Herman Bavinck’s discussion of ecclesiology is, in my opinion, one of the best Reformed treatments of this doctrine available in English. Since I am presbyterian in my ecclesiology, I appreciate Bavinck’s robust and biblical view of the church: its spiritual essence, spiritual government, spiritual power, and so forth. I also like how he appealed to the post-reformation context to discuss the true/false church distinction that the Belgic Confession speaks of in article 29. Bavinck (in IV.315-16) mentions how Calvin and other reformers taught that there is no perfectly pure church. Therefore, when we say “true church” we don’t mean “perfectly pure church.” He explains how the post-reformation teachers wrestled through this.
“On the one hand, one had to admit that a true church in an absolute sense is impossible here on earth; there is not a single church that completely and in all its parts, in doctrine and in life, in the ministry of the Word and sacrament, meets the demand of God. On the other hand, it also became clear that an absolutely false church cannot possibly exist, for in that case it would no longer be a church at all.”
Even though Rome was a false church insofar as it was papal, nevertheless there were many remnants of the true church left in it. There was a difference, therefore, between a true church and a pure church. ‘True church’ became the term, not for one church to the exclusion of all others, but for an array of churches that still upheld the fundamental articles of Christian faith but for the rest differed a great deal from each other in degrees of purity. And ‘false church’ became the term for the hierarchical power of superstition or belief that set itself up in local churches and accorded itself and its ordinances more authority than the Word of God” (p. 315-316).
Well stated. In the post-reformation context, there were true churches whose doctrine was more or less pure. These churches were true because they upheld the fundamental articles of the faith as they displayed the three marks (word, sacrament, discipline). False churches were those that denied fundamental articles of the faith by subverting the authority of the Word (this is where the reformers discussed Rome and anabaptistic sects).
I think Bavinck is right here, and I also believe that a proper reading of the Belgic Confession of Faith article 29 is the Westminster Confession of Faith’s application of this teaching. WCF 25.4 explains how local churches that are part of the church catholic [universal] “are more or less pure.” In other words, and in summary, “true church” doesn’t mean “most pure church;” it means churches that uphold – more or less purely – the fundamentals of the faith displayed in the three marks.
(For more from Bavinck on this, see a previous post of mine.)