Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Westminster Standards and the De Facto / De Jure Distinction

This is from chapter four of my forthcoming book, Presbyterianism Re-Asserted:

#12. If the distinction between the visible church de facto and the visible church de jure is so important to presbyterian church government, then why is this distinction not made in the Westminster Standards? 

      I agree that this distinction is not dealt with explicitly in the Standards. The Standards, in their discussion of the church, focus only on the de jure visible church, without commenting on the idea of some manifestations of the visible church existing outside of the legal structure of the church.
      Of course, whatever we make of this fact, it doesn't mean that we can ignore the clear fact that the Standards oppose denominationalism. As we've seen (and as can be seen even more in my article entitled “The Westminster Standards on the Nature of the Church,” found in the articles section at the end of this book), the Standards present a view of the church in which all members are in formal unity with each other throughout the world, and all the elders and courts of the church throughout the world function in mutual submission to each other (such as by participating in mutually-binding councils). So the fact that the Standards do not explicitly discuss the idea of part of the de facto church existing outside of the legal structure of the church does not allow us to deny that the universal church has a requirement to have a formal, legal structure or that it is acceptable ever for there to be multiple independent de jure denominations. So no help here for the semi-congregationalists!
      So why didn't the Westminster Divines bring up our distinction in their Standards? Of course, the simple answer is, I don't know. But we can try to guess. My guess would run along the lines discussed above in objection #8. The Divines did not discuss the church existing outside of the legal structures of the church because they were more focused on their more immediate concern to describe how the legal church is supposed to function as part of their goal of writing up Standards to function as a foundation for unity for the established, legal churches of England, Scotland, and Ireland. What should be done with those who wouldn't join the established Reformed churches in these lands wasn't a question that they felt needed to be addressed in the Standards. They were more interested in trying to persuade people like the independents not to try to exist outside the established church but instead to join it. This was a time when multiple denominations within a nation was an unthinkable concept. As I pointed out in #8, things have changed dramatically since then.
      However, although the Divines don't address the distinction in the Standards, there are good reasons, I believe, to make it. These reasons follow from two convictions of mine: 1. Latitudinarianism is false—and therefore we should not allow theological errors in areas where the Bible speaks clearly to be spread without correction and sometimes discipline in the church. 2. We have reason to hope, in a judgment of charity, that there are some who fail to obey some of the clear teachings of Scripture but yet who are truly regenerate, and aspects of Christianity, though corrupted to varying degrees, exist among such people. See objection #6 above for more on these things, as well as my article entitled “Against Latitudinarianism,” found in the articles section at the end of this book. If these two convictions are correct, then a distinction between the visible church de jure and the visible church de facto becomes logically necessary, for we must talk about possibly regenerate persons and other aspects of the church of Christ existing outside of the legal church. But even more to the immediate point, whether one agrees with me on these two convictions or not, as I said above, there is no help for semi-independency here. All that would follow from denying my two convictions would be that there is no church in any sense outside of the de jure church; it would not follow that there ought to be multiple de jure churches. The view of presbyterian church government articulated and defended in this book would be intact even if we were to reject the de jure / de facto distinction.
      Although the Standards do not explicitly discuss the de facto / de jure distinction, yet other Reformed writers have. Prominent among them is John Calvin, who makes this distinction clear and explicit in his discussion of how we should think about the Roman church in his Institutes. I discuss this further below, towards the beginning of the next chapter. Calvin's Institutes is undeniably a primary influence on the general Reformed view of the unity of the church, and on the Standards in particular. So even if the Standards do not explicitly discuss the distinction, the distinction would not have been alien to the Divines who wrote them.

The Standards do not address the question of ways in which the church might exist outside the legal structure of the church, which is the question that leads to the de jure / de facto distinction. They simply describe the visible church with all of the characteristics that God has given to it, including its legal structure (the "ministry, oracles, and ordinances"). They do point out that the visible church has been "sometimes more, sometimes less visible" and that particular churches are "more or less pure." This acknowledgment of imperfections among the visible people of God allows for the possibility of churches and people being in error such that they might be truly Christian in a de facto sense without qualifying to be within the legal structure of the catholic church, but this issue isn't specifically addressed.

Here is the section from Calvin's Institutes that was alluded to above:

Still, as in ancient times, there remained among the Jews certain special privileges of a Church, so in the present day we deny not to the Papists those vestiges of a Church which the Lord has allowed to remain among them amid the dissipation. When the Lord had once made his covenant with the Jews, it was preserved not so much by them as by its own strength, supported by which it withstood their impiety. Such, then, is the certainty and constancy of the divine goodness, that the covenant of the Lord continued there, and his faith could not be obliterated by their perfidy; nor could circumcision be so profaned by their impure hands as not still to be a true sign and sacrament of his covenant. Hence the children who were born to them the Lord called his own, (Ezek. 16: 20,) though, unless by special blessing, they in no respect belonged to him. So having deposited his covenant in Gaul, Italy, Germany, Spain, and England, when these countries were oppressed by the tyranny of Antichrist, He, in order that his covenant might remain inviolable, first preserved baptism there as an evidence of the covenant; - baptism, which, consecrated by his lips, retains its power in spite of human depravity; secondly, He provided by his providence that there should be other remains also to prevent the Church from utterly perishing. But as in pulling down buildings the foundations and ruins are often permitted to remain, so he did not suffer Antichrist either to subvert his Church from its foundation, or to level it with the ground, (though, to punish the ingratitude of men who had despised his word, he allowed a fearful shaking and dismembering to take place,) but was pleased that amid the devastation the edifice should remain, though half in ruins.

Therefore while we are unwilling simply to concede the name of Church to the Papists we do not deny that there are churches among them. The question we raise only relates to the true and legitimate constitution of the Church, implying communion in sacred rites, which are the signs of profession, and especially in doctrine. Daniel and Paul foretold that Antichrist would sit in the temple of God, (Dan. 9: 27; 2 Thess. 2: 4;) we regard the Roman Pontiff as the leader and standard-bearer of that wicked and abominable kingdom. By placing his seat in the temple of God, it is intimated that his kingdom would not be such as to destroy the name either of Christ or of his Church. Hence, then, it is obvious, that we do not at all deny that churches remain under his tyranny; churches, however, which by sacrilegious impiety he has profaned, by cruel domination has oppressed, by evil and deadly doctrines like poisoned potions has corrupted and almost slain; churches where Christ lies half-buried, the gospel is suppressed, piety is put to flight, and the worship of God almost abolished; where, in short, all things are in such disorder as to present the appearance of Babylon rather than the holy city of God. In one word, I call them churches, inasmuch as the Lord there wondrously preserves some remains of his people, though miserably torn and scattered, and inasmuch as some symbols of the Church still remain - symbols especially whose efficacy neither the craft of the devil nor human depravity can destroy. But as, on the other hand, those marks to which we ought especially to have respect in this discussion are effaced, I say that the whole body, as well as every single assembly, want the form of a legitimate Church.  (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV, chapter 2, sections 11-12, translated by Henry Beveridge in 1599, taken from the website of the Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics at at 12:58 PM on 7/16/14)

Calvin here makes clear that, in his view, there are Christians and essential aspects of the church existing outside the legal structure of the church.  Calvin's view, like that of the Standards, was that lawful (or de jure) churches have an absolute duty to remain in communion with each other; there is no allowance for anything like multiple de jure denominations.  And yet Calvin also notes that this does not imply that there is no Christianity and no regenerate Christians outside of that de jure communion.  Since Calvin's view of the nature and unity of the church was so foundational to Reformed theology, and to the theology of the Standards in particular (and also because the evidence says that Calvin was right on this point), I think it makes sense to read the Standards against the backdrop of Calvin's admittance of the de facto / de jure distinction.

UPDATE 10/7/14:  See also the pertinent comments of historian James Walker here.

UPDATE 12/16/14:  Another reason why the Westminster Divines, in the Standards, may not have mentioned the de jure / de facto distinction is that they may not have thought of the church de facto as a concrete, distinct category.  They may have thought it to have been dealt with sufficiently under the heading of the "invisible church."  The category of the visible church de jure is a concrete category, referring to those who meet the formal, legal requirements to be accepted formally as members of the catholic church.  The evaluation of these requirements is an objective matter.  However, the category of the visible church de facto simply refers to the observation of characteristics which, more or less, give us reason to hope in a judgment of charity that a person is truly a regenerate Christian or that the work of the Spirit is going on in the life of some body of professing Christians.  This is obviously a less concrete, less objective category.  We don't really know who is regenerate and who is not; we merely have greater or lesser reasons to hope in a judgment of charity.  So while the category of the visible church de jure is a concrete, objective category distinct from the concept of the invisible church, the category of the visible church de facto is really just an evaluation of observations that give us reason to hope that the invisible church is present in a particular individual or body of individuals.  Thus, the Westminster Divines might not have that thought that it was worth creating another formal category to describe it, but in their minds it might have been included as an implication of the distinction between the visible and the invisible church.  We think of Augustine's famous comment about the visible church:  "How many sheep without, how many wolves within!"  The visible church and the invisible church do not fully overlap.  There are unregenerate people within the visible church, and no doubt there are regenerate people (and also elect people who aren't yet regenerate) outside the visible church.

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