Invisible or Visible?
As we continue answering “Are Baptists Reformed?” we go from understanding Sola Scriptura, tradition and history to looking at ecclesiology. For those unfamiliar of what ecclesiology is, ecclesiology is the study of the Church. This is another important aspect as to how we should go about understanding tradition and history. What is the Baptist view of Ecclesiology? Today we will give a cursory study of Baptist Ecclesiology.
Now there are points in this section that I will agree with Dr. Justice, and something I think all should agree on. They are at the outset of his section on the Church. He states “that there can be no proper standard for what constitutes the church, but the one set forth in the New Testament, and that the New Testament is not vague or indefinite concerning the church, either as to what it is or where it came from or how it is to be governed.” Also, a “church is a congregation of believers which has been called out of the world and assembles around Jesus Christ and His Word.” Now here is where I begin to wonder whether Dr. Justice begins to pick and choose which Baptists he identifies with, and whether he understands history. These are the 2 main arguments most Baptists who reject the title Reformed make. They are to be understood and, in my humble opinion, corrected. For they are not strong arguments and they need to be held in the light of Scripture and what Baptists have historically believed. He holds a distinction here which isn’t helpful nor accurate. He believes that the Reformers held the Roman Catholic Church was a true church and only needed reforming and that they assumed the baptism and ordination of Rome was still valid. The Reformers assumed that Rome was still a church regarding the Gospel. One’s practices don’t exclude them from being a church, one’s doctrines are primary when considering their ecclesiological status. There’s a difference in being a well ordered church, and a badly ordered one. For Paul in his epistles to the Corinthian church, even with their abysmal practices regarding the Lord’s Table, suing one another, and receiving those with sexual immorality, still considered them a true church. It was to the Galatians that he had sharp words when they were going back to the Law and leaving the Gospel. Even our Lord Jesus Christ to the 7 Churches of Asia still had their lights lit in the lampstand. This was Him considering them true churches. It’s when they left their first love, followed heretical doctrines regarding salvation, etc. that He threatened to remove the light of the Gospel from their lampstand. For Calvin and the Reformers the central issue was and still is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. How does one have right standing before God? By grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone to the glory of God alone with the Scriptures being the alone final authority over God’s people. When Rome finally released their confession at the Council of Trent, the Reformers regarded them as apostate and leaving the true Church of Christ for Rome no longer held to the Biblical Gospel of Jesus Christ. Baptism according even to the Calvinistic Baptists of the 17th Century had no power conveyed by the one administering it.
Here is another point in which I agree with Dr. Justice’s definition of Reformed eccesiology, yet in his following paragraph I realize I disagree with his conclusions about that statement. He says “Reformed people view the church in two ways. They see it as the entire body of the elect. This body, of course, is invisible. They also see it as a local assembly or the aggregate of all local assemblies in a nation or on a continent. As such, the church is visible. So the Reformers believed in a universal, invisible church, and in a more local, visible church.” I would like to add at this point what the 17th Century Baptists wrote in regard to this in the Second London Confession, Chapter 26 paragraph 1 & 2:
- “The catholic or universal church, which (with respect to the internal work of the Spirit and truth of grace) may be called invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ, the head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.
- All persons throughout the world, professing the faith of the gospel, and obedience unto God by Christ according unto it, not destroying their own profession by any errors everting the foundation, or unholiness of conversation, are and may be called visible saints; and of such ought all particular congregations to be constituted.”
Paragraph 1 is a verbatim copy of the Westminster Confession, as well as the Savoy (Congregationalist) Confession, with only the bolded italicized text being added by the Particular Baptists. Paragraph 2 is a verbatim copy of the Savoy, with only the bolded italicized words being added. These are generally recognized as Reformed documents. We have Baptists who have quoted and generally agreed with these statements by Reformed people. Which Baptists were they? The Particular Baptists or Calvinistic Baptists. I’m merely pointing out that there were (and still are) those who agreed ecclesiologically with Reformed folk. The Baptists didn’t include infants of believing parents as did the Presbyterians, but they did quote the Congregationalists (paedobaptists themselves). This we will see is the difference ecclesiologically between the Baptists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians. We must admit that at this point there is quite a distinction between the groups. However, the Baptists didn’t reject the catholicity(universality) of the Church. Especially as Calvinistic Baptists they didn’t reject since they view the church as the elect, or in different terms, those for whom Christ died.
This leads us to understand that Covenant Theology was behind their agreement with the Presbyterians. It is also Covenant Theology the distinguished them from their Presbyterian brethren. I need not go too deep into this but simply refer to a couple of books that discuss this difference of Covenant Theology for the Particular Baptists. They are: The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology by Pascal Denault, and From Adam to Christ by Nehemiah Coxe. The Baptist view of Covenant Theology kept them from baptizing their children and admitting them into the Covenant of Grace. The circumcision of the heart was what replaced circumcision of the flesh in the Old Testament.
At this point another mistake has been made when it comes to the Baptist view of the Church as relates to Israel and the covenants. Dr. Justice states this, “A basic disagreement between Baptists and Reformed people is the answer to the question, “When did the church begin?” Reformed people believe that Israel was the church in the Old Testament, and the New Testament church is but a continuation of the same body. They teach that the church in the Old and New Testament is founded on the covenant of grace made with Abraham. Baptists, on the other hand, see a radical break between the Testaments instead of a continuation of the Old into the New. They believe that Israel and the New Testament church are two distinctly different bodies, and the Old Testament order of Israel is radically different from the New Testament order of the church.” We need to see two things. One, the Baptists did not see a “radical” break between the Testaments. Two, because they didn’t see a “radical” break, they didn’t view Israel and the Church as two distinct bodies. Let’s deal with the first point. Once again I will have to point you towards Pascal Denault’s book on Baptist Covenant Theology. It is the Baptist view of the covenants that informs their understanding of Israel and the Church. At this point also I would like to ask a question: “Did Christ die only for the Church?” It depends on how you understand the covenants. If you believe that Israel and the Church are two distinctly different bodies, Christ didn’t die for Israel. If you believe there is continuity between the two, Christ died for the elect; Israel in the Old Testament, the Church in the New. This leads to understanding the second point:
- Paul’s words that not all Israel is Israel and that a true Jew is one who is a Jew inwardly, with a circumcision of the heart.
- We must also understand that Israel is a type of the Church. They were entrusted with worshiping God, carrying out His commission to them to be a light to the world. They were to be a light to the nations that their borders would be enlarged by creating proper worshipers. They failed in this, Christ succeeded and has given that commission to the Church.
We will come back to this point when we discuss the difference in what many of the Reformers believed concerning baptism. Needless to say, the Particular Baptists of the Second London Confessors agreed with the Reformed Church at this point. Please review the preface and appendix to the Second London Confession and notice the language that they use concerning the “visible Church of God.”
I would also like to add one more observation. It is stated that “Baptists hold with the Scriptures that the New Testament church consists of regenerate persons, while the Reformed see it as also including unregenerate infants, or children of believers. Baptists believe that each church is entirely independent of every other church in all that relates to its government. The church at Jerusalem did not tell the church at Corinth how to operate, and didn’t threaten to excommunicate it when it heard of sinful members of the church at Corinth. Every Baptist church chooses its own pastor and deacons, receives and dismisses its members, and makes its own rules and regulations. Baptists believe with the New Testament that no organization such as a synod or session should tell the local church what to do. The setting up of a centralized authority that claims to speak for the churches and pass laws to the local church has absolutely no New Testament authority.” I agree with much of this. The doctrine of regenerate church membership is a Baptist distinctive. Congregational polity is also one of the distinctives of Baptist church life and doctrine. Each church governs itself, no other church ought to govern another church. But something is stated that needs a little more nuance. The church at Jerusalem didn’t hand down a decision and expect the Corinthian church to do what it said, but the churches all gathered, counseled with one another, and a recommendation was given. This recommendation didn’t excommunicate any church. But it did show that each church didn’t operate entirely independent of one another. Each church had a responsibility to the other churches to have communion, counsel and help given to one another. Interdependence is quite a good word to describe this. This isn’t governance, but a working together to ensure faithfulness and unity to which all of the Body of Christ is called in John 17:20-23. In Ephesians 4, gifts were given to the Church to build up the body of Christ. This reference isn’t exclusively to the local church. The context of Ephesians is the body of Christ, all true believers, Jew and Gentile, one new man, a holy temple. This is written to a local church reminding them of their membership in the one body of Christ through His death and resurrection, bringing together Jew and Gentile. This is a wonderful promise and encouragement to unity in one Lord, one faith, one baptism.
This is a longer post than I intended to write. In summary, one could argue that Covenant Theology is central to one’s ecclesiology and what one believes regarding God’s divine covenants reveals how they understand Israel and the Church. We must see that the Particular Baptists of the 17th Century followed the Reformers and not the General Baptists or Anabaptists in their understanding of the covenants. So we must realize that not all Baptists are created equal. We must be honest and careful with history and with doctrine. An Anabaptist is not a General Baptist nor a Particular Baptist. Nor is a Particular Baptist a General Baptist or Anabaptists. Neither is a General Baptist an Anabaptist nor a Particular Baptist. I will sum everything up in my final post looking at “What Is A Reformed Baptist?” But before that, we must look at the doctrine of Church and state.