Let me say at the outset that I am not certain I fully know how to deal with every aspect of this subject myself, and I am not certain that my discussion below captures in its fullness or with complete accuracy the historic Reformed stance on some of these issues. More dialogue and feedback are invited. (Note: Since writing this, I have come to some firmer conclusions on many of these matters, and those conclusions can be read about here and here.)
I will start with a rather lengthy set of quotations. Perhaps the lengthiness may be regarded as overkill, but I think it is important to provide a somewhat thorough foundation in these quotations for what I am going to say afterwards.
This is the Westminster Confession of Faith, 25:2-5:
2. The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.
3. Unto this catholic visible Church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth by His own presence and Spirit, according to His promise, make them effectual thereunto.
4. This catholic Church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the Gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.
5. The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error: and some have so degenerated, as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a Church on earth, to worship God according to His will.
Westminster Confession, 26:2:
Saints by profession are bound to maintain a holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God; and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification; as also in relieving each other in outward things, according to their several abilities, and necessities. Which communion, as God offereth opportunity, is to be extended unto all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus.
The Form of Presbyterial Church-Government (another of the documents written up by the Westminster divines and adopted by the Church of Scotland in the Second Reformation period), "Of the Church":
THERE is one general church visible, held forth in the New Testament.
The ministry, oracles, and ordinances of the New Testament, are given by Jesus Christ to the general church visible, for the gathering and perfecting of it in this life, until his second coming.
Particular visible churches, members of the general church, are also held forth in the New Testament. Particular churches in the primitive times were made up of visible saints, viz. of such as, being of age, professed faith in Christ, and obedience unto Christ, according to the rules of faith and life taught by Christ and his apostles; and of their children.
From the same document, from the section titled "Of Particular Congregations":
IT is lawful and expedient that there be fixed congregations, that is, a certain company of Christians to meet in one assembly ordinarily for publick worship. When believers multiply to such a number, that they cannot conveniently meet in one place, it is lawful and expedient that they should be divided into distinct and fixed congregations, for the better administration of such ordinances as belong unto them, and the discharge of mutual duties.
And another from the same document, from the sections titled "Of Church Government" and ""Of the Power In Common of All These Assemblies":
It is lawful, and agreeable to the word of God, that the church be governed by several sorts of assemblies, which are congregational, classical, and synodical.
It is lawful, and agreeable to the word of God, that the several assemblies before mentioned have power to convent, and call before them, any person within their several bounds, whom the ecclesiastical business which is before them doth concern.
They have power to hear and determine such causes and differences as do orderly come before them.
It is lawful, and agreeable to the word of God, that all the said assemblies have some power to dispense church-censures.
These quotations are from The Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin (the Henry Beveridge translation, as found at the website of the Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics), Book IV, Chapter 1, Sections 9-10. Calvin speaks of the unity of the church and the marks of a true church.
But that we may have a clear summary of this subject, we must proceed by the following steps: - The Church universal is the multitude collected out of all nations, who, though dispersed and far distant from each other, agree in one truth of divine doctrines and are bound together by the tie of a common religion. In this way it comprehends single churches, which exist in different towns and villages, according to the wants of human society, so that each of them justly obtains the name and authority of the Church; and also comprehends single individuals, who by a religious profession are accounted to belong to such churches, although they are in fact aliens from the Church, but have not been cut off by a public decision.
There is, however, a slight difference in the mode of judging of individuals and of churches. For it may happen in practice that those whom we deem not altogether worthy of the fellowship of believers, we yet ought to treat as brethren and regard as believers on account of the common consent of the Church in tolerating and bearing with them in the body of Christ. Such persons we do not approve by our suffrage as members of the Church, but we leave them the place which they hold among the people of God, until they are legitimately deprived of it.
With regard to the general body we must feel differently; if they have the ministry of the word, and honour the administration of the sacraments, they are undoubtedly entitled to be ranked with the Church, because it is certain that these things are not without a beneficial result. Thus we both maintain the Church universal in its unity, which malignant minds have always been eager to dissever, and deny not due authority to lawful assemblies distributed as circumstances require.
We have said that the symbols by which the Church is discerned are the preaching of the word and the observance of the sacraments, for these cannot any where exist without producing fruit and prospering by the blessing of God. I say not that wherever the word is preached fruit immediately appears; but that in every place where it is received, and has a fixed abode, it uniformly displays its efficacy. Be this as it may, when the preaching of the gospel is reverently heard, and the sacraments are not neglected, there for the time the face of the Church appears without deception or ambiguity; and no man may with impunity spurn her authority, or reject her admonitions, or resist her counsels, or make sport of her censures, far less revolt from her, and violate her unity, (see Chap. 2 sec. 1, 10, and Chap. 3. sec. 12.) For such is the value which the Lord sets on the communion of his Church, that all who contumaciously alienate themselves from any Christian society, in which the true ministry of his word and sacraments is maintained, he regards as deserters of religion. So highly does he recommend her authority, that when it is violated he considers that his own authority is impaired.
Calvin goes on to say (Section 12) that unity does not depend on agreement in absolutely everything. Churches can have errors which do not violate the unity of the faith. There is a distinction between what is absolutely necessary and what is not.
When we say that the pure ministry of the word and pure celebration of the sacraments is a fit pledge and earnest, so that we may safely recognise a church in every society in which both exists our meaning is that we are never to discard it so long as these remain, though it may otherwise teem with numerous faults.
Nay, even in the administration of word and Sacraments defects may creep in which ought not to alienate us from its communion. For all the heads of true doctrine are not in the same position. Some are so necessary to be known, that all must hold them to be fixed and undoubted as the proper essentials of religion: for instance, that God is one, that Christ is God, and the Son of God, that our salvation depends on the mercy of God, and the like. Others, again, which are the subject of controversy among the churches, do not destroy the unity of the faith; for why should it be regarded as a ground of dissension between churches, if one, without any spirit of contention or perverseness in dogmatising, holds that the soul on quitting the body flies to heaven, and another, without venturing to speak positively as to the abode, holds it for certain that it lives with the Lord? The words of the apostle are, "Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you," (Phil. 3: 15.) Does he not sufficiently intimate that a difference of opinion as to these matters which are not absolutely necessary, ought not to be a ground of dissension among Christians? The best thing, indeed, is to be perfectly agreed, but seeing there is no man who is not involved in some mist of ignorance, we must either have no church at all or pardon delusion in those things of which one may be ignorant, without violating the substance of religion and forfeiting salvation.
Here, however, I have no wish to patronise even the minutest errors, as if I thought it right to foster them by flattery or connivance; what I say is, that we are not on account of every minute difference to abandon a church, provided it retain sound and unimpaired that doctrine in which the safety of piety consists, and keep the use of the sacraments instituted by the Lord. Meanwhile, if we strive to reform what is offensive, we act in the discharge of duty. To this effect are the words of Paul, "If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace," (1 Cor. 14: 30.) From this it is evident that to each member of the Church, according to his measure of grace, the study of public edification has been assigned, provided it be done decently and in order. In other words, we must neither renounce the communion of the Church, nor, continuing in it, disturb peace and discipline when duly arranged.
These quotations are from Fisher's Catechism, in the section explaining Question 95. This catechism was written by ministers of the Secession in the mid-eighteenth century in order to provide further commentary on the Westminster Shorter Catechism.
Q. 17. What is it to profess faith in Christ?
A. It is to profess a belief of the whole doctrines of the Christian religion, Acts 8:37.
Q. 21. Who are the members of the visible church?
A. They "are all such as profess the true religion, and their children."
Q. 22. What are we to understand by the true religion?
A. We are to understand by it the whole of those doctrines deduced from the holy scriptures, which are contained in our Confession of Faith, and Catechisms, as agreeing, in the main, with the Confessions of other reformed churches, 2 Tim. 1:13 -- "Hold fast the form of sound words."
Q. 23. What is it to profess the true religion?
A. It is openly to acknowledge, on all proper occasions, a steadfast adherence to the whole of divine truth; without espousing or countenancing any opposite error, Psalm 119:105. Rom. 10:10.
OK, one more set of quotations. This is a bit of a lengthy set, but well worth it. These are from Thomas McCrie's work, Two Discourses on the Unity of the Church (Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1821). This is a famous and highly respected (and justly so) work on the nature and unity of the church. (It is one of my favorites.) It can be found here.
The visible church considered as catholic or universal, consists of all those throughout the world who profess the true religion, together with their children. The variety of particular churches, when regularly constituted, does not imply any separation from or opposition to one another. The catholic church subsists in and is composed of the several particular churches, of larger or less extent, in the different parts of the Christian world; and none of these are to be excluded from it as long as they retain the true and distinctive characters of such a society as the word of God describes it to be (p. 14).
Christianity being intended for general diffusion through the world, must in its nature be adapted to all countries and people. It would be extreme weakness to suppose, that its being embraced by people of different garbs, colour, and language, of different manners and customs, barbarous or civilized, or formed into distinct civil communities and living under different forms of government, produces different religions, or a diversity of churches, provided their faith and practice are intrinsically the same. Their formularies of faith and religious service may be differently expressed or arranged, and they may vary from one another in different circumstances in external administrations, which are not, and could not be, prescribed by positive rule in Scripture, and which (to use a much abused word) may be called circumstantial, without marring that unity of faith and that fellowship which belongs to different Christian societies, as parts of the same general body. Nor is simple ignorance in some and knowledge in others, with respect to some things which belong to the Christian system, or greater and less degrees of advancement in different churches, or in the members of the same church, necessarily inconsistent with religious unity and peace. But there must be no denial or restriction of the supreme authority by which every thing in religion is ruled; no open and allowed hostility to truth and godliness; and no such opposition of sentiments, or contrariety of practices, as may endanger the faith, or destroy the constitution and edification of churches, or as may imply, in different churches, or in different parts of the same church, a condemnation of one another.
As there were synagogues among the Jews, so there must be assemblies among Christians for divine worship and instruction, and for the exercise of discipline. The unity of the church requires that we join in communion with our fellow Christians, in the place where providence has cast our lot, provided they are found walking by the common rule of Christianity, and as long as no sinful bar is laid in the way of such a conjunction. And our statedly holding communion with a particular church is the ordinary way of manifesting our communion with the catholic church. But as individual Christians are not at liberty to walk and act singly, so neither are particular congregations at liberty to act as independent and disjointed societies. For the ordinary performance of religious duties, and the ordinary management of their own internal affairs, they may be said to be complete churches, and furnished with complete powers. But extraordinary cases will arise among themselves from time to time; and there are, besides, duties, dangers, and interests, which do not properly or exclusively concern one congregation, or a few congregations, and which require the joint cognizance and co-operation of many. This is taught by the light of nature itself, it flows from the oneness of the Church of Christ, and is clearly exemplified in the New Testament. Being similar parts of the same general body, it is the duty of particular churches to draw together, to combine, and to co-operate, according as this may be practicable, and as providence may open a door for it, with a view to mutual help and the promotion of the common cause in which they are all engaged. They may agree in explicitly approving of the same articles of faith and rules of discipline, and in yielding a scriptural subjection to a common authority in the Lord. Such confederations, on the presbyterian plan, are fully warranted by the word of God, and are most congenial to the spirit of Christianity, which is catholic and diffusive; they may include all the churches in the same neighbourhood, in the same nation, or even in many nations; and by means of them that unity which belongs essentially to the whole church of Christ is formally recognized, and its bonds are strengthened and drawn more close.
Is it then asked, What is the bond of unity in the church? the reply may be given in one word--The true religion. Religion, as communicated by God to men in the Bible, is its grand comprehensive bond. This specificates and distinguishes it from the unity which belongs to other societies. The sacred Scriptures not only exhibit the model after which the church is to be constructed; they also furnish that which gives it substance, and stability, and order, and proportion and unity. It is "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner-stone, in whom all the building, fitly framed together, groweth into a holy temple in the Lord *" (pp. 14-17).
"There is one body," because there is "one faith." A system of faith or of revealed truth, as well as of duties, has in every age formed an essential and important part of true religion. By embracing this the Church is distinguished from other societies, and it belongs to her faithfully to confess and hold it forth to the world. An owning of the whole faith is implied in her reception of the Scriptures; she is bound to obey the calls of providence in explicitly confessing and contending for particular articles of it; and there is no article of divine truth that may not at one time or another become the object of this duty, and consequently a test of her fidelity. Hence, she is called "the city of truth", as well as "the habitation of righteousness;" her gates are open to receive "the righteous nation that keepeth the truth ;" and truth is inscribed on her columns, and on the banners which float on her walls and bulwarks. When this is not the case, Christian societies are destitute of the unity of the Church of Christ, by whatever ties they may be kept together (p. 18-19).
Mournful as the divisions of the church are, and anxious as all its genuine friends must be to see them cured, it is their duty to examine carefully the plans which may be proposed for attaining this desirable end. We must not do evil that good may come; and there are sacrifices too costly to be made for the procuring of peace with fellow-christians. Is it necessary to remind you, that unity and peace are not always good, nor a sure and infallible mark of a true and pure church? We know that there is a church which has long boasted of her catholic unity notwithstanding all the corruptions which pollute her communion; and that within her pale the whole world called Christian once enjoyed a profound repose, and it could be said, "Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language." It was a union and peace founded in ignorance, delusion, implicit faith, and a base subjection to human authority; and supported by the arts of compulsion and terror. But there are other methods by which Christians may be deceived, and the interests of religion deeply injured, under the pretext or with the view of uniting its friends. Among these I know none more imposing, nor from which greater danger is to be apprehended in the present time, than that which proceeds on the scheme of principles usually styled latitudinarian.
It has obtained this name because it proclaims an undue latitude in matters of religion, which persons may take to themselves or give to others. Its abettors make light of the differences which subsist among religious parties, and propose to unite them on the common principles on which they are already agreed, in the way of burying the rest in silence, or of stipulating mutual forbearance and charity with respect to every thing about which they may differ in opinion or in practice. Some plead for this on the ground that the several professions of religion differ very little from one another, and are all conducive to the happiness of mankind and the honour of God, who is pleased with the various and diversified modes in which men profess their regard to him, provided only they are sincere in their professions; a principle of difformity, which, however congenial to the system of polytheism, is utterly eversive of a religion founded on the unity of the divine nature and will, and on a revelation which teaches us what we are to believe concerning God and what duty he requires of us. But the ground on which this plan is ordinarily made to rest is a distinction made among the articles of religion. Some of these are called essential, or fundamental, or necessary, or principal; others circumstantial, or non-fundamental, or unnecessary, or less important. The former, it is pleaded, are embraced by all true Christians; the latter form the subjects of difference among them, and ought not to enter into the terms of ecclesiastical fellowship*. On this principle some of them would conciliate and unite all the Christian denominations, not excepting Papists, Arians, and Socinians; while others restrict their plan to those called evangelical, who differ mainly in their views and practice as to the worship, order, and discipline of the Church.
The distinction on which this scheme rests, is itself liable to objections which appear insuperable. It is not warranted by the word of God; and the most acute of its defenders have never been able to state it in a manner that is satisfactory, or which renders it subservient to any practical use. The Scripture, indeed, speaks of certain truths which may be called the foundation, because they are first laid, and others depend on them — first principles, or elementary truths, which are to be taught before others. But their priority or posteriority in point of order, in conception or instruction, does not determine the relative importance of doctrines, or their necessity in order to salvation, far less does it determine the propriety of their being made to enter into the religious profession of Christians and Christian churches. — There are doctrines, too, which intrinsically, and on different accounts, may be said to have a peculiar and superior degree of importance; and this, so far as known, may properly be urged as a motive for our giving the more earnest heed to them. It is not, however, their comparative importance or utility, but their truth and the authority of him who has revealed them, which is the formal and proper reason of our receiving, professing, and maintaining them. And this applies equally to all the contents of a divine revelation. The relations of truths, especially those of a supernatural kind, are manifold and incomprehensible by us; it is not our part to pronounce a judgment on them; and if we could see them, as God does, in all their extent and at once, we would behold the lesser joined to the greater, the most remote connected with the primary, by necessary and indissoluble links, and all together conspiring to form one beautiful and harmonious and indivisible whole. Whatever God has revealed we are bound to receive and hold fast, whatever he has enjoined we are bound to obey; and the liberty which we dare not arrogate to ourselves we cannot give to others. It is not, indeed, necessary that the confession or testimony of the church (meaning by this that which is explicitly made by her, as distinguished from her declared adherence to the whole word of God) should contain all truths; but then any of them may come to be included in it, when opposed and endangered; and it is no sufficient reason for excluding any of them that they are less important than others, or that they have been doubted and denied by good and learned men. Whatever forbearance may be exercised to persons, "the word of the Lord," in all its extent, "must have free course and be glorified;" and any act of men — call it forbearance or what you will — which serves as a screen and protection to error or sin, and prevents it from being opposed and removed by any proper means, is contrary to the divine law, and consequently is destitute of all intrinsic force and validity. — There are truths also which are more immediately connected with salvation. But who will pretend to fix those propositions which are absolutely necessary to be known, in order to salvation — by all persons — of all capacities— and in all situations; or say how low a God of grace and salvation may descend in dealing with particular individuals? Or, if we could determine this extreme point, who would say that it ought to fix the rule of our dealing with others, or the extent of a church's profession of faith? Is nothing else to be kept in view in settling articles of faith and fellowship, but what may be necessary to the salvation of sinners? Do we not owe a paramount regard to the glory of God in the highest, to the edifying of the body of Christ, to the advancing of the general interests of religion, and to the preserving, in purity, of those external means, by which, in the economy of providence and grace, the salvation of men, both initial and progressive, may be promoted to an incalculable extent from age to age? — In fine, there is reason for complaining that the criteria or marks given for determining these fundamental or necessary articles, are uncertain or contradictory. Is it alleged, that they are clearly taught in Scripture? This is true of others also. 'That they are few and simple?' This is contradicted by their own attempts to state them. 'That they are such as the Scripture has declared to be necessary ?' Why then have we not yet been furnished with a catalogue of them? 'That they are such as are embraced by all true Christians?' Have they a secret tact by which they are able to discover such characters? If not, can they avoid running into a vitious circle in reasoning, by first determining who are true Christians by their embracing certain doctrines, and then determining that these doctrines are fundamental because they are embraced by persons of that description?
Many who have contributed to give currency to this scheme have been actuated, I have no doubt, by motives which are in themselves highly commendable. They wished to fix the attention of men on matters confessedly of great importance, and were anxious to put an end to the dissensions of Christians by discovering a mean point in which the views of all might harmoniously meet. But surely those who cherish a supreme regard for divine authority will be afraid of contemning or of teaching others to think lightly of any thing which bears its sacred impress. They will be disposed carefully to reconsider an opinion, or an interpretation of any part of Scripture, which seems to imply in it, that God has given to men a power to dispense with some of his own laws. And they will be cautious of originating or countenancing plans of communion that may involve a principle of such a complexion. These plans are more or less dangerous according to the extent to which they are carried, and the errors or abuses which may prevail among the parties which they embrace. But however limited they may be, they set an example which may be carried to any extent. So far as it is agreed and stipulated, that any truth or duty shall be sacrificed or neglected, and that any error or sin shall be treated as indifferent or trivial, the essence of latitudinarianism is adopted, room is made for further advancements, and the way is prepared for ascending, through successive gradations, to the very highest degree in the scale (pp. 88-94).
Now, having read through all of these quotations, let's piece together the Reformed view of the unity of the church and the sort of profession of faith that is required for that unity. Go back and re-read the very first quotation from the Westminster Confession, WCF 25:2-5. It seems to me that there are a number of different interpretations of this section of the Confession that are held today in Reformed circles.
One of these interpretations is what I will call the latitudinarian, semi-congregationalist interpretation. It goes like this: When the Confession speaks of particular churches, more or less pure, which are members of the one visible catholic church, it is referring to (or at least one of the things it is referring to, as we use it in our day, is) all the different denominations that exist today (such as the OPC, the PCA, the FPCS, the RPCNA, etc.) which hold to the "essentials" of Christianity. The "essentials" of Christianity include the things one must know for salvation--such as that God exists, that salvation is by grace through faith, etc.--as opposed to biblical doctrines that are not necessary to be known for salvation--such as infant baptism, the presbyterian nature of church government, what should be sung in the worship of the church, etc. This list of essentials differs somewhat from person to person. Excluded from the visible church are churches and denominations that violate the essential doctrines of Christianity.
But I do not think that this is the correct interpretation. This interpretation commits two errors which the Reformed tradition has traditionally been opposed to: 1. Semi-congregationalism. 2. Latitudinarianism.
I've discussed semi-congregationalism many times (some might say ad nauseum) in this blog. (See other articles under the label "Presbyterian church government" to see these discussions.) In a presbyterian system of church government, the formal unity of the church throughout the world is to manifest itself in all churches being under mutually binding councils--sessions are to be united in presbyteries, presbyteries in national councils, national churches in ecumenical councils, etc. Denominationalism is essentially foreign to the presbyterian idea of the nature of the church. The very idea of having groups of true churches (that is, denominations) functioning in formal isolation from other groups of true churches without any mutual accountability is not presbyterian at all but exhibits what I call a "semi-congregationalist" view of the church.
This is evident from the various quotations above. The Westminster Standards are quite clear that there is only one church, that communion is to be exercised not just within little cliques within the church but between all those who profess the truth faith and between all churches, that all churches are to be united in mutually-binding councils, that distinctions between churches are to be logistical only (such as having multiple congregations because there are too many people to meet in one place, etc.), not due to divisions in doctrine or practice or independent governments. Calvin uses very strong language to emphasize the necessity of the unity of the church. Once a church has been labeled a true church, he says it is only on pain of damnation that we can spurn her authority or violate her unity. So semi-congregationalism is out. We cannot regard the "particular churches" that are members of the catholic visible church as different denominations. Some evangelicals may wish to read the words in that way, but those who are Reformed should know that the words, interpreted in their own Reformed context, cannot refer to the utterly alien idea of denominationalism. These particular churches are parts of one single denomination of Christians.
The latitudinarianism of the above interpretation of the Confession likewise seems to be at odds with the historic Reformed perspective on such matters. The selections from Thomas McCrie provide a very clear attack on latitudinarianism, the idea that the "profession of the true religion" that binds the church together consists only of a profession of some sub-set of the entirety of what the Bible teaches--of the "essential" as opposed to the "non-essential" doctrines. It is interesting to compare Calvin's words on this subject with McCrie's. At first glance, particularly to those influenced by modern evangelical thinking, it may appear that Calvin has a very different opinion on this subject than does McCrie. It is natural for a modern evangelical to read Calvin as affirming a latitudinarian distinction between essential and non-essential doctrines. I used to read him in that way. For some years I believed that there was a rift between Calvin and later Reformed churches on this subject. I understood Calvin to be saying that some sub-set of biblical doctrine is necessary for church unity (a sub-set that would include things like "there is only one God" but exclude things like "infants should be baptized"), and that there should be no denominational divisions between all churches that hold this sub-set of doctrine. On the other hand, I saw that modern Reformed denominations keep up denominational divisions with regard to the "lesser matters" (like infant baptism) as well. I agreed with the modern Reformed churches against Calvin (though I always felt a bit of discomfort, like I was missing something--which I was), because I felt the church ought to require of elders (though not members) in the church that they hold to the "whole counsel of God."
One thing that used to bug me when I read Calvin in that way was that when he actually gives a description of a matter deemed "not necessary," he picks what looked to my evangelical eyes like a really wimpy example--two churches, one of which holds that when believers die they go to heaven to be with God while the other holds that when believers die they go somewhere to be with God. Why didn't he pick something more substantial, like churches teaching "soul-sleep" or rejecting infant baptism or accepting the apocrypha, etc.? Surely true Christians might be able to be in error on these matters and still be truly regenerate, so how can these be considered necessary for salvation and so made a matter of division between churches? It almost looked like Calvin had a much narrower view than I did as to what sorts of things should be deemed "non-necessary." I think the reason for this is that--he did.
I propose that Calvin and McCrie are actually on the same page on this subject. They both make a distinction between what churches can disagree on without violating their unity and what they can't disagree on. I had been thinking that Calvin's distinction goes right through the doctrines clearly affirmed in Scripture, but now I think he probably actually agreed with McCrie that the distinction rather lies between those things Scripture teaches clearly and those things it does not or those things it allows diversity with regard to. In Calvin's view, the Scriptures are clear that the soul which dies goes to live with God, and so he considered that necessary to believe. God teaches it in his Word, and so we are required (it is not optional) to believe it. But perhaps Scripture is not so clear on exactly the mode in which souls go to be with God. Should we think of them as being in "heaven," or simply with God in some other way? Perhaps Scripture is not crystal clear on this point, and so a reasonable diversity of opinion may arise here. So long as churches do not teach their own opinion with a "spirit of contention or perverseness in dogmatising," the fundamental unity of the faith is not violated. That is, these differences are in some ways like those discussed by Paul with reference to individual believers in Romans 14. A person may feel uncomfortable eating meat for some reason or another. Paul says that such a person should be tolerated and accepted, even though there is no real ground for his concern, provided that he does not use his concern to judge others in the church who do not share it. Now, if he believed his concern about meat-eating to be a biblical doctrine commanded by God, how could he not use it to judge others and declare them sinful? In that case, it would be his duty to do so. Paul's instructions to him, then, show that he did not consider it a command of God but recognized it as a peculiar concern of his own. The same thing can be said with regard to Calvin's descriptions here. If a church believes some doctrine or practice to be required by Scripture, how could she avoid contending or being dogmatic about it? But, in Calvin's mind, the doctrinal points being discussed are not clearly taught in Scripture, or they are not something that Scripture clearly pronounces commands about in terms of what must be and not be believed. Therefore, the churches can preserve unity while disagreeing about them, neither of them domineering over or judging the other on the basis of their own opinions.
This is very much the same as what McCrie was talking about when he said, "Their formularies of faith and religious service may be differently expressed or arranged, and they may vary from one another in different circumstances in external administrations, which are not, and could not be, prescribed by positive rule in Scripture, and which (to use a much abused word) may be called circumstantial, without marring that unity of faith and that fellowship which belongs to different Christian societies, as parts of the same general body," and "But there must be no denial or restriction of the supreme authority by which every thing in religion is ruled; no open and allowed hostility to truth and godliness; and no such opposition of sentiments, or contrariety of practices, as may endanger the faith, or destroy the constitution and edification of churches, or as may imply, in different churches, or in different parts of the same church, a condemnation of one another." Nothing that is believed to be clearly taught in the Bible could fit into this description. However much we may wish (rightly) to be charitable to those who reject infant baptism, in terms of assuming the best we can regarding their hidden internal motives, the baptist position and the paedobaptist position cannot exist within the same visible church community, because their mutual practices would involve "a condemnation of each other," and in order to allow them both to co-exist in the visible society of the church the shepherds of the church would have to relax the standards God has set up. When an avowed baptist (as opposed to someone struggling with thinking through some issues relating to baptism) is allowed to be a member of a paedobaptist church, in order to make this situation happen the shepherds of the church have to refrain from disciplining members for violating what they take to be a clear biblical duty. But if God requires Christians to baptize their children, what right do Christ's under-shepherds have to grant a dispensation to any to refuse to do so and to escape discipline for this disobedience? We may have high hopes with regard to some particular individual that this disobedience in not enacted out of the sort of ongoing conscious perverseness that would be incompatible with regeneration, and so may have strong hopes of his being right with God in an internal sense. But we cannot actually see his motives, and so they cannot be made a basis of the formal response of the church to his professions and actions. The church cannot judge the heart or motives; it must deal with people according to their outward professions and actions according to the rules of God's Word.
In short, I think we should take "the profession of the true religion" in the Westminster Confession not as "the profession of the sub-set of biblical doctrines that are necessary subjectively for salvation" but as "the entirety of what the Bible teaches that we are to believe." This interpretation, I think, is further borne out by the more full description of what it means to "profess the faith" found in the Form of Presbyterial Church-Government (written by the same people who wrote the Confession): "Particular churches in the primitive times were made up of visible saints, viz. of such as, being of age, professed faith in Christ, and obedience unto Christ, according to the rules of faith and life taught by Christ and his apostles; and of their children" (emphasis added). The profession is not of some sub-set of doctrine thought to be subjectively necessary, but is an objective profession evaluated according to the rules of faith and life taught in Scripture. Fisher's Catechism takes the same view, defining a profession of faith and the true religion as "to profess a belief of the whole doctrines of the Christian religion," to profess "the whole of those doctrines deduced from the holy scriptures, which are contained in our Confession of Faith, and Catechisms," and "openly to acknowledge, on all proper occasions, a steadfast adherence to the whole of divine truth; without espousing or countenancing any opposite error."
Taking all of this into consideration, our interpretation of WCF 25:2-5 would go thus: There is one catholic visible church, which consists of all those throughout the world that profess adherence to the entirety of the true religion as it is taught in the Scriptures. Particular churches are members of this visible catholic church (united together under formal, presbyterian, mutually-binding councils) when they, as communities, profess and practice the true religion. These particular churches, like particular individuals in them, may be more or less pure in doctrine and practice. That is, they may be more or less advanced or skilled in their understanding of divine truths, they may be more or less agreed with each other regarding secondary matters (i.e. those matters not clearly taught in Scripture), they may be more or less faithful in their exercise of discipline (though discipline must be fundamentally established and practiced), etc., while they all hold the same confession of the true faith without embracing errors in doctrine or practice opposed by the Scriptures. Any churches meeting this description should be regarded and accepted formally as true churches, and the communion of the saints (WCF 26:2) should be exercised fully between them. All other churches are to be rejected from this unity.
One more question might be raised at this point: Calvin uses the language of "necessary for salvation" repeatedly in his discussion. The Confession likewise says that outside of the visible church there is "no ordinary possibility of salvation." If we interpret the idea of the visible church as narrowly as we seem to be doing above, won't that necessitate us to say that pretty much all non-confessional-Presbyterians are outside of salvation? And can we really say that?
In order to answer that, I think we need to keep in mind the distinction between the church considered de facto and the church considered de jure (this is discussed more fully here). The church de facto is the church viewed informally, while the church de jure is the church viewed formally by its official representatives (the elders of the church). Informally speaking, I think the Scriptures allow us to hope that many of those who reject certain doctrines and practices of Scripture may still be regenerate, in that even regenerate persons are not morally perfect and are not free from the confusion that dominates the world of fallen man. We can think, for example, of Apollos (Acts 18:24-28), who apparently was a true Christian even though he was not adequately instructed about some things. And a number of other examples might be given, as well as Scriptural passages, indicating this sort of thing (such as Philippians 3:15, quoted by Calvin above). I think we've all noticed this in our own lives as well from time to time! So, to use again my common example on this point, Scripture, I think, allows us to have hopes that a particular baptist may be truly regenerate despite his refusal to baptize his children. Although such a thing is sinful, Scripture does not tell us that it is impossible for confusion on this point to consist with regeneration in some ways. Likewise, we may believe of a particular baptist church that it is functioning, by the grace and providence of God, as a true church de facto (i.e. a society where salvation is being attained, spiritual gifts are being administered, the Word of God is being taught, etc.).
However, such a judgment can only be informal, as it deals with unseen inward motives. It is a matter of hope rather than clear evaluation. Dealing with things more formally, we must evaluate persons and actions according to their outward professions and actions according to the rules of God's Word. The church ought not to receive into formal membership an individual who maintains a dogmatic commitment to credo-baptism, because the Scriptures require the church to teach against and to censure that view. Likewise, the church ought not to join in formal union with a credo-baptist church. Looking at things formally and de jure, such individuals and churches must not be allowed to be received into the recognized formal society and union of the church, however much we may have good hopes that there is regeneration there. It is in light of this that I think we ought to see Calvin's language of "necessary for salvation" and the similar language of the Confession. Is the belief and practice of infant baptism necessary for salvation? Yes, if we mean that God requires it of us and therefore we cannot reject it with impunity. God does not allow us to disregard any of his commands, and so they are all necessary. However, we can also in a sense answer no, if we mean simply to say that we are unwilling to say that any individual who rejects infant baptism must be in fact unregenerate. In short, speaking formally and de jure, the belief and practice of infant baptism (at least once it is known about) is necessary for salvation. But speaking informally and de facto, a judgment of charity allows us to hope that a person who rejects infant baptism may be truly regenerate (though, of course, we cannot know this). Perhaps this is what the Confession is getting at when it says that out of the visible church "there is no ordinary possibility of salvation" (emphasis added). That is, in the due order of things (speaking de jure), there is no possibility of salvation. But outside of that due order (de facto), we can have some hope. (Of course, this hope cannot be stretched too far. There are some things that Scripture indicates clearly as being in essence incompatible with regeneration because it is impossible to hold or do them with any real degree of "innocence," such as being an atheist, etc.)
UPDATE 7/2/13: Another article with some very perceptive things to say on this subject is one by Rev. John T. Pressley, a nineteenth-century Associate Reformed Presbyterian minister, titled An Inquiry Into the Principles of Church Fellowship, particularly the third section on "Ecclesiastical Communion." Here is a selection:
But perhaps it will be objected that on this principle the Church may exclude from her fellowship one who is really united to the Lord Jesus and has communion with him, and, therefore, cannot be unworthy of the fellowship of the Church. The individual in question, it is admitted, rejects some of the doctrines of the creed; yet it is maintained that he holds all that are essential to salvation and, therefore, forbearance should be exercised, regardless of his erroneous views in relation to matters of minor importance. To this objection I would reply:—
1. It is founded upon a mistaken view of the ground of admission to membership in the Church; and it confounds the distinction between the visible and the invisible Church. A person may be a member of the Church invisible,—that is, he may be a true believer, and, therefore, united to Christ,—and yet may be justly excluded from the communion of the visible Church. A child of God, like David and others of whom we have the mournful record in the Bible, may fall into sin, which brings reproach upon the cause of Christ. This sin will subject him to the displeasure of his heavenly Father; but it does not dissolve his connection with the Church invisible, though it is a proper ground of exclusion from the communion of the visible Church until he give satisfactory evidence of penitence and reformation. All true believers, whatever imperfections may cleave to them, whether with regard to their faith or practice, are united to Christ, have fellowship with him, and are, therefore, members of the Church invisible. But it is not the prerogative of the Church, through her officers, to search the heart and determine whether the man is in reality a child of God. This is a matter which can be determined with certainty by Him only who knows what is in man. The Church forms her estimate of human character in the light of external evidence. And in receiving one into her fellowship, she should have such evidence as corresponds with the Christian character, and which, therefore, justifies her in regarding him as a true disciple. But whether he is in reality what he professes to be, it is not the province of the Church to determine. And, consequently, the condition on which the Church receives a person into her fellowship is not that he is certainly a Christian, which is a matter that she is not competent to decide, but that he makes a credible profession, and, therefore, in the sight of man, who looketh upon the outward appearance has a right to be regarded as a brother belonging to the household of faith. Whether the profession which he makes is such as corresponds with the requirements of Christianity, and whether his external deportment is such as becometh the gospel, the Church is competent to decide. All this is within the limits of her legitimate province. And, having satisfactory evidence on these points, she receives him into her fellowship, without presuming to determine what is the state of his heart in the sight of God.
Such is the principle on which the Church acted in primitive days. "Philip," the sacred historian informs us, "went down to the city of Samaria and preached Christ unto them." And under the proclamation of the gospel the mind and feelings of Simon the sorcerer were so impressed that he professedly embraced Christianity. On the ground of this profession Simon was received into the fellowship of the Church. But it was afterwards made manifest that his profession was insincere, that his heart was not right in the sight of God, and that he was yet in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity. The ground, therefore, on which Philip received Simon into the communion of the Church was not that he was a true believer, for this he was not,—but because he made a credible Christian profession, which, in the sight of man, gave him the right to be treated as one who belongs to the household of faith.
Since, then, a credible profession is the ground on which an individual has a right, in the sight of the Church, to the enjoyment of her communion, how is this profession to be made, and what is included in it?
To this inquiry I reply, The Church has her creed which contains a summary of the faith which was once delivered to the saints, which, as a faithful witness, she is bound to teach, and for which she is required to contend earnestly. By his professed approbation of this form of sound words, the person makes such a profession as the Church has a right to demand of those who desire to enjoy her fellowship and, this profession being sustained by a consistent deportment, he is to be received as a true disciple, even though it should afterwards appear, as in the case of Simon, that his heart was not right in the sight of God.
But, on the other hand, if he refuses to profess his adherence to that formula of faith which the Church has adopted as her testimony to the truth, he has no right to her fellowship. And in closing the door against him the Church does not presume to sit in judgment upon the condition of his heart in the sight of God and declare that he is not a child of God, which is not her province; but she pronounces judgment upon the character of his profession, and declares it to be unsatisfactory and defective. This the Church is competent to do. And so long as the man refuses to unite with her in professing to receive the summary of the doctrine of the apostles which she has adopted, he fails to make such a profession as she has a right to demand. And loyalty to the King of Zion forbids her to regard him as a disciple who has a claim to her fellowship. What may be the state of the man’s heart in the sight of God, whether he is a true believer or not, the Church does not presume to determine; but she pronounces his profession defective and treats him accordingly.
2. I remark, in the next place, that the objection makes an unwarrantable distinction between the truths revealed in the word of God, practically maintaining that some of them are of such importance that they must be received and held fast, while others are of so little importance that the Church may connive at the rejection of them. The individual in question professes in part his adherence to that system of faith which the Church has adopted as a summary of the doctrine of the apostles, while there are portions of it which he rejects. And the objector contends that he should be received into the fellowship of the Church on the ground of the truth which he professedly receives, and should not be excluded on account of what he rejects, it not being essential to salvation.
To this I reply that there doubtless does exist a distinction between the weightier matters of the law and those which comparatively are not of such high importance; and there are certain great doctrines of Christianity which, owing to the place which they occupy in the Christian system and their extensive bearing upon other truths, are relatively of greater importance than others. But who will presume to determine precisely what doctrines revealed in the Bible are essential to salvation, or what amount of error may consist with the reality of the Christian character? Our obligation to receive the truth does not depend upon the estimate which we may form of its relative importance, but upon the authority of God who has revealed it. And the Church cannot, without rendering herself liable to the charge of unfaithfulness, connive at the rejection of any one truth contained in that revelation of the will of God which has been committed to her care. The command of her exalted King is explicit and peremptory:—"Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you." "What things soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto nor diminish from it." (Deut. 12:32.)
But perhaps some one will object that, according to this theory of communion, many of those who are babes in Christ will be deprived of the privilege of partaking of the holy supper. This ordinance was not only designed for their benefit in common with others, but they have special need of the help which it is adapted to afford as the means of their growth in grace and advancement in the divine life. It is not to be supposed, says the objector, that those who are yet in a state of infancy in the school of Christ can comprehend all the doctrines contained in an elaborate confession of faith, so as to make an intelligent profession of their approbation of them. Must they, therefore, on account of their limited knowledge, be excluded from the fellowship of the Church?
To this I reply that, owing to a variety of excuses, there will exist among the members of the household of faith a great diversity in the degrees of their gracious attainments. And in the treatment of different members this diversity should be taken into the account. And particularly in dealing with those who are babes in Christ, the Church should exemplify the spirit of the compassionate Redeemer, of whom it is said, "He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young." But who are to be regarded by the Church as babes in Christ? Not those who consider themselves wiser than the Church, and persistently reject the truth embraced in her testimony, but such as are sensible of the imperfection of their knowledge, and are willing to confess their ignorance,—such as cherish a humble and teachable spirit, and whose minds are open to receive instruction. Owing to their limited knowledge, they may as yet be unable to give an intelligent assent to some of the more sublime doctrines of the creed; but so long as they keep their minds open to conviction, manifest a disposition to have their difficulties removed and to receive instruction, while, in the mean time, they demean themselves in an orderly and peaceable manner, they should be taken kindly by the hand and assisted and encouraged in their efforts to acquire a knowledge of the truth. Towards them the Church should act the part of a kind and tender-hearted mother.
But the persons against whom the Church should close the door of her fellowship are of a very different character. They have embraced and hold principles which are opposed to the testimony of the Church; they claim to have made attainments in knowledge beyond those of the Church whose fellowship they desire to enjoy; and, so far from feeling their need of instruction, they consider themselves competent to instruct others. Such persons are not to be regarded as babes in Christ, and have no claim to the treatment which is due to obedient and dutiful children. They assume the attitude of opposition to that form of sound words which the Church has adopted as her testimony, and they act the part of unruly and disobedient children; and, therefore, it behooves the Church, as a prudent mother, to apply the rod, with a view to their reformation, and deprive them, for the time-being, of the distinguishing privileges of the household of faith.