Francis Turretin’s Ecclesiology: 18.10

Where was our church before Luther and Zwingli, and how was it preserved?

In this ecumenical day and age, it is easy to forget that questions such as this could and were asked with great seriousness in the past. When I saw this question in the table of contents, I knew that I had to read it and let you all in on what Turretin has to say. He discussed in 10.9 the ways in which the church (true church, mind you) can be obscured from visibility for a time. Still, Catholics keep asking where the Protestant church was in the years before the Reformation, so Turretin will give them an answer. What he is looking for is not the visible, concrete order of Protestant ecclesiology nor is he concerned with certain disciplines or opinions. Instead, he will show that “true and catholic doctrine” (p. 57), such as the Protestants affirm, was present but obscured in the preceding age.

Now, before Turretin can really get going on answering this question, he has to be perfectly clear that it is absurd that this question should even be asked, or, in his words, “the absurdity and unfairness of the demand [to prove the existence of the ‘true church’ according to Protestant reckoning] must be marked” (p. 58). There are six reasons why this demand is absurd:
  1. Because the Catholics would first have to prove that the true church always exists with splendor.

  2. It is false to argue from our ignorance of a thing to the non-existence of that thing (or, just because we don’t know that something existed doesn’t mean it didn’t).

  3. It is false to argue from our ignorance of a thing’s location to the non-existence of that thing (or, just because we don’t know where something was doesn’t mean it wasn’t there).

  4. This is a historical question and one can be saved without knowing the answer to this question.

  5. The Catholics “treacherously corrupt the writings of the fathers” (p. 59).

  6. If we Protestants have to answer this question, then the Catholics have to show us where their church was in the New Testament.

With this rather able deconstruction of the question’s foundation in place, Turretin can move on to pick apart the question itself and provide his answer. He will do so by addressing the question in terms of faith, persons, place, and government.
  1. ”[I]f we treat of the Christian faith, we say the substance of the things to be believed and done in order to salvation was always in the Scriptures, in the Apostles’ Creed, in the law of God and the Lord’s prayer, sealed by the sacraments, which by a special providence he willed to preserve always in the church for sustaining the elect, although that doctrine was frequently mixed with various errors” (p. 60).

  2. [I]f we treat of the persons themselves…we say that it subsisted in all the elect who were from the time of the apostles, who in all ages have believed in Christ according to the publicly preached truth of the gospel, who separated the substance of saving doctrine in public ministry from the errors repeatedly creeping in” (p. 60).

  3. With reference to place, Turretin says that this should not be understood in terms of the pope or of apostolic succession, but rather offers a litany of examples of “various assemblies separated from the Roman church” (p. 60), and though this is the primary place where we should look historically, Turretin also affirms that God preserved a remnant even within Babylon / the papacy. At this point, Turretin begins listing evidence to show that this is the case.

    1. The first point offered in support of this claim are passages of Scripture that imply something like this. Of special interest are the books of Revelation and Daniel, although others are cited.

    2. Second, we find numerous examples in history of those who stood up to the errors of the papacy from within the Roman church. Indeed, “the catalogues of…Fox and others prove” (p. 62) that this is the case.

    3. In his third point, Turretin again returns to Scriptural citations from both the Old and New Testaments.

    4. Fourth, Turretin thinks that there exists a telling conformity between the Reformational churches and the ancient church.

    5. Turretin is by now repeating himself as he comes to his fifth point, which is very similar to his second. Rather than simply pointing out that there were those who opposed Rome, Turretin now notes that even supporters of Rome admit this.

  4. Turretin now comes to the question of polity or government. He is perfectly ready to admit there was no external order in keeping with Reformational principles prior to the Reformation, which makes perfect sense. Furthermore, this does not mean that a remnant did not exist within the Roman system because the Holy Spirit is perfectly capable of working things out. One note that Turretin sounds frequently here is that “true believers could separate the purer and sound doctrine from the deadly, and the healthful food from the poison” (p. 64). The Roman hierarchy did largely teach the truth, even though this truth was diluted and obscured by error. Of course, there is also the bit about God raising up people to oppose Rome from time to time who taught a purer doctrine. Turretin sums this all up under “the wonderful dispensation of divine providence” (p. 67).

This is the bulk of Turretin’s discussion. But, I want to mention what he brings up as the very last point, namely, why is the Reformation important if in the past it was possible for the ‘true church’ to be maintained through the corrupt ministry of the papacy? Turretin’s answer: it was especially bad and God decided to deliver his people. This is fine as far as it goes, but I tend to think that there were a lot of other socio-political factors that deserve to be mentioned, even if these are simply the means that God employed to cast “off the yoke of the Antichrist” (p. 69).

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