Francis Turretin’s Ecclesiology: 18.8
Our explication of Turretin in this section will proceed in three parts: first, introductory matters; second, seven reason why the church cannot fail; finally, a concluding quotation.
Employing a pattern that is quickly becoming familiar to us, Turretin distinguishes between “a twofold aspect” (p. 41) whereby this question can be considered, one that is visible and one that is invisible. He is interested in the invisible aspect, as usual. Noting this, Turretin makes some distinctions so that we know precisely what he is getting on about. First, the church is not perpetual on the basis of its own strength, which would all to easily fail, but on the basis of God’s sustaining activity. Second, although the church (remember, invisibly conceived and thus concerning properly only true believers – cf. 18.3) is perpetual, this is not to say that it may not at times disappear from sight. Third, it is the catholic church (cf. 18.6) that is perpetual, not any particular local church.
In terms of polemic horizon, Turretin is precise (as usual) about who he is arguing with. We see this even in the posing of the question. His target is ‘Socinianism’. Furthermore, Turretin goes out of his way to make it clear that he actually agrees with the Romans about these matters, except that they try to base the perpetuity of the church upon the papacy / episcopate.
The last point that interests us in this material is another set of distinctions. First, Turretin distinguishes between the contingent and necessary perpetuity of the church, siding for the latter. Personally, this distinction is a bit too strong for me. Certainly, the perpetuity of the church is not based upon human activity. But, at the same time, the perpetuity of the church includes human activity, and without this human activity the church would not be perpetual. Perhaps it would be better to speak of ‘contingent necessity,’ although the dialectical form of this notion would likely be abhorrent to Turretin. Second, Turretin makes a distinction between the “first” cause of this perpetuity – the will of God – and the “second and proximate” causes – Word and Spirit.
Seven Reasons Why the Church Cannot Fail
Why is the church perpetual?
- Because it is the body of Christ
- Because the covenant of grace is an eternal covenant
- Because of numerous promises given by God in Scripture that either state or strongly imply such perpetuity
- Because Christ’s threefold office (prophet, priest, king) is perpetual (Note: I really appreciated how Turretin brought in the munus triplex at this point, and I specifically recommend this paragraph to your attention)
- Because the presence of the Spirit with the church and Christians is given as perpetual
- Because the church has not failed throughout all of history: OT, NT, and subsequent (Note: It is suspicious to me that Turretin would resort to historical argumentation to prove his point, but since it comes so low on the list I’ll let it go)
- Because all the things that could destroy the church – Satan and sin – have been defeated by Christ and thus no longer pose a threat
“Although this and that particular church can fail (as in the place in which God today gathers a church for himself by the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments, through heresies and persecutions the purity of the divine word may in the course of time be expelled from it; nor to any particular church is given an absolute promise that it will be perpetual and not at all exposed to defection), still, speaking absolutely and simply, the church never fails because God gathers to himself a church from the human race until the end of the world; if not in this, yet in another people and place.” (p. 47)