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Bannerman’s The Church of Christ

Category Articles
Date February 12, 2018

This article was first given as a paper at the Free Presbyterian Theological Conference.

* * * 

These articles deal with a theological work which, more than any other, gives a comprehensive treatment of the whole field of ecclesiastical theology, from the Scottish Presbyterian position. It is James Bannerman’s treatise entitles The Church of Christ. A native of Perthshire, born in 1807, Bannerman was initially a minister in the old Established Church and played a fairly prominent part in the Evangelical Party before the Disruption, joining the Free Church at its foundation in 1843. Bannerman was widely regarded as an expert on ecclesiastical issues, Church history and Church law, and in 1849 was appointed to the chair of Apologetics and Pastoral Theology at New College, Edinburgh. He held this position until his death in 1868. He is recorded as having been a man of impressive bearing, with a commanding voice and a powerful intellect.

Bannerman also wrote a treatise on the doctrine of the plenary verbal inspiration of the Scriptures and helped to edit the four volumes of William Cunningham’s Works along with his New College colleague, James Buchanan. The Church of Christ, however, is his great legacy to theological literature. It compromises the course of lectures which he gave to fourth-year students in Pastoral Theology. It is arranged in four parts, dealing, first of all, with the nature of the Church itself; then with the power of the Church; thirdly, with the functions which the power of the Church is involved in, and finally, with the mode of governance of the Church. As we can see therefore, the bulk of the work is devoted to an analysis of the power Christ has vested in his Church, and we might say at the outset that Bannerman’s 1000-page discussion forms a very full and comprehensive analysis indeed.

Clearly, it would be far too much to endeavor to summarize all of Bannerman’s arguments in one paper. While the treatise has its own ‘grave and stately eloquence’, it is nevertheless dense, though Bannerman’s writing style is not quite as involved as the writings of his New College colleague, William Cunningham. Again, like many of Cunningham’s writings, Bannerman’s work deals largely with the principles rather than with detailed exegesis — that is, interpretation — of particular passage of Scripture. As Robert Candlish indicates in the Preface, the method adopted here is mostly a mapping out of the terrain for the students to explore for themselves by means of further reading and reflection. But in the places where Bannerman does handle particular parts of Scripture, his exegesis — like Cunningham’s — is masterly for penetration and balance.

We will therefore confine ourselves to considering some of the leading features of the work. The main emphasis will be on the first two sections, which deal respectively with the nature of the Church and the power of the Church. We will also highlight certain features of the Romish controversy, in light of the five-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation of the Church of Christ from the impurities of Popery.

Identity of the Church

By way of introduction, Bannerman notes that the Bible does not speak merely to individuals. Rather, it speaks very largely to the society of believers, who constitute one collective body. The existence of such a body of believers ‘is not an accidental or voluntary union which has grown up of itself’ but has been intended by God from the very beginning. ‘Without the existence of a Church, or of a body of believers, very much of what is contained in the Bible would be unintelligible, and without practical application.’ Two features stand out in the biblical descriptions of the Church: firstly, it is the body of Christ and, secondly, it is the earthly dwelling-place of the Spirit.1

What is meant in Scripture by the term Church? The Greek word, ecclesia, basically means an assembly gathered together from a multitude. It is similar to the Hebrew term translated congregation. In this case, the Church has been ‘called out’ from the world through the gospel  to the fellowship and worship of God. Five different but closely allied meanings of the term church  can be gathered from Scripture:

1. It is used to describe the whole body of the faithful: for example, Ephesians 5:25: ‘Christ loved the Church and gave himself for it.’ Christ’s promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church is ‘language which plainly refers to the society or association of all those who had believed or should believe in Him’ (p.7).

2. The name church may apply to the whole body throughout the world of those that outwardly profess the faith of Christ. ‘This outward society of professing Christians is frequently spoken of and delineated in Scripture under the term Church.’ It is spoken of in Acts when the Lord added to the Church daily such as should be saved; and in Corinthians and Ephesians, where lists of office-bearers are given, these officers being the ‘outward provision which God has made for the order and government and edification of the Church’. The figure of the vine indicates a ‘two-fold union’ to Christ, one with living, fruitful branches and the other ‘a dead or mere external union’ (pp. 9-11).

3. The term church may refer to a body of believers in any particular place, associated together in the worship of God. The New Testament contains abundant examples of particular gatherings of believers denominated as churches in their particular localities, even down to the smallest groups who met together in private houses.

4. The term church is given to a number of congregations associated together under a common government, for example, the Church at Jerusalem. Bannerman, following the Westminster Form of Presbyterial Church Government, holds that

no one building could have contained the many thousands of believers that crowded Jerusalem at the time, in the fullness of a Pentecostal harvest; not is it possible, except under the influence of some misleading theory, to believe that they formed no more than one congregation… When we read of the Church at Jerusalem, we find the term applied, not to a single congregation of believers, but to a plurality of congregations, connected together as one body of Church by means of a common government (p.14).

5. The body of professing believers in any place, as represented by their rulers and office-bearers, are called ‘the church’. In Matthew 18, there is recourse to ‘tell it to the Church’ in cases of offence where redress has not been obtained privately before two or three witnesses. This usage is rooted in Jewish Synagogue terminology and is thus employed ‘to denote the rulers or office-bearers of the Christian society’ (p.15).

From the first sense of the word — the whole body of the faithful — all the others are derived. The whole body of the faithful in every generation is the fundamental idea which underlies the whole biblical view of the Church. Of course, differences have emerged as to the validity of these descriptions of the Church. On the once hand, Romanists deny the invisible Church; while on the other hand, we have the Independents who tend to deny the doctrine of the visible Church. This shows the need to have the right understanding of what Scripture actually means by the word church (p.18).

It is very important to bear in mind that, while the invisible Church is the fundamental source of the idea of the Church, yet in studying ecclesiology we must largely deal with the visible Church — whether viewed as universal, local, under a shared government, or as represented by its office-bearers.

Now, the Church is a divine institution, originating with Christ, not with the man. It is neither a voluntary association (the Voluntary Theory) nor a creature of the state (the Erastian Theory). The Church of Christ is a spiritual institution; ‘in its primary character it is a spiritual instrumentality for working out the spiritual good of man’. The era of the New Testament Church therefore ‘is emphatically that of the manifestation of the Spirit’. Bannerman goes on:

In the Divine appointment of a spiritual society, distinct from and independent of the state, God has taught before our eyes the grand and vitally important lesson of the fundamental distinction between things civil and things spiritual; and has made provision that the Christian Church, His own appointment, shall never become either the tyrant or the slave of the kingdoms of men (pp. 26-29)

With regard to Church-state religions, Bannerman outlines the view that ‘an alliance can be formed between the two, without sacrificing on the one side or the other their independent character of public functions and on which it may be their duty to act in concert for the promotion of certain common ends’. While it is necessarily the duty of the state to recognize the true religion, since Christ is the Head over all things to the Church, he suggests that it is not so clear if it is the duty of the state to maintain or endow a particular Church at all times (pp. 103, 132-4). He points to the example of Christ before Pilate appealing to the claims of truth as the real warrant for the Church to demand recognition of its teaching and protection by the civil powers (pp.171-2). Furthermore, Bannerman often draws heavily on the writings of George Gillespie, whom he holds in the highest esteem as an ecclesiastical theologian. He argues, as Gillespie does, for the separate identities of Church and state in Israel under the Old Testament (pp.127-132).

Aspects of the Church

The Church in its twofold character as visible and invisible. These terms do not imply that there are two different Churches ‘but rather the same Church under two different characters’ (p.31). The invisible Church consists of the whole number of the elect; whereas the visible Church consists of all those who profess Christ, together with their children. There is a real distinction between them, but also a real connection (p.36).

Two important points must be borne in mind here: firstly, ‘the Church invisible stands, with respect to its members, in an inward and spiritual  relationship to Christ, whereas the Church visible stands to Him in an outward relation only’ (p.33). Bannerman goes on, ‘Admit that some external framework of privileges and ordinances has been erected by Christ around His own elect people in this world, and you are led directly to the idea of a visible society, distinguished from the invisible by the outward form which it bears, and the outward relation in which it stands to Christ’ (p.32).

The distinction between the visible Church and the invisible Church is very important if we would arrive at a correct understanding of the scriptural teaching regarding the Church. Great errors and confusion have arisen because of confounding the Bible’s statements on the Church by applying what refers to the invisible Church to the invisible Church and vice versa. Bannerman quotes German ecclesiastical historian Neander, to the effect that the fundamental error of both Cyprian and the Novatians, of Augustine as well as the Donatists, was confounding the notion of the invisible and visible Church (p.43).

The Church in ts twofold character as catholic and local. Both the invisible and the visible aspects of the Church share in the characteristics of being catholic and, at the same time, local. Catholic, of course, means ‘not confined to any place or people’ (p.46). It stands in contrast to the Old Testament Church in this respect, which was largely confined to the land and people of Israel. The universality of the invisible Church is through the universality of the one Spirit, embracing all true disciples of Christ everywhere. The New Testament Church is limited to no one country and has the great commission to make disciples of all nations. The unity of the invisible Church is the fact that the invisible Church consists of a binding into one of all to whom the Spirit has been given (p.47). It is local in that it exists everywhere that true disciples are found.

Now the visible Church is also catholic or universal. Whereas the bond of union in the invisible Church is the fellowship of the one Spirit embracing all, in the visible Church ‘the bond of union among its members is a common public profession, and an outward federal relationship to Christ’ (p.48). Differences in the visible Church because of distance, language, administration, ceremonies, and worship ‘is a separation accidental and not essential, and cannot affect the fact that higher unity belongs to them as knit together in one profession of faith in Chris, and included together in the bond of an external covenant’ (p.49).

Some important points arise from this. First of all, members and office-bearers of separate Churches are members and office-bearers in the universal Church of Christ on earth. Those who are familiar with James Durham’s commentary on Revelation may recall the emphasis that Durham lays upon this point in his essay on the relation of ministers to particular congregations.

Secondly, it follows that schism or causeless separation in the Church is a great evil. Christ intended the visible Church to be catholic and one; and indeed it would be one were it not for sinful infirmities of its members. Separation, nevertheless, may be a duty, and those who are thus compelled actually maintain, and do not infringe, the unity of the Church. To cause schism is to set ourselves against the will and desire of Christ.

Furthermore, we must bear in mind that the principles of unity in the invisible Church and visible Church are different; one is higher and spiritual while the other is external and formal. The Church of Rome, however, confuses the two and claims all for herself. Again, the visible Church can only approximately aim at the unity of the invisible Church as the ideal.

Christ promised that his Church will never cease to exist, despite every assault of the kingdom of darkness (Mt. 16:18). This perpetuity of the Church belongs to the Church universally and not to any local part of it; the Church may be less or more visible at some times and in some places than at others.

Likewise, Christ’s promise that the Holy Spirit (Jn, 16:13-14) would preserve the truth in the Church is a general one and does not belong exclusively to any particular branch of the Church. This indefectability of the Church from error applies to the Church universally and not to any local part of it. It is ‘one of the lying cheats practiced by the Church of Antichrist, first to transmute the promise of indefectability into that of infallibility, and then to appropriate it to itself’ (p.57).

In its relation to the world around it, the Church is to be Christ’s witness and not Christ’s substitute or vicar as we find in the Roman Catholic view. Bannerman quotes one Romanist theologian, Mohler, who goes as far as to assert that the Church is a ‘permanent incarnation’ of the Son of God. Picking up from this dreadful error, Bannerman warns us that the Church is not to be regarded as a substitute for the Spirit of God, but rather it is ordained by God to be the ‘instrument of the Spirit’, the outward means whereby supernatural grace is channeled in a spiritual manner to believers. The Roman doctrine of ex opere operato,2 he believes, is fruitful of some of Rome’s deadliest errors and makes the ordinances of Christ to become mere charms (pp.90-96).

We should briefly note that Bannerman held a distinct view on the actual marks of the Church. In contrast with the Reformers, such as Calvin and Knox, who held that the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of discipline were the three marks of a true Church, Bannerman contends that the only true mark of the Church is its bearing witness to the Truth. In contrast to the Roman Catholic view of the marks, he writes, ‘The Church was established for the sake of the truth and not the truth for the sake of the Church’ (p.64). All the other marks or notes of the Church flow from the profession of the truth. As an individual Christian is fundamentally distinguished by his profession of Christ, so likewise is the Church as a body. He holds this view because he maintains that a true Church may be found where defective administration of the sacraments and inadequate discipline exist. He prefers to think if these as indications of the well-being of the Church, rather than of its essential existence.

This article is taken from the January edition of the Free Presbyterian Magazine and has been reproduced with permission.


  1. J. Bannerman, The Church of Christ, Banner of Truth Trust, 2015 reprint, pp.1-3. Other references to this book are given in brackets in the body of the article.
  2. Literally ‘from the work, worked’. That is, the correct performance of a rite by a priest, in and of itself, conveys grace to the recipient.

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