In the Scripture, the word “Church” has two main meanings, apart from others; one of which means the congregation of all the saints and true believers, who really believe in Christ the Head and are sanctified by his Spirit. This is the living and truly holy mystical body of Christ, but known only to God, who alone understands the hearts of men. The second meaning is that of the congregation of all who are baptised in Christ, who have not openly denied him nor been lawfully and by his Word excommunicated. This meaning of “Church” corresponds to its status in this life in that in it the good are mixed with the evil.
– Archbishop Thomas Cranmer: Thirteen Articles
A Brief Summary of the Distinction between the Visible and Invisible Church
I think it will be useful to have a brief discussion on the purpose of excommunication as explained by Rev. C.H. Davis’s commentaries and notes on the English Church Canons of 1604 and how it expresses the Protestant understanding of the Two Kingdoms. But before we can do that we naturally need a proper understanding of what the distinction between the visible and invisible Church consists of.
Cranmer in his unpublished article above has given one such succinct summary. The invisible Church is essentially the true communion and fellowship of the saints from the heart in faith and true holiness but whose membership is known solely to God who alone is privy to the secrets of the hearts of man. The visible Church by contrast is composed of those who are outwardly baptised, have not openly denied Christ, and who have not been “lawfully and by God’s word excommunicated”.
We need to be clear as such that there is a basic distinction between being members of invisible Church, the true communion of saints, and being members of the visible Church. Therefore, as we shall see later in our study of excommunication in the 1604 canons, the church institutions, canons, etc, are not meant to identify the members of the Kingdom of God. As such, their purpose is not to tell us who is and is not saved; this should be pretty obvious from the premise that only God alone is privy to the hearts of men and only he knows who is in heaven’s electoral roll. Rather, the canons and institutions have other purposes than that of registering, or de-registering, heaven’s membership, purposes which are prudential and pragmatic, rather than as a means of identifying heaven’s elect.
Rev Davis on the Purpose of Excommunication
The English Canons of 1604 begins with a couple of canons which contains the ending formula of “let him be excommunicated ipso facto” after spelling out the prohibited action. Rev. Davis gives the following analysis of the canons of excommunication:
It is also to be observed that the sentence is not that all such shall certainly be excommunicated, but only that they deserve it—that it is right for the authorities of the Church to excommunicate them : — “let” them “be” so. And they are not to be treated as “excommunicate” persons, until they are actually excommunicated. For, as Archdeacon Sharp observes : “They are laid under this censure here as being excommunicated ipso facto in the Canons under the first title; but, till a sentence hath passed upon them, this discipline of repelling will not reach them.” (Charge vi., p. 104.) So that, as has been observed, the import of these Canons is, that “the Church has a right to excommunicate any person who boldly and publicly affirms the Articles, Liturgy, &c, to be superstitious and erroneous.” (The late Rev. C. R. Elrington, D.D., Regius Professor of Divinity at Trinity College, Dublin.) Upon ipso facto excommunication it has been remarked : “The ipso facto excommunication takes effect, as to the intention of the Canon, from the moment that the fact is committed. It has not a legal effect till a sentence has been pronounced in court. The man who commits the fact, knowing the Canon, is excommunicated in his own conscience from that moment forward. If he be brought into a spiritual court, and it be proved against him, he is not excommunicated then, but pronounced to have been excommunicated from the time of his offence. The court does not excommunicate him, but the Canon. The effect of this method of excommunication is, that he is prevented from anticipating his sentence by a profession of penitence and submission. For the rule anciently was that no one should be excommunicated, except he were obstinate as well as criminous.
Let’s look at this first from the point of view of the visible Church.
Publicly, as far as the visible Church is concerned, the canons do not automatically excommunicate anyone publicly . The canons of excommunication only provides a course of action, as it were, by the authorities of the Church, to begin excommunication proceedings. But until such proceedings are initiated and terminates in a sentence of excommunication passed by a spiritual court, a person is not to be considered excommunicate and the canons of excommunication has actual no “legal effect”. The reason stated by Davis is the ancient rule that an opportunity should be given to the person who has erred against the canons to be confronted with his sin and to repent, and thus avoid the need for a formal pronouncement of excommunication.
So what we have here is what happens on the visible plane in that, as far as the visible Church is concerned, the decision to initiate excommunication proceedings is subject to the prudential judgement of the authorities of the Church with an eye to pastoral considerations as to how best one can bring about repentance, balanced against other desirable visible public effects. Excommunication, as such, is only a matter of last resort in that only those who were obstinate and recalcitrant were to be excommunicated and for other utilitarian public benefits, e.g. to avoid scandal to the church, to deter others from following the examples of notorious sinners and causing them to become stumbling blocks to weak consciences, etc. However, one must note well the prudential and pragmatic ends for initiating public excommunication proceedings. One can think of it as a balance between making available opportunities to persuade repentance in the erring by keeping him in the fellowship of the church against that of the risk of scandal and wounding of weak consciences in so keeping such a person in the church. However, these prudential balancing considerations in deciding whether to begin excommunication proceedings are not meant to identify the elect, the saved, or who are truly members of the Kingdom of God. The electoral roll is not determined by any ecclesiastical court but by the all-seeing eye of God alone.
This consideration is strengthened by the point made by Davis that even when the sentence of excommunication is pronounced by a spiritual court, the excommunicate is considered to have been excommunicated from the moment the offence is committed and not by the spiritual court. All the ecclesiastical court does is to publicly declare the excommunication after the fact. However, the erring is “who commits the fact, knowing the Canon, is excommunicated in his own conscience from that moment forward.” Thus on the invisible plane, as far as the spiritual communion of saints which dwells in the hearts, conscience and faith of men is concerned, whether or not one is “excommunicated” from the Kingdom of God simply occurs “automatically” when someone sins against God by denying some revealed truth or defying some revealed will of God, of which the canons claim to be expressions thereof. In short, God, knowing the conscience and hearts of man, can “excommunicate” someone automatically when they sin against him, and God doesn’t need a spiritual court for him to keep track of his heavenly registry. What the authorities of the Church can do is to use whatever fallible and visible information is at their disposal to judge the appropriate course of action with regards the erring, or at least, those who appear to be erring, and then to investigate and declare someone excommunicate when they judge that there are various public benefits to be had from doing so.
So to put it very simply, God can keep track of his electoral roll and cut off people from the spiritual fellowship and/or other spiritual benefits on his own initiative. What the visible church authorities do on the other hand is to use their own prudential judgement to decide best how to handle those who appear to be erring and balance tolerance of such in hopes of opportunities for repentance against that of scandalising the conscience of others.
Conclusion: Contra Visible Church Institutions as “Identity”
It is fundamental to the Protestant Two Kingdoms approach to the question of the visible Church that one affirms a basic distinction between the Kingdom of God which is the Communion of Saints, and membership in the Visible Church. By no means ought we argue for any identification, or even convergence, between the Kingdom of God and the visible church and its institutions. Our participation in the Kingdom of God and communion of saints is determined by faith, charity and hope, which dwells in the heart and conscience, known only to God alone, although necessarily accompanied by fallible and visible external acts and professions subject to all kinds of imperfections and even sins.
As such, there can be absolutely no hint of the idea that the things of the visible Church, whether it be liturgies, canons or clerics, as sources of identity to determine who or what we are in the eyes of God. These visible institutions are no doubt to be maintained, but for prudential causes and reasons of utility, spiritual, pastoral and public benefit. What they are not for is to give oneself a sense of being saved, or worse, to justify oneself before God by virtue of identifying oneself as part of some One True Church of the elect.
Since sentences of excommunication are a prudential matter, and not one identifying the registry of the saved, the fact that different clerics, churches and denomination, can differ in their judgement on who to accept or excommunicate is simply a prudential matter and has no effect whatsoever on the true communion of saints. Some decisions to excommunicate, or reconcile and tolerant, maybe wiser, or more foolish, than others. But fundamentally though such judgements may have various pastoral effects, nothing critical in the end hinges upon such prudential judgements made by our fallible reason and discernment and the visible Church can in fact tolerate a lot of “foolishness” here when it comes to such judgements and decisions.
This is as such an unashamedly “low church” view of ecclesiastical institutions. The point being that ultimately our justification, being right with God, assurance, etc, are rooted in faith alone in Christ’s atoning work for us alone, not in some visible ecclesiastical community claiming to be the very Kingdom of God itself and whose institutional acts determine our membership in the Kingdom of God.