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.

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