Monday, March 03, 2014

WCF vs. Three Forms - The Church

Let us move on to the next difference between the Westminster and the Heidelberg specifically.  And this is regarding the Church.  This can be found in the Heidelberg mainly in Question 54 about the Holy Catholic Church and the WCF chapter 25. 

Now there is wide agreement.  Both have Christ as the head of the church (WCF 25.1, HC#50).  Both define the church primarily as the elect throughout all of history (WCF 25.1, HC #54).  Both understand that the church on earth contains unbelievers (WCF 25.2,4-5, HC#82).  Now it is explicit in the Westminster, and more an implication in the Heidelberg.  The Westminster labels it as an invisible and visible church.  This labeling is not found in the Heidelberg and the answer to HC#54 about the church specifically speaks of the elect.  Yet, we do see the Heidelberg talk about infants belonging to the people of God (#74), and the practice of church discipline to remove unbelievers and hypocrites (#82).  Clearly then the Heidelberg acknowledges this visible church understanding and the presence of unbelievers in the visible walls of the church. 

The main difference comes in WCF 25.3 and Heidelberg Q#54.  The Westminster begins here, “Unto this catholic visible Church Christ has given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God for the gathering and perfecting of the saints in this life”.  The Westminster than has the Church given Word and the Church then gathers with the oracles, ordinances, and ministry, which is later said to be made effectual by the Spirit.  The Heidelberg has a different approach.  “That out of the whole human race, from the beginning to the end of the world, the Son of God, by His Spirit and Word, gathers, defends, and preserves for Himself unto everlasting life a chosen communion in the unity of the true faith; and that I am and forever shall remain a living member of this communion.”  Do you see the difference?

Yeah okay, I didn’t either the first times I read it.  But the difference is in where the church comes from.  The Westminster has the church existing and then being given the ministry and oracles and is the main actor in the gathering and perfecting of the saints, although its power is still rooted in the Spirit.  The Heidelberg has the church created by Son with the Word and Spirit of God.  The main actor then is no so much the Church as Christ. 

Perhaps you have heard the quote, “You cannot have God for your father unless you have the church as your mother”.   It is from Cyprian as far as I can tell.  And the metaphor of Church as mother is often seen even in Calvin’s writings.  However, I believe the metaphor only fits the Westminster view of the church.  There the church is an actor in bringing about gathering of believers.  This leads to the declaration that “outside of [the church] there is no ordinary possibility of salvation”.  A phrase found in the Belgic, but not the Heidelberg.  For the Heidelberg if you are saved, you are part of the church.  You were not birthed by the church, but gathered by God and now a member of His church.  Now Q#55 lets us know you will now feel bound to use your gifts in the communion of the saints and thus, no believer will keep himself apart from a visible church, but ultimately the stress of the Heidelberg is that you are in the church now.  Christ saved you.  It is not God as father and Church as mother.  It is gathered by Christ to be the church.  Through the Word and Spirit you have been gathered and made part of the church now.  The Heidelberg is stressing the individual’s integration into the Church.  The last clause does that as well.  You are now and forever shall remain part of that communion.  The Westminster has the people gathered by the Church’s use of the means and the integration of the individual into the Church is not discussed. 

It has to be noted here the Belgic has the Westminster’s view.  And oddly enough the Westminster Larger Catechism has the Heidelberg’s view.  WLC #63 the church is gathered and protected by God and it is God who offers grace by Christ to the members of the Church, and not the Church being given the ministry and then the church using that ministry to gather people in.  Remember this fact when we get around to discussing the Westminster Larger Catechism as its own document and not really a summary of the Westminster Confession of Faith. 

The outworking of this view of Church is a bit more difficult to see.  But the WCF has a Higher Church view than does the Heidelberg.  It is not surprising to see then occasional revivals of High Church theology in a Westminster system. 


Jeremy B said...

Interesting, thanks Lee...

Do you have any thoughts on Schilder's 19 theses on the church?

Lee said...

I am not a fan of Schilder's 19 theses. In fact I have a hard time seeing how Schilder can subscribe to any Reformation creeds with those beliefs. Clearly the WCF is out, and as I said, the Heidelberg doesn't use the "visible" and "invisible" words, but Schilder is objecting to more than just words there. He clearly rejects marks putting him well at odds with Article 29 of the Belgic, and other documents like the Emden Catechism, the Second Helvetic, and The Hungarian Confession of 1562 all condemn Schilder. It is hard to see any room for his theses in the Reformation.

Jeremy B said...

Thanks for the response

Practically speaking, how would you say those two views of the church compare in the outworkings in the life of the church?

Lee said...

Practically, I think there is not much because I think this part is ignored in most WCF commentaries. Sometimes they note that the ordinances are given to the visible church in order to gather people into the invisible church, but not a lot of attention gets paid to it.

I think it can lead some to stress the no ordinary salvation outside of the church and can play into the current FV controversy with the church as a dispenser then of salvation.

However, I think it is primarily a compromise phrase with the many Episcopal Church of England types at the Assembly. There were at least 8 ministers who were or would become Bishops. Others were not bishops, but not against it such as Daniel Featley. Then there were those who were Presbyterian, but opposed to the Solemn League and Covenant like Cornelius Burges. I think the idea of a church that holds the word and ordinances to use on the saints rather than a church that is created by the word and Spirit, is an attempt to unify divergent views on the church.

Jeremy B said...

Thanks for the response Lee

The Westminster Confession contains qualifications to the statements it makes, like in 25.3...though given that it was a consensus document, certainly those divines which held seemingly divergent views would probably walk away clinging to those same views...just as those who subscribe to "...the system of doctrine..." do to this day.