Francis Turretin’s Ecclesiology, 18.1: What comes first, church or doctrine?

[Ed. note: I said in my introduction to this series, uncomfortably close to a decade ago, that “I intend in this series to skip the stone of my mind across the lake of Turretin’s ecclesiology.” I return to it now for various reasons, with the intention of filling in the gaps left by that approach.]

First Question: The necessity of the discussion concerning the church, and whether the knowledge of the church ought to precede the knowledge of doctrine.

Turretin begins his discussion of ecclesiology in the high polemical spirit that one has a right to expect from an “elenctic” theology. He gives a nod to this polemical context right at the start, and if will occupy him for the bulk of the section: “scarcely any other among the controversies waged between us and our opponents in this miserable age . . . seems to be of greater moment and more necessary than the disputation concerning the church” (18.1.1). But Turretin cheats a bit, architectonically speaking. This question is actually two distinct questions brought into close proximity. First, Turretin asks: is it necessary to reflect theologically upon the church? Second, Turretin asks: should “knowledge of the church precede the knowledge of doctrine”?

As to the first point, Turretin gives four reasons why the church is a proper locus of theological reflection. First, “the church is the primary work of the holy Trinity, the object of Christ’s mediation and the subject of the application of his benefits.” In other words, talk of the doctrines of the Trinity, christology, and reconciliation requires talk of the church as their consequence. To put this a slightly different way: one cannot talk about the Triune God and Christ and salvation without also talking about the church. Second, Turretin appeals without citation to Cyprian (likely mediated by Calvin) to say that “there is no salvation out of the church” and to describe the church as the Christian’s mother. Consequently, we need to know something about this woman, and we need to be able to identify when we meet with her and when we are dealing with an imposter. Third, the church is included within the ancient creeds and therefore deserves further reflection as an article of faith. (All this within 18.1.3.) Fourth, all kinds of people – and Turretin names Jews, heretics, and “Romanists” – falsely claim the identity of the church, and they must be disputed (18.1.4). Therefore, “the arts of our opponents impose upon us the necessity of this disputation that we may distinguish the real face of the church from its counterfeit” (18.1.6).

As to the second point, Turretin provides five arguments for why knowledge of faith must precede knowledge of the church, rather than the reverse. This material rests a bit uncomfortably with us today, perhaps, because of the extent to which Turretin equates “knowledge of faith” with assenting to high Genevan orthodoxy. We tend to be more flexible these days when it comes to defining the “knowledge of faith,” and much more inclined to identify a lower common denominator. But in Turretin’s context, we can boil down the sort of knowledge he requires – I think – to a pair of things: first, it seems to include the notion that scripture is the ultimate source and norm for belief and practice; second, it seems to include a Reformational soteriology.

In any case, here are the arguments: first, scripture usually talks about faith before it talks about the church. Three examples are provided: in Matthew 28, the disciples are to teach prior to baptizing; in Acts 2, people are baptized after being taught via a sermon; in Acts 8, Samaritans believe and only then receive baptism. Turretin makes the argument explicit, while building-in an exception for infant baptism: “as in adults faith ought to precede baptism (which is the entrance into the church), so examination of faith and knowledge ought to precede knowledge of the church” (18.1.8). Second, the nature of the church and of faith dictates that faith comes first. The church is a group of people, and groups of people can only be considered as such if they have a unifying factor. And only in the presence of that unifying factor do you have the group. He uses the examples of the state and the family. So, you only get the church on the basis of faith, and one becomes a member of the church only through the presence of faith, and not vice versa. Third, Turretin appeals to the church fathers – in this case, Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine – to make his case for the precedence of faith over church. Fourth, from reason, insofar as it is a more complicated procedure to establish the presence of the true church than it is to establish the presence of true faith. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to make the easier task dependent upon the more complicated. The fifth reason is an extension of this. Turretin anticipates the Roman argument that interpretation of scripture is too complicated to be left to the individual believer, and he counters it with a doctrine of perspicuity: the doctrines necessary in knowledge of faith “are contained in Scripture with sufficient clarity so as to be perceived by any believers furnished with the spirit of discretion” (18.1.13; emphasis mine). And if they persist with attacking this point, Turretin points out that “if it is difficult to understand the meaning of the Scripture, it is far more difficult to arrive at the sense of the church” (18.1.14).

The end result of this inquiry is that “he knows that he is in the true church because he knows that the church in which he is holds the true doctrine” (18.1.16).

I know that I played-down the attention we give to doctrine these days, but a contemporary application of Turretin’s discussion occurs to me. We must update matters to account for our increased recognition of the unity of theory (i.e., theology) and praxis, but it seems to me that many folks in our own day are remiss in examining the church with which they are involved. Does this church practice the hospitality of Jesus, for instance, by welcoming women as ministers? By welcoming as members and as ministers those who do not fit with the distortions of heteronormativity from which our culture is finally emerging? By proclaiming and taking concrete steps to support the poor, the oppressed, and the otherwise marginalized in our society, seeking not only to offer temporary aid that makes the giver feel better (i.e., charity) but to reconceive the structures of our society that ensure that the privileged and unprivileged remain as such? For my money, all this is part of a properly Christian confession, part of the “knowledge of faith” (to use Turretin’s terminology). And if your congregation is missing the boat, it might be time to reconsider whether or not you find yourself where - to quote Calvin - "a true church of God exists."

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