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A Discourse concerning the Church in these Following Particulars:

I. Concerning the Visibility of the True Church.
II. Concerning the Church of Rome.
III. Concerning Protestant Churches.
IV. An Answer to this Question, Where was your Church before Luther?

by Robert Sanderson

London: R. Taylor, 1688.

THE word [CHURCH] hath, among others, these four special significations, being taken for,

First, The whole Company of God's Elect, actually made members of Christ by virtue of an inward effectual calling to faith and godliness. This we commonly call the Invisible Church, or the Church of God's Elect.

Secondly, The whole company of all those throughout the world, who by their doctrine and worship do outwardly make profession of the Name of Christ. This we call the Universal Visible Church; Or, the Catholick Christian Church.

Thirdly, Some particular, distinct, whether national, provincial or other greater or smaller part of the Universal. As we say; the Church of Rome, the Church of Corinth, the Church of England. This we call a Particular Visible Church.

Fourthly, By a synecdoche the bishops, pastors, and governors of particular Churches, lawfully authorized to represent the whole Church, whereof they are governors, as to some special intents. This we call a Church representative.

The word [TRUTH] applied to any subject, is taken either absolute, or respective.

Absolutely a thing is true, when it hath veritatem entis et essentiae; with all those essential things, that are requisite to the bare being and existence of it. Respectively, when over and above these essentials, it hath also such accidental conditions and qualities, as should make it perfect and commendably good.

A thing may be true in the first sense, and yet not true in the second but false. As a man may be a true man (animal rationale) and yet a false knave. A woman a true wife (nupta viro) and yet a false queen. A speech a true proposition (having subjectum praedicatum et copulam) and yet a false lie.

A True Church, according to the first sense and absolutely, is every Church that in her doctrine and worship professeth the Faith of Christ, whether soundly or corruptly. But in the second sense and respectively, that only is a true Church whose doctrine and worship is pure, at least in a good measure, from errors and superstitions. So as other Churches which either maintain heretical doctrines, or prescribe idolatrous worship, may be justly called, at least wise in comparison with this, and in this second sense, false Churches and not true.

A total and utter defection from the whole Faith of Christ, in doctrine and in worship, destroys the very Being of a Church, and maketh it no Church at all. But a defection from the purity of Faith, doth not take away the Being of a Church. It remains still a true Church absolutely, but only maketh it an impure and corrupt Church; and so far forth a false Church respectively.

Corruptions in doctrine and worship as they are greater or lesser, so they make a Church more or less false comparatively: and as they are imposed upon men with greater or lesser exaction, they do more or less justify; whether a separation from, or an opposition against, such a false Church, and in some cases enforce it.

When betwixt two Churches, differing in doctrine or worship, question is made; Whether of them is the true Church? It must be understood not in the first sense and absolutely (for so both are true, and (ergo) equally true Churches, for vero nihil verius) but respectively and comparatively and in the second sense, viz. Whether of them maintains the Doctrine, together with the worship, taught by Christ and his Apostles, in the greater measure of purity, and freer from error and superstition?

[VISIBILITY] as to our purpose, imports such a state of a thing, as wherein 'tis evident and discernable more or less by sensible marks; so as a man may infallibly know it thereby, and say; Here it is. Which visibility hath several degrees; and applied to the Church may be several ways considered.

First, A thing is visible in the highest degree, where it doth itself ferire oculos, as it were; and is so eminently and gloriously conspicuous, that a man (unless he wilfully shuts his eyes) cannot choose but see it. As the sun in the firmament is visible, when it shines forth in its greatest lustre at noon-day.

Secondly, In an inferior degree; when 'tis discernable even outwardly, but not at the first sight, or in any glorious splendor; but with due and serious and intent observation. As some stars in an over-cast evening to them that with a steadfast eye look for them.

Thirdly, And in a yet lower degree; when its not discernable outwardly, or at all, to any but those only who more nearly partake of it. As the light of a candle in a close private room, is visible to those only that be in the room.

In every of which degrees visibility applied to the Church and the members thereof, may be considered in a fourfold respect.

First, Of the Men themselves.

Secondly, Of their general Profession of Christianity.

Thirdly, Of their particular different Tenets from other Men or Churches.

Fourthly, Of the truth of their particular Tenets.


First, the Church in the first and most proper signification, viz. the Church of God's elect, is wholly and altogether invisible. But of this the present question is not.

Secondly, The Universal Christian Church upon Earth hath never failed from the whole Faith, nor ever shall fail to the world's end, in such sort but that still in some part or other of it, it hath been, is, and shall be visible more or less, and that externally in the first or second degree of visibility; both in the first and second respects.

Thirdly, Whence it follows; that understanding Truth in the first sense, there never hath wanted, doth or shall want upon Earth, a true and distinct particular Church, in some place or other externally visible, more or less in the degrees and respects above specified.

Fourthly, Every particular visible Church may fail, not only from the purity of Faith, but also from the whole Faith itself; and so may cease to be a true Christian Church, even so much as in the first sense; and may become no Church.

Fifthly, The Universal Christian Church (consisting of all particular visible Churches together and at once) may by the prevailing of heresy and idolatry, be brought to such a general defection in the outward face of it, though not from the whole Faith, yet from the purity of Faith both in doctrine and worship, that for a long time together there may not be found upon Earth (taking Church in the second sense) any true particular Church visibly distinct from the rest, by their outward Freedom from the common corruptions; so much as in the second much less in the first degree of visibility; either in the third or fourth respects. And this is that part of the Church especially under Antichrist.

Sixthly, That even in the times of the greatest and most general defection, there have been always particular men (and those eminent either for number, place, learning or godliness) who though living in the midst of corrupt Churches, and in the communion and visible profession thereof, have yet according to the measure of their grace and knowledge, and the exigency of times and occasions, either

First, Openly resisted the errors, superstitions and corruptions of their times; Or secondly, noted the corruptions as they grew and complained of them, and desired reformation; Or thirdly, In private dissented from them in the explication of the most dangerous doctrines, and kept themselves free from the foulest corruptions, though carried with the stream of the common apostasy to embrace the rest. Whereof we are to presume they repented either, explicitly, if God gave them to see their errors; or at least wise implicitly, in the mass of their ignorant and unknown sins.

Seventhly, Although such particular men were not always so locally and generally separated from the rest, as to make a visible distinct particular Church by themselves in the first degree of visibility; yet in these men did the succession of the true Church (taking it comparatively and in the second sense) especially consist, and the visibility of it continue in the time of universal defection. In which men the true Church continues visible always, and perpetually, without interruption; and that ever in the fourth respect, viz. in regard of the acknowledged Truth of their doctrine; in the third degree of visibility viz. in an inward estate and to themselves; and sometimes also (though perhaps not always) visible externally, and to their very enemies more or less, in the second degree of visibility, and in the three first respects.

Concerning the Church of Rome.

THE Church of Rome or Roman Church is taken in a threefold latitude.

First, Respectively to the place; for that Church which is in the city, or territory, or Diocese of Rome. As we say the Church of Geneva, or the Church of Venice. And so St. Paul wrote an epistle to the Church of Rome, as he did to the Churches of Corinth, Ephesus and other particular cities.

Secondly, Respectively to the state of the Empire, for the whole Latin or Western Churches, as they are distinguished from the Greek and Eastern Churches, and from the African and Southern Churches. Because by reason of the Empire, these Churches had a nearer communion among themselves than with other Churches; and acknowledge the Bishop of Rome as primae sedis Episcopum; or the Patriarch of the West; as other bishops were of the Greek, Asian, and African Churches.

Thirdly, Respectively to the Faith; for all particular Churches aggregatim, that acknowledge subjection to the present See of Rome; and entirely communicate with that Church in the present doctrine and worship of it; and namely, and especially, as to our purpose, as 'tis comprised in the Council of Trent.

In which last sense taking the Church of Rome, it may be considered either;

First, Materialiter, as 'tis a Church professing the Faith of Christ; as we also do in the common points of agreement.

Secondly, Formaliter and in regard of that we call Popery viz. the point of difference, whether concerning the doctrine or worship; wherein we charge her to have added to the substance of Faith her own inventions.

Thirdly, Conjunction pro toto aggregato, taking both together. As in any unfound Body; we may consider the body by itself; the disease by itself; and the body and the disease both together, as they make a diseased body.


First, the Church of Rome (which of the three ways soever taken) is not the Universal Christian Church, but only a part thereof, or a particular Church, or Churches.

Secondly, The Church of Rome ever since the first plantation of it hath continued a true Church, taking Truth in the first sense; and considering the Church of Rome materially as it is a Church. But so hath the Church of England also, and many other Churches.

Thirdly, The Church of Rome hath no special promise or privilege, above other Particular Churches, of immunity from falling; either from the purity of Faith, or the whole Faith itself.

Fourthly, The Church of Rome which way soever taken, hath long since failed from the purity of Faith, both in the doctrine and worship of it. And so considered formally, in regard of those points which are properly of Popery, is become a false and corrupt Church; and is indeed an Antichristian synagogue, and not a true Christian Church; taking Truth in the second Sense.

Fifthly, The doctrinal errors of the Church of Rome, do not directly and immediately overthrow the foundation of Faith, as the heresy of the Arian Churches did, but mediately and by necessary consequence they do. As in the points of merits, Mass, Transubstantiation, &c.

Sixthly, The bare teaching, even ex CathedrĂ¢, of the doctrinal errors of the Church of Rome (in as much as they do not overthrow the foundation, but ex consequenti and indirectly) is not enough of itself alone to enforce or justify an outward separation from her; But the imposing these errors upon the consciences of men, to be believed as of necessity, is damnable. And doth not only justify a separation already made, but also bindeth sub Mortali all true Christians to such a separation.

Seventhly, The worship required and performed in the Church of Rome, is in most things superstitious; and in some lately idolatrous: and such as wherein a good Christian cannot lawfully communicate with her.

So as if there were nothing else, yet her idolatry were enough to justify and enforce such a separation.

Concerning Protestant Churches.

BY the Protestant Churches we understand those visible Particular Churches, which having by an external separation freed themselves from the tyranny and idolatry of Popery, have more or less reformed the doctrine and worship from Popish corruptions, and restored them more or less to the ancient and primitive purity.

Now such Churches may be considered either materially or formally.

First, materially. When we consider those Churches, to whom it happens thus to be reformed, barely and precisely as local and Particular visible Churches; without respect had to their present reformed, or former corrupt estate, or to the substance of their Faith. As when we say, the Church of England, the Church of Denmark. the Church of Saxony, &c.

Secondly, formally. The Protestant Churches may again be considered two ways, in respect of a two-fold form.

First, an outward and accidental form. Secondly, An inward and, as it were, essential form.

The inward form ever giveth Esse, but the outward often giveth Nomen. The outward form is barely the state of reformation, which supposeth another former estate of deformity or corruption; out of which respect, they have the name and title of Protestant and reformed Churches. But the inward form is the substance of their Faith thus reformed, in their doctrine and worship, from the corruptions wherewith Popery had infected it.

Which substance of Faith in the Protestant Churches, may be considered differently in the positive points of their Faith and in the negative. The positive points, or affirmative articles of our Christian Faith, are they which make us true Christian Churches. For in our positive we teach the ancient Faith of Christ, and his Apostles, and the primitive Church. And in our negative, we reject the innovations and corruptions of latter times.

To the question then, Where our Church was before Luther?

I answer:

First, Taking our Protestant Churches materially, as namely the Church of England, it was where it is, viz. in England. Where by the great mercy of God, it hath continued a visible Christian Church from the first plantation of it, by Apostles, or apostolical men, without interruption (though not always without error and corruption) unto this day. And herein it need not yield to the very Church of Rome itself; or to any other Church under Heaven.

Secondly, Taking the Protestant Church formally, in respect of the substance of Faith, the professors of it have been in some degree or other visible, as well before Luther as since. But yet differently in the affirmatives and in the negatives of our Faith.

Thirdly, Taking the Protestant Church Formally, in respect of the outward Form, viz. as under the state of Reformation; we will freely confess; There was no such Reformed or Protestant Church before Luther as now there is. For a Church could not be said to be reformed till it was deformed. No more than a man can be said to be stripped of a motley coat, before he had it on.

Fourthly, the Protestant Church for substance of Faith in the affirmative doctrine, hath continued visibly from Christ and his Apostles without interruption, as well before as since Luther; according to the tenor of our second and third theses. In which our adversaries and we agree; witness the articles of our Church.

Fifthly, the substance of Faith, as concerning the worship, maintained and practiced in the Protestant Church of England, hath continued visible in like manner in all ages; as well before as since Luther. Witness our Service-Book; wherein our adversaries themselves are not able to except against anything contained. Only they complain of some defects. But that belongs not to the affirmatives, but to the negatives of our Faith.

Sixthly, the negative tenets of our Protestant Church, wherein she renounceth the errors and idolatries of the Romish (for so much as they are negatives) are not capable of a visible profession, in such sort as affirmatives are. Yet thus far our Church was visible in respect of these negatives before Luther, viz. In the primitive times, for the first six hundred years especially, and some other ages after also, all Orthodoxal Particular Churches were visible professors of our Faith. In as much as in their writings, where we were affirmative, they were affirmative also. Where we are negative, they are either negative or doubtful, or divided, or silent. Which very silence is enough to make them ours as to this intent. For who can expect they should purposely confute those errors, which were (many of them) not so much as thought on in their times.

Seventhly, In succeeding times, when errors and superstitions began to grow to some head (through the factions of princes, the pride of the clergy, and the common ignorance of the times.) As namely, about the year 900, and thenceforth till the times of Luther, our Protestant Church was not visibly distinct from the corrupt Romish (according to the tenor of our fifth thesis) but mingled with it. Yet it had thus far forth visible professors; That there were in every age before Luther, some whose names and opinions, have been by God's good Providence preserved in histories and records (notwithstanding the indirect endeavors of the adversaries to root out the memory of them) who complained of the corruptions, and contradicted the doctrines and abuses of Popery, some in one point, and some in another; some in most of all those points wherein we now dissent; and that in such degrees and respects of visibility, as we have declared in our sixth and seventh theses.

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