The Church: Union and Communion
Our Belgic Confession of 1561 devotes six of its 37 articles to the church (arts. 27-32). This great deal of attention is the result of the radical reorientation to which the churches of the Reformation were called after their split from the papal system. The Reformed churches are still examining their own character, calling, and place in this world. This does not plead against, but rather for these churches. For obvious reasons, also the Belgic Confession plays an important role in this examination.
Sometimes one can hear the remark that the wording of the Belgic Confession is too obscure and insufficient for us, especially when considering the problems that we are confronted with in today's day and age. Some advocate a replacement, others an expansion of the confessional language which has been handed down, and still others look for improvements by way of corrections and modernizations. Meanwhile, the impression is repeatedly given that the conversation gets entangled and stuck in “repetitious moves.” It is against this background that the article is written. It asks our attention for issues surrounding the doctrine concerning the church. The following article have as their only intention to “read what it says.”
The church is a congregation of “believers”
The first two sentences of B.C. Article 27 give a description of the character and the essence of the church. Together they form a kind of “definition.” The Heidelberg Catechism directs the attention of our faith in answer 54 to the continual activity of Christ in the gathering, defending and preserving of his church. The Belgic Confession, however, chooses a different angle. Both approaches have their own rightful place. Together they give us wonderful support in our reflection on and our confession of the “catholic” (or “universal”) church. In this article we want to consider the contents of the second sentence of article 27.
Our confession emphatically calls attention to the fact that the church is a congregation of “believers” – people who have received the “true faith” from the Holy Spirit. The church is characterized by the presence of these people. The fact that there are office bearers is not the decisive mark of the church. Neither does the fact that there is preaching prove the presence of the church. Article 27 asks attention for another fact: faith is found on earth. The Gospel of Christ is preached and believed. This is the message which Guido de Brès wants to pass on to us. Thus he summarizes the instruction which he has received from Scripture by means of Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin.1
Earlier already, De Brès had written about the character of this (true) faith. After he had put into words the great work of Christ's sacrifice for us (atonement by means of satisfaction) in B.C. article 21, he wrote in article 22:
“We believe that, in order that we may obtain the true knowledge of this great mystery, the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts a true faith.”
Kindling true faith for the sake of true knowledge – that is typically the work of the Holy Spirit. Reference is made to 1 Corinthians 2:12: “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God” (cf. also Ephesians 1:17-18).
Where does this emphasis on “faith” come from? The answer is not difficult: “faith” is the bond of love with Christ. Article 22 words it as follows: “This faith embraces Jesus Christ with all His merits, makes Him our own, and does not seek anything besides Him.” Beautiful language is spoken here: it is the language of love. It even says that a true believer is someone who possesses (has) Jesus Christ and who, in him, has complete salvation. For faith is the means by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness, and which keeps us with Him in communion of all His treasures and gifts. This true faith makes us into different, new people, and it makes us live a new life (“regeneration”) – as the beginning of article 24 puts it.
With this language in mind, we listen to the beginning of article 27. It is the gospel of justification through the blood of Christ and of sanctification through the Spirit of Christ, which called the church members into being and which typifies their lives. Article 27 states this emphatically: believers “who expect their entire salvation in Jesus Christ, are washed in His blood, and are sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit.” The life of the believers is determined completely by their communion with Christ. They expect their complete salvation from Him, because that complete salvation is in Him. The blood of Christ has purified them and has delivered them from the dominion of sin, and the Spirit of Christ makes their lives new. He grants them the assurance of faith and guarantees the crown in the struggle of the Spirit against the “flesh” which remains in the believer.2
It is the language of baptism which echoes in all these beautiful words. No one becomes a member of the church without having this language passed on to him. Article 34 explains this by way of striking expressions. Anyone who pays careful attention to these descriptions of the believers – the members of the church – finds out now already what kind of preaching is the distinguishing mark of the church of Christ: that of complete salvation in Christ alone. Wherever this preaching is not found the Holy Spirit is resisted and grieved. For the Spirit of Christ wants to work faith in Christ, the only Redeemer, through the proclamation, and He wants to guarantee this preaching through baptism. Only in this way can the church be a matter of “union with Christ.”
It is striking that our confession speaks distinctly about “true” knowledge, “true” faith, and “true” believers. In article 29 it places similar accents when dealing with the “true” church. Many have become somewhat allergic to this expression, “true” church. They hear in this the cry of a self-confident, self-sufficient Christian. “True” is then understood as “perfect.” A “true” believer would consequently denote a “perfect” believer. However, the acknowledgement of the faultiness of the believer is part of the very contents of the true faith. We confess this, for example, in the Heidelberg Catechism (answers 114-115), in the form for the celebration of the Lord's Supper, and also in the Belgic Confession. One of the marks of the Christians who belong to the (true) church is that they fight against their great weakness by the Spirit all the days of their life. We confess this in article 29. “True” believers, therefore, does not mean “perfect” believers. Rather, it means that the people mentioned here may call themselves “believers,” and when they indeed do call themselves “believers” they do not do this wrongly.
It is a good thing to thrash out the word “true” already in connection with article 27. The question cannot be avoided: why does it so emphatically refer to “true” believers? And why did article 22 speak of “true” knowledge and “true” faith? There is a simple reason for this: in this world one must take into account the reality of forgery and appearance. Apparently one also comes across pseudo-faith, which is sold as “true” faith. A boundary line is drawn against heresy and apparent piety (hypocrisy). The Bible warns us extensively against this reality of lie and appearance. In this, the forging labors of the great adversary of the one Redeemer are manifested. There is true prophecy and pseudo-prophecy. There are true apostles and apparent apostles. There are true brothers and false brothers. In the same manner, there is also true religion and false religion, true repentance and apparent repentance, just as the reality of true Christians and false Christians. Someone who overlooks this does not know the real situation in the church and the world; and neither does he know himself.3
The confessions make remarkable use of this kind of terminology because they apparently want to accentuate the reality of falsification, of forgery.4 In B.C. article 9 we read about the doctrine of the Holy Trinity that it “has always been maintained and preserved in the true church since the time of the apostles to this very day, over against Jews, Muslims, and against false Christians and heretics …” And the catechism constantly speaks of “true faith” and “true repentance” (see answers 20, 21, 53, 54, 60, 64, 84, 91, and question 88; cf. also how the Canons of Dort speak of “true believers” in v.12 and 15).
The authors had in mind the terrible consequences of forgery, and they warn the church members against this. Church members must confess their faith in a world in which Satan wages his battle against God and his Anointed. That is the dangerous environment of the church according to Revelation 12 and 13, for instance. Our fathers in the sixteenth century knew only too well the power of imitation and the sly game of the devil. They would not let themselves be misled as naive children by fine sounding words and pious gestures. They were very impressed by the fact that God's enemy had sown weeds among the wheat. They also knew that wolves could penetrate into the sheepfold of Christ; yes, that they could come from their own midst (Acts 20:29-30; 2 Peter 2:1).
When the phrase “true believers” is so emphatically used, this is by no means meant as a self-recommendation. On the contrary, it is an expression of a realistic estimation of the miracle of faith and of the power of forgery.
The church of Christ is where “true believers” are found. But according to the old words of the Apostles' Creed this church of Christ is a “communion”: the communion of saints. It is not a collection of believing individuals, but a body: every believer is a member of that body, and apart from it a member simply cannot exist.
We just saw that faith is a bond of love with Christ. “Faith” and “church” cannot be conceived of outside this communion with Christ. Believers have everything in him and expect everything from him. This “union” with Christ naturally involves the “communion” of the believers. A person would have to tear to pieces the work of the Holy Spirit if he wanted to accept the one thing but not the other. Also in this “congregation” or “communion” we are faced with the work of the Holy Spirit. That is why it is called a “holy congregation,” with reference to, for example, Ephesians 4:3-6. This union and communion are presented most beautifully in the celebration of the Lord's Supper. This is where all church activities – by office bearers and church members – find their origin and where they are purified and renewed.5
Thus, this one sentence of article 27 alludes to the preaching, to baptism, and to the Lord's Supper of the church of Christ. This observation opens our eyes to the fullness of expression, of which the author of our confession appeared capable. In the Reformed confessions of the sixteenth century, the church is described in all kinds of ways. Reformed people in our country may be thankful for this description in article 27. Would it be possible to come up with a clearer description than this one: the church of Christ is the holy communion of the true believers, who find and expect their complete salvation in and from Christ?
“One catholic church”
In this article we want to pay attention to the first sentence of BC article 27: “We believe and profess one catholic or universal Church.” There is only one church in God's world: the church of Christ. According to Calvin's word there cannot be two or three churches unless Christ be torn asunder – which cannot happen (Inst. IV.i.2). The confession of this unity is related to the unique character of the church. But it is precisely in this way that this characteristic radiates toward the unison of the church: it is impossible to come up with two or three churches of Christ that would oppose and fight each other.
This unity of the church is not a statistical result of some world-encompassing empirical research. This unity is in Christ. It is by no means necessary that we ourselves see the church with our eyes or touch it with our hands. This unity lies embedded in faith, and we must – in Calvin's words – regard it no less since it passes our understanding than if it were clearly visible (Inst. IV.i.3).6 Our confession is here using the language of the Nicene Creed, as it received its final form in 381 at the Council of Constantinople. If there is only one church of Christ, then this church is for all whom God calls to salvation (cf. in this connection the apostle's speaking in Romans 3:29-30; 10:11-13; 1 Timothy 2:5-6).
Almost automatically, we come to that second word which demands our attention: the one church of Christ is “catholic.”What does this word mean – this word which, for centuries already, belongs to the church's language of faith?7“Catholic” indicates that some thing is not limited, but that it aims for the whole. When someone believes and confesses that the church is “catholic” he is saying that the church of Christ is not limited to some people or to particular countries, races, and cultures in the world which God has created. The church is not limited to the Jews or to the white people or to North-America. The church is universal: a church for every one whom the Lord our God calls to Him. The church is also not limited to a few centuries, but has been since the creation of the world. It will be until the end of history. It is not a product of Medieval culture or of the European-American civilization.
The church is characterized by one thing: by “embracing” it’s one, living Lord. It remains in communion with this Lord by keeping His word (John 14:15ff.; 15:1-10). In its doctrine, the church has recorded and given account of how it does this. Therefore, its doctrine – as summary of the word of its Master – is the “catholic” doctrine: it does not push a certain partial truth; it does not promote ideas in which it specializes; it does not have one thing on sale the one year, and something else the next; but the church lets itself be guided by the Spirit of Christ in the “whole truth.” It is bent on maximizing the doctrine and the knowledge of this truth over against all attempts to minimize, to amputate, or to pluralize this doctrine.
The “identity” of the church lies in this “catholic” doctrine. Someone who does not remain in this doctrine of Christ is schismatic. He was in the church, but it appeared that he was not from or of the church (cf. 1 John 2:19). We owe the most beautiful description of the catholicity of the church to the man who himself took part in the Council of Constantinople: Cyril of Jerusalem (313-387):8
The church is called catholic because it exists over the entire world from the one end of the world to the other; and because it teaches entirely and completely all doctrines that people must get to know, regarding visible and invisible, regarding heavenly and earthly matters; and because it subjects the entire human race, governors and governed, learned and simple, to the true worship; and because it heals and cures together (literally: “in a catholic way”) all kinds of sins which are committed in body and soul, and has in itself all varieties of what people call virtue, in works, and words, and various sorts of spiritual gifts.9
Thus the image emerges before our eyes of the church of Christ. By its preaching of the righteousness and holiness of Christ it offers the universal remedy which heals the world of all its wounds and sins.10
Catholic church in and for the world
It is a brilliant scene which the confession manages to unfold in article 27. Taught by the revelation of God himself, the church is able to believe and to confess these wonderful things about itself. We would be very much mistaken and really get carried away if we would locate this church of Christ above the noise of this earthly society and behind the clouds. The Reformers of the sixteenth century have constantly objected to the reproach of their Roman Catholic opponents, as if the church would actually form some kind of “Platonic state” (i.e., a world of ideas without any relation to this earthly reality).11
Also the remaining text of article 27 refutes such a qualification. For it asks attention precisely for the history of the church and for the opposition which it experiences in times of oppression and persecution. The “perilous reign of Ahab” is here always the example of the violence which is unleashed against the church throughout history. Only for that reason already, we do well in connection with article 27 not to come up with the term “invisible church,” which can be interpreted in several ways. It is noteworthy that De Brès has not adopted this terminology from Calvin.12
Undoubtedly, it is possible to give a good description of the meaning of the phrase “invisible church.” But the possibility of misunderstanding is greater, especially when people start using this term in the direction of a “mystical body” of Christ which – removed from the changing scenes and the dynamics of this earthly history – is located in static rest at a heavenly level. This is a form of “idealizing” the church, which has rightly been opposed, in particular by K. Schilder.13
In article 27 we see the church of Christ before us in all its temptation. But at the same time, we discover its beauty and unassailable character, which is guaranteed by the presence of Christ and his Spirit. Therefore, when article 28 says that “the redeemed” assemble in the church, and that “there is no salvation outside of it,” then that is simply a summary of the rich contents of article 27.14 This old expression wants to put into words the great importance, yes, the indispensable character of Christ's church on earth. “No salvation outside of it” – this is not because “the office” (of bishop or pope) is there, but because the Spirit of Christ, the Righteous One, presents himself there and works the communion of faith with Christ there by the proclamation and the administration of the sacraments. 15
The local catholic church
The last paragraph of article 27 should now have our attention. Speaking about the one, holy, and catholic church of Christ, the confession teaches us not to look for this church in one particular place in the world. For the church is not limited or bound to that. Neither does it stand or fall with certain people.
It will be clear that the claim of the bishop of Rome is opposed here, since the pope considers himself as the center of the church and has presented himself as such already for ages. After all, according to his own claim he is the successor of Peter and the vicar of Christ on earth. Our confession argues against this: Roman Catholicism is a contradiction in terms. “Roman” asks attention for one place; “catholicism” makes us see the world, the fullness of the dominion of the living Christ.
But the question becomes urgent: if the church is not established in one place, where is it then? We immediately get an answer to this question. The catholic church is “spread and dispersed throughout the entire world.” Christ's universal church presents itself in many local churches. The believers are not called to make a yearly pilgrimage to one central sanctuary. It is not they who have to look for “the holy place.” Instead, the Holy Spirit comes to them and makes them into a temple for God (cf. the Scripture proof from John 4:21-23).
Organizationally, the church creates the impression of a loose, scattered archipelago (cf. Isaiah 40:15). But it is precisely the book of Acts which shows us how the Holy Spirit manages to reach distant coasts with the Gospel of Christ – as the fulfillment of the prophecy (cf. Isaiah 42:4, 10, 12; 51:5; 60:9). When the apostle Paul looks back at this, he is able to write that marvelous chapter 10 in his letter to the Romans (see especially vv. 6-15). Therefore, the secret of the world church lies in the presence of the Spirit. He connects hearts and souls and unites these through faith to the one worship of God.
Here the confession opens up the deepest ground of federative unity and of international ecclesiastical correspondence: the bond of unity through one Spirit, according to Ephesians 4:3-6. Federative unity is not formed or maintained by a common administration of members, by church political regulations, by national-ecclesiastical claims, or by pluralist thought patterns. Federative unity is a work of the Spirit, who joins and unites us through the power of faith. This is “communion” through the Spirit by virtue of “union” with Christ!
Concretely, this means that we may speak about the church of Christ in singular and in plural. There is one catholic church. This is how article 27 starts off. There are churches spread and dispersed throughout the entire world. These are the words of the conclusion. The Bible also speaks without any problem in the same way, in singular and plural.16
Our fathers have expressed this varied way of speaking with the help of the distinction between universal and particular church.17 We must not picture the relation between “universal” and “particular” church as a relation between the “whole” and “parts” that are subject to it; neither as a relation between “invisible” church and “visible” manifestation, where the “invisible” church would be the essential, real, and eternally identical church (of the elect). Such constructions are not supported anywhere in Scripture, and they violate the mystery of the church. That mystery is this, that the one catholic church presents itself in that often homely looking local congregation.18 There Christ wants to be present; there the Holy Spirit lives (Matthew 18:20; 1 Corinthians 3:16).19
When we go to church, we go to the local catholic church. There Christ is; there the Spirit lives. There we know that we are united with our forefathers, and there we are standing in the space of the church of the ages. We hear the Word of God, that living and abiding Word. We confess the faith of the church of all times and places. We sing the psalms as the songs of the covenant. We celebrate the commemoration of Christ's sacrifice with the bread and the cup, and we realize that this bread and this cup have been handed down and passed on to us through ages and countries. In the children that are carried to the baptismal font, we see tomorrow's church.
It is not without reason that the Dutch edition of the Belgic Confession, both in article 27 and article 28, refers to Hebrews 12:22-23. This Scripture reference can help us in understanding what the confession of the catholicity of the church means concretely in our going to church every Sunday.20 Therefore, the assertion that article 28 does not deal with the same church as article 27 is the largest stumbling block which a believer can set up for himself.21