The Holy Catholic Church (HCC #1)

In many traditional discussions of the church, a host of definitional distinctions are brought out right away: the church invisible vs. visible; triumphant vs. militant; representational vs. lay; and so forth. All of these distinctions have their place, and in their place are very important. Here, however, I propose to start with the primary lexical meaning of the Hebrew qahal or Greek ekklesia as “the called,” which, in the biblical context, connotes a people called out of the sinful mass of humanity to be the people of God, to worship him in truth, and be constituted as the corporate body identified with the living and true God.

The Western form of the Nicene (or for the hyper-fastidious: the Niceno-Constantinopolitan) Creed includes the phrase “[Credo…] unam sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam.” The preposition “in” should not be inserted (i.e. it is not “I believe in the church”) according to the best authorities, see e.g. Calvin IV.1.2. The meaning is also not as if to say, “I believe any proposition spoken by the church.” Nor is it to say, “I trust the church”– that would require the dative case. Since the Latin form of the creed changed the original Greek from first person plural (pisteuomon, we believe) to singular (credo, I believe), thus emphasizing the responsibility of each individual to speak the creed with heartfelt, personal sincerity, I suggest the force of our phrase under consideration is confessional or proclamational, as if to say, “these are things I confess, announce, proclaim to be true.” Thus, I would render the force of the expression something like “I confess the existence of one holy catholic and apostolic church.”

I wish to put a stake in the ground with the primary, simple, central, core meaning of the thing – the church – as well as those of its attributes affirmed in the Creed: one, holy, catholic, apostolic. Then, by reflection, all of these will be expanded out into their implied meanings. I will track the “hermeneutical circle” on this subject, which means that to seek refined meaning, one must already know, basically, what something means. Thus, initially I will not stake out every possible connotation or accretion of meaning. Some possible implications will at the outset be bracketed, or treated without prejudice as to validity or truth. For example, I will at first regard a theme like “apostolic succession of bishops” as neither affirmed nor denied. This, and many other themes will be unpacked and examined in due time.


The holiness of the church refers to its separateness from the world. It is thus correlative to the church being called out of the world: its status as qahal, ekklesia. Fundamentally, the weighty otherness of God over against all of creation is the root of holiness. Men partake of this attribute by virtue of being associated with the holy God.

This is a great topic, and worthy of a series of its own.

For the purposes of this series, it perhaps only remains to note that the holiness of the church does not imply her infallibility or her freedom from all sin. An apostolic leader, Peter, needed to be rebuked publicly at one point; how much more the rest of us. There is safety in the church because our Lord promised the presence of his Spirit; but this no more guarantees perfection than the fact that the individual Christian’s body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19) guarantees it, in this life, to the individual.

Though in one sense the holiness of the church is everything, being, as it is, involved with the presence of God, which is the telos of human existence, it will be a tacit assumption for most of the discussion that will ensue. My focus in this series will be the constitutive question: how is one part of this catholic and apostolic church that is holy? what does being part of it imply?

One church, one catholic church

The oneness implies singularity: there is no other way to God than through Christ, and the Church is his one body, “outside of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” the Westminster Confession affirms (25.2).

Cyprian confirms this, oddly, not with John 14:6, but Song of Solomon 6:9a “My dove, my undefiled is but one; she is the only one of her mother, she is the choice one of her that bare her” and 4:12 “A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.” Here Cyprian wisely headed off the notion that any heretic or autocrat can claim to be “coming to the Father through the Son.” This coming is not something that can be done autonomously, but only in the manner the Son has revealed; and the manner entails being a member of his ordained body, the church. Though modern commentaries on the Song of Solomon do not confirm Cyprian’s exegesis (perhaps to their discredit? another day…), it is interesting that we can get to the same conclusion on an even stronger basis.

There can only be one church, because it is the people united to God, and there is only one God. Paul brings this out as well in Eph 4, especially vv 4-6: “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”

Notice the cascaded repetition of the “one” concept; and all the modes of oneness are rooted (v 6) in the telos discussed under the rubric of holiness, namely the presence of God, who is one.

The oneness and the catholicity are mutually explaining: the oneness included the uniqueness, the singularity of the church; the catholicity indicates that it is not a point but a world. As Cyril of Jerusalem says, “spread through the whole world… it teaches fully [katholikos]…every sort of men, rulers and ruled, learned and simple …it brings a universal [katholikos] remedy and cure to every kind of sin.”

The concept of oneness, uniqueness, singularity do not entail catholicity: Israel had the former without the latter. But the catholicity of the church in the new administration is rooted and grounded in her oneness, her unity, uniqueness, singularity.

Catholicity does not imply union in a set-theoretical sense. People talk as if something is “more catholic” if it includes, say, a tradition from some other communion. On this view, catholic seems to refer to the set every practice of every claimant to Christianity at any time or any place. A pastor adds some bit of liturgy to the service and people go around beaming, “he’s got a real sense of the catholicity of the church.” This is a misconception. This or that practice may be in keeping with the principle of catholicity or contrary to it. That it is done – even, that it is done widely – is not by itself a guarantee of catholicity.

The same error is made in respect to antiquity, known as tradition. But because something has been done for a long time is no guarantee of its catholicity.

Indeed, the principle of catholicity could with better justice be invoked to rule out regional accretions, no matter what weight of tradition might be claimed for them.

The universal (catholic) communion of all saints in the unity of the one church reflects the union of each in God, who is himself a union of diversity, the holy Trinity. This was already unpacked by Cyril of Alexandria. It is important to always remember that unity-in-diversity is not something new in creation; it is an aspect of being united in the prior union-in-diversity of the holy triune God. Otherwise, a kind of man-centered autonomy can creep in through the back door.

This unity is not manifested institutionally in our day, but that does not change the metaphysical unity that we confess; and it certainly has implications.

The unity in all nations and places has implications also over time, since each generation succeeds the previous with continuity, and the unity and catholicity is maintained at every juncture. This temporal aspect may become more clear in discussing the apostolicity of the church.


In keeping with my rule of starting with the core meaning before building out, we must avoid pouring specific content into the word “apostolic” such as some groups do by supposing that by performing foot-washing, communal sharing, or other practices, they are “apostolic” or following the example of the apostles.

At the outset, I want to keep it simple with the bare formal acknowledgement of apostolicity. The apostles were that limited band of church leaders specifically called by Christ as the founders of the new, and final form of the church. It included the eleven faithful of the original disciples, Paul, and perhaps a small group of additional men. Apostolic, then, means to be in conformity with whatever that group of designated men, as inspired by the Holy Spirit, taught to be characteristic of the church, the body of Christ. A fortiori, of course, anything taught directly by the King and Head of the church, Jesus Christ, is part of apostolicity par excellence.

Putting it this way raises a question, however. It follows from the definition of the church as the people called from the mass of mankind to enter into fellowship with God, who is one, that the “church” has been one from the time of Adam to the present. But if the people of God have a corporate history going back to Adam, why is the apostolic foundation emphasized? If there has always been a people of God, if Noah was an exemplar of the church (I Pet 3:20), if Judges and Prophets are listed as heroes of the one faith (Heb. 11), then why should the church be designated apostolic? Why is that not anachronistic?

A related question also arises. Grant that, at the very least, the people of God were reorganized in a significant way, so that some notice at least should be taken of that fact. But should we model the church as a complete starting from scratch, or as a continuation of the people of God as they were ushered in under the Old Covenant, with tweaks and adjustments? Should the creed have identified the true church, not as merely “apostolic,” but “Mosaic, prophetic, and apostolic”?

To bring the issue home a different way, recall James Jordan’s observation that throughout redemptive history, there were several “new testaments.” That is, at a number of points, new revelation came that in some ways superceded that which preceded it; and each time that occurred, it was as if there was a “New Testament” attached to or supplementing the “Old Testament.” Then, when it happened again, that “New Testament” would be amalgamated as part of the Old to be supplemented by yet a new Testament. At different stages in redemptive history, the people of God could have emphasized our “Enosian” foundation (Gen 4:26), our “Mosaic” foundation, our “Joshuachic” foundation, “Davidic,” and so forth. At each stage, new ordinances for life and worship were instituted, and others were superceded.

But we know that in Jesus Christ, all these foundations found their consummation, Heb. 1:1-2: “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.”

We thus see that the Creed recognizes the decisive and final nature of the incarnation and work of Christ. This has far-reaching implications. Revelation comes in conjunction with developments in redemptive history: it is not just a curiosity that drops down from heaven. (This is one reason we know that Mormonism is false.) Because Jesus Christ is the final and culminating word, it means the canon is closed. Thus, the church will now always look back on a finished revelation; no longer look for a “prophet” to bring additional information or leadership (as Deut 18:18).

Christ recruited and trained disciples, then sent them out as apostles, that is, holders of authority derived directly from Himself (Luke 10:16). He speaks through them; they speak of him, and do so with the authority of God himself (Acts 1:8). The church, in summary, is “…built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone,” Eph 2:20.

The word of the apostle and the word of Christ can be taken as interchangeable.

This means we can bracket the question raised above as to whether the church is a new start or a reform of the previous. Whatever and however that is answered, it is the apostles who answer it. If there is continuity, then “apostolic” is synecdocal for what came before, as ratified by Christ and the apostles.

Only that group can claim to be the church if it has doctrinal and structural continuity with the apostles. Let me illustrate with a thought-experiment:

Imagine a group of people in the mid-first century that heard about Jesus and believed in him. They form themselves into what they call a “church.” But they are not interested in attaching themselves submissively to that peripatetic band known as the apostles. They have made up their own system of adjudicating doctrinal disputes, and governing the church. They have no desire to be accountable to other alleged Christians elsewhere.

The apostle Paul comes through town, but they decline to invite him to speak. It might imply that they lack something in themselves. They’re just as good as any apostle.

Such a situation is not conceivable!

Yet how many churches today are not acting in just exactly that way? I will unpack this further in the weeks to come.

The apostles preached the word of Christ, and also extended an authority structure. They ordained bishops and elders, by the laying on of hands.

Thus, in the nature of the case, the proper situation of the hypothetical congregation outlined above, of organic attachment to the church extended under the authority of the apostles, would not end with the passing of the apostolic generation.

The church today must necessarily possess organic continuity with the apostolic church. There is thus a continuity or sameness through time.

What marks we should look for to verify this, is one burden of the subsequent posts.

To summarize with a simple mnemonic, I suggest that “catholicity and apostolicity” can be remembered as “unity in space and time.”

As with all mnemonics, the proper interpretation must be remembered.

The Holy Catholic Church (HCC)

This is the first post in a series. I invite you, dear reader, to walk with me to revisit many of the problems plaguing the contemporary church with this single focus: one holy catholic and apostolic church. Let us see if this simple yet far-reaching focus does not clarify many of the problems.

In the next installment, let us reflect together on the question of whether Independency can be regarded as a legitimate part of the holy catholic and apostolic church.

To keep track of the “series,” I will identify each installment somewhere by HCC (holy catholic church). The unam and apostolicity is tacitly implied, for the sake of brevity.

9 thoughts on “The Holy Catholic Church (HCC #1)

  1. A question that is somewhat tangent…
    Are both of you guys in the Federal vision camp?
    Just curious.
    Your young Reformed Brother in the Lord,
    Jimmy Li

  2. My friend, consider the arguments; if they are sound, then adopt the conclusions; then, you tell us if this or that label fits.

  3. Something it brewing inside, isn’t it? Seems that you are joining that great cadre of people who are looking at the overall chaos and division which is Protestantism and are realizing that this is not what God had in mind.

    There is but one Church. With all its problems, odd characters, sinners and saints, you will find it one in doctrine and teaching, a growing, living organism throughout the centuries.

    We look forward to your joining Her.

    Brother Ed

  4. I can confidently say that both MRB and TJH are already joined to Him, and are consequently a part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.


  5. One must be under the authority which Jesus established on the earth in order to be in the Church on earth. It is true that by virtue of their baptism, MRB and TJH have entered into the New Covenant of Jesus Christ. However, Christ expects our full obedience to Him, which includes to that authority which He established on earth.

    In John 17, Jesus said that our unity, our oneness, would be a testimony to the unbelieving world that the Father had truly sent the Son.

    What then is the testimony of the schism and rebellion which Protestantism has indulged itself in for the last 500+ years?

    Brother Ed

    Brother Ed

  6. Ed,

    Please explain your very loose understanding of the concept “one in doctrine and teaching.” Are the Augustinians, Dominicans, and Jesuits “one” in their doctrine and teaching? What about the liberal and conservative arms that exist within Romainsm? It would seem to me that their only real oneness is not in their doctine and teaching, but in their outward allegience pope.

  7. First, as a former Romanist, I can honestly say, that the OTHER 4/5ths of Christendom have NOT viewed ROME as either ‘apostolic’ or ‘christian’ since at least 1053, or, to be charitable, 1200!!

    Orthodoxy (from the Greek, meaning ‘right belief’ or ‘right worship’) has called Rome heretical, and no amount of ‘ecumenistic fervor’ can change that, as this very catholicity you mention must take precedence, over the personal views of individual men, whether they be EVEN Pope or Ecumenical Patriarch (i.e., the Greek Bishop of Constantinople/ Istanbul)!

    Because I have been where you were, I can, (I hope) make some comments (such as above) that will shake faulty cobwebs from the discussion. I do not know ‘brother Ed’ but GV’s reference to the various groups within ‘Roman Catholi-schism’ allude to the possibility that he may be a ‘romanist’ (to use prot vernacular).

    Interestingly enough, this one post raises so many issues, that you will be a LONG time dealing with them, before you come to a conclusion (it took me over twenty years, ten of serious study). For instance, your quoting St. Cyprian ““A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed, etc.” did not mention the ‘Tradition’ [II Thess 2:15- it’s apostolic, and biblical, you see!?] that this verse in part refers to the Theotokos, the BVM, and the miracle of her being a Virgin both before, during, and AFTER the Birth of Christ, the Savior. “a spring shut up, a fountain sealed, etc.” To deny this fact of the BVM’s virginity pre AND post, is to partake of Nestorianism, at the very least….

    This, of course, puts the Orthodox up against the heretic (for we HAVE to call those who do NOT hold to ALL the decisions of the councils such, or make the concept of a ‘church catholic’ – that which holds’everywhere what has always been believed by all’ as Anglicans were wont to say in their heyday- a sham.

    If that is the case, the very commentary on the First Ecumenical Council which gave the world this Creed (minus the filioque, which you did not even TOUCH on!) confronts the vast majority of American Protestants with an inevitable, and very uncomfortable, choice. If you accept the Creed, (and the fact that only in Protestantism, of all the schismatic groups on the planet claiming to be christian, do you have groups claiming ‘no Creed by Christ!”) you have to accept the Creed with the understanding that, in acknowledging catholicity itself, you have to commit all the way:

    “For the Church is called catholic,says Cyril the patriarch of Jerusalem…because she teaches catholically, completely and indifferently, all dogmas that offer men knowledge concerting things visible and invisible.’

    ‘For not the Holy Bible, but the Ecumenical Council is proclaimed by all to be the final judge of ecclesiastical matters, according to C. VI of the 2nd Ecum, C. whose vote and decision is not subject to appeal to any other higher tribunal…’

    ‘So that the Ecumenical Council sustains the same logical relationship in the State (Dositheus, pp 309 ff of the Dodecabilblus) as the Emperor in the State. I said that the final judge in the Church is not the Holy Bible, as Lutherocalvinists claim, but the Ecumenical Councils, because in many places divine Scripture speaks obscurely or unclearly, and therefore evey one of the heretics can distort the obscure or unclear meaning… in favor of his own heresy, must needs interpret their true meaning because there is no one else that can do this, but the Ecumenical Council.'” (Rudder, p.157, on EC Nicea)

    IF that is the case, then, NO, Turretinfan; you, or “MRB and TJH are [NOT] already joined to Him, and are consequently [NOT] a part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church;”

    rather, you are without grace, without sacraments, and without hope in this world. And that is the ‘fence’ that Catholicity MUST fence herself around with, or cease to even BE ‘catholic’ or ‘universal.’

    For, as the author of this post very cogently noted, “should we model the church as a complete starting from scratch, or as a continuation of the people of God as they were ushered in under the Old Covenant, with tweaks and adjustments?”

    This fact was clearly corroborated by a Calvinist, named Charles Provan, in his excellent book, “The Church is Israel now.”This fact used to be known by all Christendom, both heterodox and orthodox, but, with the rise of those who ‘say they are Jews, but are not’ [Rev. 2:8,9] and the heresy of a two-pathed means of salvation [Dispensationalists] this identity of who is the Church, and who is ‘Israel’, has been muddied so badly, that even appeals to the historic councils and the Church fathers falls on deaf ears…..

    Until and unless those who claim to follow Christ will enter into the womb of the Church (given concrete visualization through the matrix of the BVM) and be ‘born again,’- through water and blood-the very elements present in human birth- and made real by Orthodox baptism and Eucharist- (for Christ did everything ‘for righteousness sake’ as our exemplar- rather than seek the way of the flesh, or to climb over the wall like a ‘thief and robber’) they cannot understand the ‘mysterium fidei.’

    Hard, exclusionary, divisive? Yes. But true.

  8. Well Fr John, I’m reminded of the Emperor’s statement to Mozart in the movie Amadeus, I paraphrase: “you have passion, but fail to persuade.”

    There is one matter I request you and others (such as Ed, #3) stipulate in further discussions on this board, namely: we do not recognize this vast and cascading confusion of independent churches as “Protestant.” As far as I’m concerned, you could with equal legitimacy refer to them as RC or Orthodox, for they are nothing at all. I model the Reformation as the correction of abuses in the received holy catholic church, with national settlements that are now known as Lutheran (Germany, Sweden), Reformed (Switzerland, Holland), Anglican (England), and Presbyterian (Scotland). All the crackpots that hang a shingle declaring themselves to be a church are no churches at all, let alone Protestant. So please, argue with us in terms of this model, otherwise, you are not arguing with us at all.

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