The Church Visible and Invisible

From Volume 3 of John Henry Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons

The Church Visible and Invisible

“In a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some to honour, and some to dishonour.” 2 Tim. ii. 20.

In these words St. Paul speaks of the Church as containing within it good and bad, after our Saviour’s pattern, who, in the parables of the Net and of the Tares, had, from the first, announced the same serious truth. That Holy House which Christ formed in order to be the treasury and channel of His grace to mankind, over which His Apostles presided at the first, and after them others whom they appointed, was, even from their time, the seat of unbelief and unholiness as well as of true religion. Even among the Apostles themselves, one was “a devil.” No wonder then that ever since, whether among the rulers or the subjects of the Church, sin has abounded, where nothing but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost should have been found. It is so at this day; our eyes see it; we cannot deny it.

But, though we all see it, we do not all see it in that particular light which Scripture sheds upon it. We often account for it differently, we view it in a different relation to other truths, from that in which it really stands. In other words, we admit the fact, but adopt our own theory about it. I will explain what I mean, which will introduce a subject worth considering.

The sight of the sins of Christians has led us to speak of what are called the Visible and the Invisible Church in what seems an unscriptural way. The word Church, applied to the body of Christians in this world, means but one thing in Scripture, a visible body invested with invisible privileges. Scripture does not speak of two bodies, one visible, the other invisible, each with its own complement of members. But this is a common notion at present; and it is an erroneous, and (I will add) a dangerous notion.

It is true there are some senses in which we may allowably talk of the Visible and Invisible Church. I am not finding fault with mere expressions; one is not bound in common discourse to use every word with scientific precision. It is allowable to speak of the Visible and of the Invisible Church, as two sides of one and the same thing, separated by our minds only, not in reality. For instance, in political matters, we sometimes speak of England as a nation and sometimes as a state; not meaning different things, but one certain identical thing viewed in a different relation. When we speak of the Nation, we take into account its variety of local rights, interests, attachments, customs, opinions; the character of its people, and the history of that character’s formation. On the other hand, when we speak of the State, we imply the notion of orders, ranks, and powers, of the legislative and executive departments, and the like. In like manner, no harm can come of the distinction of the Church into Visible and Invisible, while we view it as, on the whole, but one in different aspects; as Visible, because consisting (for instance) of clergy and laity—as Invisible, because resting for its life and strength upon unseen influences and gifts from Heaven. This is not really to divide into two, any more than to discriminate (as they say) between concave and convex, is to divide a curve line; which looked at outwardly is convex, but looked at inwardly, concave.

Again, we may consider the Church in one century as different from the Church in another. We may speak of the modern Church and the ancient Church; and this without meaning that these are two bodies, merely by way of denoting difference of time. In a similar way we talk of the Jewish Church and the Christian, though really both Churches are one, only under different Dispensations. “What is meant,” you will ask, “by the Church in one age being the same as the Church in another?”—plainly this, that there is no real line of demarcation between them, that the one is but the continuation of the other, and that you may as well talk of two Churches at this moment in the north and south of England, as two in different centuries. Properly speaking, the One Church is the whole body gathered together from all ages; so that the Church of this very age is but part of it, and this in the same sense in which the Church in England, again, in this day, is but part of the present Church Catholic. In the next world this whole Church will be brought together in one, whenever its separate members lived, and then, too, all its unsound and unfruitful members will be dropped, so that nothing but holiness will remain in it. Here, then, is a second sense in which we may discriminate between the Church Visible and Invisible. The body of the elect, contemplated as it will be hereafter, nay, as it already exists in Paradise, we may, if we will, call the Church, and, since this blessed consummation takes place in the unseen world, we may call it the Invisible Church. Doubtless, we may speak of the Invisible Church in the sense of the Church in glory, or the Church in rest. There is no error in such a mode of speech. We do not make two Churches, we only view the Christian body as existing in the world of spirits; and the present Church Visible, so far as it really has part and lot in the same blessedness.

Still further, we may, by a figure of speech, speak of the members of the existing Church, who are at present walking in God’s faith and fear, as the Invisible Church; not meaning thereby that they constitute a separate body (which is not the case), but by a mental abstraction, separating them off in imagination from the rest, speaking of them as invisible because we do not know them, and speaking of them as peculiarly the Church because they are what all Christians are intended and ought to be, and are all that would remain of the Church Visible, did the Day of Judgment suddenly come. In like manner, speaking politically, we talk of the Clergy as the Church: here is a parallel instance, in which a part of a body is viewed as the whole; still, who would say that the Laity are one Church by themselves, and the Clergy by themselves another?

In all these senses then, whether we speak of the Church as invisibly blest and succoured, or as triumphant hereafter, or in relation to its true members, who are its substantial support and glory, we may allowably make mention of the Invisible Church. But if we conceive of the Invisible as one, and the Visible as another, as if there were one body without spiritual privileges, of good and bad together, and another of good only, with spiritual privileges, surely we speak without warrant, or rather without leave of Holy Scripture.

The Church of Christ, as Scripture teaches, is a visible body, invested with, or (I may say) existing in invisible privileges. Take the analogy of the human body by way of illustration. Considering man according to his animal nature, I might speak of him as having an organized visible frame sustained by an unseen spirit. When the soul leaves the body it ceases to be a body, it becomes a corpse. So the Church would cease to be the Church, did the Holy Spirit leave it; and it does not exist at all except in the Spirit. Or, consider the figure of a tree, which is our Lord’s own instance. A vine has many branches, and they are all nourished by the sap which circulates throughout. There may be dead branches, still they are upon one and the selfsame tree. Were they as numerous as the sound ones, were they a hundred times as many, they would not form a tree by themselves. Were all the branches dead, were the stock dead, then it would be a dead tree. But any how, we could never say there were two trees. Such is the Scripture account of the Church, a living body with branches, some dead, some living; as in the text by another figure: “In a great house there are vessels; some to honour, and some to dishonour.” Can any account be plainer than this is? Why divide into two, when the only reason for so dividing, viz., the improbability that good and bad should be found together, is superseded, as irrelevant, by our Lord and His Apostles themselves? Very various things are said of the Church; sometimes it is spoken of as glorious and holy, sometimes as abounding in offences and sins. It is natural, perhaps, at first sight, to invent, in consequence, the hypothesis of two Churches, as the Jews have dreamed of two Messiahs; but, I say, our Saviour has implied that it is unnecessary, that these opposite descriptions of it are not really incompatible; and if so, what reason remains for doing violence to the sacred text?

Consider these various descriptions, carefully examine them, and say, why it is not possible to adjust them together in one subject, directly we know that it is lawful to do so? Consider how they were all fulfilled in the case of the Corinthians, which is expressly given in Scripture. For instance, the Church is made up of ranks and offices. “God hath set some in the Church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.” It is inhabited by the Holy Ghost: “All these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as He will. For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, though many, are one body; so also is Christ.” Its Sacraments are the instruments which the Holy Ghost uses: “By one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.” Yet, in spite of these precious gifts, the Church consists of bad as well as good; for the Corinthians, though “the temple of the Holy Ghost,” are reproved by St. Paul for being “puffed up,” “contentious,” and “carnal.”

Now, in answer to this account of the Church, as one, and not double, it may be objected, that “surely it is impossible that bad men can really have God’s grace within them, or that the irreligious or secular can be properly called justified or elect; yet such men are outwardly in the Church, so that there are two Churches any how, an outward and an inward.” Or, again, it may be said that “repentance and faith are confessedly necessary in order to enjoy the Christian privileges; those, therefore, who have not these requisites, certainly have not the privileges, that is, are not members of Christ’s true Church; from which again it follows, that there certainly are two bodies, whatever words we use.” It will be added, perhaps, that “Simon Magus, though he had been baptized, was unregenerate, being addressed by St. Peter as being ‘in the gall of bitterness and the bond of iniquity.'” [Acts viii. 23.] On the other hand it may be argued, that “there are good men outside the Visible Church, viz., among Dissenters, who, as being good, must necessarily be in the Invisible Church; and thus there certainly are two Churches.” On the whole, then, there are these two arguments to prove that the word Church has two distinct meanings in Scripture; first, that there are bad men in the Visible Church; next, that certain good men are out of it:—both being derived from the actual state of things which we see, which is supposed to be a legitimate comment upon the words of Scripture.

1. We will first take the objection, that bad men are in the Visible Church; what is this to prove? Let us observe. It is maintained, that “bad men cannot be members of the true Church, therefore, there is a true Church distinct from the Visible Church.” But we shall be nearer the truth, if, instead of saying “bad men cannot be members of the true Church,” we word it, “bad men cannot be true members of the Church.” Does not this meet all that reason requires, yet without leading to the inference that the Church Visible is not the true Church? Again, it is said that “the Visible Church has not the gifts of grace, because wicked men are members of it, who, of course, cannot have them.” What! must the Church be without them herself, because she is not able to impart them to wicked men? What reasoning is this? because certain individuals of a body have them not, therefore the body has them not! Surely it is possible that certain members of a body should be debarred, under circumstances, from its privileges; and this we consider to be the case with bad men.

Let us return to the instance of a tree, already used. Is a dead branch part or not part of a tree? You may decide this way or that, but you will never say, because the branch is dead, that therefore the tree has no sap. It is a dead branch of a living tree, not a branch of a dead tree. In like manner, irreligious men are dead members of the one Visible Church, which is living and true, not members of a Church which is dead. Because they are dead, it does not follow that the Visible Church to which they belong is dead also.

Or, consider the parallel of a body politic. Are persons, who are under disabilities, members of it or not? Are convicts? Prisoners are debarred from certain rights, but they are still members of the state, and, after a while, recover what they have forfeited.

The case is the same as regards the Church. Its invisible privileges range throughout it; but there may be, on the part of individuals, obstacles or impediments which suspend their enjoyment of them. It is one thing to be admitted into the body, and another thing to enjoy its privileges. While men are impenitent, the grace of the Christian election does not operate in their case. And in proportion to their carelessness and profaneness do they quench the Spirit. Hence it is, that faith is necessary for our justification, as an indispensable condition, where it can be had. Simon Magus, we may securely grant, was profited nothing by his baptism; the font of regeneration was opened upon him, but his heart was closed. The blessing was put into his hand, but he had not that which alone could apprehend and apply it. It was sealed up from him, and only penitence and faith could unseal it. Therefore St. Peter bids him repent, that he might receive it. He went on further in wickedness, as history informs us, and then, of course, the gift thus attached to him, but not enjoyed, would prove, at the last day, but a cause of heavier condemnation. I do not presume to say that this is the true explanation of his case, which is not told us, but as a mode of explaining it, and yet keeping clear of the conclusion, for the sake of which it is usually brought. If there be one such explanation, there may be others.

In like manner, when men fall into sin, they lose the light of God’s countenance; but why should it be withdrawn from the Holy Church, for their individual transgressions?

There was a controversy, in early times, which illustrates still further the foregoing explanation of the difficulty. It was disputed whether the baptism administered by clergy who were heretics, and had been put out of the Church, was valid. And at length it was decided as follows: that the baptism was valid for the primary purpose of baptism, viz., that of admitting into the visible body of Christ, but that the enjoyment of its privileges was suspended, while the parties receiving it remained in heretical communion. On coming over to the Church Catholic, they were formally admitted by confirmation, and released from the bond under which they had hitherto lain.

If, then, I am asked what is to be thought of the state of irreligious men in the Church, I answer, that if open sinners, or heretics, or leaders in dissent, be meant, they are to be put out of it by the competent authority. As to those who are not such, we cannot determine about their real condition, for we cannot see their hearts. Many may seem fair and specious to us, who are really dead in God’s sight; and these, of course, cannot possess the gifts of grace any more than Simon Magus. Or they may be lukewarm, unstable, inconsistent; and may thus have forfeited, more or less, the privileges which have graciously been committed to them. But how does all this show that the Visible Church has not the true and spiritual gifts of the Gospel attached to her?

2. Now, to consider the second objection that is urged, viz., that “there are good men external to the Visible Church, therefore there is a second Church, called the Invisible.” In answer, I observe, that as every one, who has been duly baptized, is, in one sense, in the Church, even though his sins since have hid God’s countenance from him; so, if a man has not been baptized, be he ever so correct and exemplary in his conduct, this does not prove that he has received regeneration, which is the peculiar and invisible gift of the Church. What is Regeneration? It is the gift of a new and spiritual nature; but men have, through God’s blessing, obeyed and pleased him without it. The Israelites were not regenerated; Cornelius, the Centurion, was not regenerated, when his prayers and alms came up before God. No outward conduct, however consistent, can be a criterion, to our mortal judgments, of this unearthly and mysterious privilege. Therefore, when you bring to me the case of religious Dissenters, I rejoice at hearing of them. If they know no better, God, we trust, will accept them as he did the Shunammite. I wish, with all my heart, they partook the full blessings of the Church; but all my wishing cannot change God’s appointments; and His appointment, I say, is this—that the Church Visible should be the minister, and baptism the instrument of Regeneration. But I have said not a word to imply that a man, if he knows no better, may not be exemplary in his generation without it.

So much in answer to this objection; but the same consideration throws light upon the former difficulty also, that of inconsistent men being in the Church. Regeneration, I say, is a new birth, or the giving of a new nature. Now, let it be observed, there is nothing impossible in the thing itself, though we believe it is not so, but nothing impossible in the very notion of a regeneration being accorded even to impenitent sinners. I do not say regeneration in its fulness, for that includes in it perfect happiness and holiness, to which it tends from the first; yet regeneration in a true and sufficient sense, in its primary qualities. For the essence of regeneration is the communication of a higher and diviner nature; and sinners may have this gift, though it would be a curse to them, not a blessing. The devils have a nature thus higher and more divine than man, yet they are not preserved thereby from evil.

And if this is the case even with sinners, much more is regeneration conceivable in the instance of children, who have done neither good nor evil. Nor does it all follow, even though they grow up disobedient, and are a scandal to the Church, that therefore the Church has not conveyed to them a great gift, an initiation into the powers of the world to come.

If, indeed, this gracious privilege ensured religious obedience, then, truly, disobedience in those who have been admitted into the Church would prove that the Church had not conveyed it to them. But, until a man is ready to maintain that the Spirit cannot be “quenched,” he has no warrant for saying that it has not been given.

Now, then, after these explanations, let me ask, in what is this whole doctrine concerning the Church, which I have been giving, inconsistent? What difficulty does it present to force us to reject the plain word of Scripture about it, and to imagine a Visible Church with no privileges at all, and an Invisible Church of real Christians exclusively with them? Surely, nothing but the influence of a human system, acting on us, can make us read Scripture so perversely! and how is it a less violence to deny that the Church which the Apostles set up, and which is, in matter of fact, among us at this day, is (what Scripture says it is) the pillar and ground of the Truth, the Mother of us all, the House of God, the dwelling-place of the Holy Ghost, the Spouse of Christ, a glorious Church without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, and destined to remain even to the end of the world—how is this a less violent perversion of Scripture truth than theirs, who, when Scripture says that Christ is God, obstinately maintain He is a mere man?

I will notice in conclusion one objection which subtle minds may make to the statements now set before you. It may be said that the Church has forfeited its early privileges, by allowing itself to remain in a state of sin and disorder which Christ never intended: for instance, “that from time to time there have been great corruptions in it, especially under the ascendancy of the Papal power: that there have been very many scandalous appointments to its highest dignities, that infidels have been bishops, that men have administered baptism or ordination, not believing that grace was imparted in those sacred ordinances, and that, in particular in our own country, heretics and open sinners, whom Christ would have put out of the Church, are suffered, by a sin on the part of the Church, to remain within it unrebuked, uncondemned.” This is what is sometimes said; and I confess, had we not Scripture to consult, it would be a very specious argument against the Church’s present power, now at the distance of eighteen hundred years from the Apostles. It would certainly seem as if, the conditions not having been fully observed on which that power was granted, it was forfeited. But here the case of the Jewish Church affords us the consoling certainty, that God does not so visit, even though He might, and that His gifts and calling “are without repentance.” [Rom. xi. 29.] Christ’s Church cannot be in a worse condition than that of Israel when He visited it in the flesh; yet He expressly assures us that in His day “the Scribes and Pharisees,” wicked men as they were, “sat in Moses’ seat,” and were to be obeyed in what they taught; and we find, in accordance with this information, that Caiaphas, “because he was the high priest,” had the gift of prophecy—had it, though he did not know he had it, nay, in spite of his being one of the foremost in accomplishing our Lord’s crucifixion. Surely, then, we may infer, that, however fallen the Church now is from what it once was, however unconscious of its power, it still has the gift, as of old time, to convey and withdraw the Christian privileges, “to bind and to loose,” to consecrate, to bless, to teach the Truth in all necessary things, to rule, and to prevail.

But if these things be so, if the Church Visible really has invisible privileges, what must we think, my brethren, of the general spirit of this day, which looks upon the Church as but a civil institution, a creation and a portion of the State? What shall be thought of the notion that it depends upon the breath of princes, or upon the enactments of human law? What, again, shall be thought of those who fiercely and rancorously oppose and revile what is really an Ordinance of God, and the place where His honour dwelleth? Even to the Jewish priesthood after the blood of the Redeemer was upon it, even to it St. Paul deferred, signifying that God’s high priest was not to be reviled; and if so, surely much less the rulers of a branch of the Church, which, whatever have been its sins in times past, yet is surely innocent (as we humbly and fervently trust) of any inexpiable crime. Moreover, what an unworthy part they act, who, knowing and confessing the real claims of the Church, yet allow them to be lightly treated and forgotten, without uttering a word in their behalf; who from secular policy, or other insufficient reason, bear to hear our spiritual rulers treated as mere civil functionaries, without instructing, or protesting against, or foregoing intimacy with those who despise them, nay even co-operating with them cordially, as if they could serve two masters, Christ and the world! And how melancholy is the general spectacle in this day of ignorance, doubt, perplexity, misbelief, perverseness, on the subject of this great doctrine, to say nothing of the jealousy, hatred, and unbelieving spirit with which the Church is regarded! Surely, thus much we are forced to grant, that, be the privileges vested in the Church what they may, yet, at present, they are, as to their full fruits, suspended in our branch of it by our present want of faith; nor can we expect that the glories of Christ’s Kingdom will again be manifested in it, till we repent, confess “our offences and the offences of our forefathers;” and, instead of trusting to an arm of flesh, claim for the Church what God has given it, for Christ’s sake, “whether men will hear, or whether they will forbear.”

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