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Protestantism and Catholicity

My recent post on remaining protestant has stimulated a fair bit of discussion about the whole mess of thorny ecumenical and theological issues between protestants and Roman Catholics.  At the heart of the issue for most of the protestant participants in the conversation – and I think this is a good representation of most of evangelical protestantism – was the issue of whether or not “the catholic church” is in some sense coterminous with “the Roman Catholic church”.  In other words most protestants, myself included want to say that they are “catholic”, but that the proper theological definition of catholicity is not something inherent to Roman Catholicism, but rather is present or potentially present in any sort of church that upholds the basic tenets of orthodox Christianity.

 The question that this raises in my mind is what most protestants mean by “catholicity”.  It often becomes a throwaway line that since we are Christians we are “catholic with a small ‘c’”.  But what does such “small ‘c’ catholicism” mean?  Do protestants really tend to have an actual idea of catholicity that informs their Christian life and practice, or is claiming “small ‘c’ catholicism” just a rhetorical flourish to de-fang the central Roman Catholic critique of protestantism, namely that they have (to some significant degree) broken communion with the church that was founded by Christ?

 Or, to put the question another way, Roman Catholicism has an answer to the question of what catholicity is.  For them it is participation in the visible communal structure of the catolica (the whole church) which traces it historical existence to the Apostles through an ordained succession of bishops centering on the bishop of Rome (i.e. Apostolic Succession).  Protestants obviously contest this notion of catholicity.  But what substantive concept of catholicity do we offer in response?  Or do we merely have a rhetorical equivocation on this point?  How can protestants truly be “catholic” and what constitutes “protestant catholicity”?


  1. Bobby Grow wrote:


    I think you ask a good question. I think it reduces to a question of soteriology, which further reduces to the “Reformed” maxim of the visible and invisible apect of the church. Did you have Koivisto for ecclesiology? I did. He had us do “catholicity builders”, which required visiting various traditions outside of our own, and simply observe if there was a sense of communion with those of different traditions (i.e. Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, etc.). Primarily the value of this was to raise “awareness” of the fact that the “invisible” church is embedded within many “Christian traditions” (those that affirm the message of and implications of Christ’s person and work). Of course this probably does not meet any kind of “meaningful” threshold for a defining ecclesiology . . . but then again who said that we needed to establish an episcopelian hierarchy in order for the church to be the church?

    Thursday, September 13, 2007 at 3:14 pm | Permalink
  2. I’m a Presbyterian, and I haven’t been to seminary or anything, but here’s my take on things.

    they have (to some significant degree) broken communion with the church that was founded by Christ?

    This is an offensive and false-to-fact assertion. First of all, I’d like to see some proof that the Christ is absent from these politically divorced organizations, and has been since their founding. Second of all, whether Roman Catholics want to accept it or not, at least I consider myself in communion with them — that is, we are part of the same community, the followers of the risen Christ. A Roman Catholic is just as much a brother or sister in Christ as a Lutheran or a Methodist. I would consider it a shame if one of my brothers or sisters decided to turn their back on me.

    How can protestants truly be “catholic” and what constitutes “protestant catholicity”?

    The church is catholic, insofar as it is universal and inclusive. It’s a call to ecumenicism, and an acknowledgement that the church is the Bride of Christ.

    I see no reason why apostolic succession is inherent in the statement that the church is “catholic”.

    Thursday, September 13, 2007 at 3:30 pm | Permalink
  3. Enkla Z wrote:

    My Swedish Protestant friends like to call themselves ‘Catholics’ in the sense that:
    “This is the Church in Sweden”
    “The church for everyone who lives here”

    Also this Church has somehow preserved its apostolic succession, unlike e.g. the Danish.

    Friday, September 14, 2007 at 1:23 am | Permalink
  4. Patrick wrote:

    In response to Robert:

    I’m not sure that the RC’s indictment of the Protestant(isms) is necessarily a “false-to-fact” assertion. Take the pluralist “soteriology” for example. He might say that we are brothers in that we are all on the same journey. Since many roads lead to God, then we are brothers in the sense that we are moving in the same direction. It seems like many Protestants want to make a similar argument with the RCs. For them, we aren’t really on the same team. They, by virture of apostolic succssion and visibility, are the true Church of Christ, whereas we Protestants have left that true Body and formed, to some degree or other, a false confession. It is false in that it rejects the integrity of the tue Church. We would feel the same way if the pluralist called us brothers because it invalidates our confession in a similar manner.

    As far as “proof” regarding the presence or absence of Christ in these various communities, I don’t even know what that would look like. What sort of “proof” are you looking for? Miracles? Visions? Unity? What? The clear lack of coherence in Protestantism seems to be a weighty counter-argument to your movement toward a universal and inclusive catholic identity. While I resonate with your arguments, I don’t find them to be at all compelling. Political divorce is as powerful as Jew and Gentile, as kingdom of God and kingdom of man. It’s significant.

    Friday, September 14, 2007 at 10:46 am | Permalink
  5. Hill wrote:

    One of the tragedies of this is that the roman catholic theology of division and catholicity is by far the most developed of any of available theologies of “catholicity” and yet most protestant commentators on the matter reveal themselves to be more or less ignorant of it. I find statements to the effect of “the church is catholic, insofar as it is universal and inclusive” to be fairly vacuous, although it’s possible for a person to think that the concept of “catholicity” while being significant in some sense, might also be conceptually simple. In general, I think catholics would say that there is much more at stake. Given the greater complexity and generally positive nature of the Catholic theologies (Vatican II is a convenient place to start) I think that the debate in general should start there, either affirming or criticizing what is said there.

    Friday, September 14, 2007 at 3:14 pm | Permalink
  6. Bob Catholic wrote:

    I’ve enjoyed both of your recent posts. Your honest and intellectual integrity is refreshing!

    I completely agree that terminology is central to the debate. In the end, if we take the Athansian Creed serious, we will want to be Catholic! As an ex-Lutheran and ex-Anglican, however, I wonder if once one has to add something to the noun catholic (Protestant, evangelical or Anglo) is it still catholic?

    BTW: I was the one to point Fr Longenecker in your direction, do I get a link?? :)

    Friday, September 14, 2007 at 4:36 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Hah! Consider it done, Bob. Glad to “meet” you.

    Friday, September 14, 2007 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

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