A Review of “The Covenanted Reformation Defended”

A Review of Greg Barrow’s The Covenanted Reformation Defended, by Rev. Matthew Winzer, 2006.  This is part one of a projected multiple part review of CRD.  The source of this review is from The Puritan Board.

The jist of their claims, according to Dr. Richard Bacon, is that “they maintain that we can treat churches that lack the full well-being of the church just as we would treat a false church. Then they define full well-being as including the Solemn League and Covenant (1643) and several other documents that they refer to as ‘terms of communion.'”



I. True and false churches.

Much of the weight of the author´s argument rests upon what he regards as an important distinction between the being and the well-being of the church. He writes “There is an important distinction to be made between the being (esse) of a church and its well being (bene esse).” 1

With respect to the distinction between being and well-being, its importance should not be under-estimated. There are certain notes or marks by which a true church may be recognised and distinguished from a false church. The absence of these marks indicates that the professing body is not worthy of the name of the “church.” Where these marks are present, the professing body may safely be called a true church, i.e., that it has the being of a true church. Other marks might be absent, but these only serve to affect the way the true church functions, or, in other words, they have respect to her well-being. Hence there is no disagreement with CRD over the fact that great care should be taken to maintain the distinction between the being and well-being of the church.

Where this review finds fault with CRD is with the fact that the author has not provided any evidence to the effect that a church can be considered false with regard to its well-being. In fact, the very idea that a church could be false with regard to its well-being undermines the reason why the being/well-being distinction exists.

The purpose of distinguishing between the being and well-being of the church by older divines was to ascertain what marks were essential to a church in order that it might be regarded as true in its claim to be a Christian church, and subsequently entitled to the authority to preach the Word and administer discipline according to Christ´s appointment. To speak of false churches with respect to well-being is to undermine the very purpose for which the distinction exists. Those marks which belong to the well-being of the church were provided by older theologians in order to show the types of things which a church might fail to possess without losing its entitlement to be regarded as a true church.

In Book four, chapter one of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin teaches the reformed position as to what constitutes the church, and why unity must be maintained with it. “If it has the ministry of the Word and honors it, if it has the administration of the sacraments, it deserves without doubt to be held and considered a church. For it is certain that such things are not without fruit. In this way we preserve for the universal church its unity, which devilish spirits have always tried to sunder; and we do not defraud of their authority those lawful assemblies which have been set up in accordance with local needs.” 2

Here it is as plain as day that the reformer teaches certain fundamental marks of the church in order that the true church might be recognised, her unity preserved, and her authority submitted to. The emphasis on the true ministry of the Word and sacraments is iterated time and again: “For the Lord esteems the communion of his church so highly that he counts as a traitor and apostate from Christianity anyone who arrogantly leaves any Christian society, provided it cherishes the true ministry of Word and sacraments. He so esteems the authority of the church that when it is violated he believes his own diminished.” 3  “The pure ministry of the Word and pure mode of celebrating the sacraments are, as we say, sufficient pledge and guarantee that we may safely embrace as church any society in which both these marks exist. The principle extends to the point that we must not reject it so long as it retains them, even if it otherwise swarms with many faults.” 4  “But I say we must not thoughtlessly forsake the church because of any petty dissensions. For in it alone is kept safe and uncorrupted that doctrine in which piety stands sound and the use of the sacraments ordained by the Lord is guarded.” 5 Speaking of the many faults of the Corinthian church, Dr. Calvin writes, “Yet the church abides among them because the ministry of Word and sacraments remains unrepudiated there. Who, then, would dare snatch the title “˜church´ from these who cannot be charged with even a tenth part of such misdeeds?” 6

When Dr. Calvin comes to summarise the main points he has been contending for, this is how he concludes:

“Let the following two points, then, stand firm. First, he who voluntarily deserts the outward communion of the church (where the Word of God is preached and the sacraments are administered) is without excuse. Secondly, neither the vices of the few nor the vices of the many in any way prevent us from duly professing our faith there in ceremonies ordained by God.” 7

CRD´s use of the being/well-being distinction is far from the spiritual understanding of the reformer. Whereas the reformer uses it to distinguish the true church so as to recognise its lawful ministry and authority, CRD is only concerned to discover false churches as to well-being, so as to deny them the ministry and authority committed to them by the Lord.

CRD also misrepresents Samuel Rutherford´s teaching on this important subject. It is undisputed that he taught the important distinction between the being and well-being of the church, as is asserted on p. 59. The two quotations provided on that page are to the point. However, on p. 60, CRD unwarrantably represents Rutherford as teaching “that one may lawfully separate from a church that is essentially true (as to being) when it is deformed as to its well-being.” Nothing could be farther from the truth; and such a statement must be regarded as guilty of deception when it is considered that Prof. Rutherford teaches the exact opposite of this within the context of the passages which CRD has quoted.

In Samuel Rutherford´s Due Right of Presbyteries much attention is given to the point of what constitutes a true church, and why separation from a true church is unlawful. Those of the congregational (Independent) persuasion had argued in much the same way as the author of CRD. They had maintained justifiable separation from the Church of England on the basis that she did not manifest certain marks of the true church. Prof. Rutherford bore the burden of showing them that there is only one fundamental mark of the church, and this is profession of the true faith. Where this is evident, the body making the profession is a truly constituted church, and separation from her is schism. It is independency to separate from a church which is countenanced by Christ, the head thereof. Hence the congregationalists were called Independents by Presbyterian polemicists.

Now CRD quotes Due Right of Presbyteries twice on p. 59, to prove that he taught the being/well-being distinction. The first quotation is from p. 251, which says, “A visible profession of the Truth and Doctrine of godliness, is that which essentially constitutes a visible church, and every member of the visible church.” Having made this distinction, however, Prof. Rutherford goes on to teach, “Now to refuse communion to these who are knowen to be members of Christs body, and to separate from them is all one, and therefore in this you separate your selves from Christs Body.” 8 Again, CRD quotes from p. 285, “Truth of Doctrine concurs to give being to the Church and to the constitution of it.” Following on from this important point is this equally important statement: “The power and right to discipline is a propriety essentiall to the Church, and is not removed from it, till God remove the Candlesticke, and the Church cease to be a visible Church; but the exercise may be wanting and the Church a true visible Church, from which we are not to separate.” 9 Therefore, in both cases, where Prof. Rutherford is brought in as a witness to the being/well-being distinction, he also maintains that separation is unlawful from the being of the true church. CRD, then, has falsified the views of the author it quotes from, because it concludes that he teaches one may lawfully separate from a church that is essentially true as to being.

In order to convey the mind of Samuel Rutherford more forcefully to the reader, the following statements are worthy to be recorded:

“There be great oddes betwixt a froward generation professedly denying Christ to bee come in the flesh, as the Jewes, Act. 2. (and from such a Church wee are to separate totally; ) and betwixt a Church where there bee many wicked persons, who in their life and conversation deny Christ, and yet doe beleeve soundly or orthodoxly the fundamentall points of salvation, and hold in profession the orthodox faith: for though wee are to separate from the bad conversation of such a generation, yet are we not to separate from the Church-worship, and Church-societie of such a generation.” 10

“If a Church be incorrigible in a wicked conversation, and yet retaine the true faith of Christ, it is presumed God hath there some to be saved, and that where Christs ordinances be, there also where Christs ordinances be, there also Christs Church presence is; And therefore I doubt much if the Church should be separated from, for the case is not here as with one simple person, for it is cleare, all are not involved in that incorrigible obstinacy; that is yet a true visible communion, in which we are to remain, for there is some union with the head Christ, where the faith is kept sound, and that visibly; though a private brother remaining sound in the faith, yet being scandalous and obstinately flagitious be to be cast off, as an Heathen, yet are we not to deale so with an orthodox Church, where most part are scandalous.” 11

“There is no just cause to leave a less clean Church (if it be a true Church) and to go to a purer and cleaner, though one who is a Member of no Church, have liberty of election, to join to that Church, which he conceiveth to be purest and cleanest.” 12

It is quite clear from these statements that the being of a true church depends upon the true profession of the faith, and that where this is evident there should be no separation from the church. As James Walker comments, after evaluating the Scottish doctrine of the visible church, “In the case of a true Church, no separation in point of actual Church fellowship can be lawful, although you must certainly separate yourself from its errors in doctrine and worship.” 13

CRD also unjustly introduces into evidence a statement from the adept ecclesiologist, Dr. James Bannerman of the Free Church of Scotland. The reviewer wonders why an earlier part of Dr. Bannerman´s discussion was not quoted, where he explicitly teaches the being and well-being distinction. There it is stated in no uncertain terms, “there are departures from Scripture authority or example in respect to outward order and administration in a Church of Christ, in respect to its government and discipline and worship, which, although wrong in themselves, and injurious in their operations and tendency, yet do not suffice to unchurch the Christian society, or to deprive it of its claim to be regarded as a branch of the visible Church of Christ. There is much, in short, that may be necessary to the perfection of a Church, measured and judged of by the Word of God, that is not necessary to the existence of a Church in such a sense that the want of it would exclude it from the title or privileges of a Church at all.” 14

Here the true spirit of the distinction is given, where it is seen that a church might fail to possess the marks necessary to its perfection and yet be considered as deserving of the title and the privileges of a true church. Instead of quoting this pertinent passage, CRD chooses a statement under a second heading, which shows that the church exists for the sake of the truth, whereas other things exist for the sake of the church, to aid her in bearing witness to the truth. Yet even here, there is no justification for CRD´s ultimate conclusion that a church might be considered as false with regard to its well-being. The whole point of Dr. Bannerman´s distinction is to show what the essence of a church is, that one might be able to identify a true church. In fact, at the foot of the quoted page, the following instructive note will be discovered from Dr. Calvin´s Institutes: “where he maintains that, so long as we have the Word purely preached and the Sacraments rightly administered in any Church, we have no right to separate from it simply on the ground that it is at the same time chargeable with many faults and defects both in doctrine and practice.”15

In conclusion, it is clear that the being/well-being distinction of the church is both important and useful. However, the author of CRD is to be blamed for misusing this distinction, contrary to the purpose for which it exists. It is quite clearly an abuse of language to speak of a church being false with respect to the well-being of a church. The Westminster Confession of Faith adopts an appropriate form of speech, when it teaches that “particular churches, which are members thereof [i.e., of the catholic visible church], 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.”

1 Greg Barrow, The Covenanted Reformation Defended, etc. (hereafter CRD), p. 55. This review quotes from the online pdf version at http://www.reformedpresbytery.org/bo…f/covrefdf.pdf.

2 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.1.9, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 2:1023-24.

3 4.1.10 (2:1024).

4 4.1.12 (2.1025).

5 4.1.12 (2.1026).

6 4.1.14 (2.1029).

7 4.1.19 (2.1033).

8 Due Right, 257.

9 Ibid., 287, 288.

10 Ibid., 246, 2nd pagination.

11 Ibid., 254, 2nd pagination.

12 Ibid., 255.

13 James Walker, The Theology and Theologians of Scotland 1560-1750, 1888 edition (Edinburgh, 1982), 108-9.

14 James Bannerman, The Church of Christ, 1:54-55.

15 Ibid., p. 57.