/ Barry York

The Nature of the Church's Marks

This past weekend, I joined together with my fellow RPTS professors and Dr. John Tweeddale from Reformation Bible College for our annual Westminster Conference. I loved sitting under them as they addressed subjects from our theme of "The Spirit Bearing Witness by and with the Word in Our Hearts." These messages will soon be available in audio form from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and featured later this fall in printed form in the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Journal.

In preparing for my own message, with the help of seventeenth century Geneva Reformer Francis Turretin, I went beyond the subject of interest that I have written about regarding the marks of the church. The book focuses on why the pure preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the faithful practice of church discipline were seen by the Reformers as what marked out the true church. In studying the development of the Spirit's role in preaching, I showed how Turretin not only confirmed what the marks of the church are, but what the nature of those marks must be. In his great work The Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Turretin discusses what qualities a mark or sign should have to reveal whether the invisible Spirit of God dwells among a group identifying themselves as a Christian church.

Turretin said a mark needed to be both “proper” (i.e. not a characteristic common to an object but formal and pronounced) and “somewhat known” (i.e. the mark cannot be of an intangible quality but must be able to be measured in some way). To locate the true, visible church, he taught that the invisible presence of God’s Spirit must be indicated not by mere probable or accidental adjunct signs. He called such signs eikota, meaning “merely appearing” or “seeming” to be associated. This word is where we get our word “icon” from.

Think of how an app on your smartphone is an icon – it is associated with the program but can be separated from it. For instance, you can put an app's icon on a piece of paper and tap it all you want, but it will not open the app. Some may even associate that icon with something unrelated to the program it represents. Similarly, some signs that may indicate the Spirit’s presence are merely probable, such as saying a place is a Christian church.  Merely saying a church is a church does not necessarily make it one, and thus is an eikota sign.

Rather, necessary and essential signs were needed, so Turretin used the Greek word tekmeria to define these signs. Tekmeria is a word indicating “demonstrative proofs” or “essential signs,” and they are of such essence of the thing signified that they are inseparable from it. He used examples such as smoke indicating fire, respiration proving life, or the rays of light from the sun to illustrate what he meant - the smoke, breathing, and rays are inseparable from their source.

He then applied this concept to the church. The internal, mystical, invisible church consisting of true believers is revealed in an external, visible, instituted way. How so? A true representative of the Reformed tradition, Turretin said that “the pure preaching of the word with lawful administration of the sacraments, to which some add the exercise of discipline and holiness of life or obedience given to the word" are those signs.

Yet Turretin made a sharp distinction between these signs or marks, for he upheld they had “different degrees of necessity.” He stated, “In the first degree of necessity is the pure preaching and profession of the word, since without it the church cannot exist.” He went on to teach that the presence of pure preaching of the Word of God is a sign tekmeria, because preaching cannot be present without the Spirit of God also being present.

Why? In John 14:23-24, Jesus said, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father's who sent me.” Where the word of God is kept, God the Father and God the Son through the Spirit of God dwell there. As Turretin states, “Where Christ dwells with the Father, there it cannot be denied that the true church is, since it is his house and temple.”

The conclusion drawn from Turretin's teaching? Just as the adage says, "Where there's smoke, there's fire," so we can say, "Where there's the true preaching of the Word of God, there the Spirit of God is also."

Barry York

Barry York

Sinner by Nature - Saved by Grace. Husband of Miriam - Grateful for Privilege. Father of Six - Blessed by God. President of RPTS - Serve with Thankfulness. Author - Hitting the Marks.

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