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Charles Hodge’s Deficient Idea of the Church


Copyright © 2003

In Charles Hodge’s 1853 article, “Idea of the Church,” his stated aim is to analyze the idea of the Church proposed in the Apostles’ Creed, in which, “the Church is declared to be “the Communion of the Saints.” He writes:

The conception of the Church as the communion of saints does not include the idea of any external organization. The bond of union may be spiritual. There may be communion without external organized union. The Church, therefore, according to this view, is not essentially a visible society; it is not a corporation which ceases to exist if the external bond of union be dissolved. It may be proper that such union should exist; it may be true that it has always existed; but it is not necessary. The Church, as such, is not a visible society. All visible union, all external organization, may cease, and yet as long as there are saints who have communion, the Church exists, if the Church is the communion of saints. The communion may be in faith, in love, in obedience to a common Lord. It may have its origin in something deeper still; in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; even the Spirit of Christ, by which every member is united to Christ, and all the members are joined in one body. This is a union far more real, a communion far more intimate, than subsists between the members of any visible society as such. So far, therefore, is the Apostles’ Creed from representing the Church as a monarchy, an aristocracy, or a democracy; so far is it from setting forth the Church as a visible society of one specific form, that it does not present it under the idea of an external society at all. The saints may exist, they may have communion, the Church may continue under any external organization, or without any visible organization whatever.

It seems that in this paragraph, “external organization,” “visible union,” “visible society,” “external society” and “visible organization” are all essentially synonymous. Let’s try to break down the argument or arguments that Hodge is presenting:

  1. The Apostles’ Creed defines the Church as “the communion of the Saints.”
  2. The Apostles’ Creed is correct in how it defines the Church.
  3. The “bond of union” in a Communion of the Saints “may be spiritual.”
  4. A communion of saints might exist without any “external organization.” [From 3]
  5. The communion of the saints does not necessarily include any sort of “external organization.” [From 4]
  6. The Church is not a “visible society.” [From 1, 2, and 5]
  7. The Church can continue even if all “visible union” / “external organization” ceases, if there are still saints who have communion.
  8. The Communion can be faith, love, or obedience to a common Lord.
  9. The Communion can be something other than faith, love, or obedience to a common Lord, such as the indwelling of the Spirit uniting each saint to Christ.
  10. This “union” (i.e. the Communion stated in 9) is “far more intimate” than that which “subsists between members of any visible society as such.”
  11. Therefore, the Apostles’ Creed does not present the Church as a visible society.
  12. Therefore, the creed does not present the Church as either a monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy.

While I will gladly grant 2 and 12, this argument seems bedeviled with many problems. For one thing, the Apostles Creed does not define the Church as “the Communion of the Saints” (1). Rather, it lists the “Holy, Catholic Church” and then “The Communion of the Saints” as two articles which Christians believe. There is no reason at all to assert that the second article exhausts the meaning of the first. So, even if Hodge is right in everything he says about the nature of “The Communion of the Saints” he has done nothing to prove that the Church is not a visible society.

And while the two are related, it is hard to understand how he can claim that his understanding of the Church being identical to the Communion of the saints is the Reformed understanding. The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). The Church, according to the WCF is “consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God,” to which “Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto” (chapter 25, paragraphs 2, 3).

I predict that Hodge would immediately object that I am quoting what the WCF says about the “visible” Church, while he is referring to the “invisible Church.” But that option is not open to him. In the WCF, the invisible church is not all who are united by some alleged “spiritual” “bond of union.” Rather, the invisible church “consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof” (paragraph 1). The invisible church are those who are predestined to be gathered at the Last Day. It includes not only those who are presently unregenerate, but also those who do not yet exist. To put it bluntly, the WCF claims that “invisible church” is nonexistent, but that it will exist one day (and at that point it will be quite visible).

Hodge, however, is referring to a present reality–regenerate individuals. As such, he is talking about the church as a present reality and the only category left from the WCF is that of the “visible church.”

To dispel any doubts about this, chapter 25 of the WCF goes on to claim that the “visible church” can, perhaps, survive even when it is only barely visible:

This catholic church [the visible church of paragraphs 2 and 3] hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them (paragraph 4).

It is interesting that Hodge seems to think (from the quotation above and other statements in the same essay) that a visible church would mandate one and only one form of government. If one acknowledges “outward organization” as a part of “the communion of the saints” then one is claiming that “churches” wrongly organized are not part of the true church. But the WCF seems to assume that visibility admits to a matter of degree, and that the Church can be obscured by errors in government as well as other errors and yet still be “visible.” It may be camouflaged, but it is not invisible or cut off from the visible church.

On a more fundamental matter, how does one get from 3 to 4? Hodge seems to be arguing:

A “spiritual” communion is one that is not an “external” or “visible” society/organization.

This simply does not hold true. First Corinthian 15 speaks of a “Spiritual body” as the one which Christ possessed after he was raised from the dead. That body was an external phenomenon witnessed by people. To equate “spiritual” with invisible or intangible requires an argument. If I were to guess I would say that Hodge’s Cartesianism is hampering his thinking on this issue.

Likewise, the logic connecting 4 to 5 seems also flawed. Here I think we need some more conceptual tools with which to work, other than those of being and well being (esse and bene esse). It is perfectly possible for a human to exist without eating, but not forever. The fact that one might exist without eating (parallel 4) does not mean that the idea of a living human being does not include taking nourishment (parallel 5). I can hold my breath but I still think breathing is “essential,” in some sense, to human life.

So it is that a church might exist without official pastors for quite sometime, but I don’t see how this means that the definition of the church cannot include the necessity of pastors.

Throughout the paragraph, equivocations contained in 7 seem to be controlling Hodge’s thought. It is true that the U.S. Navy, France, and Oklahoma are visible “outward societies” and that they are part of a common organization. But so are the Gypsies and so are the Jews even before and apart from any consideration of the state of Israel. We commonly hear people speak of the “intelligence community” or “the homosexual community,” and even though such terms sometimes invite derision because of they don’t live up to all the virtues one would like to associate with a community, we all still know the terms refer to perfectly visible, tangible entities.

To make another comparison: nations can and do change their forms of government, even in violation of their own legal documents, without thereby ceasing to be nations. One simply does not need to deny the church is a visible society in order to affirm that it might exist under different, and even erroneous, forms of “outward” organization. Societies are visible and even display organization without some sort of unified government.

Which brings us to 8. How can “faith, love, or obedience to a common Lord” be invisible? Hodge seems to think this is an argument for a an invisible communion (though he also seems to realize it is not enough; see below), yet being united in “obedience” would obviously be visible, especially when that obedience entails, as Hodge admits, coming together as one society. Like wise neither love nor faith can exist without being displayed.

Of course, momentarily, at some given slice of time, a Christian among pagans may look exactly the same as the others. They could all look indistinguishable working side by side in office cubicles, for example. But a member of the homosexual community could also look exactly the same as everyone else in the work place, as could the member of the Communist Party. Americans could live in Toronto long enough to seamlessly blend in with the Canadians, but both Canada and the United States are still visible societies. None of this entails the church is not a visible society or even that it lacks “outward organization.”

The fact that a member of a kingdom who gets shipwrecked on a desert island is still a citizen of that kingdom, without any visible connection to it, does not entail that the kingdom in question must not be a visible society.

Perhaps for these reasons, Hodge was compelled to move beyond 8 to 9. But the indwelling of the Spirit does not change the fact that all saints are given faith. So 8 remains in effect. Furthermore, while faith itself may be less visible in some than others (say, a regenerate fetus in the womb compared to a fifty-year-old Christian man), the faith would still follow the visible relationships of covenantal bonds (i.e. God’s promise to be the God of the children of Christians). The fact that American children are not visibly different from the children of other nations does not mean that America is not a visible society.

Of course, one could claim that the prospect of God regenerating infants dying in infancy at random proves some sort of invisible union. But all the members of the Church in heaven are invisible to us, and it is unclear why exceptional cases should be included in the normal definition of the Church. God can miraculously keep a person from starving even though he is deprived of food, but I would not want to produce a definition of what is necessary for human life from the possibility of such a miracle.

But more importantly, everything in the Bible would lead us to expect the Spirit to produce a visible society, not an invisible one that only incidentally shows itself. The Spirit hovered over creation and produce visible, tangible, order. That same Spirit led Abram out of Ur of the Chaldees and passed between the animal halves to form Abraham and his family as a new community. That Spririt led Abraham’s descendents out of Egypt, through the Red Sea; he met with them atop Mount Sinai, and brought them into a new land dwelling in the Tabernacle in their midst.

Likewise, at Pentecost that Spirit came in fire (not upon an altar, but) upon visible humans who formed a visible society. Over and over again Paul credits the Spirit with forming the Church, making each person a gift to the Church so the Church is visibly equipped with all she needs, including Apostles and Pastors. Such gifts entail visibility.

When John tells his readers to test the Spirits and that only a Spirit that confesses that Jesus has come in the flesh is from God, he cetainly assumes that the Spirit is visible, or at least audible. Claiming that the Spirit is inherently “invisible” apart form His effects proves nothing. In the dark I am invisible also. Only when light bounces off me and hits someone’s eyeball, am I visible. Our sense organs mandate that none of us are visible or tangible apart from our effects.

So what are we to say of 10? “This is a union far more real, a communion far more intimate, than subsists between the members of any visible society as such.” It is impossible for me to understand the meaning of the word “intimate” in that sentence. When a Christian husband loses his wife it is true that they are both still partakers of one Spirit who unites them to Christ. It is true that he has the hope of resurrection. But it is simply not true that they have an “intimate” communion. On the contrary, a unregenerate husband and wife who remain alive and who love each other have a far more intimate communion.

Union with Christ is a foundation for the Church as a society. But to extol the foundation as all that is necessary, and to dismiss the need for anything to be built upon it, sounds rather ridiculous. And, in any case, the word “intimate” simply does not apply in any personal way to such an intangible reality. Nor does it comport with visible ministry that brings about that union. Consider the Westminster Larger Catechism:

Q65: What special benefits do the members of the invisible church enjoy by Christ?
A65: The members of the invisible church by Christ enjoy union and communion with him in grace and glory.

Q66: What is that union which the elect have with Christ?
A66: The union which the elect have with Christ is the work of God’s grace, whereby they are spiritually and mystically, yet really and inseparably, joined to Christ as their head and husband; which is done in their effectual calling.

Q67: What is effectual calling?
A67: Effectual calling is the work of God’s almighty power and grace, whereby (out of his free and special love to his elect, and from nothing in them moving him thereunto) he doth, in his accepted time, invite and draw them to Jesus Christ, by his word and Spirit; savingly enlightening their minds, renewing and powerfully determining their wills, so as they (although in themselves dead in sin) are hereby made willing and able freely to answer his call, and to accept and embrace the grace offered and conveyed therein.

God’s word is not invisible or inaudible. Nor is the answering to God’s call intangible. The union Hodge speaks of is ordinarily effected through visible means, the only exception being infants dying in infancy and others incapable of being called in the ordinary manner.

Hodge writes a lot more in his essay, “The Idea of the Church.” It is available online here. I think the considerations above apply to pretty much everything else in this work. I simply don’t think Hodge’s essay holds up to any sort of real logical scrutiny, nor to the Confessional standards of the Reformed churches.

Copyright © 2003

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