Francis Turretin’s Ecclesiology, 18.9: Is the church always glorious?

Ninth Question: Ought the church to enjoy perpetual splendor and eminence; or can it be at times so obscured and lessened that no assembly of it appears publically on earth? The former we deny; the latter we affirm against the Romanists.

Turretin builds here on his discussion in the previous question. There he argued that the church cannot fail, and he now further maintains that position. But now Turretin makes a distinction between the church’s essence and accidents, so to speak: it is essential to the church that it should exist throughout history, but it is not essential that it should do so “with splendor and eminence”; indeed, it does so “often with obscurity” (18.9.1). This leads to further reflection on the invisibility of the church: there is an invisibility that is essential to the church, which he discussed in section 18.7; but there is also an “accidental invisibility which regards the external form” (18.9.4). In other words, the external form of the church doesn’t have to be invisible, but it can be invisible.

While elaborating on the possibility of the church’s accidental invisibility—i.e., that the church can exist in history without being marked by the shrouds of success—Turretin makes a pair of arguments that I want to highlight. First, he makes an interesting connection between the church and the moon, which he derives from Ambrose. The church goes through different states or conditions during the course of history in the same way that the moon moves through phases, sometimes more visible and glorious, sometimes less, and occasionally altogether invisible. So Ambrose, as quoted by Turretin: “The church, like the moon, has her wanings and risings frequently, but she has increased by her wanings, and deserved to be enlarged by these, while she is lessened by persecutions and is crowned by the confession of her martyrs” (18.9.6). Second, Turretin illustrates matters by making an analogy to the two christological states of humiliation and exaltation. The lynchpin that holds the analogy together is thinking of the church as the body of Christ so that the body can expect to experience what the head experienced.[*] Consequently, “the church, which is his mystical body, has her various states—now of humiliation and obscurity, …; then of splendor and brightness” (ibid).

Turretin offers six arguments for his position, and also parries a number of counter-arguments. I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow. Some of these are the usual appeals to specific key biblical texts, or demonstrations that the church fathers agree with him, and he even argues that the ability of the church to err proves his point. But the first and second arguments are materially decisive. First, Turretin shows that the church is not always glorious by appealing to the Old Testament. Here we find that standard Reformed supercessionism that I’m never quite sure what to do with. On the one hand, Turretin affirms that there is no difference between the Christian church and the ancient Israelite “church,” at least “as to the thing itself” (18.9.8). This would seem to be a good thing. On the other hand, he’s clearing freighting that religious expression with later Christian content as he understands it rather than treating it as a thing in itself, and this is problematic. In any case, he rehearses all the OT passages that Reformed folks love to recall when the Israelite community maintaining the covenant is reduced to a remnant. Second, Turretin appeals to the New Testament. There are two interesting sub-points here. First, Christianity began with Jesus and his disciples; or, to put it differently, with a handful of folks “of the lowest class”! He then particularizes further and argues that the church cannot always be glorious because it is founded upon Christ’s death on the cross, which then finds echoes in the persecutions that Christ’s body suffered and periodically suffers: “since the cross and persecution are the undivided companions of the church, everyone sees that the splendor and clearness which they [i.e., Romanists] ascribe to it cannot belong to it” (18.9.13). It is only a small step from here to defining the true glory of the church in terms of Christ’s passion, and we are certainly in the neighborhood of something like the theology of the cross / of glory distinction supplied to us by Luther.

There is much more that could be said of this section, but I think that I’ll leave it there.

[*] Allow me to draw the necessary conclusion: the church that doesn't experience what the head experienced - "humiliation and obscurity" and suffering - is not the true church.

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