Did the reformers believe that Christ's church was visible?
Reformers on the visible church?
Did the reformers believe that Christ's Church was visible?
The short answer is that some did.
John Calvin held a high view of the visible church on earth.
Often when we think about the Protestant Reformation, we think of doctrines such as justification by faith alone and the final authority of Scripture. These doctrines were repeatedly emphasized by the Reformers. What we may forget, however, is the doctrine about the church itself. For the Reformers, there could be no reform of the church without a return to a biblical understanding of the nature, mission, and marks of the church.
Reformers such as John Calvin retained a high view of the visible church - the institution consisting of those who have professed faith and their covenant children. Calvin frequently referred to the visible church as “our mother” because God brings us to spiritual life and cares for us through the visible church. Calvin did not mean that the visible church automatically conveys life and nurture; rather, since the church administers the Word and sacraments—the means through which the gospel comes to us - God ordinarily works through the church’s ministry to save and sustain His people. Our Lord remains sovereign—He does not save everyone who attends to the church’s ministry.
In any case, Reformers such as Calvin maintained that membership in the visible church, while essential, is insufficient for salvation. One must also be a member of the invisible church, which consists of all those who possess true faith in Christ. It is called the invisible church because we cannot see the hearts of the people in the pews next to us; only the Lord can. It is invisible to us, not to God. People can fall out of the visible church, as John says in today’s passage, but not out of the invisible church, for God preserves its members forever (Rom. 8:28–30). - The Church We Cannot See
More on John Calvin’s thoughts on the doctrine of the true visible church may be seen here: In Search of the True Visible Church: Historical and Theological Considerations
Both Martin Luther and John Calvin believed in the visible church established by Christie’s held viewpoint somewhat differently.
The Church as Invisible and Visible
Luther believed that the question of whether or not a Church was authentic stood or fell on the question of whether or not they assented to the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone which he considered to be the centre of the Christian Gospel. For Martin Luther the Gospel is enough to sufficiently identify the true visible Church. The true Church is inextricable from the Christian Gospel; neither can exist without the other. In fact he believed that the Church itself was the creation of the Word alone. For Luther where the Gospel is preached there is true faith, and where true faith exists then so does the one true Church, the bride of Christ, and where the bride of Christ exists then so are those individuals who are betrothed to Christ. Though there are secondary marks of the true Church, the recognition of the Gospel is primary in Luther’s thought. For Luther it was far more important to hold the same faith as the Apostles than to be a member of an institution which was historically derived from them. For Luther it was this faith that is the Christological centre of the one true Holy Catholic Church, the centre which gives the Church its identity. Luther attacked the Roman Catholic Church for their insistence on human tradition and asserted that it is the true faith which identifies the true Church. For Luther all other things are secondary and expendable while the Gospel is primary and needful. He was only willing to sacrifice the visible unity of the Church, if by doing so he would save the Gospel which was the centre of the very identity of the Church. Luther’s reform movement sought to reestablish the Church on the redemptive actions of God rather than on human merit and organizations.
Calvin’s assertion of the marks of the true Church is very similar to Luther’s. For Calvin the presence of the Word of God and the Sacraments were the essential marks by which the true Church was to be known. In Calvin’s thought the true visible Church is to be found where the Word of God is preached and the Sacraments are administered in accords with the Holy Scriptures. But for Calvin the Word of God took on a different meaning to that given to it by Luther. For Luther the phrase meant the gospel, while for Calvin it took on the broader meaning of correct doctrine and proper Church order. However, Calvin would, if pressed, lay down properly constituted Church order and the Sacraments and would retreat to the Gospel alone as the true mark of the Church. Calvin’s doctrine of the Church and its marks is continuous with Luther’s doctrine. Both reformers shared the conviction that the Gospel was the central and decisive factor in marking the presence of the true Christian Church. - The ecclesiology of the Magisterial reformers: A Study of the View of the Church and its Mission that was held by Martin Luther and John Calvin