the congregation of those who are only foreknown.660660    See Wiclif’s tract De Ecclesia, published by Loserth, 1886. Hus, in his tract on the same subject, literally adopted Wiclif’s view.

The Reformers introduced the terminology "visible" and invisible" Church. By this they did not mean two distinct and separate Churches, but rather two classes of Christians within the same outward communion. The invisible Church is in the visible Church, as the soul is in the body, or the kernel in the shell, but God only knows with certainty who belong to the invisible Church and will ultimately be saved; and in this sense his true children are invisible, that is, not certainly recognizable and known to men. We may object to the terminology, but the distinction is real and important.

Luther, who openly adopted the view of Hus at the disputation of Leipzig, first applied the term "invisible" to the true Church, which is meant in the Apostles’ Creed.661661    He speaks of the ecclesia invisibilis in his second Commentary on the Galatians, vol. III. 38. Erlangen ed. The Lutheran symbolical books do not use the term, but teach the thing. The Augsburg Confession defines the Church to be "the congregation of saints (or believers), in which the Gospel is purely taught, and the sacraments are rightly administered." This definition is too narrow for the invisible Church, and would exclude the Baptists and Quakers.662662    The Ninth Article of the Augsburg Confession expressly condemns the Anabaptists for rejecting infant baptism and maintaining the salvation of unbaptized infants.

The Reformed system of doctrine extends the domain of the invisible or true Church and the possibility of salvation beyond the boundaries of the visible Church, and holds that the Spirit of God is not bound to the ordinary means of grace, but may work and save "when, where, and how he pleases."663663    See Westminster Confession of Faith, ch. X. 3. Zwingli first introduced both terms. He meant by the "visible" Church the community of all who bear the Christian name, by the "invisible" Church the totality of true believers of all ages.664664    · Expos. Christ. Fidei (written in 1531, and published by Bullinger, 1536): "Credimus et unam sanctam esse, h.e. universalem ecclesiam. Eam autem esse aut visibilem aut invisibilem. Invisibilis est, juxta Pauli verbum, quae coelo descendit, hoc est, qua Spiritu Sancto illustrante Deum cognoscit et amplectitur. De ista ecclesia sunt quotquot per universum orbem credunt. Vocatur autem invisibilis non quasi qui credunt sint invisibiles, sed quod humanis oculis non patet quinam credant; sunt enim fideles soli Deo et sibi perspecti. Visibilis autem ecclesia non estPontifex Romanus cum reliquis cidarim gestantibus, sed quotquot per universum orbem Christo nomen dederunt." Opera, IV. 58. Niemeyer, Coll. Confess., p. 53. Zwingli teaches the same distinction, but without the terms, in his earlier Confession to Charles V. See Niemeyer, p. 22. And he included in the invisible Church all the pious heathen, and all infants dying in infancy, whether baptized or not. In this liberal view, however, he stood almost alone in his age and anticipated modern opinions.665665    See above, pp. 95, 177, 211. Bullinger probably agreed with the liberal view of his revered teacher and friend, as we may infer from his unqualified commendation of the last Confession of Zwingli, in which he most emphatically teaches the salvation of the pious heathen. Bullinger published it five years after Zwingli’s death, and said in the preface that in this book Zwingli surpassed himself ("hoc libello sese superans de vera fide nescio quid cygneum vicina morte cantavi ").

Calvin defines the distinction more clearly and fully than any of the Reformers, and his view passed into the Second Helvetic, the Scotch, the Westminster, and other Reformed Confessions.


"The Church," he says,666666    Inst. Bk. IV. ch. I. § 7. "is used in the sacred Scriptures in two senses. Sometimes when they mention ’the Church’ they intend that which is really such in the sight of God (quae revera est coram Deo), into which none are received but those who by adoption and grace are the children of God, and by the sanctification of the Spirit are the true members of Christ. And then it comprehends not only the saints at any one time resident on earth, but all the elect who have lived from the beginning of the world.

"But the word ’Church’ is frequently used in the Scriptures to designate the whole multitude dispersed all over the world, who profess to worship one God and Jesus Christ, who are initiated into his faith by baptism, who testify their unity in true doctrine and charity by a participation of the sacred supper, who consent to the word of the Lord, and preserve the ministry which Christ has instituted for the purpose of preaching it. In this Church are included many hypocrites, who have nothing of Christ but the name and appearance; many persons, ambitious, avaricious, envious, slanderous, and dissolute in their lives, who are tolerated for a time, either because they cannot be convicted by a legitimate process, or because discipline is not always maintained with sufficient vigor.

"As it is necessary therefore to believe that Church which is invisible to us, and known to God alone, so this Church, which is visible to men, we are commanded to honor, and to maintain communion with it."


Calvin does not go as far as Zwingli in extending the number of the elect, but there is nothing in his principles to forbid such extension. He makes salvation dependent upon God’s sovereign grace, and not upon the visible means of grace. He expressly includes in the invisible Church "all the elect who have lived from the beginning of the world," and even those who had no historical knowledge of Christ. He says, in agreement with Augustin:, According to the secret predestination of God, there are many sheep without the pale of the Church, and many wolves within it. For God knows and seals those who know not either him or themselves. Of those who externally bear his seal, his eyes alone can discern who are unfeignedly holy, and will persevere to the end, which is the completion of salvation." But in the judgment of charity, he continues, we must acknowledge as members of the Church "all those who, by a confession of faith, an exemplary life, and a participation in the sacraments, profess the same God and Christ with ourselves."667667    Inst. IV. ch. I. § 10.



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