Francis Turretin’s Ecclesiology, 18.13: Against false marks of the church

Thirteenth Question: Are the name catholic, antiquity, continued duration, amplitude, the succession of bishops, harmony in doctrine with the ancient church, union of the members with each other and with the head, holiness of doctrine, the efficacy of the same, holiness of life, the glory of miracles, prophetic light, the confession of adversaries, the unhappy end of the persecutors of the church and the temporal happiness of those who have defended it, marks of the true church? We deny against the Romanists.

Buckle your safety belts, because this is a long one…

In fact, I thought about splitting it into two parts, but I worried that created a precedent which would ultimately spiral out of control. Oh, and while I’m offering random preliminary reflections, questions 12 and 13 remind me of Calvin’s discussion of the sacraments in book 4 of the Institutes: you get his teaching in chapters 14–17, and then you get his deconstruction of the Roman position in chapters 18–19. But enough throat clearing.

Turretin makes an interesting offhanded comment at the start of this section. The reason that the Romanists proliferate these sort of marks is because they conceive “in their minds the idea of the church as similar to a civil monarchy” (18.13.1). This would need to be nuanced further, but I think there’s an interesting connection here to Catholic thinking about temporal / historical extension and the church as incarnatus prolongatus. Anyway, Turretin moves quickly on to point out that his opponents can’t agree among themselves as to how many marks of the church there are, and what they are. But he decides to respond to Bellarmine’s list of 15; perhaps just because it’s the longest list he knows, but also perhaps just because it’s Bellarmine’s list. Turretin also admits that Augustine sometimes seems to appeal to these marks, but he does so—according to Turretin—“not principally, but secondarily and as something over and above” (18.13.5).

  1. The name ‘catholic’—This doesn’t work because “we seek here real, not nominal marks” (18.13.6); i.e., things that aren’t just names, which can be applied arbitrarily. Besides, all the heretics in the ancient church claimed to be catholics. And when the ancient doctors distinguished between catholics and heretics, they didn’t do so on the basis of one side or the other calling themselves ‘catholics’ but on the basis “of the catholic and orthodox doctrine which they constantly held” (18.13.8).
  2. Antiquity—This is an accidental not an essential mark and, besides, not everything that is old is good. You can’t judge things from their age; you have to judge them by their truth. This means that the only antiquity worth worrying about is antiquity of doctrine, and the most ancient doctrine is found in the scriptures: “Antiquity of doctrines, however, can be estimated form the Scripture alone, so that it only is considered to be true, not which is drawn from a few ages, but from the first origin and the institution itself” (18.13.12). This marginalizes all unwritten traditions, and Turretin goes on a long digression to deal with various arguments and counterarguments made in favor of unwritten tradition and against scriptural primacy. One of the most interesting moments here is when he appeals to Jesus’s way of correcting belief and practice in his own day: “He employed only Scripture and doctrine, teaching us by his example what way we ought to follow in uncovering and reforming errors” (18.13.17). Turretin also provides a quick survey of when various doctrines (e.g., purgatory, transubstantiation, etc.) were first officially codified, although I can’t independently attest his accuracy (see 18.13.18).
  3. Perpetual duration—Again, this is accidental rather than essential. After all, lots of other institutions seem perpetual, and Jesus said that tares would be with the wheat until the end. The only duration that matters is duration of doctrine, and this means that we’re talking about the duration of the invisible rather than the visible church.
  4. Amplitude—Again, this is accidental rather than essential, and Jesus said that he would be present (i.e., his church would exist) wherever two or three gathered in his name. Furthermore, “paucity is a mark” of the church (18.13.24). This is a Reformed basso continuo, namely, that the true church is always a small remnant and therefore measurable success cannot be a guide to identifying it. Turretin quotes a number of fathers in support here. I like the quotes form Nazianzen and Jerome. Naz: “Where are they who define the church by multitudes and despise the small flock? They have homes, we are sojourners; they have temples, we have God…; they have the crowd, we have angels; they have rashness and boldness, we have faith; they have threatenings, we have prayers and discourses; they have gold and silver, we have the unadulterated doctrine of faith.” Jerome: “A multitude of associates will by no means prove you to be a catholic, but a heretic” (18.13.25).
  5. Succession—In contrast to the Romanist position that succession “is personal and local,” Turretin argues that it is “doctrinal”: “the church is not to be sought in walls and temples, but in doctrines. The church is where true faith is” (18.13.28). And whenever the fathers appeal to succession, they are talking about doctrinal succession rather than personal or local succession. Turretin quotes Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Augustine in support here.
  6. Harmony in doctrine—Given how Turretin has frequently turned his discussion toward the question of doctrine, one might be forgiven for thinking that this mark would appeal to him. But everything depends on what you think you’re supposed to be in harmony with. If harmony with the apostolic church is meant, for instance, Turretin grants this mark because that means the same thing as allegiance to Scripture. But if it means harmony with the ancient church in general, Turretin demurs; after all, even heretics can claim harmony on many points. And it isn’t like all the non-heretical fathers agreed on everything, or never made any mistakes, so even harmony with them as such doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Not even the Romanists accept everything that every father said!
  7. Union of believers with the head and each other—The invisible church has this unity internally but the visible church does not necessarily have it externally. But even if we’re talking about the former, to make it a mark of the church puts the cart before the horse because “unity is to be estimated by faith, not faith by unity” (18.13.37). In other words, shared faith produces other forms of unity; unity doesn’t produce the shared faith. Of course, Turretin brings this all back to doctrine. But he wraps it up nicely in a great line: “union must be evangelical and founded upon the truth of faith.”
  8. Holiness of doctrine—Again, we have a case of cart-before-horse because holiness here is a quality of doctrine, and that’s just to say that doctrine is the mark of the church. This, of course, is what Turretin wants to say: “to say that holiness of doctrine is a mark of the church is to say that the truth of doctrine or conformity with the word of God is a mark (which we maintain)” (18.13.40).
  9. Efficacy of doctrine—Turretin is less happy with this one than the previous one because, again, Reformed theologians cannot accept success as a mark of the church. If anything, it is a mark of apostasy. Even Satan has a kind of efficacy, Turretin tells us.
  10. Holiness of life—This doesn’t work as a mark because “true holiness is something internal, known to God alone (the searcher of hearts) and is often so counterfeited by hypocrites that hey are considered to be saints who are most corrupt” (18.13.42). A number of heretics have been renowned for holiness, and just think of the Donatists!
  11. Glory of miracles—Here we get another Reformed distinction: cessationism, the idea that miraculous spiritual gifts were instituted only for the first stage of Christian history to confirm the truth of the message until Scripture became available. As Turretin says, “miracles are accidents and extraordinary gifts which were given to the church only for a time, not always; for the establishment of Christianity, not for its continuance” (18.13.43). Besides, even in the biblical text one finds stories about false teachers and such doing miraculous things. Turretin even comes up with a quote from Bellarmine that seems to limit miracles to the period of establishing faith in the missionary context.
  12. Prophetic light—Here we’re talking about predicting the future or interpreting such predictions, but (again) this “is an extraordinary, not a perpetual gift” (18.13.47) like the miracles discussed above. One you have scripture, you don’t need this kind of miraculous prophecy. Besides, “not every gift is a mark” (18.13.48).
  13. Confession of opponents—Just because your enemies say you’re a true church doesn’t make it so. Why would you “borrow strength from the testimony of enemies” (18.13.49)?
  14. Unhappy end of enemies—Much like the previous point, why would you “say that what is outside the church can be a mark of it” (18.13.50)? Just because things go badly for your enemies doesn’t make you a true church. There have been plenty of times in history and scripture where things have gone well for the church’s enemies and badly for the church’s members.
  15. Temporal happiness—This is the mirror image of the previous point. Turretin reminds us that God doesn’t promise happiness to Christians. In fact, “the cross and calamity [is] the standard of Christ, the companion of truth and the portion of believers” (18.13.51). This dovetails with everything we’ve said already about success.

Turretin wraps up by noting that even the four marks given in the Apostle’s Creed—one, holy, catholic, apostolic—are “descriptions of the true church…only on account of faith and true doctrine” (18.13.52). He then proceeds to argue that, even if these fifteen marks he has just deconstructed were true they don’t actually fit the Roman church.

I think we can all agree that this post has gone on for long enough, but I just want to register in closing that I have been surprised / impressed / intrigued by how central doctrine is for Turretin throughout his ecclesiology but especially in his discussion of the marks. Of the traditional tripartite analysis of faith in the Protestant tradition, he seems to reduce faith in this context to notitia (true knowledge) and assensus (acceptance of that knowledge) while downplaying fiducia (trust). I would accept many of his arguments at the formal level, but I would stress the fiducia aspect of faith instead. For instance, recall this bit that I quoted above: “the church is not to be sought in walls and temples, but in doctrines. The church is where true faith is" (18.13.28). It is not obvious to me that these sentences are saying the same thing, i.e., that the “faith” of the second sentence can be reduced to the “doctrines” of the first. I much prefer the second sentence.


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May quiz you a bit on thesis 1, on catholicity?

Some more moderate early Reformed thinkers (I think maybe Richard Baxter is an example) held out hopes for a kind of catholicity that transcended the doctrinal divisions of the post-Reformation age. In other words, Christians might disagree, let's say, on the meaning of justification yet still enjoy eternal salvation -- thereby dodging the hardline anathemas on either side of the Protestant-Roman Catholic divide. I take it Turretin is probably not open to that possibility?

And on a related point, would he have any use for catholicity as an eschatological concept, even if he had (I assume) little hope for the reunion of the visible churches for which someone like Melanchthon worked? What would he make, do you think, of calls for concord and unity in the community in the Gospel and epistles?

Let me be clear: My questions are not simply a bait-and-switch to distract our readers, simply because your post is more interesting than mine this week. I'm genuinely interested :-)
(1) I suspect that Turretin has an account of adiaphora, but I don't recall encountering it in this connection (at least not yet - there's plenty more of his ecclesiology to get through!). Calvin had such a thing.

(2) I also don't recall seeing any indication of catholicity as an eschatological concept, and I've been trying to stay on the alert for such things. His basic analytic tool seems to be visible / invisible rather than historical / eschatological. I suspect that he would say that a certain amount of agreement on doctrine is necessary for that concord, or at least agreement to submit to Scripture as sole source and authority.

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