CHAPTER I. —THE CHURCH
Section 2.—Notes of the Church.
subject of the notes or marks of the true church, which also occupies a prominent place in the controversy between the Protestants and the Papists, has respect properly only to tire visible church and its different branches or sections. It is not a subject of very great intrinsic importance, except in so far as it is necessary to refute the arguments which Papists found upon this topic in support of the claims of the Church of Rome.
That, of course, is the best and purest branch of the professing visible church, which, in its doctrine, government, worship and discipline, most fully accords with the views upon all these points that are sanctioned by the word of God; and as the word of God plainly teaches that the principal function of the visible church, as an organized society, is to be a pillar and ground of the truth—i.e., to support and hold up the truth of God before men—we cannot refuse the title of a true or real church of Christ to any society which is organized in professed subjection to His authority, and with a professed submission to His word, and which holds forth to men those great fundamental truths, on the knowledge and belief of which the salvation of sinners depends. These are evidently the true fundamental principles applicable to this matter, and there is no very great difficulty in the application of them. But as Papists dwell very much upon this subject of the notes or marks of the church, and draw from it many important practical conclusions, it may be proper briefly to advert to their leading views upon this point.
When Romanists put forth the claim on behalf of the Church of Rome to be the only true church, out of which there is no salvation; or to be the mother and mistress of all churches, to whom all the followers of Christ, all the members of His visible church, are bound to be in subjection, —they are called upon to produce and establish the grounds of this claim. Legitimate grounds for such a claim can be found only in the statements of Scripture; because, first, from the nature of the case, such a claim can rest upon no other foundation than the direct authority of God Himself; and, secondly, because the sacred Scriptures form the only common ground between the two parties in the discussion—the only common standard which both the advocates and the opposers of this claim admit, and therefore the only legitimate starting—point in an argument that can be honestly carried on between them. But Papists are not fond of attempting to establish this claim directly from the testimony of Scripture, —first, because they have a pretty. distinct consciousness whatever they may pretend, that Scripture does not afford them any sufficient materials for doing so; and, secondly, because if, by entering upon such a discussion, it were practically conceded that an important investigation of the meaning of Scripture, conducted by men individually in the ordinary exercise of their faculties, could settle this important general question, there could be no good reason assigned why the same process should not be legitimately employed in determining all other questions at issue between the contending parties. They, therefore, in discussing this subject, usually prefer a different course, —that, viz., of trying to produce what they call motives of. credibility, —i.e., certain general considerations suggested by Scripture, certain general views indicated there as to the qualities or properties of the church of Christ, which, when applied to the various societies over the world claiming this character, establish, they allege, the peculiar claims of the Church of Rome, and exclude those of all other professedly Christian societies not comprehended in her communion, and subject to her jurisdiction. When they are expatiating upon this subject at large, and endeavoring to bring out in detail, for popular purposes, all the presumptions or probabilities in favor of the preferable claims of the Church of Rome, as compared with those of other professedly Christian societies, they are accustomed to give many notes or marks of the true church. Bellarmine, for instance, gives fifteen, —viz., the name Catholic, usually applied to the Church of Rome, and often conceded even by its opponents; antiquity; uninterrupted duration; amplitude, or great numbers of adherents; the succession of bishops in the Roman Church from the apostles; agreement in doctrine with the ancient church;. union of the members among themselves and with the head; sanctity 'of doctrine; efficacy of doctrine; holiness of life; the glory of miracles; the light of prophecy; the confession of adversaries; the unhappy end of the opponents of the church; and the temporal felicity she has enjoyed. But when they treat the matter more compendiously, or when —they are obliged to attempt to reason more rigidly, because discussing the subject of the foundations and validity of this mode of proof in general, they usually content themselves with laying down four notes or marks .of the true church, taken from the epithets given to the church in the Nicene or Constantinopolitan creed, viz., unity, sanctity, apostolicity, and catholicity.
The substance of the argument is this: the church of Christ is described in Scripture, and in the Creed, as one, holy, apostolic, and catholic: the Church of Rome is one, holy, apostolic, and catholic; and no other church or professedly Christian society can exhibit these notes or marks of the true church. We have not to do at present with the actual and detailed application of these notes or marks to the —Church of Rome, or to other churches, but merely with their application to the church of Christ generally. We had occasion already to point out some of the ambiguities and sophistries involved in the common Popish representations and arguments about the indefectibility, the perpetual visibility, and the infallibility of the church; and we have something very similar to point out in regard to the topics now under consideration. Protestants have generally received the Nicene creed as sound and orthodox, and have no hesitation in professing their belief that the church of Christ is one, holy, apostolic, and catholic; but then they contend, first, that these notes or marks are not to be taken in the sense which the Papists attach to them, or with the application they make of them; and, secondly, that in the sense in which the Scripture sanctions the application of these notes or marks to the church of Christ, they afford no countenance whatever to the claims of the Church of Rome. These are two distinct positions, which in a full discussion of the subject it would be proper to treat separately, but which, in the very few remarks we have at present to make upon it, may be adverted to together.
Unity is undoubtedly ascribed in Scripture to the church of Christ, to His true servants; and hence it follows that all who are admitted to be His real disciples must profess and exhibit some qualities in which they agree, or are one; and also all societies admitted to belong to the church of Christ, or to be churches of Christ, must profess and exhibit some points of unity. Protestants, conceding this, have no difficulty in making out unity in many respects, —a large measure of oneness, —in all the individuals whom they admit to be Christians, and in all the societies which they admit to be churches. They are bound to point out, and they have no difficulty in doing so, a substantial oneness or identity among true Christians in the fundamental articles of their creed, and in the leading elements and features of their character; and in all societies which are really churches of Christ, or portions of His visible catholic church, a substantial accordance or unity in doctrine and practice, in the profession of the fundamental doctrines which Christ has revealed and enjoined His church to proclaim, and in the performance of those duties or the administration of those ordinances which should characterize societies organized in His name, and in professed subjection to .His authority. And here I may remark, by the way, that it is manifestly impossible to unravel the sophistries, and to answer the arguments, of Papists on the subject of the unity of the church, without admitting or assuming the existence of a distinction in point of intrinsic importance among the articles of revealed truth, —a distinction commonly expressed by saying that some are fundamental and others are Dot; and that, on this ground, Papists have generally denied this distinction, and Protestants have generally contended for it. With this distinction, and with the important truths based upon it which have just been stated, as applicable to Christians and to churches, there is no difficulty in showing that the only really relevant question in the application of the unity of the church as a note or mark of what the church is, or of what are churches, is this, Does the unity ascribed in Scripture to the church imply that there must be entire uniformity in all matters of belief and practice among all Christians, or that all societies claiming to be regarded as churches of Christ must be included in one external visible communion, and subject to one external visible government? It can be easily proved that there is no warrant in Scripture for alleging that the unity there predicated of the church of Christ necessarily implies this; and if so, then there is not a shadow of ground for the conclusion that the Church of Rome, or any one visible society, must be the one church of Christ, and that all other professedly Christian societies are beyond its pale.
We need not enlarge upon the other notes or marks of sanctity, apostolicity, and catholicity, as this brief notice of the unity, is sufficient to indicate how the case really stands, and how the argument is to be conducted. It can be easily proved that the common Popish notions of sanctity, apostolicity, and catholicity, as properties and notes of the true church, are unwarranted by Scripture; and that, in so far as Scripture does represent these qualities as characteristic marks of the true church, they do not apply peculiarly and exclusively, if at all, to the Church of Unity and catholicity in the Popish sense—i.e., unity in outward communion, and uniformity in outward profession, ordinances, and arrangements, and wide diffusion at all times over the earth in the manifestation of this unity—cannot be proved from Scripture to be characteristic notes or marks of the true church, and can therefore afford no scriptural support to the claims of the Church of Rome; while sanctity and apostolicity—i.e., holiness of heart and life, and conformity to the apostolic model—not only do not peculiarly characterize the Church of Rome, as distinguished from other churches, but may be made to afford conclusive arguments against her claims. The Church of Rome is, in all its features, flatly opposed to the representations given us in Scripture of the apostolic church; and no branch of the church has ever done so little, in proportion to its means and opportunities, to produce holiness, or done so much to corrupt the standard of morals, to eradicate a sense of moral responsibility, and to open the floodgates of all iniquity.
No professing church, however widely it may be diffused, and however closely its members may be united together in a common profession, and whatever pretensions, therefore, it may be able to put forth to an outward visible unity, or to catholicity, in a limited sense, can have any claim to be regarded as possessed of sanctity or apostolicity, unless its system of doctrine be in accordance with the word of God; and a church is apostolical just in proportion as in all its arrangements it is framed after the model, so far as the Scripture makes it known to us, of the churches which the apostles established.
The churches which have been most forward to assume the designation and the character of apostolical are just those which have departed furthest from what a faithful adherence to the practice of the apostles would have led them to adopt; and when particular churches attach primary importance, in forming an estimate of themselves and of other branches of the visible church, to anything external, —to points of government and order, to a historical visible succession, to outward ordinances and arrangements, —this only proves that they themselves have fallen into grievous error upon most important points affecting the very nature, functions, and objects of a church of Christ; and that therefore, in point of purity and apostolicity, they must rank far beneath those churches which, holding the substance of revealed Christian truth, appreciate aright its paramount importance, and apply it to its intended purposes.
The corruption into which the visible church after the apostolic age so speedily and so extensively fell, and the desire to defend or to palliate all this, soon introduced very lax and erroneous views concerning the nature and objects of the church in general, concerning its constituent elements and qualities, and the standard by which it ought to be judged. The visible has in men's minds, to a large extent, swallowed up the invisible church, or thrown it into the background; and men have come, to a large extent, to judge practically of what the church of Christ should be, by what it too often, in its external aspects, actually is. It is certainly marvelous that any man having access to the Scriptures should believe that the Church of Rome bears any resemblance to the church of the New Testament; and it is not much less marvelous, considering the superior light and opportunities of the parties, that the members of the Church of England should be so forward to boast of their church, as they usually do, as pure and apostolical, the best constituted church in the world, etc., etc., when it is notorious that their own Reformers were so fully conscious that they had come far short of attaining to a right reformation, and when that church has always borne, and still bears, in its constitution and arrangements, so many palpable proofs of the operation, not of the New Testament standard, but of carnal policy and secular influences:
Let us seek to be more familiar with the scriptural doctrine, that the true church of Christ, in the highest and most proper sense of the word, consists only of those who have been chosen of God to eternal life, who' are effectually called in due time to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and are trained up to a meetness for heaven; and let all our views, impressions, and conduct in regard to the visible church, and its different branches, be regulated by some reference to this great invisible reality, —that thus we may be led to estimate the purity and efficiency of visible churches, mainly by a respect to the spiritual character and attainments of their individual members, and that we may ever have it as the great object of our prayers and labors, that the Lord would add daily unto the church of such as shall be saved, and would lead them to grow up in all things unto Him who is the Head.