In the Reformation, the doctrine of the distinction between the visible and invisible church was important in the Reformers' claim not to have started a rogue church. I am wondering...

  • Given that it was common for the Reformers to use the Patristics, did they reference any of the early church fathers on this question? More generally, did the early church fathers speak on it?
  • How did they relate this doctrine to the concept of the remnant in the Old Testament?

(I'm looking for actual quotes from church fathers, Reformers, confessional documents, etc.)

  • You might try Augustine's City of God... Commented Apr 7, 2012 at 23:49
  • @JonEricson I thought about that. It's over a year and a half since I read it...
    – Kazark
    Commented Apr 7, 2012 at 23:55

3 Answers 3


I'm not sure if this is precisely what you are looking for, but your question immediately reminded me of Augustine's City of God:

Chapter 35.—Of the Sons of the Church Who are Hidden Among the Wicked, and of False Christians Within the Church.

Let these and similar answers (if any fuller and fitter answers can be found) be given to their enemies by the redeemed family of the Lord Christ, and by the pilgrim city of King Christ. But let this city bear in mind, that among her enemies lie hid those who are destined to be fellow-citizens, that she may not think it a fruitless labor to bear what they inflict as enemies until they become confessors of the faith. So, too, as long as she is a stranger in the world, the city of God has in her communion, and bound to her by the sacraments, some who shall not eternally dwell in the lot of the saints. Of these, some are not now recognized; others declare themselves, and do not hesitate to make common cause with our enemies in murmuring against God, whose sacramental badge they wear. These men you may to-day see thronging the churches with us, to-morrow crowding the theatres with the godless. But we have the less reason to despair of the reclamation even of such persons, if among our most declared enemies there are now some, unknown to themselves, who are destined to become our friends. In truth, these two cities are entangled together in this world, and intermixed until the last judgment effects their separation. I now proceed to speak, as God shall help me, of the rise, progress, and end of these two cities; and what I write, I write for the glory of the city of God, that, being placed in comparison with the other, it may shine with a brighter lustre.

I've emphasized several phrases that say:

  • Some of the elect are currently enemies of the Church,
  • Some within the Church are not among the elect, and
  • The Church and the World are currently intermingled.

It's not exactly the case that false Christians are "invisible"—Augustine notes that they may be found in the theaters with the godless. (Augustine had a very low opinion of theaters at that time. We could probably stand to be more critical of our entertainment choices in this day as my grandmother would have been quick to remind me.)

  • +1 So though he did not use the same terms, he held the same doctrine.
    – Kazark
    Commented Apr 24, 2012 at 19:05

There is only talk of 'Church Militant' and 'Church Triumphant'. The Triumphant Church is those who are glorified and live with God, known and unknown, and is usually invisible (but not always, as the lives of the Saints attest.) The Church Militant is those struggling or 'working out their salvation with fear and trembling' in the world.

To my knowledge, the newer distinction had to be made as part and parcel of rejecting the most clear 'visible' Church Militant to the Reformers: The Roman Church.

  • +1 Thanks. Do you have some references for that?
    – Kazark
    Commented Apr 12, 2012 at 20:54
  • orthodoxwiki.org/Ecclesiology has some good starting points. Search ccel.org for more.
    – user304
    Commented Apr 12, 2012 at 20:56

Since the idea of an invisible church didn't come up before the Protestant rejection St Francis de Sales answered it first in the Catholic Controversy showing the apostles knew not of any invisible church.

  • Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Commented Feb 16, 2022 at 2:13
  • the ignorant bot can't read as both author and title of the reference are included. Suggest killing this bot permanently. Commented Jul 5, 2022 at 17:36
  • @JamesRinkevich A link to an online site that has the information that you mention would aid in the "others can confirm that your answer is correct".
    – agarza
    Commented Jul 5, 2022 at 18:49
  • archive.org/details/catholiccontrove00sain is the archive of the book. Commented May 24, 2023 at 22:17

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .