Monday, April 09, 2007

The Visible/Invisible Church Distinction and Dispute

There has been a lot of debate about the Invisible church and the Visible church with regards to the Federal Vision. Doug Wilson has a a post about it, which led to a reaction from Lane, and one probably only has to look a few seconds to find much more.

Personally, I think this debate is a side issue in the Federal Vision controversy, and perhaps even a distraction from real issues. Rev. Wilson’s denial of the Invisible/Visible church distinction is more a result of his more fundamental errors, than an error in and of itself, in my humble opinion. I have my problems on both sides of this debate, and so I thought I might as well toss my two cents into the ring while the going is good.

Rev. Wilson protests loudly that he agrees with the doctrine of the terms Visible and Invisible Church, and that his distinctions have the ‘same substantive meaning’ (which by the way in short is the visible church is the church in history and it is mixed with false professors and hypocrites, and the invisible church is the elect). In my opinion whether he does or does not agree with the substance of the Visible/Invisible distinction is not the point. His preferred distinction of Historical and Eschatological Church is not the same distinction. That is an important fact. One that Wilson readily admits in The Federal Vision.

I want to suggest that the difficulty is not that we have made a distinction, but rather that by misunderstanding our terminology, we have tended to make an ontological distinction instead of an historical distinction (Federal Vision, pg. 266).


I would argue that ontology is exactly what is meant by the distinction, and it is exactly what Wilson jettisons. The Wilsonian Historical/Eschatological distinction is not a distinction of ontology at all, but rather only a distinction of when one is in history. It is all a historical distinction. Again Wilson explains.

The true Church is the Church in history [Historical], gathered throng of all professing households, assembled in covenant around the Word and Christ’s sacraments. At the end of all history [Eschatological], this same Church will be revealed to an astonished universe . . . (Ibid., 269).


Notice his distinction is only a historical one. The Eschatological church is at the point in history when Christ comes again. He explains further.

Those who are in the historical Church should not see that church as defiled because it is earthly, but rather as immature because it is early (Ibid., pg. 268).


Here Wilson shows us that the Historical Church is just early or young. That is the only difference. It is not an ontological difference of being, but a simple difference of time. Do not over look the ‘poisoning of the well’ by trying to make those holding to a Invisible church dualistic or gnostic. It is part of his outlook. Notice what he writes:

Our problem is that we have tended to think in the Platonic categories of the Greeks instead of the historical and eschatological categories of the Jews (Ibid., pg.267).


This sweeping generalization takes for granted that a Platonic outlook is bad. And while no one is arguing for his view of matter, his ontological view of universals existing outside of this world is one the church held and in many places still held. The discussion of whether or not Plato’s metaphysics are biblical or not is not a one sentence endeavor. Of course Wilson offers no defense for his Aristotlean metaphysic which underpins his Historical/Eschatological distinction.

Now let me say a few words about the critics of Wilson in this interaction. I enjoyed Rev. White’s paper very much. It deals with some good exegetical points which should be brought forward more often. But, Rev. White dismisses the philosophical character of this debate with a wave of his hand as well by stating, "The Reformed did not call it a Church of the elect because it was a separate Church up in heaven or some ideal, Platonic form." ‘Platonic’ is a word used to derogatory and it helps dismiss one’s opponent because of all the baggage it brings. Plato was no Christian. However, his metaphysical theory of Realism is not to be thrown away so easily, and I would have liked to see a more consistent interaction with this philosophical idea. Rev. White freely notes that traditionally critics of the Visible/Invisible distinction have viewed it as related to Plato’s philosophy. The nature of the church is being debated but not a word about philosophy is being spoken. I find that a shame, and part of our problem.
Also, too much ink is being spilled defending the idea when the main point is being shoved to a final paragraph, even a final sentence. Lane does finally say, "This is one of the most powerful arguments against the FV. Members of the visible church who are not elect do not enjoy union and communion with God."

That is the main subject of debate. Rev. Wilson would probably love to keep the debate about the Visible/Invisible distinction forever because it is so theoretical. Rev. Wilson thinks all members, even one’s who fall away, have a real union with Christ. This is because he thinks the Church a repository of grace that is dispensed via the Sacraments (see above quote from Wilson). His rejection of the visible/invisible church is simply an outgrowth of his Sacramentalism, which is a subject that touches on justification by faith. Now we are to the subject where ink should be spilled. Note Rev. White’s first application of the visible/invisible church distinction.

From the context of the passages above and others, we can see how this doctrine [Invisible Church]may be used. The first use is that we might avoid presumption. As we can see from the history of Israel and most of the rest of Church history, there is a great tendency of man to rely on participation in a few external rites for his salvation


While Rev. White does not specifically note it, this is the reason Wilson rejects the Visible/Invisible distinction. The debate need go no further than this solitary point. Do the sacraments and rites of the church save us or not? If one comes down on Wilson’s side, then rejection of the distinction at hand is logical, if not, then there is no need to worry because they will accept it. Let us not worry so much about the branches of the Federal Vision, but drive home the ax to its root.

5 Comments:

Lane Keister said...

Yes, certainly, the question of whether non-elect members of the visible church enjoy union and communion with God is the central question, no doubt. However, I feel that I have dealt with this in many, many posts taking on Steve Wilkins and Xon. Furthermore, I am not so sure as you that Wilson denies an ontological distinction between the elect and the non-elect. After reading RINE, he seems plainly and simply confused on the subject. But this distinction is important precisely *because* it feeds into the larger question of what benefits the non-elect members of the visible church enjoy.

Lee said...

You think he may affirm an ontological distinction after all. I would like to hear your reasoning. Here are a few more quotes to consider.

Q: Jesus sternly warns that if a "man abide not in me he is cast forth as a branch and is withered and men gather them and cast them into the fire and they are burned (John 15:6). You cite this teaching in your lecture, Doug. Doesn't perseverance of the saints understand, in this example, that the reason there is no perseverance is because there is no saintliness?

D. Wilson: Let me ask a question: Do we believe in the perseverance of all the branches? No, right? I'm not denying the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, just its usefulness as a shibboleth. We can just say, "perseverance of the saints, perseverance of the saints" like the folks in Jeremiah's day said, "the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord," but God does things to temples and to a lot of other things He gives us. The five points of Calvinism have turned into a bonze serpent for many of us. . . . We baptize infants because they're covenantally holy (1 Cor. 7). Unless we're prepared to say each infant is elect, then we believe there will be saints who will fall away. But I do believe in the perseverance of the elect of God. (interview)

Also in Federal Vision pgs. 268-269 he affirms that they are "real branches nonetheless", and that they have a "genuine historical connection to the tree", they just do not bear lasting fruit. I have a hard time seeing the ontological distinction he is making.

Lane Keister said...

Right, I think these quotations prove that he did not really hold to an ontological distinction *previously.* What I think is happening is that he is *now* backpeddling. See the last paragraph of "The True Church Within the Church." At the least, he now seems to recognize that the h/e distinction is not quite the same thing as the v/i distinction.

Xon said...

Lee, that quote from Wilson in comment #2 doesn't prove at all that he holds (or previously held) that there is no ontological distinction b/w the elect and the non-elect. How are you making that inference?

For FVers like Wilson (and I think I'm close enough to him on this issue at least to include myself as well), there is a difference between saying that there is an ontological distinction between the vis and invis church and saying that there is an ontological distinction between the people in the vis church. You are reading his comments that he only wants a historical distinction between the v and inv church as a claim that he thinks the only difference between people who go to Heaven and people who go to Hell is historical. But that's not his view. He's saying that there is one Church, which right now contains both elect and reprobates within it. The reprobates differ from the elect right now; they are "ontologically" different. But both of these ontologically different kinds of people are equally members of the one (very visible) Church, right now. The ontological distinction is between elect and reprobate, but not between these two "aspects" (vis and invis) of the Church.

Phaedrus said...

I agree the two dichotomies do not exactly correspond.

Christians (both elect and reprobate) are united to Christ being members of the New Covenant. Covenant Breakers are cut out of the tree. But they can only be cut out of the tree if they were really in the tree to begin with.

The Invisible Church is made up of all those who are elect, whether they are in the Vis / Hist Church or not.

In the eschaton, the Church is a purified Bride, and made entirely of the elect and no reprobates.