Thursday, June 27, 2019

The visible church

The distinction between the visible church and the invisible church plays various different roles in different theologies and ecclesiologies.  Basically the idea is that the church as we see it in the world and in history, the empirical church, is not wholly identical with the church as it exists in the sight and plan of God, the spiritual church.  This distinction may serve to justify the relative impurity of present churches - it sometimes functions, for example, as an argument for mixed congregations in which it is known that many are not living as disciples despite their attachment to 'the church'.  It can also function as an apologetic for the ruined and divided state of the church catholic - the visible church is by schisms rent asunder, but the invisible church is nonetheless one and whole in Christ - which can unfortunately make efforts towards visible unity seem a waste of time.

At one level I think the distinction is certainly necessary.  The New Testament seems to call for it, whenever it acknowledges that there will be eschatological surprises over who ultimately is found to belong to the church.  And it seems inevitable conceptually - I am reminded of Screwtape's advice that the newly converted patient should be put off church by keeping his mind on the deeply unsatisfying reality of his neighbours assembled in church rather than on "the Church as we (demons) see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners."

But does this idea also have dangerous implications?

In The Trinitarian Faith Torrance suggests a particular genealogy for the distinction between the visible and the invisible church.  For some of the early Fathers of the church - he particularly mentions Origen and Clement of Alexandria - there was a similar distinction between the physical/sensible gospel and the spiritual/eternal gospel.  Influenced by Platonic dualism - with its rift between the visible/invisible, temporal/eternal, physical/spiritual, and its clear preference for the latter in each of these dualities - there was a tendency to see the incarnation, in all its visible/temporal/physical nature, as pointing towards a better invisible/eternal/spiritual gospel, of which it was a passing sign.  The danger here for Christology is hopefully obvious, but what if - as Torrance suggests - this is also the source of the idea of a visible and invisible church?  What would be the consequences?

Torrance suggests that this distinction "opened the door for the identification of the real Church with a spiritualised timeless and spaceless magnitude, and for the ongoing life and mission of the empirical Church to be regarded as subject to the laws that control human society in this world." (276)  In other words, the visible church - being no longer regarded as itself the Body of Christ, but only at best as a rough approximation of or signpost to his spiritual Body - is run as if it were just another human society.  The reality that the church - meaning the local congregation here and now - exists because its members have been baptised by one Spirit into the one Body of Christ, through whom they have access together to the Father: all that is lost, or is in danger of being lost.  In practice, the presence and reality of the Spirit with(in) the people of God here and now is downplayed or neglected; human efforts to maintain and organise the church are substituted for a dependence on God's Spirit.

I don't know my Patristics well enough to know if Torrance's account is correct; I find it plausible from the little that I do know.  I wonder what it would look like in our churches to resist this dualism.  A higher doctrine of the church?  Actually, I would guess, an understanding of the church that sees it not as an add-on to the gospel but as an intrinsic part of the gospel.  And then a lived reality of church which leans much more heavily on the presence and work of the Holy Spirit uniting us to Christ in the here and now.

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