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The Doctrine of the Church

 

THE REFORMED DOCTRINE OF THE CHURCH & ITS IMPLICATIONS

As part of the work of the Task Group on Relationships with Other Denominations, the general Assembly published this appendix on the doctrine of the church as background for that important discussion. The 2017 General Assembly recommended that this appendix be made availavble to the wider church, and especially to those preparing for the ordained ministry.

  1. THE ATTRIBUTES OF THE CHURCH

 The Nicene Creed defines the attributes of the church as “one, holy, catholic and apostolic”.

 Viewing the church from the perspective of the gospel helps us to see how these attributes fit together. The saving truth of the gospel is to be believed and proclaimed to the nations. The gospel is also to be lived, because holiness, no less than truth, is a mark of the Spirit’s work. Further, this believing, proclaiming and living of the gospel takes place within a community. Those who are in Christ are joined together in an organism. There is a holy, spiritual order to God’s community.[1]

1. The church is apostolic, because it is founded on the apostolic gospel and called to fulfil the apostolic mission. The community of faith bears faithful witness to the apostolic message. This is a sacred trust. It is this that gives it continuity with the universal (catholic) church both in its sense of identity and its present mission. A reformed ecclesiology refuses to identify apostolicity with an on-going office of apostleship, with regard to the papal claims of Rome or the charismatic ministry of self-proclaimed prophets. A true church is recognised by its continuity with the apostolic proclamation of the gospel.

2. The holiness of the church means that life, as well as truth, marks Christ’s church. The behaviour of Christians in the world must be remarkable enough to cause grudging admiration, astonished curiosity or threatening hostility (I Peter 2:12; 3:16; John 15:18). By God’s election, redemption and calling, both individually and corporately, we are holy in Christ. God’s people, who have been set apart from the world, are to be holy as God is holy not least in their pursuit of justice, the expression of their sexuality and in their practice of grace.

 

3. The unity of the church requires a new community, joined in common faith and life. The vital union of Christians with Christ demands our unity. Jesus’ prayer in John 17: 20-21 is crucial. It applies in two important respects:

a. The fragmentation and consequent lack of fellowship, harmony, and cooperation which appear on the ecclesiastical scene are a patent contradiction of unity exemplified in that to which Jesus referred when he said, "As you, Father, are in me and I in you."

 

b. The purpose stated in Jesus' prayer—"that the world may believe that you have sent me"—implies a manifestation observable by the world. Jesus prays for a visible unity that will bear witness to the world. The mysterious unity of believers with one another must come to visible expression so as to be instrumental in bringing conviction to the world.

We should not think of the unity for which Christ prayed apart from the unity in the bond of truth. Verse 21 must not be dissociated from verse 20. To divorce the unity for which Christ prayed from all that is involved in believing upon him through the apostolic witness is to separate what Christ placed together.

4. The unity and catholicity of the church are interdependent themes. The catholic character of the church flows from the fact that the church is a colony of heaven; it cannot conform to the social castes and sectarian goals that divide a fallen world, for it is the beginning of the new humanity in Christ. The principalities and powers of this present evil age seek to control our desires and hopes by dividing us according to its false catholicises. In Christ every barrier that defines this present age – racial, socio-economic, generational, and political - disintegrates as the light of the age to come penetrates our darkness. The community of the church may be expressed in terms of the old and new covenants or the cultural diversity of the new humankind in Christ. Denominations were unknown for the first 400 years A.D. “There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all” (Ephesians 4: 4-6). The reformers of the 16th century saw themselves as reformed catholics. Calvin consistently expressed his desire not to be schismatic nor sectarian. “He never stopped claiming his unshakeable attachment to the unity of the Catholic Church which he did not want to replace but restore”.[2]  He is keen to show continuity with the historic visible church of Christ whom he describes as his mother

 

According to the Heidelberg Catechism (Q54), to affirm “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” church means “I believe that the Son of God, through his Spirit and the Word, out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to is end, gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith. And of this community I am and always will be a living member.”

 

  1. THE MARKS OF THE CHURCH

 

Because some traditions offered different definitions of these attributes of the church (attributa ecclesiae), the Reformed recognised that, although necessary, these four attributes were insufficient to enable proper judgments to be made about the claims of other churches. Reformed theologians responded by articulating the doctrine of the ‘marks of the church’ (notae verae ecclesiae) in order to seek to explain how the true church could be recognised.[3]

 

During the Reformation period, Calvin discusses the notae in his Institutes and observes two such identifying marks, namely ‘the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution’.[4] In Calvin’s debate with Cardinal Sadoleto he wrote ‘there are three things upon which the safety of the Church is founded, namely, doctrine, discipline, and the sacraments’.[5] Calvin was clear about the function of the notae:

 

For, in order that the title ‘church’ may not deceive us, every congregation that claims the name ‘church’ must be tested by this standard as by a touchstone.[6]

 

These marks Calvin saw present in the Roman Catholic Church. To the Bishop of Naples he wrote “We indeed, Sadoleto, do not deny that those over which you preside are true churches of Christ but we maintain that the ‘Roman Pontiff’ (and the bishops) are savage wolves.”[7] By this Calvin did not mean that he recognized individual believers within the Roman Catholic Church but in a letter to Socinus, he says, “When I say that remnants of the church remained in the Papacy, I do not restrict that to the elect who are dispersed therein, I judge that ruins of the broken church still exist there.”[8]

 

In the post-Reformation period, the Westminster Confession of Faith identifies the visible church as consisting of ‘all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children’ (25.2; Cf. WLC 62).[9] The Confession also employs the marks of the true church, describing them as: (1) teaching and embracing the doctrine of the Gospel; (2) the administration of ordinances; and (3) the performance of public worship (25.4).

 

Like Calvin, the divines insist that no church is perfect: ‘The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error’ (25.5). Consequently, there are varying degrees of ‘more or less’ pure churches (25.4). The Confession also gives voice to the tragic reality that some churches no longer display these marks in any meaningful sense: they are so deeply compromised as to have become ‘synagogues of Satan’ (25.5).

 

  1. THE OBJECTIVE VISIBLE CHURCH

 

In reformed ecclesiology, the church in which these attributes and marks are to be expressed is objective and visible.

 

  • Insofar as the Lord alone knows who are truly his, the only church to which we are to relate is visible and is a mixture of ‘wheat and tares’. Behind all evidences of visible unity in the body of Christ lies the original and largely hidden unity of that body in God’s eternal election.

 

  • This church needs organization. The church as an organism needs structure and accountability. The New Testament therefore prescribes church government.

 

  • This visible church will be present in a place or territory in the world. The emphasis on a national church, the creation of parish boundaries, the role of those in civil society, and the application of the word of God to all of life contributes to this perspective.

 

In the 17th century, when the Westminster divines were summoned by ‘The Long Parliament’ the invitations were sent to members of the one Church of England. They were Erastians, Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Independents, but all part of the one church. The Scots came from the one Church of Scotland. Their first responsibility was to determine how the one visible church on these islands was to be governed.

 

Presbyterians in Ireland have essentially functioned within this ecclesiology. The first Presbyterian ministers in the North of Ireland were either chaplains from the national Church of Scotland or sought to become accepted into the Church of Ireland in the period known as prescopalianism. The divisions within the church, which subsequently led to denominational identity, were over authority. When Presbyterians believed that they were not free to practice their faith within the one national church, to preserve their integrity, they believed they had no option but to establish a distinct witness as a movement for reform.

 

Hence:

  • The creation of presbyteries rather than accepting monarchical episcopacy without denying the validity of any such ordinations.

 

  • The mission intent to provide places of worship for those with Presbyterian convictions, which explains the demography of the Presbyterian presence on the island.
  • The rationale of the Irish Mission which was to make the scriptures known to Irish people and ‘so permeate the whole mass with evangelical truth  and so bring about a spiritual revolution from within’.

 

  • The almost unanimous decision of the General Assembly, after the 1859 revival, not to re-baptise Roman Catholics who had chosen to become members of Presbyterian churches.

 

  • The code of the PCI reflects this reformed understanding of the church.

 

SECTION 1 - THE NATURE OF THE CHURCH

  1. The one catholic or universal Church of Jesus Christ is both invisible and visible.
  2. The invisible Church consists of all those who have been, are being or shall be gathered into one under Christ, the Head.
  3. (1) The visible Church consists of all those throughout the world who profess to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation and to live obedient to God’s Word, together with their children.

(2) The visible Church was established by the Lord Jesus Christ for the glory of the Father and the advancement of His Kingdom in the world. These great purposes are to be accomplished by the proclamation of the Gospel, by witness-bearing to the truth as it is in Jesus Christ and by the promotion of Christian fellowship and mutual edification among all believers.

  1. (1) Many particular Churches are included in the visible Church. Each of these consists of a congregation of persons who are associated for the administration and observance of ordinances according to the Scriptures or a number of such congregations under a common government.

(2) The Presbyterian Church in Ireland is thus a particular Church of the visible catholic or universal Church of Jesus Christ.

 

  • We speak of the PCI as a branch of the visible church.

 

  • After the 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, the PCI showed its commitment to interchurch mission through the visible church by becoming founding members of the Irish Council of Churches.

 

  1. CURRENT ISSUES FOR THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN IRELAND

 

  1. The need for a more robust and reformed doctrine of the church.

 

Before we can begin to consider issues affecting our relationships with other churches, we need to have a clear understanding of the doctrine of the church to which we are committed. Currently it seems that within PCI there are different ecclesiologies which are held and which lead to a variety of practices and understandings about the mission and calling of the church and by implication denominations the PCI ought or ought not to be in fellowship with. This arises in part from a tension between the evangelical emphasis on a conversion experience and the expectation of evidence of regeneration as a criterion for church membership over and against the Reformed basis for church membership as a credible profession of faith.

 

Our first task must be a clear and practical articulation of what it means to be the Church of Jesus Christ in Ireland today.

 

In doing that, our Subordinate Standards are extremely helpful, and particularly Chapter XXV of the Westminster Confession of Faith. A careful consideration and explanation of this chapter is a necessary and helpful step in the task of educating our ministers, elders and members as we seek to be vibrant and transformative communities of Christ and work for the reform of the one holy, catholic and apostolic church.

 

The Westminster Confession of Faith affirms that the church is visible, universal and covenantal. It is also described as the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God. Following Cyprian, Augustine, the medieval church and the Reformers, the confession concludes that outside the church “there is no ordinary possibility of salvation”. A family, a household and a kingdom all require membership and identity with the larger group. We need to teach and affirm this high doctrine of the church and explain clearly the benefits, privileges and responsibilities of church membership, as well as encouraging the effective and fruitful exercise of the “ministry, oracles and ordinances of God for the gathering and perfecting of the saints”.

 

As a Reformed church, covenant theology is the ‘architectonic principle’ of our subordinate standards and it is fundamental to our confessional identity.[10] Consequently Reformed ecclesiology requires a proper understanding of the covenantal nature of the church. Hence the Confession insists upon identifying the visible church as consisting of “all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children” (XXV, 2; WLC 62).

 

The notion of God’s people in the old covenant that were marked with the sign and seal of circumcision, and how within it were reprobate idolaters so that only a few of those redeemed from Egypt entered the promised land, is not normally how we think of the church visible. John Calvin’s view that Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic church was preserved in its darkest hour through the covenant sign and seal of baptism does not seem to resonate with us.  It may also seem odd that he would begin his massive work on ‘the Church’ by saying “There are many wolves within and many sheep without”.

 

The visible church is not composed only of the regenerate; it is the covenant community where the Spirit brings to repentance and faith “those who are near (i.e. “you and your children”) and “all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39). We expect the baptized to grow up into Christ, coming to faith and maturing in that faith, within the communion of saints. Our criterion for church membership is “a credible profession of faith”.[11] In our desire to be genuinely evangelical and reformed, we should not ask for more than that.

 

  1. The need to maintain a commitment to both unity and truth.

 

Unity is intrinsic to the truth of the gospel. Unity and truth are not alternatives. The unity of the church is a unity in truth, the truth that is in Jesus Christ, as revealed in Holy Scripture. To confess Christ, therefore, is to confess the unity of his church and to be impelled to pray and work for its visible unity.

 

The process of comprehending this truth needs to be done “together with all the saints” (Ephesians 3:17-19). Understanding the truth is limited by history, culture, situation and experience, and is often distorted by sin. Divisions in the body of Christ impoverish our understanding of the truth. In conversation with others, we seek to become clearer in our understanding of God’s revelation and to walk more consistently, humbly, and joyfully in its light.

 

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has a clear understanding of where the truth of the gospel is to be found: in the Bible as the supreme standard, and in the Westminster Standards as articulating fundamental doctrines which are founded on and agreeable to the Word of God. The PCI, as a part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, is committed to a public confession of apostolic faith. Unfortunately, the notion of Sola Scriptura has often been distorted so that Protestantism has been cut off from its own theological and ecclesiological history.

Holding to an understanding of truth as stated in a creed or confession allows for the clear, public expression of what we believe Christ has said and continues to say by the Holy Spirit through the scriptures. The public nature of such confessions and creeds serves the interests of transparency and integrity in our interchurch relations.

 

In a helpful book, The Creedal Imperative[12], Carl Trueman includes a chapter entitled “The Cultural Case against Creeds and Confessions”.

 

“Modern culture has not rendered creeds and confessions untrue; far less has it rendered them unbiblical. But it has rendered them implausible and distasteful. They are implausible because they are built on old-fashioned notions of truth and language. They make the claim that a linguistic formulation of a state of affairs can have a binding authority beyond the mere text on the page, that creeds actually refer to something and that that something has significance for all of humanity … They [creeds and confessions] go directly against the grain of antihistorical, antiauthoritarian age. Creeds strike hard at the cherished notion of human autonomy and of the notion that I am exceptional, that the normal rules do not apply to me in the way they do to others.

 

Confessional Protestantism has a historic, creedal integrity; it takes history seriously; it refuses to assume that the latest pulp evangelical primer on postmodernism is an adequate basis for ditching the whole of its tradition; and it wants to take seriously what the church has said about the Bible over the centuries …Reformed Orthodoxy, for example, has theological moorings in an intelligent interaction with, and appropriation of, the best theological and exegetical work of the patristic and medieval authors, as well as the correctives of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In fact, as I repeatedly tell my students, if you hold to Reformed Orthodoxy, you can quite legitimately interact with and appropriate the best theology, West and East, from the Apostolic Fathers down to the present day, in your articulation of a truly catholic orthodoxy.”[13]

 

Passion for the truth of Christ impels us to reach out to the people of God everywhere. We are not a separatist church. We would like to be seen to be in partnership with our brothers and sisters in Christ who are part of the one, visible church of Christ on this island and around the world. We are committed to fellowship and mission together especially with those branches of the church that share our reformed and evangelical convictions. We will also seek to show solidarity in ministry, as far as possible, with those communities, who as part of the church catholic, bear witness to Jesus Christ as Lord, as expressed in the historic creeds of the church and with whom we share a common baptism.

 

We have been influenced by the voices that call for separation, but which fail to recognize and value the unity of the church. Our passion for the truth of Christ also calls us to reject any expressions of unity that dilute our unequivocal witness to Jesus Christ.

 

 

  1. The need to recognise degrees of connection with other Christians.

 

A possible model for our interconnectedness in unity and truth is to base our network of relationships on those truths, which are a bond of fellowship and expresses our oneness in Christ as those who are catholic, evangelical and reformed.

 

  • The historic creeds of the church provide an umbrella of catholicity both historically and with the visible church.  This would the basis of mutual acceptance and affirmation.

 

  • Closer ties would be formed with churches that are evangelical and who embrace the material and formal principles of the reformation in terms of the doctrines of grace and the authority of scripture.

 

  • Our most immediate and first relationships would be in practice with those churches which are reformed in theology and ecclesiology as expressed in their post reformational confessions.

 

While we value our historic links with other denominations in Ireland and Britain and believe that they are testimony to the unity of the church, we should also welcome the possibility of new relationships both at home and abroad and especially in the global south, which may re-energise and re-vitalize the ministry and witness of the PCI.

 

 



[1] Edmund P. Clowney, The Church (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1995) Chapter 6

[2] Alexandre Ganoczy, ‘Young Calvin’, Edinburgh, T&T Clarke, 1987.

[3] P. D. L. Avis, ‘“The True Church” in Reformation Theology’, Scottish Journal of Theology 30 (1977): 319-45.

[4] Calvin, Inst. 4.1.8.

[5] John C. Olin, ed., John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto: A Reformation Debate (New York:  Harper and Row, 1966), 63.

[6] Calvin, Inst. 4.1.11.

[7] ‘Reply to Sadolet’, John Calvin, Theological Treatises, Library of Christian Classics, XX11, 241

[8] ‘Letter to Socinus’. John Calvin, Corpus Reformatorum; Johannes Calvini Opera, X111, 487

[9] Within the Reformed tradition there is significant debate over how the terminology of the visible and invisible church is to be understood. See for example: John Murray, ‘The Church: Its Definition in Terms of ‘Visible’ and ‘Invisible’ Invalid’ in Collected Writings of John Murray, Volume One: The Claims of Truth (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976), 231-36.

[10] B.B. Warfield, ‘The Westminster Assembly and Its Work’ in The Works of B.B. Warfield (Baker: 1981) 6.56

[11] The officers of the church are the judges of the qualifications of those to be admitted to sealing ordinances …. As God has not endowed any of these officers with the power of reading the heart, it follows that the qualifications of which they are the judges are simply those of competent knowledge, purity of life, and credible profession of faith. [By “credible” is meant not that which convinces, but that which can be believed to be genuine.] It is their duty to examine the applicant as to his knowledge, to watch and inquire concerning his walk and conversation, to set before him faithfully the inward spiritual qualifications requisite for acceptable communion and to hear his profession of that spiritual faith and purpose. The responsibility of the act then rests upon the individual professor, and not upon the session, who are never to be understood as passing judgment upon, or as indorsing the validity of his evidences. A.A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology, 645-646

[12] Carl R. Trueman, The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012)

[13] See more at: http://www.reformation21.org/shelf-life/is-the-reformation-over.php#sthash.bvegvf66.dpuf