Here are the preceding posts in this series: I, Can adults be saved? ; II, Word or the Church? ; III, The unattractive body, IV, Miraculous, ordinary, conversational experience ; V, The arrogance of the infant (a) ; VI, The arrogance of the infant (b)
Can one that believes the Creeds but say they don’t adhere to a Lutheran understanding of the faith be a member of the true visible Church on earth?
Not the kind of question many Christians are used to (some reject the idea of a visible church altogether)! Let’s look at another question first that may be easier to identify with:
If an unbeliever hears the Word of God, confesses Christ, and plans to be baptized, is that person already “truly Church”, a living member of the “One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” (the earthly, or militant, manifestation, as opposed to the triumphant one)?
Well…if a person who hears the “pattern of sound words” trusts God’s Promise in Christ in child-like faith (and hence really knows Him), we know that such a person would certainly be a part of the Church (triumphant) were they to die in faith. They will be recognized in heaven as being “truly Church” – even if they die before being identified with the Church in baptism. So can’t we say that they were necessarily a part of the Church during their earthly life?
Yes, but only because we are not speaking about a concrete individual: speaking generally, a person who truly believes is necessarily – in God’s view – “truly Church”. But since the Church on earth is both hidden (only God knows with certainty who is His – truly “hid in Christ”, and hence, incorporated into his body) and visible, the answer to our question must be: while all who truly believe in the Lord Jesus will be saved, we aren’t called to know and proclaim any actual unbaptized person as being “truly Church”. While we may strongly feel that we know (or “intuitively or subjectively recognize”) where a certain person stands in regards to God (even calling them “Christian”) we are only called to consider and proclaim those in the baptized fellowship with us to be “truly Church” (and yes, admittedly, some we consider to be this more than others!).***
But this doesn’t seem very simple (like a child) – after all, don’t we say some of the baptized are actually “false believers”?
Yes. According to their Confessions, Lutherans talk about the church “properly so called” and “loosely so called”; also of being the Church or being in the Church “in name alone” or “in fact and in name”. Nevertheless, on earth we must still publicly acknowledge (or “formally or objectively recognize”) as being “truly Church” those who fully participate in worship (i.e. in baptism and communion) where the Word and Sacraments are given in their purity. The Eastern Orthodox say things like “We know where the Church is but not where it is not” or “We know who is in the Church but we cannot be sure who will not be”. And yet, though the word “invisible” may be anathema to them, they nevertheless trust that some who are really in the Church on earth will not be in heaven (though they, unlike Rome, would not say that these were “dead members” of the Church).
All this said, I believe the key to this question of “are the yet-to-be-baptized Church?” – and our responsible answer – is found in Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde’s dictum that “all theology is for proclamation”.
Finally, this is something infants would get: for ultimately, words are meant not to extract, freeze, abstract, and control life, but rather to lovingly respond to one’s concrete neighbor with God’s concrete and loving purposes in mind.
In other words, in regards to the yet-to-be-baptized, we know we are called to urge them to be formally recognized with assemblies that we see recognize the Shepherd’s voice – those we have every reason to believe recognize that Christ has tenderly and lovingly reconciled them to God through His Word! We may not know with surety if the yet-to-be-baptized person is already “truly Church” here on earth (although again – if they truly believe, they would be members of the Church triumphant were they to die now), but we do know that such a person, confessing Christ rightly with their lips, is to be baptized by those who do the same – that is, to be formally recognized as a member of His Church! Ecclesiology is simply Christology (Kurt Marquart), and so trusting in Christ is necessarily “baked in with” trusting the visible Church’s wisdom in this matter (despite understandable pastoral-evangelistic concerns to separate faith in Christ from a connection with the visible Church). And baptism – which can both create (via the “liquid word” heard) and nurture faith – is the Church’s glorious and beautiful “official adoption ceremony”. This rightly proclaims to everyone all that God does in Christ – before, during, and after this moment.
As the new Lutheran Study Bible notes, “God’s kingdom is plainly visible because its citizens live in the world as living signposts pointing to Christ Jesus by what they say and do.” The reign of God is among us in these! Likewise, here true Gospel proclamation, recognition of what such proclamation creates – and the corresponding recognition of those who also recognize this Gospel and its effects – is made visible in the glorious institution we call God’s One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
…even as we still walk by faith, and not by sight, for only God truly knows those who are His.
So what then is the answer to the first question above? I hope to tackle this one in the future – stay tuned.
*** At the same time, speaking more broadly, we can’t be sure exactly where the entire Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church is – even as we can say exactly where it is not (for example, it is *not* where the words “Jesus did not come in the flesh” are confessed, taught, and freely received [believed] without exception).