Sunday, May 15, 2005

Is the church of Rome a part of the visible church?

Those within the Reformed community who defend the Christian status of the Catholic Church sometimes appeal to the article by Charles Hodge: “Is the Church of Rome a Part of the Visible Church?”

But this appeal calls for a number of comments:

1.Now there is no doubt that Charles Hodge is a representative spokesman for Reformed theology. At the same time, the fact that such Southern Presbyterian theologians as Thornwell and Girardeau took issue with his position goes to show that Hodge’s view doesn’t represent the official view. It is just the private opinion of a Reformed theologian. We should give his arguments a respectful hearing. But the mere fact that Charles Hodge took this position doesn’t elevate it to creedal status in Reformed theology.

2.What does enjoy creedal status in Old School Presbyterian theology generally, and the Old Princeton theology in particular, to which Hodge himself was a sworn adherent and exponent, is the following statement:

“There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ; nor can the Pope of Rome in any sense be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the Church against Christ, and all that is called God” (WCF 25:6).

For purposes of argument, it matters not whether you agree with the Confession on this point. You may disagree.

But if you’re appealing to the authority of Reformed tradition in the person of Charles Hodge, then there is a higher Reformed authority than Charles Hodge, and that is the Westminster Confession. And the version to which he was sworn included this article.

The Westminster Confession was the doctrinal standard for church officers and seminary professors. If push comes to shove, Westminster trumps Hodge.

According, then, to the Westminster Confession, the Pope is the Antichrist. If, for the sake of argument, you go along with this equation, and those who stake their claim on Reformed tradition must, for the sake of argument, go along with that equation, then what does this entail for the Church of Rome?

If you identify the papacy with the Antichrist, then you must say that the Church of Rome is the church of the Antichrist. And if the Church of Rome is headed by the Antichrist, then how can you also say that the Church of Rome is a part of the visible church headed by Christ?

3.There are some other problems with Hodge’s argument. On the one hand, he says that “we must distinguish between what is essential to the gospel, and what is essential for a particular individual to believe. The former is fixed, the other is a variable quantity.”

And this is a valid distinction. But, on the other hand, he says that a church is “an organized society professing the true religion, united for the purpose of worship and discipline, and subject to the same form of government and to some common tribunal.”

The problem here is that Hodge is equivocating between the visible and invisible church—between the Christian identity of an individual and the Christian identity of an institution. To define the church in social terms as a visible institution is to define it in corporate rather than individual terms.

Hodge tries to square this circle by saying the following: “The true, or invisible church consists of true believers; the visible church, of a society of such professors, united for church purposes and separated from other societies by subjection to some one tribunal…We do not see how consistently with the evangelical system of doctrine, and especially with the great doctrine that salvation is by faith, we can avoid the conclusion that all true believers are in the true church, and all professing believers are in the visible church.”

Now, the question at issue is not whether a member of the invisible church is ordinarily a member of the visible church. The question, rather, is whether membership in the invisible church necessarily entails membership in the visible church. And the answer should obviously be in the negative.

For there is the not uncommon case of the underground church. At an individual level, there are circumstances under which a convert is not a member of the covenant community (2 Kg 5:18-19). At a corporate level, during time of exile (e.g. Daniel), or national apostasy (e.g. 1 Kg 19), and official persecution (e.g., Revelation), public worship, discipline, and governance is all but impossible.

4.Hodge also compares the apostate church of Rome with apostate Israel. But this comparison begs the question. Every conservative evangelical will admit that the old covenant community was a direct divine institution, and that it was preserved for the duration of the old covenant itself. But to transfer that status to the Church of Rome assumes the very point at issue.

5.But suppose, for the sake of argument, that we grant Hodge’s position. Say he was right? What then?

This is the operating assumption of his position:
“That Romanists as a society profess the true religion, meaning thereby the essential doctrines of the gospel, those doctrines which if truly believed will save the soul, is, as we think, plain. 1. Because they believe the Scriptures to be the word of God. 2. They direct that the Scriptures should be understood and received as they were understood by the Christian Fathers. 3. They receive the three general creeds of the church, the Apostle's, the Nicene, and the Athanasian, or as these are summed up in the creed of Pius V.”

The problem is that Hodge wrote that back in 1846. This was before Vatican I. Before Vatican II. Before the Immaculate Conception. Before the Assumption of Mary.

The question, then, is whether the modern magisterium adheres to these criteria in the same sense as it did in the antebellum era, when Hodge first wrote these words. And as I’ve argued elsewhere, it does not.


  1. The antichrist sets himself up in the temple of God though. So he is a false leader of a true church.

    He has to be to BE antichrist.

  2. Duggie,

    This is an interesting objection to my thesis. But I don’t think it carries the day. First of all, the Westminster Confession, in the same chapter that identifies the papacy with the Antichrist, distinguishes between the visible and invisible church. And of the former, it says that some churches “have so degenerated, as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan” (WCF 25.5). Secondly, Chas Hodge, who in his Systematic Theology, identifies the papacy with the Antichrist, treats the papacy as the ultimate expression of the great apostasy, cf. 3:819. Turretin takes it the same way. Cf. Institutes 3:77. Yet an apostate church would no longer be a true church, but a synagogue of Satan.

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  8. Relevant to this discussion are Steve Hays' critique of Philip Blosser's critique of sola scriptura, "By Scripture Alone," and Blosser's rebuttal, "Sola Scriptura revisited: a reply to Steve Hays (in 95 antitheses)."