Friday, November 1, 2013

Guest Post: Visible Church Unity in the Old Testament, Part II

Matthew Vogan lives in Inverness, Scotland, where he is a ruling elder in the Inverness congregation of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland.  He is the author of a number of articles in various periodicals, as well as editor of two collections focused on the writings of Scottish Presbyterian theologian Samuel Rutherford.  He is also the author of a small and very helpful booklet on church unity and schism.  His blog can be found here.

Visible Unity in the Song of Solomon

Previously we noted that unity was essential to the Visible Church under the Old Testament, and how this continues into the New Testament. There are parts of the Old Testament that underline the fact of this continuity. Some of those are prophetic of the visible Church under the New Testament but use language drawn from the state of the Church under the Old in order to do so. Others are partly prophetic of a later period under the Old Testament as well as (more fully) of the New Testament Church. Another portion of Scripture is interesting from the point of view that it describes the Church under both the Old and New Testaments but is more fully realised in the New: the Song of Solomon.

Descriptions of the Church in the Song of Solomon

We need not pause to defend the practice of interpreting this book in relation to Christ and the Church. We would refer anyone who objects to this to the key provided by James Durham in relation to the interpretation of Song of Solomon. The key establishes that the book is allegorical – a typological interpretation will not work and interpreting the book in relation to the ideal of marriage is absurd.

The Song of Solomon is a book which does not serve to establish doctrine but rather to illustrate it, and that with incomparable beauty. Durham works out the references to the Church in the Song carefully. He proposes that the Song describes the Church from four different points of view: (1) as visible; (2) as invisible; (3) as Catholic; and (4) as individual members. Here we will focus on Durham’s observations on the visible, catholic aspects of the Church.

In discussing the Church Visible and the Church Invisible, Durham points out that the distinction does not imply that the Visible and Invisible are two separate entities opposed to each other. Rather the terms highlight the one Church under different considerations:

[the] distinction of the Church visible and invisible is not a distribution of a whole into distinct parts, as, suppose one would divide a heap of chaff and corn into corn and chaff; but this is a distinct uptaking of the same whole (to wit, the Church) under two distinct considerations; as, suppose one would consider the foresaid heap, as it is a heap, comprehending both corn and chaff, or as it is only comprehensive of corn. So the Church thus distinguished is but one, considered in whole, as having both renewed and unrenewed in it, and as having renewed only; yet so as the renewed are a part of the whole under one consideration, to wit, as they are visible professors, and also, are the invisible Church, being distinctly considered, as they have more than a visible profession: therefore, the likeness being so great and near, it is no marvel they be frequently conjoined in this Song, so as they must be distinguished in respect of these distinct considerations, seeing the visible Church in its consideration as such, comprehends the visible Militant Church under it, but not contrarily.

Durham is here interpreting the Song according to the same way in which the New Testament uses the word ‘Church,’ sometimes bringing one or other aspect to the fore. It is ‘ordinary … thus to conjoin them in other Scriptures, as, when an Epistle is written to a church, some things are said of it, and to it, as visible, some things again are peculiarly applicable to believers, who are members of the invisible church in it’. He points especially to the letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Revelation 2. and 3: ‘all are comprehended in every Epistle, yet is the matter diversely to be applied, and these who have ears to hear (that is, are real members of the invisible church also) are particularly spoken unto, although indefinitely.’

The Unity of the Visible Church in the Song of Solomon

The Church in its visible and invisible aspects is also ‘whole, or catholick.’ We therefore expect something to be said of her in the Song in relation to this oneness. In Song 6:9 the Church is said to be one, made up of many: ‘the mother having many daughters, a vineyard entrusted to all the keepers, having some children beloved, others hated, etc.’ This again reinforces the point that unity was a defining characteristic of the Visible Church in the Old Testament.

In commenting on two verses in particular, James Durham shows how the Song of Solomon teaches the unity of the catholic visible church.

For example, commenting on the phrase ‘My Beloved is gone down into his garden’ (Song 6:2), Durham comments that ‘garden’ as opposed to ‘gardens’ suggests ‘the catholic visible church’: 'The church is like a garden that is within one precinct, yet divided into divers quarters and enclosures. This being the church that hath the promise of Christ's presence, and where he is ever to be found, must be understood of no particular church, of which it cannot be asserted that Christ shall be always there: it must therefore be the catholic church, distinguished from particular churches, or gardens.’ He further comments that Christ’s church, ‘though it have many subdivisions, yet is it one church; one whole catholic church, whereof particular churches are parts’ (1 Cor 12:28).

Durham also observes that ‘those who desire Christ should not run out of the church to seek him, or expect any way of finding him which others have not found out before them, but should seek after him by the ordinary means, in his church.’

It is important to note that when Durham speaks of subdivisions and ‘particular churches’ he is referring to different national churches, not denominations within a nation. This is helpfully explained in the remarks of James Walker:

The visible church, in the idea of the Scottish theologians, is catholic. You have not an indefinite number of Parochial, or Congregational, or National churches, constituting, as it were, so many ecclesiastical individualities, but one great spiritual republic, of which these various organizations form a part. The visible church is not a genus, so to speak, with so many species under it. It is thus you may think of the State, but the visible church is a totum integrale, it is an empire. The churches of the various nationalities constitute the provinces of this empire; and though they are so far independent of each other, yet they are so one, that membership in one is membership in all, and separation from one is separation from all . . . This conception of the church, of which, in at least some aspects, we have practically so much lost sight, had a firm hold of the Scottish theologians of the seventeenth century.' (James Walker, The Theology and Theologians of Scotland. Edinburgh: Knox Press, [1888] 1982. Lecture iv. pp.95-6.)

It should be clear that Durham shared the view of all the Second Reformation divines described by John Macpherson:

[they] had such a conception of the importance of the unity of the church, and such a horror of the evil of schism, and were so firmly convinced that anyone who withdrew from church communion without absolute cause, that is without feeling assured that he could not remain in such fellowship without committing sin, was guilty of a most heinous offence, that they were ready to give their most favourable consideration to any sort of suggestion of reasons why they should refuse to go out of a church, notwithstanding the existence in it of many corruptions against which they must protest.' (John Macpherson, The Doctrine of the Church in Scottish Theology. Edinburgh: MacNiven & Wallace, 1903. p.127.)

Durham also shows how the Song teaches the unity of the Church in his comments on Song 6:9, ‘My dove, my undefiled is but one.’ He says that this verse describes the church, ‘not only with unity in her affections, but (to say so) with a kind of oneness in herself: thus the visible catholic church is one garden, verse 2, comprehending many beds of spices; one church, made up here of many particular churches: and thus, oneness or unity is a great commendation to her, or a special part of her excellency.’

It should not be any surprise to use that this excellent church is further described in such striking terms in the following verse: ‘Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners?’ The imagery conveys the overpowering beauty of the oneness when it is visible and manifests an order to be rejoiced in (Col 2:5). As Durham also writes on Song 6:4, ‘The visible church, and believers in her, in respect of ordinances and her ecclesiastic estate, is very comely and lovely.’

No doubt that unity, beauty and order will come into its fullness in the prophesied latter day glory of the Church. Gavin Parker in introducing the Victorian reprint of Durham’s commentary on the Song felt the depths of meaning within this portion of Scripture would come to life and light in that time.

We have reason however to believe that this neglected part of divine revelation shall be brought from obscurity and shall shine as a brighter light in the world during the millennial ages. We are encouraged to expect more abundant effusions of the Holy Spirit than have ever been received on the earth, and more numerous conversions to God. Every convert illumined by the Holy Spirit will love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. The portions of Scripture by which the Holy Spirit takes of the things of Christ to show to believers will be more studied and the rich treasures of grace and of truth contained in them will be the more eagerly welcomed and the more abundantly enjoyed. Then this Song - ‘The Song of the Lamb’ - the Song that describes the glory and the grace of the Lamb's person and the righteousness and the faithfulness of his ways shall be much read and studied and sung by living Christians in the church of God.

After the shaking of nations and of churches; and when the sincere followers of Jesus shall have got liberty to break away from the abominations of corrupted Christianity, when the God of salvation shall have given them fortitude to keep by themselves as a people distinct from the other religious people of the world, they shall be seen by the inhabitants of heaven as so many conquering heroes, who through grace had obtained ‘the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name.’ They shall stand in the view of all heaven, and near many of the inhabitants of the earth, having the harps of God. In that place of splendour, light, and purity, as represented by the Holy Spirit, ‘they sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, Great and marvellous are thy works Lord God Almighty; just and true are thy ways, thou King of Saints.’ The song of Moses has long been esteemed in the visible church. The triumph of divine Almighty power over the enemies of the church has been frequently sung. But the time is coming when the bold and triumphant notes of praise in the song of war shall be accompanied or followed and sweetened with more gentle and peaceful sounds, by celebrating, as in this Song of the Lamb, the glory and grace, the righteousness and truth of Immanuel the King of saints, whom Jehovah hath appointed HEAD over all things to the church.’

Click here for Part I.

Guest Post: Visible Church Unity in the Old Testament, Part I

Matthew Vogan lives in Inverness, Scotland, where he is a ruling elder in the Inverness congregation of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland.  He is the author of a number of articles in various periodicals, as well as editor of two collections focused on the writings of Scottish Presbyterian theologian Samuel Rutherford.  He is also the author of a small and very helpful booklet on church unity and schismHis blog can be found here.

Visible Church Unity in the Old Testament

In discussing the subject of unity we need to begin with Scripture itself. The Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture is alone determinative for us. We need to agree about a Scriptural definition of unity and schism before we can agree about what should be done about its application. There is evidence of a prevalent impulse to rush straight into identifying solutions before we have even properly identified or agreed what the problem is and how things ought to be. In such circumstances, proposals are often half-baked and suggestions are not thoroughly weighed. This runs the risk of marring the whole purpose of such an endeavour, sometimes for a whole generation and more. Scriptural unity is not always possible at all times and circumstances, indeed in some circumstances it would in fact be undoubtedly sinful. Agreement upon Scriptural principles will, however, be beneficial and prepare a proper foundation for the future.

The relevance of visible unity in the Old Testament

There should not need to be any apology for visiting the Old Testament in order to learn key principles on this matter if we share the assumption that the Westminster Confession teaches one Church and Covenant under both Old and New administrations; Scripture speaks of the Church in the wilderness (Acts 7:38) and the Gentiles as being brought into the already existing visible Church (Eph 2:14-16 and Rom 11:1-24).

As Thomas M’Crie outlines, the Old Testament ‘conveys important instruction’ in this area:

Even those parts of the inspired record which refer to the Jewish, admit of an application to the Christian economy, in the way of analogy – by setting aside whatever was peculiar to the former, and seizing on the points of agreement or resemblance between the two economies, and on those principles and grounds which are common to both. This is a key to the Old Testament which appears to be much neglected, and whose value has not been sufficiently appreciated – although our Saviour and his apostles have set us examples of its use and importance (Matt 12:3-8; 1 Cor 9:8-14; 10:1-11; Jam 5:16-18, with many other places).

The Church in the Old Testament is very relevant because as M’Crie notes, ‘erroneous, mistaken, or defective notions on this subject are injurious to the unity and peace of the Church’. Many are not willing to accept anything other than what they can find in the New Testament and thereby reject the abiding principles that God has established for the Church in order to come to entirely different views on church government and the sacraments. These views are applied by establishing distinct churches from those who hold to Westminster Presbyterianism.

Unity and the Old Testament Visible Church: Beginnings

We can begin our overview at the first book of the Bible. Genesis 4:26 seems to indicate (as Jonathan Edwards highlights) a corporate calling upon God in public assemblies for worship, rather than the idea that men never engaged in any form of prayer until this point. Jonathan Edwards establishes a good case that in order for this to be the case there must have been an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. After this we read in Genesis 6 of the Sons of God – those who were of the godly line but who degenerated on account of mixing themselves among the daughters of the line of Cain through marriage. At this time the visible Church declined to only one family of eight souls and its separation from the world was solemnly visible in their taking refuge within the ark.

It was particularly, however, the calling of Abraham (Gen 12) that laid a foundation for the visible Church in the OT. The line of Shem had previously been selected for blessing, now it was a particular family within that line. In Abraham there was to be a visible separation from the idolatrous world in order to preserve those from whom the Seed of the woman would come.

Jonathan Edwards brings out the significance of Abraham for the Visible Church:

And then it was needful that there should be a particular nation separated from the rest of the world, to receive the types and prophecies that were needful to be given of Christ, to prepare the way for his coming; that to them might be committed the oracles of God ; and that by them the history of God's great works of creation and providence might be upheld; and that so Christ might be born of this nation; and that from hence the light of the gospel might shine forth to the rest of the world.

These ends could not be well obtained, if God's people through all these two thousand years had lived intermixed with the heathen world. So that this calling of Abraham may be looked upon as a kind of a new foundation laid for the visible church of God, in a more distinct and regular state, to be upheld and built up on this foundation from henceforward, till Christ should actually come, and then through him to be propagated to all nations.

So that Abraham being the person in whom this foundation is laid, is represented in scripture as though he were the father of all the church, the father of all them that believe; as it were a root whence the visible church thenceforward through Christ, Abraham's root and offspring, rose as a tree, distinct from all other plants; of which tree Christ was the branch of righteousness; and from which tree, after Christ came, the natural branches were broken off, and the Gentiles were grafted into the same tree.

So that Abraham still remains the father of the church, or root of the tree, through Christ his seed. It is the same tree that flourishes from that small beginning, that was in Abraham's time, and has in these days of the gospel spread its branches over a great part of the earth, and will fill the whole earth in due time, and at the end of the world shall be transplanted from an earthly soil into the paradise of God.

It is useful to note the essential unity and identity of the Visible Church under the New Testament with the Church as established through the line of Abraham, the father of many nations. God gave to this visible Church the sign of his covenant in circumcision, which provided a wall of separation (as Edwards puts it), from the other nations. Unity was therefore of the essence of the visible Church under the OT in terms of its purpose and character. In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), the word ekklesia is used to speak of the assembly of the covenanted Israelite community who had been called out of Egypt and gathered together to be distinct and separate by being holy to the Lord (e.g. Deuteronomy 4:10; 9:10; 10:4; and 18:16) (notice the same terms and ideas for the New Testament Church in 1 Pet. 2:9).

Unity was essential to the Old Testament Visible Church

The Church in the wilderness was under the same leadership and benefits (1 Corinthians 10:2-4) and was bound together more strictly by covenant with God in one strictly regulated common worship and government.

Later, under the rule of the judges and the kings, the same idea prevailed, that they were to be one nation dedicated to God. The focus of this unity was upon Jerusalem where the temple of God and the throne of David were established (Ps 122). The visible Church was to be one.

If this unity was a great means of blessing and preservation of the truth under the Old Testament, we would expect this to continue under the New Testament. The tendency is for blessings to be widened under the New Testament rather than being removed. Indeed it was prophesied of the New Testament Church that it would be characterised by one kingdom with one king (Isa 9:7).

The same point is made by James Durham: ‘before Christ, the Church was one: and if after His coming, her unity were dissolved, then she were not the same Church … but many Churches.’ He expresses and summarises very well what we have sought to establish thus far: ‘Adam’s family is once God’s Church, thereafter Noah’s, then Abraham’s is especially adopted, after that at Christ’s coming the Gentiles are engrafted in that stock, and the ordinances that came from Zion prevailed; and that not to constitute different Churches, but to increase and enlarge that one Church.’

Click here for Part II.