The Perpetuity of the Church

Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol 3 Some cults, sects, and schismatic groups believe and teach that the Christian church pretty much disappeared after the apostles died.  They also say that the church then came back with their group or leader.  For example, Mormonism teaches that Joseph Smith (d. 1844) “restored” the church after around 1800 years of darkness.  Alexander Campbell (d. 1866) also led a restoration movement in the United States in the early 19th Century.

However, the historic Christian and biblical teaching is that there always has been a people of God on earth – and there always will be.  Francis Turretin (d. 1687) summarized it this way:

“The orthodox with great unanimity teach that there always was and always will be on earth some church of Christ and that its perpetual existence is not contingent (so that it can altogether fail), but clearly necessary….”

Here are some biblical truths Turretin uses to support this historic Christian teaching (which I’ve edited for length).  The perpetuity of the church is proved:

1) Because it is the body of Christ (Eph. 1:23).  The body of Christ cannot be torn away from him and will last as long as even the head itself, which cannot exist without the body.  Christ has betrothed himself to the church and loves her with perpetual love; he will never leave her but rather perfect her and present her spotless to God (Eph. 5:26-27).

2) By the nature of the covenant of grace.  Since the covenant is eternal and will never be abrogated according to the sacred oracles (Is. 59:21; 61:8, Jer. 31:31-27, etc), it is necessary that the church, which is the other covenanted party, should perpetually continue.

3) From the nature of the divine promises.  God’s promises assure the perpetuity of his presence and grace to the church in the world, since Christ promises ‘to build his church upon a rock, and that the gates of hell shall not be able to prevail against it’ (Mt. 16:18).  Christ asserts that whatever the efforts of Satan to oppose the church, whatever the power of death and the grave, still they will never totally overthrow the church because it is built upon an eternal and immovable rock.  Christ said, ‘I am with you always, even to the end of the world’ (Mt. 28:20).

4) From the office of Christ the Mediator.  Christ’s mediatorial office is perpetual in three ways: a) as to his kingship and kingdom, which are eternal, b) as to his priesthood, since he is a priest forever, and c) as to his prophetic office, which includes calling and preserving his people by his word.

5) From the continual presence of the Holy Spirit.  Isaiah 59:21 is where God promises that his word and Spirit would not depart from his people.  Christ promised the same thing in John 14:16: ‘[the Father] will give you another Helper to be with you forever.’

6) From the experience of all ages.  It can be shown that both in the Old Testament and in the history since that God has always had a people on earth.  Neither the plague of Arianism nor the persecution of the Roman emperors wiped out the church.  It is evident that the church has not failed in the past, and it is fair to infer that the church will never perish in the future.

7) From the causes conserving the church.  Satan cannot conquer the church, because Christ has triumphed over Satan (Col. 2:15).  The world cannot destroy the church, because our faith is the victory that overcomes the world (1 Jn. 5:4).  The immutable purpose of God, the merit and intercession of Christ, the power and protection of the Holy Spirit are assurances that God will protect and keep his people on earth.

The teaching that Christ’s church disappeared for a time is an unbiblical, unchristian teaching that contradicts God’s decree, his love, Christ’s work as Savior, and the Spirit’s work as sanctifier and preserver.  Thankfully, Christ will even defend his church from being destroyed by heresy, as the hymn “The Church’s One Foundation” says:

The church shall never perish!
Her dear Lord to defend,
to guide, sustain, and cherish
is with her to the end;
Though there be those that hate her,
and false sons in her pale,
against or foe or traitor,
she ever shall prevail.

The above section of Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology can be found in volume 3, pages 42-46.

shane lems

19 Replies to “The Perpetuity of the Church”

  1. I agree with the premise of this article. The church has always and shall always exist.

    However, like the Mormons, we protestants date our beginning back to Luther and Calvin, do we not? That is when the gospel was “recovered” and the church was reformed and brought back to life, so to speak. I think Mormon theology is wrong on many levels, but calling it out for declaring that they have restored the church after “1800 years of darkness” is a kin to the pot calling the kettle black. Our Reformers are guilty of the same charge.

    I am curious where Turretin thought the church was prior to the Reformation? Where can we point to and say “there it is” or “Look, you can see it there? Who was the leader? Where did they gather, what did their gatherings consist of?

    We know that up until the great schism that divided the church, there was really only one church. After the schism we had the Catholic church in west and the Orthodox church in the east. Up until the reformation that was essentially it, as far as the church goes.


  2. Jim: thanks for the reply.

    The Reformers clearly understood the fact that there was a church before the Reformation (check out the citations in Calvin from the early church fathers and medieval theologians). Turretin also continually interacts with theologians that went before him and before the Reformation; he consistently proves his points first from Scripture then from the fathers. So I would dispute your claim that “our Reformers are guilty of the same charge.”

    Also, growing up in Reformed circles, I was always taught that the Christian church existed throughout history. My professors in seminary taught that as well. I’ve never heard a Reformed teacher/preacher say that the church didn’t exist between the apostles and the Reformation.

    There are no doubt Protestant Christians who might wonder where the church was before the Reformation. In confessional Reformed circles, however, we’ve always taught and believed that Christ’s church existed throughout history. This teaching is even in our confessions – see WCF chapter 25 for example.

    Thanks again,


    1. > The Reformers clearly understood the fact that there was a church before the Reformation (check out the citations in Calvin from the early church fathers and medieval theologians

      You completely right on this point. I think Calvin quotes Augustine over 400 times in the Institutes. He even boldly claimed “Augustine is so wholly with me, that if I wished to write a confession of my faith, I could do so with all fullness and satisfaction to myself out of his writings.”.

      The problem is…Clavin cherry-picks. There is a long, long, looooong list of issues were Calvin was certainly not in agreement with Augustine: Sacraments, Papacy, Purgatory, Relics, Saints, …

      However, not only did Calvin cherry-pick within an individual Father’s works, he also cherry-picked between Fathers. For example, Calvin completely rejected Ignatius of Antioch because of “the absurdities” he found in his letters.

      It gets even worse in that, not only did the Reformers find many things within the Fathers which they could not affirm, the Reformers also believed things which couldn’t be supported by the Fathers. For example, Alister McGrath, a Calvinist, concedes that Calvin’s views on forensic justification and imputed righteousness were “theological novum”. The issue of the canon is also rather tricky since the 66-book canon can’t be found in antiquity.

      Back to the original point, yes, some of the Reformers did go to great lengths to demonstrate that their version of the Faith was in accordance with that of the Early Church. However, I’d assert that they could only do that with some very careful quotation selection.

      It’s also worth noting that, although some of the Reformers saw continuity with the Early Church as important, not all did. This probably goes a long way to explain why most Protestants today know nothing of the Early Church and why the “Church History” sections in most Christian bookstores typically only begin at 16th Century.


  3. “In confessional Reformed circles, however, we’ve always taught and believed that Christ’s church existed throughout history.”

    HI Shane, Don’t misunderstand me, I have always believed this as well. My question is where did this church exist?. If it always existed, was it in the Catholic church or the Orthodox church or both? To me, that seems like a fair question. If we are going to argue that the church has always existed, our Orthodox and Catholic friends will nod in agreement. But they will point to themselves as being the church that always existed. That is a concrete, historically verifiable claim.

    As protestants, it seems to me that our claim is more elusive. At what point did the Catholic and Orthodox depart from the true church and where did the true church that has always existed remain?

    I admit we don’t think about these things much. However, if we can’t point to the “real church” down through history and say it was “there and over there and you can see it here” with real concrete examples, that is troubling. If we can’t point to it, then how can we say it was there?


    1. That their claim is verifiable is laughable. Both Orthodox and Catholic churches have evolved in seperate ways. Doesn’t the word ‘reformers’ mean anything to you? They were trying to reform the church that had been corrupted from both early church tradition and scripture not start a new one. Study church history. One is a christian and part of the church if you believe Jesus is Lord but both orthodox and catholics make it hard to do so alone adding things to the Gospel. It doesn’t mean one can’t saved in spite of these things, and that is where the church had been. Not to mention several other reform movements in middle ages that were just not as big like Gottschalk, Wycliffe, Hus, etc. Etc.


      1. Hi Trent,

        By verifiable I mean that we can look back through history and see where these expressions of the church were. In other words, they were not invisible. I am not saying that they were true church, but it is verifiable beyond question that they existed. Surely you are not arguing against that?

        I do understand the reformation and the what the word means. I don’t think the study of church history should start and end with with Luther.

        We claim that the real church, the true church has always existed. The question begs to be answered: where the heck the was it? We categorically reject the Orthodox and the Catholic expression of the church as authentic. We even call the pope the great Satan. So we won’t find it there.

        If we are claiming that the true church has always existed and at the same time that the true church did not exist in the Catholic or Orthodox versions of the church, where then did it exist? Did it have any leaders that we know of? Who were they? How were they different and how do we know that?

        It seems to me that we should be able to point to concrete examples. If we can’t, then I guess we just need to accept the statement of the reformers by faith.


      2. > That their claim is verifiable is laughable

        I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it. After all, there is an impressive list of former Protestant ministers and scholars down the years who converted to Catholicism after assessing these historical claims. In fact, “Discovering The Early Church Fathers” is so much a standard part of every conversion story, it’s practically cliche…

        > Both Orthodox and Catholic churches have evolved in seperate ways

        I’m not quite sure what that proves.

        > [The Reformers] were trying to reform the church that had been corrupted from both early church tradition and scripture not start a new one

        How early? Sixth Century? Third Century? When did this corruption happen?

        > One is a christian and part of the church if you believe Jesus is Lord but both orthodox and catholics make it hard to do so alone adding things to the Gospel

        What about if one denied Jesus’ deity? What about the Trinity? Are you still part of the Church? You mentioned Mormons – they claim that “Jesus is Lord” – are they included?

        > It doesn’t mean one can’t saved in spite of these things…

        So do you believe one can be saved even if one believes a false Gospel and practices idolatry, necromancy, works salvation…and all the other things the Reformers accused Rome?

        …and that is where the church had been

        I’m not clear – are you asserting here that “the church” throughout history has been the Catholic Church?


    2. Jim: I don’t have time to go in depth here, but during the middle ages there were teachers like Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, Gottschalk, Wyclif, Ratramnus, Hus, etc. It’s also worth considering the monasteries and universities. Just pick up any detailed church history book (i.e. Southern’s “The Middle Ages”) and you’ll see examples of the church in the Middle Ages. It may have been more or less pure throughout the ages, but the church never disappears!


      1. Hi Shane,

        Thanks for the response. It seems, by the people you cited as examples of leaders in the true church, that it consisted of those who had soteriological views that the Reformers would later embrace )although Gottschalk was denounced as a heretic more than once.) This makes sense to me, as Turretin was writing from that perspective.

        Still, it seems, that at best this True Church was largely invisible, and at worst non-existent or a something we just make up to strengthen our argument against the Catholic church. It shouldn’t require too much effort to point to where it was from the first century up until the reformation if it actually existed outside the false church.

        I think Restless offers a compelling question (actually several) which I have expanded: When did the church become so corrupt that it ceased to be the true church? That is another question that should be easy to answer for us.

        Thanks for a great discussion. Feel free to not answer these questions, because every answer will lead to more questions!


  4. Hi Shane,
    I think Jim has a point. You are quite right that no one officially teaches that the church didn’t exist between the NT and the Reformation; however, functionally, I think we can be guilty of that very thing. When I say “functionally,” I am referring to our praxis.

    Let me give a hypothetical example. Let’s say a controversy erupts in a local church over the doctrine of the Trinity. When the classis or presbytery convenes to discuss the question, who/what are the functional doctrinal authorities that they would tend to appeal to? Answer: authorities from the 16th-17th century. Nicea and Chalcedon would probably get a mention, but the theological discourse would likely be littered more with references to the Institutes (i.e., “Calvin says this about the Trinity…”) or the WCF. In some ways, this is inevitable and simply the result of being confessional. However, our practice and choice of authorities tells us something about how those particular authorities function in our world views at a gut-level. Social philosophers like Charles Taylor would call this our “social imaginary”—i.e., our below the surface shared conception of reality based on our stories and heroes. This imaginary is not necessarily at the level of careful intellectual synthesis, rather it is something simply assumed that drives our praxis. We “just know” that Calvin, Luther, Beza, and others are giants of theological virtue. Again, this is not necessarily bad; however, what it does at the level of practice is to suggest that we don’t know much about the church prior to the 16th century. I hasten to add once more that this does not mean that we don’t know at an intellectual level that the church existed prior to the 16th century.

    Is that clear? Do you see what I’m saying? Our practice sometimes suggests that we conceive of the 16th century as more of a repristination that we might want to admit. This then filters down to the average congregant as “prior to the Reformation the church was in darkness for 1400 years.”

    One way of combating this problem is to point to specific medieval theological trajectories as examples of the true church. So, for example, I’ve heard Carl Trueman comment that he traces the true church via Augustinian Trinitarianism through the middle ages. Another way is to remind people that it was the late middle ages that paved the way for Tetzel, et al. The deformation that the reformation sought to reverse was relatively new.


    1. > However, our practice and choice of authorities tells us something about how those particular authorities function in our world views at a gut-level.

      And if one’s own reading of Scripture departs from the authorities, it will typically involve a split and a new denomination being born. This has been the pattern ever since Luther and Zwingli couldn’t agree over the text “This is my body…”


    2. Thanks, Nevada, that makes sense; it is possible to overemphasize the Reformation at the expense of the church before the Reformation. Thankfully the Reformers did stand on the shoulders of those who went before them!


  5. If neither the Roman Catholic nor the Eastern Orthodox were true churches, where was the true church? This sounds as though you would have to agree with the book _The Pilgrim Church_ by E. H. Broadbent, a book beloved by many of the “Plymouth Brethren” with whom I was associated a few decades ago: the true church existed in very small sects that were being persecuted by the major Christian bodies; these “true churches” included some bodies which are generally regarded as heretical. For Broadbent, the Reformation did not solve the problem because the so-called “Protestant” bodies still persecuted the “true churches.”


      1. I meant anyone who holds that the church existed at all times yet denies the legitimacy of Catholic and/or Orthodox churches. If neither the Orthodox Church nor the Roman Catholic Church was the true church, where was that true church? Of *which* (pre-Reformation) church could it be said that “whoever does not have the Church for mother does not have God for Father” (Calvin, echoing St. Cyprian)? To *which* (pre-Reformation) church, apart from which there is no salvation, were all believers obligated to join themselves (Belgic Confession, Art. 28)?


        1. Alan: I see what you’re saying. Think about the term “reformation.” It was a reformation of the church. Back then it wasn’t typically called “the Roman Catholic Church” like we call it today. It was the church that Hus and Wyclif were part of the church that Anselm and Bernard were part of, the church that the Cappadocian fathers were part of, etc.
          Hope this helps!


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