Headline: The Marks of the Church

The Marks of the Church. Notes on the Notae to Distinguish the Bride of Christ.

Tertullian: “Those are the true churches that adhere to what they have received from the apostles.”

I was recently preparing for a Consistory meeting and we were going to talk about the third mark of the Church, and as I was preparing I started noticing diversity amongst some of our Reformed fathers. Wanting to understand a bit better the exegetical basis for some of the different decisions, I began to catalog various confessional documents and theologians on the matter. I thought others might find it useful to see these findings placed side by side, and so you will find them below in chronological order. No doubt, others ought to be added to this list, and if there is anyone of particular importance that ought to be cataloged, either for their uniqueness or influence, leave a note in the comments and I’ll try to track them down and add them to the list.

Surely, understanding the marks of the Church in our day would lead to health for Christ’s Bride. These marks are to be distinguished from the “attributes” or “articles” of the Church, which are commonly found in the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds (one, holy, catholic, apostolic). The attributes speak more to what the Church is in her essence, whereas the marks help us to distinguish a true church from a false one.

Before my list, a few observations and comments.

  1. Calvin limits the marks to preaching (and hearing!) and the sacraments, but Edmund Clowney is probably correct to point out how important discipline was for Calvin in rightly observing the Sacraments (see Clowney’s The Church, 101). Nevertheless, I would agree with Berkhof that Calvin – at the end of the day – limits the marks to these two, and he didn’t smuggle discipline in with the Sacraments. When we look at other writings of Calvin, especially the Consensus Tigurinus (see Articles 6 & 7), the uniform witness for Calvin is preaching and Sacraments.
  2. Berkhof and Bavinck are surely wrong, however, to limit Theodore Beza to only one mark, the preaching of the word of God. Yes, Beza mentions “mark,” singular, but he clearly explains all three marks in that very context as a consequence. So if Beza has only one mark and not three, that is like saying he believes in only one God and not the Trinity. (My last sentence is actually probably a heretical explanation of the Trinity, since Beza surely didn’t conceive of the marks as having a being/person distinction like the Trinity. But you get my point. Beza taught three marks!)
  3. Both Francis Turretin and Herman Witsius surprised me. As representatives of High Orthdodoxy, I expected long, drawn out delineations of the marks of the Church. Usually, doctrine that had been described simply in Early Orthodoxy saw development and complexification and distinguishing thought as doctrine developed in the Reformed churches. For an example, witness the elements of saving faith. Traditionally listed as three things – knowledge, assent, and hearty trust – by the time we get to Turretin and Witsius the list has doubled. So I expected a complex discussion of the marks, but was surprised to see that Turretin stuck with two and Witsius subsumes everything under “heavenly doctrine.” That’s just lazy, Witsius. Accurate, but lazy.
  4. What’s going on with the Puritans on the Island?! First, the Irish Articles seem incredibly reasonable and consistent by listing three marks, and using the biblical language of “keys” rather than merely “ecclesiastical discipline.” The Westminster divines, who often closely followed the Irish Articles when drafting their Confession, ignored the concept of “keys” and instead made the third mark pure worship. I’m sure there’s a good argument for subsuming discipline under worship if it is to be done purely, but I’m surprised they made that switch. Perhaps circumstances with the state Church were heating up? No doubt Letham or someone else has commented on this, but as far as I’ve seen, no one else makes worship a mark other than the WCF. And lastly, the Savoy Declaration, penned by the Independents and Congregationalists, makes a further deviation. The Savoy, nearly a word for word copy of the WCF, really switches things up when it comes to ecclesiology, as you can see here. It is completely personalized. I know the Independents were reacting against Presbyterian polity, and asserting their beliefs concerning Congregational polity, but I’m surprised there isn’t more for recognizing one “congregation” over against another. So despite the close wording the Irish Articles, the WCF, and the Savoy enjoy on most other issues, the marks of the Church is one area where there is radical discrepancy.
  5. I was surprised by how carefully many of the theologians argued, and many Scripture verses that I would have thought demonstrated a separate mark, the scholastics subsumed into one of the other marks. While a’Brakel demonstrates his Nadere Reformatie leanings by making holiness a mark, I was surprised that there weren’t more suggestions similar to this. For example, I never came across anyone mention possession of Christ’s Spirit, but no doubt that was too subjective. There is no mention of gifts, or love, or other characteristics I would think modern Christians would come up with.
  6. Most of the authors and confessions below are in the Presbyterian & Reformed stream of thought, but there were other important contributions to thinking about the marks as well. Bavinck notes that Bellarmine, the Romish scholastic, had a list of 15 marks, though later Romish scholars would divide those marks into the four attributes of the Church (unity, sanctity, catholicity, apostolicity). Luther had a list of seven marks from his Of Councils and Churches – administration of the Word, of baptism, of the Lord’s Supper, and the keys, the choosing of ministers, public prayer & education, and the cross – but later he would only cite the administration of the Word and Sacraments. Melanchthon added obedience to these two for the Lutherans. See Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol IV p. 307 – 12.

Ok, without further ado.
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Theodore Beza The Christian Faith (1558) chapter 5.6

The mark of the true Church is the preaching of the Word of God in which the Lord is made manifest to us, as the books of the Prophets and Apostles declare Him. And, consequently, we join to the Word the Sacraments and the administration of ecclesiastical discipline, such as God has ordained.

John Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559) 4.1.9-10

Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the Church of God has some existence… We have said that the symbols by which the Church is discerned are the preaching of the word and the observance of the sacraments, for these cannot anywhere exist without producing fruit and prospering by the blessing of God.

Scots Confession (1560) chapter 18

First, the true preaching of the Word of God, in which God has revealed himself to us, as the writings of the prophets and apostles declare; secondly, the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus, with which must be associated the Word and promise of God to seal and confirm them in our hearts; and lastly, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s Word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished. Then wherever these notes are seen and continue for any time, be the number complete or not, there, beyond any doubt, is the true Kirk of Christ, who, according to his promise, is in its midst.

Belgic Confession (1561) Article 29

The marks by which the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if it maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in chastening  of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church. Hereby the true Church may certainly be known, from which no man has a right to separate himself.

The 39 Articles (1571) Article 19

The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure word of God is preached and the sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

Zacharius Ursinus Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (1585) Question 54.3

There are three marks, or signs, by which the true church may always be known. 1. A profession of the true, pure, and rightly understood doctrine of the law and the gospel, which is the same thing as the doctrine of the prophets and the apostles. 2. The right and proper use of the sacraments. One of the objects of the sacraments, is to distinguish the true church of God from all the various sects and heretics. 3. The profession of obedience to this doctrine, or to the ministry. These three things which are always found in connection with the true church, are contained in the declaration of Christ (Matthew 28:19). It behooves us to hold fast to these marks for the glory of God, that his enemies may be distinguished from his children; and also for our salvation, that we may associate ourselves with the true church.

Irish Articles (1615) Chapter 69

But particular and visible Churches (consisting of those who make profession of the faith of Christ, and live under the outward means of salvation) be many in number: wherein the more or less sincerely according to Christ’s institution, the word of God is taught, the Sacraments are administered, and the authority of the Keys is used, the more or less pure are such Churches to be accounted.

Johannes Wollebius Compendium of Christian Theology (1626) Book I, chapter 25.26

The marks [notae] of the visible church are the preaching of the pure word of God, and the correct [legitimus] administration of the sacraments.

Westminster Confession (1646) 25.4

This catholic Church 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.

The Savoy Declaration (1658) chapter 26

Christ always hath had, and ever shall have, a visible kingdom in this world, to the end thereof, of such as believe in him, and make profession of his name.

Herman Witsius Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles’ Creed (1681) dissertation 24.27

It is necessary, however to take heed that we associate only with a true Church, lest we embrace a prostitute and an adulteress instead of the chaste Spouse of Christ… But there is in particular one characteristic, by which, without great difficulty, you may discriminate the true Church of Christ from an adulteress, to wit, the truth of the heavenly doctrine. If a society devoutly profess the truth, as it was delivered by Christ, and by the Prophets and Apostles, you may safely recognize it as a Church of Christ. For what is the Church but “the pillar and the ground of truth?”

Francis Turretin Institutes of Elenctic Theology (1685) 3.12.6-7

Now although in assigning the marks of the true church, a certain diversity in words occurs among the orthodox, still they agree in the thing itself. For whether it is called one alone (to wit, the truth of doctrine and conformity with the word of God) or many (to wit, the pure preaching of the word with the lawful administration of the sacraments, to which some add the exercise of discipline and holiness of life or obedience given to the word), it is all the same thing.

Wilhelmus a’Brakel The Christian’s Reasonable Service (1700) 2.24

The primary and most eminent distinguishing mark is purity of doctrine – doctrine consistent with the Word of God… The second distinguishing mark of the true church is the holiness of her members… We hold the third distinguishing mark of the true church to be the proper administration of the sacraments… We consider the fourth distinguishing mark to be the use of the keys of God’s kingdom.

The (Baptist) Abstract of Principles (1858) chapter 14

The Lord Jesus is the Head of the Church, which is composed of all his true disciples, and in Him is invested supremely all power for its government. According to his commandment, Christians are to associate themselves into particular societies or churches; and to each of these churches he hath given needful authority for administering that order, discipline and worship which he hath appointed. The regular officers of a Church are Bishops or Elders, and Deacons.

One thought on “Headline: The Marks of the Church

  1. I’m doing some last polishing of my sermon for next week and I love that I came across your site when I was doing my research… God bless, brother!

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